May 10, 2019

What 'Aquaman' Can Teach Us About Good (and Bad) Screenwriting

"Aquaman" shows you three ways you can enhance your writing.

Have you seen Aquaman? Of course you’ve seen Aquaman. The movie grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, re-invented a mostly unknown character, and inspired my mom to buy a framed poster of Jason Momoa.

Studio blockbusters aren’t usually known for their incisive screenplays, and Aquaman is no exception. However, there are still a few valuable lessons we can take away from it, as highlighted in this video from Just Write. Check it out below:

There’s a lot going on there, so let’s break it down. The video explains how Aquaman uses action scenes to interrupt long exposition scenes and give the audience a break from Atlantean history or Aquaman’s Aquamom’s background. But why do they need to do this?

Exposition is Boring

Every screenwriter knows exposition is boring, and every screenwriter has tricks and tips to make it easier for the audience to handle. But sometimes, there’s too much exposition to sweep under the rug. In that case, your best bet is to throw it at the audience all at once, and move past it as quickly as possible so that the audience forgets about it. (A lot of screenwriters call this an expo dump).

Aquaman does this every 20 minutes. There’s an exposition scene in which one of the characters explains some kind of arcane oceanic nonsense to the Khal of the Sea, which is immediately followed by some kind of fight or explosion. By the time the action scene wraps up, the audience doesn’t remember being bored; they’re just happy they got to see the dude kick some ass.

You can bring that sensibility to your own work. If you’re going to dump exposition on the audience, make sure to pick up the pace immediately afterward.

'Aquaman' (2018)

Emotional Excitement

It’s not enough to have our hero punch his way through the story – he (and we) must experience an emotional journey along the way. That’s the other, hidden purpose that AQUAMAN’s sudden action scenes serve: they’re a great way for Aquaman to work through his emotional turmoil. Not only are we rooting for him to win, but we’re also rooting for him to feel better.

If you’re writing an action film, make sure your hero isn’t just mindlessly kicking down doors; take him or her on an emotional journey.

Let’s Get Weird

Why does this movie need so much exposition in the first place? The simple answer is that Aquaman is a reluctant hero, so characters explaining stuff to him is dramatic because they’re trying to convince him to join the fight. But there’s another, more important reason to include all that exposition:

Aquaman is weird as fuck.

This is a movie where Nicole Kidman fights off dudes who look like life-size action figures with SuperSoakers; where underwater plate mail warriors ride seahorses to battle; where, as the video notes, sharks have fricken laser beams attached to their heads. Audiences aren’t used to that much weirdness in one movie. James Wan understands this, and he knows that you have to let people acclimate to it. You can lean into it all you want, but give people time to get comfortable with what they’re watching.

'Aquaman' (2018)

In a 2016 Daily Dead interview, Wan says:

“But here's the great thing about Aquaman: generally he's perceived as sort of the butt of superhero jokes. People like to make fun of him, right? I actually think that gives me a lot of freedom to create a character that no one's really seen before. It's harder when you're doing a movie about Spider-Man or Superman or Batman, where everyone's so well-versed and there have been so many stories and movies made about them.”

Wan loves to have fun, but he also knows he’s kinda entering uncharted waters. Sure, he’s going to give viewers something they’ve never seen before, but he’s not going to throw it in their face in the opening scene. You can do the same – if you have some unusual elements in your story, it’s a lot easier for the audience to suspend their disbelief if they’re gradually introduced.

'Aquaman' (2018)

Hopefully, this sheds some light on what Aquaman does effectively. It’s not a perfect movie, but there’s still plenty we can learn from it. What did you think about Aquaman? Let us know in the comments below.     

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