Or “What I Learned about Writing from Watching Movies 1”
One question I am often asked during talks is how I made WILDFIRE RUN seem believable, even though the premise of a President’s son getting trapped at Camp David during a disaster is far-fetched, to say the least. Over the years I’ve studied many books to understand how the authors managed to make thrillers work, but I’ve also learned an equal amount from watching great movies. Analyzing movies has had a great impact on my writing. This post is part 1 of a new series on movie lessons learned for writers.
Quick Summary – In case you haven’t seen one or the other of these movies, here are the plots –
AIR FORCE ONE – While the President is aboard, Russian terrorists take control of Air Force One.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN – The President is inside the White House when a group of North Korean terrorists take over the building
Plausibility – the major factor!
Any writer of adventures or thrillers knows even if the scenarios are unlikely, they have to be somewhat believable for the reader or viewer to get fully engaged in the story.
The major flaw for me in both these stories is something too common in political thrillers – the presence of a former secret service agent turned traitor, who is crucial to the bad guys’ success. I don’t buy it. I buy that there are former secret services agents who weren’t great at their jobs, or who don’t share the same political philosophy of the presidents they protect. I don’t believe one would actively work to damage the U.S. government.
So given that each film gets one strike for lack of plausibility, why does Air Force One come out ahead? Let’s look at the other factors.
AIR FORCE ONE
1. A team of foreign journalists is allowed on Air Force One. At the time the movie came out, pre 9/11, it seemed possible, if unlikely, so maybe half a point taken away for implausibility.
2. The idea of an escape pod on the plane was probably the one plot point that stretched believability the most, but it was one of those elements where a viewer could think, “That would be a good idea!” Given that factor, another half point taken away
3. Lots of gunfire aboard that doesn’t damage the plane – I don’t know much about what a bullet hole would do to a plane’s ability to fly, but I have to believe it wouldn’t help, and there was so much gunfire, you’d think a stray bullet or two would have done some major damage. One point taken away.
4. The ending with the zip line between two planes. Totally unbelievable, but a cool scene. One point taken away, though it was fun to watch.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN
1. The protective force field on the bad guys’ plane prevents it from being shot down by the U.S. military, giving it time to do lots of damage. Completely unbelievable. This wasn’t Star Wars. One point taken away.
2. The President allows the South Korean prime minister and more unbelievable, the Prime Minister’s staff to go with him into the bunker. The Secret Service allows it. Just no. One point taken away.
3. There are far fewer bad guys than good guys when the White House is first attacked, yet the bad guys prevail. The secret service agents unthinkingly run out the front door shooting at the bad guys, allowing the bad guys to simply mow them down. No. One point taken away.
4. The President orders the Secretary of Defense to give up the missile code because he still has one and he’s not going to tell. Right. One point taken away.
5. At the end, even though officials know the bad guys are all dead, the Secret Service agent helps the President walk out the front door of the White House. No one meets them until they are on the front steps. A dramatic scene, but not very uplifting, and so the ridiculous elements took away any positive from the dramatic elements. Where are the medical personnel? Wouldn’t people rush in as soon as they could? Another point gone.
I could go on, but I don’t need to. AIR FORCE ONE ends up with a negative three, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN has a negative five.
At some point, if the level of implausibility is too great, no amount of special effects or great actors can overcome the viewers’ (or readers’) disbelief.
There are other factors that weigh in too, not as important, but still worth considering.
AIR FORCE ONE – A good title, probably fairly obvious it’s a political thriller
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN – An unclear title and a negative one. Olympus could mean many things. Mount Olympus? Even if a potential movie goer realizes it’s a political thriller, it sounds depressing. People watch and read thrillers because they want them to end in some sort of victory. Something that is fallen is clearly not a victory.
Mood of the Audience
This is not something a writer can control, but knowledge of the general feelings of the population do factor in to what becomes popular and what fails. AIR FORCE ONE came out in 1997, long before 9/11, when though we knew the world was a dangerous and scary place, we were somewhat removed from it. The bad guys in the movie don’t manage to take over the plane in the U.S.-it happens in Russia, again, very removed from the United States.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN came out this year. I, for one, felt a little sick even watching the preview and seeing the White House damaged. I remember 9/11 too well, and I was hesitant to even watch this movie because of that. Timing in publishing is important too. Sometimes readers just aren’t in the mood for a certain kind of story.
Level of Violence versus Character Development
There was lots of violence in both movies, but the number of minutes devoted to violence was far less in AIR FORCE ONE, allowing for more character development. I cared more about the characters in AIR FORCE ONE. And for writers, getting your readers to care about your characters has to be the number one focus of the early part of a story. In OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, I wish a little more time would have been devoted to the character development and the relationship between the characters in the beginning of the movie. The boxing scene didn’t anything for me in terms of my view of the characters.
So in summary, here are the important elements I took away:
Keep the plot as plausible, or at least as believable as possible.
The title is important, and consequently, the cover of a book as well.
Focus, focus, focus on making your readers care about the characters.
Judge the mood of your target audience.
Coming next – The great lessons for writers in the movie WAR GAMES