By Manik Rege
Like many excited Marvel fans, I decided to embark on a binge fest of all the 21 superhero films leading up to my Endgame experience last month. While I tried to watch with the same curiosity as that of the teenager I once was, the screenwriter who has now taken charge of my personality, couldn’t help but pick apart the scripts like a hungry critique.
And amidst all the obvious Easter eggs, failed one-liners, or silly plot holes that I smirked at- there was one story that easily stood out, in terms of its plot, style, and creative detail. It’s none other than Wakanda’s prized gem- the Black Panther. Remember when T’Challa took charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe last year? He effortlessly clawed down more than ten records at box offices worldwide. But that, too, is pea-full compared to the overwhelming appreciation he received for representing the black community on the global stage. It was nothing less than a landmark film for the action genre.
I was so excited when it came out, and I remember dragging my clueless noob of a girlfriend to the theatres, too. This was her first meeting with my heroes but she didn’t have any trouble following their story, and, in fact, enjoyed it as much as I did! Nope, she didn’t magically turn into a comic expert overnight. Rather, I think it was the script that did all the magic (you can read it in full here).
Case in point, as someone who makes a living out of studying movies (I barely get by, actually), I can confidently say that Black Panther is a beautifully written opera that is built on many golden principles of crafting impactful prose, all laid down in John Truby’s Bible for screenwriters, “The Anatomy of Story.” The writing by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole is so pro that even someone who’s being introduced to the MCU gets instantly hooked in and glued down to their seat!
So today, we’re going to (i) uncover four ‘Writer’s Infinity Stones’ that we can collect from the film, and (ii) also figure out how to apply them in our own work! At the end of this seminar, we shall have learned what the basic building blocks of B.P’s storyline are, and how they come together to form a strong narrative. These blocks are as follows:
- Clear Moral Conflict: Debate on how we should live in this world
- Flawed Hero: Heroes with desire, weaknesses, failure & learning
- Strong Villain: Directly attacking the hero’s moral weakness
- Story Arc: Tying together the 3 foundations in a coherent 8-step structure
See, these aren’t strict rules per se, so you don’t have to include all the elements to get a good story. But you can still use them as guiding forces or runway lights before you snap off into your fantasies. They will make your journey richer, thus helping more readers to relate and connect with your work. So let’s get sparring!
WAKANDA FOREVER!!! 🐱👤🐱👤🐱👤
Part 1/4: The Moral Conflict
Let me ask you this. What do you feel B.P is really about? Take 10 seconds to think. Is it just your usual superhero action plot in which a villain hurts the hero and then the hero comes back to avenge his defeat? Maybe. On the surface, that feels like the whole plot.
But if you look closely, and specifically at the scene where T’Challa returns to Wakanda to be crowned king, you’ll discover the real essence of the story, neatly wrapped in his sister Shuri’s dialogue. When he tells her that his EMP beads don’t need any upgrades, she says, “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
This isn’t an isolated piece of wisdom. As one out of several debatable interpretations of the movie, in my personal opinion, it may be argued that this is the broad moral of the story, the very lesson that T’Challa learns in the end. That just because his parents have been doing things in a certain way and they have survived just fine till now, it doesn’t mean that he can’t build a better, more meaningful path towards their future.
More specifically, even though his ancestors have been hiding Wakanda for so many centuries to protect vibranium and their technologies, and even though it has worked out in their favor until now…
…It doesn’t mean that he has to continue blindly following their comfortable traditions without taking into stock the changing needs, problems, and the demands of his own generation. He must not be afraid to constantly question, test, and challenge his traditions- because it is in these experiments that he will find the solutions to push his race forward.
This view is reinforced immediately in the scene following the crowning ceremony when ex-girlfriend Nakia tries to urge her king to: “Share what we have. We could provide aid and access to technology and refuge to those who need it…other countries do it, we could do it better.”
T’Challa, of course, in his naivety, is reluctant to pursue the idea because he is of the opinion that they will lose their own way of life while trying to solve others’ problems. Like his comrade W’Kabi says, he doesn’t want “outsiders/immigrants to bring their problems into Wakanda” and ruin the peace of his own family in a self-sacrificial attempt to bring peace to the entire world.
Nakia responds to T’Challa’s concerns, assuring him that “Wakanda is strong enough to help others and protect ourselves at the same time.” This line is of utmost importance because T’Challa’s brother and the villain of this story, Killmonger, shares Nakia’s views, too, although he expresses them in a much more aggressive manner.
So, taking stock of all that reading between the lines, Black Panther feels like it’s more about the debate concerning whether we should help others at the cost of our own safety. Whether we should open our homes to others at the risk of depleting our resources (I’m getting some major Trump vibes there). According to B.P., we should. Because we all have a moral responsibility to help the needy, even though it might not bring us anything in return.
This deeper philosophical conflict of values that is etched into the soul of the story, is what makes B.P a truly intimate movie-watching experience. In screenwriting, we refer to this infinity stone as the moral argument, which deals with the writer’s opinion of why something is right or wrong, fair or unfair. To give a dramatic effect, the writer’s opinion is shown alongside its polar opposite, resulting in a showdown called the moral conflict. Think of this as a war between two views on how we should live in the world.
The closest example I can give to explain this concept is that of George Lucas’ Star Wars, in which we’re given a choice between the Light side and the Dark side, each founded on contrasting philosophies or codes. The Jedi of the Light believe that there are no emotions, only peace, while the Sith argue peace is a lie. The Jedi believe in mastering one’s emotions, encouraging meditation and yoga. But the Sith think that such repressions are like trapping and caging birds. They restrict us from unleashing our true power so we are better off letting our primal passion guide us freely. Throughout the series, both the sides are engaged in a constant battle for proving which code of conduct is a better way to govern the Galaxy.
A caveat before we go ahead: this doesn’t mean that every good story necessarily has a deeper philosophical conflict. You don’t need a moral of the story every time. You don’t HAVE to ask larger questions or tackle big social issues. You can make a perfectly interesting movie out of a simple depiction and plain narration as well; think Forrest Gump, which is nothing more than a linear narration of one man’s major life events.
However, you’ll find that having complex questions at the heart of your work will give it a nice spine. As a creative writer, you have to understand that when you’re working on a story, what you’re NOT writing is a report or meeting minutes. You’re not creating an information dump of events, plainly telling the readers what happened, where, when, and to whom. Here on the creative stage, you have space and liberty to ask another, more important question. And that is “WHY?”
Stories are pathways for exploring the reasons behind why we think and behave- and, going a step further- they’re also an opportunity to convince people why we should think or behave in a certain way. Think of them as Trojan horses, vessles for carrying ideas, wrapping our mundane ideologies about how the world should work, in entertaining dramas and plots that subtly influence the audience on a subconscious level.
To summarize our first point, the next time you sit down to write, don’t just explain what happened- tell me if you think that was fair or unfair/good or bad, and why do you think so? Think about the larger question you want to answer, what new opinion do you want to bring to the table?
It doesn’t have to be a huge social issue about ending world hunger and what not. It can be your personal take on the smallest of events in your own life. How do you feel people should’ve treated you, or the other way around? It has to be an opinion that you really believe in from the bottom of your heart, something you are willing to fight for with your life. So what is that idea that keeps you up at night? Write about that.
Next up, the moral conflict will now split into two branches, and we will learn how to embed this war into our main characters, giving the cold abstract notion a sense of flesh, persona, humanity, warmth, and structure.
Part 2/4: The Flawed Hero
After the crowning ceremony, T’Challa drinks the essence of heart-shaped herbs and gets buried in ritual sand in order to be transported to the ancestral plane. There, he meets the panther spirit of his father, who warns him, “You have a good heart. And it is hard for a good man to be a king.” T’Challa doesn’t understand what that means until much later in the story when he has the revelation about his father’s wrongdoings.
We can choose to look at it as a direct reference to T’Challa’s core weakness as a human being. He does have very noble intentions to protect everybody, but it is these very principles that cloud his judgment and decision-making as a leader/king. Overcome by fear and distrust of the world’s general populations, he is unable to look beyond his own safety and the well-being of his tribe.
To truly become a just ruler, he has to learn to extend his empathy to everyone, taking hard decisions that may not be popular or well-received but are necessary for the greater good in the long term nonetheless. He has to learn to detach from his traditions and critically look at present circumstances, adapting their way of life accordingly.
Note that this is something that T’Challa eventually learns and grows into over the span of the story, making his character authentic and human. His naivety at the beginning actually makes him more likable as a character, which brings us to an important theory. The easiest way to spot rookie writing is by looking at the protagonist and finding out that he’s Superman, a perfect symbol of everything popular, hot, awesome, and good. Most novice writers make the critical error of crafting very predictable textbook-like ‘stereotypical’ heroes who are flawless in their thoughts and actions. So let’s avoid that and make our characters more relatable to normal audiences.
A great example of this technique can be observed in Disney’s classic ‘Finding Nemo,’ which helps/educates parents as much as it entertains their kids. We see that Marlin’s weakness as a father is being too protective and possessive of his son, which actually encourages the frustrated little fish to tempt fate and get snatched away by the divers. Although Marlin’s intentions are in the right place, he’s always hiding Nemo from the inevitable risks of growing up that all adults have to face on their own. It is not until the very end scene that he realizes this and finally lets Nemo take his own decisions as the son risks his life to guide the fishes trying to break free from the trawler ship’s net. So if Marlin had never made a mistake, no parent who saw the movie would have been inspired to look at the kids in a different way.
What this example teaches us is that a good main character isn’t the most perfect character in the story, far from it. He has his own shortcomings that he overcomes gradually. And that’s to make us leave the theatre inspired by his growth. Which is why it’s important for us writers to test him harshly. Remember, a happy hero is a dead hero. Whatever makes your guy comfortable- you should give him the exact opposite, putting his deepest, firmest beliefs to the test- challenge who he is at the core.
Going deeper, this specific effect of the hero’s development is brought about by sandwiching the weakness between two successors and predecessors each, which means that our protagonist is made out of six vital organs: desire, need, weakness, mistakes, revelation, and corrective action.
- Desire: This is the heart and soul of every character because the fire of desire will inspire actions, which will eventually lead to the hero’s conflict, defeat, and learning. Ask yourself, “What does my hero really want?” He must crave or aspire something desperately and obsessively. And going a step ahead, it should preferably (but not necessarily) be the same thing that the villain wants, a point we will explore in the next section.
- For example, in B.P., T’Challa wants to protect his people. This is actually the same goal Killmonger is competing to achieve but through a different way, by arming his tribe rather than hiding it.
- Their desires ultimately lead them to act, fighting for either defending or opening up the city to the world.
- Need: Most of the times, what we want (our dreams) and what we really need for our growth are two separate things. We might want to make more friends and be social but what we might really need is the confidence and self-assurance to be an independent person who is happy in his own company, as is explored in the story ‘Eat Pray Love.’ Note that the hero must not already be aware of what lessons he needs to learn in order to change and grow. Instead, he should become gradually aware of it towards the end of the story, only after having gone through a great deal of pain or struggle.
- Weakness: The difference between the need and the want is the deficit in our hero’s character, the weakness that is holding him back. This weakness must be a social one insofar it must not only restrict the hero but also play a role in hurting those around him. It must be an improper way of treating others. If it doesn’t negatively affect more lives, it becomes an isolated personal weakness, which holds very little value- speaking in terms of the impact that the revelation of such flaws will have on our minds. Note that this weakness doesn’t make the hero wicked or evil because he is not even aware of how his actions and beliefs are causing pain to those around him until the very end.
- Mistakes: Mistakes are a chemical reaction between desire and weaknesses. Desire drives a hero to take actions that backfire on him and ruin his original plans/dreams/ambitions/beliefs because of his weaknesses.
- Corrective action: Now that the hero has realized his mistake, he has to take clear steps to correct it. He must not merely say he is wrong, a verbal apology is not enough. He must make a decision that proves he has become a better person than who he was at the beginning of the story. This last moral decision is vital to achieving a sense of closure for the audiences.
- For example, T’Challa clearly states that he will be helping other nations at the conference, and also talks about donating the place where his uncle was killed for charity projects.
- This shows he has started caring about people outside his kingdom, and has become a true Avenger, a hero and guardian of the entire world and not just for Wakanda.
We now understand that a hero has to go through struggles that cause him to change. So the next obvious question in line is, “How do we show these struggles?” The answer- through our villain. Struggles are best manifested in a strong and layered antagonist, who we will explore in depth in our next point.
Part 3/4: The Strong Villain
Let’s say we cut out the first scene of the movie entirely where Killmonger finds out his Dad is murdered, and we directly skip to the part where he returns to Wakanda as a contender for the throne. Do you think you would look at him the same way you did originally? I don’t think so.
Because that way, he would just feel like a crazy jerk and bully, your typical villain written by a rookie writer. But in the story, you actually find yourself considering that maybe Killmonger is not entirely wrong in how he thinks. So what has changed because of that scene?
One word: Motive.
See, the knowledge of Killmonger’s past, of how unfairly he was treated and left all alone, is vital in establishing his character for us because it humanizes and validates his anger, making him a villain we would actually consider rooting for in a fight. An understanding of his “WHY” (his reasoning and logic) helps us make sense of his “what” i.e. the plan to dethrone T’Challa. We know that he is not inherently a bad person, just someone who was betrayed by his own king and is sick of the entire system.
In fact, we are reminded of this fact once again in the first meeting with the grown-up villain, where Shaw goes on mercilessly killing all the guards in the museum and Killmonger asks him why he made such a mess, indicating that he’s only doing the job out of necessity and circumstance, and not because he’s a heartless, merciless psychopath on the run.
Also, note that his motive is identical to that of the hero. He has to want the same thing as the hero. As I pointed out earlier, Killmonger is fighting for the same goal as T’Challa, to protect his own people, albeit in a different manner. This connection makes for an epic showdown because then both the opponents have a lot to lose in the battle.
For a closely linked example, think about the ultimate Marvel villain, Thanos himself. He actually wants the same thing as Tony does- to protect the world. But he just thinks that it will require the sacrifice of half the population for the other half to truly prosper, that’s all, no big deal. And whether you agree with his reasoning, at least you know why he’s doing it, which helps you form a deeper connection with the character.
An important point to be made here is that all these great villains deeply believe they are the heroes because they have been given the same desires as that of their real hero counterparts. This delusion is vital in shaping their confident personalities. But on a deeper level, it also helps us understand the hero better. The actions that our villains are taking as a result of their desire, which will always be different to those taken by the heroes, give us a clue about what the heroes are lacking i.e. their weaknesses.
The villain, therefore, exists only to brutally hit the hero right where it hurts the most. He pushes and forces the hero to look inward in order to discover and correct his flaws, thus acting as the catalyst for his change. So he is an important ingredient for making a good hero. That’s why he must be written alongside the character as a connected part, and not some detached, completely unrelated character who just decides to go crazy for no reason at all.
Most beginners commit this mistake of writing their heroes and villains individually, which only ends up diluting the conflict and making both the main characters predictably one-dimensional. Therefore, you should ideally have a checklist of characteristics that ensures you have properly connected your ‘ant’ and ‘pro’ before you put them both to the test.
To recap our point on the antagonist, most experts agree that a good villain comes with the five following traits: confidence, motive, attacking the hero’s weakness, good glimpses, anger.
- Confidence: A confident and self-assured figure, he believes he is the hero of the story and has a convincing argument to prove that what he is doing may be unpopular but it is not wrong, rather very justified and necessary for all parties.
- Motive: He has been wronged or mistreated in the past. He has a very clear and direct reason for what he is doing, preferably a very personal problem that he is trying to avenge or correct.
- Attacking the hero’s weakness: The villain’s personality and actions must directly and brutally attack the villain. He must be willing to do what the hero won’t, and he must show absolutely no mercy.
- He has good qualities: The best villain doesn’t feel like one. He’s more complicated than a heartless Terminator-like killing machine. Parts of him are also kind and loving, even helpful to the hero himself at times. He has certain likable traits that may encourage viewers to defend him, too! Thanos did nothing wrong! 😉
- Anger: You can’t have a good villain without this primal emotion. He must be upset, dissapointed, or straight-up jealous of the hero. His core has to be fueled by an intense fire that drives him to take cruel actions against our protagonist.
Now that we have our foundations- the hero, the villain, and their conflict- it is time to tie these together using a clear structure of events. Think of the steps as the mold you use for presenting a scientific experiment- you start with a clear introduction of the topic, lay out the methods and procedures, and then summarize and conclude your findings.
Case in point, such templates make it easier for audiences to fully absorb the experience, making your work more meaningful in the end. On that note, let’s move on to our final section and the revision/summary of everything we’ve discussed previously. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 8-step story structure!
Summary: Part 4/4: The Story Arc
According to John Truby, there are 22 organic steps in building a dramatic narrative. I’ve simplified them to eight steps for the first-time writer. In the table below, I’ve defined these steps, listed their function in the broader storyline, and provided a the correlating example from the movie in question.
|*||Name||Function||Example||The question to ask (for writers)|
|1.||Desire||Set up a clear goal for the hero but hint at what is missing as his need. This will give you the weakness he needs to realize in the end||T’Challa wants to protect his kingdom but his father tells him that simply having a noble heart his not enough- he must learn to take harsh decisions that are not fully ethical or correct but important for everyone||What does my hero badly want?|
|2.||Setting||Set up a present fantasy world and a ghost world. The ghost is the past, the shadow, or the backstory of the hero. Reveal it partially to create suspense. The present world must be an outward manifestation of your hero’s personality and weakness||Wakanda is hidden, closed off and aloof from the rest of the world, just like T’Challa who is not wholly considerate of outsiders and their problems||How does my world represent my hero?|
|3.||Attack||What makes your hero happy? Give him the exact opposite. Make him uncomfortable and bring him suffering by introducing a villain that attacks his softest points||T’Challa is very concerned with Wakanda being discovered by outsiders. Killmonger steps in and declares that his weapons will now be publicly available. T’Challa cannot let that happen in any way so he gives his best in the fight||What can be the absolute worst thing to happen to my hero? (MULTIPLY THAT BY 20 & cripple the guy)|
|4.||Defeat||The hero falls due to his weakness. He has lost the initial fight, making him run away to a place where he can assess the damage and understand why he lost||Killmonger and T’Challa spar for the throne and the cousin triumphs in the challenge, throwing T’Challa down the waterfall and crowning himself king||What’s the most precious thing that my hero stands to lose? (Make him lose that- just like T’Challa loses his kingdom)|
|5.||Revelation||Because he lost, the hero thinks about what he could’ve done differently. He finds out he has been treating others wrongly, causing them pain. He confronts his own demons||T’Challa goes back to the ancestral plane and tells his father that his actions were morally incorrect. He wasn’t right to leave the little Killmonger all alone without any explanation or support after his father’s murder. He shouldn’t have abandoned the kid like that||What does my hero really need? (Time for him to find that out)|
|6.||Final Battle||The hero and the villain come face to face for one final showdown. Everything is at stake here and this time, the fight is to the death. No coming back from this stage||T’Challa is revived by his mother and he suits up to take back his kingdom. The challenge is not over yet||What can I put at stake? (Put everything and let the hero/villain battle it out for the prize)|
|7.||Moral Decision||Show your audience through a clear direct action how your hero has developed from the initial character he was. There has to be an easily identifiable and significant change in his attitudes, moral codes, and personality. Make the change as big as possible||T’Challa empathizes with Killmonger and fulfills his wish to die an honorable death without being shackled like a prisoner. He then opens Wakanda to other nations and also gives to a charity like his ex-girlfriend asked him to earlier in the story||How will my viewers know that the hero has changed and grown as a person?|
|8.||Balance||It’s a new equilibrium. The hero wins the battle and things are slowly coming back to normal. The hero’s decision has affected everyone around him and it shows||Wakanda is now back to being a stable kingdom with a competent ruler||What effects will my hero’s decision have on the world?|
Quite the heavy theory, wasn’t it? It brings me back to the first question I posed to you. What do you think B.P is all about? On the surface, it just looks like any other movie. But we’ve seen how much effort and critical thinking as gone into creating its backend, which isn’t visible on first sight but plays on our subconscious nonetheless, drawing us further and further into the story.
What this tells us that writing is as much about what you choose to leave unsaid, as it is about what you choose to say. The subtext between the lines and your ability to hint at them through your characters, is a skill you should aim to master as you pick up the craft. Ultimately, as you try to write, you will learn a lot about who you are as a person, too. Your choice of words and structure will tell you what you treasure, and what you don’t appreciate. It will show you your soul, both the good and the ugly part. You will see reflections of your prejudices and biases, as well as glimpses of the unique gifts that give you an important place in the world.
The last but most thing to remember is that when you’re in a conversation with your reader, it’s important that you are honest and modest about all those revelations because, in the end, it is your own story to tell, and so it must be wholly and purely yours in every sense of the word. So what is it that you truly believe in? Tell me your story.