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This week, Leslie pitched Thor: Ragnarok as a great example of an Action story on an epic scale. This 2017 entry in the Marvel Universe canon was directed by Taika Waititi from a screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. The story is based on Thor Marvel Comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby.
- Beginning Hook – Thor is captured by Surtur, but fights him and takes his crown believing he has forestalled Ragnarok, the doom of Asgard. But when Odin’s death releases Hela, the goddess of death, Thor must decide whether to bend the knee or fight. Thor fights, Hela destroys his hammer, and Loki calls for Bifrost transport, giving Hela direct access. Thor is transported to trash planet Sakaar.
- Middle Build – Hela subjugates or kills the people of Asgard while Thor is exiled on Sakaar and must find a way home. But when Heimdall explains what’s happening on Asgard and the Hulk destroys the Quinjet Thor was going to use to escape Sakaar, Thor must decide whether to trust Loki to provide security codes for the Grandmaster’s party ship or not. Thor trusts Loki, but also anticipates his betrayal, and Thor, Valkyrie, and Banner make it into the Devil’s Anus on their way to Asgard. (Loki makes it off Sakaar by joining up with Korg and his revolutionaries.)
- Ending Payoff – As the core team of heroes arrives in Asgard, Hela is approaching the cavern where the people of Asgard have sought refuge, and when Thor realizes they cannot defeat Hela because she grows stronger the longer she’s in Asgard, he must decide whether to sacrifice the place known as Asgard or allow Hela to hunt down the people of Asgard after they’ve escaped. He realizes that Asgard is the people, not the place, and sends Loki to awaken Surtur by placing his crown in the eternal flame. The heroes get a boost from Hulk onto the big ship, Thor is named king of the Asgardians, and they head to Earth.
Anne: Nice summary! You know, I don’t think we’ve talked a whole lot about our nominally three-sentence story summaries, but we’ve gotten really good at it! I just want to remind listeners that we break every story we analyze down this way, and those breakdowns are always in the show notes.
This structure reveals the 15 Core Scenes, and neatly strips away most everything else. When something happens, a protagonist is launched into action—that’s the inciting incident—but when progressive complications arise and come to a turning point, the protagonist must make a choice—that’s the crisis. They choose—that’s the climax–and move on. That’s the resolution.
Every storyteller should develop this skill! Leslie, you taught us all how to do it. So thank you for that!
Now tell us all about action stories on the epic scale!
The Principle – Leslie
I’m studying Action Stories on an epic scale—those that don’t necessarily fall within the Action-Epic subgenre. (This one does, but Deep Impact, another film I’ve pitched for this season, does not.) That can be confusing, especially if you’re new to the Story Grid Universe and just becoming acquainted with those Action subgenres and plots. What I’m trying to get at is a very specific type of story, the ones I’m most interested in reading and writing. The global genre is Action, but there’s more to it than that. I don’t have a concise definition yet, I hope to formulate that this season, but here’s what they have in common.
- Large ensemble cast, in other words, teams of heroes and villains with characters from different types of people who represent, for example, different social classes. This is important to me because people aren’t homogeneous, so characters creating and solving epic problems shouldn’t be either. In these stories, the hero and their particular gift is important, but the hero needs the help of friends and their gifts as well.
Valerie: Hey Leslie, I have a question. Does a large ensemble cast necessarily indicate an epic story? Or, maybe I just don’t understand epic action stories well enough. The word “epic” to me implies things like Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones, or the entire series of Marvel films together.
This film to me, feels like Thor’s story with a great cast of supporting characters/actors. Am I right or totally off base?
Leslie: Yes, I agree. Thor’s story here is an episode in the much larger story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I chose it because it’s a good example of how to begin telling a larger story, by focusing on a smaller subset of the greater world.
Here are my other criteria for an Action story that is epic in scope:
- Epic setting/wide landscape: The heroes have to negotiate multiple settings and adapt to changing environments, etc.
- Epic stakes: The villain threatens an entire society or world, not just a single character or a small group.
- Plenty of subplots, including internal genres and subordinate external genres or set pieces that implicate other human needs to be met while trying to defeat the villain and survive.
Anne: Those bullet points sound so much like War and Society stories that I can’t wait to hear how they’re connected!
Leslie: Yes! To me, when we add epic stakes and a team of heroes, we naturally pull in elements that feel like War and Society. The line can get blurry quickly. I’ll talk about that a bit below.
One of the things I want to figure out is how to write these stories well. Writing a simple and straightforward novel is enough of a challenge for many of us. Around the Story Grid watercooler, we often talk about how important it is to walk before you run. That point is well taken. We can’t skimp on the fundamentals just because we want to tell a giant story. (I promise you, layers of complexity and pretty prose will not save your story if there is no Story underneath it. And yes, there are exceptions. We can cite examples of less than wonderful stories that sell loads of copies. But since you’re here, I trust that’s not what you’re about.)
At the same time, a simple story might not be motivating enough to keep you interested in sticking with it for the long haul. How do we keep it interesting while we do the blue-collar work of learning the craft?
There are plenty of options, and I chose my stories for this season based on three approaches.
- Thor: Ragnarok is a story within a much larger story world. You can watch it as a stand-alone story, but you’ll miss the rich layer of references to the bigger story within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an episode within the larger series, and with all the elements at play, it represents a micro version of the larger world and story. We have the core problem in this episode—Hela wants to take over Asgard, and through it, conquer the universe—but there are references to other plots that play out within the larger story world, for example, the problem of the infinity stones and the difficult relationship between Thor and Loki. If you envision a story world as large and rich as the MCU, you can start by telling the story of a smaller conflict within that world and set the stage for larger conflicts on a larger canvas.
- Deep Impact is a stand-alone story about a comet that will destroy life on Earth if something isn’t done. If you like big stories, but don’t want to create a series or world, you could start with a story to solve a single big problem and explore how the people in different parts of society contribute to the solution—or get in the way.
- The Return of the King is the third installment in The Lord of the Rings. In theory you could watch it on it’s own, but it probably won’t make a lot of sense or be as satisfying as it is within the context of the whole. If you already have an epic, linear story in mind, you can break it into parts like Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings and craft those parts separately.
While I love the complexity of these stories, I would never suggest taking a simple story and loading it with extraneous people, places, and things just for the sake of complexity. That can create a muddled mess. So, how do we avoid a muddled mess?
First, it helps to understand why we want to tell these stories. What are we trying to explore through these characters and situations?
What I realized during my preparation for this season is that I don’t really enjoy Action stories with a single protagonist-hero who saves one or more victims by expressing their individual gift. It’s not only about complexity, because I can enjoy a story like Puzzle or A Man Called Ove, miniplot stories without epic stakes, and generally an intimate setting. My problem with the single-hero Action stories is very personal: They suggest it’s OK to wait for a hero to come along and for us to offload responsibility to solve problems. The problems we face today are complicated and require all of us to step up, express our individual gifts, and put our shoulders to the wheel.
The takeaway for me here is that the controlling idea for the story I write needs to take this into account, and that theme needs to be woven into every scene to tie all the events, people, and places together.
Second, we need a solid Global Story sturdy enough to hold all the elements without falling apart. Similar to the controlling idea, the story spine needs to be clear enough that the hero can, for example, be exiled to a remote part of the galaxy for the middle build, without losing the central thread of the main plot.
These two points aren’t unique to these stories, but there is a greater danger of losing the central thread and throwing in too many elements simply because they’re cool.
So, even though I have a personal, subjective criteria for the type of story I want to write, I use Story Grid tools to make sure I’m hitting the mark and telling a great story. So how does Thor: Ragnarok measure up? I begin my assessment with the Editor’s Six Core Questions. Then I’ll look at how my criteria are working within the story, with a particular focus on the cast of characters because it’s what I find most interesting and important: how the team brings their individual gifts together to solve the big problem.
Editor’s Six Core Questions
What’s the Global Genre?
Action-Epic Savior: Thor stands against Hela, a Villain intent on conquering the world. There are multiple secondary internal genres operating, which Kim talks about below, but I would say Thor’s internal arc is Worldview-Maturation. He naively believes he must preserve Asgard to save the Asgardians and that his power resides within his hammer, rather within himself.
What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Global Genre?
- Distinct Hero, Victim, and Villain Roles
- Thor is the primary hero, but he needs his team of Hulk/Banner, Valkyrie, and even Loki if he’s going to pull this off.
- The victims are the people of Asgard, but that’s just the beginning as far as Hela is concerned. (Epic-Saviour specific victim)
- Hela is the primary villain, but like any respectable epic villain, she has henchmen, including Skurge, Fenris, and the army of the dead. Surtur is a villain turned ally. She is intent on conquering the universe.
- Hero’s Object of Desire is to stop the villain and save the victims: Thor’s mission in the story is save the Asgardians and defeat first Surtur, and then Hela.
- The power divide between the Hero and Villain is large: Hela is the goddess of death and grows stronger the longer she resides in Asgard. She only needs to obtain the Bifrost sword to gain access to and conquer the entire universe. She has no doubts about her ability to accomplish her task. Thor is the god of thunder, who doesn’t wield the power of death, and also believes his power resides within his broken hammer.
- Speech in Praise of the Villain: In the throne room on Asgard Hela tells Thor that she and Odin conquered civilizations and gathered the gold to build Asgard. They only stopped because Odin’s ambitions were not as strong as Hela’s. She wants to finish what they started.
- Inciting Attack by the Villain: Surtur captures Thor with the intent of initiating Ragnarok, Asgard’s doom. Loki has exiled Odin on Earth where he is on the edge of death. Odin’s death releases Hela.
- Hero sidesteps responsibility to respond: Thor doesn’t sidestep responsibility, but is exiled to Sakaar, where is is captured and sold as a slave.
- Forced to leave the ordinary world, the hero lashes out: In the arena while fighting Hulk, Thor’s friend doesn’t recognize him, so Thor channels the power of thunder and knocks the Hulk out. (But the Grandmaster sends him a shock through the obedience disk.)
- The Hero discovers and understands the Villain’s MacGuffin/Object of Desire: Really, Thor knows this from the start when Odin tells him that Hela draws strength from Asgard and that her powers are limitless once she’s there.
- Hero’s initial strategy fails: Thor’s strategy to lure Hela away from the Asgardians fails when the army and Skurge and Fenris stop the people from escaping through the Bifrost.
- All Is Lost Moment: Hela reminds Thor that she’s the Goddess of Death, and belittles his powers, Thor communicates with his father that he’s failed because Hela has already taken Asgard.
- Hero at the Mercy of the Villain: Thor, Loki, and Valkyrie face Hela and the remnants of her army, when Thor realizes Hela will just come after the Asgardians, even if they escape. Loki is sent to summon Surtur, who destroys Asgard and Hela’s power with it.
- Hero’s sacrifice is rewarded: Thor saves the Asgardians and takes them to Earth. Thor and Loki reconcile (for now).
What are the Point of View and Narrative Device?
We have a typical cinematic omniscient point of view in the story in which we observe scenes that are happening simultaneously in different places.
What are the Objects of Desire?
These are protagonist-hero’s conscious Wants and subconscious Needs. Consciously, Thor wants to defeat Hela and save the people of Asgard. Subconsciously, what he needs is to realize that the only way to save the Asgardians is to allow Asgard to be destroyed because Hela obtains her strength from Asgard (the place) and grows stronger the longer she is there.
5. What is the Controlling Idea/Theme?
Life prevails when heroes realize their strength resides within them and are willing to sacrifice a place to allow the people to survive.
6. What are the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
- Inciting Incident: Thor is captured by Surtur, but fights him and takes his crown believing he has forestalled Ragnarok, the doom of Asgard. (Causal)
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Odin’s death releases Hela, the goddess of death. (Action)
- Crisis Question: Thor must decide whether to bend the knee or fight (BBC)
- Climax: Thor fights Hela.
- Resolution: Hela destroys Thor’s hammer, and Loki calls for Bifrost transport, giving Hela direct access to Asgard. Thor is transported to trash planet Sakaar.
- Inciting Incident: Hela subjugates or kills the people of Asgard while Thor is exiled on Sakaar and must find a way home. (Causal)
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Heimdall communicates what’s happening on Asgard and the Hulk destroys the Quinjet Thor was going to use to escape Sakaar. (Revelation and Action)
- Crisis Question: Thor must decide whether to trust Loki to provide security codes for the Grandmaster’s party ship or not. (BBC)
- Climax: Thor trusts Loki, but also anticipates his betrayal.
- Resolution: Thor, Valkyrie, and Banner make it into the Devil’s Anus on their way to Asgard. (Loki makes it off Sakaar by joining up with Korg and his revolutionaries.)
- Inciting Incident: As the core team of heroes arrives in Asgard, Hela approaches the cavern where the people of Asgard have sought refuge. (Causal)
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Thor realizes they cannot defeat Hela because she grows stronger the longer she’s in Asgard. (Revelation)
- Crisis Question: He must decide whether to sacrifice the place known as Asgard or allow Hela to hunt down the Asgardians after they’ve escaped. (BBC)
- Climax: Odin reminds Thor that Asgard is the people, not the place, and Thor sends Loki to awaken Surtur by placing his crown in the eternal flame.
- Resolution: Surtur destroys Asgard and Hela. The heroes get a boost from Hulk onto the big ship, Thor is named king of the Asgardians, and they head to Midgard (Earth).
(Notice that these are the same events compressed into the summary at the beginning of the episode.)
Subjective Criteria for Action Stories on an Epic Scale
Large Ensemble Cast
- Thor: Realizes that his power resides within him, not his hammer. He also realizes that he must give up Asgard to save the Asgardians. I think this comes out of Thor’s need to see the greater context, as Odin explains, even with two eyes, he sees only half the picture. Thor has been great at defeating villains, but here he also has to step into his role as a leader, which is a more multi-dimensional role.
- Valkyrie: Realizes she must face Hela again, not hide out on the edge of the universe, in oblivion, wasting her gifts.
- Hulk/Banner: Realizes he must risk being stuck as the Hulk to fight off the Fenris.
- Loki: Realizes that his survival is best secured by aligning with Thor and his team. His sacrifice is the smallest, and his arc is the most shallow, but his willingness to do his part (provide leadership for Korg and the band, summoning Surtur to meet Hela).
Kim: I love that you pointed this out. I’ll talk about this more in a bit because his arc is interesting. It feels like Redemption and yet he doesn’t really make a sacrifice at the end.
Leslie: The cool thing is that a group of characters creates lots of possibilities for conflict. To make sure you’re not including characters just for the sake of a large cast, you want to make sure they have different reactions to other characters, events, and settings. Characters should have different reactions because while they might have a similar conscious object of desire (to save the Asgardians), they are probably acting for different reasons, and their scene-level goals, or essential actions, are likely to be different as well. Also the characters have different relationships and different hierarchies, and so they behave one way or use certain tactics when in the presence of certain people than they do when in the presence of others. Obviously, Thor behaves differently with Valkyrie, Loki, Heimdall, and Hela.
Like a satisfying ending, characters should behave in predictable but surprising ways. For example, when Thor returns to Asgard with Valkyrie and Banner to face Hela, Thor has an expression of grim determination, and Valkyrie responds with wonder: she never expected to return to her home. We might expect Banner, a human who is seeing magical Asgard for the first time to respond with wonder, but he says, “I thought it would be nicer,” in part because of a friendly ongoing rivalry with Thor. It makes perfect sense that under these circumstances he would say that. I had expected him to react in his role as a human, but he reacted as Thor’s friend giving him a hard time.
There are a lot of different settings that create conflict and affect the power divide between heroes and villains.
- Opens in Niflheim (basically Asgardian hell) where Thor defeats Surtur, but because Skurge is in charge of the Bifrost, Thor’s transport is delayed, and he has to continue to fight Surtur’s minions.
- On Asgard Thor learns that Heimdall isn’t watching the Bifrost and that Loki has exiled Odin. Thor has a naive sense of his own power.
- Thor takes Loki to Earth, also known as Midgard, to find Odin. They find that Odin is about to die. His death releases Hela.
- The brothers fight Hela, and Loki calls for transport via the Bifrost, which pulls Hela along to, and during the fight, Thor and Loki are sent to
- Sakaar, a repository for people and things that have been discarded (which seems like an anti-Asgard). When Thor and Loki escape the Grandmaster’s clutches, they return to Asgard.
- When Asgard is destroyed by Surtur, the remaining Asgardians and their friends travel to Earth.
- Hela is not just subjugating and killing citizens of Asgard. Her plan is to use the Bifrost to resume her plan to conquer the universe, a project delayed by her imprisonment by Odin.
- One thing about stakes is that it’s not enough to make them big, they have to mean something to the protagonist-heroes. Thor doesn’t want to be king, but losing the Asgardian people would be damnation for him, as we see during his All is Lost Moment.
- Mostly internal arcs, which Kim is going to talk about.
- Rather than a lot of external subplots, Thor: Ragnarok is full of set pieces which have a similar effect. These are sequences of scenes with a problem or task the hero(es) must address before they can get on with the macro plan of defeating the villain(s) and saving the victims. These set pieces add layers of complexity to problems faced by the hero.
- On Sakaar, Thor must survive the fight with the Grandmaster’s champion.
- Then Thor must find a means of escaping the planet, but he must also seek allies.
- Once back on Asgard he must find a way to defeat Hela, but to do this, the heroes must summon Surtur.
What doesn’t work or is a missed opportunity in Thor: Ragnarok?
- I really want Thor to come to terms with the fact that his father wasn’t the uncomplicated good leader he thought he was. Just because his moral line was crossed before Hela’s was, doesn’t mean there isn’t a reckoning that should happen.
- There seems to be no real compelling reason for Hulk to stop attacking Surtur at the end. “For once in your life, don’t smash!” Why does this work here and now? It seems inconsistent with Hulk’s behavior and temperament.
But these are mostly minor points that don’t take away from my overall enjoyment of the story.
Anne: Well, I thought Hela was a fairly boring cliché of a villain–and I hate to say that because I do like Cate Blanchett, and in general a villainess arising from the fact that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned is someone I can empathize with a little. But Hela is shallowly written: “Daddy failed me, I am full of villainous speeches and easy, over the top violence to make up for it, waah!” and I felt strongly that the lesser villain, Skurge, was the only thing that made her scenes work.
Other adversaries in the Marvel universe have been far more compelling: Loki has the most in common with Hela because they were both undervalued by the same flawed father, and motivated by his “lesser son” status. But Loki is subtle, clever, and often funny. He has a human-all-too-human, flawed quality, and his craving for status and power get him into trouble.
Killmonger, the chief villain in Black Panther, had a totally understandable motive–it was almost noble, representing the mirror or alternative interpretation of what the hero T’Challa was fighting for.
Even Thanos, the evil behind all the evil in the Marvel canon, is seeking power to fix what he believes is the biggest problem in the universe.
But Hela? She’s just pissed off and powerful and destructive. A hurricane or a tsunami would have been almost as worthwhile a villain.
So, Valerie. Or should I say Valkyrie? What’s your take on this big action film?
Valerie – Characters and Empathy
LOL! Why yes, there is a certain amount of Valkyrie in me, I’ll admit that. Except I can’t drink like that. The occasional glass of wine is my limit.
So this season, when I’m not the one pitching the film, I’m studying how we can create characters the audience will have empathy for. And boy, Leslie has really challenged me with Thor, Ragnarok. I wondered how this would work with action films (is empathy even necessary?) and with ensemble casts (is it still the lead we need empathy for, or the supporting cast of characters as well?).
The first time I watched this film I was sort of meh about it. But this time around, I really wanted to focus and pull out all the lessons from it that I could. Given that it’s part of the very lucrative Marvel franchise, I expected to unearth storytelling gems I wasn’t able to appreciate before. Well, I’m sorry to say, that didn’t happen. I found the film just as bland as I did the first time. This surprises me given the star power and acting chops in this cast. The only characters I connected to at all were Bruce Banner (when he first reappears in the ship) and Odin (as he says goodbye to his sons).
Sure, Cate Blanchett makes a beautiful villain, but I didn’t empathize with the betrayal she felt. I see her point – and villains need to have a valid point – but in terms of betrayal, it falls kind of flat. Maybe that’s because Anthony Hopkins does such an amazing job with Odin, and I connected more with him. I don’t know.
Loki is a bit of fun, but is as Thor says, ultimately predictable and self-serving (and selfishness is hard to connect with).
The Valkyrie was two-dimensional. She was a stereotype that is emerging in Hollywood films (one that bugs me) that a “kick-ass” woman is a woman who behaves like a man.
Skurge is a predictable character from the first scene. I know I’m supposed to empathize with the internal dilemma he’s facing – and Karl Urban does a great job with what he’s given – but it all starts with the writing. And Skurge is written as a stereotype (just like Valkyrie and Hela), not a character. They’re cliches.
Then there’s Thor. Granted, he’s never been billed as the sharpest knife in the drawer (he’s the brawn, Loki is the brains), but surely he doesn’t need Odin to tell him that his power was never in the hammer and that Asgard is not a place, but a people. Surely, these are the kinds of things that he could have – and should have – been discovering over the course of the film.
Even my daughter passed on watching this film with me – except I noticed that she showed up for the shirtless Chris Hemsworth scene. I can’t blame her. It was the best part.
So that made me wonder whether empathy is even necessary in a film that is designed as pure entertainment. I don’t have a definitive answer yet of course, but it’s an interesting question. That said, I’m leaning toward “yes, empathy is essential.” Why? Well, because without it, the audience doesn’t care about the protagonist and what he’s going after. Without empathy, storytellers have to rely on something else to keep an audience engaged. In Thor, Ragnarok, I think they’re favouring star power, abdominals, special effects and humour over storytelling principles. This is the same approach we saw with The Spy Who Dumped Me.
Anne: Don’t forget the Led Zeppelin music.
Valerie: As novelists, we can certainly use humour – and my hat is off to anyone who writes it well!
Here’s the thing to remember though – as writers, no matter the medium, we can’t go wrong when we create our art with solid storytelling principles. For my money, that’s the foundation. Adding humour, celebrities, special effects – these things make a strong story even stronger.
I remember in the flagship podcast, Tim asked Shawn about empathy and how to create it. Shawn said that the way to do it is through the hero’s journey. I looked for ages for that clip, but it’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack and I never did find it. I’m fairly confident that I’m remembering it accurately though.
In Thor, Ragnarok the hero’s journey is weak and I think this is the reason I have trouble connecting. It’s not that I hate the film, I just can’t connect with it – and because of that it feels kind of bland.
What the hero’s journey does is get the audience to relate to the hero. It gets us to root for the hero in his quest for his objects of desire. It works equally well in a story with an ensemble cast, because for all the stars and side stories, this film is essentially about Thor defeating Hela to save Asgard. Banner, the Valkyrie and Loki are allies – their stories are not of equal weight. Skurge is a minor antagonist.
The whole reason the hero goes on the journey is to grow, learn and develop. That’s what all the tests and trials in the middle build are about. That’s why there are threshold guardians and enemies, and that’s why he has to go into the inner cave, why he gets the object of desire only to lose it and why he has to express his gift. At the end of the story, the hero is a fully realized version of himself.
This brings me back to Thor needing to be told that his power was never in his hammer, and that Asgard was never about the land or buildings. The tests that he goes through in the middle build – the set pieces that Leslie point out – these are the things that should have made him realize this on his own. The audience sure realizes it. Instead, he’s just kind of bumbling around.
Thor’s changes in this film are superficial only. His hair gets cut and he loses an eye What’s the purpose of either? Hemsworth was tired of long hair? An eye patch makes him look more like Odin? He doesn’t suddenly become worthy of the throne, or suddenly become kingly because he physically resembles the former king.
The fact is, at the end of the film he’s essentially the same guy he was in the beginning. He has brute strength, sure. But he’s none too bright – he has to be told the lesson by Odin because he doesn’t seem to be able to figure it out on his own. Yes, the scene with Dr. Strange sets us up to expect little from Thor’s intellectual powers (compared to Dr. Strange, everyone falls a bit short), and he doesn’t have 7 PhDs like Bruce Banner, but he’s not an idiot either. There’s absolutely no reason he couldn’t have realized the truth about himself and Asgard without anyone’s help.
In my opinion, Thor’s internal shift doesn’t work as well as it should – and I think this is why I couldn’t connect with him as a character. I wasn’t engaged in his quest for his objects of desire. Internal shifts aren’t even required in an action story, but the filmmakers have included one here (Thor does have a subconscious need). They just didn’t pull it off very well.
I’ll leave it there because Kim is going to talk more about the internal genres.
Anne – I enjoyed the movie more than you did, but I don’t disagree with any of your points. It took me several viewings to begin to find it bland, but I eventually did, and you’ve helped me understand more about why that happened.
Kim– Life Values/Internal arcs of supporting characters
So I’ve made a strange observation about myself this week — when I’m having fun and being entertained, it’s really difficult for me to be critical. I’ve known for a long time that I am incapable of multitasking but this a new insight. It will be a few days later after the high of the experience wears down that my critical brain will kick in and I’ll see the flaws and be able to pick it apart and get to the bottom of why. This very likely what Leslie and I experienced on The Spy Who Dumped Me—we had fun watching it together so the flaws didn’t matter. At the time at least. This is helpful for me to know (and maybe for you, dear listener) to give myself time between taking in a story and thinking critically about it.
So as Leslie said, in stories of epic scale, we are going to have a large cast of characters, many of whom play a vital role in the story.
In Thor: Ragnarok, we have a very fun study with four supporting characters who each go through a positive Morality arc. They are Loki, Valkyrie, Banner, and Skurge. Each of these four individuals make a sacrifice that contributes to Asgard’s victory and survival.
Jarie: Are all these characters what is meant by offshoot characters in the Hero’s journey framework? If Thor is the hero, are all these other characters the better parts of his nature that are not fully developed?
Kim: So I didn’t see it this way but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. I see them through their Internal Genres, which may be different than their archetypal functions. I was looking at Thor as an already sophisticated protagonist who’s went through a lot of maturation already by this story. His arc is Worldview-Revelation, and doesn’t require his character (his strength of will and adherence to his moral code) and it’s the supporting characters who, to me, need to be more like Thor. But your question makes me wonder how the internal genre arcs and archetypes can work together or work against each other. Something to look into in more detail I think.
Morality Life Value Spectrum
- Sacrificing Self for All of Humanity
- Putting Needs of Tribe Above Self
- Putting Needs of One Person Above Self
- Self-Interest Aligns with Needs of Others
- Self-Preservation / Self-Interest
- Selfishness / Self-Obsession
- Selfishness Masked as Altruism
Remember: to qualify, Morality protagonists require a substantial amount of sophistication at the outset. This ensures they know the stakes of their selfishness vs altruism, and allows the audience to hold them accountable.
Skurge, Loki, and Valkyrie were all raised on Asgard, an advanced civilization tasked by Odin with protection of the Nine Realms. Each of these characters has been mentored and brought up to understand what is means to lay down one’s life for others, especially those who cannot protect themselves.
Skurge (janitor to executioner) / Morality-Testing-Triumph
- Introduced first, showing off to women at bifrost gate (6:21), learn that he previously fought in battle with Thor
- He was charged as Loki’s informant if Thor comes back (14:00)
- These actions, while self-serving, remain mostly passive, so I’d say they fall somewhere slightly south of Self-Interest
- Kneels before Hela “good survival instincts” (25:50)
- This is an act of Self-Preservation, but still feels like a drop in terms of Life-Values.
- Sees what Hela is capable of, knows she is wrong (34:22)
- This is where we see that Skurge does have a conscience and can/should be held accountable for his actions.
- Sees Hela wake the dead (45:50)
- Becomes her executioner (1:00)
- See him struggling to follow thru, is saved from having to use the ax (1:37)
- Drops ax and gets on ship/hides out (1:50)
- Interestingly, this is his lowest point of Selfishness–when he stops serving Hela and joins the Asgardians on the ship. But he isn’t doing it for any other reason than saving his own skin.
- Brings out Des & Troy to save people on ship, jumps off ship into forces, on bridge “For Asgard” (1:54) “Hela!”
It’s important to note that Skurge is not a naive believer in Hela, thinking she truly is the savior of Asgard. If that were the case, his arc would be very different.
We know he wants to rise in Status, which is why he accepted Loki’s promotion early on.
If he was less sophisticated but blinded by ambition, duped to serve Hela as her executioner with conviction only to die in the end, this would be more like Status-Tragic.
If he believed Hela to be the savior of Asgard and therefore chose to serve her, only to realize the truth and then take new action to stop her, this would be more like Worldview-Maturation.
But Skurge is fully aware of who Hela is and what she represents, and he chooses to follow along in order to serve his own interests. There is no true belief or loyalty from him to either side. This is what makes his final actions about recovering his moral code and making the sacrifice that completes his Testing-Triumph arc.
Skurge is a prime example of why it is essential to understand all three aspects of Friedman’s Framework within your protagonist–fortune, thought, and character. If not, you risk muddling your arc which lessens the impact and satisfaction for your reader.
Loki / Morality-Redemption (ya know, for now)
- Introduced second, impersonating Odin, had faked his death (10:03)
- Selfishness Masked as Altruism
- Thor finds him out, forces him to help find Odin (13:58)
- When they face Hela, Loki calls for the bifrost to get them out, which allows Hela to follow them to Asgard (24:40)
- Ends up with Grand Master, finds favor (40:00)
- Tries to convince Thor to give of the fight against Hela(47:32), Bets against Thor in the fight against Grand Master’s champion.
- Makes a deal to get off the planet together
- Neutral / Self-Interest Aligns with Needs of Others
- Double crosses Thor when they try to escape (1:30)
- Drops to Selfishness
- Gets off planet with Korg (1:35)
- Shows up with ship to save everyone (1:47), goes to battle against Hela’s forces
- – Neutral – Self-Interest (desire for glory) aligns with Needs of Others (to be rescued from Asgard)
- Fights alongside Thor & Valkyrie
- Feels more like Putting needs of Tribe above his own
- (1:53) Goes to vault to get Surtur’s crown, “With the eternal flame you are reborn”
- His hesitation by the Tesseract is a key setup for the later Avengers film, and a cue that while following Thor’s lead and taking risks to save Asgard, he is still never too far from Self-Interest
- Loki shows up in person (rather than fake hologram), is present when Thor takes the throne (1:59)
- This is a nice brotherly-love payoff
So never really reaches a true level of Sacrifice. But because he started out at the Negation of the Negation, he still had plenty of room on the life value spectrum to traverse to make it feel like an arc. This works because it aligns with his well-established character and also because he is a supporting character. This may not work if Loki were the were the protagonist of the global story.
Valkyrie / Morality-Redemption
- Introduced third, scrapper, a drunk (28:50), Captures Thor
- In the ship on the way to see Grand Master, Thor tells her who he is, “I am Thor, Son of Odin. I need to get back to Asgard.” She replies, “Many apologies, your majesty” and shocks him. (31:10)
- This is significant because she knows who he is and what that means but dismisses it and in fact revels in denying him his wish.
- Sells Thor to the Grand Master (37:00)
- Thor learns she is Asgardian, and a Valkyrie, tells her about Hela, but she refuses to help (50:00)
- In Hulk’s chambers, Thor asks and she refuses again, won’t return to Asgard (1:11)
- Loki jogs her memory (1:19)
- Agrees to help Thor (1:23)
- Shifts to putting the Needs of the Tribe above her Own
- While escaping Sakaar, Thor tells her, “Get inside,” and she replies, “In a minute.” (1:33) We get to see a taste of how badass she is.
- Puts on her Valkyrie outfit (1:39/1:41)
- Fights in final battle
There is a lot more to Valkyrie’s arc than what we get in this film, and again you can imagine the difference it would make if she were the protagonist instead of a sidekick. Personally, I’d love to see a story with Valkyrie and Loki as the main characters (if anyone has any connections at Marvel Studio, maybe put a good word in.)
Banner (Hulk) / Morality-Testing-Triumph
- Introduced fourth as Hulk, having fun (53:36)
- Turns back into Banner (1:15) realizes he’s been Hulk for two years.
- Banner is freaked out. “It’s always been like Hulk and I have each had a hand on the wheel, but this time it was like Hulk was driving and I was locked in the trunk.” He believes if he becomes Hulk again, he’ll never come back (1:20)
- When Thor asks for his help to fight Hela / evil being, Banner says, “No way, I’m not fighting anymore beings, I’m sick of it.”
- Undecided about revenge
- Sees Asgardians at mercy of monster. Valkeryrie says, “This stupid dog won’t die”, chooses to change into Hulk to save them (1:44)
- Sacrifice – sacrifices self for all of humanity
- Hulk fights and defeats giant wolf (1:49)
It’s interesting to note that Banner’s arc he doesn’t drop to Selfishness, but hovers around Self-Preservation. In this way, his arc is more “shallow” so to speak, because it doesn’t traverse as far down the Life Value Spectrum, however I would argue that his sacrifice is the “highest” in terms Life Values. Banner sacrifices his autonomy for which he believes will be forever, to save the Asgardian people from Hela and by extension the rest of the Nine Realms.
So altogether we have two Morality-Redemption arcs (with Loki and Valkyrie) and two Morality-Testing-Triumph arcs (with Skurge and Banner). But each arc has its own highest and lowest range that is true to the character — Banner doesn’t drop to full Selfishness, just as Loki is never going to fully abandon his own interests. Even within the strict constraints required to make a compelling and satisfying Internal Genre, there is room to play and find the right arc each character in your story.
Thor / Worldview-Revelation
Thor’s arc is about obtaining the factual information he’s missing the existence of his sister Hela, the truth of his own powers, and about Ragnarok.
In the beginning, he unaware Hela exists, relies on his hammer as his source of strength, and believes Ragnarok–the prophecy of Asgard’s destruction–is something to be stopped.
In the Beginning Hook, he defeats Surtur in order to prevent Ragnarok (by using hammer to powerful effect) and locks up the crown for safekeeping. We get a fun set up with his line, ”Do me a favor. Lock this in the vault so it doesn’t turn into a giant monster and destroy the whole planet.”
Then he uses the power of his hammer (the fact that it always returns to his hand) as a way to make Loki fess up to impersonating Odin.
When they find Odin, he reveals the existence of Hela, his first-born, who he locked away due to her appetite for destruction. He warns Thor that her power comes from Asgard, the closer she gets to it the stronger she’ll become.
Upon Odin’s death, Hela arrives and demands they bow before their queen. Thor throws his hammer, believing her unable to stop it, but she catches it in her hand, to which he says, “It’s not possible.” She wisely says, “Darling, you have no idea what is possible.” and crushes it with her bare hand, crumbling it to pieces.
Thor continues to believe that he’s not as powerful without his hammer, lamenting to Korg about it in the hilarious clip featured in the Season 5 Teaser Trailer.
During his battle with Thor, we see a taste of his special gift — the ability to call down the lightning without his hammer.
- This may have made for a more effective ending payoff if Thor had not been so capable at summoning the lightning at this point.
He believes that he must return to Asgard to stop Hela. Around the Midpoint (1:05) he tells Hulk, “We must prevent Ragnarok. It’s the prophesied death of my home world. The end of days, it’s the end of everything.”
- Interesting note: while this line of dialogue does communicate Thor’s current state of belief, it seems out of place with what is actually happening on Asgard. Hela is a different threat altogether and since he already took down Surtur, why would he worry about that? Something the script writers shoe-horned in to remind us of the prophecy we haven’t heard about since the beginning of the film. A sort of cheap shot that breaks continuity.
Arrives on Asgard, sees the hidden images of Odin and Hela on the ceiling (1:39) and confronts Hela. She gets the upper hand. In a mirroring of the midpoint, he sees his father.
Thor tells him “She’s too strong, without my hammer, I can’t …”, “Are you the God of Hammers?” The hammer was to help you control your power, it was never the source of your power (1:43)
This is the revelation that his source of power is within him, and he embraces it and is able to throw off Hela and go kick some ass with whereas Hela’s is tied to Asgard. Destroy his hammer and Thor’s power remains. Destroy Asgard and Hela’s power is gone.
“It won’t end there. The longer Hela is on Asgard, the more powerful she grows.” Thor realizes what he needs to do (1:52) Asgard is not a place, it’s a people. “What if it was never about stopping Ragnarok. What if it was about causing Ragnarok?”
For me this story is a good example of how to have a decently developed internal arc for your hero that supports but doesn’t overpower your Global Action Genre. Much like Wonder Woman that we studied in Season 2 (Wow that feels so long ago!) that had a strong Worldview-Maturation arc. Developing the internal landscapes and arcs of your main protagonist and your cast of supporting characters, setting up their beginning Life Values / flaw and culminating with joint payoffs to defeat the villain. This makes for a very satisfying experience indeed.
Anne – Thank you. I found the story satisfying too–but I’m beginning to wonder how much of that satisfaction arose from visiting old friends in the Marvel Universe. Would I have given its flaws as much of a pass if I weren’t already a fan of the franchise? Probably not. I’ve seen it about five times now, and I have to say that its structural story flaws didn’t start to pall on me till this most recent rewatch, for the podcast.
The trick of shifting the action to a place far removed from the central conflict of the story interested me. Lots of middle builds begin in a new location–that’s really common in external genre stories–but in this case, the new location is also a whole new quest–a whole separate story. In a slightly earlier era, it could have stood alone as a complete movie, but I think we expect, and can process, more complexity these days. I’m tempted to class it as almost a story within a story, or nested story form.
And honestly, all the color, humor, and real gripping action scenes were in the middle build. At least, by this fifth rewatch of mine, I was skipping over the comparatively dull parts back at Asgard with Hela and Skurge. It was color and humor that made the odd mixture work for me.
So maybe a takeaway for writers is that if you can inject both humor and empathy into your action story, your readers will forgive a whole slew of little problems!
Jarie, you’re studying love stories in the genre sense this season, but last week you gave us some good insights into the conventions of stories about paternal love. There’s some solid father-son stuff in Thor: Ragnarok this week, as Kim has pointed out. What’ve you got for us?
Jarie – Superhero Love
There is not much love going on in this movie but the little that is going on, will give us a jumping off point to talk about Superhero love and how you can incorporate that into your action story. Before we do that, I want to share some love about the director, Taika Waititi.
For those of you who don’t know Taika Waititi, you’re missing out on a lot. Born in Wellington, New Zealand, he has written and directed, in my opinion, two of the best dark comedy/ensemble cast movies out there: Eagle vs Shark and What We Do in the Shadows. If you have not seen these two, check them out. They are both master classes in dialogue, dark comedy, and for What We do in the Shadows, it’s a great example of the docudrama style like Best in Show. If you’re a fan of Flight of the Conchords, then you’ll be a fan of Waititi. If you don’t believe me, then just listen to this scene:
[Time 0:41:09 to 0:42:47]
If Korg is not New-Zealand-dark-comedy-brilliance, then I don’t know what is. I hope you recognize the voice of Korg because it’s Waititi! Such fantastic dialogue as well. Great way to explain the world that Thor finds himself in.
Anne: I saw What We Do In the Shadows at a film festival a couple of years ago and loved it. It’s about, essentially, vampires huddling together. When Korg makes the wooden fork joke, I took it 100% as a shoutout to that earlier film.
Jarie: For sure. I mean the way the line is delivered, I can see Waititi talking into the camera. Just magical.
Jarie: Okay. Lovefest over. Now back to Superhero love and what that’s all about.
A lot of superhero movies have a conventional love story plot that follows the Love > Courtship Story Grid Genre closely. Modern Superhero movies such as Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy follow the conventions and obligatory scenes closely. Both those movies are great examples of how to use a Love Story subplot to make the Superheros relatable. It also provides comedic relief at times when you need a break in the action. Cue “Careless Whisper” by George Michael from Deadpool.
In Thor: Ragnarok, there is not a love subplot and not a lot of love in the room so to speak. There are some hints at romance but it’s subtle and not up front. There is some complex family love between Odin, Thor, Loki, and Hela. Clearly they need to hold some space for their family challenges. Maybe they can hug it out? On second thought, naw, that would make a whole different movie.
It’s sorta implied that Thor kinda has the hots for Scrapper 142 / Valkyrie but it only comes out in almost throw away scenes that add that needed break in the action. Doing some research, the original screenplay did have a romance between Thor and Valkyrie. The writers actually rewrote a part where Valkyrie is bisexual, based on the comic book releationship with Annabelle Riggs. They had even shot a scene with a woman coming out of Valkyrie’s room but that was also cut. So much for romance in this movie.
So what does this all mean for Superhero love? The typical Superhero love trope consists of the emotionally distant, knuckledraggin male Superhero who can’t share his emotions except for quips about his prowess with the ladies to hide his emotional turmoil with how he can’t be vulnerable — the antithesis of our good friend Mr. Darcy. Think Batman or Peter Quill / Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy.
I tried to find any hint of a love sub-plot in this movie and I came up mostly empty. Sure, there are some lines where Thor talks to Scrapper 142 about how much he wanted to be a Valkyrie but it’s only for women. His witty retort about how great that is. Or his comment about her hair and her line about don’t die when he fights Hela. Thin? I agree and the research I did seems to indicate that that’s the way the director wanted it.
So can we learn anything about Love subplots in action movies from Thor: Ragnarok? My take is that if you have a well written action story, you don’t need a love subplot to give you the needed rests in the action. Sure, it’s a tried and true way to do it but I feel what the writers did here was focus all their writing chops on the action and left the romance to Jane Austen.
Kim: – One aspect of love that I enjoy in this film (and other Thor/Avenger films) is the brotherly love/hate relationship between Thor and Loki.
Anne: Yes! Sibling rivalry is something that makes even gods and demigods relatable to us ordinary mortals with siblings of our own.
Kim: Their past is complicated and they are very different people, but they do have an intimate connection in how well they know one another. And it seems, despite their differences and their choices, they still do love each other and continue to forgive and reconcile. We see this payoff nicely when Loki shows up in person (rather than fake hologram), is present when Thor takes the throne. These kinds of relationships that endure despite family members not having the same beliefs, morals, goals, etc. are great to see.
Jarie: True enough Kim. So, yes, there is fraternal love and some paternal love as well. The fraternal love does add some tension to the plot and it’s nice to see Loki and Thor come together in the end. In terms of the patnerial love between Odin and all his children, it’s more of an absent father, which does end up driving the plot in terms of Hela wanting to gain back the power she had before Odin banished her. Okay. I think we can see the complex family dynamic that would be a thin Society > Domestic sub-sub-plot that shows up in how the bonds of family love are challenged.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Anne from the UK. Here’s what Anne asks:
Scene and Sequel seem to be able to manage pace better than the pure 5 commandments scene all stacked into one. There does seem to be a natural break that’s crying out when the crisis hits. The grappling process the character goes through would connect more with the reader. If it’s stuck right in the middle of a scene, it can slow the whole scene down. In fact, it’s come to a point where I wonder why Shawn has left sequel out all together. Even in Silence of the Lambs, Harris has the Scene and Sequel pattern. For example, a great Starling Sequel is Chapter 4 in SotL. Chapter 5 is Crawford’s Sequel. It helps the reader regroup and it helps the writer develop the goal for the next Scene. I’d love to hear more about all this, thanks!
Kim: Hi Anne, Funnily enough I asked Shawn a very similar question at the Story Grid Love Story Workshop back in 2017. I had been beginning to work with Dwight Swain’s Scene and Sequel model and it was finally starting to take semi-shape in my mind. So hearing Shawn talk about the Five Commandments and trying to pair up the definitions was tricky. Are these actually different or just the same thing with different words??
- First, Shawn hadn’t heard Dwight Swain’s scene and sequel model and didn’t use it. So it’s not a matter of leaving it out — he never considered it. It didn’t show up to him in his observations in a way that was useful like the 5Cs. I suspect that for Shawn, a “sequel” is more of an implicit reaction to pacing than explicit.
- That said, when I explained it in New York and asked for advice on how to reconcile the two models, Shawn said beware of being too rigid with applying that kind of scene/ sequel, scene/sequel pattern. It can be just as tiresome for the reader.
- This is precisely why the crisis is at times omitted/inferred in a 5C scene, to combat hat tedious and tiresome grappling section that is not always necessary.
- But when it is necessary, it can be exploited to the degree it needs to be. Because as you say, there are times when a “sequel”, that is a more internal taking stock kind of scene is necessary. But I’d argue that the 5Cs likely exist in both versions.
- Also, keep in mind that the five commandments exist at every unit of story, not just scenes, so they make a stronger model to study and follow overall.
- So rather than thinking of scene / sequel and 5cs as separate models that are at odds, think of them as explicit tools at your disposal that you can use to craft and revise your story.
- In the end, the goal is to have a story that works, and whatever process you find most useful to get there is the right one. Whatever terminology you use.
If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.
Join us next time as Valerie begins her deep dive into the thriller genre with Primal Fear, the 1996 film starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton, based on the novel by William Diehl. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?
Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.
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