What makes a story click?

I stumbled across this in L.A. No, Iron Man was not inside.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll already know that I went out west for work (and some vacation time) over the past few weeks. I went with the best of writing intentions, and even pounded out two scenes and 4,000 words on the cross-country flight. Super proud of myself. After that? Nada.

Given that this was the first real vacation/work trip I’ve taken after my novel sold — and thus increasing the pressure to produce more worthy prose — I quickly discovered that writing, while a joy and a major raison d’être, is still work. And thus after a long day at the mothership office, or out seeing sights, the last thing I want to do is plug-in and pound out words.

I thought I’d take a stab at writing on the flight back, but darn it if United didn’t put us on a plane with free Video-On-Demand. Combined with the 5 a.m. wake-up call to catch the flight, The Avengers were too tempting to resist. And after that, I decided to give John Carter a whirl to see what all the (largely negative) fuss was about. I hadn’t seen either before the flight.

The verdict? The Avengers was a paint-by-numbers summer blockbuster, but the people who did the painting had Picasso-level skill. John Carter struck me as a film that wanted to be far more than typical sci-fi fare, but fell short of that lofty goal on a number of fronts. And as a writer in the middle of the follow-up to his debut novel, it got me thinking about what makes a story click, and what makes it miss.

At first blush, The Avengers is very much a piece of studio fare, complete with an ill-defined MacGuffin, a huge cast of characters, a number of set-piece FX battles that lead up to the final confrontation with the baddies at the end. (Oh, and they reduce Midtown Manhattan to rubble. Again. Seriously…can we pick on another city for once?)

And yet…it was done so very, very well. The pacing was great, the scenes made sense within the continuity of the Marvel series to date, and the characters were played brilliantly by a highly overqualified cast. Furthermore, the script was very well written. Each major character actually had an arc — rare when you have up to eight major characters vying for screen time, and most are already very familiar to movie-goers and comic fans. There was humor, too, which was very welcome and added to the overall fun of seeing your favorite superheroes suit up and go to town.

So yeah. Paint-by-numbers blockbuster, but within that narrow genre of summertime superhero flicks, The Avengers was a masterclass of acting, writing and directing. In food terms, it was an exceptionally well-crafted gourmet cheeseburger. With truffle fries.

I could tell that John Carter wanted to be more than that. It wanted to stretch the boundaries of a blockbuster, to break new ground within the overall sci-fi genre, while being true to the spirit of the Edgar Rice Burroughs original. You could see it in the visuals of the setting, which were absolutely gorgeous. The depictions reminded me of steampunk crossed with a kind of mystic primitivism. There was a lot of good stuff to work with.

And yet, for me, it rang hollow. After thinking about this, both within the context of the comparison with The Avengers as well as strictly on the movie’s own merits, here’s what I came up with.

Clunky plot turns: The original John Carter story, A Princess of Mars, was published as a serial in the early 20th century. Thus, it had a number of episodic set-pieces stitched together with very little narrative. That’s fine; most movies today have those kind of big set-pieces. But the stitching in the film showed a lot of wear. The pieces didn’t flow together well at all. Source material aside, that’s a problem in any story. Getting from point A to point B needs to have some weight to it.

Character: We have to care about our characters in a story, and that goes doubly so with John Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch. But Carter was a one-note character for much of the movie, and when that one note consists of apathy — with undercurrents of greed and sorrow — we tend not to really want to follow this guy through whatever wringer he’s got in front of him. I thought Lynn Collins did a good job turning Dejah Thoris, the aforementioned princess, into a well-nuanced character, at least for a while. The romance with Carter, however, stretched things a bit. Dude literally falls out of the sky, frequently spouts off heresy and is intensely non-committal about helping you, and you wanna kiss him? Doubt it. Anyway, I don’t fault the (largely capable) actors so much as the direction and writing.

Holy exposition!: Director Andrew Stanton may have been going for a Lord of the Rings kind of prologue, but that only works when you have at least some glimmer of what the movie’s about, and have a reason to care. (Hobbits are, suffice it to say, built-in reasons to care about things.) So when we see battles over Barsoom, and have little sense of who’s on whose side, the attention wavers. Then there’s the second prologue, where you’re in the 1880s, and finally the story actually starts in the late 1860s. By the time we get to see John Carter’s beginning arc, we’ve stopped caring. If we had been able to discover Barsoom through his eyes from the beginning, we might have had a far more interesting movie to watch.

To continue the food analogy, if The Avengers was a near-perfect cheeseburger, John Carter attempted to serve new-wave cuisine in multiple courses, but the execution missed the mark.

So what really does make a story click? In the end, I think you have to care, a word I used a lot here. You have to care about the characters — certainly easier when it comes to our beloved Avengers, but still — and you have to care about the plot and what it will do to both the characters and the world around them. You have to want to come along for the ride. Maybe The Avengers wasn’t terribly original, but I really cared about what happened. John Carter had flashes of brilliance and a fascinating story behind it, but it sapped the energy out of me as I watched.

That’s my takeaway: You have to care what happens to these people. Maybe not everyone, but your protagonists, definitely. That means you have to give them some nuanced development to start with, plausible character arcs to play with as they go, and a decently crafted plot with appropriately high stakes that comes to a satisfying (though not necessarily happy) conclusion.

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Filed under Geek, Travel, Writing

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