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July 5, 2011

The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Plot a Story

Green Lantern Movie image

I recently saw the Green Lantern movie.  I know, I know.  The reviews were terrible, but I often enjoy turn-brain-off movies.  This fun-but-dumb superhero action flick definitely fit the bill.

But the real entertainment came after the movie, as my family and I analyzed why this superhero movie failed compared to other recent titles.  Where did this one go wrong?

Sure, it was formulaic, but many stories are.  The real problem was the movie felt formulaic and superficial.  Maybe if we understand why, we can avoid that feeling in our stories.

I’ll assume most of you aren’t suckers for punishment like I am, so I’ll include context from the movie.  And don’t worry if you plan on seeing it later.  My notes won’t spoil anything because the movie had no surprises.  Yes, that was just one of its problems.

Lessons from the Plot of the Green Lantern Movie:

  • Prologue: Prologues by themselves aren’t bad.  (I’ve used them.)  But this prologue was long and all backstory and world-building.  One of my new favorite bloggers, Janice Hardy, recently posted about how a Green Lantern trailer suffered from the same fate, and the movie’s prologue was twice as long as the clip in that trailer.
  • Lesson: If a prologue is used, make sure it’s engaging and relevant.
  • Flashback: Flashbacks are difficult under the best circumstances, but no matter what, they have to occur when the character would have time to think about the past.  Hint: When you’re the pilot in a plane below the altitude for a safe ejection and you’re about to crash, you wouldn’t have time to think about the last time you saw your dad and what he said to you, etc.
  • Lesson: Don’t interrupt tense action scenes with inappropriate flashbacks.
  • Convenient Plot Points: Why didn’t the helicopters chase Hal Jordan as he fled the crash scene of the alien ship?  Why was Hal more successful against the bad guy than any other Green Lantern after one day of training?  Why would the yellow ring work without a yellow lantern to recharge it?  Because it was convenient to the plot.
  • Lesson:  Make coincidences add complications, not take them away.
  • Relatable: Contrived plot points can make a story feel like it isn’t taking place on this—or any other—real world.  The military shouldn’t test equipment by rules of engagement counter to wartime requirements.  After superpowers are first used in public, the superhero shouldn’t be able to return to the scene the next day without a hundred cameras capturing his every move in a media frenzy.
  • Lesson:  Logic must exist, even in a comic book story.
  • Chekov’s Gun: If we see a gun in Act One, we expect it to be used in Act Three.  In the middle of Green Lantern, Hal Jordan needs to recharge his ring using his green lantern.  The audience thinks this will be important later.  Maybe his ring will run out of energy at a critical moment.  Ooo, tension, worry, good stuff.  But no.  The problem never occurs and the plot point is never addressed again.  This failure to meet expectations would be a good surprise if it had introduced more complications.  Instead, it made things easier for our hero—again.
  • Lesson:  Don’t include unnecessary story elements, or even better, complicating plot points should be used rather than ignored.
  • Subtlety: We sometimes include a “save the cat” scene to show an unlikable character as a good guy.  However, if that scene is irrelevant to the rest of the story, audiences won’t be fooled.  In the Green Lantern, we see Hal attend his nephew’s birthday party just so we can see him as a decent guy.  We never see or hear of these family members again.  Subtle, this movie was not.
  • Lesson:  Make “save the cat” scenes relevant to the overall story.
  • Stakes: In the quest for bigger stakes, it’s tempting to go for *imagine voice-over guy here* the fate of the whole world.  But the whole world is too big for us to grasp easily.  Good stories know how to zoom in on a subset of characters at risk to make the stakes more personal.  Green Lantern didn’t take advantage of this—no shots of his favorite nephew in trouble, etc.
  • Lesson:  Make stakes personal to the characters.
  • Black Moment: Green Lantern suffered from a weak “there is no hope” black moment, and the internal character arc and the external plot arc didn’t line up together to make the low points lower.  By the time Hal faces the big bad, he’s already serene and has a plan.  And if the character isn’t worried, the audience won’t be either.
  • Lesson:  Make internal and external arcs build on each other for powerful black moments.

In many cases, little changes in the plot could have made the Green Lantern movie vastly better.  An additional scene with his nephew would have upped the stakes and made Hal’s “save the cat” scene less obvious.  The end scene by the sun would have made more sense if the recharging issue had reared its head at that critical moment.

Instead, Green Lantern took every opportunity to make things easier on the hero.  Coincidences, contrivances, unrealized stakes, and flat black moments don’t make for a high tension story.  Simplifying a plot makes it more superficial, and a superficial plot will feel formulaic.

Come back Thursday for Part Two, when I’ll take a look at this movie from the character side of things.  And if you haven’t entered my blogiversary contest yet, check out my post to see if you can “win” me.

If you’ve seen Green Lantern, what was your impression of the plot?  What stories have felt superficial or formulaic to you?  Why?  Do you have plot issues to add to my list?  Do any of these lessons apply to your stories?  Or have you avoided these problems?

Photo Credit: DC Wikia

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Paul Anthony Shortt

I felt exactly as you did, Jami. I LOVE superhero movies, but this just fell so flat. There was no tension, anywhere. Parralax was just too big and too sudden a threat. Not to mention, Parralax as an antagonist was compleltely binary. You could either defeat him, or you died. There was no other threat he posed other than to wipe everyone out within moments of appearing. So there’s no creeping dread, no sense of “how can the hero get out of this?” because it was either victory or death within seconds.

For an entity of pure fear, the filmmakers completely failed to make him something to be afraid of.

Ava Jae

Ha, ha, you were right on the nose on this one.

Green Lantern was one of those movies I enjoyed more for the actors (i.e.: Ryan Reynolds) than the plot. Plus the CG was pretty cool.

I really like your points–I’ll definitely take a look at your suggestions while I’m editing to make sure I didn’t fall into the same traps. Great post!

Susan Sipal

I’ve not seen the movie, Jami, but your explanations of the important missing components are clear and insightful. You do a great job of explaining what is missing and how that affects the tension.

Thanks for saving me some $$ too! 🙂

Brooke J

Great post Jami.

What you say about complicating the plot is something a lot of weak stories fail to do. I haven’t seen Green Lantern, but I know movies or stories like that just aren’t as enjoyable.

Another thing I’d like to add to is your mention if the prologue. For a good example, the new Star Trek film had one that worked really well because it paralleled to a later scene. And that movie was just awesome.

Sarah Pearson

I haven’t seen this yet, but I’ve been umming and aahing about it as I usually love superhero movies. Might wait for it to come on TV!

I love your flashback comment – the only thing I’d be thinking in a plummeting plane is ‘oh s*** 🙂

Jen J. Danna

Great run down of the weak points in the storytelling! I haven’t seen this movie (even though I too think turn-off-the-brain popcorn movies have a place), and you’ve just ensured that I won’t see it. I blogged about pet peeves in plotting just this morning, so this fit right in – convenient plot twists, lack of continuity or follow through, a lack of logic or missing great emotional turning points… if pretty much sounds like Green Lantern had it all and not in a good way. If I saw it, it would likely drive me nuts.

Looking forward to the characterization study later this week…

Lucy Brown

You made some excellent points there. I came out of the film dissatisfied but unable to pinpoint why. I now understand it was a combination of many, many things!

My own personal bugbear was the family issue. I wanted them to come back into the plot, maybe after Hal had run away from his new responsibilities, and be the catalyst for getting him to go back.

I think the film lost itself in trying to look good. That left it feeling a bit soulless and, ultimately, quite run-of-the-mill.

Murphy

Hi Jami!
I so get the point ‘make the stakes personal to the characters’. Nothing drives me nuts worse than a: I need to save the world theme – when all the characters in that world haven’t suffered/worried/stressed enough yet to have any believable stakes.
Great post!
Murphy

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Seriously, blog posts don’t get much better than this!!
I haven’t see Gree Lantern (wasn’t planning on it even though, like you, I enjoy brain off movies as much as anyone. I simply don’t like crowds, so movie theatres aren’t my favorite places to go unless a new Star Wars or Star Trek movie drops:)
Anyhoo, your breakdown of plot do’s and don’ts (don’ts being the dominant here) was amazing!
So good in fact, that I would attend a workshop given by you any day of the week. My local chapter, Georgia Romance Writers holds a conference (a great one I might add) every fall called Moonlight and Magnolia. We’re always hunting for fabulous teachers and you dear Jami would be highly sought after!
I loved the post and can’t wait to read Thursday’s installment.
Thanks for your wisdom and have a great evening!
Tamara

Lisa Gail Green

Great post! I didn’t see the movie, and I don’t intend to. But I love how you broke down the mistakes and related them to writing. 😀

PW Creighton

You are much braver soul than I for watching that movie. The largest issue with comic and gaming movie adaptations is that most stories do not survive the transition. Several dozen hours or hundreds of comics worth of plot arc need to be condensed into a 90min window. It’s like taking Tolkien’s epics and turning them into a 20page comic. It’s not going to go well. That said, you have excellent insight on the lessons learned.

Susan Kaye Quinn

Awesome post! I really wanted that movie to be good. So tragic.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Totally serious about the workshop thing. If you’re ever interested in coming east to attend one of the smaller, but no less fabulous conferences http://www.georgiaromancewriters.org/mm-conference/
you MUST take the trip to GA and teach a class for us.
And it’s not true that you’re too much of a no body. You’ve got lots of faithful followers that know exactly who you are, and there are so many writers who could learn so much from you.
think about it. I know my fellow coordinators would welcome you with open arms.
🙂

Amos Keppler

I dislike action stories in general. They hardly go deep enough. The focus is on the action, so to speak. I like dwelling stories myself, with far more adherence to detail. There can be many “unnecessary” elements there, because that’s life. So, I don’t buy that argument at all.

Another thing about GL and many movies/stories is that they are often written by many people, four and five often, by committee. never a good idea.

Gene Lempp

Excellent points and pointers Jami!

The weakness in many modern movies seems to be epidemic and I think it all stems to one thing, marketing. When writers are forced or feel that they cannot succeed without catering to overblown marketing ideals then the story will suffer. The story has to be itself and marketers need to be more creative. Kristen Lamb pointed this same weakness out in her excellent breakdown of the second Star Wars trilogy. Plot holes you can fly a planet through are pointless. Yet, as Blake Snyder points out in Save the Cat many movies are made with the idea that they will cover costs and reap a profit in week one by simply marketing and hyping the product in pre-publicity with no thought for week 2 and beyond. Some books do the same thing, a few recent celebrity titles come to mind (i.e. Snookie).

The long term effect of this will either be that people will come to expect little more than flash and folly (which destroys story) or will realize that it is easier to watch these movies once they appear on a movie channel for the monthly bulk cost or free through some online source (which is what I and many others already do).

Hard to Save the Cat right after you Shoot Yourself in the Foot.

Great post, very insightful 🙂

Todd Moody

Makes me wonder if the screenwriter had ever written anything before, its almost like they couldn’t have hit the DON’TS in writing any harder if they were actually trying to do it.

Great post as always Jami!

Sonia G Medeiros

Excellent points! I haven’t seen the movie, but I have seen others that suffer from some of these weakness. I need to remember these for my own work to make sure I’m not making the same mistakes.

Nina

Oy–sounds like a bad one! GREAT post though with very good lessons.

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Hi Jami 🙂

I haven’t seen the movie and I won’t see it :D.
But your points are great for plot structure. From what I understood, there is no proper conflict structure either, in the movie, if at all.

Very interesting post, thank you 🙂

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Thanks for saving $15-$20 for me and the wife to go see this at the movies, not to mention the eye-rolling I would have had to endure when my wife said, “Oh, THAT’S why you love these kind of movies so much.” Yes, she goes to superhero movies with me, and I go to chick flicks with her. Only one of the many reasons we’ve been married 33 years.

Regardless, I loved the way you broke things down in this blog. As always, you did an excellent job of laying out what the problem is and suggestions for fixing it.

BTW, if you’re going to do the conference circuit, the lady that books for The Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference is in my monthly writers’ group. I would definitely be willing to get your information in front of her, and I’d be first in line to sign up. Have a great week

Ellie Ann

I really enjoyed this post!! I love movie analysis.

Glen

Excellent points. In addition, the film ran two parallel plot lines: what happened on the earthly level mirrored what was happening on the cosmic level. Not necessarily a bad device, but in this case I found myself wondering if it would have been better to do one plot well than two lamely.

Lani Wendt Young

Im awful at pinpointing WHY i hate / like a particular book or movie. I agree wholeheartedly that Green Lantern was a disappointing (awful) movie (only redeemed by gratuitous shots of a half naked Ryan Reynolds…the ONLY reason anyone should spend money to see it)…but i couldnt put my finger on exactly why. YOu do a great job at breaking things down and have given me some useful alerts when re-looking at my own fiction. Thank you!

Reenie

Hi Jami
Thanks for the excellent insights re: Green Lantern. I learned some valuable tips from reading your comments. As Lani said, they’re “alerts” for me to watch for in my own writing.

Ashley Graham
Ashley Graham

Jami, I love these points and I feel like I need to refer to them often! You’d think people who write screenplays for a living — especially big blockbusters like this one — would make sure the plotting’s up to par, but I guess not. I still wanna watch it and see for myself, but I know I’ll be thinking of your blog post the entire time! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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