Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too. This week’s installment is by Sunil Patel.
by Sunil Patel
I love action movies. I love car chases and shootouts and explosions and ridiculous stunts and larger-than-life villains and explosions and witty comebacks and explosions. While it’s true that much of the appeal of action movies is in the spectacle, some of the very best can serve as excellent writing lessons, like broccoli covered in melted cheddar.
Don’t think you can learn about writing from an action movie? Do you know how many writers cite Die Hard when teaching writing? The number is higher than the number of people John McClane kills in that movie, I tell you what.
The last year has blessed us with two incredible action movies that excel in both spectacle and narrative because they understand that the two are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, are more effective when combined. I’ve seen them both twice, and it’s a fascinating joy to see such strong writing.
Build Your World and Let the Reader Figure It Out
John Wick may not look like a movie that even has worldbuilding, and, in fact, it’s not until more than a half hour in that you realize this is more than your standard crime flick. Right after the assault on his house that leaves him with a bunch of dead bodies to dispose of, John calls in the cleaners: “I’d like to make a dinner reservation for twelve.” This is only the first of many delightful euphemisms throughout the movie, none of which are specifically defined and all of which are clear through their usage: I did not count the number of people John killed, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s twelve.
And right by the phone we see a stack of gold coins. Are they actual gold coins? Who knows, and who cares. We see John hand Charlie the cleaner a bunch of gold coins as payment, and we understand how they are used. But how are they obtained? Later John asks an old friend for a favor: “Keen on earning a gold coin?” Boom. Gold coins are the currency in this world, and although we don’t know the exchange rate, that’s not important.
Then there’s the Continental itself, with its specialized doctors, secret nightclub—accessible, of course, via a gold coin—and mysterious rules. No one ever comes out and says, “This is a hotel that is the central focus of the criminal underworld”—the word “assassin” is never used in the movie—but every little detail of the dialogue and every person John interacts with build that picture up. You come away from John Wick wanting a whole spin-off series set in the Continental because you’ve created a vision of it in your mind.
Mad Max: Fury Road holds the audience’s hand even less than John Wick; aside from Max’s opening monologue, there is almost no exposition at all. It’s a perfect example of show-don’t-tell worldbuilding, as you learn everything about the world and culture by experiencing it. The fact that the War Boys worship steering wheels speaks volumes, as does their V8 hand-gesture, formed by interlocking eight fingers in a V. The depth of the design rewards the observant viewer, and the worldbuilding is integrated into the narrative as well. One of my favorite storytelling beats I’ve seen in a movie recently is the War Boys’ death ritual. Similar to the way John Wick explains the gold coins by putting them to use, Fury Road does not waste time explaining why a War Boy is spraying his mouth with chrome paint and yelling at his compatriots to WITNESS HIM right before he makes a suicidal leap. Everything we need to know about it is right there in front of us. It’s coded, and it’s brilliant, because later when Nux sprays his mouth chrome, we understand what’s about to happen. We may not understand the why of the world, but we understand the what, and we can often extrapolate the why from that.
Characters Are Defined by How Other People React to Them
There are no flashbacks to John Wick’s past life, but, like the Continental Hotel, it is formed through bits and pieces. The first twenty-five minutes build to the reveal that John Wick is no ordinary man. When Orelio realizes that Josef has stolen John’s car and killed his dog, he punches him in the face—which, given that at this point we know that Josef is violent and reckless, does not seem like the best idea. Viggo asks Orelio why he punched his son, and Orelio explains, and the only thing Viggo can say is: “Oh.” The depth of “We’re fucked” contained in that single word is astounding (it may be the biggest laugh I had in a movie theater last year). This is purportedly the biggest, baddest gangster in the city, and he’s terrified. He delivers a beautiful monologue with an all-time great character description: “He’s not exactly the boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the fuckin’ boogeyman.” Then he becomes more explicit: “Focus. Committed. Sheer will. I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil. With a fuckin’ pencil.” This works because it is the reveal of who John Wick really is—it’s intercut with John unearthing his buried arsenal—and the rest of the movie is him living up to that description.
Throughout the rest of the movie, people recognize John, remarking that it’s good to see him again. Since John’s arc is about his being pulled back into his former life (people keep asking him if he’s back), every single character interaction populates that former life, spawning a history that we must imagine for ourselves. Jimmy the cop, who asks him if he’s, uh, working again. The manager at the Continental, who welcomes him back. Winston, who is the only person who calls him “Jonathan.” The bartender, who knows his usual drink. Harry, whom John offers a gold coin to for a favor. We don’t know a thing about Harry except that he and John must have some sort of past relationship. They don’t have to have an actual conversation; the fact that Harry sees John dragging a body out of his hotel room and his reaction is simply, “Hey, John,” tells us enough.
Mad Max: Fury Road can do no such thing with Max because no one in the movie knows who Max is (but once Furiosa does get to know him, she calls him “reliable,” which is pretty good for a man). The key figure defined by other people’s reactions is Immortan Joe, the fearsome patriarch and god. Joe doesn’t tell us about himself, but it’s clear from the way the War Boys treat him what his role is. For instance, Nux’s reaction when he thinks Joe has looked at him (though Slit disagrees). He freaks out! The devotion Joe inspires tells us a great deal about him, as well as those devoted to him.
Characters Are Defined by What They Do
John Wick is defined by the fact that when some fiends kill his dog, he goes on an intense rampage. He does eventually give an impassioned monologue wherein he explains his motivations, but they’re pretty clear already. The character-defining storytelling in John Wick comes through in his fighting style, which is clever, economical, and utterly ruthless. This is a man who will shoot you in the foot to make you come out of hiding so he can kill you. This is a man who will shoot you in the head when you’re down just to make you’re dead. This is a man who will hit you with a car and then shoot you through the roof as you tumble over it. No one else in the film fights like this, and we can see why you’d send John to kill the fuckin’ boogeyman.
Mad Max: Fury Road has no time for impassioned monologues because too many cars are exploding. This is a movie where absolutely everyone is defined by what they do, and no one epitomizes this more than Nux, whose entire character arc—the strongest and clearest in the film—tracks by his actions. He wears his goals and his motivations on his sleeve (he doesn’t have sleeves though). The Wives can be distinguished by the differing ways they react in battle. Max and Furiosa’s relationship morphs from antagonism to collaboration without their ever discussing how they feel about each other; it’s how they act with each other that tells us.
Tell a Small Story in a Big World
Both John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road teach a lesson that science fiction and fantasy writers really need to hear: the fate of the world doesn’t have to be at stake. It can be one man’s quest for revenge. It can be one woman’s heroic rescue. You can build a complex, fully realized world, but the world is not the story. The world is the setting. Let the audience observe and understand the world: that’s their job. Your job is to tell the story. And a smaller story takes less explanation. I can imagine a version of John Wick that is John tracking down Management and taking down the entire Continental Hotel, obliterating all of his former colleagues, but…why would you do that when it’s so much more meaningful for him to take on specific characters with whom he has a history, whose interactions carry emotional weight? I can imagine a version of Mad Max: Fury Road where most of the running time is taken up by a massive assault on the Citadel to dethrone Immortan Joe, but…why would you do that when, again, you can focus on specific characters doing specific things to each other? These small stories matter, and we can relate to them on a more personal, visceral level.
John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road have raised the bar for action movies. They understand that in an action movie the action drives the narrative, and they manage to tell compelling stories with fic-inspiring worldbuilding in under two hours. The tools in their toolbox, though, can be applied to any story, no matter how many explosions are in it.
But you should probably add a few explosions anyway. Just in case.
Sunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared in Fireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Flash Fiction Online, and is forthcoming in The Book Smugglers, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place. Plus, he reviews books for Lightspeed. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more at ghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging”, “exclamatory”, and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”