How do you tackle the most significant hurdle a screenwriter has ever faced? You need some screenwriting Avengers.
Imagine being tasked with writing one of, if not the, biggest movie ever made. That’s precisely what Markus and McFeely faced when they entered the Marvel Universe. It’s all about size and scope, but you also have to handle the characters. With all this on your plate, it can be incredibly hard to start writing. So we assembled some tips from Markus and McFeely, thanks to the good folks at Behind the Curtain, to take you through the motions of writing an Avengers movie.
I’ll try to lay off the Endgame spoilers but read forward at your own risk.
Let’s assemble some screenwriting tips!
How do you write an Avengers movie?
First up, watch this interview compilation from Behind the Curtain. We grabbed most of our tips from this excellent video what features interviews with Markus and McFeely. It’s hard even to encapsulate what a job these guys have done on this franchise. They’ve had their hands on a ton of massive Marvel projects and shepherded others.
Find a template
What genre are you writing? Infinity War has the feeling of a war movie. It’s like The Dirty Dozen. When you’re going for a humungous film, think about what genres you can mash-up to keep it fresh. Godzilla is a scary monster movie that feels like Jaws. So it borrows from horror and thriller tropes as well. The genre can help guide you as you write and help inform set pieces and character as well.
Focus on humanity at the center
This is important at every level, but character matters. I want to see arcs, development, and good character names. When the scope is vast, you need to find a way to keep people interested. Make sure the characters at the heart of it sing. Look at the dynamic interplay between the Avengers. They have banter, but they also have baggage. Cap lost his love. Tony lost his heart. Thor has daddy issues, and Black Widow wants to overcome her past. Base it in character and let it sing.
Introduce your team in a fun way
Another thing I love about big movies is the massive amount of character we follow. This is true in epic TV as well, like Game of Thrones. When we meet Marvel characters, we remember the introductions. Steve Rogers gets his ass kicked. Tony blows things up. Natasha kicks Happy’s ass. Scott Lang is in prison. We love these character intros because they tell us why we’re rooting for these people. They’re smart, tell us the personalities, and even payoff story beats later.
Make it as big as you can
Maybe this seems obvious, but if your budget is 100+ million, you have to justify it. That doesn’t mean add a ton of speaking roles and car chases. Think bigger. When Thanos throws a moon, he throws a MOON. So when you’re setting up the story and set pieces, think about visuals we’ve never seen before. Visuals that define the bigness of your movie.
Outline the moments
Hey, let’s talk outlines for a beat. It can be exciting to type and go, but if you use an outline, you can plan out specific moments. You also won’t get stuck in different acts and have no idea where to go. Think of the outline as your infinity stones. It makes screenwriting a snap.
Be okay going down the wrong road
Look, much like Dr. Strange says in Infinity War, there are fourteen million roads, and one one of the paths is correct. Thanks to the writing process, you’re going to take a few wrong turns. You can’t get discouraged. You have to keep pushing forward. Even if it seems like there’s no way out. Pain is inevitable. Be Iron Man.
Do a vomit draft
Markus and McFeely talk a lot about how once they have an outline, the best way they work is to get something they vomit out. Then they pick scenes they love and build the plot and storyfrom there. The best thing you can do is get the words on the page and begin to refine it. So get writing.
Rewrite and polish
Once you have that vomit draft, you have to rewrite. You have no choice. This is the big leagues. If you’re writing an Avengers-sized movie, you don’t turn in first drafts. Getting to write at this level or even to have your spec at this level considered means you’ve put the time and effort into working.
Take the biggest swing
Remember that scene in Endgame when Captain America says “Avengers Assemble?” And something so cool happens. That wouldn’t happen without taking a big swing. You’re writing a massive movie. You need to take some chances. Make things happen that surprise us. Like when a guy named Ant-Man gets enormous. Pull out all the stops. This is your opus. In your imagination, anything can happen.
Consider your villain as a protagonist
We all know that the antagonist is the hero of their own story. But when Markus and McFeely wrote Infinity War, they said they made a classic hero’s journey…but with Thanos as the hero. This actually is a great idea because it helped them build something so convincing. Thanos wins Infinity War, so it’s only natural to give him the arc. At the low point, he kills Gamora. It’s an extraordinary twist that makes the movie so good.
Story beats must affect the character
Look, if you saw Endgame opening weekend it was because you cared so much about the characters. You wanted to know what happened to the people who disappeared and to the Avengers as a whole. It can’t just be an epic story with monsters and explosions. We have to see how these big moments change the story for the people inside them. Like when all your best friends disappear after the most epic battle put on film (until Endgame).
What’s next? Screenwriting lessons from Breaking Bad!
Breaking Bad left an indelible mark on television forever. It was exciting, emotional, and dangerous. But what did we learn? When Walter White stepped out in his whitey tighties, he became part of the cultural lexicon. He and meth became household names as we watched him cook his way into oblivion. But the real takeaway from Breaking Bad was the excellent writing. It had an impressive structure, unexpected twists, and lots of well-developed characters.