Writing Lessons from "Raiders of the Lost Ark (40 Years Later)
A much wiser man and far better writer than me once argued that you should never over-analyze your favorite books or movies. It was the reason this mentor refused to attend Robert McKee’s famed Story story seminar.
Well, if you’ve read Story (I have) or are fortunate enough to take his screenwriting seminar (I have not), you’ll know that Hollywood’s once, most sought after story guru devotes a significant portion of his teaching to the analysis of Casablanca.
For the late, great Jack Gilbert, Casablanca was simply too beloved to murder by analysis. He simply wanted to enjoy his favorite film for its charm and not pick it apart.
Jack Gilbert may have gone on to be with the Lord years ago, but his wisdom and instruction have remained in the front tray of many writers’ tool kits, mine included.
So, I guess I owe Jack Gilbert a bit of an apology since I am going to do something I’ve avoided doing for decades, and that is examine the writing of one of my all-time favorite movies:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
After all, what better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest adventure stories than by discussing why it works and how it has stood the test of time in ways few cinematic treasures have.
And so, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, here are several writing lessons from the film and screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan that writers in any genre can learn from and apply to their own writing.
“No One Has Ever Come Out of There Alive”
Setting Can Be Just as Important as Character
Many of the writing lessons I’ve gleaned from Raiders of the Lost Ark can be extrapolated from the film’s unforgettable opening sequence and brilliant first act. That isn’t to say that the second and third acts of the film aren’t also strong. I’ve just learned from my time as a script reader, that if the first twenty pages of a script/twenty minutes of a film don’t work, the writer has a much steeper hill to climb.
When we talk about the mechanics of great fiction, we typically refer to things like plot, character, dialogue, and theme as essentials. Aristotle addressed many of these elements in his famed Poetics, and they are all important.
I’ve always believed, however, that setting and world building are some of the most critical yet underrated elements of good writing.
When you take time to convey where your story takes place, you as a storyteller are effectively setting the stage, defining the rules, and painting the picture of the world that you’re inviting your readers or audience to step into.
To take a page out of a journalist’s playbook, context matters.
Who (character), what (plot), and why (motivation) are important, but they are all influenced by the when (time) and where (setting).
Setting Indy’s adventures in the 1930s influences what kinds of weapons and technology available to the hero, how he might dress or speak, and the power players and opposition he might encounter on his journey.
In 1936, Indy can’t rely on modern technology like cell phones, jet planes, or the internet to help him track down the ark. All he has is basic gear, his resourcefulness, his knowledge, and his tenacity to see him through.
Furthermore, in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, we are introduced right away to the world Indiana Jones inhabits.
And what do we encounter in the jungles of Peru?
1. While we know this is an adventure, it’s not as swashbuckling or light-hearted as we might expect. This world is ancient, it is primitive, and it is dangerous! That is the key feature. It would be easy for anyone to get lost in this dense maze of rivers, mountains, and trees, in the same way we might get disoriented if locked inside a forbidden temple. Guess where we're going next? Music and cinematography add to this sense of foreboding, and things become even more confined and claustrophobic once Indy makes it inside the Incan temple. This is a world of mystery and unseen perils that Indy (and the audience) enter right away.
2. If the jungle wasn’t frightening enough, next we learn that Indy and his crew are being hunted by the indigenous people who’d happily kill anyone caught trespassing on their land. The writers have now introduced a second layer of peril revealed through the trepidation of Indy’s companions. Furthermore, we get the sense that this place might also be cursed, again via the caution and fears of supporting characters. There is a supernatural undertone to this world that is incredibly unnerving.
3. Though Indy has allies, we learn very quickly that he has very few friends. No one can be trusted. No one! There are backstabbers around every corner, competitors always waiting in the wings, and ruthless villains eager to steal, maim, or kill for the treasure he is hunting. We learn from these betrayals (I count at least 3 in the opening sequence), that Indy is fully aware of the treachery of those around him, and he is fully equipped to handle them on his own. He really is a “cautious fellow.”
Thus, the mood and tone of the franchise are established right away. And we learn from this uniquely hostile environment that, in order to survive, one must be incredibly resourceful, alert, and even a bit ruthless. These are all qualities we discover about Indy before we’ve even seen his face or heard him utter a single word.
“You Lost Today, Kid, But That Doesn’t Mean You Have to Like It”
Don’t Be Afraid to Let Your Hero Get Knocked Down or Lose Early
I know I am quoting a pivotal line from the opening of The Last Crusade, however, this mantra is present in Indiana Jones in the early moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Compared to someone like James Bond, Indy is a much different hero.
He is rough around the edges, “scruffy looking”, pragmatic, resourceful, and always willing to get his hands dirty to get the job done. Indy is also not shielded from making mistakes by the writer. He guesses wrong on the weight of the idol, barely clears the chasm, and eventually trips the giant boulder. He emerges alive but not unscathed.
Furthermore, while Indy manages to overcome every booby trap the Incans could possibly conceive, he inevitably loses the idol to one of his fiercest competitors.
Thus, in the first ten minutes of the film, the hero has earned a check mark in both the win and lose column of his resume.
Indy does escape Belloq and the Hovitos, which I would personally consider a win, but as an archeologist, he fails his main objective. He doesn’t make it home with the artifact.
Ironically, Indy can escape without the artifact and still not come across as a total loser. He has already won us over because he beat traps a talented competitor (Forrestal) could not, he survived where his companions could not, and he escaped with his life with help from a friend, air circus pilot Jock Lindsay.
And did I mention that the guy who just survived multiple booby traps, angry Hovitos, and the perils of the Peruvian rainforest also hates snakes?
Add this to the list of human qualities we instantly love and appreciate about Indiana Jones. Unflappable through spiders, corpses, and poison darts. But snakes? That’s enough to make the legendary explorer squirm.
By the way, there is a great bit of foreshadowing and payoff to this hilarious character quirk.
The lesson here is don’t be afraid to let your hero lose or get knocked down. They shouldn’t lose every battle. That’s no fun for anyone. They also shouldn’t win every fight either. Let them bleed. Let them make mistakes. Give them have fears and flaws; and allow us to discover them early.
We won’t root for an outright loser. We will, however, cheer for a relatable hero who loses but gets back up and overcomes his fears, flaws, and failures to reach his goal.
“Your Persistence Surprises Even Me”
Show What Makes Your Character Unique Early
Speaking of getting back up, one of the defining features of Indiana Jones is his persistence and willingness to adapt. When even his enemies respect this about him, you know it’s worth something.
As a writer, when you’re writing a character you know will never give up, you’ve actually given yourself permission to throw everything and anything at them. You get to come up with even more obstacles and elaborate booby traps for him to overcome. And if you know that your hero is also resourceful, you then get to figure out how he’ll get himself out of the literal pits he falls into.
A good writer knows how to gradually increase the size and stakes of each challenge.
For example, in the second act of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy gets dragged behind a truck to recover the Ark. Minutes later, he’s clinging to the side of a Nazi submarine to keep it (and Marion) from getting away. Again, it’s so ridiculous it’s wonderful, but the writers have already established that Indy will do anything to get what he came for. It’s no longer beyond the realm of possibilities to see him cling to the side of a Nazi submarine.
The writers lay the groundwork with the myriad of tests and challenges Indy must defeat inside the Incan temple. In fact, there’s more conflict in this sequence than most screenplays have in their entirety.
This is a sequence that quickly proves…
1. The storytellers aren’t going to make it easy on Indy, and it only gets worse from here.
2. Most people don’t make it out of this world alive.
3. Indy might be uniquely up to the task.
“Didn’t You Guys Ever Go to Sunday School?”
Exposition Doesn’t Have to be Boring
Exposition is a tricky element to master, and most writers botch it big time in their early drafts. I still struggle to find interesting and organic ways to convey important information about the plot, the characters, and their backstory without resorting to dream sequences, intrusive flashbacks, voice overs, or verbose dialogue.
Dream sequences, flashbacks, voice overs, and dialogue are all part of storytelling and can be used effectively. When it comes to exposition, however, one of the biggest challenges writers face involves creating and sustaining momentum.
A break in the action to unload a ton of backstory or information with a bunch of talking can absolutely destroy a story’s pacing. It can also be really boring.
Done right, however, exposition can be just as entertaining as a well-structured action scene and still give us information about the plot and characters.
The big exposition scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the best examples of this.
For those that don’t know what scene I’m referring to, the exposition in Raiders of the Lost Ark happens in Act One when Indy meets with Army Intelligence about the Ark of the Covenant.
A lot of things happen in this scene.
We obviously learn about the quest Indy is about to go on. We get a crash course on the history of the Ark of Covenant (with some added content) and why it matters. And we get to see another side of Indiana Jones that develops his character even further.
Here, writer Lawrence Kasdan keeps the scene lively, interesting, and relevant to the plot. There are a few ways he does it.
1. The Use of Dialogue:
In Raiders’, the two Army Intelligence officers arrive at the university to inquire about the whereabouts of Abner Ravenwood and the significance of the headpiece to the staff of Ra, two bits of information they pulled from an intercepted German communication.
What this immediately creates is an expert/student dynamic.
Army Intelligence seeks out Dr. Jones for his expertise on a subject that they (like we) know very little about. It’s an invitation for exposition, not an intrusion of information the writer needs to cram in to set things up.
And even though Indy has to “educate” two relatively ignorant characters about the history of the staff of Ra, Tanis, and the biblical Ark of the Covenant, this is not a traditional lecture.
The writer has to make this scene interesting and memorable because it sets up the entire quest. Instead of Indy being the sole speaker rattling on and on, the exposition is broken up between the other characters in the room, with Marcus Brody providing color commentary to Indy’s analysis.
Indy answers questions, clarifies concerns, adds context, and informs both Army Intelligence and the audience that this quest is potentially much bigger than just Abner Ravenwood or finding the headpiece to the staff of Ra. These are all means to an ultimate end - finding the lost city of Tanis, which history suggests is the probable resting place for the Ark of the Covenant.
2. Foreshadowing Through the Use of Visuals:
In this sequence, Indy also doesn’t just talk about the headpiece of the staff of Ra or the Ark of the Covenant, he shows it.
He draws out the mechanics of the staff of Ra on the chalkboard, foreshadowing the Map Room sequence in Act 2, and opens a large textbook revealing the supernatural power of the Ark of the Covenant we’ll witness in Act 3.
Visuals definitely make the scene more interesting, but they also foreshadow the supernatural elements we will eventually encounter.
3. Character Backstory is Important:
As an archeologist, Indiana Jones has an obvious investment in wanting to recover the Ark of the Covenant. It’s the Holy Grail (oh wait) of ancient artifacts. Though the Ark of the Covenant is the kind of treasure that got him into archeology in the first place, there’s more at stake for Indy than just fortune and glory, or beating the Nazis.
The involvement of Abner Ravenwood makes this quest much more personal for Indiana Jones, in the same way finding the Holy Grail is really secondary to saving his father in The Last Crusade.
We learn, through exposition, that Indy and Ravenwood had a falling out years ago. We don’t know why from just this scene (we’ll get that info later), but from one line of dialogue we get the sense that this relationship is important.
The writer is actually leading us into the next bit of character development that comes via Indy’s severed relationship with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Abner’s daughter.
We not only have historical context for the film’s treasure and quest; we also get a bit of character backstory.
In a story where the writer has already demonstrated a willingness to force his hero to face his greatest fears, it makes sense that he’d also challenge him to face and attempt to repair the broken pieces of his past too.
In both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, there’s more on the line for Indy that just earthly treasures. He must also protect and rescue those he loves.
He may be persistent and resilient, but he also has heart. He cares about people as much if not more than earthly treasure.
“An Army That Carries the Ark … is Invincible”
What’s at Stake? Let Your MacGuffin Mean Something
Director Alfred Hitchcock was famous for coining the term “MacGuffin” to describe an object, person, or device that serves as the driving force for the plot. Characters may hunt for it, seek to protect it, or fight to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
In Hitchcock’s view, a MacGuffin could be anything. We, the audience, don’t even need to know what it is. Neither do the characters. If it serves as a catalyst for the plot and is something the characters are invested in, that’s enough to keep the story (or quest) moving forward.
Raiders of the Lost Ark arguably has several MacGuffins, none more significant, of course, than the Ark of the Covenant. A bit of Mystery Box (literally), the Ark of the Covenant is said to contain the remnants of the Ten Commandments and Moses’ staff.
Now are these pieces actually inside? We don’t know. Do we actually care? When it comes to the movie, not really. Belloq does, but we know it is the Ark’s supernatural power that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s are really after, and that alone is terrifying!
We may not get all the secrets of the Ark of the Covenant by the time the film is over, but after the wrath of God, face-melting sequence, we’re a little more willing to accept its ultimate fate.
The United States government may not know what they’ve got in their possession, but given its power, maybe it’s best that it stays buried and hidden, as it is at the end of the film.
Again, the film’s exposition establishes the quest, everyone’s motivation, and why Indy must succeed at all costs!
If there’s nothing at stake in losing the Ark of the Covenant, Indy might not be as persistent or willing to endure the pain and suffering of fighting to retrieve it.
The takeaway here is that a MacGuffin of undisclosed value or purpose can be interesting, but will we really care as much about The Mandalorian’s mission, for example, if, instead of adorable Grogu, he’s protecting a briefcase? I think not.
People are obviously more valuable than earthly treasures. It’s why we care WAY more about Indy’s mission to rescue the enslaved children in The Temple of Doom than the actual Sankara Stones. And the fact that Indy also must choose between Marion and the Ark at times complicates the quest even further.
However, if you want to make your audience or readers care about the plot, raise the stakes or heighten the tension, or justify your hero’s resolve, make their quest important, or at the very least, make the thing they are pursuing/protecting mean something.
Raiders of the Lost Ark does, and its why the Ark of the Covenant is arguably the most famous (and important) artifacts in movie history, not to mention history in general.
Anyway, that should be more than enough for this week. I hope you enjoyed my very deep dive into the writing mechanics of Raiders of the Lost Ark and stuck around to the end.
But what do you think? What are some of your favorite moments from Raiders of the Lost Ark? Are there additional writing techniques you’ve gleaned from Kasdan’s script? I’d love to hear about them.
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by. If you enjoyed my thoughts and poetics, please don’t forget to tap the heart icon below, share this post with a fellow Indy fan, and subscribe for news, exclusive content, and more.
Thank you again. Have a wonderful 4th of July weekend. Now get back to writing!