Gerry Conway, TV and film writer and producer, award-winning novelist and comic book writer, raconteur extraordinaire, and, as he says about himself on his Tumblr blog, Conway’s Corner, “minor pop culture icon'”, is, as far as we at TVWriter™ are concerned a very major creator with a soaring imagination.
He’s also been the very good friend of our Beloved Leader, Larry Brody, for about half a century, which makes us even more pleased – if that’s possible – to present Gerry’s insightful analysis of a film sorely in need of his magic touch:
by Gerry Conway
Rather than continue to lay fuel on the fire of whether or not “Batman vs Superman” is a good movie, I thought it might be useful to use the interest stirred up by the film to offer a few brief observations about narrative, story structure, and characterization for the would be writers among you. I’ll use the film and its characterization of Bruce Wayne/Batman to illustrate my points.
And let me say that I don’t hold myself or my writing as a paragon in support of these observations. While I’ve strived to apply these storytelling principles in my own work I’ve often fallen short. These are goals of storytelling. They’re what we measure our work against. In the real world of deadlines and human flaws most of us fail to regularly hit these marks. But when we do, it’s the best feeling in the world, like scoring a three pointer against an impossible defense.
There are many ways to approach narrative storytelling. Two useful ways, for me, are to think of a story as a mystery with the reader as a detective trying to solve it, or as a piece of fictional journalism, answering the traditional journalist questions of “who, what, where, when, how, and why?”
In both cases, the writer provides information internally in the story that allows the reader to reach certain conclusions regarding those important journalistic questions. The more skilled the writer, the more subtle the information (or clues) and the more satisfaction the reader (detective) derives when the story is concluded (solved).
As a reader/viewer, you’ve experienced this satisfaction and you know what it feels like: a feeling of revelation, emotional or intellectual, when a story ends, that you’ve completed a journey, that you understand something now that you didn’t understand before, that the world makes sense, that the story of the hero/heroine is complete. A story doesn’t need to have a “happy” ending to feel complete. (“Chinatown” and “The Godfather” are both perfect examples of stories without “happy” endings that nonetheless feel complete and whole.) What stories require is resolution, a sense that the protagonist has resolved the crisis that confronted her at the beginning of the tale, either in victory or defeat. (Comedy in the traditional dramatic sense or tragedy.)
So how, exactly, do we go about creating such a story? This is where I find the mystery and journalism templates to be useful.
In a traditional mystery, the writer presents a crime, provides clues (pointing to who, what, where, when, how and why) and over the course of the story, leads the detective/investigator (and the reader) through a carefully structured series of theories of the crime and revelations to the final solution of the initial mystery.
This structure parallels the structure of any human narrative. A protagonist is introduced in crisis (the crisis is usually a challenge to what the protagonist believes, about himself or the world he inhabits). (That’s the narrative parallel of the “crime” in a mystery story.) Aspects of the character’s personality are revealed (clues) through action or dialogue and her attempts to resolve the crisis (paralleling the detective’s development of theories and revelations) provide us with additional insight into the character and her journey to the story’s completion. Once the character has resolved the crisis that confronted her at the beginning of the story, and the reader has experienced a full revelation of the character, the story is over, the mystery is solved, the questions asked at the beginning are answered.
Obviously there are exceptions to this narrative approach, and even within this approach there are many ways to deal with the specifics. Not all the journalistic questions need to be neatly answered (though I’d argue the best stories at least provide enough information to imply a reasonable answer within the context of the story’s internal logic). A great example of hidden but implied information is the crucial fact of what kind of war wound the narrator of “The Sun Also Rises” suffered. The wound is central to the character’s crisis but is never disclosed – but never in doubt once the book is finished. That’s masterful writing.
Which brings me to the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman in “Batman vs Superman” and what I believe are the narrative failures regarding his character arc in the film.
I’ve read fan theories that Bruce was unhinged by the murder of Robin and that death followed by the destruction of Metropolis during Superman’s battle with Zod led him to a crisis of faith which was only resolved when he was reminded of his original motivation to become the Batman, which was in response to his parents murder.
Like all fan theories, this is an attempt to fill in the gaps in the original narrative with recourse to external evidence and interpretation informed by knowledge from outside the story being told.
Unfortunately that’s not how stories work. Stories are self-contained narrative units. Using the mystery narrative metaphor, think how upset you’d be if the detective in a mystery solved the crime at the last minute by revealing a clue the author had not provided previously. (Bad mystery writers do this a lot, admittedly. Readers tend to hate those writers.) A good writer does not depend on details external to the current narrative to justify character behavior. And this fan theory depends entirely on such external information.
In the world of “Batman vs Superman” what exactly do we know about Batman? We know that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. We know that he has become a masked vigilante in Gotham City attacking criminals and leaving them branded with a bat symbol. We know that he has a reckless disregard for life, firing machine guns on city streets, flipping cars into trucks and killing criminals without hesitation. We know that he has a costume in a glass case that has writing on it that apparently has some meaning to him. We know that he has a resentment toward Superman for doing the same sort of thing Batman does but on a grander scale….