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Anatomy of a Scene: Raiders of the Lost Ark

I've been meaning to start doing stuff like this and I figured there was no better time to start than now.

There are a lot of scenes in a lot of movies and books that just knock my socks off every time I see them. Talking about them lights a fire under my ass that makes me want to just write and write and write. They're perfectly written, perfectly executed, and just perfect. 

So I wanted to highlight some of them here and try to explain why they give me creative nourishment. 

Many of these will probably come from films. That's where my background is. I do everything I can to steal all the best ideas from the best storytellers in Hollywood and try to bring that sensibility to my writing and this might be a fascinating adventure for you or it could be boring. Either way, you'll get to witness some great scenes from great stories.

The first scene is from Raiders of the Lost Ark. When I think of "great, well-written scene," this is one of the first scenes that pops into my head. 

Watch it:

So, why does this scene work so well for me?

In order to do that we need to dissect what each character must be thinking.

First, we've been introduced to these two characters that are magnetic on their own, but we don't know what their relationship is, but we know when they meet it's going to be fireworks. Indiana Jones is introduced to the scene when she's at a point of vulnerability, when she thinks she's alone, and his voice cuts through the bar, grabbing her attention.

"Hello, Marion."

And isn't that a helluva way to grab the attention of the audience? His shadow looms large over her, casting itself over her and her life. And now he's come back to exert that shade.

Her first reaction? She shatters the glass she's holding. That simple action says so much about how surprising this is to her. Or how frustrating. Then she smiles heavily and we're led to believe she's happy to see him.

"Indiana Jones. I always knew someday you'd come walking back through my door."

This line tells us so much. That she missed him. That it's been a long time since they've seen each other. And the way she says it maybe implies that she was expecting to have been wrong about her assessment, too.

His smile as she speaks the rest of her line makes us think he's taken in by her. He puts us at ease with her.

The way the scene is built, we're almost left to think he's going to pick up their relationship where they left off, especially with how happy he was to see her.

But then the scene takes another turn and he's all business. "I need one of the pieces your father collected."

He wasn't there for her at all. It was never about her. He's arrived to collect his junk. And so she hauls off and punches him, a stark contrast to the reunion they seemed to be leading toward. This is the first major turning point of the scene.

Her next line offers more clues. "I learned to hate you in the last ten years."

Indy rubs his jaw and realizes he will have to deal with the personal side of things before getting to business. "I never meant to hurt you," he tells her.

But it doesn't matter if you mean to hurt someone, you don't get to control effect based on intent. She lets him have it. "I was a child! I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it!"

This line of dialogue shades all of our previous understanding of Indiana Jones. Is he a man of his word? Or a louse? Could she really be the wronged party here? Was she really underage? We're left as the audience to think all of these things before Indy puts his foot in his mouth again. "You knew what you were doin'."

Victim blaming? We're firmly on her side here.

"Now, I do," she says before asserting herself and her place in the world further. She puts her foot down. "This is my place. Get out."

The next part of the scene is interesting as it unfolds into the middle. One of her regulars or perhaps an employee walks in on this scene and she tells him to leave, too, reinforcing the idea that she's in charge of the space they're in. It also reminds us as the audience that they're occupying a real place with things beyond their control going on around them. And it adds a bit of tension as well. Anybody could just walk in.

When blaming her doesn't work, Indy tries a different tack. If she won't be manipulated by his machismo, maybe he can level with her and reason with her pragmatism. "I did what I did. You don't have to be happy about it, but maybe we can help each other out."

But she's not even listening. She walks away, ignoring him. We're left to wonder if this the pattern their previous relationship fell into?

He continues, "I need one of the pieces your father collected. Bronze piece, about this size with a hole in it, off center with a crystal. You know the one I mean?"

This is an important bit of dialogue, because it gives us all the information we need to recognize the piece when we learn that Marion has it and it's a lot closer than we expected it. Since the headpiece to the staff of Ra is so important to the rest of the film as a maguffin, too, talking about it like this and building its mystique is a good bit of storytelling. Every scene needs to accomplish more than a few things: revealing character, advancing the story, and giving us information we'll need for the rest of the story. This scene has it in spades.

Marion relents a little, but doesn't stop cleaning the tables of her bar off. "Yeah, I know it."

She's giving him a bit of hope here, but she doesn't say she has it. She lets him believe it could be anywhere. But to Indy, she's still just being difficult, so he tries a different tactic to get the piece: appealing to her family. "Where's Abner?"

She ignores him, her back to him. But is she ignoring him? Or is she lost in the moment? Is that sadness?"

"Where is Abner," he repeats, unsure of what she's trying to tell him. We're unsure of what she's trying to say as well. The scene is definitely told from Indy's perspective and Marion has proven through the roller coaster of a scene that she could say or do anything.

"Abner's dead."

Marion's words hang there. This isn't news that Indy wants to hear for a number of reasons, mainly because he cared for Abner. But also because it's going to make his job more difficult. For Marion, it's sad because this was her father. For us, as the audience, this is a major reveal. Elegant in its simplicity and effectiveness. We feel it. From both characters.

And it's only two simple words.

"Marion, I'm sorry," Indy says. For the first time, we believe him.

But she's lost in the memories of it all. Of her father, of the time she loved Indiana Jones... it all bubbles out, uncontrollably. "Do you know what you did to me, to my life?"

"I can only say I'm sorry so many times..."

This sounds tender and honest, but is he playing her again? She reacts poorly, the grief turns quickly to anger and she shatters the glasses against the bar. "Well, say it again anyway."

And he does. Flippantly.

Marion walks away, needing to put space between them. Needing to focus more on the bar. "Yeah, everybody's sorry. Abner was sorry for dragging me all over this Earth lookin' for his bits of junk, I'm sorry to still be stuck in this dive... Everybody's sorry for something..."

This line is incredibly important because now you can understand why she hit him. It makes every bit of sense. She resented her father for his quest for "junk." She has abandonment issues, both from whatever circumstance left her in Nepal, and from Indy. When the first thing he mentions is his own bit of junk, of course she hit him. But she's cooling down a bit now, she can get closer to him.

For Indy's part, she's given him a lot to chew on. He's lost, deep in thought.  But he still has a mission and instead of even pretending to care about her as a person, he presses the issue he came to resolve. And his desperate. This is his low point. "It's a worthless bronze medallion, Marion, you going to give it to me?"

And that's too much for her. She needs to leave again. "Maybe. I don't know where it is."

Is she lying to him? Her voice was awful coy? Is she going to try to hurt him back now? He has no time for games and you can hear it in his voice. "Well, maybe you could find it."

And maybe a bribe would work. He withdraws a wad of cash. "$3000 bucks."

Then she becomes the negotiator. Cold, now. Different the vulnerability we saw from her before. Now she's all business. This is her place, like she said. "Well, that'll get me back, but not in style."

Is there a cooler way to say, "Offer me more money?"

No. And it works. "I can get you another two when we get to the states. It's important, Marion."

And now we see her close up. In the firelight. If the scene hadn't been so tense, it might have been romantic. But we're seeing him from his point of view. She's beautiful. Charming. Strong willed. He might still love her and maybe his charm will work for him after all. "Trust me," he says with his trademark grin.

She goes to hit him again, but he knows it's coming and puts the cash in her hand. After a few minutes and as many tries, he's figured out how to push her buttons all over again. She's going to do business with him. "You know the piece I mean. You knew where it is."

And she laughs in his face. Is she going to relent? Or spit in his face? We don't know until she says, "Come back tomorrow."

"Why?" He still doesn't trust her and he doesn't like being in control.

"Because I said so, that's why." She's in control of the situation. She has what he wants. And she wants him to stew in it.

He comes closer to her, but she looks away, showing him that his advance wouldn't be welcome, so he keeps walking.

Marion offers half a laugh. "See you tomorrow, Indiana Jones."

And we're left with a close up of him, not knowing if any of this is going to work.

But we know. As soon as she's alone, we see that she has the medallion. And she's kept it much closer to her heart than we could have ever guessed. It's a beautiful end to the scene and it ends in the defeat of our hero, though there is that ray of hope.

Add up how much information you know about the characters, their backgrounds, their relationships, and where they might be headed after the scene. You'll find that the economy of the scene was remarkably dense and emotional.

Although this is a film, we can certainly simulate the effect in our prose, right? We can imply actions and feelings in the actions of the characters without having to be in their head. We can trade barbs with the dialogue and we can pace it as quickly as we want to. If we know the characters and how they speak thoroughly enough, it can be even faster. But we can imply so much and let the audience see what's between the lines without spelling it out for them. Watching this over and over is one way I learned to figure out how to hop from the head of one character to the other and imagine what they're thinking, but also how to do that as an audience member.

Imagine yourself taking this information in for the first time, how would it affect you?

There's a reason I study Lawrence Kasdan, particularly through the lens of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. There's something there to love and to learn. This is just great writing.

Hopefully this exercise was helpful to you.

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!


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