(00)7 Lessons Writers Can Learn from James Bond

Universal storytelling principles behind the most successful movie series ever.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in "Casino Royale" from Columbia Pictures.

The sumptuous music of John Barry, the stunning set designs of Ken Adam, the directorial skills of Terence Young or Guy Hamilton, the innovative editing of Peter Hunt, the screen presence of Sean Connery, the zangy theme tune by Monty Norman, memorable actresses, spectacular stunts, and exotic location scouting – a fortunate convergence of individual talents built up the abiding popularity of Ian Fleming’s literary creation, the British MI6 agent James Bond.

Most writers don’t have access to such a talent pool, nor do most authors write action-packed spy capers. Also, 007 stories in particular seem so specific a category that authors might not consider that their own works have much in common with them. So one might be tempted to think that most writers can’t learn anything useful from James Bond.

Many people say there is a James Bond formula. Guy Hamilton, director of four of the early Bond movies, has said not. But there are certainly recurring scene types and structural elements that bear examination. A closer look reveals at least seven dramaturgical principles that any author could consider applying.

  1. The Kick-off Event
  2. The Real Reason for M
  3. The Real Reason for Q
  4. A Timely Death
  5. The Antagonist
  6. Revelation and Confrontation
  7. Humps

James Bond filming in Amsterdam Diamonds Are For Ever

The Kick-off Event

The second movie, From Russia With Love, established that all following Bond films begin with a pre-titles teaser. The openings of the movies have exhibited various characteristics over the years. The teaser may consist of one or more scenes, feature Bond himself or not, may be a standalone mini-adventure, or be directly related to the movie’s plot, perhaps even including the inciting incident.

Whatever the teaser may show, it always serves one primary purpose: to draw the audience in to the story by inducing an emotional response. Since at the opening of any story the audience is not yet emotionally involved, it is very important for any author to quickly get the audience to feel something. In a 007 movie this will be excitement or tension. In another kind of story the emotion elicited in the audience may be a completely different one, such as romance, moral outrage, or pathos. That the audience has an emotional reaction as quickly as possible after the opening lines of a novel or first seconds of screen time is true of any story.

Read more about the value of a good kick-off event here.

The Real Reason for M

Soon after the opening titles comes a scene in which Bond is briefed by his superior M, usually in a London office. This scene typically performs many functions at once. The M scene:

  • highlights the contrast between the rather frumpy deskperson M and the man-in-the-field Bond
  • shows the audience that Bond knows an awful lot about pretty much everything, when he holds a little lecture on some topic or other
  • provides a lot of exposition. The audience receives enough information to understand the gist of what is going on, and may have the McGuffin explained (the valuable object that Bond has to find).

Most of all, the M scene represents the formal inciting incident in that Bond is given a case. He therefore has a mission, a specific task, possibly with the aim of reaching a particular goal, because that is what appears to be needed in order to avoid some disastrous consequence or other, or in order to clear up a great mystery. He can now set off on the first leg of his story journey. In a 007 movie this will likely be an actual journey (rather than a metaphorical one) to an exotic locale, where Bond will gather the first clue which will lead him to the next stage, ever onwards towards his goal.

The M scene is very explicit in its function in the story. It is true that only certain genres, like crime and mystery or quest stories, have as explicit a mission-giving scene. Nonetheless, all stories are about characters doing something out of volition. It is always a good idea for an author to consider how directly the audience is to understand what it is the protagonist will be dealing with in the story. Usually it helps the audience to feel empathy for the main character of a story if they know what the character is trying to achieve and why.

So in any story whatsoever there could be a sort of hidden or indirect M scene, the purpose of which is to set the protagonist, and with them the story, in motion. Authors should consider which scene fulfils this function, and try to place it as early in the narrative as possible.

The Real Reason for Q

007 audiences love Q for his gadgets. People also enjoy the irritability that Q shows when he tries to demonstrate his new gadgets to the cavalier man-in-the-field Bond. Their banter as well as the gadgets themselves, especially some of the sillier ones we see in the lab, make for some comic relief, which can be especially welcome after an information-laden M scene.

But as amusing, surprising or spectacular as the gadgets themselves may be, and as ‘human’ as the relationship between Q and Bond is, the most important aspect of the Q scene is the set-up/pay-off dichotomy.

Set-up/pay-off means that some item of dramaturgical information is set up at one point in the narrative, to be paid off later when the audience recognises the importance of that item. In other words, the set-up is foreshadowing a plot event that follows. The technique makes that plot event all the more emotionally effective because the audience experiences a moment of revelation when they recognise or remember something they had not necessarily realised the significance of at the time of first seeing it. Creating such “aha effect” moments is perhaps the most important storytelling device there is, and is something every author must understand and deploy in their stories. Audiences love experiencing these moments of recognition.

To put it another way, Q’s gadget is the explicit version of Chekhov’s gun – the gadgets Q gives Bond must be used by the end of the last act. Usually, an author will attempt to deploy the set-up subtly, so that the audience does not even notice the item of information that has been imparted to them. This makes it all the more surprising when some seemingly unimportant bit of story information suddenly becomes extremely relevant at a pay-off. The Q scene of a 007 movie, however, is so well-established that audiences are well aware that the gadgets will be significant later in the story.

In some of the 007 movies the Q scene comes not near the beginning but later in the story, with Q at an outpost laboratory that Bond visits on his adventure in foreign lands. However, the most effective Q scenes come near the beginning of the story, then leave as much time as possible before the gadget comes into play. In this way the audience may have forgotten it after all, so that when Bond is in yet another impossible predicament, his life being threatened with seemingly no way of escape, his last-minute use of, say, the watch Q gave him does come as a surprise, eliciting a reaction like, “Of course, the laser beam/rocket dart/super strong magnet in the watch!”. This creates a great release of tension. Such control of the build-up and release of tension in the audience is what storyteller’s craft really consists of.

Formally speaking, the set-up/pay-off points towards an interesting and important aspect of storytelling: that stories exhibit a tendency to symmetry. This means that the second half of a story mirrors the first half, which implies a pivotal midpoint scene. Ideally, the position of a pay-off in the narrative will correspond as exactly as possible to its set-up scene, so what is set up in the first half pays off at its respective position in the second half.

So formally there may be the use of a life-saving gadget during the last great confrontation scene, which means it mirrors the Q scene. After it comes the resolution which tells us that the task given to Bond by M is now achieved. Not all of the 007 movies manage this degree of symmetry, but nonetheless, the real relevance of the Q scene is the setting-up of the enjoyable “of course!” aha-moment of recognition later.

A Timely Death

It is sometimes said that in stories a death, albeit a metaphorical one, usually comes in the second half, being for instance a pinch point when a protagonist loses an ally or mentor and from which point on he or she must face the final leg of the story journey alone. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s demise in the original Star Wars movie is such a death.

But in almost all 007 movies, the death of an ally happens much earlier, in the first half, indeed possibly as the pinch point in the first half of act 2.

Why?

In most 007 adventures, Bond has two main female allies, one of whom he kisses at the very end, the other of whom dies early on (as for instance Corinne Dufour, who is slain by trained dobermans in Moonraker). But it doesn’t have to be a woman who dies. Sometimes this role is fulfilled by a male ally, as in Sir Godfrey Tibbett, who has been acting as Bond’s butler in A View To A Kill before getting murdered by henchwoman May Day.

These murders of characters we have grown fond of achieve the deliberate effect of underscoring the ruthlessness and evil of the villain. Before this death, the story only claims that the villain is evil. We as an audience may know that the villain is bad as a matter of convention. But we have not seen it yet. We have not felt emotionally that the baddy is bad, we have simply been told it. Only through the emotional loss we feel when a character we have developed some sympathy for dies do we really start rooting for Bond to defeat the baddy.

Probably we have become emotionally involved in the story before this point, perhaps by the banter between Q and Bond. But the death scene is the definitive emotional lock-in, because now we really want Bond to succeed in his mission. We feel that the baddy must get his (or her) comeuppance.

Every author should take pains to make sure that the audience is emotionally involved in their story. A specific scene designed to make sure the audience desires that the protagonist succeeds in their endeavour is worth considering for any story.

The Antagonist

Speaking of the villains, these are of course a staple part of the 007 concept. The baddy is always larger than life and almost always seeks world domination in some form or other. All of the Bond baddies are formidable opponents to our hero, even if we know from the outset that Bond will win in the end. The question is not so much will Bond succeed but rather a matter of how he manages it.

Interestingly, Bond villains are not thugs or low-life. Their henchmen may be, but the villains are sophisticated and move in high society. Even later experiments with the Bond “formula” stay true to this idea. The World Is Not Enough presents the villain Renard early in the M scene, and the movie depicts him as a nasty and rather uncivilised thug. But we later realise that Renard is not the villain at all, he actually has the role of henchman to Elektra King’s bona fide baddy. Elektra King is as socially high class as any Bond villain – she dresses elegantly and feels quite at home in the world’s posh casinos.

The interesting point here is that the Bond villain is a shadow character to Bond himself. The baddy is a perverted version of the hero. The fault that the villain displays, the megalomania, is an extreme case of a flaw that Bond has too (arrogance). In The Man With The Golden Gun, the villain Scaramanga explicitly makes this observation. He claims that “we are the same”, saying that they are both very professional assassins. This greatly upsets the self-righteous Bond, who sees a moral difference between killing for one’s country and killing for money.

Any story benefits from a distinct antagonism, though naturally not every story needs a villain. A baddy is simply the personified form of the antagonistic force within a story. A story needs such an antagonistic force just as much as it needs at least one protagonist. The antagonism may, for instance, be the inner demon of the hero rather than another character. Any story has the main characters leave their comfort zone and see themselves confronted by obstacles. If these obstacles are put there not by external circumstances (for instance things like geography or weather) but by a force that is seeking to thwart the hero’s efforts, then there is an antagonism at work.

Any author of any kind of story should give the matter of antagonism a great deal of concentrated thought, since the stronger and clearer the antagonism, the more distinct and powerful the protagonist is as a character.

Revelation and Confrontation

A typical 007 movie leads up to Bond being captured within the villain’s lair. Several things are going on here.

  • The set piece is spectacular, has a wow-factor for the audience.
  • In the lair we are in act 3, the final act, the denouement. Here the conflict will be decided.
  • We reach the point where all seems lost – Bond is captured and to be put to death. There seems to be no escape. Though, of course, we have temporarily forgotten Q’s gadget …
  • Finally, the full extent of the villain’s fiendish plan is revealed. In a monolog, the baddy will explain to Bond (and the audience) exactly how the plot for world domination is intended to work (Bond may make an observation on the immorality of it).

This last point bears some closer examination. While it seems far-fetched even within the far-fetched context of 007 that the villain will go to such pains to expound on the genius of the evil plan rather than just killing Bond quickly, the real point of this scene is not the exposition of explaining it all to the audience. The clearing up of the mystery behind the baddy’s schemings and machinations ties in with the audience’ “aha-effect” of Q’s gadget, which often comes as a finale to the baddy’s monolog.

The point, then, is the importance of a revelation scene within overall story structure. In mystery stories or whodunnits the plot moves specifically towards the one scene in which the truth will be unveiled, the murderer revealed. But other forms of story benefit from the positioning of a scene with such revelatory power too.

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that the real point of a revelation scene is not that the protagonist has a revelation, but that the audience experiences one. A story is by definition an experience, and through experience one learns. In order to learn, we must gain something new that we previously did not have, that is to say something is revealed to us that was previously hidden.

Stories can harness this rather abstract idea by focusing the revelation into one single scene. And this is true of any story genre. Authors do well to consider towards which key scene the plot is headed – the revelatory scene in which the penny drops for the audience and they learn what it is the author wants them to realise through consuming the story.

And then comes the confrontation itself. The moral confrontation of world views is in 007 translated into action-packed conflict, with fisticuffs, shooting, and many explosions. Of course, in less action-oriented material authors do not need to focus on the violence and the derring-do. But no author should shy away from expressing the central conflict of their story as a final confrontation between protagonist and antagonism.

Humps

Finally, legendary co-producer of the earlier 007 movies Harry Saltzman apparently demanded of a 007 story that it have “humps”. By this he meant that the narrative move forward rapidly from highlight to highlight. Every couple of scenes the plot needs a “hump”, a scene which is particularly memorable or tense. To keep the momentum of the story fast and the audience entertained, there should not be too many scenes back to back that do not excite or thrill. In other words, the story is made up of a number of wow-scenes at regular intervals connected by transitional scenes that move the plot forward.

The application of this principle is something any author could benefit from, though the nature of their wow-scenes may be rather different from a 007 wow.

The idea behind this practical advice is that stories have a wave-form when you consider the narrative timeline. One scene presents a problem which seems at first insoluble, then the protagonist reaches a decision in reaction to this problem. At first there is an indication of hope that the problem will be solved, which induces a positive feeling in the audience. But this hope must either be dashed or a new problem must arise out of the solving of the old one, making things seem hopeless again, creating a negative feeling. Thus the emotional trajectory is always going up and down. If there is only good news for the protagonist in scene after scene, there is no tension or conflict. If there is repeatedly only bad news and things just never seem to look up, then there is a danger of the audience losing interest because it is all just too depressingly hopeless. There must always be that dangling carrot of hope.

Saltzman’s humps are more specific still than the idea of the wave form in stories. His advice is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s notion of having two great scene ideas and then constructing a story that will connect them – as in the crop-duster plane attack and the Mount Rushmore climbing scene in North By North West. Saltzman was not satisfied with merely two strong scenes. He wanted such highlights dispersed evenly over the entire duration of the movie.

Any author can take the time to consider if their own story would, within the context of their own genre and subject matter, stand up to Saltzman’s hump test.

James Bond Logo by EON Productions

Images:
Header (Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in “Casino Royale” from Columbia Pictures) by brava_67
James Bond filming in Amsterdam Diamonds Are For Ever, centre director Guy Hamilton Rob Mieremet / Anefo – , CC0
007 Logo by EON Productions – 007_evolution Public Domain


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