Monday 26 September 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy - formula or formulaic?

by Addy Farmer

Yeah, yeah, I know it's a film but Candy Gourlay's done it so I thought I'd have a go as well. Let me, declare an interest here - I LOVE 'GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY'. There it is. I also like science fiction and fantasy and am proud to say so.

So, what makes this story a winning formula and what can writers learn from it?

The Story

For those of you unfamiliar with GOTG, it tells the story of our hero, Peter Quill and his stumble into finding a meaning to his life and coming to terms with the death of his mother. It is all wrapped up in action and humour and friendship.

We can follow the plot so ...

Inciting incident - the heartbreak death of Peter Quill's mum rapidly followed by capture by space pirates, The Ravagers, who happen to have kidnapped him from Earth in the first place.

The Beginning of Themes - coming to terms with the grief of the past plus allusion to Peter's mysterious father and his possible future.  Friendships begin.

The Tone is set - irreverent, quirky and oh so cool (some super-cool music helps here).

Establishing world - right from the get-go, we see our hero recovering an expensive alien artefact for exacting alien clients from a dangerous alien world. We are firmly sic-fi/fantasy. We are also, in Marvel comic territory and this comes with its own audience expectations of good v evil on a universal scale.

You don't want to end up in this prison
The problem - after discovering a mysterious orb in another part of the galaxy, Peter, is now the main target of a manhunt led by the genocidal villain Ronan the Accuser plus his old muckers, The Ravagers.

Ronan has issues
Rising Tension - Peter Quill arrives on the Nova Empire city of Xander and is chased by Ronan's warrior Gamora and by the bounty hunters Rocket and The Groot. They are all captured and sent to prison where they meet Drax. Soon they learn that Gamora wants sell the orb to a dealer for a huge amount while Drax wants to destroy Ronan, who killed his wife and daughter.
Friends? They will be eventually
They plot a plan to escape, sell the orb and split the money. But soon they also learn that the orb keeps the infinity stone that gives immensurable destructive power to the owner. They decide to keep the orb safe from mad Ronan. But they are pursued left, right and centre by pirates and an increasingly bonkers Ronan.

False happy ending - it all leads to a seeming triumph which fails when it looks like Xander and civilisation as we know it may fall and Peter and the others will die ...

Plot Resolution - but no! Here comes the resolution. The friends join together to save Peter from being destroyed by the orb. Together they become GOTG and defeat Ronan the Accuser. Hooray! The orb is safe .... for now.

We are Guardians of the Galaxy!
emotional resolution - Peter faces up to the death of his mother by opening she left for him - more super-cool music!

Hint for the next story - The Ravagers leave Peter alone for now saying that his father will just have to wait ...

The story works because frankly that's the way that stories do work to achieve a satisfying conclusion. It has a clearly defined, well paced plot; there is a strong emotional arc for our hero and for his friends; an epic and and beautifully realised setting. It's a winning formula for a story but never formulaic. GOTG has a few things which raise it up and which writers can use. So, here's a something we all like - a list.

  • Using the mundane makes things funnier, more real and more resonant for your reader. There is a scene where the heroes' set out side by side to do battle with evil nemesis. One is yawning, another has a bit of a scratch, someone else trips up - not very hero-like, not slick but really funny and human and it makes me think that I too could be a guardian of the galaxy.
  • Give everyone a reason for being. Ok, so everyone has a problem they want to solve - Is Gamora evil like her father? Will Drax avenge the deaths of his wife and child? Will Rocket ever get over being a racoon? Will Peter Quill face up to his mother's death by opening the present she left for him? Will Groot ... well, Groot is pretty much perfect, he is the one that binds them together (almost literally near the end).
  • Make your characters work in order to understand one another. The GOTG start as a bunch of strangers flung together by circumstances. They actively dislike one another but work together to escape from a truly horrible space prison.
  • Inject it all with unexpected humour. there's a time and a place for being serious but that is not all the way through a story. GOTG works because it has the prefect balance of serious and funny. Take the characters. They all have stuff they need to sort out. E.G Drax has a very serious resolve to kill Ronan for a very serious reason. He is also very serious in his speech. What could be dreary over time is lifted by the fact that he takes everything literally and this leads to unintended funniness.

  • Humour in desperate situations. When Peter and Ronan have their showdown it looks and sounds like Marvel super-evil villain versus good hero all the way. Ronan is about to destroy the universe when ... Peter starts dancing and singing like a normal person i.e. not great but having fun all the same. He invites the super-evil about to destroy the universe Ronan to join in. The unexpected action is funny, sort-of embarrassing and defies Ronan's own expectations as to how his story will go down. It turns out to be a ruse to distract Ronan

    • Ronan:'What are you doing?!'
      Peter, 'It's a dance-off bro''

      • Defy expectations with the way a character acts. Drax is a mighty man but it turns out that he has a big heart. His physicality and manner make his hesitant attempt to comfort Rocket all the more touching.

      Drax comforts Rocket when Groot sacrifices himself for his friends

      Rocket and Groot come as a pair and have a seemingly indifferent relationship based on Rocket's need for muscle in dangerous situations. But we get to learn that beneath his aggressive exterior, Rocket is a damaged personality who relies on the mono-phrasal (?) Groot.
      Groot and Rocket
      In turn, Groot, the living tree, the follower, becomes the one who saves his friends and seemingly sacrifices himself ...

      No, Groot! You'll die!

      There's got to be a sassy action girl - well, yes, but this sassy action girl not only beats Peter Quill in a fight (ok, so far so formulaic) but she's NOT fast-talking and knowing. She's serious and doesn't know how to dance and doesn't end up in Peter Quill's arms. She's awkward and annoyed and her own person.

      • Have a flawed hero. Peter Quill is so flawed that he even wants to be known as a hero and gives himself the name 'Star Lord'; he tries to get his enemies to call him Star Lord. We know he has grown when near the resolution an enemy approaches saying, Star Lord!' 'At last,' says Peter Quill.

      Peter Quill: There's one other name you might know me by... Star Lord.
      Korath the Pursuer: ...Who?
      Peter Quill: Star Lord, man. Legendary Outlaw.
      [Korath shrugs]

      Then much, much later

      Korath the Pursuer: Star-Lord!
      Peter Quill: Finally!

      This is also a really good example of seeding in something that your reader is going to pick up on later on and cheer.

      • Have a talisman. Peter uses music as his ward against dark thoughts and of course, a constant reminder of his own mother.

      It's a brilliant opener and brings us right back round again at the end. Love it.


      1. My second son took me to watch this and I loved it (helped by voluntary presence of second son). I think anyone writing in a genre with so many well known tropes has to either ignore or make a nod at the genre expectations and humour is a brilliant tool for this!

        1. Absolutely! Trope is a great word which I probably meant to include in this blog.

        2. Robert McKee is a huge fan of this film too - so you are in great company Addy - love the word Trope too. Lucy VS


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