Movies and books are sister media. While there are distinct differences and certainly a need for different techniques, both involve the art of story-telling and you can draw considerable connections between the two. That is especially true when looking at core story structure and characterization concepts. This brings us to today’s topic: the newest Fantastic Four reboot movie by 20th Century Fox.
This won’t be a review. No, this is more of a dissection. We’ll cut into the main course of the plot and various elements of both that and the characters of the movie and see what is wrong with these things, then apply that knowledge to the art of writing. For that reason, there will be no talk of the strength of the adaptation itself, no talk of the many known issues of the troubled production, and, unlike my Starving Reviews, there will be spoilers! If you wish to see the movie yourself with a clear mind, do not proceed!
The classic story, both in book and film, is divided into a three act structure, following the curve of exposition-rising action-climax-denouement that we have talked about many times before. Fantastic Four attempts to cleave to this in theory, but looking at the structure shows us the first major flaw of this story: there is no real ‘second act’. If we look at the exposition as the scenes starting from young Reed and young Ben creating that first matter shuttle and ending with that first spark of dramatic tension with the catastrophe on Planet Zero and the climax obviously being Doom’s rampage through Area 57 and the final battle, we are left with a very minimal section of rising action for our second act.
Look at the running times. For a movie right at 100 minutes, give or take, our exposition fills up close to an hour! That would be like a book taking half of its pages just to introduce the characters and situation before introducing any real conflict or drama! Most of our rising action is interrupted and cut short by the strange ‘1 year later’ time skip. We are TOLD what happened in brief sketches during that time, but the crime of ‘telling instead of showing’, bad in writing, is even more horrible for a film. It’s the classic sin of Info Dumping, which kneecaps the plot, but turns an already abbreviated characterization into something almost threadbare. Again, it is the classic faux-pas of having our characters defined mostly by exposition dumps and not by their interactions or actions.
The lessons to take away from this error are obvious. Ensure each act has time to reach its potential. Don’t rely on info-dumps, ‘As You Know’ speeches, or informed characteristics to define your plot or characters. If there is a major step taken in the character arcs of major characters, do not cut them off early or accelerate through them. Whenever you can, show, not tell.
The climax itself is even more truncated, with the final resolution perhaps being 10 to 15 minutes at most, and highlights one of the other major issues with Fantastic Four, and that is a severe thematic shift between the first two acts and the climax. Our major antagonist is suddenly introduced at this point. Doom, much like the Fantastic Four themselves, is given threadbare characterization and we never are given any insights, truly, onto his motivations or what happened to make him the character he becomes during the 1 year time jump. Within minutes of being brought back to Earth, he goes on a killing spree, then threatens the entire planet Earth, and we really don’t know why.
So a man who had been depicted earlier in the film as troubled but someone who formed a bond with the other three characters he worked with is now just a fairly mindless antagonist. LIkewise, the Fantastic Four seem to forget all of their previous character conflicts (thinly laid out as they were) to do the classic trope of ‘teamwork beats all’, defeating Doom in a very stereotypical comic-book punch-up. Now, you may say that this is a comic book movie and that is pretty much a standard climax, but it represents a total shift in tone from the rest of the movie.
In the first two acts, there was a great deal of emphasis on a ‘realistic’ world. Other than the science fiction elements introduced, the rest of the world was very normal and grounded. The superhuman abilities gained by the four are considered by most of them and the rest of the characters who know of them as physical anomalies or genetic damage to be cured, not as great and powerful gifts, despite the way the government was using them. The movie’s best scenes focus on this and the effects of these horrible changes on their recipients. Suddenly, though, instead of these real, disturbed, and altered individuals, the climax provides us with one-liner-spouting, corny-platitude-tossing generic superheroes ™.
Again, the lessons for the writer are obvious. The tone of your writing should have a certain logical consistency throughout a piece. That doesn’t mean it has to remain static, but there should be proper transitions to move from tone to tone, without abrupt shifts with no story reason. Incomprehensible shifts like this movie leave a mood whiplash in your audience and confusion as they try to put the two very different pieces of story together. It all funnels back into creating an understandable and consistent fictional world, filled with relatable characters.
Consistency is important in more places than tone. Keeping consistent story continuity is also important. To match the abrupt tonal shifts, there are also continuity issues as well. The most obvious one would be actress Kate Mara’s amazingly obvious wig. It’s a small thing, but watching a character’s hair change colors from a natural dirty-blonde to blazingly straw blonde and back between scenes is an obvious stand-in for providing inconsistent details as a writer.
Just like the effects department and prop men provide the details for a movie world, your descriptive words as a writer add details to your book’s world. Inconsistent description creates the same continuity errors as Sue Storm’s constantly changing hair and are just the tip of the iceberg of issues mishandling story continuity can cause.
Wow, there’s undoubtedly more lessons we can learn from the picked-over bones of this movie, but we will leave it at that for today. The ultimate lesson to take away from this is to understand that you can learn both do’s and don’t’s not just from other writers, but from all forms of media. In the end, we all strive to tell stories and some truths are universal.
Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!