Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lessons from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

In working on my new Steampunk story, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to start the book. Since the works of Charles Dickens have inspired it, I want the book to have a certain Victorian quality to it. I like the idea that Character A knows something about Character B and tells Character C who, in turn, bumps into Character D who, unknowingly, acts on the unfounded assumption he makes based on the information he learned about Character B. I love this stuff and I want to put it in my book.

The book is steampunkish and I want to put in all the things you think of when you think of steampunk. The book is a mystery, too, and I want that certain unknown quality to it as well, the dark, eerie, uncertain nature that characterizes say, Sherlock Holmes stories. There are some magical elements to this story, too, so bring on the wizards. But, most of all, it’s an adventure story (I think; I hope). I see the opening two chapters as the opening moves of a giant chess board. I’ve hinted at the opening two chapters in previous Two Sentence Tuesday blogs (here and here).

To prepare myself, last night I watched the first half hour of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just about everyone considers this movie to be great. Story-wise, structure-wise, I wanted to see how it worked. So, with pencil and paper, I watched the opening segment with a novelist’s eye.

Let’s start with the obvious: Indy doesn’t even speak a word until his entire character, save a few funny add-ons, is completely set. For the first few minutes, we only see his back. Worried local men, who know about the ‘superstitious’ stuff, don’t want to go where Indy is going. And he’s leading them, trudging ahead with single-minded determination. The first words spoken are spoken by Sapito and The Other Guy.
Sapito [who picks up a poison dart and inspects it]: Poison. Fresh. Three days. The Hivitoes are following us.

The Other Guy: If they knew we were here, we’d be dead already.
Brilliant characterization of Indy: he’s going where no one wants to go, is going where others will kill him if they find him, and, yet, he still goes. That’s his character and his nature.

When The Other Guy tries to shoot Indy, we get the first taste of the bullwhip. And then Indy turns toward the camera and we see him in all of his rugged glory. As he and Sapito enter the temple, Indy’s smart enough to look for booby traps. He finds them and gets past them. When he sees his former rival, Forrestal, dead on spears, Indy only utters one word: “Forrestal.” There’s no discussion between Indy and Sapito about the history between Indy and Forrestal. It’s not needed. We viewers fill in the blanks. I think a lesser director than Spielberg would have given us some exposition. We don’t need it. And the scene is better for it.

Later, after Indy escapes the crumbling temple, we get another rival: Belloq. Again, there is no long-winded give-and-take between the two, you know, ‘to fill us viewers in.’ These rivals have been going at it for a long time. The only explanation we get is Indy’s comment that it’s “…too bad the Havitoes don’t know you the way I do Belloq.” The Frenchman’s reply is a touche: “You could warn them if only you spoke Havitoes.” Again, without huge amounts of exposition or background, we get more insight into Indy’s character. He’s good at what he does and, yet, not perfect. He has rivals. Some of them are not as smart as he is (Forrestal) and some of them skirt around the rules (Belloq). Just wonderful storytelling and character development.

Then, of course, the coda on this opening scene: the snake in the plane. After Indy’s nonchalance about the spiders in the temple, the fact that we see him come unglued because of a snake is, again, a nice rounding out of Indy’s character. And we get to laugh.

As I work on my new set of characters, I’m drawing inspiration from films and books and studying them to see how they work. I hope to incorporate some of those lessons and make my story sing.

What kind of inspiration do you use when you write something new?


Caine said...

Stories that take a turn that I feel is for the worst often stick in my craw. I'll tend to remember those and think: "This is what I would have done". That's not to say that a story was written incorrectly or that I'm a better writer because they didn't and I'm not. It's just a personal choice that I can then expand on in my own works

Charles Gramlich said...

I usually read something in the genre I'm going to write in, not necessarily caring whether it's great or not but just to immerse myself in the concept.

Scott Parker said...

Caine - My goal is to write a story that takes only right turns. And I know what you mean about bad turns.

Charles - I'm currently working my way through the Steampunk Anthology edited by the Vandermeers. It's certainly enlightening. Plus, I'm taking notes on adventure things like Raiders. I want my story to be exciting and fun.

Barbara Martin said...

I do research on whatever it is I have little or no knowledge in, and I read different books on the genre to see how other authors put their ideas together. The movie you have chosen to pick apart is perfect as it helps the timing of each of the incidents that move the story along.

Scott Parker said...

Barbara - I'm up to the part with the fight in the streets of Cairo and the truck explosion. Fascinating how this movie works. I've also found, online, a 100+ page transcript of Lucas, Spielberg, and ___ as they hashed out the first film. It's like being a fly on the wall.

eejut said...

i could write for hot the film. its my favourite, and i think one of the perfect scripts. Its got a lot of lessons i try and keep in mind.

it defines its characters through their actions, without stopping dead to tell us about them.

One of the best scenes is the raven bar (and the scene that sets it up in indy's house) where with a handful of lines the script has given us the entire history of the two characters relationship.

-i learned to hate you in the last ten years
-i never meant to hurt you
-i was a child, i was in love, in was wrong and you knew it
-you knew what you were doing

and to

-i can only say im sorry so many times
-well say it again anyway

The character arc is well thought out a way its shame that all the sequels and books happened because it waters down the impact of that intitial arc. He starts the film as the shady character, driven, arrogant, looting. Then there's the scene between him and Belloq in the bar where the battle lines are drawn, the whole "shadowy image" and "fallen from the true faith" speech that shows that indy still has a line that he won't cross, then he refuses to destroy the arc when he has the chance, because he's re-found that 'true faith' of history and archaology, and he takes the leap of faith at the end when he closes his eyes. And this whole arc is conducted without the film ever stopping to explain it to us.

eejut said...

and wow my spelling was off the char bad in that one.

"i could write for hours about the film"

Scott Parker said...

Jay - As I study Raiders, character definition via action is the one thing I'm seeing a lot of. I was talking about Raiders with a friend yesterday and he pointed out something so blatantly obvious that it slipped my notice: Indy fails at everything he does. He doesn't get the idol, he doesn't get the headpiece, he doesn't prevent the Nazis from getting and opening the ark, and, finally, he doesn't get the ark for the museum. Perhaps that's why we all love Indy so much: he just keeps going.