I’m going to walk you quickly through a movie called Rocky. I’ll just touch on a few scenes from Rocky that basically will illustrate some of what I’m talking about in terms of building these things into the story. Rocky’s not high art but is impeccably constructed. It’s like level two. It’s a story, it’s a good story because it has a lot of bits in it. I think Stallone did make a stab at trying to say something, but he ain’t no Mark Twain.
What’s the first scene in Rocky? Rocky’s in the ring. He’s not in a tux. He’s not at the opera. He’s in an arena. The guy’s a fighter. The event that happens in the ring is a little taste of what the whole thing is about. In a way you can think of it as a comic book. It’s a splash page. Hi, here’s who I am. Rocky’s in the ring and he’s fighting, and the manager’s screaming at him because he should win this fight but he’s losing. He just doesn’t have the killer instinct. However, when the other guy cheats and then it sort of upsets Rocky’s sense of justice, fair play, and manhood, then he knocks the guy out. That’s Rocky.
In the first 20 minutes of Rocky, what happens? You meet the manager and you understand what his deal is. You meet Rocky and see that he’s a failed leg breaker for the mob because that’s the only way he can make a living. He’s too soft hearted to go and break anybody’s thumb but that’s the only job he can get. The mobster who uses him is always disappointed because Rocky’s failed to break the guy’s leg. You meet the girl in the pet shop. You meet her brother. You see the kids in the street. You see that Rocky lives in a poor neighborhood. You see the gym, it’s a grungy place–a little tiny place where old guys with cigars come to watch pugs fight. You see the locker room. You see that if a fighter is on his way out they get their stuff put in a bag. Rocky has a locker. Okay so we see all that and it’s Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.
Fine, I understand this guy. He’s an aging pug. Why am I here? Why am I watching? About 20 minutes into this movie something happens–an opportunity, in fact. The aging pug is given a shot at the champ. That’s not a problem. That’s not a conflict. That’s an opportunity. Go into the ring, get hit in the head, fall down, collect a million dollars, go home. I’d do it. That is the element that disrupts the status quo. If it wasn’t for that, we’d just kind of watch Rocky get older I suppose and eventually drink himself to death or something. But anyway he gets a shot at the champ.
All that stuff that they showed in the first 20 minutes then comes into play. All of a sudden his relationship changes with the manager, his relationship changes with the pet shop girl, because he’s not just a pug anymore, he’s a contender. His relationship changes with the future brother-in-law. His relationship changes with the mobster. He’s not just a failed leg breaker. He’s a contender. The mobster gives him money, “Here you need some money to train.” Takes the cigarette out of his mouth and says, “You’re in training. You’re the Italian stallion, man. You’re our hope.” A lot of stuff changes.
You meet the champ, you see Rocky’s interaction with the champ. Watch Rocky sometime. Rent Rocky, I don’t care if you’ve seen it. Watch it with a note pad in your lap. Try to pick apart every scene and figure out why it’s there. It will be incredibly instructional in terms of how to get points across. For instance, parallel construction–the first time you see Rocky jogging to try to get in shape, he runs to the top of the stairs, he’s exhausted. Later, while the getting stronger theme is being played, he runs to the top of those same stairs and he feels great. So what Stallone has done is, he said “see he couldn’t before, but he can now.” He didn’t have him run to the top of a different hill because then you wouldn’t know. It has to be the same hill–parallel construction.
Everything that was introduced in the first 20 minutes of that movie is used. Now, I happen to know that Rocky goes to the library on Saturdays and reads Dr. Seuss books. You didn’t know that, did you? It’s not in the movie. Why? It’s not relevant so they cut it out. All right, I’m kidding, I made that up, but you see my point. Everything there is used. Nothing unnecessary is in there. Even the kids on the street become important.
There’s another instance of parallel construction. Rocky’s in a bar, sees the champ on TV and the champ looks great. He’s surrounded by reporters, and he’s walking through an airport and a reporter says, “Champ you got any words for the children of America?” The champ says, “Yes, stay in school. Become doctors and lawyers. Don’t be a fighter like me. It’s much too tough.” Rocky in the bar is moved. It’s like little Jimmy watching Stan Lee. It was wow! So Rocky goes out, remember those kids out in the street? Well, he takes this one little girl and he says you shouldn’t be hanging around on the street. He drags her home and he’s giving her a lecture. He’s trying to do what the champ did. He’s trying to give a message to the children of America. He takes her home and she turns and says, “Rocky…” He says, “What kid?” and she gives him the finger. Parallel construction. The champ does it and gets respect. Rocky does it and he gets disrespect. It sends you a message. It’s there for a reason. He’s making a point.
Every scene you do should be there for a reason, it has to make a point, or get rid of it. It doesn’t matter how clever you think it is. If it isn’t relevant, lose it. You’ll use it in the next story.
Very insightful. Thanks.
Dear Jim — I just learned of your blog and have been enjoying it ENORMOUSLY. It only became clear to me many years later, but your tenure at Marvel was the time when I enjoyed reading comics the most of all. Within a few years after your departure I stopped reading Marvel altogether in fact (mostly switching over to Vertigo titles like Sandman).
Aside from writing to say thanks for your many comments, insights, and histories on this blog, I wanted to mention something about Rocky that fits your own analysis. It's the opening shot of the film. To this day, no one I know who has seen the movie remembers what it is. (Do you? I didn't. Watching the film again a few years ago provided a bit of a shock when the opening reel started.)
The opening shot is a picture of Jesus. Rocky's gym is an old/converted church. And just like everything else you mentioned from the first 20 minutes of the film, this shot is crucial (even if no one remembers it!). Because Rocky = Jesus (or at least, a particular view of Jesus). He's got disciples, he opposes authorities, he has a strong sense of justice, and on and on. Most importantly, he suffers, bleeds, and is "crucified" at the end of the film — which is why it is so critical that he LOSE the Big Fight (and yet win over everyone's hearts and minds).
And it's all set up perfectly by the introduction to both the film and the character — just as you say.
Jim, do you recall any behind the scenes details about plans for Rocky to join G.I. Joe? In 1986, Marvel published a limited series titled The G.I. Joe Order of Battle. Covers described it as "The Official G.I. Joe Handbook" and the second issue included a profile for Rocky Balboa. This was big news since it was the first indication Hasbro planned to create an action figure based on his likeness.
For some reason, It never happened although his Cobra trainer boxing foe labelled Big Boa did indeed get a 3 3/4" toy in 1987. On the last page of The G.I. Joe Order of Battle #4, a giant retraction was printed stating "The character of Rocky Balboa (Code Name: ROCKY) was incorrectly included as a member of G.I. JOE, in The G.I. Joe ORDER OF BATTLE, Issue #2 on page 10. ROCKY is not and has never been a member of G.I. Joe." Later on, Marvel released this limited series as a trade paperback with characters and vehicles alphabetized together. As a bonus, four brand new profiles were added but Rocky's page and 2 others were omitted.
Andy E. Nystrom
I'll echo Rocky Balboa being a solid movie. The series actually has an interesting structure, intentional or not. The first two depict his rise to the top (though the first one is of course about a lot more than that). The middle two are Rocky at his peak as a fighter. The final two depict Rocky in his decline as a fighter. I don't want to defend the middle films too much but it's an interesting arc.
Thank you, Jim!
You're beyond inspirational, as always.
Excellent, would love to hear what you think of it.
The middle ones, I think, were just Stallone cashing in. I haven't seen the last one, but on your recommendation, I will.
It depends. If, for instance, in the movie Rocky, Rocky pointed out a tree, and that tree had no further significance in the story, nor did his sensitivity toward or awareness of trees, I'd say leave it out. If, however, the tree thing were somehow relevant….
I'm not going to try to rewrite Rocky here, and this is dorky, off the top of my puddin'-head, but let's say Rocky pointed out a tree that had weathered many storms, and it inspired him to stand strong in the ring. Fine. If he's just being a nature lover, it isn't relevant. If it somehow reinforced his basically benevolent nature, like the pet turtles do, maybe then. I'd say if in doubt leave it out.
As for "…what if there is no next story?" it doesn't matter. Focus on the one you're writing. Play it like it's the bottom of the ninth and the next story is extra innings. If you're lucky enough to come to bat again, hit it hard.
Jim, thinking about the Rocky series, what did you think of the last one, Rocky Balboa? While the middle ones were entertaining, (though I couldn't finish Rocky 5) I think the bookends were the best & where Stallone dug the deepest for story. Really surprised me that he still had something worth saying about the character after all these years, and it had the best line of the series in it, summing up Rocky beautifully. Rocky to his son – "It's not about how hard you can hit, it's about how hard you can Get hit and keep moving forward…"
If you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth watching.
Here's a pretty good splash panel I found in that same ARCHIE COMICS DIGEST. Archie and Reggie are playing table tennis while Veronica and Jughead watch. Sounds boring, but look at the details to see the characterization:
– Archie has a good-natured smile and has his eyes on the ball.
– Reggie smirks as he aggressively strikes the ball.
– Veronica is at the edge of her seat, eyes wide open in admiration at both boys.
– Jughead is lying back on a couch, eyes half-closed, body language apathetic.
You don't need to read the dialogue to know what the quartet is like.
Great art? No. But it's functional and efficient. It tells you a lot about the characters at a glance.
I don't want to imagine how all of this information would be conveyed in a modern "decompressed" style.
In an even earlier comment, I mentioned how writers like Len Wein worked their way up from short stories for DC. Every scene counts in a short story and every scene should count in a story of any length. Make meaningful scenes a habit early on and you'll enhance your later epics.
I'm completely amazed by how many comparisons you can make from "Little Miss Muffet." They were so subtle. Since you've discussed it first, my mind has expanded to seemingly limitless ideas.
Thank you again, Jim. This is absolutely astounding.
However, I do have a question with your final line:
"If it isn't relevant, lose it. You'll use it in the next story."
What happens if it is left in yet minuscule? ie. Say the main character points out a tree for basic dialogue. Is it irrelevant? If so, what if there is no next story?
Your analysis of ROCKY made me respect Sylvester Stallone as a writer. He's not Twain, but his script made ROCKY a winner. Unlike other popular movies which attracted audiences with big budget eye candy and big name actors, ROCKY is a triumph of storytelling.
What I took away from your analysis of its first scene is this: first impressions count. I mentioned Archie Comics yesterday and I happened to have ARCHIE COMICS DIGEST #1 next to me tonight. It's full of random reprints. What's on the splash pages of the first few stories?
– Miss Grundy taking Reggie and Archie to Mr. Weatherbee's office for misbehavior
– Archie looking at a cute girl while telling Jughead how much he talks about hamburgers
– Betty and Veronica arguing over Archie
You get the idea … of who these people are.
I've never followed a blog so intensely before. I can't wait for Jim's next entry. His writing is educational, entertaining, and even emotional. I've never met him in person or attended any of his seminars, but his passion for storytelling is rubbing off on me.
This "Storytelling" series is the best thing I've ever read on the internet.
Jim, ("Mr. Shooter" seems too formal) thanks for another solid post on story structure, it's a great reminder even for those who've written and have read every book on writing. I particularly appreciated your bringing up in yesterday's post and now in todays, the point about introducing your character doing what he does. Having Rocky FIRST be seen fighting, it's what he is, it's what he does. It's important that he be introduced to the viewer in exactly that way. I've done this myself, introducing a writer in the act of writing and a cartoonist in the act of drawing/lettering. This may not always work for a particular story, but it's a great way to intro a character to an audience.
A&A… hadn't thought of that in a while. Quirky little book. I liked it a lot at the time.
It was in this book that I noticed BWS has a "canned" look to his figures. There is a level of sameness to them. That's not uncommon, or intended as an insult. Steve Dillon, Gary Frank have that to a degree as well. You can definitely their hand when comparing to other artists.
G.Perez by comparison, his hand is equally distinct but the figures are more individualized to have variety. I can easily see they are different.
Was there any significance of the similarities between the New Universe & Valiant Universe?
Spitfire – X-O Manowar
D.P. 7 – Harbinger
Starbrand – Solar
Mark Hazzard: Merc – Eternal Warrior
Nightmask – Shadowman
Psi-Force – H.A.R.D. Corp/Psi-Lords
Kickers Inc. – Archer & Armstong
I know some of them are a stretch.