Freeform Fridays: Writing an Ensemble Cast (Lessons from Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers”)


So, I’ve gone to see two movies over the last couple of weeks. For me, that’s a lot—I tend to only emerge for “big” stuff like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and get everything else on DVD. They were Dark Shadows (which is going to have its own post eventually—I spent much of the movie with my face in my palm so I haven’t quite figured out what to say about it) and The Avengers.

I could seriously write a whole post on how much I loved this movie—I’m seriously considering going to see it again, and I’ve NEVER watched the same movie twice in theaters—but that’s not the focus of this post, so I’ll move on to the real topic: what we, as writers, can learn about writing an ensemble cast from this lovely superhero flick.

  1.    There needs to be conflict.

Conflict is important to all writing, but never is it more necessary than when you are working with an ensemble cast. It’s absolutely unrealistic to expect to get the different personalities necessary to make up a team in the same room together and have them all hold hands and get along right away. It’s even preferable to have a character like Tony Stark, who spends most of the first half of The Avengers quipping at the others and being a pain. Conflict between characters in an ensemble cast equals dynamic scenes and even laugh-out-loud funny moments that can ease the tension of your plot a bit and keep your reader intrigued.

 

2.      …but, there also needs to be a certain amount of harmony.

If your characters do nothing BUT bicker all the time, I doubt very much that anything is EVER going to get done. Someone’s in danger? S/he will probably die while everybody’s hashing it out. Evil supervillain poised to take over Earth with an alien army? Done, while Steve and Tony are still butting heads. When the push comes to shove, your characters HAVE to work well together, whether they like one another or not, so that they CAN save the day.

It also bears mentioning that it’s always a good idea to have at least two characters in the group who kind of “get” each other, achieved to great effect in The Avengers with RDJ’s Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Stark pokes Banner and is generally a pain in his neck, to be sure, but he has an understanding of the scientific aspect that none of the others do, and Banner seems to see right past Stark’s jokey exterior to the softness underneath. They don’t necessarily “like” one another, but each UNDERSTANDS the other, and that understanding is palpable in many of their scenes.

Here they are being total bros. In identically hideous shirts. :3

3.      Choose the right characters/interactions for each scene.

One of the best scenes in The Avengers, in my humble opinion, was the scene where Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is “interrogating” Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Both actors played their parts perfectly, and the scene simply would not have worked had it been, say, Tony Stark or Steve Rogers in Black Widow’s place. There are other scenes that illustrate this point, but this one really stuck out when I was considering how I was going to write this post. Choose the right characters and the right dynamics to emphasize in a scene, and you will come out with something tense and powerful. Choose the wrong characters, and the scene will fall flatter than a cake after the oven door has been slammed shut.

4.      As you get toward the end, try to utilize a polarizing/drastic event to show how the characters have grown together.

The moment when Tony Stark falls to the ground made everyone in the theater that I was in gasp, and you can see that it catches Tony’s fellows off guard as well. This concern—this deep caring for “one of their own”– is what really brings this ensemble cast together. Why this, and not the scenes where they’re all fighting together in a completely unified group? Because this scene packs an emotional punch, and readers/watchers almost always connect to scenes in an EMOTIONAL way rather than a strictly rational way. So give your ensemble cast a tragedy to deal with, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes. Put one of their makeshift “family” in danger and watch for a moment, allowing your readers to feel like it could be their sibling/parent/child/lover/best friend lying there on the ground, dead or dying or in grave danger. Punching your readers/watchers in the gut can be a good thing—just don’t do it every scene/episode/chapter or they WILL come to hate you. (I’m looking at you, Supernatural season 7.)

So that’s it. If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, or have questions/comments/criticisms, go ahead and drop a comment below.

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Book Review: “Cross My Heart and Hope To Spy” by Ally Carter (Gallagher Girls, #2)

Is it strange that I actually have this whole outfit in my closet? It's all in brown, but that's pretty much the only difference.

Check out my review of the first book, I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have To Kill You, here or on Goodreads!

Title: Cross My Heart and Hope To Spy (Click to add to your Goodreads!)

Author: Ally Carter (needs to come to NY or Boston so I can meet her :D)

Available In: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook for Nook, eBook for Kindle, Audiobook.

Maturity Level: YA. There’s definite appeal here, both for the young end of the YA spectrum (13-16) and the older (16+). Some mild violence and kissing, no real sexual content to speak of.

You May Like This Book if: you enjoyed the first book; if you’re a fan of the television shows Nikita, Buffy, or Veronica Mars; if you like well-crafted YA with strong and realistic female protagonists.

You May NOT Like This Book if: you expect a serious spy thriller; you don’t like YA.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Cammie Morgan is pretty tired of excitement. Her Stake-out/Obtain/Then Give Up Boyfriend Operation has left her pretty down, and all she wants is to settle down and continue studying CoveOps. Before she knows it, however, the prestigious “spy school” Gallagher Academy is welcoming a group of mysterious boys—BOYS!—codenamed Blackthorne. Throw in a security breach that Cammie appears to be at fault for, the unclear motives of the Blackthorne boys, and the aforementioned CoveOps training, and you’ve got one hell of a semester.

Oh, and the incredibly handsome, heart-pounding, ANNOYING boy known simply as Zach.

Previously On…: I have to admit, I wasn’t very stoked about this series at first. It looked like pretty typical YA fare—kick-butt girl meets boy, falls sappily in love with him, and slowly falls prey to a terrifying disease that I have termed Badass Disintegration Syndrome (BDS), pulling out her badassery only to save The Boy. I was pleasantly surprised by the first book, which had its fair share of sappy lovey-dovey moments, but also developed Cammie Morgan through her relationships with her friends, mother, and teachers. She also NEVER lost her Badass Mojo, and that definitely carries through into Cross My Heart and Hope To Spy.

Overall: I was very impressed by Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy. This particular installment had more spy!plot, less romance, and as always I enjoyed the antics of Bex, Liz, and Macey just as much as Cammie’s. The “progress/case reports” are always fun to read, and I absolutely ADORED the ball!exam and all the scenes it produced. Cammie’s family/past—and her missing father—get a bit of an exploration in this one that I hope to see continued in future books. And I have to say, I like Zach more than I liked Josh—but maybe that’s just my love for snarky dudes showing.

Pros

  • The CoveOps reports.
  • Spies, guys. Girl!spies. At a school for girl spies. WIN.
  • Buffy/James Bond/Veronica Mars references.
  • The romance.
  • The spy!plot.
  • Annnnd the balance between the two. Superb.

Cons

  • Having it all be a test at the end was a bit predictable, but that’s just a nitpick.

Favorite Scene (s)

  • Pg 175: Cammie basically asking Zach out and the dynamic between them.
  • Pg 224: After Cammie has a BAMF moment. “Did you learn that in PE?”/”No. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
  • Pg 226: A forklift is once again used as a deadly weapon J

Favorite Line (s)

  • “Most little girls in England grow up wanting to marry a prince. Bex grew up wanting to kick James Bond’s butt and assume his double-0 ranking.”~ pg 13
  • “Real life in the clandestine services isn’t cat and mouse—it’s cat and cat.”~pg 184

Star Rating on Goodreads: 4 stars.

Final Grade: A-. I will definitely be obtaining the next book very soon—this series is so very fun.

Book Review: “I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You” by Ally Carter (Gallagher Girls #1)

Title: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls #1) (Click to add to your Goodreads!)

Available In: Hardcover (Library Binding), Paperback, eBook for Nook, eBook for Kindle, Audiobook.

Maturity Level: 13 +. Some kissing and light violence, but overall very clean.

You May Like This Book if: you enjoy fast-paced, light-hearted stories and/or if you’re a fan of Joss Whedon (the writing style seems very much influenced by his work, and there are plenty of Buffy references).

You May NOT Like This Book if: you’re looking for a serious spy novel ala John LeCarre.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Cameron Morgan is not your average private-school girl. Then again, Gallagher Academy is not your average private school—it’s a spy school, with a curriculum designed to turn out some of the best-trained surveillance agents in the world. So when she meets the incredibly normal Josh, she’s not quite sure how to proceed. Luckily, she has a team of very good friends there to help her sift through his trash, hack his computer, and arrange strategic meetings away from prying eyes. And along the way, Cammie just might learn something about love — and the importance of being true to oneself.

Overall, I thought this book was really fun. It’s a bit like Nikita meets Harry Potter meets Buffy. There are some very good messages twined up in the lighthearted narrative as well, making this a book that I’d recommend to any teenage girl (or, for that matter, any girl ever). The spy element was nicely handled, and I loved reading the descriptions of a typical day at a “spy school”. Throw in a whole load of Buffy references, and I am a very happy reader. It was also a wicked quick read, especially the last hundred pages or so—the sort of book you could finish in an afternoon if you had no interruptions. I’m looking forward to the next book—which, according to PaperBackSwap, is headed my way as of this morning—and I’ll also definitely be checking out Heist Society when I finish with the Gallagher Girls series.

Pros

  • Spy girls. Spy girls are always a plus.
  • Gallagher Academy is kind of like Harry Potter for spy girls. AWESOME~
  • Cammie’s mom. She’s awesome, and I love that her and Cammie have a very close relationship, which is not often seen in YA.
  • Bex, Liz, and Macey. They’re smart, sassy, and they’re great friends. What’s not to love?
  • CoveOps. I would totally take this class.
  • Short chapters make for a fast-paced read.
  • I really, really love the overall message, which is basically to stay true to who you are when you’re in a relationship, not true to what your partner might want you to be. Also, don’t ditch your friends. They’ll be around long after your BF has taken off.

Cons

  • Some of the “mean girls” in this book are pretty flat and stereotypical.

Favorite Scene (s)

  • Pages 87-90, when Mr. Solomon makes his point about what failure in a CovertOps mission would cost you. Very tense, very dramatic.
  • Josh driving a forklift through the wall on page 271.

Favorite Line (s): “Our lies come complete with Social Security numbers and fake IDS, and our truths cut like Spanish steel.”~pg 221 of Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You.

Star Rating on Goodreads: 4 stars.

Final Grade: A. Will probably reread, will definitely read next book in series.