Feb 13, 2018
Spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok ahead! I also allude to scenes and sequences from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and both Guardians of the Galaxy movies just FYI.
I saw Thor: Ragnarok in cinemas when I was having a particularly rough time and for a brief, shining moment the world was good again. My pain was forgotten, my depression cured, flowers bloomed beneath my feet as I left the cinema and bunnies stood poised to break into song.
Taika Waititi is the sort of storyteller I would step over a body to have a beer with. As someone who’s been steadily falling out of love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last few years, Thor: Ragnarok was like a shot of adrenalin. It was funny, it was heartfelt, and it broke so many rules but in the best of ways.
Here’s my rundown of what writers can learn from Thor: Ragnarok.
My housemate and I watched I, Frankenstein recently and laughed uproariously throughout most of it. The first third of the movie is pure exposition, delivered often through gritty voice-overs but also spun by characters delivering verbal essays on everything from weapons to locations to the world’s history.
Exposition, done wrong, is one of the quickest ways to lose your audience. Not only does it make little sense for characters to be verbalising Wikipedia articles—something your audience will notice, btw—if your story is in novel format, you’re also asking your readers to slog through reading said expositional essay. This is a great way to get people to put your book down and never pick it up again.
A lot happens in Thor: Ragnarok. Enough that, when they introduce Sakaar, an entirely new planet, the audience needs to get up to speed on the class system, rules, and culture pretty damn fast. Any way Waititi handled this was likely to be an info dump, and the end result was.
But it was a super FUN info dump.
The lesson: If you need to info dump some exposition, find a way to do so creatively. Thor: Ragnarock‘s “Welcome to Sakaar” chair scene works for a few reasons:
1. It’s Believable
This is something the Grandmaster’s character would absolutely do. Hell, this is something I could see Jeff Goldblum himself doing.
2. It Serves at Least Two Purposes
It’s not just an information dump. It’s also a good primer on the Grandmaster’s character.
3. It’s Engaging
It’s funny, yes but it’s also an Easter egg.
This whole scene was a reference to a similar scene in Willy Wonka (in case my past couple of references flew over your head).
Easter eggs serve a funny purpose in stories – when your audience catches them, they feel almost like you, as the creator, have shared a joke with them. It’s a nice nod-wink way of making your audience feel included and, used well, is a nice tool to increase audience engagement.
Avoiding Sidequest Syndrome
I’ve coined this Sidequest Syndrome because nine times out of ten when you ask someone why they didn’t like a sequence or subplot they’ll tell you it felt like a sidequest.
A sidequest in gaming terminology is, “any part of a video game that is not required to complete the game” (thanks, TVtropes). Narratively you’ll find Sidequest syndrome happening when your story or characters diverge from the main plot or conflict.
The Canto Bight sequence in Star Wars: The Last Jedi felt, to many people, like a sidequest. Finn and Rose’s actions (for all intents and purposes) ended up contributing nothing to the overarching conflict.
To pick on another Star Wars movie, the quintessential sidequest can be found in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Back to Ragnarok: an argument could be made that everything on Sakaar is one big sidequest. It’s divorced quite thoroughly from the main conflict with Hela on Asgard. But no one’s walking out of Thor: Ragnarok feeling like the characters spent time figuratively entering their Pokemon into musical theatre.
There are reasons for that.
1. The POV Characters are (Mostly) on Sakaar
Thor is firmly established as our main POV character. The story goes where he goes essentially. Secondary POV share goes to Loki, Hela, Skurge, Banner, and Valkyrie.
With the exception of Skurge and Hela, the rest of our merry band spend the majority of the movie together on Sakaar. Compare this to The Last Jedi which splits their POV characters four different directions.
Keeping the majority of your POV characters in one place keeps a sequence from feeling like a divergence of the main conflict.
2. It’s Grounded in a Character Arc
Just as Thor is our main character, his character arc is also the story’s focus. While the events on Sakaar don’t necessarily tie directly into saving Asgard, they do tie into Thor’s character arc.
3. What Happens on Sakaar Directly Affects the Climax of the Main Conflict
You’d think this would be a no-brainer but to avoid Sidequest Syndrome just… literally make things matter?
The events on Sakaar are pivotal to the showdown on Asgard. Not only would half the players not be present if Sakaar hadn’t happened, the Asgardian population’s escape wouldn’t have been possible.
Cause and effect is key, friendos.
Know When NOT to Break Tension
A very frustrating thing has happened in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s success in 2014. Everyone and their dog is trying to incorporate Gunn and Perlman’s style of humour into their writing and, for the most part, they’re doing so… badly.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy made use of humour in a way that was super new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a franchise that had been taking itself ever more seriously since Iron Man, Guardians was a movie that did the very opposite. It made use of it’s ragtag, genuinely witty characters to poke fun at the superhero genre even as it told a superhero story. And it was amazing.
The style of humour I’m specifically talking about when I say other movies have tried and failed to emulate it is Guardians of the Galaxy‘s tendency to break a serious moment with a joke.
Quill name drops his super badass outlaw name as the music swells… only to have the bad guys not recognise it to comedic effect.
Drax is about to kill Gamora. The tension builds! Until he takes Quill miming slitting his throat literally.
Used well, this technique can add a lot of charm to a movie.
Thor: Ragnarok is no exception. From the opening scene where Thor apologetically interrupts Surtur’s evil monologuing to Bruce Banner landing like a wet fish in front of Fenrir, Ragnarok knew how to break swelling tension for hilarious effect.
But it also knew when NOT to.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was rife with the same humour that made the first movie such a bomb-ass ride. But where the first movie knew when not to break the tension of a scene, the second movie didn’t get the memo. The result was a mess of ill-timed jokes that broke every piece of tension the story tried to set up.
Which brings us back to Thor: Ragnarok.
Ragnarok, like the first Guardians of the Galaxy, knew when to leave its building tension the hell alone. Scenes like Odin’s passing, Valkyrie’s flashback, Thor and Loki’s heart-to-heart in the elevator, were all played straight. The emotion of these scenes was allowed to rise and fall naturally, without being preemptively cut off in a clever or self-deprecating way.
It allowed the audience to feel the impact of those scenes fully. And, in the case of Odin, it allowed the audience to feel the sorrow that Thor was feeling at losing his father.
Compare this to the way Quill cracks tension cutting jokes after learning the truth about his mother’s death in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. This is supposed to be an affecting, emotionally heightened scene. Instead, the audience’s empathy is aborted. The writing doesn’t treat the scene with its requisite gravity, so the audience doesn’t either.
The lesson: trust your emotionally charged scenes to stand alone. Using humour to defuse or break tension can be an amazing technique, but don’t overuse it.
You Can Get Away with Some Ridiculous Shit If You Set It up Well
Thor: Ragnarok had a lot of Fuck Yeah™ scenes. From Hulk taking on Fenrir, to Skurge leaping into the fray with Des and Troy, to Thor realising he was Dumbo all along, the final showdown on Asgard was probably the most pumped I’ve been in a cinema since Mad Max: Fury Road.
But I wanna talk about one scene in particular. A scene that might have been fucking ridiculous if it hadn’t been set up so beautifully.
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this.
I literally threw my hands up and cheered during this scene. I was as delighted by its absurdity as I was by its badassery. This is the sort of shit you come up with while drunk with friends on a Friday night.
Let’s face it, I probably would have rolled with the fireworks without the setup because I was watching Thor: Ragnarok and everything was rainbows for me at this point in the story. But the setup-payoff cycle is what saw this scene stick its landing so well.
If you’re not familiar with the setup-payoff cycle, it goes like this: Setup, Reminder, Payoff. The reminder can sometimes be dropped if the setup and payoff occur in quick succession. Conversely, if the setup and payoff are particularly far apart, sometimes more than one reminder is needed. The end goal is really that your audience isn’t blind-sided or baffled by a payoff.
Without the fireworks setup, the Valkyrie scene might have made some in the audience go, “WTF, where did the fireworks come from?”
Instead, we had a clear setup-payoff cycle:
- Setup: Valkyrie tells Thor and Banner that the ship they’re stealing is the Grandmaster’s pleasure craft.
- Reminder: Banner activates a small burst of fireworks when out-flying the Grandmaster’s 2IC, Topaz.
- Payoff: Valkyrie’s slow-mo entrance on the rainbow bridge.
If you setup your Fuck Yeah™ scenes well, you can get away with some truly alcohol-poisoning inspired ideas. And isn’t that the dream, really?
What Did You Think of Thor: Ragnarok?
Would you believe this is a condensed version of what I could have written about this movie? I just haVE A LOT OF FEELINGS, OKAY?? In any case, watch out for a couple more spin-off articles where I talk more about the use of humour in writing and fight scene structure.
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Hyperbole and a Half is the sort of book that’ll have you crying laughing. If you want to learn how to turn even the most depressing content into the funniest thing you’ve ever written, look no further than Allie Brosh’s writing.