Aquaman and Knowing What Story You’re Telling

Aquaman could have been awesome… but it wasn’t. From a writing standpoint, it felt like a movie that didn’t really know what story it was trying to tell, and the result was a chaotic, fast-paced, schizophrenic mess.

The story idea itself wasn’t bad; in fact, it was an ancient and iconic one. The Rightful Heir trope has been used and reused again and again throughout story-telling history, from the tales of King Arthur and Hamlet, to The Lord of the Rings and movies like Thor and Black Panther. It’s a very, very old story concept that is common to literally hundreds of fantasy films and books. And the great thing is, it’s withstood the test of time. It’s a really awesome, idealistic, hopeful storytelling concept that many people love, and I’m not here to bash that. The Aquaman film also relied heavily on the Chosen One trope, another classic that comes in many flavors, and this film decided to use all of them. It had “He Will Unite Our Peoples” (like Braveheart), “Only [the Chosen One] Can Wield This Weapon” (King Arthur again) and “This Is a Power Only [the Chosen One] Would Have” (The Matrix). Besides these, we also had a revenge subplot, a scavenger hunt for a magical MacGuffin, and a “pollution is bad” aesop. This movie was trying so hard to hit every subtrope possible that it was actually painful, and the result was a story that was cliche on multiple levels.

The trouble with Aquaman is, again, that it didn’t really know what kind of story it was telling, and I’ll discuss what I mean by that later on. This is a post about writing, and what I want to discuss here is how to avoid the cliche pitfall. How do you use a classic idea without writing a story that comes off as generic or derivative?

To write something truly unique, you must first understand your premise. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby describes a premise as, “Your entire story condensed to a single sentence.” Stripped down to its barest bones, what is your story about? A good premise is crucial because it acts as the baseline, the foundation that everything else is built upon and developed into an actual story. For Aquaman, we could say the premise is this: “The firstborn son of an Atlantean queen raised on land returns to his homeworld to unite his people and prevent a devastating war.” That pretty much sums up the story of this film in a nutshell.

Because the premise is your story, all other ideas for the story must serve the premise. Any time a new idea pops in your head, you must ask yourself “Does this achieve the goal I set out to achieve with this premise?” Let’s take Black Panther as an example. The premise of Black Panther could be stated like this: “When the son of an exiled prince returns to challenge the throne, the current ruler must prove his worthiness by uniting the tribal clans.” If T’Challa at some point learned that he was a wizard and went off to boarding school, that would certainly be interesting and entertaining, but would likely not serve the premise.

You may also note that Black Panther used the classic Rightful Heir trope, but with a twist: the current ruler was doing just fine, all things considered, and the challenger is the story’s antagonist. That kind of spin on an old trope is exactly what you might look for in the next stage of designing your story: finding its core. The core of the story is what makes all the bits and pieces flow together. It’s the internal logic, the steel girders underlying the pretty tapestry that makes up your scenes. Your readers or viewers won’t see it, but it will hold the entire piece together. To find the core of your story, you must take your premise and strip it down even further.

I really cannot stress enough how important this process is for your story. It is what separates a standard, generic story from something truly unique and effective. It’s the essence, the message that shapes the story from start to finish. To find it, ask yourself, “What is my story really about?” For Black Panther, you could say the real story being told was this: “A good king will learn to be a great one when he is dethroned and his nation begins to fall apart.” Now, some might disagree with me and say this is a completely subjective process of interpretation, and they’d be right. The core of your story is what you get to decide as the writer. Indeed, a story’s core is not really for the readers or viewers, but for the writer writing it. Confused? Let me give you another example.

When viewing Star Wars for the first time, you might think it’s the story of a farm boy who learns he’s the son of a legendary member of a mystical order of space knights and sets out to claim his legacy by saving the galaxy, and you’d be correct. But if you were writing Star Wars, you might actually be telling a story like this: “a boy learns what his legendary father’s true legacy is, and sets out not to fulfill it.” Now that sounds like something really compelling, and leaves a lot of room for expansion. How you tell that story is completely up to you – it could be a space opera, a fantasy, the story of a Mafia crime family – in whatever format you choose. When you are telling a story with that core as your guiding inspiration, the particulars don’t really matter so long as they serve that purpose.

So what’s the core of the Aquaman film? What is that movie really about? Is it the story of a man split between two worlds who answers the call to save them both? Is it the quest of a man to uncover a long-lost relic and continue his bloodline’s legacy? Or is it a tale of two estranged brothers learning to set aside their differences and rule a nation peacefully? When I said that Aquaman didn’t know what story it was telling, I really meant that it was trying to tell all of these stories at once. It started off as a classic Rags to Royalty type of plot with a reluctant hero, then introduced a revenge story with Black Manta that was never resolved, and then there was a crazy scavenger hunt across the world to find King Atlan’s trident (Trident of Neptune?) that may or may not have been necessary to unite all the kingdoms of Atlantis and stop a war with the surface-dwellers motivated by… pollution?

And in the middle of all that, what did Arthur really learn? He learned that he was worthy to become king, sure, but what does that mean in the world of this story? Does “being worthy” mean being reluctant, refusing the call at every turn? Does it mean being pure of heart? I mean, Arthur was a drunk and boisterous brawler – does that count? And more importantly, why was Orm not worthy? Because he was sneaky and gave Black Manta a cool suit? Because he disliked pollution? Or maybe it was because he was uptight and not as funny as Arthur? I’m not judging whatever message the movie actually was trying to send, but I am saying that as a writer, you have to know what the core of your story is, and clear away all the distractions; whatever remains should shape your story into a single unit that is both compelling and effective.

The core of your story is for you, and should drive every decision you make as you craft your novel, screenplay, or stage play. With a solid premise as your foundation, everything else in your tale will make sense and your audience will feel both engaged and fulfilled.

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