How Mad Max: Fury Road Turns Your Writing Advice Into Roadkill
Said it before, will say it again: Mad Max: Fury Road is the dust-choked rocket-fueled orifice-clenching crank-mad feminist wasteland batfuck doomsday opera you didn’t know you needed. It’s like eating fireworks. It’s like being inside a rust tornado. It’s like having a defibrillator pad applied directly to your genitals but somehow, you love it?
It’s not a perfect movie.
But it’s amazing just the same.
And part of — for me! — what makes it amazing is how easily it flaunts its rule-breaking. Writing — particularly the very-patterned art of screenwriting — comes with all these preconceived sets of “rules” or “guidelines,” and like most creative rules and guidelines, they’re half-useful and half-dogdick. It’s great once in a while to be reminded why the rules work. But it can be even more illuminating to realize when something works in spite of those rules — in direct contravention to what you expect can and should happen.
And I wanna talk about that just a little. Real quick.
Hold still. *fires up the defib pads*
Begins With Action And Then Action Action Holy Fuck More Action
Beginning with action is hard. Because a lot of the time, you need context. You jump right into some actionstravaganza and you feel lost — unmoored, drifting, caught up in OMG THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE EXCITING BUT MOSTLY IT FEELS LIKE ACTION FIGURES BEING FIRED OUT OF A CANNON AGAINST A WALL BECAUSE I DO NOT YET HAVE A REASON TO CARE. It’s all whizz-bang-boom, but ultimately? Hollow as a used grenade. Shallow as a puddle of sun-baked urine.
Fury Road is like, “Yeah, fuck you, mate,” and then instantly there’s a car chase? And then like, five minutes of setup and another car chase that goes until the middle of the movie? And then a sequel to that car chase that ends the movie. On paper, that shouldn’t work. On screen, it roars like an engine and drags you behind it like you’re chained to the goddamn bumper.
How does it work? I don’t fucking know. That’s the amazing thing. Best guess is that we get just enough character overlaid — Max is a survivor, Max is haunted by ghosts, Furiosa is a bad-ass, Immortan Joe is a skull-mask wearing chemo monster, and we’re off to the races once more.
Very Little Oxygen
Writing action is very often: ramp up action, then draw down into some oxygen, then more action, then more oxygen. A action film’s rhythm is like breathing during sex — starts normal, then you hold it, then it gets faster and faster and then you slow back down and then go go go nnngh holy toe-curling shitkittens, boom. Die Hard has that classic rhythm. Intense action, then oxygen of roughly equal duration. You learn about character and context, then back into action. It works. It’s a good pattern and you can use it for a lot of storytelling that has fighting or gunplay or fucking or fightplay gunfucking or whatever.
But Max gives the tiniest little appe-teasers of oxygen. But mostly? It’s all action. It’s two hours of cinematic-foot-on-an-accelerator with only a handful narrative potty-breaks.
How does it work?
What little oxygen you get is like gulps of air when you’re drowning in rising floodwater.
They’re meager, but they work. And the film never really lets you get comfortable.
That won’t fly with every story.
But hot chromeshite, it works here.
Protagonist And Main Character Are Not The Same
Mad Max is the main character.
Furiosa is the protagonist.
His is our POV.
But she is the one with agency to change things.
She moves the story.
He is merely present in the story.
She fires the gun.
He’s the shoulder on which she rests the weapon.
(I can’t speak to whether or not the film is truly feminist — that’s for smarter and more impacted people than I am to decide. But you have a world where the men are either all-brutal or half-useless, and are made more “human” by their contact with women. Women in this are generative creatures, the keepers of the future, the civilizing force. They’re the ones who get shit done and who will change the world. The men can either get in line, or they can get fucked. It’s not just that the film gives the women characters agency — it’s also about what’s necessary for them to be equal, and for the world to be made better in their wake, not in the wake of men. We are given the suggestion that men ruined this world, but it might just be the women who fix it.)
Regardless — separating your protagonist and your main character is a tricky maneuver. It’s ADVANCED LEVEL shit, hombre. But Mad Max handles it well — even using it to perhaps drive home the point I just made (re: feminism) above.
Explains Almost Nothing
Haha, you wanted answers and context as to what’s really going on?
WELL TOO GODDAMN BAD.
The film’s world-building is such that here’s how it builds its world:
“Did you see that thing that just happened? We just drove past it at 120 MPH.”
“But you didn’t tell me anything about it.”
“Oh, you want to know more about it?”
*shoves bottle rockets in your mouth*
*throws you into a pit*
*covers you in guzzoleen and bullet casings*
*throws a car on top of you too because hey cars are cool*
*the car is covered in spikes and Juggalos because of course it is*
The movie doesn’t linger. It never AS YOU KNOW, BOBs you. It assumes you either will figure it out or you won’t and that’s on you. What’s with the chrome paint? And the Valhalla? And who are the Bullet Farmers and what the fuck is Gas Town? Why is Max a blood bag? What is a Doof Warrior and why is that girl named Toast? Who is the little girl in his vision?
What the actual unholy sand-fucked shit is going on?!
Nope. None of it. No hard answers.
Just buckle up, butterfly. Can you get away with this in your story? Maybe. Fury Road does it because it still recognizes that the real story isn’t all those details but rather, about the flight for freedom. It gives you the details you really need to get to the next moment — and literally nothing more. No fat on those bones. It’s lean and raggedy as a starving coyote.
But it still hunts.
And Oh By The Way, Fuck Consistency
Everyone wants to know how this lines up with the previous three films and they’re scrambling to draw the comparisons — MAYBE MAX IS FERAL BOY AND FURIOSA WAS MAX’S DAUGHTER AND LOOK THE MUSIC BOX AND I’M PRETTY SURE I JUST SAW MASTER BLASTER IN THE CORNER OF MY EYE SITTING NEXT TO ME IN THE THEATER — and all of that routinely fails because these films are basically disconnected narratives. They advance only the narrative of the apocalypse (in each, the world is worse than when we last saw it). Max is different in each. Little actually connects them. Less connects this one to the last three. It doesn’t matter.
Good luck pulling that off in your story, ha ha ha.
Why does it work here? Again, fuck if I know. It works because it works. It works because thematically it’s tied together. Because it’s like revisited mythology — an interpretation of character and story, whether we’re talking about Zeus or Jesus or Batman or Bond. (Behold my new character: JAY-ZEUS BATBOND, the super-spy vigilante savior! Somebody pay me.)
Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t give a bucket of sunburned fucks about your rules.
Your writing and storytelling rules are just roadkill, bubba.