Last night, I watched Top Gun for the first time.
Yeah. THAT Top Gun. That quintessential Guy Story that’s mostly zooming fighter planes and arrogant big-shot pilots and hot chicks and “Highway to the Danger Zone.” And I know what you’re expecting me to say: I didn’t like it.
Here’s the thing, though.
I actually kind of did.
I don’t find Tom Cruise attractive. Nor am I a fan of the ‘swaggering jock’ archetype. I tend to get bored during action sequences. I have little interest in military life. And I found the romance cheesy and uninspired to no small degree. But even with all that . . . Top Gun does one big thing right; one thing that makes up for the long list of obvious reasons why I ‘shouldn’t’ like this film.
Top Gun offers a relatable protagonist who undertakes a compelling emotional journey and comes out changed on the other side.
Tom Cruise, aka Lieutenant Pete Mitchell, aka Maverick, may be a self-proclaimed hotshot (yuck), but the filmmakers make sure he is one thing above all else: he is human. A struggling, wandering human being like you and me. At bottom, he’s just a frightened kid who doesn’t know how to deal with his dad’s death—except by becoming the most reckless pilot the U.S. Navy has ever seen. Dumb strategy, right? But the writers don’t let him stick in that rut. No, they make him learn a better way . . . sending a second tragedy that completely shatters his facade of overconfidence; then giving him a second chance to prove himself and build a new life.
And it’s actually, ya know, compelling. Even if you have no interest in the setting or subject matter. It’s still compelling.
BEHOLD: THE POWER OF THE HERO’S JOURNEY, DONE PROPERLY.
You see, this whole experience got me thinking, about writing and about writers and how we should approach our craft. Because obviously, genre is a Thing, too, right? We don’t write with the goal of “every human being on this planet will love my story!” but rather, “my target audience will love my story.” There’s a reason we craft our books and/or movies to the specifications of a particular set of people . . . same reason the makers of Top Gun included cheesy sex scenes and interminable aerial combat battles that make me, Charles Baker Harris, go “ehhhhhh.” Because they knew their audience! And their audience didn’t include me! And that’s okay!
You should, absolutely, write for your target audience. BUT (and this is the specific point I gleaned from Top Gun), satisfying genre expectations is never a substitute for the universal rules of good storytelling. Have F-15s or crass language or volleyball scenes [um, seriously, what was up with that??] or whatever you need to include . . . but, first and foremost, make sure you have a flippin’ protagonist who goes on a flippin’ journey that taps into some flippin’ human emotions.
If you follow this simple rule, like Top Gun, you may well pick up some fans outside your target audience. You may even attain the staying power of a long-term cultural icon. Always a nice bonus, right?
And if you fail to follow this simple rule—well, you’ll wind up somewhere next to The Crimes of Grindelwald, I’m sorry to say. A story that makes a few die-hard fans go “oooooh, look at all the shiny things! so shiny!” while other fans, as well as The World At Large, go, “THAT WAS A HOT MESS.”
(Because it was a hot mess, okay. It had no protagonist and no story goal and nobody cared and I’m still salty that I spent two hours of my #life on it.)
(But I did really enjoy Top Gun.)
This has been a PSA about writing well.