I’m a student of storytelling. I believe that it’s the most important element of any fiction writer’s craft, and the hardest to get right.
Assembling a great sentence is something you learn to do over time. In the average novel, there will be thousands of them, which gives plenty of opportunity for practice and improvement. Unless you’re a literary author (and I’m not), then the goal is to write sentences that divert attention away from themselves and towards the characters, story and sometimes the theme (although it’s important not to bash people around the head with that last one).
But each novel only contains one story, so you only have one chance to get it right. I give myself more opportunities to practise by writing short stories, although I’m the first to admit they’re not my favourite medium – the collection I’m currently working on is in danger of becoming a novella!
Another way to improve your storytelling craft is by studying other people’s stories. This will include classics and modern novels, as well as film. In fact, when it comes to structure the Hollywood movie is the best place to learn.
I enjoy doing this with the movies I go to see with my family. After watching a movie, we tend to get a burger and analyse the film. What worked? What didn’t? Where were the major plot points? What were the character arcs? And more. Luckily, my son’s English teacher thoroughly approves of this habit and has told him that it’s a great way to improve his stories.
I’ve already analysed a film which I thought had a fantastic story, Darkest Hour. But in today’s post I thought I’d take a look at the two most recent movies I’ve seen with my family. One, while on the surface a soulless story of superheroes and unbelievable villains, is set to be one of the highest grossing movies ever. The other features one of the most loved characters in twentieth century movie history (we even have a life-size picture of him in our loo), but has been slated by almost everyone I know who’s seen it.
Apologies if you don’t watch action movies, but if you do, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about: Avengers, Infinity War and Solo, A Star Wars Story.
So here’s my analysis of why one of them works and the other could do better, with a focus on what this tells us about storytelling and character development.
Solo focuses on the eponymous and much loved Han Solo, who despite not being the protagonist in the first Star Wars movie, stole the screen whenever he was on it. Infinity War has a cast of thousands – well, over a dozen main characters, if not more. It could easily have been a dog’s breakfast, but wasn’t. So what worked, and what went wrong?
- The new version of Solo lacked all of the wit and charm of the Harrison Ford original. This wasn’t just about casting but about writing. There was no chemistry between him and Emilia Fox’s love interest, and I really couldn’t see what she saw in him. Princess Leia, on the other hand, knew she shouldn’t fall in love with Solo, but we really couldn’t blame her.
- Infinity War involved writers from a variety of Marvel movies to ensure the characters were consistent with their incarnations in their own movies. And it worked. It was as if a group of fans had sat down together and asked themselves, ‘What would happen if Peter Quill met Thor?’ The answer they gave us on screen was exactly what you would predict.
- A sign of great characterisation is that you come away from a movie (or a book) thinking of the character by their name. But for me, Solo had Emilia Clarke, Paul Bettany and Woody Harrelson. I have no idea what the names of their characters were. Han Solo and Lando Calrissian are exceptions here but only because they were established in earlier movies. Infinity War had the benefit of working with re-established characters, but Marvel do manage to take big Hollywood names and make you think of them as Iron Man instead of Robert Downey Junior (for example). And as for Karen Gillan – I had to watch Guardians of the Galaxy 2 three times before I believed she was really Nebula.
This was a biggie. Solo suffered from the fact that we knew the star couldn’t die, as he’d be in another movie. Infinity War had the advantage of pre publicity making it clear that lots of characters would die.
- When Solo was about to be sucked into a gravity well, I should have been on the edge of my seat. This wasn’t just because I knew he wouldn’t die, but because I didn’t care. It’s possible to make viewers’ hearts race with a character who’ll never die – Doctor Who does it every week – but Solo failed miserably.
- In that final scene in Infinity War, however, the cinema was silent as one after another beloved character melted into thin air. Despite the fact that we all saw it coming, it was shocking. This was because we’d watched the characters battle against all odds, were rooting for them, and didn’t want them to go (to paraphrase Spiderman). The lack of music at this point helped a lot, too.
Thanos should be laughable. And Star Wars has a history of great baddies – Darth Vader has to be one of the best antagonists in cinema. So why did it go the other way?
- Josh Brolin, despite all that CGI, did a great job of humanising Thanos. While his claim to be an eco warrior was ridiculous, we did genuinely believe that he was the ‘hero of his own story’. It’s a pretty twisted and messed up story, but it was his. This was emphasised by his scene with Gamora when acquiring the Soul Stone (no spoilers).
- Who was the antagonist in Solo? Was it Paul Bettany? Daenarys? (I rest my point about characterisation). Woody Harrelson? Oh yes, it was the world’s most overrated film baddie of all time, of course (no spoilers, again). This was a mess. As I couldn’t work out who Solo was really up against, I didn’t care if he won.
Again, Infinity War stared at a disadvantage here but did a better job. Sorry if I’m starting to repeat myself.
- Infinity War, according to my son, was essentially all a third act. It was all climax and action. But within that it did manage to keep to a clear structure and narrative, with the exploits of the different groups echoing each other and everyone working up to that big climatic confrontation with Thanos in the real third act. I particularly liked the opening scene, which was different from a normal Marvel opener, and much darker. Ironically it reminded me of the opening to The Force Awakens, my second favourite Star Wars movie.
- Solo, like The Last Jedi, had a false ending. Maybe two. The end dragged out and I was desperate to go home. And the opening section was like one great long prologue that gave us important backstory but wasn’t all that relevant to the story at hand. It should have been cut drastically so we could get into the real story quicker. This is the danger of prologues, in novels even more than in movies!
I could continue. But these are the areas in which I think the films differed most. I enjoy watching movies and learning how to craft great stories from them. Maybe next time I’ll find something quieter though…
What did you think of Solo? Vote in my Facebook poll!