Monday, May 04, 2015

What "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" Can Teach Us About Storytelling

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’ve been a fan of writer/director Joss Whedon ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series) debuted oh so long ago. He’s a skilled storyteller, and I always learn something every time I watch one of his movies. The Avengers: Age of Ultron was no exception.

There were so many things I admired about this movie, but three elements stood out as great techniques writers can use to improve their novels.

Fair warning—spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

1. Set up the Call Backs

I love it when a fun, seemingly throwaway scene turns out to be vitally important by the end of the story. It’s a scene that slips past reader radar, but in a critical future moment, it’s the thing that makes the entire novel (or movie) work.

The “Thor’s Hammer” scene is this type of moment. The humorous clip has all the Avengers trying (and failing) to pick up Thor’s hammer, and him teasing them that they’re just not worthy. (For those who don’t know the Norse legend, only the worthy can lift the hammer, Mjolnir. Basically, the person who wields this hammer is a good person.”)

The scene is one of the best scenes in the movie because it’s funny and captures the team of heroes being themselves without all the stress of fighting or trying to save lives. Whedon shows us this relaxed moment just before Ultron (the bad guy) first appears. By the time the cool action scene is over, viewers have more or less forgotten the fun hammer scene.

Skip ahead to the climax of the movie. The Avengers are faced with a new player, and they have to decide if they can trust him or not. From a purely structural standpoint, there’s not enough time in the movie to have a drawn out “this is why you ought to believe me” scene. It would kill the pacing and tension. What does Whedon do? He has this character hand Thor his hammer.

Lifting the hammer = good guy. The earlier fun scene proved that, so the entire team knows they can trust this character as they would Thor. There’s no need for any speeches and it eliminates that, “well, it makes no sense why they’d trust him” argument. It’s masterfully done, because you never see it coming, and it packs one heck of a punch when it lands.

Using this in our novels: Small scenes early on can lay the groundwork for major moments later. This is especially helpful in those beginning chapters before the inciting event takes place. We know things have to happen to draw readers into the story, but the “story” hasn’t started yet, so it’s not uncommon to have some fluff scenes to set the tone. Instead of writing filler, look at what happens in the third act of the novel and see if anything can set up that moment and make it more powerful.

(Here’s more on crafting opening scenes)

2. Real People, Real Problems

Marvel Comics does a wonderful job creating characters, and they come across as real people with real problems, who just happen to have superpowers (As opposed to DC Comics, which leans toward the super-powered people with problems model). This human approach makes the characters very relatable, because it’s people trying to do their best under difficult circumstances, using the tools available to them. Sure, they have bigger tools than the average human, but superpowers doesn’t make the job any easier. In fact, it often makes it harder.

Take the character Tony Stark (Ironman) for example. He’s just a billionaire genius on the road to redemption who’s trying to make the world a safer place—and oops—he kinda creates the thing that almost destroys it. Naturally he’s upset about this and tries to fix things, but he’s still Tony and he still has all the human flaws and fears that got everyone into this mess in the first place. His solution? Let’s do the same thing again, but this time it’ll work because I made a few changes! Trust me!

The movie does a nice job of establishing his motives. You get why he’ll do anything to fix his mistake. You get why the other Avengers will do anything to stop him from doubling their current problem. You get why some of them are caught in the middle, unsure which way is the right solution. It could be a problem anyone faces in their daily life, if you substitute mundane “work stuff” for killer robots bent on world destruction.

Using this in our novels: No matter how fantastical our stories are, they’re still about people trying to solve problems. We can find the human in any situation and make it relatable, even if readers don’t have superpowers or have any larger-than-life traits at all. Look at your novel’s problems and bring out those human elements for the strongest emotional punch you can.

(Here’s more on adding tension in a scene)

3. Mixing the Light and the Dark

One thing I’ve always admired Whedon for is his ability to add humor to even the darkest moments of his work (I mean, seriously, he made me laugh during the end of the world in Cabin in the Woods). These moments of levity provide necessary contrast that keep things from ever getting too dark, so you never feel the need to take a breather. It keeps you hooked into the story even when tension is at a maximum. Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, a joke is tossed in and the tension breaks just enough so you can keep going—and even better—that break allows the tension to rise higher than it was previously.

This ebb of flow of emotion is vital, as too much of anything gets tiresome after a while. We need these emotional shifts to keep us from getting numb.

My favorite running gag in The Avengers begins in the opening scene when Tony Stark swears and Captain America says “language” and scolds him—in the middle of a huge battle as they try to infiltrate an evil military base. It sums up these two characters so well (adding the human element) and makes you chuckle, easing the tension so it can rise again.

Poor old Cap gets teased about this the entire movie. Any time someone swears, there’s a dig at Cap and a call back to this joke. They’re not overdone, but placed just frequently enough that you look forward to the camaraderie of the team, and the laughs at Cap’s expense. It’s made all the sweeter in the end when Cap is the one who swears and gets scolded for it. The joke comes full circle.

Does this running gag have anything to do with the plot? Nope. But it’s a wonderful way to lighten dark moments, allow the tension to ebb and flow, and show the friendships between these characters.

Using this in our novels: Think about the different levels of emotion in every scene and how you might vary them to build tension and keep readers hooked. Not every novel will work with humor, but you can add lighter moments to balance the dark, like pressure release valves to add a breath when needed.

Movies and novels are different beasts, but there’s a lot we can borrow from the medium to help make our stories the best they can be. No matter what story you’re telling, you can’t go wrong with great callbacks, relatable problems, and tight, well-paced tension.

Have you seen The Avengers yet? What writing tips did you come away with? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. I haven't seen Age of Ultron yet but I do look forward ot it. I love it when a well written show or movie can be a great tool for learning more about the craft I love :-)

  2. You have a fantastic way of making fiction rules/tropes both understandable and applicable. (The fact that you're an Avengers and Joss Whedon fan is just icing on the cake for me!) Great post.

  3. Those are the things Josh does best. The B stories were great. However, I thought the main story was rather predictable.

  4. Those are the things Josh does best. The B stories were great. However, I thought the main story was rather predictable.

  5. Thanks for the reminder to take some storytelling tips away from my movie viewing. I totally appreciated the hammer sequence without thinking about using a similar device in writing. Reflecting on what else I could use in writing, the deepening of the characters of Hulk and Black Widow through their romance is a reminder to add interest to the secondary characters. By providing them with their own backstories and character arcs in a way which provides a complement to the theme (in this case, the question of whether these superheroes are worthy to be part of the crusade to protect the world from mayhem in spite of their flaws/prior mistakes), Whedon makes the characters more important and interesting while amplifying his overall message.

  6. Great examples! I took my kids to the midnight showing and that scene with the hammer was my favorite moment in the movie, especially when it took on so much meaning later on.

  7. Love this post! I saw Ultron over the weekend, so I really appreciate the tips. A friend of mine and I also loved the hammer scene and the shock of seeing the new character hand the hammer to Thor and making some use of it. A nice bit of foreshadowing for an upcoming movie. This movie had a ton of foreshadowing--another tip for a series.

  8. Love this post! Using the movie as an example of writing/noveling tools helps a lot. I always like examples, and though I haven't seen Age of Ultron yet, I know the characters enough to envision the scenes.

  9. Thanks for pointing these out. I saw your post earlier but decided to hold off reading it until I got a chance to see the movie. Just finished watching it, so I finally got to read it. I think you've made some great points, and they're tips I definitely intend to keep in mind while writing. :-)

  10. Great post. Great insight. I also think we can learn from movies to write popular fiction. After all, movies have revolutionized the art of storytelling.