10 (plus!) Storytelling Tips You Can Learn from Raiders of the Lost Ark

June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of my top five favorite films of all time.My Aunt Marge and my mom took my little brother Steve and me to see The Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was 14. We knew nothing about it going in; this was, after all, 1981. In other words, before the Internet, and therefore before viral videos, clips, and trailers were at our fingertips. My aunt and my mom thought it was about Noah’s Ark.

The fact that it was the 80s is significant to this story in a different way, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

We got sodas and cardboard buckets of popcorn (also significant), and we settled in to watch. When the lights dimmed and the movie opened on a men slashing their way through the Amazon, I heard my aunt whisper to my mother, “I hope this isn’t a jungle picture. I don’t like jungle pictures.”

It wasn’t entirely a jungle picture, and we were all held in thrall of what is, to this day, still one of my top five favorite films of all time.

Fast forward to the end of the film. The credits roll, the lights come up, and the first thing I notice is a plethora of small, white spit wads stuck to the back of the chair in front of my brother. And then I notice the woman in that chair has a bunch of identical spit wads in her hair—and because it was the 80s, there was a lot of hair. Dark, fluffy curls with a galaxy of spit wad stars in them. Then I looked at Steve and discovered his cardboard popcorn bucket had a large, U-shaped hole in it.

My brother had found the movie so intense, he’d nervously chewed little bits off of his empty bucket and spit them into the dark.

My mom and aunt saw it, too, and quickly rushed us out of the theater. I thought Steve was really going to get it, but when we reached the car, Aunt Marge and Mom both dissolved into hysterical laughter. Mom couldn’t even unlock the car door, she was laughing too hard. From then on, she kept an eye on my brother and me during the movies.

I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark countless times since then, and I’ve never gotten bored by it. But I’d never really taken the time to examine why I never get bored and what makes it such a great story.

Fortunately, Carson Reeves over at Scriptshadow did just that in an excellent blog post from last March (which I found recently thanks to the wonderful Emma Coats): 10 Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn from Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can replace “Screenwriting” with “Storytelling,” because the information is just as relevant to non-screenwriters.

Hot on the heels of that link, Emma shared another Indiana Jones-related blog post: Mark Kennedy’s exhaustive exploration of Why The Character Arcs in “Raiders” Makes the First Film Superior to the Other Films in the Series.

When you read these two posts together, you get a pretty good idea of why Raiders of the Lost Ark quickly became an enduring classic. My favorite tip, though, comes from Reeves:

Part of becoming a great screenwriter is learning when rules don’t apply to the specific story you’re telling. Each story is unique and therefore forces you to make unique choices. One of the commonly held beliefs with any hero journey is that there must be a “refusal of the call.” When Luke is given the chance to help Obi-Wan, he backs down, “I can’t do that,” he says. “I still have to work on the farm.” Indiana Jones, however, never refuses the call. And Raiders is a better movie for it. Because the thing we like so much about Indiana Jones is that he’s gung-ho, that he’s not afraid of anything. So if the writers had manufactured a “refusal of the call” moment, with Indy saying, “But I have to stay here and teach. I have a dedication to the university,” it would’ve felt stale and forced. So whenever you’re trying to incorporate a rule into your story that isn’t working, consider the possibility that you may not need it.

Although I feel I need to add a caveat of my own to that rule, and that is KNOW THE RULES. So many new writers (myself most definitely included) have such high literary ambitions that they want to start ignoring the rules immediately. That’s like throwing paint on a coloring book and declaring yourself the next Jackson Pollack. You have to learn to color within the lines first to learn when and how to color outside them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a screenplay I need to rewrite.


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