Writing Tips from Pacific Rim

I didn’t originally mean to go see Pacific Rim. But every single time my friends mentioned it on their social media—every single time—it was to rave about it. So I got curious.

Bear in mind, I am a person who, when dragged to the first Transformers movie, seriously considered ducking out to the bathroom and just going home alone after texting my friends that I had food poisoning or ebola or something. The only way I stayed in my seat through the interminable boss fight was to—I kid you not—squint at street signs and newspaper boxes in the smashed up city to see if I could figure out where the scene had been filmed.

But Pacific Rim was compelling. It had story, that I actually got invested in, so I was rooted to my seat and waiting impatiently for each new scene. Of course, one of the troubles with writer brain is that it never quite shuts off, so I started analyzing it for writing tricks I could steal for, or emphasize where they already existed in, my own work.

There be spoilers below.

1. Establishing scale
The Kaiju in the movie are big ass monsters. The Jaegers are big ass mechs. But big ass only has so much impact when it’s compared against things we already need comparisons for. It’s as big as the Golden Gate! How big is the Golden Gate? Oh, there’s a picture with a car on the bridge, that’s how big it is. So the monster is…wait. Where were we?

Admittedly, these particular tricks are visual, but I think they have analogs in writing, which I’ll get to at the end. You’ll notice that in the first fight, del Toro put in a boat. Not a big boat, either, but a boat that gives us a sense of a scale. We got plenty of shots from the boat at the monster—and even more importantly—at the Jaeger. Going into the fight, we also got plenty of shots of the pilots in the headpiece and then the headpiece on the mech, which also gave us scale. Having those on the first fight established them, and set it up so that when the monsters and robots duked it out at the end, we already had the scale in our heads.

How to apply this to writing? I’m not a visual thinker, so I know as a reader, long intricate description sections about how this was on top of that, and that was really big, and this was really huge, and then the heroes walked a long way to the top of that and it was really high…make my eyes cross. But I think there’s definitely something to be said for putting a metaphorical boat in your sorcerous battle. They’re dueling with phenomenal cosmic powers! WooooOoooom! You can get fancy all you want with describing the light show and the grunting effort the POV is putting into wielding the powers, but having the flesh melt from the bones of the crow that flies through the battle zone gives it a certain grounding.

2. No dumb schmoes
So it’s good to have characters the reader/viewer can identify with. Nearly everyone can agree on that. The trouble for me comes when the book or movie goes so far in its quest for the everyman that it picks some schmoe with none of the necessary skills for the job, handwaves about some innate talent they have or something, and voila! A punk high-school student is the only one who can save the world! That actually makes me anti-identify with the character. I don’t really believe that someone like that could actually pull the job off. Even my punk high-schooler days, I wouldn’t have believed it.

But the characters in Pacific Rim are good at what they do. They have the skills for a job similar to the one they’re taking on. Maybe they’re not good enough yet, but they’re close enough I believed it when they learned, and I identified the heck out of watching that learning process. I don’t believe that I, me, sitting in the movie seat could save the world by piloting a fighter jet, but I would damn well like to hope that if someone called for an archaeologist to save the world, I’d do what needed to be done.

Something to think about when your farm boy picks up a sword.

3. Two pilots
I happen to think that this particular twist on the quasi-military trope (group of elite fighters! Fighting the evil thing!) is not just good writing craft as some of the things on this list, but genius. With a single stroke, you’ve suddenly strengthened the possible character relationships in the movie exponentially. Sure, the group of elite fighters relate to each other in a way while drinking beer in the mess, and there’s comm chatter as they fight, but that simply cannot match the richness of the sibling, father/son, friendship bonds that were developed as the pilots worked together.

Of course, character relationships were strong throughout the movie. People were more than coworkers to each other, in complex webs, so when something happened to one character, everyone was affected. And I think part of what made it work was that the movie stepped out of the limited set of group-of-elite-fighter tropes. The former rivals. The pair with the sexual tension. The bookish one the others pretend to bully. And the funny thing is that all the other many possibilities don’t actually take that much longer to convey. Heck, I can’t even remember the name of the guy overseeing the mech interface, but quick hug with the main character and I knew exactly what kind of relationship the two had.

In a book, I think you tend to have more time to set up webs of relationships, but I think sketching them out in as few words as it takes to describe brief interactions like the one above makes them sometimes deeper than long backstories would.

4. Sexual tension
Speaking of sexual tension. Whatever you thought of Raleigh and Mako—I actually went back and forth myself about whether I thought they might end up together—you have to admit they weren’t bothering with lust. I was delighted when the movie ended with a hug, not a kiss, because it capped off the way that they had a friendship based on working together. Not that there’s anything wrong with lust, but I’d love to see just as many deep friendships on screen and in writing as I do people longing to jump each other’s bones.

Heroic stories tend to need more friends, just in general. At the end, yes, Raleigh was on his own, in best heroic style. But look at all the people who got him there—not because they were a quest group, designed to fall to the monsters one by one along the way, but because everyone was working toward the same goal, and they were all equally skilled in their own areas.

5. Differentiated characters
Something this movie did well was to pick the one powerful moment of backstory that crystallized all the rest—Mako’s run with the shoe was so powerful we didn’t need to see her family at all—but that sort of fits into a larger point for me, which was that no character was just one element. Mako wasn’t just that backstory. Gottlieb wasn’t just the numbers guy. At the same time, none of the elements they did have were painstakingly laid out for us. That’s something I’ve encountered in a few books lately: the author knows the characters need to be fleshed out, so they set up a scene to demonstrate one by one a list of characteristics like it’s being read off a notepad. Has dead dog. Wears silly hats. And somehow they never…gel.

Whereas when you don’t explain and you don’t showcase you just throw all the characteristics together and whatever shows up in scene shows up in scene…you get a scientist who loves numbers but we don’t know where he got his training, and we walks with a cane and we don’t know why, and he interrupts his friend all the time, and it’s all one a vibrant package.

6. Villain motivation
This is definitely something most writers know they need. But I think Pacific Rim shows how there’s almost no exception to this. Look at how even evil monster beast things from another dimension become cooler and the situation became more tense when we knew why they were attacking cities. And I think the movie also illustrates that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a complicated motivation, as long as it’s there. There’s a social experiment I read about where experimenters cut in long line at the copy machine at a college library. If they said nothing, people obviously often got pissed. But if they said something even so contentless as “Oh, I’m sorry, I have to make some copies really quickly”, the people in the line often subsided and didn’t get angry. The experimenter essentially acknowledged that what they were doing was wrong and apologized for it, and that went a long way even without a justification.

I think the same might be true of audiences. If we see the author acknowledging that we know that animals usually attack for a reason, and they don’t insult our intelligence with something that’s not even trying, like “because…uh…space pollen!” then we’re pretty happy. What was the atmosphere actually like, ozone-wise, back at the time of the dinosaurs? What kind of energy does it take to open a rift that could be spent on building a new world? I don’t care! There are characters I care about, so I’m going get emotionally caught up in them not dying now, thanks.

7. Science without grind
I liked the scientists quite a lot. I generally prefer that kind of thing to fight scenes in general, though a mixture of the two does make for a better movie, I think. Balance! But what impressed me about the science scenes in this movie was that they weren’t just video game grind about a bunch of jargon. I have to research the [tech] to find a way to [tech] the [tech] to make a weapon that kills them! Okay, well, research harder! It’s really hard to dramatize scientific research, I’d never argue with that—I’ve done scientific research. Add to that the fact that so many of the great leaps are happening invisibly in someone’s head, it’s no wonder that movies would want to focus on the robot fights. Press X to research topic. Press X to research topic. Collect 10 adamantium bars to fuel research. Snooooore.

What I think the movie did differently is that it focused not on finding a particular technology (either as general as “a way to kill them” or as specific as “a way to artificially replicate space hormones”) but on the process of discovery in general. They were searching for new information, and they went to odd and unexpected places to find that information, and when they found it, the information could be intriguing, shocking, or a game changer, rather than “hurray, here I have found the way to kill them that I set out at the beginning was what I was looking for”. That’s something I’m definitely going to keep in mind for my own writing.

8. Fight scenes
Fight scenes are hard for me to write. Every single one, I have to slave and sweat over. Fight scenes are often the thing I hate most in movies (see above re: Transformers and faking food poisoning. That was during a fight scene). But the fight scenes in Pacific Rim worked, so they were definitely one of the things I poked at to try to figure out why. I think it was because they were delicately calibrated to ramp up not only in intensity, but to change every single time in emotional stakes. Fights where you fight one monster, and the next time you fight two monsters, and then next time you fight three monsters…are often boring. Same goes for if it’s a bigger monster each time. Fights where you unlock a piece of your special combo attack each time that you finally unleash on the last boss…are also boring.

Once again, most writers know that to make a fight interesting your character has to have an emotional investment, but I think what the movie shows is that the emotional investment should change, and evolve. That will make all the difference to make the fights not boring. First, Raleigh was not sure Mako could fight at all. Then they were afraid they’d lose the base. Then they’d lost all their weapons and thought they might die. Then they wanted to save their friends. Then they wanted to complete the mission with the nuke. Each time, they only won by the skin of their teeth, and each next time, they had had something even more emotionally that they needed to do. It was strikingly effective.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things that this movie did well, but those were the ones that jumped out at me as most surprising when it came to giant robot movies, and most useful for myself as a writer.

#SFWApro

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