STORY STRUCTURE AND SHAOLIN
Screenwriting Lessons from Kung Fu Cinema
Whether or not you have the requisite soft spot, Kung Fu flicks are emphatically not known for their storylines, and that’s a shame. Because, however hokey or low rent these movies may be, they’re rock solid from a story perspective: The characters have clear motivations, the stakes are high, the challenge insurmountable, and the hero must grow as a fighter and a human being in order to overcome it.
Rock solid! People spend mountains of cash on lectures and screenwriting books that repeat exactly these lessons, but - really - all you need to do is settle in for a couple of hours with a notebook and enjoy a Kung Fu Classic. Here are a few simple screenwriting lessons from Chinese martial arts cinema:
A lot of screenplays have interesting characters in a compelling setting with great dialog….and they never seem to do anything. It’s an easy trap to fall in to as a writer (I’m guilty), but you’ve got to move the plot forward.
Few (if any) Kung Fu movies contain meandering heroes who wonder what to do with their time; all of the main characters have motivation in spades. In Fearless Hyena, Shing Lung tries to help his aging grandfather by making spare cash with his Kung Fu…little does he know that his shenanigans have led Grandpa’s deadliest enemy right to their doorstep! Grandpa is killed, Shing Lung blames himself, and the rest of the story flows like water.
Give your characters something important to want…make them want it, and make it hurt.
Hyang-su Hwang in Stranger from Shaolin (1977)
A good question to ask oneself is “What do my characters stand to lose?” It doesn’t need to be the fate of the world, but - if you want your story to stay interesting for 90 minutes - failure must have consequences.
In Kung Fu movies, everything is always on the line: one’s life, one’s body, one’s honor, one’s tradition, one’s family - everything will descend into chaos if the protagonist falters. In Stranger From Shaolin (1977), our heroine is besieged on all sides: She’s being hunted by the Manchu army, she’s illegally passing as a boy to learn Kung Fu, and the Shaolin Temple is about to be crushed! There are so many threats in this story that anyone at any time could be our enemy, and that’s good for the plot.
If the protagonist loses, the audience loses; give them something they can’t let go.
A lot of writers - especially in genre film - want to make their heroes unbeatable. The chosen one with the chosen sword spreading some chosen guts across the meadow - how sweet it is! And there’s nothing wrong with writing a talented protagonist, but bulletproof characters require armor piercing opponents. Whether your screenplay is about a stockbroker, a wandering swordsman, or plucky librarian, put a brick wall in front of them at all times.
The villain is basically always demonstrated to be stronger in Kung Fu movies. The Woman Avenger (1980) takes this idea to the extreme by having a group of men rape the protagonist in the very first sequence…she wasn’t just some lesser martial artist - she was an ordinary woman victimized as a woman, and her journey from victim to avenger requires her to go toe-to-toe with Kung Fu masters. Even though we know she’ll win in the end, there’s no denying that our heroine has a massive mountain to climb.
Give your characters a challenge they cannot overcome.
As stated above, a lot of these ideas are basically cliche for screenwriting courses, but it’s amazing how easy it is to ignore the basic principles and find yourself 30 pages into a dud before you’ve even realized there’s a problem. So take a scroll from the Shaolin storytellers. Happy writing, folks!