5 Writerly Lessons Learned from the “Bourne” Films
As writers, we are always learning – or at least we should be – and not just from other writers and their books. All sorts of other media can throw up food for thought and lessons to heed as well. I’ve finally got around to watching the first two Bourne films (“The Bourne Identity” and “The Bourne Supremacy”), having heard good things about them from various quarters, and as well as thoroughly enjoying them, I learned a few useful writerly lessons. So, I thought I’d share them.
Pacing – this is one of the big things I’m always working on in my writing, which (like all of us) can get rather flabby if I’m not careful. Now, the Bourne films rattle along at a bracing ‘action’ pace, as you would expect, yet they don’t lack for downtime – those spaces between action sequences in which the characters can breath, chat, and develop as people, giving us the chance to build empathy with poor Bourne, a savagely efficient killer with amnesia, who has no idea why he’s so savagely efficient, and no real wish to be.
Such a tricky thing, pacing. We recognise it when we see it done well, but it’s so hard to achieve ourselves. The Bourne films provide really good examples of how to keep the audience engaged through balancing the high-octane action with quieter, more ‘talky’ interludes, essential if we’re going to engage with, and care about the characters and their stakes.
Which leads me on to ...
Sympathetic hero – no doubt about it, Jason Bourne is an action hero, yet he’s also enormously conflicted, capable of gentleness and sensitivity, not to mention properly falling in love in a non-James-Bond way. He wants to reclaim his memories, but has no desire to be the person his past has made him.
It’s a lesson that a sympathetic hero can be created, regardless of the set-up. So, no excuses!
Length – I was surprised that both the first two Bourne films clocked in at under 2 hours a-piece, and yet had a full, satisfying and intelligent plots, and well-developed characters. Just goes to show that you don’t need a hundred extra pages to create something worthwhile and engaging.
Resolution – while the films each resolve their internal plot, the larger mystery of Bourne himself and his forgotten past are only beginning to be explained in the first two, and, I assume, will play out in “The Bourne Ultimatum”, which I’ve yet to see.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know when to seed your plot points, when to insert the Big Reveals, and these films show that, provided you get the other elements right, and keep your audience awake and clamouring to find out more, you can keep the Reveal dangling for longer than you might think.
For my final lesson, I took away the thought that I might have mis-judged Robert Ludlum! I always thought he wrote books for Dads (you know what I mean?) Yet if the Bourne books are anything like the films, and just like his hero, he has hidden depths.
What about you? Have you seen a film/play, or even heard a concerto recently, which has taught you lessons you can apply to your writing?