Lessons on writing from Rocky

Before you go and get all “seriously?” on me, I’d like to share a few facts about the film and it’s writer.

Rocky was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing). Sylvester Stallone was nominated for two of those ten: Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, making him only the third actor to ever receive those nominations for the same film (the first two being Orson Wells and Charlie Chaplin). Rocky has been recognised by the Writers Guild of America as one of their top 100 movies ever, and has featured in several of the AFI’s top 100 lists.

As for Sly himself, the press in 1976 compared Stallone to the likes of Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. In Rocky and Rambo, Sly helped create and develop(1) two of the very first modern movie franchises. Rocky itself spawned 5 sequels (6 if you count the spin-off “Creed” currently in pre-production) at a time when franchises were often built around bad guys instead of heroes(2).

The movie remains one of the most quotable and best loved films ever made. A key reason for this success is Sylvester Stallone’s deep understanding of characterisation. 

The titular Rocky Balboa has to be one of the most well developed and inspirational characters ever created. If you visit the ‘Rocky Steps’ in Philadelphia, you will find a brass plaque commemorating the character, and probably see several people running up the steps and dancing around at the top. Near the base of the steps there is a statue of Sly. When filming the sequels, the crew had Sly running through the streets and markets of Philly. They weren’t worried about the crowds ruining the audio: they always shout “Yo, Rocky”, and never “Sly”.

C’mon. Tell me you wouldn’t want to create a character that memorable. Tell me you wouldn’t want to create a character that loved.

Which brings me to the first lesson I learned from the movie Rocky…

1) CHARACTERISATION
I remember reading an interview with Anne “Interview with a Vampire” Rice. She talked about her creation, Lestat, with such affection that it was clear she thought of him more as an old friend than some character she dreamt up. She claimed to know him well enough to know what his reaction would be to pretty much any circumstance (of course it helped that she based the character, in part, on her husband Stan(3)). JK Rowling’s recent comments in the press about who Harry Potter should really have married suggest she too thinks on her creations as people who have much fuller lives beyond that which we read about on the page.

This same level of understanding is evident between Sylvester and Rocky. It’s true that they were both facing a ‘long-shot for the championship’, and of course they look kind-of similar, but other than that, the comparisons are scarce. Stallone simply cared enough to try to understand where this character was coming from, what his motivation was, and what the impact that personality would have on every decision he made in life.

That attention to detail is what made Rocky memorable.

It influenced what Rocky wore, how he carried himself, what kind of language he used, what he talked about, who he spoke to, and how he reacted to things. It influenced the things he kept in his apartment, the hobbies he had, and — perhaps as importantly — the things he chose not to care about.

Here’s a clip from the end of Rocky which illustrates the point nicely. It contains SPOILERS.

Rocky (in the white shorts with a red stripe(4)) has just ‘gone the distance’ with Apollo Creed. No-one has ever done that before. He’s achieved something that was unimaginable to anyone and yet what is the first thing he says when he see’s Adrian? It’s possibly one of the best pieces of dialogue in the history of dialogue. Contrast that with Apollo’s singular focus on the outcome of the referees’ decision.

The line in question is at 1:37 in the above clip but watch it all to get a sense of the occasion. It’s okay if you missed it. Go back and watch again.

That’s right. After all that, what Rocky says is “Hey, where’s your hat?”. He went into the ring against Creed to prove to himself he wasn’t just a bum with no purpose in life. When it’s over he only wants to see his girlfriend. He remembered that she’d been wearing a hat and notices that she’s lost it (the crew tied it to a piece of fishing line so it would come off as she runs through the crowd).

Tell me that doesn’t say something interesting about his character.

2) USE OF BACKGROUNDS
In a movie you don’t have a choice but to include information about the world which surrounds the primary events. Characters are portrayed by actual actors who have survived a casting process to match a certain look and sound. They have been clothed in carefully chosen outfits to reflect the character’s style, background, and wealth. Each scene is shot in a location that has been chosen or maybe even built to create a certain look, and dressed to do the same.

This attention to detail exists to varying degrees in all movies. As I said, it’s pretty much unavoidable in the medium. Yet Rocky really took this to another level for me. The couch in Rocky’s apartment is old, battered and covered in holes. He’s had to put newspaper over it in order to be able to sit on it. Then, when he gets Adrian to finally come into his apartment, he sits down on the couch, pats the seat next to him and invites her to sit down.

Adrian works in a pet shop, surrounded by cages. She spends time delicately feeding quietly cheeping delicate birds. Sylvester and the film’s director (John Avildsen) use this metaphor of Adrian as a delicate bird in a cage at various points in the movie, and as the film continues Rocky and Adrian move from having wire barriers between them, past Rocky removing Adrian’s glasses to kiss her and onto a full on bare-chested (Rocky), sweaty (still Rocky) and hat free (both, but especially Adrian) embrace.

In writing, you don’t have this luxury. Movies can show all of these things without slowing down the pace and without ramming the subtleties down people’s throats (you can enjoy Rocky as a good ol’ boxing movie if you like). But if you were to put the same level of detail and nuance into your writing you’d bore the hell out people. What it does mean, though, is that you should strive to do the same thing whenever you do take time to include information about the surroundings which aren’t directly related to the ongoing plot.

I suppose this is an extension of the ‘gum on the mantlepiece’ rule that Newman and Mittelmark discuss in their book “How Not To Write A Novel” (essentially that if you mention a piece of gum stuck to the mantlepiece early in the chapter, it had better end up stuck to something by the end of it). Prosaic descriptions of what a character is wearing should be there to convey more than just a shared image between the author and the reader. They should tell us something about the character, and allow the reader to form the same bigoted associations to stereotypes that an ordinary passerby would if they passed by the character in the street.

Likewise, descriptions of locations should not be there to fill the gap between the great idea you had for the chapter’s opening and that bit where you cover all the plot points you’d promised yourself you’d cover. By all means use the descriptions to pace the chapter like that, but have them say something else as well. Tell us something about the characters who live there. Use them as a metaphor for the players’ moods and their relationship. Just don’t sink as low as having the weather out the window magically reflect every single emotion the protagonist is experiencing.

Bottom line? Have characters talk to each other through bird cages. It even works in boxing movies.

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(1) – Rambo of course was created by David Morrell in the book “First Blood”. If you read the book DO NOT read the introduction first. Don’t even risk a glance. :(
(2) – The contemporaneous Alien, Predator, and Friday 13th series being three examples that spring to mind.
(3) – Quite what that says about their relationship, I don’t know.
(4) – I’ll be amazed if anyone really needed me to point that out.

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For more posts discussing things I’ve learnt from watching movies check out:
Causes and cures for writers block (Mission: Impossible III)
Lessons on writing from Jurassic Park

 

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