Jan 27 2013

The 5 Least Promising Scenes for a Superhero Story

1. Bank robberies with faceless criminals that never had a chance of accomplishing anything. If you’re mainly including this scene to give the superhero(es) a chance to show off their powers, I would recommend reevaluating whether anything is at stake and whether the scene actually contributes anything to the story. For example, Dark Knight’s opening bank robbery does a really good job developing the Joker and the main antagonist-vs.-antagonist conflict, even though the main character is not at stake.


2. Any scene featuring more or less helpless antagonists. If your superhero’s opponents cannot challenge him, there’s probably very little at stake, which means that the fight will create very little suspense. Some possible solutions:

  • Give the hero stronger opposition. For example, if your hero’s superpowers are incredible enough that he can only be challenged by someone with superpowers, it’d be worth considering a plotting element which makes it easier in your universe for low-grade antagonists to get superpowers or some sort of threatening capabilities. (For example, perhaps criminals can buy a temporary super-serum or a Hulk-grade hunting rifle).
  • Change the scene so that it’s harder for the character to use his powers (e.g. characters with fire-based powers should probably be careful if there are innocent bystanders and/or volatile chemicals present).
  • Give the character(s) problems which his/her powers can’t effortlessly solve. For example, it’d probably be more interesting to see The Thing deal with a hurricane than a guy with a gun. The gunman probably isn’t challenging. Alternately, the hero might be in a situation where the character can’t openly use his superpowers because they’d blow his secret identity.
  • Weaken the character’s powers. For example, a faster-than-sound character could probably defeat an average bank robber with little (if any) difficulty or drama. A character that could merely run at ~60 miles per hour would have to put more thought into it, particularly if hostages are involved.
  • Temporarily reduce the character’s capabilities. For example, perhaps the character is injured or temporarily has lost access to his/her superpowers (like during an eclipse in Heroes).
  • Increase the cost of the character’s superpowers. Please see #2 in How to Keep Your Story’s Superpowers Extraordinary.


3. Confrontations between protagonists which hinge on a protagonist(s) being irredeemably stupid. Particularly with protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts, I’d recommend making both characters at least somewhat sympathetic. For example, in The Dark Knight, both Lucius and Batman have a likable reason to oppose each other on the use of a cutting-edge tracking system. In contrast, if one (or worse, both) sides are wildly dumb and/or childish (e.g. see Batman & Robin), the conflict is more likely to make readers want to brain everybody involved and throw the story in a fire.

3.1. “I hate you because I’m one-dimensionally evil and/or stupid.” Common offenders: abusive parents, bullies, and Jim Crow stand-ins (e.g. more or less every non-mutant in X-Men). If you have to demote characters to mind-numbing unlikability, I’d recommend doing so sparingly. For a potential solution here, I’d recommend checking out how Homeland and The Wire treated mostly unsympathetic antagonists (terrorists and drug dealers, respectively) with some degree of human empathy. It made them feel more believable and the conflicts against them more satisfying.


4. Any scene where the main character does the same thing(s) 95%+ of other superheroes would have done. Give your characters more chances to be original. For example, in a particular scene, is there anything the superhero does or says which is really unique? If not, I’d recommend reevaluating the character development (so that the characters have more unusual traits to act on) and/or reworking the plot so that the characters have more chances to demonstrate these traits.  For example, if you have a superhero who is uncommonly loyal to his friends, you could make his/her loyalty more memorable by developing friends that many superheroes would not be loyal to. In Point of Impact, the main character is a fugitive that risks his life breaking his dog’s corpse out of an FBI-guarded morgue. The scene develops the character very effectively–he risks himself for honor in a way that almost no protagonist would have and it establishes how isolated he is (the dog is the closest thing the protagonist had to friends or family).  


5. Any funeral scene so generic that 95% of the words could apply to 95% of superheroes. E.g. “Captain Awesome was a great hero who risked himself for us on so many occasions” while teammates sob about how hard it is that he’s gone. Boohoohoo, nobody cares. I’d strongly recommend moving towards more distinctive scenes–e.g. you can focus instead on teammates/friends/family sharing memorable stories showing us what kind of person the fallen superhero was, and that would help readers genuinely care on their own that he’s gone. I’d recommend staying away from eulogies, especially by faceless extras–it’s generally not the best approach to making your funeral scene memorable.

5.1. Any funeral scene where the character isn’t actually dead*. Personally, I’d probably lean towards a quick rejection on an unsolicited manuscript here–the scene (and the death arc in general) is probably a waste of time. Also, this is very cliche–see pretty much every comic book funeral. For best-selling superheroes, it’s sort of justifiable because actually killing the character would leave millions of dollars on the table. Most unsolicited manuscripts don’t have that excuse.

5.2. Undoing death. Unkilling a hero means that death doesn’t actually matter, which tends to ruin action scenes. If death is temporary, there are no stakes to losing — it doesn’t matter whether your characters win or lose a fight. That’s much less interesting than characters that actually have something to worry about. If you want to kill a character, please be brave enough to make it stick. Alternately, just take it out. As a last resort, if you’re absolutely committed to resurrecting a character, I’d recommend setting some hard limit (e.g. the destruction of the time machine or whatever was used to unkill the character) so that readers know that this cop-out was absolutely just a one-time thing and will not happen again.

Exception: The readers know the funeral’s not real. E.g. characters holding a fake funeral to convince an enemy that the hero is no longer a threat. This is more promising because you’re not asking readers to be emotionally invested in a supposed death which won’t actually go anywhere.

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “The 5 Least Promising Scenes for a Superhero Story”

  1. B. McKenzieon 27 Jan 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Bonus #6: Any scene where the main villain shows how evil he is by killing a random underling that no one cares about in a forgettable way (to be fair: Darth Vader did it with style, and the setting was memorable).

    Bonus #7: Random sexploitation.

    Bonus #8: Scenes which mainly exist to awkwardly force in a theme or side-arc which doesn’t add much to the story. For example, pretty much every line of dialogue which featured Hal Jordan’s father in Green Lantern made so little sense that they were unintentionally comical. (If, umm, seeing a picture of your father makes you space out so much that you crash your plane, it might help to not have a picture of him in your cockpit).

  2. ekimmakon 27 Jan 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I’m considering (so it’s not concrete, yet) that Kristina may actually be a rival to Shadow after all, but not for the standard high school reasons. She’s the only person that knows that Shadow was on the school field trip after all, and the fact that ITAB was attacked on the same day that Shadow organized the trip… you have to admit, it’s a little suspicious. And Shadow can’t prove otherwise, especially since she was using it for illicit activities, just not as extreme as Kristina thinks.

  3. Marion Harmonon 28 Jan 2013 at 6:39 pm

    A couple of notes.

    #1 and #2: can be used effectively early in a story as a means of establishing the badassery of the superhero; if you show how awesome he is against normal opponents in the beginning, it makes the Big Bad that much more impressive when he curbs-stomps the hero later. However, keep these establishing scenes short. Don’t waste time building them up–just get to the butt-kicking.

    #5: I strongly recommend avoiding eulogies altogether. To be effective, a funeral scene must focus on the emotions of the POV character; if the reader is invested in the character, he will feel their emotions. Even if you are a gifted enough writer to pen the most moving eulogy ever given (I’m not), the reader will still engage only through the emotions of the protagonist.

  4. Elecon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:12 am

    With regards to #5, I found the Xavier funeral scene in X-men the last stand quite interesting for developing Wolverine as a character. He stood away from everyone on a hill, still watching the funeral, but not with everyone else.

  5. Aj of Earthon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Another awesome bite-sized article. I especially like #2. Even though it focuses more on the limitation of power to even the field, one of my favorite aspects of any super story, either comic or movie or narrative, is capable opposition. I love it when the heroes get their butts handed to them and it’s always a burn when the baddies fall short in that regard.

    Faceless goons go home! Bring me competence!!!

  6. writingninjaon 30 Jan 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I don’t remember many funeral scenes. It isn’t the funeral that makes it emotional, unless you are planning it. What makes it emotional is the impact of the character and what his death means.
    Maybe I’m heartless, but I never cried watching fictional funeral scenes. I would recommend cutting it out entirely unless it’s a key development of the plot or character development. There’s just not a lot that has been done with funeral scenes. It’s either used as a deadly bomb assassination, seeing people cry or try not to cry, or the classic “I’m standing far away because I’m emo but not” (happens a lot more in anime than movies).

  7. Mr. Oshimidaon 02 Feb 2013 at 12:19 pm

    B. Mac, I have heard from a friend that you help people who are have troubles where writing is concerned. I need your help in that area.

    I’m writing a book called, “Mr. Mensa” (the main character being an incredibly intelligent man). The story follows Bradley Kincaid, a technological genius working at a company called OpusTech (a technology company that creates everything from DVD players to military weapons).

    If I could have your email address, I’ll send you the details of the story to you. Thanks!

  8. B. McKenzieon 02 Feb 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Hello, Mr. Oshimida. I can be reached at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.

  9. Mr. Oshimidaon 22 Feb 2013 at 2:56 pm

    B. Mac, do you know if you can reference superheroes by name (like Superman or Batman) without getting in copyright or trademark trouble?

  10. B. McKenzieon 22 Feb 2013 at 4:30 pm

    An incidental reference is fine. For example, the first Spider-Man movie could use a line like “You’re not Superman, you know” without DC/WB’s permission. However, actually using Superman as a character or drawing on Superman more-than-incidentally would get you sued.

  11. Bretton 06 Apr 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Hi B. McKenzie,
    You probably don’t remember me, but I used to have a forum on here. I don’t usually come on very often due to school and the like, but since you bought up funeral scenes I have one that I’ve been turning around in my head as of late: after a funeral for his grandfather, the MC comes home to find his grandfather in the living room but its quickly revealed to be a hologram with the grandfather imparting some final words of wisdom he recorded months before. Would this be ok?

  12. B. McKenzieon 06 Apr 2013 at 5:50 pm

    I’m okay with the grandfather leaving a message, but I’d really like it to be dramatic. How interesting will these words of wisdom be? For example, maybe you could incorporate some conflict between the main character and grandfather (or a third character), and/or maybe the grandfather’s hologram drops some major information which really affects the plot and/or characterization (e.g. maybe the grandfather believed his wife was going to try to kill him).

  13. Bretton 07 Apr 2013 at 12:48 am

    Hi B. McKenzie,
    Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I was thinking that the MC would just kind of get validation for what he’s trying to do with the family business (They’re gangsters). It inspires him to press on even though his uncle keeps telling him he’s doing the wrong thing.
    Thanks again.

  14. B. McKenzieon 07 Apr 2013 at 2:03 am

    “It inspires him to press on even though his uncle keeps telling him he’s doing the wrong thing.” Ah, cool. That sounds more interesting than what I was expecting (e.g. “Always do the right thing even when things get hard”).

  15. Bretton 07 Apr 2013 at 5:41 pm

    Hi B. McKenzie
    Thanks for the kind words. If it’s not too much of an imposition, Can I send you my Flash story, “A Taste of Bourbon.” It’s basically a parody of the Superhero and Private Detective Genres. I send it away for publishing and the editors basically said “Great story, great character, but it needs to be proofread.” Would you be willing to take a look at it to see if their assessment is correct?

  16. B. McKenzieon 07 Apr 2013 at 6:33 pm

    Sure, but please proofread carefully before emailing it to me. If the story has 4+ typos per page, I tend to give up pretty quickly. (If the story has multiple typos on the first page, most publishers will not look at page 2).

  17. Bretton 07 Apr 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Hi B. McKenzie,
    I’ve sent it.

  18. Yuukion 01 Jul 2013 at 10:43 pm

    I was planning on having a robbery scene for my story, however, because of your article
    I have thought up a good twist. This scene, which would take place in a mall, was meant to debut Derek, my main character as a hero. However, what if during the scene one of individuals in the mall is threatened a gunpoint.

    This person could be one of his good friends. That said, he impulsively comes up with an idea to take out the gunman using sound waves, by reflecting them off a metal door(given his sound power). Given his knowledge in physics, he’s confident the concentrated sound attack will work. It backfires, as given the rough surface of the metal door,the sound bounces out of control, striking not just the suspect, but his friend as well.

    This scene might work, because it raises the stakes of the scene( Derek’s friend getting taken hostage), and through is reckless actions gets his friend injured. How’s that as a scene? Does it contribute?

    P.S: I was thinking one way to really hammer the scene out was to make this friend. Suffer from a case of extreme tone deafness as a consequence.

  19. TTon 06 Jul 2015 at 7:58 pm

    Yuuki – Sounds pretty good.

  20. James Dakotaon 30 Jul 2017 at 8:20 pm

    I didn’t know where to put this, so I’m putting it here. Just to show off, really, but I really want to share this piece. I was reading through my original manuscript with James and Lily and a bonus six extra siblings plus thirteen psychics and I came across this and I was so. . . euphoric (?) by it’s quality I decided to rewrite the novel. The scene is when an assassin called the Raven attacks Lily, her sis Amanda, a psychic named Grace, and to members of the MPD with personal ties. James attacks the sniper and gets thrown into a wall and momentarily KOed. Grace tries to go offensive with her powers but it doesn’t quite work out (as you’ll see) and no one was really paying attention to Lily.
    Here we go.

    “Lily lay still, trying not to move, because if she did the pain would explode in a white hot fireball of agony. Even breathing alone felt like torture, each and every single breath a painful gasp through clenched teeth. She would have stopped breathing if she could, if her body would let her, just to stop the pain.
    Blood gurgled up between her fingers. Already her hands were dyed with it, warm, slick and red. A sizable amount had welled up within her mouth with a sharp, coppery taste. Her salty tears ran out of her eyes, cascading down over her cheeks and face to drip, glimmering, onto the rough asphalt.
    She heard Grace’s crazed scream “James!”, and the sickening series of crunches and cracks that followed ominously. She knew her time was running out. She heard James’ cry, “Grace! Grace, stop! You’ll kill her!”. She knew people close to her, people she loved, might die, right there, right now, without her.
    Slowly, with shaking legs, she stood. James and Amanda were over near a wall. Grace and the assassin were having a silent face off. Rachel and Drew were under a picnic table.
    Then suddenly Grace screamed and collapsed to her knees, her hands clapped hard over her ears. Lily flinched at the sudden sound.
    The rifle swept over in a silent arc.
    One shot fired.
    Lily fell flat on her back, blood streaming behind her in a crimson ribbon through the air.
    “Lily!” Rachel screamed.
    Slower and slower, it hurt so much to breath. Everything was going dark, tears flowing down in rivers. She knew she had only four minutes until everything was gone, and she was dead.
    Time ticked away.”

    I will not say whether or not Lily actually died. In actuality I cut away to a different perspective somewhere else and didn’t return to see if she’d died. As for the rewrite, I’m keeping the result to myself.

    (Apologies if I sound rather snug and full of myself. I don’t really have an excuse, I just feel proud of my five year old writing. And if someone is confused, Rachel and Drew are the people from the MPD).

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