6 Writing Lessons from AVENGERS: ENDGAME
This post originally appeared on Medium. It is reprinted here by the author with permission.
by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
I have to begin with a confession — I’m not a Marvel person. I don’t get super hyped about these movies. In all honesty, I haven’t even seen all of them (I skipped both Ant-Mans and Doctor Strange, and I think I may have missed a Thor somewhere along the line).
Going into Avengers: Endgame, even knowing that the reviews were glowing and that this was going to be the culmination of about a billion storylines, I wasn’t expecting the world. I figured it would be fine, but I was sure I’d have things to complain about.
Well. This movie was really freakin’ good.
It made me cry multiple times, and it also filled me with joy. It was incredibly satisfying, and from a story standpoint, an utterly amazing feat.
So rather than bore you with yet another review (I’m sure you’ve already gotten your fill of those), I want to take a look at some of the story lessons that can be learned from Avengers: Endgame. I’m writing this from a screenwriting perspective, but these lessons are also applicable to directors, novelists, and really storytellers of any type. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
Let’s dig in…
1. Get your audience to emotionally invest in the story as quickly as possible.
The screenwriters of Endgame, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, could have started this film by bringing us back to the scene of Thanos’ triumph — the battlefield in Wakanda where we watched so many heroes disintegrate in Infinity War. But that would have been rehashing something the audience already knew, and thus it wouldn’t have had much emotional impact.
So instead, they took us somewhere new — the peaceful, seemingly perfect home of Hawkeye and his beautiful family. They let us watch Hawkeye teach his daughter to shoot a bow while his wife and sons prepared hot dogs, letting us feel all the love and attachment while at the same time, knowing in the pit of our stomachs that they were all about to turn to dust.
The scene is absolutely heartbreaking, and it gives the audience a chance to see what this experience must have felt like — not just on the battlefield — but in billions of households around the world, and in trillions more around the universe.
Not five minutes into the film, we felt the loss that these characters were struggling with. We were with them. And we wanted to see them find a way to fix it.
2. Keep them guessing.
Near the end of Infinity War, Scarlett Witch destroys the Mind stone — and Vision in the process — but with the other stones, Thanos is able to simply hit rewind and bring the stone back into existence. So if the audience spent any time thinking about it, a lot of us were probably assuming that Endgamewould be about finding Thanos, stealing back all six stones, and reversing time the exact same way. That’s the obvious choice.
And that, in fact, is the plan — until they get to Thanos about 20 minutes into the film, see that he destroyed all the stones, and promptly kill him.
What the what? Where the hell is the story going to go from here??
That’s exactly the question you want your audience to be asking, especially if the audience is relatively certain of where things will end up (with everyone who blew away coming back to life). Great story telling is less about the final outcome — which, in many genres, is often predictable — and more about the unique and compelling ways that you find to get there.
3. If you’re going to pull a fast one, make it worth the audience’s while.
Again, I didn’t watch the Ant-Man movies, but when they started talking about time travel in Endgame, I think I audibly scoffed. Seriously? Time travel? That’s the big solution? We’re just going to throw in this new technology and magically solve everything?
But after about five minutes of being annoyed, I gave into the whole time travel schtick, because they pulled it off really, really well.
Yes, I had some doubts about the seemingly enormous risks they were taking and the idea that the Hulk knew for a fact how time travel actually worked contrary to what everyone else was telling him. But once they actually started using time travel to visit some of the best moments from Marvel-movies-past, the nostalgia factor was enough to forgive everything. They found a way to bring the best of the entire universe they created into this one film, and somehow it felt natural and honest. It also created some wonderful character moments, which brings me to…
4. Character points are more important than plot points.
I’m sure some folks are going to debate me on this, but I’m going to argue that moments of character development are more important to story than moments of plot development. Can you think of any amazing movies that have great characters but very little plot? Sure, lots of them — American Psycho, Raging Bull, Her, Garden State, Silver Linings Playbook, When Harry Met Sally…
Now how about amazing movies that have great plots but very little happening in the way of character? Personally, I’m coming up blank. Maybe they exist, but I kind of doubt it.
That’s because we need to feel for the character we’re watching. And I don’t mean that we have to like them — we can simply be fascinated by them or even hate them, but we have to want to watch them. And the easiest way to achieve that is through character development — by showing us not just what characters are capable of doing but why they do it and how they feel when they fail.
Because this movie started with everyone feeling like a failure, we got some of the most interesting, devastating, and — in the case of Thor — hilarious looks that we’ve ever gotten at each of the Avengers. Part of why this movie is so dang long is that it lets us sit with the characters, and it’s better for it.
For further proof of this, see the final scene of the film.
5. Outline, outline, outline.
I have no gosh darn idea how in the heck the people behind Marvel brought this all together. How much was outlined of each of the 22 films before any of them were shot to get us to this point? Or did someone along the line just say, “Hey, I think we can get more mileage out of this glowing box thing”? It’s utterly amazing.
I’m sure someone has the answers to all of this, but whether Marvel Studios claims to have planned it all to a T from day one or whether in the last few years Markus and McFeely, along with the likes of super-producer Kevin Feige, had to figure out how to bring it all together… either way, Infinity War and Endgame — which were shot at the same time — are a testament to the importance of outlining.
6. Give audiences exactly what they want, but not how they expected it.
This is basically another way of saying all the previous five points in one statement. Producers like to talk about the importance of finding an idea that’s “familiar but different.” A lot of writers never find their way past the “familiar” part. And it’s understandable — the “different” part is the much harder half of the equation.
With Endgame, the good folks at Marvel managed to create something that delivered on all of its promises — it let characters die, it saved the innocent, it ended with victory, and it paid homage to all its best characters. Heck, it even managed to move the needle forward on female representation in superhero movies (in a rather over the top fashion, but we’ll let that slide). But Endgamedid all of that and still managed to give audiences something other than what they expected. The devastating scene between Hawkeye and Black Widow serves as a perfect microcosm of this. As soon as they show up on Vormir, we know that one of them isn’t going to leave, but we don’t know which one. Markus and McFeely created a beautiful, powerful scene that was a testament to their friendship but still kept us guessing until the very end.
Well done, Avengers. Well done.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.