Doctor Jones has some screenwriting lessons for you today, class! Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic Spielberg film and is often considered one of the best blockbusters ever made. George Lucas pitched the idea to Steven Spielberg and then developed it with Philip Kaufman. They handed Raiders off to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who had just written Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Following Kasdan’s lead, let’s look at the storytelling lessons that we can learn from this timeless cinematic treasure!
The opening of the film spends several minutes establishing the world, establishing the tone, and introducing the main character… all without us ever getting to see the face of the main character. This deliberate choice to not show Harrison Ford’s face until a specific moment builds anticipation because the audience wants to find out who he is. This fills his character with an air of mystery and gravitas.
Want to make a character seem mysterious? Consider not showing his or her identity at first. I even cover how to do this type of character reveal in one of my screenwriting lessons:
Realistic vs. Cinematic
I’m sure many people who watched Indiana Jones as kids eagerly desired to become archaeologists to have intriguing adventures like him. This trope of archaeologists going on fantastic travels to distant lands continues in films like Stargate, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and the animated Disney film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
However, The average life of a real archaeologist is much drier — in a scholarly sense. (Although it might not actually be dry, depending on where you’re digging…)
Does that matter, though? While the history and archaeologist character should be based on fact, real-life scholarship is not very exciting to laypersons. For example, I enjoy listening to lectures on philosophy and theology, but for most people, it would put them to sleep. That’s the opposite reaction your screenplay should have on your reader!
Now, I don’t mean you should eschew research when writing a story on an actual profession like archaeology. For the story to be engaging and cinematic, it should be somewhat realistic to help with our suspension of disbelief. However, if people want to experience the life of an archaeologist, they need to read a book or watch a documentary:
Go for a truthful (if fanciful) cinematically-engaging verisimilitude rather than strict realism to tell the best story. What’s realistic is often not what’s most cinematic — and vice-versa.
When I mention the word “MacGuffin,” you might think that I’m referring to the all-important subject of the story: the Ark itself. While technically this object can count as a MacGuffin because it is a physical item that is the goal of so many characters, I’m talking about a different object in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark: The inscribed medallion headpiece for the “Staff of Ra.”
The Screenwriting Book That Changed My Life
What is the best storytelling book? For me, there’s one that stands out because it profoundly altered how I view…
This is a very useful object in the story’s “Symbol Web,” as John Truby would refer to it as in his storytelling book Anatomy of Story. The reason why it’s so effective is because it serves multiple purposes in the narrative:
- First, the headpiece is what brings Indiana and Marion together.
- Plus, it is also another object being sought by the Nazis, leading to our first main shoot out with them.
- Then, the Nazi’s hand gets burned trying to steal the headpiece, foreshadowing his fiery demise.
- In a reversal, this burn ends up being used to search for the location of the ark in Egypt.
- The headpiece continues to be important to the plot because the full inscription, once translated, reveals that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place because they only had half of the message.
This is what I mean by having your MacGuffin pull double or triple duty. If the medallion was merely used at the beginning of the second act to provide a clue for the characters to get to another clue — in a National Treasure-like chain of clues — its thematic weight and symbolic significance would be greatly reduced, and it would be a fairly forgettable object.
However, because the screenplay of The Raiders of the Lost Ark maintains this object’s importance throughout the story and gives it real (and symbolic) consequences, the object is integral to the multi-layered story and not just a throw-away prop.
How to Tell Your Story Logically
Find out the types of logic in stories, and how you can avoid logic gaps and plot holes in your own storytelling.
The theme of teamwork is apparent at the beginning of the film when Indiana and Marion are reluctantly forced to work together in the bar to fight off Nazi goons. However, I’m referring to a specific set of events later on in the film when they’re both trying to escape capture by the Third Reich.
In the sequence, Indy is unable to defeat the brawny Nazi soldier in a fistfight on the runway; Marion comes to his aid by getting the pilot to put the plane in motion and kill the baddie with the propeller. Conversely, she needs his help to get out of the cockpit so they can escape before the plane blows up!
We see a similar pattern of cooperation later on when they are thrown into the crypt to die together. It’s only when they work together that they can overcome their fears (snakes and skeletons, respectively), escape, and continue the quest. If your characters feel too weak or too powerful, force them to work together to achieve some goals to make your story more engaging.
How to Write Screenplays Using Pinterest
Here are 7 ways you can leverage this social search engine in your creative writing.
Rewriting on the Fly
This is a well-known but nevertheless exemplary anecdote that shows the improvisational, problem-solving nature of filmmaking — and how your script will be changed on set, no matter how well you write each line.
I’m referring to the infamous scene where an adversary wielding a scimitar challenges Indy to a duel — but Indy simply pulls out a pistol and shoots him— was actually improvised. Since virtually the whole cast and crew were sick they opted to skip the complex fight scene they’d rehearsed and instead get through the filming that day as soon as possible.
This incident in the story makes perfect sense character-wise and plays for a good laugh. Your script will be rewritten on set, and that can be a great thing. So, when your script gets rewritten (and edited) onset and later in the editing bay, hopefully, it’ll be just as serendipitous — but without the debilitating food poisoning.
Deus Ex Machina
Deus ex machina — the Ancient Greek term for “God from the machine” — is a term to describe the oft-used plot device of a sudden, last-minute rescue of a character from a hitherto unforeseen hero. This trope doesn’t have to involve a divine being for it to earn the moniker, either.
Since the ending of the film involves God’s messengers (which is all that the term “angel” means) slaying the Nazis and freeing Indy and Marion, it would be easy to say the storytellers took the cop-out approach and just had God swoop in and save the day.
This, however, is a misunderstanding of both the idea of miracles and deus ex machina.
What is a Miracle?
Philosopher William Lane Craig explains what a miracle is:
So, rather than being a logical impossibility, a miracle is just something that wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances. Miracles are therefore the exception rather than the rule. If it was a common, repeatable event, then it wouldn’t be a miracle.
Contrary to what the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume may have popularized, miraculous claims can be evaluated like other historical events: with evidence. Plus, the context in which the evidence is found can provide clues as to its validity. As Dr. Craig elucidates:
“The religio-historical context helps to provide the interpretive context for identifying an event as a miracle. The religio-historical context of the empty tomb doesn’t itself increase the evidence for the empty tomb. The evidence for the empty tomb comes from the literary testimonial evidence…that has convinced the vast majority of New Testament scholars that the empty tomb of Jesus is a historical fact.…
What it does is it gives you a clue to how to interpret the empty tomb — to say, wait a minute, maybe this is a miracle. Maybe God raised Jesus from the dead, and that is why the tomb is empty. So a miracle claim in the absence of a religio-historical context is inherently ambiguous because it could just be a bald scientific anomaly. We need something that will tip us off to its supernatural character.”
This means that miracles are plausible (yet highly improbable) in certain historical contexts. So, if someone thinks that all miracle claims fall under the realm of deus ex machina, they’ve failed to recognize that there are other factors to consider to determine a miracle’s probability.
Nevertheless, if you want to use a miracle (or another highly improbable event) in your script, you still want to avoid the weak plot device of deus ex machina. Within the realm of fiction, you should avoid deus ex machina because it feels like cheating the audience’s emotions and the character’s volition. Each of these hurt our suspension of disbelief as participants in the story.
So…how do you remedy this? Why isn’t the “act of God” in Raiders of the Lost Ark a case of sloppy screenwriting?
Because it’s earned.
Earn Your Miracles
In the case of fictional last-minute rescues, salvation must be earned (unlike real-life salvation, which is a gift). Earned by whom? The characters and the screenwriter!
As the screenwriter, you earn the miracle by foreshadowing. Set up the supernatural element early and often, like how Kasdan does in this scene from Raiders:
That’s not all. We also get a more personal foreshadowing when Brody confronts Indy about the dangers of his mission:
BRODY: “Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.”
INDIANA: “Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.”
Amidst all the commotion and adventuring in the second act, it could be easy to forget the stakes and power of the lost Ark which everyone is seeking. So, when Jones and the baddie archaeologist Belloq come head-to-head in a restaurant, the villain reminds us:
“Jones, do you realize what the Ark is? It’s a transmitter. It’s a radio for speaking to God. And it’s within my reach.”
Creepy motives and atrocious theology of the villain aside, we as the audience are back on board with the supernatural element of the Ark. In fact, we’re tired of being tantalized with talk about the Ark; we want to see it in action.
We get one final taste of this, too: When the Nazis capture the Ark and put it on a ship, we secretly witness the burning of the Nazi swastika on the wooden crate carrying the Ark. God Himself blots out the hideous symbol of hatred and anti-Semitism! Now the stage is set for the miracle at the end:
We’re not quite there yet. Remember, the characters also need to “earn” their rescue. That’s the second part of the miracle: Not only do God’s angels destroy the Nazis, they also spare Indy and Marion. Why? Because Indy knew to give proper respect to God by not looking inside the Ark. By closing their eyes, their miracle was “earned” not through a mighty deed but a righteous choice.
Therefore, if your story seems to have deus ex machina, make sure it’s set up early and often. As the screenwriter, it’s up to you to foreshadow the supernatural (or improbable) element so it’s not just understood, but anticipated. Also of paramount importance is to have your characters make choices that affect the outcome of the miraculous event. If it’s properly foreshadowed and earned, then your “miracle” ceases to be deus ex machina.
Many people think along the simple dichotomy of scary = bad and nonthreatening = good. While this makes sense from our common experiences, there are exceptions to this. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector is soft-spoken and polite; still, he’s anything but good. The converse is also true in Raiders.
By witnessing the awesome destruction of the evil Nazis by God’s beautiful-turned-creepy angels, we learn that even the very good can be very scary. As Andy Mineo sings, “My God good, but He ain’t safe.” Therefore, it’s okay to have a character in your story who is morally good but still intimidating, threatening, or menacing — as long as that character’s violence or “scariness” is directed towards evil.
What Screenwriters Can Learn from Edgar Allan Poe
Poe was more than the master of the macabre — here’s what all storytellers should learn from his timeless advice.
By analyzing the excellent screenwriting and cinematic storytelling from the classic film Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’ve uncovered many lessons to apply to our humble screenplays:
- Hide someone’s identity to make them more mysterious.
- What’s realistic is often not what’s most cinematic.
- Make your MacGuffin pull triple duty so it’s more important.
- Force your characters to work together to overcome obstacles.
- Your script will be rewritten on set, and that can be a great thing.
- If your miraculous ending is earned, then it’s not deus ex machina.
- Even the morally good can be quite scary!
And one final lesson: Don’t call him “junior!”