(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Quick and the Dead. Also, this page has several images and large GIFs, so you might want to give it a minute to load before proceeding.)
I love me some dialogue. There’s nothing quite like a good snappy exchange, and great quotes are the kind of thing that becomes timelessly viral (as evidenced by the average quantity of Monty Python quotes in a given D&D session). But dialogue isn’t everything, and there’s a whole lot you can do without ever saying a word.
As befits a story about a stoic badass riding into a town full of stoic badasses, The Quick and the Dead is practically a master class on this topic, packed with just about every kind of visual communication you can imagine.
Here’s one silent exchange from very early on, when the Lady first arrives in Redemption:
The creepy mustached guy, Eugene Dred, will be her secondary antagonist, right behind Herod. Notice the way she shows him her gun, and his reaction? Their enmity gets set up immediately, in just under 15 seconds.
Another similar exchange of glances establishes Herod’s primary challengers (Ed. note: This GIF cuts out a couple of shots in the middle):
In both cases, pretty much all it takes to set up these relationships is eye contact. There are a whole lot of characters in play and not a lot of time to set everything up, so this method efficiently builds audience expectations, so we already know what’s going down even before individual beefs get explained.
Efficiency occasionally leads us to an entirely wordless scene. The Lady meets with Cort to work out the rather complicated conspiracy that will see her fake her death and blow up half the town, but we naturally don’t see that whole discussion. All we see of it is this:
Of course, it’s not a silent film, and there’s quite a bit of dialogue. But the visuals still don’t slouch, frequently providing crucial subtext:
The barkeep is talking about the food and drink Herod is paying for. Later on, Dred will rape the girl, and the Lady will kill him for it.
And, of course, there’s the trailer-friendly, not terribly subtle but still rather awesome:
The movie is thick with background details, too. I’ll spare you examples of the gun porn (every fighter carries a unique, frequently blinged-out and customized, weapon) because this page would be about eighty screens long. But look over the Lady’s shoulder in the saloon for a wanted poster for one of the other contestants:
Or the skulls and bones that are all the hell over that scene:
The saloon scene is a good example of how the film divides its focus well among its large ensemble cast, and they’re frequently worth watching in the background throughout. For instance, you can spot every character who makes it past the first round as they watch the first duel:
Here’s Foy’s priceless reaction to the glass of water that almost hit him in the face:
Or watch Cort’s hands twitch after he’s held a gun for the first time in years:
Those little details help keep the character present and active, even while the lines are going to other people.
Okay, so that’s an awful lot of examples, and admittedly, things like subtle acting choices or set dressing aren’t really major tools in your arsenal as a fiction writer. Still, there are a few things that can be drawn from this for writers in any medium:
- Don’t forget who’s in your scene. If a character is there, they’re going to have a reaction, even if they don’t have any direct involvement.
- Well-chosen details in the setting can reveal a lot. For instance, describing in prose everything happening in the densely-packed saloon scene would take dozens of pages, but it would be easy enough to include the skeletons.
- Don’t be afraid to pare down. If you can establish something with just an exchange of glances or a gesture, maybe you should, especially if it helps build the tension.
- Remember your other senses! Though we’ve mainly discussed visuals here, the click of a gun and the thunk of the clock are omnipresent throughout the film.
In short, make sure you’re making the most of all the ways people communicate and interact. There’s a lot more to it than just words.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to… well, anything by Robin McKinley.)
I read voraciously as a kid and teenager, although I had a tendency to stay in a comfort zone of familiar books and authors. One of the most influential authors, both on my writing and on my general outlook on life, was Robin McKinley. In fact, she wrote pretty much my favorite book of all timekee. Here, I’ll describe it for you:
We meet a young woman who’s something of a misfit, although she has strong family ties. She gets swept up against her will into a new exotic world and befriends its brooding, magical ruler (who’s quite a bit older than her). In this new world, she discovers that she has position, power, and purpose: to save her new home and its prince.
I am referring, of course, to Beauty, though you may have been forgiven for thinking I was referring to Rose Daughter. Or The Blue Sword. Or The Hero and the Crown. Or Chalice. Or Sunshine. Only the first two are actual retellings of the Beauty and the Beast legend, but the others all pretty much riff on it. This basic format can be seen in her other retellings, of Sleeping Beauty and Donkeyskin and even Robin Hood. For nearly forty years, McKinley has been coming back to this same well.
And it works.
See, there are multiple elements that go into making a unique story. Plot is just one of them, and it’s probably the one most likely to get regurgitated. Though theories differ about the exact number of original plots in existence (one difficult to confirm quote goes as low as two), there are certainly common structural threads that run through the tales we tell. If you demand pure originality in your plots, you’re going to be sorely disappointed (and it’s a fairly new concept anyway).
What keeps McKinley’s novels distinct from each other is the details. The characters may be filling similar roles, but as individuals they’re quite different, and the dynamics between characters vary as well. And, of course, the world-building sets each apart; Damar looks nothing like Willowlands looks nothing like Sherwood. The stories may hit the same beats, but they get there by different means and provide different experiences along the way.
Sometimes I worry that, as an author, I’m repeating myself, since I see a lot of common themes and situations in the manuscripts that sit in various stages of completion on my shelf. But you know, that’s okay. There’s nothing new under the sun, and some people might call the use of such pet tropes “consistency” and “good branding.” Just because one component is familiar doesn’t mean that the whole thing will be. It’s about finding a fresh take, leveraging that familiarity into a unique spin.
(No spoilers this time. At least, I’m pretty sure. Proceed with caution just in case.)
You know, I find myself growing weary of the series. Specifically, I think I’m worn out on epics, where the author takes hundreds of thousands of words to tell a single story. The more I study the craft, the more I feel that telling a complex story in a shorter framework demonstrates a higher level of skill. I think I’ve just read too many stories relentlessly padded into trilogies because trilogies are cool, too many first volumes that feel like barely a first act, too many books that read like game manuals with only the most tacit of nods toward structure and plot. Perhaps my attention span has just been rotted by social media, but I find that I’m just not willing to commit to half a million words of my life just to see if there’s a point to all of this.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. For my money, a perfect series is one where the individual books still feel like books in their own right; not necessarily something I could pick up cold or out of order and have it make sense, but something that gives me the same sense of satisfaction as a standalone book. This is probably easiest to pull off in an episodic property like Artemis Fowl. Each installment of that series is a contained caper: someone makes a nefarious plan, geniuses try to outmaneuver each other, and everything gets wrapped up by the end. They’re not completely interchangeable, because continuity carries over, the fallout of major events gets explored, and characters develop and change. But the overall arc is one of character rather than plot, charting Artemis’s development from devious child to responsible young adult.
The Miriam Black books have a similarly episodic feel, in that each book has Miriam presented with a problem early on that she’s resolved by the end. But as has become clear by the third book, there’s a definite plot arc having to do with the forces of fate and change that Miriam finds herself caught between. This element drives the story forward from book to book while remaining subtle, a contributing element of each individual battle rather than the main focus. It’s not that there aren’t teases and even cliffhangers, but they come well after the climax has been sorted out so you still get a feeling of accomplishment. A bad dude has been introduced, battled, and overcome. There may be a whole lot of that larger story left to tell, but the individual books don’t feel like a holding pattern.
The Lunar Chronicles is probably the closest of these to epic; the overarching story concerns Queen Levana’s plans to conquer the Earth and the plan to find the rightful heir to the Lunar throne to supplant her. Unlike with the previous example, this bigger plotline is a major component of each book; other characters and subplots get introduced, but the bulk of the action drives the main conflict forward. However, the series benefits from the conceit that each installment is a fairy tale retelling, so each book has a built-in arc and climax. Cress, the most recent main novel at time of writing, probably strays farthest from its folkloric blueprint, but the plan to infiltrate the palace still provides a satisfying crescendo. The key to the overall flow of the series is in that structure: we get a climax, then our heroes are given time to regroup, reflect, and plan for their next move. It’s all building to one big huge grand finale, but each book makes significant progress toward that goal while still resolving its individual dilemma.
With this, as with so many things in life, it’s all about balance. Very large stories are fine, but it can try the reader’s patience if you’re spending, say, an entire book just touching base with each main character because there are too damn many of them and they’re scattered all over the damn planet. (Not that I’m bitter about that one.) Making each part of the larger unified whole feel unified in and of itself will help keep people coming back for more. I want to be eager to read more, not frustrated that I didn’t get enough. It’s a fine line to walk, but for me it’s the difference between reading the next book and reading the summary on Wikipedia.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Avengers.)
You know, scene changes are kind of weird if you think about it. Most stories don’t lend themselves to a contiguous telling, because there’s all sorts of little details that would drag the story down if dwelt on. So the story just stops and skips ahead to something more interesting, and as a reader or viewer we absorb this and go with it. It’s just not something we really tend to think about, although perhaps we should.
The Avengers features a few rather clever transitions worth examining. First, we have Fury talking to the World Security Council:
SHADOWY DUDE: War isn’t won by sentiment.
FURY: No. It’s won by soldiers.
Then at the end of the same scene:
STEVE: You should have left it in the ocean.
The first act of the film has the potential to be a little disjointed, as it jumps from character to character so that they can be brought into the story. The link between dialogue and the subsequent image helps smooth out the transition, showing one way that the scenes fit together before the primary narrative connection is clear.
As far as narrative elements go, scene transitions probably aren’t major stumbling blocks, a minor point that doesn’t require a great deal of thought from either reader or writer. But points like that are great opportunities to add a little extra oomph, to take something standard and make it something special, something more. It’s that sort of attention to detail that can take a story from good to great.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
The Rocketeer was one of my favorite movies growing up, although I was never a big fan of the love interest, Jenny Blake, who always seemed kind of like a sexy lamp to me. (If you didn’t follow the link, the “sexy lamp” test means that if you could replace your main female character with a sexy lamp and the story would still basically work, you have a problem.) But the more I try to pin it down, the more I think it’s not that simple. She may not be your standard strong female character (a nebulous phrase my loathing of which is well-established), but if you were to remove Jenny from the story, it wouldn’t just be different–it wouldn’t exist at all.
In hanging around writing groups and forums, I’ve encountered a lot of writers who struggle to figure out the genre they’re writing in. My advice is always to look at the stakes–what’s the worst thing that will happen if the hero fails? That tends to be the main thing that defines a genre. So in a comedy, the stakes are personal happiness and success. In epic fantasy, it’s stopping the forces of darkness. In dystopia, it’s breaking free of the corrupt institution. And so on and so forth. After repeated viewings of The Rocketeer, I’ve come to realize that while we may be dealing with Stupid Jetpack Hitler, the primary thing at stake is Cliff and Jenny’s relationship.
No, seriously. This movie is a rom-com with gunfights and Nazis, also known as the best possible kind of rom-com.
Although Jenny’s not present in the first act, Cliff keeps a picture of her in his cockpit, even risking himself to rescue it from the fire. After a bunch of setup about the rocket, the two go out on a date, a scene which gets a fairly substantial amount of screentime (the whole sequence takes about 10 minutes). They have a fairly contentious meal, highlighting the issues in their relationship: Jenny wants a change of pace and doesn’t feel like Cliff respects her career or trusts her with important news. It’s because of this and in the hopes of making amends that he seeks her out on set the next morning, revealing to her–and to the eavesdropping baddie Neville Sinclair–that he’s found the rocket. That directly leads to Sinclair moving in on Jenny in the hopes of getting to Cliff.
Then we’ve got a couple of action sequences, and the escalating danger is enough to prompt Cliff to call it quits and turn the rocket over to the FBI. That is, until one of the mobsters spots Jenny’s phone number, and we see Cliff’s look of horror as he realizes that the guys who murdered his boss and are trying to torture his best friend are also after his girlfriend. From that point on, protecting her is the only thing that matters to him, more than even his own safety or that of anyone else. And this concern is mutual, as evidenced when Jenny goes back into the club to save Cliff from Sinclair’s goon (without which the third act wouldn’t happen). The crisis makes them both realize that, despite their quibbles, they’d do absolutely anything for each other, and they end the movie in a much stronger place.
So what makes this the primary stakes? Well, let’s compare to another similar film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In both movies, the hero realizes that rescuing his kidnapped girlfriend will further the Nazis’ goals (which is a rather specific parallel, come to think). Indy’s response is to promise Marion that he’ll return for her after he’s secured the Ark. Cliff’s response is to fight his way out of FBI custody and go to the hostage exchange anyway. Even knowing what else is on the line, Jenny’s more important.
There’s still the issue of her lack of agency, which tends to be a major sticking point with female characters. After all, she’s reactive rather than active, and her choices aren’t really what drives the story. She also doesn’t really have much of a character arc, ending the story more or less where she started.
But here’s the thing: You could say basically the same about Cliff.
See, context counts for a lot in these sort of situations. The Rocketeer is a very conscious throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s, and those pulpy plots are usually driven by the villain. The bad guy is the one who has a plan and takes steps to achieve it, and the good guy has to stop it, generally staying a step or two behind the whole way and only prevailing due to a last ditch, desperate gamble. Really, the only choice Cliff makes on his own is to try using the rocket pack in the first place, and even that is in reaction to their financial situation after the crash of the Gee Bee test plane (which was shot at by a bad guy because… the plot wouldn’t happen otherwise, pretty much). Everything else he does is in response to someone else being in trouble. Agency is the wrong yardstick to use in a case like this, because the only one who really has agency is Sinclair. These stories also tend to trade in stock characters, which is why no one really has an individual character arc, but Cliff and Jenny do go through an arc as a couple.
It’s easy to write her off as just another damsel in distress, but part of what consistently fascinates me about that trope is how rarely it’s played purely straight anymore. The standard damsel will run off with the hero she’s only just met once he’s proven himself by saving the day, but Jenny and Cliff are in an established relationship, one that seems fairly serious from the start, so them getting together at the end makes perfect sense (and, as previously established, is kind of the whole point). She’s also crafty, deftly manipulating Sinclair and doing pretty well at escaping until she gets sidetracked by the whole Nazi discovery. Oh yeah, and when she gets handed over to a random mook, she stone-cold kicks the dude through the window of the zeppelin.
Seriously, I’m pretty sure Cliff doesn’t have any confirmed kills in this movie (I only give him partial credit for Sinclair, personally), but Jenny sure as hell does.
I think it’s important that, as scholars, we don’t give into our first knee-jerk reactions about a character and look deeper, and that as writers, we seek out ways to add that depth. The Rocketeer may be working with a fairly established formula, but they manage to take a role that’s often marginalized and make it an intrinsic part of the story. With no Jenny in the picture, Sinclair never gets on Cliff’s trail, and he returns the rocket to the Feds as soon as things get hairy. With her, we have a much more interesting film.