Writing lessons

Well, here we go. Image from IMDB.

After a long delay, I’ve finally finished watching Iron Fist, and after an even longer delay, I’m finally writing about it. Rather than simply make this a rant – my husband and I called this show our homework, what we had to watch to get ready for The Defenders, but we didn’t much want to do it – I’m going to try to make it something useful: a lesson in how bad writing can teach you about good writing.

So, some faintly spoilery observations about Iron Fist and various writing techniques:

1 – Your characters’ motivations. It’s always important to know what motivates your characters, and it’s also important for the audience to know. Even if you’re holding a big reveal for the end, the reader or viewer needs to have some sense of why characters are doing the things they’re doing, or it becomes a perplexing mess. We really struggle to understand Danny’s motivations, especially at the beginning but also all the way through. We don’t know why he’s back in New York, and several times when he’s asked point blank he replies, “It’s complicated.” This is not a good answer, and it’s not going to satisfy viewers. Finally, two episodes from the end, we hear him say something about how he felt something was missing from his life, and he thought becoming a warrior in K’un L’un would fill that hole but it didn’t, and then he thought coming back to New York would fill it but it didn’t. Yes, having a significant realization like this is important in the climax of the season. But we need something to keep us invested in the character earlier on, or we’re not going to care about his motivation by the time we actually learn it. And speaking of how to get invested in characters…

2 – How you introduce characters is important. For the first several episodes, we don’t learn very much about the title character. First he’s a wide-eyed ingenue saying little besides, “That’s my building!” Then he gets into some fights. Then he gets packed off to the mental institution and alternates between getting into more fights and getting shot up with sedatives because he was fighting. There’s almost no time to learn what his motivations are, get to know him as a character, or become invested in his story arc. Also, a lot of screen time is wasted on repeated flashbacks to the plane accident where his parents are killed: one brief scene repeated over and over. We learn exactly one thing from this scene – he was traumatized – which isn’t much to learn, since you can expect any child in this situation to be traumatized. Compare this to Daredevil (keeping with the MCU) and the many flashbacks to Matt Murdock’s youth. Every conversation he has with his father or with Stick reveals something about him, his personality, his motivations, and together they help us better understand and relate to the adult character.

3 – Twists. Oh god, the twist. Everyone loves a good twist – a good shock that they didn’t see coming. But be careful. There’s a fine line between being entertainingly shocking and being gratuitously shocking. For a twist to be satisfying, the reader or viewer should be able to look back and see all those subtle little clues, hints they should have picked up on but didn’t pay much attention to. The Sixth Sense, of course, is the classic example of this. But the big shocking reveal toward the end of the Iron Fist season seems to come out of left field. As far as I can tell, there’s only one hint about Colleen’s sensei/benefactor and the source of his money and power: the fact that her door gets fixed without the help that Danny promised. And that’s hardly a clue at all; she could have gotten the money from anywhere, and other than Danny’s brief eyebrow raise, no attention is called to the door. The twist comes across as a shock for the sake of being shocking, and following from the first two topics, we don’t really care about these characters enough to be upset on their behalf when that shocking truth is revealed.

4 – Now let’s get to the biggest controversy about Iron Fist, which also relates to the question every writer should ask themselves before they even get started: Why this story? Why these characters? The entire production of Iron Fist has been difficult from the start, with people criticizing the comic source for its outdated White Savior stereotype, and the show’s failure to try to fix the MCU’s whitewashing trend by casting an Asian actor as Danny Rand. Which brings us to a big question: why did the decision-making folks at Marvel Studios choose such a problematic character? Why didn’t they choose a character who wasn’t saddled with this 1970s White Savior thing, who wouldn’t get the series stuck in a sense of cultural appropriation and stereotypes?

I haven’t done much hunting for interviews that might answer these questions, but I got an idea from the article I linked in the last paragraph. Speaking of star Finn Jones, he “appealed to fans to give [the show] a chance. He claimed that rather than simply engaging in tropes, Marvel’s Iron Fist would dig deep and inspect them.” So was this the motivation of the writers? Did they want to poke holes in the trope of the inscrutable, emotionless martial arts warrior? Is this why Danny has such a hard time controlling his emotions – because the inscrutable and emotionless trope is impossible to live out, and so his effectiveness as a warrior is constantly being undermined by his unaddressed emotional turmoil?

If this is the case, it’s an interesting premise, but it comes with some drawbacks. First, it requires a complete misunderstanding of Buddhism, a spiritual practice that was specifically created to help people deal with difficult emotions. Because Danny’s supposed Buddhist practice doesn’t help him with his emotions at all, it comes across as nothing but window dressing, which is a little offensive to the millions of actual Buddhists around the world. Secondly, Danny’s out-of-control moments are pretty unpleasant to watch, making it even harder to relate to a character who wasn’t terribly relatable in the first place. Of course we all have difficult emotions and out-of-control moments, but no one wants to watch 13 hours of them.

These, then, are some questions to ask yourself to make your writing better and not fall into such problems. What do you think Iron Fist had trouble with? What do you think it did well?

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