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 stories.
This week, I owe the late, great Jack Gilbert a bit of an apology since I am going to do just that.
Also, what better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest adventure stories ever told 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 gleaned from Raiders of the Lost Ark can be pulled 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 as strong. It’s just that, if the first twenty pages of a script and 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 storytelling.
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, how our hero might dress or speak, and the major forces he might encounter on his journey.
In the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, we are introduced immediately to the world Indiana Jones inhabits.
And what do we encounter early in the jungles of Peru?
1. Danger and a sense of foreboding.
2. Supernatural perils and trepidation on the part of Indy’s companions.
3. Backstabbing, betrayal, and violence.
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.
Thus, the mood and tone of the story (and 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 find in 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 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 a hero like James Bond, Indy is rough around the edges. He’s “scruffy looking”, pragmatic, resourceful, and always willing to get his hands dirty to get the job done.
Indy is also not protected 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 where others could not.
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?
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 see 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 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.
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. And 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.
2. Most people don’t make it out of this world alive.
3. Indiana Jones 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 their story’s 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 one 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 context) and learn 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; and 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 a teacher/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.
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 make the scene more interesting. They also foreshadow the supernatural elements we will eventually encounter.
3. Character Backstory:
As an archeologist, Indiana Jones has an obvious investment in wanting to recover the Ark of the Covenant. But 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 defeating 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 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 to that later), but from one line of dialogue we get the sense that this relationship is important, and there’s something painful about it to our hero.
The writer is also leading us to the next big character introduction that comes via Indy’s severed relationship with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Abner’s daughter.
In a story where the writer has 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.
Indy 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 than the Ark of the Covenant. A bit of Mystery Box (quite literally), the Ark of the Covenant is said to contain the remnants of the Ten Commandments and Moses’ staff.
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, That alone is a terrifying prospect.
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 are content to walk away with respect and reverence, not necessarily complete answers.
The United States government may not know what they have, but given its power, maybe it’s best that the ark stays buried, 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.
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 deep dive into the writing mechanics of Raiders of the Lost Ark and its fantastic first act.
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 in the comments below.
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by. If you enjoyed my analysis, I’d love it if you can tap the heart icon below, share this post with a fellow writer or Raiders fan, and subscribe for news, updates content, and more.
Thank you again. Have a wonderful 4th of July weekend. Now get back to writing!