Editor Roundtable: Wonder Woman

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This week the Roundtablers throw the Lasso of Truth around the 2017 superhero Action movie Wonder Woman, making it tell the truth about its story, directed by Patty Jenkins with screenplay by Alan Heinberg.

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The Story

Here’s a synopsis adapted from Wikipedia.

In present-day Paris, Diana receives a case from Wayne Enterprises containing a World War I era photograph of herself and four men. In a flashback, we see that she was raised on Themyscira, the hidden island of the Amazon warrior women. Young Diana learns the Amazons’ history from her mother, Queen Hippolyta. The god Ares, son of Zeus, orchestrated humanity’s destruction. Zeus died after wounding him, but not before leaving a weapon called the Godkiller for the Amazons to use if Ares ever returned.

In 1917, Diana, now a young trained warrior, rescues American pilot Steve Trevor when his plane crashes off the coast. The Germans on his tail invade the island, and the Amazons defeat them. When interrogated, Steve reveals that a great war is consuming the outside world. Believing Ares to be responsible for this war, Diana takes the “Godkiller” sword and her magical lasso, and leaves Themyscira with Steve to find Ares and stop him for good.

In London, Diana, who speaks most languages, translates a coded notebook for the Supreme War Council and Sir Patrick Morgan who is seeking an armistice with Germany. The notebook reveals a German plan to release a new poison gas at the Western Front and win the war. Against orders, Steve assembles a team of misfits and, with funding from Sir Patrick, goes to the front in Belgium to stop the chemical attack. Diana reveals her Wonder Woman character by leaving the trenches and crossing No Man’s Land alone, fending off machine gun fire with her armor and shield. Together, the team liberates the nearby village, and during the celebration that follows, Diana and Steve grow closer romantically.

When they infiltrate the nearby German High Command, Diana meets General Ludendorff and, believing him to be the god Ares, plans to kill him. But before she can, Ludendorff unleashes the experimental gas on the village they have just liberated, killing all its inhabitants. Diana runs him through with the Godkiller sword, and is disillusioned when his death doesn’t bring the war to an immediate end.

Then Sir Patrick, the supposed champion of the armistice, appears and reveals himself as Ares. He says that although he has whispered violence into human ears, ultimately doing the violence is their decision. Humans, he says, are inherently corrupt. He wants her to help him restore paradise on Earth by destroying humanity, but she refuses. When she attacks him with the Godkiller sword, he simply disintegrates it, and reveals that it is Diana, not the sword, who is the “Godkiller” created by Zeus and therefore a demi-goddess herself.

Steve’s team, meanwhile, destroys the chemical lab, and Steve hijacks the bomber carrying the poison. He flies it to a safe altitude and detonates it, sacrificing himself. Remembering his love, Diana defies Ares and declares humans to be all he says they are, but so much more. She deflects Ares’ lightning bolts back into him, killing him for good. The war ends, and, back in London, Steve’s team sadly commemorates his sacrifice.

Once more in the present day, Diana sends an email to Bruce Wayne thanking him for the photograph, then reaffirms her new and lasting mission: that only love can truly save the world, and so she will fight, and give, for the world she knows is possible.

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

Want to learn more about the Editor’s Six Core Questions? Check out our Story Grid 101 episode.

1. What’s the Global Genre? Action-Epic: Savior- Leslie

The global genre is an Action story, but which subgenre and plot? I’ve settled on the Action-Epic subgenre with a Savior plot, which is a hero versus a villain intent on social destruction. I considered whether the villain could be human nature (Action-Adventure  with Environment), but in the Core Event, the big scene we’re looking for, when Diana is truly at the mercy of the villain and defeats him, Ares is the foe she faces. He uses human nature as a weapon to destroy people so the gods can enjoy the earth without pesky human interference.

Action stories don’t require an internal genre, but Wonder Woman has a clear one: Worldview Maturation.

Friedman’s cause and effect statement for Worldview Maturation. When a sympathetic protagonist, with naive black-and-white views of the world and mistakenly conceived goals, experiences a loss or trial that shows them the world is multi-layered and imperfect, they embrace better-suited goals and actions.

Diana is sympathetic because she’s in the dark, but so determined. We want her to be successful—and not only for our own sake.

Diana possesses a naive view of the world (war arises because a single, powerful bad guy makes everyone start killing) and what it takes to defeat Ares (stick him with the pointy end of the god killer sword, i.e., more violence), causing her to adopt the ill-conceived goal to end all war by killing Ares with the god killer sword. She cannot hear that the situation is more complicated than she understands it to be. At times, her attitude is like that of a petulant child. (You might say she comes by this honestly, given her mother’s belief that the best way to protect her is to keep her in the dark and that her initial success when she reaches the front blinds her to the bigger challenge she faces.)

Diana experiences a trial (Ares is a tough foe) and loss (gas attack on the villagers and Steve’s death), and she learns she can’t defeat Ares with anger and violence. It makes sense that she can’t out-anger or fight the god of war. She defeats him by growing up, metabolizing his anger, and using that energy to create peace and love. The theme song for the hero at the mercy of the villain scene could be “Love Is All You Need,” though that probably isn’t true based on what we know from the human needs tanks.

Additional Comment

Kim: I agree with Leslie that the internal genre is Worldview-Maturation. It was interesting to determine because there are numerous elements of Worldview-Revelation woven through the story (she does not know that she is the Godkiller) but the climax does not revolve around that revelation, it revolves around her coming to a more sophisticated worldview aka maturation. I often notice that maturation feels like a combination of disillusionment and education: It feels a bit like being disillusioned to what you thought was true, and subsequently find meaning in the fact you don’t have it all figured out and that the Truth is more simultaneously more complicated and more simple than we allow it be. Diana discovers the complicated Truth —humanity is irrevocably flawed, and the simplest Truth—Love is the answer.

2. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Action story?

Conventions – Valerie

Hero, Victim, Villain: These three roles must be clearly defined throughout the story. The Protagonist must be a Hero – At the six minute mark, Hippolyta’s story tells the audience outright who the hero, victim and villain of the story are. The Amazons (heroes) were created to protect mankind (the victims) from Ares (villain). This is the story that Diana has been raised to believe, and she never wavers from her role as a hero and protector of mankind.

As a hero, Wonder Woman has a special place in the comic book world, and now is part of “the trinity” of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. She was created by William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth, as a superhero would “triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love”. Nonetheless, over time, writers struggled with how to deal with her (ie struggled with presenting a character as a powerful woman). When she first joined the Justice League, it was as a secretary. Today, her history as an Amazon is brought more to the fore. She doesn’t have a dark past, she is pure hero who is here to protect mankind. She is kind and loving by choice. This evolution is captured quite well in Patty Jenkins’s 2017 film.

In his review of the film, Robert McKee says the film works but he has concerns about (1) how Ares is portrayed (having a British actor play the villain is cliché) (2) repetitious action sequences and (3) whether, in modern society, we want to portray a strong woman as violent. “If our sorry society is to progress, we must empower women as an equal, hopefully greater, force of moral good”. 

Although Ares is the main villain, he has “agents” on earth who are unknowingly guided by his suggestions and who carry out his plan for him. (This is also blatantly stated by Diana at approx 28:30 min.) These agents include Dr. Isabelle Maru (aka Dr. Poison) and Ludendorff who believes in an endless war. The speech he gives while dancing with Wonder Woman is pretty on the nose. Interestingly, director Patty Jenkins has said that the point of the film is that “there isn’t a bad guy”. That mankind is corrupt and that Ares has a point. (source: Featured Extras, Wonderfully Evil)

The Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim – Diana’s desire to stop Ares is made abundantly clear at approximately the 28 minute mark. She says that it’s not man’s war. “Stopping the God of War is our fore ordinance. As Amazons, this is our duty.” This desire is then repeated throughout the film (ad nauseum). She makes a deal with Steve to help him off the island if he takes her to Ares, and when Hippolyta confronts her, Diana says “if no one else will defend the world from Ares, I must”.  She is “willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves”. When she and Steve are on the boat she tells him that the God of War is her responsibility because only an Amazon can defeat him. Once he’s defeated, the war will end. In her naivete, she believes this. Steve however, having served in war for some time, does not. Diana repeats her desire again in London, Veld, the gala at German high command and in the big event scene when she confronts Ludendorff and Ares himself (Sir Patrick).

The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large. The villain is far more powerful than the hero – No, I don’t think this is accurate in this film. Both Diana and Ares are gods; in fact they’re half siblings (Zeus is the father of both, although in this film Hippolyta says that Diana has been created from clay and Diana tells Steve she has no father. But Ares says that Zeus is her father). So, in terms of physical strength I think they’re fairly evenly matched. However, at the beginning of the film Diana is naive about man’s capacity for evil whereas Ares is not. (According to Hippolyta, Ares was envious of mankind and so poisoned their hearts. In his speech, Ares says that he believes that mankind stole the world from the gods, that they destroyed it and he alone tried to save it for the gods.) So Diana is younger and less experienced, but not necessarily less powerful.

According to Robert McKee, Diana is stronger than Ares (she does defeat him after all).

The Action genre can deliver a positive climax in just one of three ways: The hero overpowers the villain; the hero outsmarts the villain; or the hero does both—outsmarts and overpowers.

“Outsmarting means discovering a hidden flaw in the villain and, in a jiu-jitsu like move, exploiting it. Needless to say, a climax that pivots on the hero outsmarting the villain is far more satisfying than her overpowering him with brute muscle. But then an amazing feat of outsmarting calls for a screenplay with mental muscle.

“Ares has no hidden flaw to discover, outsmart, and exploit; he’s just weaker than Wonder Woman and so ripe for defeat. We’re told that he was once the most murderous god on Olympus. If so, that doesn’t say much for the power of Zeus and his fellow deities. I doubt that Satan, the Christian god of evil, would crumple like Ares.” (Source)

It’s interesting that Diana overpowers Ares physically since she’s supposed to be a different kind of superhero; one who embodies kindness. It would have seemed more in character for her to outwit Ares, although admittedly this portrayal of Wonder Woman doesn’t emphasize her intellectual prowess.

Speech in Praise of the Villain – Since there are many villains (Ares and his agents) there are also many speeches in praise of the villain. When Hippolyta reads the bedtime story to young Diana (at 6 minutes into the film), she talks about Ares’s power and his defeat of all the gods of Olympus. Steve Trevor gives a speech in praise of Dr. Maru and Ludendorff at 24 minutes into the story (when he’s explaining to the Amazons why he has to get off the island). And Ares has a speech in praise of himself starting at 1hr 51 minutes into the film, when he’s trying to convince Diana to join him.

Subgenre specific conventions: Depending upon the sub-genre, other conventions and tropes are required – The sub-genre here is (1) Action Duel: Person Against Person (Revenge: hero chases the villain – although Diana doesn’t want revenge). OR (2) Action Epic: Person Against the State (Saviour: hero v villain intent on social destruction). I don’t think either is a real slam dunk, but I lean toward the second option. Either way, it’s clear that Diana spends the entire film chasing Ares so that she can defeat him and, in her mind, restore peace to mankind.

Additional Comment

Anne: This movie was an interesting case for me of a story that was palpably flawed in just the ways you mention, Valerie, and yet was personally satisfying. The opening scenes on Themyscira reminded me just a little of how I felt on seeing Black Panther: there, a powerful, secret, fully-formed society with its own purposes, and not a white person in sight, and here, the same thing but not a male person in sight. The vision of women remaining powerful warriors and rulers well into middle age was enough to make me forgive a whole lot of later flaws and plot holes. This goes to the target audience question that all writers have to think about. Please them, and they’ll forgive you for lots of imperfections.

Obligatory Scenes – Jarie

An Inciting Attack by the Villain – 15:28 The Germans find the island and attack the Amazons because they are chasing Steve.

Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action – I don’t see this one. She willingly goes but it’s her mom that wants her to stay but then when they are about to leave, Diana’s mom realizes that she cannot stop her.

Forced to leave ordinary world, Hero lashes out – Diana goes to the “ordinary” world from her world on Themyscira. She “lashes” out to go and fulfill her destiny as the “god killer” even though at this point, she does not know that.

Discovering and understanding the villain’s object of desire (Macguffin)–  World destruction so that Ares can return the world to the paradise it was before mankind existed. The Amazon’s were created to stop him and Diana needs to “stop him.”

Hero’s initial strategy against villain fails – Diana “kills Ares” in the guard tower but that does not end the war. The gas is still going to be dropped. Steve tells her that maybe people are just bad. Did she really kill Ares?

Realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, Hero reaches All Is Lost moment – After Diana kills Ares, she realizes that the gas will still be deployed and must now stop that. Steve is also a hero in this and his all is lost moment is whether he sacrifices himself to save others, which he decides to do.

The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain  – In the guard tower when Ludendorff (Ares) tries to kill her. Sir Patrick is really Ares and he destroys her sword and reveals “you are the God killer.”

The Hero’s Sacrifice is Rewarded – Diana’s sacrifice to leave Themyscira is rewarded when she achieves her goal of defeating Ares.

Additional Comments

Jarie: “I am willing to fight for those that cannot fight for themselves.” Brilliant line since it’s a classic superhero line. You always need at least one of those, even if it’s a cliche.

Anne: It strikes me that there are two heroes, Diana and Steve, and that Steve shares some of the obligatory scenes with Diana. He “sidesteps” by trying to prevent Diana from revealing herself. He sacrifices his life. Though this was an enjoyable Action movie, this sharing of the Hero role diluted it for me.

3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Leslie

POV & Narrative Device: Wonder Woman begins with a first person POV framing story when Diana is in present-day Paris. We could call this portion “I as Witness” (See Friedman “Point of View in Fiction”) because, although she’s the same person, she tells it as if she’s observing her own experience. Through this, we know she survives whatever ordeal she’s going to face, creating dramatic irony, the form of narrative drive in which the audience knows more than the character. But we also experience a combination of mystery (character knows more than the audience) and suspense (character and audience have the same amount of information). In other words, present-day Diana knows the lesson she will learn from the events of the story, but Diana of the past possesses the same ignorance about the lesson we do.

In the present, Diana receives a photo of her with four men we later learn are her companions on this adventure. The photo triggers memories of her childhood, where we follow her training, in summary, until one day when Steve and several German soldiers crash into her world, at which point she becomes involved in the War to End All Wars.

The bulk of the story is told in flashback. Present-day Diana disappears and is replaced with what Friedman calls “the Camera.” We have access to the characters’ words and actions, but not their direct thoughts or feelings (other than what is apparent from the outside). We stay with Diana for most of the film but see occasional scenes where she is absent, which provide more dramatic irony when we learn what her mother discusses with Antiope as well as what the Germans are up to. This doesn’t happen until we are firmly settled into the story, however.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, AKA wants and needs? – Leslie

Wants:  Diana wants to end war forever and save the humans from Ares, the god of war.

Needs:  Diana needs to adopt a more mature understanding of the world and learn she can’t overpower Ares by channeling anger and using violence.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Leslie

The typical controlling idea for an Action story with a positive ending is: Life is preserved when heroes overpower or outwit their external and internal antagonists. Because Diana goes through an internal change, the means by which she defeats Ares comes through her internal transformation.

Life is preserved when the hero outwits the villain by abandoning her one-dimensional understanding that violence and anger can end war, and realizing instead that she must metabolize anger to create peace through love and understanding.

6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? –  Kim

Beginning Hook –  Diana is raised in isolation and safety until a pilot crashlands near the island of the Amazons and brings news of the Great War, which Diana believes must be caused by Ares, the God of War. Diana takes up her armor and leaves the safety of the island to destroy Ares and save humanity, fulfilling the purpose of the Amazons.

  1. Inciting incident: Diana witnesses a pilot crash into the ocean off her island.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Diana learns about the Great World War and believes it to be Ares doing.
  3. Crisis Question: Irreconcilable Goods: Go to war and defeat Ares vs Stay home and stay safe.
  4. Climax: Diana takes up her armor: the lasso of truth, shield, and sword that she believes to be the Godkiller, then makes a deal with Steve to get him off the island if he takes her to Ares.
  5. Resolution: Says goodbye to her mother, causes her mother great sorrow.

Middle Build –  While Steve and Diana gather a team, Dr Maru and General Ludendorff hatch deadly plans for deadly weapons. When Diana learns about Ludendorff she is sure he is in fact Ares. She succeeds in killing him only to discover the war did not end and so he cannot be Ares.

  1. Inciting incident: Dr Maru and General Ludendorff conspire to create obscene poisons to be used as weapons. Dr Maru enhances General Ludendorff’s strength with a special gas compound.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Diana learns Ludendorff is in charge of enemy forces and believes Ludendorff is Ares.
  3. Midpoint Shift: Diana unveils her armor and crosses no-man’s land in the midst of battle and bullets.
  4. Crisis Question: Irreconcilable Goods: Focus on finding and killing Ludendorff or focus on the finding and stopping the gas
  5. Climax: Diana splits from Steve, finds Ludendorff and kills him.
  6. Resolution: The war does not end. Steve says that maybe it’s just the people…we’re all to blame…

Ending Payoff – A man they believed to be an ally shows up to reveal he is in fact Ares and Diana–not the sword–is the Godkiller. When Steve dies, vengeance threatens to overtake Diana and Ares taunts her to destroy Dr Maru, but she remembers Steve’s words about love and uses this belief to destroy Ares and stop the war.

  1. Inciting incident: Sir Patrick shows up and reveals he is Ares.
  2. Progressive Complication: Ares destroys the Godkiller sword…tells Diana she is the Godkiller (as the daughter of Zeus, only a God can kill another God)
  3. Turning Point: Steve dies destroying the gas in the plane, Diana unlocks her power in vengeance
  4. Crisis Question: Ares taunts her to kill Dr. Maru because she deserves it…all humanity deserves it…Best Bad Choice: fight for humanity even though they are flawed and corrupt or let them be destroyed them because they deserve it.
  5. Climax: Remembers Steve’s words and realizes Love is the answer — tells Ares “It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe…and I believe in Love”. Kills Ares with her badass powers.
  6. Resolution: The war ends…Armistice Day.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Valerie: This is a great movie to see the Story Grid methodology in action. It’s a reasonably straightforward story with a clearly delineated genre, OS/C, value shift, theme etc. At the time of recording this episode, the Roundtable editors have been studying and applying the six core questions to a film a week for nearly a year. When we started, we’d spend a full hour just agreeing on where the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff started and ended. These days, we like to challenge ourselves with films where the 6CQ aren’t immediately identifiable, but that’s so we keep growing and learning, and so that listeners can also continue to grow and learn. (These podcast episodes will always be available so you can revisit more difficult films when you’re ready.) That said, when we’re starting to learn and apply Shawn’s method, it’s much more beneficial to start with movies that are not ambiguous.

This is an excellent example of story structure trumping everything else. All too often writers leapfrog over a structural edit in favour of a copyedit. Our focus is often on the quality of our sentence structure over the quality of our story structure. I include myself in this category because when I first started I didn’t even know there were different types of editors! The plain truth is that is the story is weak, a well-crafted sentence won’t make the book interesting to readers. However, if the line-by-line writing is weak but the structure is solid, the books will satisfy readers. The same is true of movies. Wonder Woman has some funny lines in it, but overall the dialogue is not particularly witty or clever. It’s not the kind of screenplay that will win an Oscar. But it’s a fun and entertaining story that pleases.

If you want to learn more about the different types of editors, this guide to editors was developed by two of our Story Grid colleagues, Julie Blair and Shelley Sperry. 

Gal Gadot did a great job with portraying Diana Prince, but I picture Wonder Woman looking more like Stefi Cohen.

Anne: This story uses the Fish Out of Water or trope to good effect. Take a traveler from a backward place or a sheltered past (or a time-traveler) and put them in a world that’s familiar to the reader, and you get a dose of dramatic irony (where the reader knows more than the character), usually to humorous effect, as we have here when Diana arrives in London. But 1917 is just far enough in history that you or I would be almost as flummoxed as Diana, and that lends a bit of suspense–how will she cope? And then in the midst of all this, the movie launches another fun and familiar trope, the dressing-room montage, where Diana tries on several outfits in order to blend in, and doesn’t understand restrictive ladies’ wear.

Jarie: What’s interesting about this Wonder Women is that it portrays Diana as “air-headed”  (as Valarie pointed out during our pre-call) and not that sophisticated, whereas the Linda Carter version (1975 TV Series), she was much more worldly, sophisticated, and sharp. As a young man, I really loved this TV show as well as the Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman with Lindsay Wagner, another strong female character, whom I also had a crush on.

Unlike other action heros, Wonder Wonder is selfless who wants to right the wrongs that evil people thrust upon the weak. That’s her whole ethos. She truly just wants to make the world a better place.

Like Superman, Wonder Woman is humble and hides who she really is. She dresses down and has a job where her smarts are more important than her looks or strength. This was just like the original TV series with Linda Carter. Even the turtlenecks and the long pants.

Wonder Woman is #6 on the all time list of highest grossing Superhero movies. Number #1 is Black Panther.

Join us again next time, when we examine the Society genre with the 2014 biopic Selma. 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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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.