The other weekend when we went down to Margaret River, after we were all wined out and marshmallowed out, sitting mellow in front of the roaring fire in the hearth, one of my friends suggested putting on a movie to watch. Well, actually, first we watched Legoland. Then we watched the bodybuilding documentary Generation Iron.
At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about watching a documentary about bodybuilders. It’s not usually something I’d pick for a Saturday night movie. So it was a pleasant surprise when Generation Iron turned out to be a pretty interesting show, hooking all of us in right from the start to the finish. (In fact, I’d even go so far as to say I liked it better than Legoland, which I actually found a little disappointing after all the hype and its super-cute, super funny trailer). Narrated by Mickey Rourke, the show follows the lives of seven top bodybuilders as they train in preparation for the coveted Mr Olympia title in 2012.
To my surprise, Generation Iron and its characters stayed with me for quite some time after we had finished watching the show and I started wondering just what was it about this film that interested me so much. I’ve seen one or two documentaries about bodybuilding but with all of them, I usually stopped watching them after the first five or 10 minutes because they weren’t as interesting or as compelling as Generation Iron. When I took a further look at just what it was that made Generation Iron stand out, I realised that it had a lot to do with the way its creators crafted the storytelling of the show. I then realised that here were some things that we writers could learn from the creators of Generation Iron about creating a well-told story and I thought I’d share them here:
1) Create compelling and likeable characters your audience would want to root for.
Most people generally have an idea of bodybuilders as iron-pumping, protein-devouring Neanderthals with little to say for themselves other than a few grunts. With Generation Iron, Director Vlad Yudin sought to paint a more intimate picture of these bodybuilders and their live – their families and support systems (or lack thereof), their ambitions and the challenges they faced. To accomplish this, he devoted plenty of time in the movie to crafting their backstories – there’s loner Kai Greene who was abandoned by his mother and made a ward of the state, drifting from foster home to foster home during his youth. Among the seven bodybuilders, he stands out immediately with his long black braids, his penchant for live performance art on the streets of New York, which also lends itself to an interesting opening scene that makes you immediately want to find out more about who this hulking guy in the mask is, flexing his biceps for a small crowd at a subway station, and the paintings and drawings he works on when he’s not at the gym. Midway through the show, one of our group comments, ‘I hope that Kai guy wins because he’s the most interesting character.’ The rest of us agreed that we all pretty much felt the same. We were rooting for Kai, not just because he was necessarily the strongest, most charming or most good-looking guy, but because he was the most original, complex and interesting personality in the show, and probably the Generation Iron producers felt the same too, which explains the amount of time and effort they expanded on Kai who was clearly cast as the lead subject in the documentary.
2) Give your characters challenges and obstacles to face.
Though Kai’s story stood out amongst his competitors, we were also interested in the other bodybuilders because they all had a backstory and, in particular, challenges to face. There was loner Kai with his foster background and his love of art. There was Phil Heath, last year’s victor, now fighting to defend his title of Mr Olympia, even going so far as to order a bespoke suit for the post-competition victory party, which makes you wonder if this could be a case of pride coming before a fall. There was Hidetada Yamagishi whose family back home in Japan didn’t understand or approve of his bodybuilding ambitions, Victor Martinez, whose Mr Olympia dreams were thrown into jeopardy when he faced incarceration for immigration violations, and Roelly Winklaar, the cocky but hardworking Dutch bodybuilder who clashes with his trainer, the feisty ‘Grandma’ (herself another interesting and likeable character), over social media usage and bedtimes during training season. Everyone is working as hard as they can to win Mr Olympia – they’re devoting vast amounts of time to pumping iron, spending long hours at the gym and eating entire feasts of protein-rich food. Some of them have even uprooted their families to go chase their dreams. Not everyone understands them or their ambitions, but for most or perhaps all of them, this is the only thing they know to do, this is what they’ve spent all their life doing (and Yudin and his team do a great job of communication this to the viewers as well). For each and every one of the contestants, there are challenges to face and something to prove, either to themselves or to the people around them.
3) The MacGuffin.
The MacGuffin is a plot device in storytelling that is used to drive the story forward. Essentially, what it is is a particular object or goal that the protagonist spends much of his or her time pursuing in the story and is the catalyst behind most of their actions. For example, the MacGuffin takes the form of The Philosopher’s Stone in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the ring in Lord of the Rings and the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In Generation Iron, the MacGuffin is the Mr Olympia title which all of the characters in the documentary are chasing. So in your story, have a think about what it is that your protagonist most desires and that in turn will pave the way for some…
In Generation Iron, everyone wants the Mr Olympia title. But only one person can have it. So who is it to be? Whatever happens, there can only be one victor and a whole lot of disappointed people. Generation Iron has already set the stage for this by introducing us to compelling, likeable characters, allowing us to get to know them and share in their hopes and dreams and failures along the way and so enabling us to empathise with them and root for them. Now we’re hooked. Now we want to know who is going to win the Mr Olympia title. And we’re nervous because we don’t know who is going to get it or whether it’s going to be the character we’re rooting for. (Well, I’m guessing those who like bodybuilding aren’t worried because they already know who it is or it’s obvious to them, but to someone like me who knows jack shit about bodybuilding, I was completely clueless as to what the result was going to be). It was a great way to create tension, especially toward the end of the show as the various bodybuilders arrived in Las Vegas and the true competition began.
So, as a lot of writers will tell you, sometimes you have to be cruel to your characters. You have to leave them worrying and second-guessing themselves, particularly at the point where they most need to believe in themselves (this is depicted in a great scene with Phil Heath), and – this is the hardest part – you also have to make it believable to the reader as well so that they too will be compelled to flip pages, wondering who’s going to achieve the goal/save the day/win the competition and wondering just how the characters are going to do this and whether it’s even achievable. Don’t make it too easy for the reader by making it blatantly clear just who is going to win/save the day. Be cunning. Be complicated. Agatha Christie is a great hand with this, often leaving her readers doing their best to guess just which of her characters (and it could be any one! anyone!) did the murder in her mysteries and how they did it. Reality TV producers also do a great job with this, leaving viewers wondering which one of the contestants are going to win their dream spouse/race around the world/cooking show. (on a side note, in Hunger Games, everyone kind of knew Katniss, as the protagonist, was the most likely to win, but Suzanne Collins gets around this by creating lots of excellent tension, leaving you wondering which one of the many likeable contestants would die and how both Katniss and Peeta were going to get out of this alive or whether one of them would be bound to sacrifice themselves for the other). So, when working on your story, be sure to create tension. Create lots and lots of nail-biting, page-turning, writhe-inducing tension.
5) Set your story in an unusual or interesting world
Bodybuilding isn’t a subject matter that’s often covered in movies or books or other forms of mainstream media. To that end, the show’s creators have introduced its audience to a world that is at once different and familiar to theirs.
So when you think about writing a story, try to think of introducing your readers to a fresh and compelling new world they otherwise wouldn’t get to know. It could be anything from J.K. Rowling’s whimsical wizarding world to Gregory Maguire’s darker version of Oz, or it could just be something set in your ordinary world that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of. Like… bodybuilding.