(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Guardians of the Galaxy.)
This is probably the biggest stretch of any of my letters, but shut up, it’s the end of the month. Anyway, we all know that beginnings are hard. You have to very quickly orient your audience in your new world and get them rooting for the right characters, and you have to do it in a way that feels natural while making the whole thing interesting enough to keep people hooked. We’ve already looked at a couple of examples of this balance that were less than great, so let’s go for one that does it really well.
I’m not the first person to express admiration for the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but really, it’s glorious. After the gut-crushing cold open, we see the adult Peter landing on a dead planet. He takes off his imposing mask, slips on some headphones, and starts grooving. Right away, it establishes the tone of the movie, alternating between grandiose and goofy. But more importantly, it establishes the character of adult Peter within seconds. By the time that title card appears, with Peter dancing his heart out underneath it, you know who this guy is: he’s a space pirate with a shameless sense of fun. There’s a little more to him than that, but you’re already on board after that opening. (Cleverly, there’s actually plot being foreshadowed with this sequence too, since Peter dancing to his mix tape winds up being a surprisingly crucial part of the climax.)
Star-Lord’s intro gets the most attention, but they do it with others, too. Let’s look at Rocket and Groot’s intro on Xandar. It’s no accident that it starts with Rocket’s voiceover; a talking raccoon gets dangerously into kiddie movie cute animal territory, which was one of the big reasons people were so skeptical about this movie’s chances for success. But you get the sarcastic, misanthropic running commentary first, before you see that it’s coming from a tiny fuzzy guy. It cuts off any preconceptions toward cuteness before they can take root. Meanwhile, Groot is playing adorably in the fountain, and pouts when Rocket yells at him.
It’s not just the heroes getting this treatment, either. Ronan’s first appearance shows him ritualistically preparing to brutally murder a member of the Nova Corps. He doesn’t actually get a lot of screentime in the movie; his presence is more felt by the other characters’ fear of him, and of what he could do with the Orb. But that’s not quite enough to make the audience feel that same fear, hence he gets a more… impactful introduction. (I would apologize for that pun, but nope, not gonna.)
Even if you’re writing a more plot-driven story, it’s still characters that people connect to, and so their introductions should be handled carefully. What’s the most important thing that we need to know about them right off the bat? Where is their character arc going to end up, and what’s an effective way to contrast that? What kind of impression do you want this character to make? Answering these questions can help you craft an electrifying and memorable opening that lets the audience dive right in.
(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 Finding Nemo and John Carter.)
This one isn’t so much “original analysis” as “Brittany watches directors’ commentary so you don’t have to,” but it’s still a good lesson for writers to learn (especially because the filmmaker seemed to forget it later).
In early drafts of Finding Nemo, the story started with Marlin taking Nemo to school for the first time, and the opening scene played out essentially the same as in the finished film, with Marlin being overprotective and neurotic. As the film went on, the tragedy in Marlin’s past would be hinted at through snippets of flashbacks until a late reveal of the full version of how he lost his family.
What the filmmakers realized was that, without knowing what he’d been through, Marlin came off as obnoxious, whiny, and unlikable. You could sympathize with the loss of his son, but he was still a pain in the ass that you didn’t want to spend ninety minutes with. Further, they realized that there wasn’t even any dramatic benefit to withholding the information. It was readily apparent that something bad had happened without even flashing back, and pretty much as soon as you showed Coral, the audience got the gist and the specific details didn’t make a difference. It was a reveal for the sake of a reveal, so it was scrapped in favor of a straightforward prologue scene.
“But wait!” I hear you saying. “Agents hate prologues, don’t they?” If we’re talking novels, yes they do, and for good reason. I talk about different media a bit interchangeably around here, because to a certain extent, story is story and the lessons carry over. However, fiction has certain tools at its disposal, like narration and internal monologue, which film tends to use rarely because they’re awkward as hell in a primarily visual medium. So while a novel version of the story could use a little authorial intrusion to let us know in a couple of sentences that Nemo is the sole survivor of a predator that killed the rest of Marlin’s family, the simplest way to convey this information in a movie is just to show it.
To get an idea of how the original plan would have played out, you need look no further than another film by the same director, Andrew Stanton.
It’s not that John Carter lacks for prologues, oh no. First, we get one showing how Pretty Much Always Evil Mark Strong gives Pretty Much Always Asshole Dominic West the secret magic weapon thing. Then there’s the framing device of Burroughs getting filled in on the peculiar circumstances of his uncle’s death. Then after that there’s the setup with Carter searching for gold. When the Army tries to pressgang him back into service, we get this bit:
CARTER: Colonel Powell, sir, whatever it is you suppose I owe you, our country, or any other beloved cause, I have already paid it.
(Meaningful closeup of Carter’s hand, where he wears a man’s and a woman’s wedding bands)
CARTER: I have paid in full, sir.
It’s quite an elegant bit of exposition, really. With that one image, we get an illuminating glimpse of Carter’s past, which helps us understand his desire to be left alone.
But Stanton doesn’t think we’ve gotten the message, because the next hour is scattered with flashbacks to Carter’s tragically pretty family, until the midpoint, where it’s “revealed” as some sort of big climax. The argument could be made that the specific details of their fate do matter: it’s not just that they died, but that they died while he was fighting someone else’s war, and that’s why he tries so desperately to stay out of things.
But really, that’s the same problem as with Marlin, isn’t it? Without understanding that detail, Carter looks like kind of a dick for persisting in his refusal to help people he clearly seems to like. By the time you really see where the character arc starts, he’s already most of the way along it, so the whole thing loses quite a lot of its effectiveness.
The reveal is a useful tool, one that can elevate a story into something exciting and memorable. But it is not intrinsically valuable and it is not an absolute good. It’s okay if the details about a person’s past aren’t shocking game changers, but if they’re not, perhaps it’s better not to pretend they are.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Jurassic Park.)
I love me a good action movie. Tense standoffs, well-choreographed brawls, car chases that make me go, “Oh, shit!”… I just eat it up. But you can definitely have too much of a good thing. No matter how much you love a given food, if you eat nothing but you’re going to get sick of it. As great as action is, it needs context for us to be able to care, and if it’s unrelenting, it overwhelms us and causes us to tune out. This is the mistake of a movie like King Kong, where everything ran twice as long as it should have been, to the point where I’m checking my watch during a fight between a giant gorilla and a dinosaur.
So speaking of dinosaurs, let’s check out a movie that understands that good pacing is a balance between crazy high-powered action and quiet character moments. YouTube ahoy!
Now, Jurassic Park isn’t an action movie in the shooty explody sense; some of its greatest moments of tension are in the frozen terror rather than the running and screaming. (“He can’t see us if we don’t move” is bad science, but very, very good cinema.) Things go steadily south as treacherous code monkey Nedry enacts his plan to shut down the park and steal the embryos, until we get to the midpoint and the T-Rex busts out and wrecks shit up. The next several scenes show the characters trying to evade and survive, until everyone still standing has found a place to hunker down for the night.
If you can’t watch the scene above, Hammond is eating ice cream (which is melting, since the freezers are off), and he tells Ellie about the flea circus he used to operate. Up until this point, Hammond has been the smooth showman, more concerned with getting his park open than with the danger it represents and the people who’ve been injured and killed. But here, he gives us a little explanation for his obsession, and in that moment, he’s vulnerable and human in a way he hasn’t been even when shit is headed fanwards.
More importantly, he’s still hanging onto the obsession until Ellie directly calls him on it. She has to remind him that the safety of their loved ones–remember, it’s his grandchildren and her boyfriend still out in the park–is more important than even his lifelong dream. It’s a pivotal moment for Hammond’s character, the first time he’s forced to seriously consider that he might not be able to salvage this project. The scene ends with a sad echo of his proud refrain: “We spared no expense.”
Hammond’s meeting with Ellie is flanked by two scenes of Dr. Grant and the kids, first reaching a safe place to sleep and then waking up and interacting with the brachiosaurus. As with Hammond’s scene, this provides a significant character moment, showing Grant’s growing connection to the two children (symbolically represented by him dropping the raptor claw fossil he’d used to antagonize the brat at the Badlands dig). Of course the audience saw how far he was willing to go to save Lex and Tim from the T-Rex, but the scene in the tree is the first time Grant himself has had the chance to stop and think about what he’s doing and what it means.
It might seem odd to have this fairly lengthy interlude in the middle of an action movie, but it’s really quite necessary. As I touched on in my discussion of Paper Towns, we’re just not capable of sustaining fear for very long; our baselines readjust because otherwise our hearts would explode. This lull gives both characters and audience a chance to make that readjustment after the devastation of the T-Rex attack. It lets the characters process the events and deal with their reactions, and it helps remind the audience of what’s at stake by reintroducing the characters as rounded people after they’ve spent the last few scenes as screaming dino chow. And, of course, there’s the narrative convenience of letting us skip ahead to the next morning, because daytime shoots are cheaper and easier.
Contrast is an extremely useful tool in the writing arsenal, establishing patterns and providing context the reader can use to derive meaning. Without some moments of quiet, the loud whizbang action just isn’t as effective.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, book flavor.)
Considering how haphazard my planning for the month has been (M’s post was written way back in January, while this one is coming to you from the far-distant land of two days ago), it’s a bit funny how thing seem to be lining up. Yesterday’s post talked about how writing in first-person can present certain problems. But going in the opposite direction isn’t guaranteed smooth sailing, either.
“Head-hopping” has gotten to be something of a bad word in the reading world. It refers to a third-person omniscient view that doesn’t constrain itself to a single viewpoint character, but dips freely into whichever thoughts and reactions might be relevant. This can get kind of confusing, especially if a reader missed the part where the POV changed, or if a character’s direct thoughts are thrown in without sufficient attribution. Current conventional wisdom seems to favor a sort of revolving limited perspective than an omniscient one, only changing viewpoints with a scene or chapter break. Of course, if you’re cutting quickly enough that you end up with scenes shorter than a page, it can feel just as disjointed, if not more so. (See the latter half of The Good Fairies of New York for a good example of that.)
However, it is possible to execute this technique well, because really, it’s possible to execute any technique well. For today’s master class, let’s turn to the late, great Douglas Adams.
One of the biggest difficulties for the omniscient perspective is voice, that tricky bastard that everyone looks for but no one can quite describe. With a close third-person, the narrator’s voice will echo that of the viewpoint character, and not just by directly relaying their thoughts. (For a fantastic example of this, check out Gail Carriger’s Soulless.) With an omniscient perspective, if the narrator tries to echo each of the many viewpoint characters, things can get very muddled, but if they echo none at all, it’s just sterile.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, maintains one distinctive voice throughout: the voice of the Guide. The actual guide entries are set apart in italics (at least in the editions I’ve got), but that same sardonic, matter-of-fact tone carries through into the scenes with the main characters, as well as the tangential world-building asides. No matter how random and disconnected the topic, that consistent style helps keep the reader anchored and minimizes confusion.
The other thing that helps prevent confusion is that every single head-hop is clearly attributed. There are no interjections that come out of nowhere; the declarative style means that we pretty much always start by identifying the character.
Consider this passage:
Trillian couldn’t sleep. She sat on a couch and stared at a small cage which contained her last and only links with Earth–two white mice that she had insisted Zaphod let her bring. She had expected never to see the planet again, but she was disturbed by her negative reaction to the news of the planet’s destruction. It seemed remote and unreal and she could find no thoughts to think about it. She watched the mice scurrying round the cage and running furiously in their little plastic treadwheels till they occupied her whole attention. Suddenly she shook herself and went back on to the bridge to watch over the tiny flashing lights and figures that charted the ship’s progress through the void. She wished she knew what it was she was trying not to think about.
Zaphod couldn’t sleep. He also wished he knew what it was that he wouldn’t let himself think about. For as long as he could remember he’d suffered from a vague nagging feeling of being not all there. Most of the time he was able to put this thought aside and not worry about it, but it had been reawakened by the sudden, inexplicable arrival of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent. Somehow it seemed to conform to a pattern that he couldn’t see.
Ford couldn’t sleep. He was too excited about being back on the road again. Fifteen years of virtual imprisonment were over, just as he was finally beginning to give up hope. Knocking about with Zaphod for a bit promised to be a lot of fun, though there seemed to be something faintly odd about his semicousin that he couldn’t put his finger on. The fact that he had become President of the Galaxy was frankly astonishing, as was the manner of his leaving the post. Was there a reason behind it? There would be no point in asking Zaphod, he never appeared to have a reason for anything he did at all: he had turned unfathomability into an art form. He attacked everything in life with a mixture of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence and it was often difficult to tell which was which.
Arthur slept: he was terribly tired.
Scene breaks would be far too jagged, but we do get paragraph breaks, and each switch starts by identifying the character so we know exactly where we stand. There are little hints of specific personalities (like the difference between “she could find no thoughts to think about it” and “knocking about with Zaphod”) but the overall tone remains consistent. And, naturally, it ends with a punchline.
This, of course, isn’t the only way to pull off this technique, but it’s a good example because it so specifically addresses the elements that can trip up readers. The omniscient narrator may know all, but they have to be able to get it across in a way that isn’t confusing.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Dragonhaven.)
One of the very first things we have to decide in writing fiction is the identity of the narrator. First or third? Multiple narrators? Limited or omniscient? True, this is something that can change a lot while writing, but you’ve got to make a decision in order to start stringing words together at all. The choice of narrator affects, and is affected by, a host of factors: genre and category expectations, which characters are privy to what events and knowledge, series considerations, thematic goals, and so on. But what happens when these factors point in different directions?
Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven, the story of a young boy who illegally raises an orphaned dragon, is written in first person, narrated by Jake. On the face of it, first person seems like the rather obvious choice. The conceit is that this is a memoir documenting an event that is famous in Jake’s world, while in our world, the intimate and confessional nature of first person lends itself very well to YA.
But the problem is twofold. First, Jake’s narration is something of an unfiltered internal monologue, a huge departure from Robin McKinley’s usual lyrical style that was off-putting to many readers. Secondly, Jake isn’t around for some pretty major plot events, most notably, well, the entire climax. Seriously, he’s holed up with his dragons while the rest of the staff of the park holds off the National bloody Guard. He’s told how it all went down afterward, and the explanation that “we” (being the readers of the memoir in his world, not the readers of the novel in ours) should have all heard about it on the news is cute, but still makes the whole thing rather unsatisfying.
So does this mean it should have been written differently? Well, no. It’s all about priorities. This is primarily a Boy and His Dog type story, with the focus being on how a teenage boy copes with the stresses and joys of motherhood (and yes, he’s rather specific about it being motherhood) taken to fantastic extremes. Taking it out of Jake’s immediate perspective would have been a very different story, and whether “different” means “better” is highly subjective.
Still, it’s important to weigh all these factors in when you’re making these decisions in your own work. You needn’t be a slave to your author “brand” and stick exclusively to an established style and theme, but it’s still wise to be aware of what expectations your readers are bringing to the table. If you’re limiting the perspective, can you still establish the necessary events? If you’re going wide, can you still get us close to your characters? Sometimes the identity of the best narrator will jump out and beat you over the head, but frequently you’ll have to make trade-offs and weigh the pros and cons, maybe even try out several options in different drafts. Though the peanut gallery is always going to have our opinions on how well it worked, in the end, only you know what’s going to best serve the story you want to tell.