I’ve always thought that it’s easier to learn from flawed stories than it is from great stories. And Venom, the comic book movie about an anti-hero possessed by an alien, is a very flawed story. I’ve talked about the movie before on Argh Ink, but I think breaking it down in the context of the HWSWA Heart of the Story posts –The One Sentence Idea, the Central Conflict, and Outlining (or at least looking at your structure)—can be really helpful in understanding those points. Keep in mind, I have no idea what the people who made this movie thought about those things, I’m guessing. Also . . .
HUGE SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE VENOM FOLLOW.
(Also, regardless of what we say here, you really should watch Venom. The bad parts are very bad, but the good parts are a lot of fun. Tom Hardy earned his paycheck on this.)
THE ONE SENTENCE IDEA
This movie is a great example of how a one-sentence idea can point to problems in story execution.
My one sentence description of Venom would be:
- A selfish, iconoclastic loner is infected by an alien being and must learn to work with him to save the world.
But the filmmakers’ description seems to be
- A selfish, iconoclastic loner must fight an evil scientist to save the world with the help of an alien.
Those two sentences may look like the same idea, but they aren’t because of the central conflict.
THE CENTRAL CONFLICT
Eddie Brock (a selfish, iconoclastic loner) is infected by Venom (an alien being) and must learn to work with him to save the world. That is:
- Eddie vs. Venom
Eddie Brock (a selfish, iconoclastic loner) must fight Carlton Drake (an evil scientist) to save the world with the help of an alien. That is:
- Eddie vs. Drake
Those are two completely different conflicts and therefore two completely different stories. Almost everything I’d identify as a flaw in this movie comes from the assumption that moviegoers would want to watch Eddie struggle with Drake. That led the people who made the movie to focus on the Drake conflict for the first thirty-seven minutes of the film, frontloading the movie with people we don’t know or like in a conflict we don’t care about.
Who do we care about? Well, kind of, Eddie, the guy who enters the movie at the six-minute mark of an hour-and-thirty-three minute film. Eddie has a great job that’s made him famous and a gorgeous successful lawyer girl friend who adores him and a boss who thinks he’s terrific but tells him he needs to play the game (our hero is too noble to play the game) and that’s where we are at the fourteen-minute mark. Everything is just peachy so why am I watching this? Then Eddie, who evidently has the common sense of a four-year-old, steals proprietary information from his girlfriend’s computer and uses it to confront Drake, the insane billionaire, without proof. Drake destroys his life, and the betrayal gets his girlfriend fired and she leaves him, and six months and thirty-four minutes of real time pass, and Eddie is broke and living alone in a dump, making friends with a homeless woman and the bodega owner on his street and . . .
Yeah, I’m bored, too, and not feeling that sorry for Eddie who was dumb. I mean, I like a protagonist with flaws, but I’m over a third of the way into this movie (thirty-four freaking minutes???) and all I can do is agree with Annie (his girl) that he brought this on himself. If this happens in the first five minutes, he recognizes he’s a dumbass, and then fights the good fight for the rest of the story to Do The Right Thing, I’ll go with the really stupid move in the beginning, I like a flawed hero. But thirty-seven minutes of Eddie being an idiot? No.
There’s other stuff going on including an alien that is evidently walking from the Philippines to San Francisco, and a scientist in Drake’s lab who is having second thoughts about the morality of testing aliens on the homeless and killing them (ya think?), but there is nothing here for a viewer to hold on to. This is all stuff the people who made the movie thought we should know. One clue to why this is information and not story is that Eddie is not engaged. He didn’t accomplish anything when he made is big move against Drake; he just kicked somebody a lot more powerful, got crushed for it, and then gave up.
Then at thirty-four minutes in, Eddie decides to give it one last shot, sneaks into Drake’s experimental facility, and ends up infected with an alien symbiote.
So at the one third mark of the story, the Eddie vs Venom plot starts. In the novel writing business, this is the place in the rewrite where you cut the first three plus chapters/thirty minutes. You had to write them to get to where the story started, but now you delete them because you start the story where the conflict starts, where the juice is, where, if you will, the fun starts for the reader (even if it’s horror, even if it’s tragedy, the fun starts for the reader when they engage with the story instead of just reading/watching The Information The Writer Wants You To Know).
This is what the whole One Sentence Idea/Central Conflict/Conflict Box does: It helps you figure out what your story is about, where the strongest, most engaging conflict is, where the juice is, so that you can start there and then build. The biggest mistake you can make is to focus on an idea/conflict that the reader isn’t interested it, and push aside the idea/conflict that the reader/viewer wants to follow. The second biggest mistake is to assume that the reader will plow through a lot of set-up to get to the place where the action starts. Do not make these mistakes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told writers in my classes that their stories started slow, only to hear, “Yes, but it gets really good later.” Great. Start later.
If you’re wondering why I keep insisting that the movie people wanted Eddie vs. Drake, and the viewers wanted the Eddie vs Venom conflict, check out the trailers. The first one for the movie is:
Eddie saying to Drake “You should be extremely afraid.”
Drake’s voice over the plane crash in soft Crazy Person dialogue about his Big Plan.
Eddie saying Drake is “the evil person.”
Eddie challenging Drake.
Eddie gets infected, attacked by Drake’s minions, meets Venom
Eddie and Venom negotiating.
Eddie vs. Drake.
Eddie and Venom, ripping the head off of one of Drake’s henchmen.
It’s all about Eddie vs. Drake.
But when Sony was ready to market the DVD, they looked to social media to see what people had liked about the movie. Turns out, those that liked it saw it as a kind of human/alien romcom with the couples’ tag “Symbrock.” So the trailer for the DVD, with Venom’s large tongue in cheek, pitched it as a romcom with no mention of Drake at all:
By the time the DVD came out, even Sony knew they’d focused on the wrong conflict. It’s the relationship, stupid.
And now back to the Getting Started topics. Once you have your one sentence idea that states your central conflict (protagonist vs. antagonist), you look at what you’re focusing on in terms of that central conflict to see where you’re spending your story dime. Ideally, you put most of your story capital into that central conflict, the one that readers want (remember the contract with the reader?). You start there, and then you build the story, escalating the conflict and the stakes. Everything else is subplot and complication.
So why do you outline? To see how the pieces of your story focus on your conflict, your one sentence idea, hitting the ground running with the beginning of that conflict and escalating to a satisfying climax.
Here’s the timeline/outline of the beginning third of Venom:
Trouble starts. (Not conflict, trouble.)
1:30 Big spaceship crash in the Philippines of rocket carrying aliens, one of whom escapes and infects a dead crew member who begins to walk toward the US. Evil Scientist Carlton Drake is thrilled the other three aliens are contained and on their way to the US.
Meet our hero.
4:30: Eddie wakes up with Annie. They’re cute together, they’re getting married soon. Eddie rides his cool motorcycle to work. Montage of Eddie being an ace investigative reporter. Eddie being good with the guard at the paper. Eddie talks to his boss who tells him he has to interview Evil Scientist, aka Carlton Drake. Eddie protests but agrees. Also Eddie is afraid of heights.
8:00 Eddie has dinner with Annie. They’re cute together some more. They go home and when Annie’s asleep, Eddie opens her e-mail, finds a confidential report on Drake (Annie works for his law firm) and decides to use it to bring Drake down.
11:00 Eddie meets Drake for the interview.
So eleven minutes in, Eddie is finally going to meet his antagonist in the Eddie vs. Drake story. That’s too late. We’ve had eight minutes of set-up, but no conflict and no story. It’s all prep work. That’ll hold somebody who’s sitting in a theater and hasn’t finished his popcorn yet, but it won’t work for anybody who can just change the channel or the DVD. When I asked Bob if he’d seen Venom, he said, “Something about it turned me off from the start,” so he never finished it. Yeah, that would probably be the lack of a compelling, focused story about a protagonist he cared about.
Eddie goes downhill, trouble gets worse (still no conflict)
14:00 Eddie gets fired. He also get Annie fired from her law firm and Annie dumps him.
15:00 The alien from the crash keeps jumping bodies, still heading slooooowly for San Francisco (six months?), the aliens are killing the homeless people Drake has brought in for them to infect, and the one scientist who’s having qualms gets threatened.
19:00 Eddie’s in a bar drunk and alone, Eddie talks to a homeless woman named Maria and gives her money, Eddie talks to the owner of the corner bodega and hides while a skeevy guy extorts her, Eddie’s neighbor sneers at him, Eddie has overdue bills and can’t get anyone to hire him.
24:00 More evil lab and Drake.
28:00 Scientist-with-qualms tries to get Eddie to intervene to stop Drake, Eddie turns her down.
30:00 Eddie tries to talk Annie into coming back to him but she has a new guy now, a really nice surgeon.
34:00 Eddie calls scientist-with-qualms and agrees to go to Drake’s lab with her. He sees homeless Maria there screaming for help and tries to set her free, but Maria dies shrieking as . . .
Eddie meets Venom.
37:00 Eddie is infected with an alien.
Yeah, it takes thirty-seven minutes to get to Venom-meets-Eddie. If Venom’s a minor character and the infection is just a complication in Eddie’s struggle with Drake, that’s fine, especially since he’s foreshadowed in the story opening with the news that three of the four aliens are still contained. But if the juice of the story is in Eddie and Venom trying to deal with each other, then it’s a disaster to start that late. You want to spend maybe five minutes before Eddie meets Venom because that’s when your story starts because that’s when your central conflict starts.
When do you get story? When you have two characters locked in a conflict lock that neither of them can walk away from.
Eddie wants to get the story and expose the murders of the homeless people.
Drake wants Eddie to report a different positive story so he can hide his experiments until they’re successful, when he doesn’t, Drake destroys Eddie’s life to stop him.
That’s conflict, but it’s not a conflict lock because Eddie keeps resigning from the action.
- Eddie blunders and Drake ruins him and Eddie quits trying to expose him.
- Then somebody guilts Eddie into giving it another try, Eddie gets infected with an alien and runs away.
- Eddie’s ex-girlfriend figures out how to get Venom out of Eddie’s body and frees him, and he runs away again and leaves her with the alien.
One of the things that makes this conflict so weak is that not only can Eddie resign from the action, he does resign, multiple times, which from a practical point of view is smart—definitely run away from the alien who keeps taking over your body (although leaving it to infect your ex is pretty sleazy)—but from the point of view of story power is awful. His goal is negative—“I don’t want to be infected by alien”—and it has a huge impact on how he moves through his plot (running away instead of being proactive).
Now look at the Eddie vs. Venom conflict.
Eddie wants to live without a homicidal parasite infecting his body, slowly killing him.
Venom wants to survive and needs a strong host like Eddie to do so.
If Eddie can’t defeat Venom, he’s going to be stuck with him until he dies, which won’t be that long.
If Venom can’t hold onto Eddie, he’s going to die because the symbiotes can’t survive without a host.
Neither one can resign from the action because it’s life or death for both of them, they’re going to have to fight it through to the end. That’s a conflict lock.
The fact that neither defeats the other, that they are separated at the end by an explosion not by choice, that they find their way back to each other by choice and stay together by compromise as each becomes better, stronger, smarter because of the relationship, just means it’s a relationship plot, not action plot. The juice isn’t in the car chases, it’s Eddie sticking with Venom after he bites somebody’s head off using Eddie’s (vastly enlarged) mouth.
This movie had tremendous potential, and the scenes between Eddie and Venom are a lot of fun to watch, so definitely give it a try. I advise fast forwarding to around the thirty-minute mark and then watch the romcom that is Eddie and Venom tearing up San Francisco to save the world while negotiating their relationship. There’s a lot of Evil Scientist pontificating and a car chase that’s a definite Dick Thing that completely violates Eddie’s character, so you can fast forward through those, too. The good conflict is Eddie vs. Venom. Watch that.
Writing Advice: When it comes time to revise,
- find your one sentence idea,
- fill in a conflict box,
- look at your opening to make sure you’re promising the reader the story you’re delivering (the contract with the reader), and then
- look at the structure to make sure you’re fulfilling that promise by focusing on that plot.
Getting a good start on your story makes finishing it a lot easier.
BOB WROTE BACK (after not finishing Venom):
Yeah– explains why I couldn’t get into it.
It’s a maxim of screenwriting: start as far into the action as possible and here the space ship crash isn’t the action. It’s a problem, but is it the main problem?
One thing I’ve learned is the difference between a thriller and a suspense novel. In a thriller, the stakes are high (big, big) and encompass the reader’s fate (theoretically). In a suspense novel, the stakes are the characters (not encompassing the reader). Thus, in a suspense story, we have to empathize and care about the fate of the protagonist and other characters. From what Jenny has written, it sounds like the writers couldn’t make their mind up: what’s at stake? In the end, it’s humanity, right? But then they spend a lot of time on the protagonist. So which is it? I know they’re connected but one phrase I’ve used a lot in writing workshops is: what’s pulling the train? You only get one locomotive. That’s the main idea. And main conflict. Everything else can be attached.
From what Jenny has written, the core conflict is Eddie/Venom. Everything flows out of that. Because if they can’t resolve that conflict, nothing else matters. Also, it sounds like the resolution is them willingly working together. The resolution is the emotional payoff.
Also, when he opens his girlfriend’s computer to read her email? Big turn off. There are certain things that are unredeemable to different people. Does he have a good reason to do that? Is it forgivable? It might seem a minor point, but it’s the minor points that build good characters. He also leaves his ex to the monster? Nope. In Breaking Bad, Walter White was indeed a bad guy. But for me, he became utterly unredeemable when he was afraid killers were waiting in his house and he called his neighbor to go check on it without warning her. But that was the point of the series, duh: He Broke Bad.
There was a movie that was raved about. I had to look it up. And I know it was very popular and people loved it. And perhaps if I’d hung in and watched it further, I would have liked it. Ladybird. About five minutes into the movie she steals the teacher’s gradebook and changes her grade. Haha, cute, right? My wife and I were done there for some reason. I vaguely remember watching the premiere of 30 Rock and Tina Fey jumps the line to get hot dogs from a street vendor? Done there, which probably really does a disservice to a series people said was great. Plus, I’m from NYC. No one jumps the vendor line. It’s personal.
Terry Brooks calls his book on writing: Sometimes The Magic Works. It’s a great title because this is an art. There are ideas that shouldn’t work, that do. And ones that should, that don’t. And you can’t please anyone. Looking it up, Venomwas very negatively received but its book office was good enough they want to do another one.
Look at what happened to Game of Thrones? That last season was so bad, no one talked about streaming it again during a pandemic. That’s pretty bad.
I don’t know why it came to mind, but there’s a film called Lucky. 2017. Starring Harry Dean Stanton playing pretty much Harry Dean Stanton. In his last movie. And it’s sort of about him facing his mortality which is apropo. The opening is what they say never do: Stanton waking up. Smokes a cigarette. Opens fridge. There’s only one carton of milk in the entire thing. He drinks a glass. And on and on. Harry Dean Stanton can pull it off. The scene with Tom Skerrit in the diner talking about Okinawa and the Japanese girl will bring tears to your eyes. Why did that come to mind? Character. Which we’ll cover next week. But the magic worked in that one for me.