The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had me hooked since Captain America: The First Avenger (well, since this scene, anyway—I’m shallow).
What Writers Can Learn from Avengers: Age of Ultron
When I heard that author, director and all-around nerd royalty Joss Whedon was reprising his dual roles in the screenwriter’s and director’s chairs for Avengers: Age of Ultron, I came to the theater armed with a notepad, figuring I could take home some stellar writing tips from the guy who poured so much of himself into this film that he nearly died of exhaustion.
I was right. Writing tips and mild spoilers ahead.
1. Fix Tension Between Plot and Character Motivation
In most action movies, you can expect the main characters to be cogs in the machine of the plot, leaping from exposition to action, to action, to confrontation, and, finally, to denouement.
In this world, the setting has wound like a vine around the characters. Stark Tower, the Avengers’ new HQ, might be made of steel, but it’s the characters in Joss Whedon’s newest epic that hold it up.
In a good story, when a character’s decisions, dialogue and feelings sync with what the audience knows a character wants, you get character-driven action that marches in perfect lockstep with the plot, so each action set piece feels vital, warranted and rewarding.
Despite the chase scenes and explosions, character-driven action is all about what the viewer can’t see: Motivation.
How they did it: In Ultron, Marvel has a one-woman motivation machine in Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, who sets about revealing the worst fears and darkest memories of each of our heroes. What they see in these visions drives them for the rest of the movie: Tony Stark bringing the Ultron program to life, Thor leaving the group in search of answers, and Bruce Banner… well, take a guess.
How you can do it: Plot arcs and outlines are wonderful and necessary things, but to resolve the tension created by characters that aren’t tailor-made for the decisions they make, consider taking a break from the main work of writing your story to do some character exposition. One method, which Joss Whedon talks about in this recent podcast, is to give your character a one-page monologue in which he explains what he wants most, and why.
If your character’s decisions don’t jive with the thing he’s just told you he wants more than anything, then one thing—usually the plot—has to give.
2. Give Your Villain Some Common Sense
Sure, every villain spells out his evil plan at some point. Ultron, however, does the smart thing and talks about it in the presence of close confidantes, leaving the heroes to figure out what he’s up to without that “Why don’t you just shoot them already?!” tension that is, at best, illogical. It’s a small point, to be sure, but it humanizes and logic-izes (is that a word?) both the main villain and the movie arc as a whole.
How they did it: Ultron reveals his plans to his friends, not the people trying to foil his plans.
How you can do it: Watch for logical flaws in your villains, especially the ones that feel convenient, like you need them to keep the plot going. Then cut them out, using common sense as your guide. It might change your story arc a bit, but your readers will be rewarded with much more solid characters.
3. Mix Up the Majestic Monologues… a Little.
Marvel deserves flak for the one-note villains in most of its movies. (Do you even remember what Malekith wanted to do with the Aether? I don’t.) But Age of Ultron famous for “Whedonisms,” one-liners that pull double-duty as character exposition and as much-needed lightness in a film that staggers under its own weight from time to time.
How they did it: In the middle of one such majestic monologue, Ultron interrupts himself while he’s declaiming away on “Everybody creates the thing they dread,” as he says “Humans. They create…they create…smaller humans.” Pause. “Children. Lost the words there.”
How you can do it: Sparingly. This kind of declaimus interruptus can be a good strategy during your second draft stage when you feel your story’s atmosphere veering off into unbearable lightness or soul-sucking profundity.
But remember, these are “Whedonisms” for a reason. Using them too much (guilty!) can feel a little bit like verbal slapstick—like one scene when a character tells Hawkeye, “You know I totally support your avenging.” Cringe.
How about you? What did you think of Avengers: Age of Ultron? What did you learn about writing from the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Get in touch with a character’s motivation Joss Whedon’s way: Give the character a monologue that explains the thing that he/she/it wants most, and why. Have fun with it!
And if you practice, make sure to comment on someone else’s practice with your feedback.