SPOILER ALERT! This post contains spoilers for the 2019 release Hellboy, and while it’s arguable that calling the movie awful could come across as a compliment, I’m going to encourage you to see the movie anyway. So, if you have a local library that carries DVDs or Blu-rays, then check it out, or stream it on Netflix, if only to see a great example of bad writing.
Did you see it? Good. But uh, yeah, I told you it was terrible, and I feel as if I owe you an apology for wasting two hours of your life. Well, they’re not really wasted if you learn something, right?
Anyway, I like to say that if you want to become a good writer, then get plenty of experience with bad writing and understand what makes it bad and how to fix it. In the 2019 film Hellboy, there are plenty of examples of bad writing that I could go over, from the unneeded and awkward-sounding opening narration to the following scene’s dialogue (during a shot of Hellboy driving a van) that’s not only unnecessary but is highly cringe-inducing in the obvious way that it attempts to set up the next scene by passing along information to the audience, information that’s essentially given in the next scene already (or could be inserted quite easily). Not to mention, that scene, a confrontation between Hellboy and a friend, who disappeared on Hellboy under mysterious circumstances, takes place in a public wrestling ring, a completely wrong setting for such a private matter, especially considering that Hellboy is supposed to stay hidden from the human world. So, right from the start, this movie has problems, lots of problems. What I want to focus on, though, is the problem of “and then this happens” storytelling, which you can see a lot in just the first 40 minutes of Hellboy.
First, King Arthur slays an immortal witch then cuts her to pieces to bury the pieces separately. Then Hellboy confronts a friend, who seems to have turned into a giant vampire bat, and kills him. Then a hag, who wants revenge against Hellboy, tells someone we don’t see, who wants revenge against Hellboy, to reassemble the immortal witch. Then some well-dressed English gentlemen ask Hellboy to help them kill a few giants. Then a lady explains Hellboy’s origin story to Hellboy (complete with flashback) for seemingly no reason at all, you know, other than to let the audience in on where Hellboy came from. (It’s not information for Hellboy, because someone should’ve given him this information already, sometime while he was growing up.) Then a warthog man, whose voice allows us to recognize him as the beast we didn’t see the hag talking to, busts into a temple and kills everyone and steals a chest containing the living head of the immortal witch. Then Hellboy accompanies the well-dressed English gentlemen on the hunt for the three giants. Then the gentlemen betray Hellboy and try to kill him, because Hellboy is a monster, and they fight monsters. Then the giants kill the gentlemen, and after a brief interruption to show the warthog man gathering the parts of the witch together, Hellboy fights and kills the giants (rendering the betrayal unnecessary since it doesn’t contribute to the story, and without it, Hellboy simply ends up in a circumstance – the gentlemen dead while he alone must fight the three giants – that he could’ve been in anyway without the betrayal). Then as Hellboy falls unconscious, after the battle, a van pulls up and a young woman walks up to him. Then while in the woman’s apartment, the woman reveals to Hellboy that he knew her a long time ago when she was a little girl. Then some other people invade the young woman’s apartment to recruit Hellboy into the mission of stopping the witch from being put back together. The people are led by Hellboy’s human “dad,” but of course the dad doesn’t just knock on the door and walk into the apartment because that wouldn’t allow for someone to bust through the window because… action.
And the story finally starts (if we can call that a good thing; I mean, it does get worse).
But until then, we have scenes that have a lot of “and then this happens” storytelling, which is understandable in that the motivation given for the hag and warthog man’s actions are weak, and Hellboy is stuck with unneeded filler until he’s approached to stop the witch. If the storytelling was strong, we would see one scene lead into the next scene which would feed into the next scene. I know I like to use Star Wars as an example, but if you watch that movie, you see that the Empire overtaking the Rebel ship leads to Princess Leia hiding the stolen plans with the droids, which leads to the droids boarding an escape pod to Tatooine so R2-D2 can get the plans to Obi-Wan Kenobi, which leads to the Jawas finding the droids first and selling them to a farmer, which leads to the droids landing in the hands of Luke Skywalker, which leads to R2 leaving in the middle of the night to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, which leads Luke to go after the droid, which leads to… you get the point. One thing leads to the next thing which leads to the next thing, and that’s what you want to see in your storytelling. Every step is necessary and contributes to the story.
So, how do we fix Hellboy?
We cut the shit we don’t need, we get down to the basics (only adding anything that contributes to the story), and we find out how we can answer the big question we need to answer to get the story rolling.
To start, do we need the vampire bat guy? No. Do we need the hag who wants to free the witch because… reasons? No. Do we need warthog man? No. Do we need the well-dressed, English gentlemen who betray Hellboy? Well, that’s something we can work with, especially since we need to answer the big question, “How does the immortal witch get free?” However, since the English gentlemen are well-intentioned – they fight monsters – that gives us an opening, since Hellboy, in their eyes, is a monster.
So, what if, after cutting the witch into pieces, King Arthur has Merlin place a spell on the witch, sealing her power, so she can’t enter any human’s mind and have them find her and put her back together? After however many years, though, the witch is finally able to find a mind that she can connect with: Hellboy’s. Because Hellboy is from Hell, making him not human, that makes the terms of the spell null and void on him and his mind enterable. During his sleep, she warns him of the humans coming to slay him. Hellboy discusses this dream with his human dad, who has difficulty comforting Hellboy as he can’t imagine what it’s like to appear different and instantly be feared by people so much that they have a desire to kill him if they were to discover his existence. This is where the well-dressed, English gentlemen can be useful in the story.
The witch is torn to pieces, a spell placed on her, leading the witch to search for a mind she can enter, so she can get some help. This leads to her discovering Hellboy’s mind, which leads him to become doubtful of whether he can live with humans much longer as she warns him that humans, monster hunters, have discovered his existence (let’s say they witnessed him fighting three giants they were hunting) and are coming to kill him. This leads to Hellboy preparing for the battle, and as the witch told him, the English gentlemen come to kill him, which leads to Hellboy killing them first, which leads to Hellboy feeling guilt for having to kill them. His guilt can be shown in a scene with his dad in which Hellboy expresses his exhaustion and confusion:
Hellboy: “Is this how it’s always going to be? I have to kill people who are just trying to protect their own kind, same as what I’m doing for them?”
Dad: “That specific group of people were the monsters, not you.”
Hellboy: “How do you know? How do you know the world doesn’t feel the same as them about me? How do you know there wasn’t a part of me that wanted them to come, a part of me that’s been aching to show the world what they see me as and pay them back for not appreciating who I was?”
Hellboy: “It’s hard, dad. It’s hard to be what you want me to be.”
Dad: “I simply want you to be the man I raised you as, the man you are.”
Hellboy: “I’m not a man. All you did was make me forget that for a while.”
Dad: “If not a man, then what are you?”
Hellboy: “I don’t know.”
This leads to the witch coming back to Hellboy in his dreams to take advantage of his confusion and offer him a sweet deal: Hellboy tracks down her parts and puts her back together, and she makes him human. Thus begins Hellboy’s quest to retrieve the witch’s body parts as Hellboy’s dad begrudgingly partners up with the remaining members of the well-dressed, English gentlemen’s club to stop Hellboy from making a huge mistake. This gives the dad a meatier role in the story in that he now becomes caught in the middle of the gentlemen’s pursuit of Hellboy and desire to kill him and Hellboy’s fight for survival and identity.
Now, we have a story with one scene leading to the next scene, leading to the next, and so on. We also have a story that is strong in its answer of how to free the witch as well as strong in character motivations which makes the conflict building from those motivations strong as well. Not to mention, with this outline, we get to explore Hellboy’s mind and what it feels like to be considered a monster by those one is sworn to protect and how those feelings can make one susceptible to actions that are supposed to calm the fears but instead only exacerbate them. Humans fear monsters so judge them and hunt them down. Hellboy fears being judged as a monster so takes steps that end up freeing one. Only by facing their fears can humans find the strength to cooperate with Hellboy, and only by facing his fears can Hellboy find enough trust to eventually partner with those who wanted him dead.
This is the type of story I prefer, one that travels a discernable path rather than saying to me, “And then this happens… and then this happens… and then this happens…”