Part 22 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
There’s little in this cosmos that writers want more than our readers’ love and respect. We want them to buy our stories, love our stories, tell their friends about our stories, buy more stories, support us in style for the rest of our lives, and acclaim our words far after.
But when it comes to figuring out how to earn your audience’s loyalty, you’ve likely noticed you’re on the receiving end of much confusing and conflicting advice. Some say you have to write to your audience, with a precision-point awareness of what it is they want. Others say you just have to write a good story, and your audience will follow anywhere you lead. Some say it’s about pacing and full-fledged development of character motivations. Others say it’s about proper setup and payoff of reader expectations.
In an era of pervasively disappointing stories and ever-waning audience attention spans, it can be difficult to find stories that offer solid examples of what it means to earn your audience’s loyalty—much less how to actually do it. One of the major and, at the moment, most obvious exceptions is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As it closes out its expansively ambitious 22-movie mega-arc, it feels only appropriate that we complete our series “The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel” by addressing some of the reasons behind its well-earned success.
Needless to say, there will be SPOILERS.
Saying Goodbye to The Avengers: Endgame
I am so full of feels right now.
Honestly, I’m still trying to unpack it all. Mostly, what I find myself feeling is gratitude. I am full of gratitude that I got to see Endgame in theaters at all (various obstacles—illness, company, weather—prevented me from getting there until literally the very last showing at my local theater). I am full of gratitude for eleven years and twenty-two (mostly) bright spots in what was a tempestuous era in both my own life and the world around us. I am full of gratitude for characters who made me love them, made me relate, and made me think. And I am full of gratitude that the whole experience was given the sendoff it deserved—that, indeed, it had earned.
In thinking about what writing topic I might focus on for Endgame, I realized what I really wanted to do was talk about the entire series—because, as I always say in structure discussions, the end is in the beginning. Endgame works because the series works, and the series works, in the end, because Endgame works.
Almost all of my personal highlights (and a few lowlights) feature later in the article, so let’s just get down to it.
5 Ways Endgame Shows You How to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty
You know that feeling you get when you open the final book in a series or attend the final movie? It’s a feeling of deep anticipation and excitement—but also a feeling of nervousness. What if they don’t get it right? What if, with all the best intentions, they get it all wrong and forever put a blot on a story experience that has become such an important part of your life?
I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that as Marvel’s opening logo unfurled across the dark screen. After eleven years and so much thought, energy, and emotion invested in these characters and their stories, I hoped so much that the finale would at least not screw it up.
About two and half hours later—as the screen filled up with nearly every single character the series has ever introduced—I found myself with tears in my eyes. It wasn’t so much because of what was happening onscreen (those tears came a little later), but because I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the incredible experience the MCU has been in my life. With all its ups and downs, its handful of great films, its many so-so-but-always-entertaining entries, its few bombs, its incredible casting across the board, and its sheer audacity as one of the most expansive story ventures ever created—I can truly say it has been an unforgettable gift in my life.
It has influenced my own storytelling in many ways. It has contributed its archetypes to my own personal journeys. It has provided me precious memories with dear ones who have sat beside me in dark theaters. And, of course, it’s given me a couple ideas for a blog post here and there…
For me, Endgame was the red ribbon on top of that gift, a thoroughly satisfactory final entry that has solidified the series as an epochal story within my life.
Today, I want to take a look five examples from this climactic installment, demonstrating what Marvel did to earn and keep its fanbase’s appreciation and what you, too, can learn about how to earn your audience’s loyalty.
1. Setup and Payoff: Earning the Feels
Here’s a secret about storytelling that isn’t always obvious: cool stuff actually isn’t cool at all in isolation.
Truly memorable moments never just happen. Rather, they are the result of a two-part power punch: setup and payoff.
Ultimately, setup is always going to be foreshadowing. If there’s a callback to anything that happened earlier in a story, however mundane it might have been in the beginning, that earlier thing instantly becomes recognizable as foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is the biggest magic trick in all of fiction. When readers feel the writing was on the wall all along, when they realize that sly dog of an author already gave them everything they needed to make the payoff work, the feeling they get is one of deep satisfaction. Not only does the story make sense, but in that moment the world itself makes sense.
This is why payoffs—both big and small—are always the best moments in any story. Whether or not the payoff directly answers a question readers may have had, the readers will always feel like a question was answered. They feel like they’re participating in the story. They feel like they got the in-joke. And more importantly, they feel like the story works. Instead of the author simply assuming the audience should feel a certain way, the author has earned all these good feelings.
How Endgame Pays It All Off
Endgame is chock full of payoffs. There are big and obvious payoffs, such as using the Infinity Stones to undo Thanos’s dust-up. And there are countless smaller payoffs to earlier character moments throughout the series. These payoffs work solely because of the extensive set-up work that was honored from the previous stories.
For example, would Cap’s wielding of Mjolnir have been anything more than a weapon exchange if it hadn’t been set up in Ultron? Would Tony’s hugging Peter have offered any meaning beyond the relief of the moment if it hadn’t been set up in Homecoming? Would Tony’s final words have packed such deep resonance if they hadn’t symbolized his entire character arc by calling all the way back to the beginning of it all in Iron Man?
Endgame benefits tremendously from the sheer massiveness of the story that preceded it. A simple rule of thumb is that the bigger the buildup, the bigger the payoff. Not only do many of Endgame‘s “small” payoffs pack more punch because of the huge story that preceded them, but the film can afford to pack them in. A shorter series or standalone episode can and should utilize setup/payoff similarly, but only a story of this scope can create tremendous impact out of such objectively small moments.
2. Resonance: When the Artist Is the Audience
Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated. They certainly don’t deserve creative control à la “democratic storytelling,” which as I talked about a few weeks ago only dilutes artistic integrity.
But this is not to say audiences don’t deserve to be wildly satisfied with any story in which they invest themselves.
How can an author be assured of creating this kind of resonance without simply polling the audience for their Christmas wishes?
There are two sides to this answer:
Part 1: The author must be in control of the story, must remain firmly dedicated to the artistic and thematic integrity of that story. The author must be disciplined enough to make only the right choices for the story, regardless whether they necessarily seem to be the most popular choices.
Part 2: The author must be an audience of one. The author must be the story’s single greatest fan. The author must fanatically love and respect the story and the characters more than any other member of the audience.
When the latter happens, the author doesn’t need to poll the audience to know what resonates. The answer is already there, in the author’s own heart. What resonates for the author resonates for the audience and—if the first part of the equation also rings true—usually in a way that is deeply meaningful within the overall story.
How Endgame Connects With Its Fans
Even in my (astonishingly successful) bid to avoid spoilers before seeing the movie, I did run onto a few references to “fan service.” I agree that the film did an incredible job of giving its audience just about every single thing they could have asked for, and a little more to boot. But for my money, these moments can’t be considered fan service when they have been suitably earned over the previous course of the series.
What it felt like to me was a storyline that had been planned and executed by storytellers who, more than anyone, wanted themselves to see appropriate endings for beloved characters. They didn’t provide moments such as Tony’s having a daughter or Thor’s glee when Cap wields Mjolnir or Cap’s dance with Peggy or Tony’s making peace with his dad simply because fans wanted them. They built them into the story because, as fans themselves, they wanted them.
3. Honesty: Staying True to Your Characters
The only stories that matter—the only stories that are ever remembered—are those that are honest. These are the stories that resonate on a level deeper than whatever cotton-candy visuals they’re spinning across the screen in our heads or at the theater. That honesty starts and ends with the characters.
There is no greater slur upon a story than to say its cast is “acting out of character.” What this inevitably means is that the characters are no longer acting with sincerity, but instead mouthing lazy lines of convenience.
Creating and implementing “true” characters is the greatest challenge in all of writing. Few of us pull it off 100% of the time. Mostly this is because staying true to your characters is difficult not just technically, but also personally. It’s hard to understand ourselves well enough to understand the story we’re trying to tell in order to understand the characters who are telling it.
When we do achieve this deep and true understanding, the result is character dynamism. These characters power the story. They are realistic, dimensional. They are sympathetic. The audience comes to love them not in spite of their flaws but even because of them. We come to love them, at a certain point, because they are us.
How Endgame Gave Us True Characters
I won’t say Endgame pulled this one off across the board. Hulk’s transformation in this story didn’t resonate deeply for me, and however authentic the idea behind Thor’s devolution, it was executed abysmally in a way that did not respect the character and his importance in the series.
That said, the film did a good job with almost all the rest of its main cast, particularly Steve and Tony, whose polarized styles and relationship have always been the series’ beating heart.
These two characters have rarely strayed from their initial headings. Both would have been difficult characters to write, both could have been difficult characters to like. But they have always burned true to their deep driving desires, to their strengths, to their weaknesses.
Largely because of these things, their endings feel particularly earned. We are happy both were given the chance for closure, for a normal life, for fulfillment, and even for the end of their struggles.
4. Meaning: As the Climax Goes, So Goes the Story
In any story, the Climactic Moment is the defining moment. Whatever happens in the Climax is what every moment of the preceding story was leading up to. Whether or not the story as a whole succeeds is proven by how well it builds into and explodes out of its Climax.
In structuring your story, you can use your Climactic Moment as the plumb line to align your story’s structural spine. When you isolate your major structural moments, they should line up thematically, all of them pointing in a straight arrow directly at your Climax.
More than that, the Climactic Moment is your story’s reservoir of meaning. When the conflict is finally resolved in the Climax, what must emerge from this final bit of context is the deep subtextual meaning of all that has come before. This, more than any other factor, is why stories are made or broken by their endings. No matter how great the ride up to that point, if the ending fails to make sense of it all, the audience will almost always leave frustrated.
How Endgame Nailed Its Climax
No one was ever in doubt how the overarching conflict with Thanos would end. As per genre conventions, he would be defeated. The horrific consequences of his actions would be overturned. We’d all get our happy ending.
But we could have been given that exact ending in a way that mattered far less. The Climax Endgame gave us was specifically Tony’s climax. This was as it should have been. The ending was in the beginning. When Tony closes his fist and snaps his fingers, he is ending what he, in so many ways, began himself. When he defiantly tells Thanos, “I am Iron Man,” he finally and fully climaxes his own long and desperate attempt to do the right thing, to make the sacrifice, to save the world.
I’m not aware of how thoroughly the events of Endgame were known and planned when Marvel started its ambitious project way back in 2008. I suspect they knew very few of the specifics, but they clearly did know the bones. They knew Thanos was the antagonist. They knew what the conflict would be. They knew how it would end. As a result, the series offers a solid structural integrity, with Thanos being introduced very near the quarter mark (at what might be considered the series’ First Plot Point) and followed up regularly throughout. The Climax proves the structure, and the structure is the reason the Climax works.
5. Finality: The Blessing of Closure
Very few satisfying stories are open-ended. They reach their Climaxes, they fade out through their Resolutions, and they end. This is the only way in which structure can provide resonance. It is the only way in which character arcs can come full circle.
These days, many stories avoid finality like the plague. If they can crank out a few more episodes, seasons, movies, books, so much more the money, right? But the stories suffer. Even if the follow-up episodes don’t actually happen, all those little teases the authors included in early installments just in case the story went on (and on and on and on), almost always mess up the story that could have been.
This is why so many TV series are good only for about three seasons. After that, the storytellers start messing with the initial arc in order to expand the story. The result is that the characters start getting messed with as well—and the slide begins. Smart, sympathetic characters who started out making smart, sympathetic choices start being forced to act out of character in order to accommodate a more complicated plot.
A story that offers successful finality is a story that planned and prepared for that finality. It’s a story that used its structural throughline to build into a meaningful Climax. It is not, necessarily, a story that ties off all loose ends. However, even though the characters don’t end (unless they die, of course), the structural throughline of the plot does end. And the audience, however sad they may feel about saying goodbye, will find relief in the closure that comes with closing a story.
How Endgame Offers Closure
There were a handful of things I really wanted to see happen in this movie, but at the top of the list: I wanted Cap and Tony to die.
There, I said it. :p
I didn’t, of course, want them to die because I wanted them gone, goodbye, finito and good riddance. I wanted them to die because I desperately wanted to see their characters closed out. For twenty-two movies (or whatever number they each actually appeared in), they had been scripted with scarcely a misstep. And that’s the way I wanted them to go out. I desperately did not want them to be given open-ended finales in which maybe they’d come back if ever the actors could be tempted.
Of course I’d go see another Captain America movie or another Iron Man movie. But I am ecstatic that I’m not likely to get the chance. I have so much respect for the Marvel team not only for planning and pulling off a huge story arc, but even more so for ending it. Yes, the MCU continues with secondary characters introduced during this initial arc, but they will be continuing with their own story arc (and, frankly, they have their work cut out for them if they want to win my heart in the same way as the originals).
Endgame really was the endgame. That was more than half the reason it took every bit of my self-respect not to sit there in the theater and bawl all the way through the credits. But it was also the reason I was given the gift of such an emotional closing experience.
This will be the final installment in The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. It’s been an incredibly fun ride, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my love of the series with so many of you. I’ve learned a lot myself in pulling a definitive writing tip out of each movie. But after twenty-two entries, it’s getting harder to find a new technique to discuss in each film. I feel like Endgame is the right place to end it.
Thanks very much for coming on this ride with me, both here on the blog and as MCU fans yourselves. Here’s to all of us continuing to learn from other great storytellers on our way to writing our own amazing adventures.
Previous Posts in This Series:
- Iron Man: Grab Readers With a Multi-Faceted Characteristic Moment
- The Incredible Hulk: How (Not) to Write Satisfying Action Scenes
- Iron Man II: Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist
- Thor: How to Transform Your Story With a Moment of Truth
- Captain America: The First Avenger: How to Write Subtext in Dialogue
- The Avengers: 4 Places to Find Your Best Story Conflict
- Iron Man III: Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Story Structure
- Thor: The Dark World: How to Get the Most Out of Your Sequel Scenes
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Is This the Single Best Way to Write Powerful Themes?
- Guardians of the Galaxy: The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory
- Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Foreshadow a Story
- Ant-Man: How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your Story
- Captain America: Civil War: How to Be a Gutsy Writer: Stay True to Your Characters
- Doctor Strange: 3 Ways to Test Your Story’s Emotional Stakes
- Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: How to Ace the First Act in Your Sequel
- Spider-Man: Homecoming: 4 Ways to Write a Thought-Provoking Mentor Character
- Thor: Ragnarok: How to Write Funny
- Black Panther: How the Truth Your Character Believes Defines Your Theme
- Avengers: Infinity War: 4 Ways to Write a Better Antagonist
- Ant-Man and the Wasp: 4 Ways to Choose a Better Theme for Your Book
- Captain Marvel:4 Pacing Tricks to Keep Readers’ Attention
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the biggest challenge in earning your audience’s loyalty? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).