We didn’t own Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I found myself weekly wishing we did. Wishing to hear the music, see the sweaty faces and dirty khaki, and to dissect the tight writing. So, I bought it for like $6. Less than a movie ticket!
I started out noticing the sharp sentences. Writing at the very bone.
Like the first scene where they’re walking through the jungle. No one speaks, a dude screams and runs off, lots of shifty-eyed meaningful body language, and then – “The poison is still fresh – three days. They’re following us.”
This is clever. It sets up stakes, pressure, and information. If these were first lines in a book, you’d be hooked.
If you were writing this as a narrative, who would you choose to name? What point of view would you use? Would you start with lots of description of the jungle, the flies, the heat, the sounds? Or would you start with the poison dart in the tree first?
This first scene is nothing but a huge bridge problem. A smaller story – problem & resolution that sets up the larger narrative with foreshadowing, character arcs, and limits to overcome.
Indiana Jones is clever and persistent, his companions can’t be trusted and cause problems, he recovers the idol with much trouble, but Belloq is waiting to take it from him with nary a bruise or need to run. Indy gives up the idol, is chased away, and barely escapes with his life.
This is literally the rest of the movie, yes? Over and over until the end. Amen.
So, why is it satisfying? He never gets his treasure, not really.
Is it because we like seeing Nazis punched? That helps.
Is it because he and Marion get together? Nope, that isn’t the focus.
I would argue it’s the rapid-fire short scenes that get shorter and shorter as the stakes get higher and higher until the only choice is whether Indy lives or dies. It stops being about the Ark as soon as they find it at the mid-point when Belloq leaves them to die. Then, it becomes a larger story made up of Indy not giving up to spare his own life. He keeps going – all the way.
He could have left when the Nazis are loading the crated Ark onto the truck. He and Marion were alive and together. They were all safe. They had lost the treasure, but so what? This is the point where the story gets larger, and his character changes into someone who won’t let it go. This is where it shifts into high gear.
What is the bridge problem early in your own writing? When does your character shift into higher gear? What is the source of satisfaction for the reader at your ending?
Next time, I want to talk about the fight scene at the plane (remember how awesome that was?!), and BUT/THEREFORE as a way to drive a story forward which I learned from Chuck Wendig’s book, Damn Fine Story.
(If you liked this post, there’s a whole series on my Patreon. Plus, I do book reviews with writing prompts. Come join us!)