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 particular mentor refused to devote too much of his time or energy to reading Robert McKee’s Story or attending his famed story seminar.
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 most sought after story guru devotes a significant portion of his teaching to the analysis of Casablanca.
For the late, great Jack Gilbert, one of the most selfless human beings I’ve ever met and the best writing coach I’ve ever had, Casablanca was simply too beloved to murder by dissection. He simply wanted to enjoy his favorite film for its charm and not pick it apart as a writer.
In fact, Jack had a tradition of watching Casablanca with a glass of wine every year on his birthday, turning to his friends at the end of the film with a nod and a toast, “here’s to looking at you, kid.”
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 set aside his advice and do something I’ve avoided doing for decades, and that is provide a story review of one of my all-time favorite movies:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Like Jaws, I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark on a VHS copy that my dad taped off television. And just to make my cinematic upbringing even more complete, our grainy VHS copy of Raiders included an equally spotty taping of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Of course, whenever I was allowed to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, my dad would make me cover my eyes during the infamous face melting scene, and he’d edited out some of the scarier moments of the film that the television censor hadn’t caught. That or he was just too lazy with the remote to actually press record when the commercials were over.
Even edited, the adventures of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his quest to recover the Ark of the Covenant (which I had read about in Sunday School), were instrumental in shaping my understanding of storytelling and excitement about writing, history, and even biblical archeology.
Thrilling, adventurous, scary, supremely entertaining, and incredibly well written, Raiders of the Lost Ark is as much a cinematic treasure today as it was when it was first released.
So why am I writing about Raiders this week? Well, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest adventure stories than by discussing why it works so well 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.
By the way, if you have not seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think forty years is well beyond the accepted window for an obligatory spoiler warning; I will also forego any sort of plot summary at point. It’s been forty years! You’ve seen it. I hope. So buckle up and let's get to it.
“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 over the years can be extrapolated from the film’s flawless 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 steeper hill to climb.
A good writer, script reader, or editor can probably tell within the first ten pages if a story is working or not. And for some writers, ten pages is all they might get to win over a prospective reader or audience.
As a writer, your first act has to get a LOT of things right. It’s not easy.
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.
Establishing the world your characters will inhabit is just as important as defining and developing the characters themselves.
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 journalism’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 the characters will use, how they might dress or speak, and the power players and opposition the hero might encounter throughout the film.
In Indy’s case, the 1930s gives us several time-period specifics that become icons for the series.
The Nazis at the height of their power
In 1936, Indy can’t rely on modern technology like GPS, 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 of Indiana Jones.
What do we find in the jungles of Peru?
1. While we know this is going to be an adventure, it’s not as swashbuckling or light-hearted as we might expect. From the opening shot, we meet Indy as he travels deep into heart of the Central American rainforest. This world is ancient, it is primitive, and it is dangerous! 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 or labyrinth. 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 Hovitos, the indigenous people who’d happily kill anyone (via poison dart) caught trespassing on their land. The writers have now introduced a second layer of danger 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 see this when one of Indy’s companions tries to shoot him in the back. This won’t be the last time Indy gets sold out by those closest to him either. We learn from these betrayals, however, that Indy is fully aware of the treachery of those in his company, and he is fully equipped to handle them on his own. He really is a “cautious fellow.”
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
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.
Captivated by 1930’s serialized adventures, it was George Lucas who had the idea of telling the story of a renowned archeologist who travels the globe in search of supernatural artifacts. However, to help Lucas his vision into a reality, while he was hard at work on a relatively insignificant space adventure known as Star Wars, George enlisted the help of friend and fellow movie brat, Steven Spielberg.
As the story goes, Spielberg was interested in directing a James Bond film at the time. To this, Lucas offered something even more tantalizing, Indiana Jones. Apparently, that was all it took for Spielberg to get on board,
Steven Spielberg wasn’t crazy to want to direct a James Bond film. By 1980, Bond was already a pop culture icon, with eleven films already on his resume. However, one thing James Bond always lacked was innate human flaws.
In most Bond films, we know that OO7 is going to be successful on his mission and somehow look good while doing it. This is part of the allure of the always suave, shaken not stirred, British agent.
Indy, however, is not that kind of hero.
He is rough around the edges, “scruffy looking”, pragmatic, resourceful, and always willing to get his hands dirty to get the job done. Where Bond might stick to a more gentlemanly code of honor, Indy isn’t afraid to bring a gun to knife fight if it means reaching his objective or getting out of a bad situation alive.
Indy is also not protected from making mistakes. He guesses wrong on the weight of the Chachapoyan idol, barely clears the chasm, and eventually trips the giant boulder in the Incan temple. He emerges alive but not unscathed. He is, after all, only human.
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.
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 he came for.
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 really talented competitor (Forrestal) could not, he survived where Barranca and Satipo (Alfred Molina) could not, and he escaped with his life with help from his pal, 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 seemingly minor character quirk.
If Indy was this uncomfortable around one snake, imagine how horrifying it would be for him to be a room with thousands? Again, the writer has set himself up to pay off a fun and seemingly minor obstacle in a profound way.
The lesson here is don’t be afraid to let your hero lose or get knocked down. They can’t lose every battle. They also shouldn’t win every fight either. Let them bleed. Let them make mistakes. Let 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 meet 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 has to be his persistence and ability to adapt to any situation. 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 all sorts of 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.
Rocky Balboa (Rocky) may have been a resilient fighter. He was willing and able to go the distance, and that’s why we love him.
James Bond was clever and always had the right gadget, quip, or technique to get himself out of trouble.
Indiana Jones has both. The persistent explorer is also a polished professor. He’s tough but also intelligent, and he’ll use both brawn and brains to get the job done.
A good writer also knows how to gradually increase the size and stakes of each challenge. It’s the reason why Die Hard could end with John McClane (Bruce Willis) jumping barefoot off a skyscraper with a fire hose tied around his waist. It is an absolutely ridiculous sequence, but after two hours and a steady escalation of conflict, we are more willing to accept McClane’s improbable leap from Nakatomi Plaza.
Likewise, 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 swim after a Nazi submarine.
The writers lay the groundwork with the tests and challenges Indy must defeat inside the Incan temple, one of the greatest openings in film history.
Test 1: Indy has to find the temple
Test 2: Spiders
Test 3: Sun triggered spikes (note: Forrestal only got this far)
Test 4: The chasm
Test 5: Pressure sensitive floor and poison darts
Test 6: Estimating the weight of the idol and replacing it with a counterweight
Test 7: Cave in
Test 8: Repeat previous tests
Test 9: Betrayal
Test 10: One giant leap for mankind
Oops. Satipo triggered the spikes on his way out. Sorry, pal. Indy has the idol back and is in the clear Wait! No he’s not.
Final Test and the biggest one of all: The rolling boulder.
That’s more conflict than most screenplays have in one hundred pages. In just a few short minutes, the writers have already put Indy through numerous perils and forced him to figure out how to overcome every single one.
It’s not always pretty, but he makes it out in mostly one piece.
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 writers, 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 is creating and sustaining momentum.
If you need to "tell" your reader or audience something, go ahead. I'm not one hundred percent in the "show never tell" camp. Do what you have to do to get information across. Just make it interesting and worth paying attention to.
A break in the action to unload a ton of backstory or information about the plot 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 just as effective at building momentum and sustaining the story’s pace. 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 big 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 all at once. 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.
In the wrong hands, this scene could be slow, talky, and just plain boring.
So what does Lawrence Kasdan do to keep the scene lively, interesting, and relevant to the plot? Here are a couple of techniques:
The Use of Dialogue:
Not every writer can write a monologue as character revealing as Shakespeare or craft subtext dripping exposition like Quentin Tarantino. Not all actors are up to the task either. And it might be asking a lot of the audience to stay focused through a long, verbose speech or excessive amount of backstory.
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 establishes is a conversation and an expert/student dynamic.
Army Intelligence seeks out Dr. Jones for his expertise on a subject that they (like we) know 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 individuals about the history of the staff of Ra, Tanis, the Bible, and the Ark of the Covenant, this is not a traditional lecture. We’ve already seen that in the previous scene, and though the ladies in Dr. Jones’ class were captivated (by him mostly), I doubt anyone was actually paying attention to what he was saying.
In a way, Indy’s classroom is a commentary on what bad exposition can look like and do to an audience. We may be captivated by the speaker or performer, but if the information being communicated is quickly forgotten, what’s the point?
The conversation between Indy and Army Intelligence is important. In fact, it might be the most important conversation in the entire film. There’s simply too much information to be glossed over or forgotten because the scene is boring.
The writer has to make this scene interesting and memorable because it sets up the entire quest. Dialogue helps with this.
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 most probable resting place for the lost Ark of the Covenant.
Again, if conflict can and should escalate throughout the film, so should the quest and what’s at stake.
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 scene in Act 2, and opens up a large textbook with a depiction of the Ark of the Covenant for us to see.
It’s worth noting that this depiction reveals the Ark of the Covenant being carried into battle with the enemies of Israel falling dead before it. “Lighting, fire, power of God.” We don’t know what’s coming out of it. We just know it’s powerful. In a lot of ways, the supernatural potential of the Ark of the Covenant explains Hitler’s interests but also foreshadows the dramatic face-melting finale.
Visuals definitely make the scene more interesting, but they also foreshadow the supernatural elements we will eventually encounter and paint the picture of where we might be heading next.
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, though that is very important.
The presence of Abner Ravenwood, a friend and former mentor, 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, but that one line of dialogue hints that this relationship is not going to be a throwaway.
The writer is leading us into the next big 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 and cares about.
Exposition doesn’t just have to be about plot; Raiders demonstrates that there are opportunities to develop character as well.
“An Army That Carries the Ark … is Invincible”
What’s at Stake? Let Your MacGuffin Mean Something
In Act 2, the primary antagonist, Belloq (Paul Freeman), makes an interesting philosophical argument about the nature of archeology and the human perspective on treasure and history. Holding up a pocket watch, he tells Indy, “look at this. It’s worthless. Ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, bury it in the sand for a thousand years and it becomes priceless… like the Ark.”
It’s not a terrible metaphor, however, Belloq gets one thing very wrong in his assessment of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was never worthless. It was just as much a treasure of indescribable power for the children of Israel in the Bible as it was the day Indy unearthed it from the Well of Souls in his fictional quest in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Ark of the Covenant is not some meaningless trinket or ancient pocket watch. As we learn during the film’s exposition scene, it is a source of unspeakable supernatural power.
Now imagine this kind of power falling into the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The stakes could not be higher.
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.
The Maltese Falcon (The Maltese Falcon)
The One Ring (The Fellowship of the Ring)
The Silver Briefcase (Pulp Fiction)
Wilson (Cast Away)
Private Ryan (Saving Private Ryan)
The Infinity Stones (The Marvel Cinematic Universe)
R2-D2 (Star Wars: A New Hope)
Grogu/Baby Yoda (The Mandalorian)
In Hitchcock’s view, a MacGuffin can 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) going.
J.J. Abrams expanded on this idea with his philosophy of the Mystery Box. Here, the idea is that we don’t need to (or even want) to know what’s inside “the box.” The mystery alone is sufficient.
We see this play out in Abrams’ work on Mission: Impossible 3 and the “Rabbit’s Foot”, an unknown biohazard of undisclosed destructive capabilities. Not even the IMF agents know what it is. They just know they can’t let it fall into the hands of the film’s primary villain. That’s enough. In fact, we never find out what the Rabbit’s Foot is at the end of the film. The Mystery Box is never opened, so to speak. Hmmm. Does this sound like the driving theory behind LOST and why fans felt might have felt robbed of answers when the series wrapped?
I am personally not a huge fan of the Mystery Box paradigm as I believe audience members do eventually want some answers and a look behind the curtain the storytellers spent so much time focusing our attention on. It’s even worse when the storyteller uses a Mystery Box to cover up their inability and unwillingness to answer questions they’ve set up or simply haven’t answered for themselves, but that’s another discussion for another time.
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!
Plot. Purpose. Payoff.
They’re all laid out in the first act.
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. Would Indy risk his life, get dragged behind a truck, or cling to the side of a Nazi submarine for the Incan idol he recovered at the beginning of the film? I doubt 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 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 hope you stuck around to the end. These were just a few of the big writing lessons I’ve adopted from the film, particularly the 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.
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and read through my extensive analysis. It’s not always the years, it’s the mileage, and you’ve definitely added a few to your creative odometer. 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, which I’m excited to share with you as often as I can.
Thank you again. For my fellow American readers, have a wonderful 4th of July weekend celebrating the birth of this incredible nation. Much love. God Bless.