What Raiders of the Lost Ark Taught Me About Storytelling
Earlier today, Raiders of the Lost Ark was on television. This was one of my all-time favorite movies when I was a kid. I still remember riding in the car with my family as we drove the thirty miles to the closest theater in Jerome, Idaho to see this movie for the first time. I was twelve years old, that summer between elementary school and junior high, and I thought this film was amazing.
As I watched this movie again, I was struck by how timeless the story and characters are thirty-three years later, regardless of the advances made in special effects since then. What is it that makes this movie great entertainment after all this time and how is it relevant to authors today? Many things, but I’ll tackle three of them here.
Maybe I should call this one “relatable characters.” Indiana Jones is larger than life to be sure. But he was oftentimes bested by his competition and enemies. He was a hero who, against all odds, would save the day, but he was flawed and frequently failed in is endeavors. Indiana was a mixture of humble and brash. You rooted for him and laughed at his foibles because it was all so relatable. Take a page from the Indiana Jones book of character building and make your protagonists less than perfect. Study your characters and establish their motivations, talents and flaws, and then write a characters your readers will grow to care about.
Steven Spielberg did a wonderful job establishing the authority of Indiana Jones. From the opening scene, Jones exudes confidence and expertise as the treasure hunter. The viewer is left with little doubt about his skills and , despite losing the golden idol, he still manages to escape in a way that is a product of luck, which showcases Indiana’s ability to recognize those opportunities and never hesitates to take them, regardless of how dire the odds. After the first ten minutes of the movie, you are willing to follow Indiana wherever he goes because you trust him.
Do the same thing with your writing. Establish early on the credibility of yourself as an author and the credibility of your characters so readers will stick with your story and go where you guide them. I don’t say lead because leading your readers around by the nose is not the way to present a story. Guide them with a compelling story and interesting characters, and allow your reader to make their own judgments so that their minds are engaged.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is set a few years before World War II. While war is not romantic in reality, World War II is an event in human history that has been continually romanticized in movies and books. Much of it this because historically, World War II did not play out on the evening news as later wars have, so the public perception was largely controlled by war propaganda. Think about it; when was the last time your saw a romantic movie set during the Vietnam War?
World War II had a clear enemy: Hitler and the Third Reich. Most of American and the Allied forces felt justified in their fight against the Axis Powers. Setting the movie just prior to World War II allowed the viewer to see the growing threat of Hitler without having to turn this movie into a war film. But it’s also timeless. Why? Public perception of World War II is only part of the issue. The other is that Spielberg understood that the setting is merely the backdrop for the story and never the star. While you knew the limitations of the day, those issues did not take center stage.
The same principles can be applied to the setting in any story. Infusing a story with too many pop culture references and brands may make a book feel edgy and engaging for the moment, five or ten years later these references will date the book and make it feel stale. I’ve come to realize this use of pop culture in books is much like a cliché. It’s a crutch so the author doesn’t have to go through the trouble of writing a compelling scene. All they have to do is quote the funniest Internet meme and the reader will understand all kinds of unspoken information. Yet five or ten years from now, it will be stale or the pop culture reference will have morphed into something quite the opposite. Write a story that is relevant today as well as twenty or thirty years or more into the future. It’s less about the pop culture or the over-indulged setting and more about the message or the reason you’ve written the book.
What lessons have you learned about writing from non-traditional sources and how have you applied those lessons to your writing?
Now, go write something!