Writerly Tricks (Not) Found in The Avengers Movie

May 25, 2012

Join me in raising a stein to Joss Whedon, who’s been at this for a long time. I’ve been following his work since Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… 13 years ago.
Joss Whedon
He rewrote the Avengers screenplay originally created by Zak Penn. I can’t think of a trickier story to tell than an origin story with a large ensemble of characters, who are already well known. What a minefield of clichés to avoid! But good old Joss; he did it.

What can we find in his script? Below, I’ll give you some things to watch for with your writer’s eye when you see it (or see it again).

Spoilers below… but come on, if I tell you that the good guys win, will that keep you from seeing it?


First, I’m going to pick on Joss a little, just to get it out of the way. Because we have to talk about the villain.

The villain establishes the stakes of the story, and is a good gauge of a story’s intensity. The more powerful and compelling the villain, the more compelling the story.

The villain in The Avengers – Loki, god of mischief and Thor’s brother – isn’t very threatening. We never really believe that the Avengers will fail to kick his patootie. Because of that, the villain is the weakest point of this story.

Now, I think that was a tactical decision on Joss’s part. He’s got a lot of story he needs to tell, and it’s of a particular type: the first Avengers movie couldn’t be about the villain. It’s about the heroes. So Loki does a set of necessary jobs for the plot, and nothing more.

First, Loki provides motivation for the other characters to overcome their differences – the arc of the movie.

Second, Loki provides Joss with an ingredient he needs to do one of the things he’s great at: writing scenes with plenty of reversals and confrontational dialogue. Reversals occur when power shifts in a scene, and a character gains or loses the upper hand. Repeated reversals are called zigzagging – a set of successes and failures, sometimes in rapid succession. Loki is powerful, but not too powerful, so each Avenger gets to have nicely balanced, exciting scenes with him.

The Hulk
Loki gets his evil monologues interrupted. A lot. Most memorably by “the big guy.”


Joss’s real strength as a screenwriter is the ability to walk in the shoes of his characters, and then write dialogue that is grimly or hilariously honest. Because each Avenger is so different, Joss’s ability to capture a point of view shines through. These perspectives come out in conflict, and there’s as much adversarial dialogue between the Avengers as real confrontation between the Avengers and Loki.

There are too many characters, and not enough screen time, for the complex inner conflicts Joss is also great at portraying. Contradictory inner motives are easier to reveal in a movie with fewer characters, a season of television (22 dramatic hours), or a novel (4-8 dramatic hours, or longer if you’re a slow reader like me).

As we speak, The Avengers is racing toward the billion-dollar mark. It’s great to see a guy kicked around for so long finally get his due. You’ve heard what his fans say: you can’t stop the signal.


What if Your Readers Hate Your Character?

November 18, 2009

I obsess a little about Blake Snyder’s “save the cat” concept, because I have a bugaboo about exciting movies and novels with tedious or creepy main characters. I tend to defenestrate such things. Books can take that, but DVDs don’t hold up well to sidewalk impact.

So I ripped the “save the cat” scenes from four movies — two Blake mentioned in his book, and two I noticed in favorite movies of mine. They are:

Aladdin (1992), written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.

Sea of Love, written by Richard Price.

Heist, written and directed by David Mamet.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, written by Lawrence Kasdan.

I think I’ve beaten this topic to death now, and I promise to move on. (Thanks, Blake. We still miss you.)

Using the Green-Eyed Monster

July 2, 2009

“Make sure your reader can identify with your main character.”

Gee, thanks.

I’ll file that lovely bit of advice next to “Only buy stocks that go up.”

If I freaking knew how to make my freaking reader identify with my freaking main character, don’t you think I would!?!

Techniques of the Selling Writer

Well, now you can, because here’s a trick that helps. I learned it from Dwight Swain, and like certain bits of writing advice, once I read it, it struck me like a diamond bullet in the forehead and I knew it was true.

Stop and think of your favorite characters from novels you’ve read. (Movies are okay, too.) Got it?

They all have something in common, and that’s the specific emotion they invoke in you. Time for some honesty here. Ready? Swain says:

How do you persuade your reader to identify?

You shackle him to the character with chains of envy.

That is, you make the character someone who does what your reader would like to do, yet can’t. You establish him as the kind of person Reader would like to be like… a figure to envy.

Envy? Envy! The word rolls around in my head every time I make a new character.

Sherlock Holmes: we envy his deductive skills.
Harry Potter: don’t you wish that you could be a wizard? That your school could be like Hogwarts?
James Bond: where to begin? Gadgets, girls, guns… and fast cars.
Batman: Envy is emotion, not logic. Logically, we’d rather not be a traumatized neurotic who dresses up in a bat costume. But our gut tells us we’d love to strike terror in the hearts of bad guys, come and go like a shadow, and drive… again, a super cool car.
Bella Swan: Please. Is there a 13-year-old girl on the planet who doesn’t want to date Edward Cullen?

(Note that boys want to be Batman, and girls want to be Bella Swan. Think about your audience.)

Swain generalizes, proposing a universal enviable characteristic present in every well-loved main character:

Courage to do what?
Courage to attempt to control reality….
The exciting character is the one who challenges fate and attempts to dominate reality, despite all common sense and logic.


Robert McKee, in his libromagus Story, proposes that every story has a “Center of Good” that the reader (or viewer) seeks out and latches on to. I think this is envy again, expressed in a different way. McKee says that envy is relative, and if a character merely outshines secondary characters, we may be drawn to him. In the novel and movie Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a villain… sort of.

The writers place Clarice at the positive focal point, but also draw a second Center of Good around Hannibal Lecter and draw empathy to both. First, they assign Dr. Lecter admirable and desirable qualities: massive intelligence, a sharp wit and sense of irony, gentlemanly charm, and most importantly, calmness….

Next, to counterpoint these qualities the writers surround Lecter with a brutish, cynical society. His prison psychiatrist is a sadist and publicity hound. His guards are dimwits…. We fall into empathy, musing, “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”


So when your main character makes your critique group snooze, think about that single powerful word, envy. It explains Han Solo… and Darth Vader. And along with an early “save the cat” scene, it can hook and hold your readers.

Another Key to Creating Suspense

June 25, 2009

I’m going to talk about a suspense tool for fleshing out a plot. I first read about it years ago in Jerome Stern’s outstanding book Making Shapely Fiction. He called it “Zigzagging,” and while I see it used in novels and movies constantly, I don’t see discussed much as a technique.

Making Shapely Fiction

Here’s how it works. Say you’ve got most of a story worked out, but there are vague spots in your plot where your narrator starts at A and somehow triumphantly winds up at B. How do you fill in that space between?

Example 1: In The Princess Bride, Inigo duels the Man in Black. Somehow… the Man in Black wins.

Example 2: In The Empire Strikes Back, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids on the Millenium Falcon escape Hoth. Somehow… they arrive at Bespin’s Cloud City (did I mention that Lawrence Kasdan is my favorite screenwriter?)

The Falcon eluding Star Destroyers

Example 3: In a romantic example from Jerome Stern, Vilmar is about to kiss his sweetheart for the first time.

How would you write it? You know you have to give your character a hard time, you have to keep that character at the end of his rope. You’ve learned that much.

But does that mean that from point A, things get worse, and worse… and worse, the mountain he’s climbing getting steeper and steeper, until suddenly just before reaching the summit at point B, your character finds sudden success?

No way. You zigzag it.

And that means adding countless successes, and failures, and successes, along the way. The tiny victories are as important as the failures. They drive the reader’s emotions up, then down, then higher, then lower, each success and failure of growing intensity until, at last… point B.

Let’s take Example 3 first. Stern writes:

Vilmar is going to kiss his sweetheart. But he’s too shy to kiss her. No, he leans his face toward hers, but she turns her head away. She looks at him now, but he’s afraid to try again. He’s steeling himself to do it, but someone is coming. No, it’s just the wind in the leaves. Now she is nervous, but Vilmar feels bold. The church bell rings forbiddingly. They both look up. Suddenly their lips meet.

Tension is created by this rhythm.

The romance example is important. Don’t think that zigzagging is for action or thrillers only. Like Mystery Boxes, zigzagging feeds the suspense of any genre, making any story more readable.

In Example 2, the Falcon is hotly pursued by Star Destroyers. Bad! But Han pilots between them and they crash into each other. Good! But the Falcon’s hyperdrive doesn’t work. Bad! But maybe Han can fix it. Good! But there’s a field of asteroids that will smash them to bits. Bad! But wait, the asteroids squish two tie fighters. Good! But the Falcon will soon be “pulverized.” Bad. So the Falcon hides inside a big asteroid. Phew! We’ve got time for some romantic subplot between Han and Leia. But now there are mynocks outside. Eek!

This goes on and on, including a giant space worm and the Falcon posing as space garbage, before Kasdan gets the characters to point B.

(The space worm haunts me. That is a zig that I would never have come up with in a million years. Darn you, Kasdan!)

Space Slug

In the first example, zigzagging results in my favorite cinematic sword fight. The two master duelists continue to one-up each other, reversal after reversal — hilariously — with Inigo switching his sword to his strong right hand, and the Man in Black (who we know as our hero Wesley) topping that by revealing, likewise, “I’m not left-handed, either.”

Here is that scene.

So if you’re stuck on a plot hole, try switching gears by giving your character a success. Let the reader cheer your character on. Then, pull the rug out. And keep that up.

Zigzagging + Mystery Boxes = Mega-suspense.

A Farewell to Arms

For a classic example of zigzagging that’s… a classic, read the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.

“Save the cat” scene in “Hang ‘Em High”

April 11, 2009

“Liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Blake Snyder is a screenwriter, not a novelist. But it turns out that screenwriters have learned a lot more about what makes a good movie — that lots of people want to see — than novelists have learned about what makes a good novel.

Hang Em High

The science of screenwriting is more advanced than the science of novel writing. We novelists have some catching up to do.

(If you’re planning to write a novel that no one wants to read, go ahead, suffer for your art. Meanwhile, Blake Snyder is keynoting Write on the Sound this year, a Northwest convention of primarily novelists.)

Blake coined the term save the cat scene. It’s easy, it’s quick, and connects the reader to your character, so the reader is willing to go along for the ride. “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”

Here’s a no-nonsense example I found. It’s in the first few seconds of the 1968 Clint Eastwood movie Hang ’em High (screenplay by Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg). In the movie, Clint (big shock) hunts down and blows away the dudes who wronged him. It’s a revenge movie — not an easy sell, unless we see some reason to believe that his character, Jed Cooper, is actually a good guy underneath it all, worth rooting for.

Here is that scene —