Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Three Things Kingsman Taught Me About Writing

Last weekend I stopped by one of those "second run" theaters and saw Kingsman: The Secret Service again. Reviews were mixed, but if you don’t mind a little over-the-top, gratuitous violence, it was a pretty enjoyable movie. Think Quentin Tarantino meets James Bond. But regardless of what you thought of the movie, there were three aspects of the movie that stood out to me as a writer.

1. Story Structure is important. Hollywood is known for rigorously adhering to standard story structure and this movie was no exception. The First Plot Point, when the hero (Eggsy) makes the decision to join the Kingsman organization, occurred right at the 20% mark. (The FPP should happen somewhere between 20-25% in books and movies) The midpoint reversal appeared at the halfway point of the movie. And the All-Is-Lost moment, which marks the transition into the third and final act, occurred within four minutes of the expected 75% mark. Classic story structure. Do writers have to hit these marks that closely in our books? Probably not, but we should strive to come as close as we can.

2. Foreshadowing. This movie was chock full of it. There was scarcely a line of dialogue, sight gag, or event that occurred in the first three quarters of the movie that wasn't a setup for something else that happened later. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but almost everything in this movie was doing double (or triple) duty. You thought a particular line of dialogue was added because it was funny? Think again. That bit of dialogue will come in handy later. Did you think having one of the secondary characters being afraid of heights was done only to make one scene in the middle of the movie more intense? Sorry. Expect that fear to play an even bigger role later when the stakes are higher.

3. Make it personal. When the protagonist is busy saving the world during the story's climax, the goals can often feel a bit distant. Almost impersonal at times. Sure, we know the world’s going to blow up if the hero/heroine doesn’t get to the switch in time, and of course we're rooting for him/her to succeed, but how much do we really care? We don't know any of the hundreds of millions of people who are going to die if he/she fails. So writers often look for ways to make the final battle extra personal for both the protagonist and the audience.

During the final climatic scene in Kingsman, when Eggsy is racing against the clock to stop the bad guy’s plan to destroy the world as we know it, the movie keeps cutting away to scenes of the outside world, showing how it’s collapsing into chaos. The point is clear—millions of people will die if Eggsy fails. But that’s just not personal enough. As we near the final seconds in the countdown, the movie starts showing us glimpses of his baby sister back in London and the imminent danger she'll be in if Eggsy fails. She’s just one more life out of the millions expected to die, but suddenly we’re much more invested in the movie’s outcome because she’s important to Eggsy. Mission accomplished.

I never thought about these kinds of things before I started writing.  Now I can't help but notice them whenever I go to a movie. And when I come home from a movie that's done good job with these techniques, it always fires me up to make my story the best it can be.

How about you?

ChemistKen

19 comments:

  1. I wish I could be so analytical. Sometimes. Like some TV shows it irks me when the character acts out of character. We notice... Have you read Save the Cat then? It talks about a lot of that. I just finished Truby - The Art of Story or something like that. He was a screenwriter too.

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    1. Keeping track of story structure and being analytical about it is what comes easy to me. It's getting the words down on paper that's the problem for me. Yes, I have read Save tThe Cat. It's where I learned tha Hollywood is so strict about following the rules of structure.

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  2. I do the same thing. I can't help myself from saying- he just saved the cat. And of course the all is lost moment is always fun to point out.

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    1. I agree. My wife, however, probably doesn't appreciate me pointing these things out during the movie every time it happens.

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  3. I take notice of structure when we're watching movies at home, because then I can look at the little bar progressing across the screen and say, "yep, all is lost". I let myself go more when I'm out in the theaters.

    I did analyze Kingsman afterward, but for a totally different reason. I pointed out to my husband that it didn't pass the Bechdel Test. When the two female potentials talk, it's about the male character. My husband said it would've lessened the movie if they threw in another female character just to pass "some superfluous test". His words. I said they wouldn't need to add another, they could've changed one of the other male potentials to a female, and during the parachute scene, it would've passed the Bechdel test. He said it wouldn't have made the movie any better. I don't think it would've made the movie any worse either. He said the movie had a strong female, stronger than even the guys, and that it had another kick-@$$ female too. That should be good enough. I shrugged and said it still failed the test. He said that it would've been unrealistic to have another female potential, because that society just isn't that way. I was just pointing out this test existed, and how Kingsman failed. That, of course, frustrated him.

    Don't get me wrong, my husband is very pro-gender equality. He just likes to debate stuff. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the show and would watch it again, possibly own it.

    Totally off topic, yes, but I find it interesting that it's a movie that gets analyzed by different people for different reasons.

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    1. BTW, apparently I was wrong. According to this site, it passes.

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    2. I think it's a toss up. I would not consider the movie to have passed the test.

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  4. I'll certainly look for it when I see that film. Missed it in theaters. Was there a Save the Cat moment in. The beginning?

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    1. Not exactly a Save the Cat moment, since he wasn't a despicable enough character to really need one. However, they do show him sticking up for his mom and baby sister early on, and he does pull a prank on some bad guys at the beginning.

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  5. Yup. If you ever want to study classic structure, go see a Hollywood movie. That stuff is CLOCKWORK. Now that you see it, you'll never be able to stop seeing it, either.

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    1. Pixar, or other animated movies are the best for studying this stuff. If you're paying attention at all, the plot points are pretty much thrown at you. Especially since the character's action are usually over the top anyway.

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  6. Okay, now I want to see this movie. :) I'll look for it on Pay Per View.

    I have resisted reading books that tell me how to structure my story. I plot by the seat of my pants. I know I have reversals and all-is-lost moments. Do they happen at the right spots? I dunno. Maybe someday I'll sit down and calculate it all out and see how I do.

    Mostly, I work by instinct. Things are going well? Drop an unexpected anvil on their heads.Things are looking bad? Bring in rescue from an unexpected source.

    Recently, I had my protag thrown into a river by some guy he'd just one-upped. It wasn't part of my plan. I didn't know I was going to do it. I knew I had to get the protag out of the good guy's camp and into the hands of villains. I didn't know how, and it had been worrying me ever since I started this story. Yup, even back in chapter 1, I knew I was going to have a problem when I got to this point.

    When I finally got there, I looked back at how he'd just insulted this guy and embarrassed him publicly ... and it hit me. Grab my protag in the middle of the night, throw him into the river, almost drown him, and voila! He's now separated from his friends and protectors and in the reach of the bad guys.

    I could never in a million years have planned that opportunity in advance. It had to develop on the page. So, just as devil's advocate here -- don't rely too much on formulas. Use your instinct! Some of the best parts of my books were never planned. They just happened.

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    1. There's nothing wrong with pantsing your story. The trick is to go back through it after the first draft or two and make sure that certain things happen at roughly the right spots. I think most of us do that instinctively to a certain extent.

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  7. I haven't seen this movie, but I agree, there is so much to learn from watching movies. I find that now I'm able to predict plots in movies because I'm constantly thinking, "if this was my story, what would I do?" Kind of cool to think like that! Although, my husband probably gets annoyed with me at times when I burst out with my two-cents! :)

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    1. So far my wife hasn't seemed to get too annoyed with me when I tell her stuff like that during the movie.

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  8. I agree--not just with movies, but books. Recently, I've gotten into 'older' books that followed different writing rules (I'm thinking of O'Brien's Master and Commander from 1969). Long paragraphs, not much white space, constant dialect that's barely English (though the book is written in English). It's one of those books that would probably never make it past an agent today yet in 1969--and for 19 following books--was wildly popular.

    Interesting how this stuff kind of doesn't matter, yet acts as gate-keeper.

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    1. Makes me wonder what readers are supposedly going to want twenty or thirty years from now.

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    2. A natural extension will be links to information. Say you have a plot point about a magic spell used, you might link it to something online that explains it in more detail for those who want to know--or shows pictures. Readers would only click the link if they want to dig deeper.

      I've considered adding those to my upcoming digital book, but pretty much decided it's not yet time for that. Maybe next book.

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  9. Yeah, I usually notice these things in film, as well. When something is going very wrong, I get annoyed when what I expect is just not happening, or things are never explained, and those random scenes never end up meaning anything in the end. But, a great film is really cathartic and can inspire you to do the same!

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