Takeaway: The Hunger Games, Tron Legacy, and The Lost City of Z

This is a new series starting in 2011 I'm calling "Takeaway." In it, I examine books I've recently read or movies I've recently seen and try to take away one important storytelling lesson from it. When we writers enjoy books or movies, we can learn from them at the same time—taking away things big and small that helped make the story work. The goal here is to help myself learn and also start a small discussion with you from time to time.
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This is a new series starting in 2011 I'm calling "Takeaway." In it, I examine books I've recently read or movies I've recently seen and try to take away one important storytelling lesson from it. When we writers enjoy books or movies, we can learn from them at the same time—taking away things big and small that helped make the story work. The goal here is to help myself learn and also start a small discussion with you from time to time.

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TRON LEGACY: Planting seeds that pay off in later stories is cool.

In an early scene in Tron: Legacy, there's a boardroom gathering. It's mostly a bunch of nobody characters, except that right in the middle of the scene, with a few random lines of dialogue is, of all people, Cillian Murphy. He's a big-name actor who played The Scarecrow in the new Batman movies. What's an actor like Murphy doing in the middle of this small scene with just a few lines of dialogue? Then it hit me after I left the theater: They're setting him up as a villain in a sequel. Of course! How cool is that? Very cool.

Remember when Star Wars: A New Hope was re-released in 1997 and we saw that restored scene with Jabba the Hut. Well, Boba Fett made a small cameo in the scene—once again, this was planting a seed for later. Why do you think Arnold had that scene in The Expendables? Did he need to be there? No. He was there to set him up as the villain later. It just adds a "Cool" factor.

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LOST CITY Z
: A search for fabled things captures the imagination.

I get a kick out of stories where characters try to find The Fountain of Youth, or El Dorado, or The Holy Grail, or other fabled artifacts. That's why they are used well as the MacGuffins or sought items in thriller. The fact that this story (along with Aguirre's story in Aguirre: The Wrath of God) is a true tale only makes it better. If you can combine the mystique of searching for something legendary with the fact that we're reading a true story, you have a great hook.

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THE HUNGER GAMES: If done well and not thrown in the book in a gratuitous manner, a gruesome scene can create an indelible image.

Check out this passage from The Hunger Games, from when the female main character is in a life-or-death free-for-all when she and a boy warrior both try to pick up a sack of goods at the same time: "A boy, I think from District 9, reaches the pack at the same time I do and for a brief time we grapple for it and then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm, sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That's when I see the knife in his back."

It's haunting. It's gruesome, but it doesn't feel forced, or thrown in there just to shock you into being shocked. And you're left with an extraordinary image. The main character is playing tug of war for a bag when the challenger abruptly spits blood all over her face. Wow. Yes, I will keep reading.

I would compare this to Silence of the Lambs (film), when the Memphis cops burst into the empty holding room and see one of the guards strung up like an angel, with his midsection eviscerated. It's gruesome, but it works well, and is unforgettable.
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