Monday, May 14, 2012

Lessons from "The Avengers"

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Okay, so I saw "The Avengers" yesterday (me and millions of other folks, judging by the box office receipts). First, if you haven't seen the movie, go see it. As soon as possible. Even if you don't like superhero movies. Why? I'll tell you why.

Because the story-telling makes me weep with envy.

Without giving away any spoilers, just let me say that Joss Whedon could teach a clinic on several things that challenge writers.

Giving each character a voice. At no time did one character sound like another. In a movie that contained no fewer than eight significant characters, Whedon managed to give each one a unique voice. Iron Man did not sound like Captain American, who did not sound like Thor, who did not sound like Bruce Banner. And I'm not just talking about the voice of the actors. It was in the language, the syntax, the rhythm of the dialogue. I could close my eyes and know which character was speaking. And that's hard - especially with such a large ensemble.

Pacing. From the first minutes of the film, you were off to the races. No tedious exposition. No getting you familiar with the characters. Now, Whedon was certainly helped here by the previous individual movies, but even if you have been living under a rock and haven't seen those movies, you figured it out pretty quickly. But that was done through action, through doing. Not a 10-minute lecture on the Hulk's history. With a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes, it would have been easy for this movie to either drag or just overwhelm with action. It did neither. I hardly noticed the time, but it was not a constant barrage of blowing things up. Plenty of action, yes, but Whedon kindly allowed you to catch your breath and prepare for the next Big Scene.

Humor. If you are a Firefly or Buffy fan, you know Whedon's got a sense of humor. "The Avengers" script dripped with it - and if you weren't paying attention, you'd miss the little one-line zingers. And they weren't all allocated to Tony Stark, either. Every character, even Loki, got his day. But the humor was appropriate to the situation. There were no gratuitous jokes. The humor enhance the story and the characters. And yes, there were some damn funny parts.

Killing your darlings.  Again, no spoilers. Every writer is told, "You have to be willing to kill your darlings." You have to put your characters in real danger. You have to threaten them. J.K. Rowling killed her favorite character. And yes, there is a point in the "The Avengers" where my jaw hit the floor - "Oh no he didn't!" Yes, yes he did. And it was gut-wrenchingly painful. And it was necessary. And it worked. It takes a brave writer to do that.

Some authors spurn screenwriters. Face it, we get snobby. But I urge you: Set aside your snobbery. Go see "The Avengers" for the writing lessons it teaches. Then try to put those lessons to work in your own writing. You'll be a better writer.

Thank you, Joss Whedon, not only for a great movie, but for a great lesson in how to write a kick-ass story.


  1. I haven't seen The Avengers yet but I'll be sure to watch it from a writer's perspective instead of just a comic fan fan.

    1. I'll be interested to know what you think.

  2. Mary,
    I didn't exactly see it the same way. He did do a good job on the voices, but I had no idea who Bruce Banner was or why they were tip toeing around him. I had to ask my son. As for the pacing, I didn't quite agree. I thought it bogged down, especially for the last 45 minutes or so when I couldn't believe he kept it going. Enough already. I had the feeling they gave him a big budget and he felt compelled to use very last dime. I like action and I like the interactions between the characters. I wish he had found a way to balance the two a little better than he did. So I don't necessarily see him as a great example for aspiring fiction writers at least in the case of the Avengers, which was to me just a great example of Hollywood excess.

    1. Of course everybody has a different perspective. I only know that when the movie was over, my husband said, "Wow, that was a really fast 2 and a half hours." It was for me too. I actually thought that Ruffalo/Whedon did a great job with Bruce Banner, giving him a persona that was closer to what I remember of the TV version, than the limp characterization of Norton and that other guy (whose name I forget). And I think one of the best lines of the movie was near the end. Captain America: "Dr. Banner, it's time to get angry. " Banner: "That's my secret. I'm always angry."

      I'm sure Whedon enjoyed the big-budget aspect of this film though. =)