Guardians of the Galaxy is so much fun it’s easy to misunderstand and underestimate the exceptional storytelling craft that went into it. Recently, a writer at the L.A. Times claimed that Guardians is part of a new trend he calls post-plot cinema, whereby any sense of coherent plot goes out the window, and “spectacle on the one hand… and quippy reference on the other, crowd out traditional storytelling.”
Seldom have I seen a better example of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This supposed trend is based on, count it, one film, Guardians, or maybe two if you throw in The Lego Movie. Guardians is post-plot because the reporter found the plot difficult to follow. He says you can’t break the story down the way you can Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which include The Dark Knight, the most plot dense of any superhero film, and The Dark Knight Rises, which has such a complicated plot the whole film eventually collapses under its own weight.
Guardians is also post-plot, apparently, because it doesn’t need a spoiler alert, “such as some of the best narrative efforts of earlier chapters of this modern era — The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects.” Notice the writer uses as his examples the most famous, if not the only two films of the last thirty years to execute the “reversal reveal,” whereby the final revelation flips everything the audience knows about the characters and plot that came before. This kind of reveal is one of the most advanced and difficult of all plot techniques. If the lack of this technique in Guardians makes it post-plot, then almost every other film coming out of Hollywood in the last thirty years is post-plot as well.
I could go on, but that’s not my point. Guardians is a terrific script with much to teach us, but we won’t learn the true reasons for its success if we’re waylaid by such misunderstanding of plot and story. As always in popular storytelling, the keys to what works in Guardians are found in how the writers, of both the original comics and the screenplay, played with genres.
The foundation genre for Guardians, as with almost all summer blockbusters, is Myth (for how to write this massive form, come to the New Myth Class in Los Angeles, December 13). This is an origin story of a team of superheroes. Origin stories are extremely popular with audiences, but they are notoriously difficult to do well. The writer must define the backstory for a number of major characters, then bring them all together before setting off for the goal. This is the same problem TV writers face in writing a pilot. If you take too long to set up the characters, thus delaying the desire line of the story, you lose the audience. This is precisely what happened a few years back with Watchmen.
The need to set up the origin story quickly is the first reason why the plot of Guardians is often hard to follow. It’s not that the film has no plot, or it’s incoherent. The writers are trying to handle a tremendous amount of exposition on the run.
The origin story of a superhero team is a sub-genre of the modern Myth form. But it’s quite broad, with few landmarks on which to determine the story path. So the writers bring in a sub-genre of the Action form, known as the Suicide Mission story. In this genre, a number of disparate individuals are brought together and trained as a team of soldiers, and they are sent on a mission that is so dangerous that no one is likely to come back alive. You may notice the similarity of this genre with the Caper story, aka the Heist story. In the Caper story, the goal, to steal something of value, is different, but the beats are very similar.
The great value to the Suicide Mission story is that the plot beats are very precise. So it’s great for combining with a broad genre like Myth, and especially helpful when you’re doing an origin story where you have to get out massive exposition really fast. This is the same technique Christopher Nolan used in writing Inception, where he combined the broad form of Science Fiction with the precise Caper genre, and turned a complex plot into a huge hit.
The tight Suicide Mission structure is also the key to the third major genre the writers use here, Comedy. Both Myth and Action tend to be grandiose. Often the goal is to save the world, as indeed it is in Guardians. So these forms provide a perfect set up for non-stop comedy, where the pretense of the characters and their goal is undercut and made real.
As the writer, you choose where on the spectrum of Action vs. Comedy you want to come down. The original Star Wars was primarily Action and Myth, leavened by Comedy. At the other end of the spectrum, Don Quixote, with its fake knight tilting at windmills, is primarily Comedy. Guardians has plenty of Action-Myth set pieces, but it’s doing those scenes comically. And the humor, not the Myth story, is the true goal of the storytellers.
To say that Guardians is a Comedy is not nearly precise enough to be useful to writers. Comedy has nine major sub-genres, one of which is Parody. Parody is the comedy of story forms. In effect, you make fun of story conventions, like the Horror beats in Young Frankenstein. Now Parody is very hard to do beyond a single scene, because you are two steps removed from reality: you are telling a story of a story form that contains a main character. Which means first of all there is almost no emotional reality for that character. Even worse, every time you make fun of the story form, you are stopping forward narrative drive.
Once again, the Suicide Mission genre is the real key to the success of this script. With its tight story beats and the clear endpoint of its desire line, the Suicide Mission genre provides a super strong narrative line on which to hang the Parody beats. If the characters want to take a pause for some meta-story fun, the audience doesn’t mind, and in fact relishes the moment, because they know the general endpoint of the ride.
As an example, let’s look at this scene in Guardians. Plan is one of the seven major story structure steps, found in any medium or genre. It is also one of the most important beats in a Suicide Mission or Caper story. Notice how the writers of Guardians accomplish this beat at the same time they make fun of the beat itself.
Peter Quill: I have a plan.
Rocket Raccoon: You’ve got a plan? Okay, first of all, you’re copying me from when I said I had a plan.
Peter Quill: I’m not copying you, I have a plan, that’s not that unique of a thing to say.
Rocket Raccoon: And secondly, I don’t think you even have a plan.
Peter Quill: I have part of a plan.
Drax the Destroyer: What percentage of a plan do you have?
Gamora: You don’t get to ask questions after the nonsense you pulled on Knowhere!
Drax the Destroyer: I just saved Quill!
Peter Quill: We’ve already established that you destroying the ship I’m on is not saving me!
Drax the Destroyer: When did we establish that?
Peter Quill: Like three seconds ago!
Drax the Destroyer: Well I wasn’t listening then, I was thinking of something else…
Rocket Raccoon: She’s right, you don’t get an opinion… What percentage?
Peter Quill: I dunno… Twelve percent?
Rocket Raccoon: Twelve percent?
Peter Quill: That’s a fake laugh.
Rocket Raccoon: It’s real!
Peter Quill: Totally fake!
Rocket Raccoon: That is the most real, authentic, hysterical laugh of my entire life because THAT IS NOT A PLAN!
Gamora: It’s barely a concept.
Peter Quill: [to Gamora] You’re taking their side?
Groot: I am Groot.
Rocket Raccoon: So what, “It’s better than eleven percent!” What the hell does that have to do with anything?
Peter Quill: [to Groot] Thank you Groot, thank you. See? Groot’s the only one of you who has a clue.
Groot: [Groot begins to chew on a leaf protruding from his shoulder]
This is great stuff. But notice you can only do this kind of side trip more than once if you have an extremely strong genre structure sitting under the surface of the story.
You may ask: if I want to write a script like this, do I have to know all the beats of these particular sub-genres of Myth, Action and Comedy? The simple answer is yes. We’re talking about designing and writing a story that can compete, and be wildly successful, in a worldwide marketplace. That means knowing the beats of your genres so well that you not only hit every one, you twist them in a way that the audience has never seen before.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But a lot of knowledge, applied properly, is the key to success.