*Cue catchy theme music*
Just because it’s a show about an unusual couple, doesn’t mean writers can’t learn a whole cinematic universe of things from WandaVision, the genre-bending Disney+ series created by Jac Schaeffer.
Read on for nine screenwriting lessons from 2021’s biggest TV show so far.
I probably don’t need to warn you, but I will anyway… major WandaVision spoilers ahead.
WandaVision Defies Genre Classifications
Awards shows and screenwriting competitions may prefer to categorize everything along the strict lines of Drama and Comedy, but how do you put a single label on a show like WandaVision?
It’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so perhaps it’s simply Superhero Action? But it’s a new take on classic sitcoms, so maybe Comedy? Although, it could also go under the Mystery banner… or shall we consider it a moving Drama about grief?
Why not all of the above? If anything, WandaVision proves that a show (or a movie, for that matter) doesn’t have to be any one thing. Genre is constricting, but storytelling isn’t. Writers should feel free to let their stories be whatever they are, genre notwithstanding.
Give Your Pilot Room to Breathe
When writing pilots, it’s tempting to stuff them full of every detail, line of dialogue, plot point, and twist that will fit on the page. But often, less is more.
The first episode of WandaVision is impressively slim. In it, Wanda and Vision begin life in the suburbs and host a dinner party that features a classic sitcom misunderstanding. That’s all, folks!
Pilots are the groundwork for the entire show, so focus on what matters most — character and theme. You can always build the rest later.
WandaVision is All About Anticipation
When someone sits down to watch an episode of television, they do so with an understanding that they’re watching a single piece of a whole. Writers should play into the anticipation that is automatically built into television as a medium, a feat achieved by constantly raising and answering questions.
In the pilot, Mrs. Hart asks the unusual couple a slew of questions during dinner. “So where did you two move from? What brought you here? How long have you been married? And why don’t you have children yet?” Yet none of those questions are answered in the pilot… or even in the second episode.
Instead, after episode number two, audiences are left with even more questions. Things like: Where did that toy helicopter come from and why is it red? What was going on with that voice coming through the radio? Who is that dude in the beekeeper suit who came out of the sewer grate? Why did the episode rewind right before the end as if beekeeper man never appeared?
To hook audiences and keep them intrigued enough to continue watching, writers must be constantly posing questions, both explicitly to the characters themselves and implicitly in the minds of the audience members. So revel in the slow burn, pose lots of questions, and don’t answer all of them right away.
Know the Rules, Then Throw Them Out
… of the Hex.
But seriously, writers must understand the rules of structure and genre in order to effectively tell any story. Knowing the conventions of sitcoms and superhero movies allowed the writers of WandaVision to play into and against audience expectations.
Then, once you know what you’re working with, toss the rules out the window just like that lobster. Add scripted commercials into a streaming show that shouldn’t have any, try a different comedy format with each new episode, or incorporate various aspect ratios as part of the storytelling. Anything goes… especially if you’re a witch with seemingly unlimited magical powers.
WandaVision is Great at Cliffhangers
Television shows are serialized. Each episode builds on the next, which builds on the next, which builds on the ne— you get the point. And the point is: audiences have to have a reason to come back, which is exactly why cliffhangers work. By ending with a sticky situation, debilitating dilemma, or confusing conundrum, audiences will have no choice but to watch the next episode.
WandaVision does cliffhangers so well. Sometimes, the cliffhanger is as simple as revealing that Wanda is (magically) visibly pregnant in a single day. Other times, it’s huge — like when Wanda’s twin brother comes back from the dead and shows up at their door.
Cliffhangers can be cliché if not handled carefully but will leave an audience hungry for more if done well. Unless you’re a synthezoid made out of vibranium who doesn’t eat food. *Cough, cough*
Lean on Those Minor Characters
The MCU has enough characters for, well, an entire cinematic universe. In fact, the minor characters are often the highlight of some of the movies — Loki and Groot immediately come to mind, for that matter.
One of the best things WandaVision does is give plenty of screen time to its fantastic minor characters, including Captain Monica Rambeau, Dr. Darcy Lewis, Agent Jimmy Choo, Pietro, and the one and only Agnes/Agatha Harkness. Instead of letting Wanda and Vision steal the show, these smaller other characters take center stage quite often.
And because the minor characters’ thematic journeys complement and add to Wanda’s, their storylines never feel extraneous or unwarranted. Instead, they feel essential.
WandaVision Has a Villain with a Purpose
For every Scarlet Witch, there’s an android soulmate. And for every protagonist, there’s an antagonist.
Though she doesn’t reveal her true self until late in the series (it WAS Agatha all along!), Agatha Harkness is a crucial element in WandaVision. Wanda’s story is one of grief and healing, which wouldn’t come to its natural conclusion without Agatha’s prodding and scheming. It may cause a great deal of pain, but the best antagonists are the ones who prompt the protagonist’s growth.
If Agatha hadn’t tried to steal Wanda’s power, the Vision family would still be living in the Hex. If Agatha hadn’t forced Wanda to confront her past, Darcy may still be watching a compelling sitcom about an unusual couple. Without Agatha, there’d be no WandaVision.
Write One Really Perfect Line
It was the line of dialogue heard ‘round the world. It blew up the Twittersphere. It quite possibly broke the Hex to smithereens.
“What is grief if not love persevering?”
Creator Jac Schaeffer has described this single line of dialogue by Vision as “the perfect distillation of the show.” It proves that no matter the genre, no matter the story, every script needs at least one really perfect, hit-you-right-in-the-heart, burned-into-your-memory-because-it’s-that-good line.
Dig Deep into Theme, But Don’t Throw Dirt at Your Audience
While the MCU has plenty of strengths, I wouldn’t always count thematic resonance on that list. Marvel movies are often full of impressive CGI and intense action, but don’t really hit on any particular universality. WandaVision, on the other hand, is grounded in theme.
The series may feature classic sitcom tropes and traditional superhero action sequences, but at its core, WandaVision is a story about loss, grief, and healing. It’s about the things we turn to during our most painful moments and the ways we cope with heartbreak. It’s about control, comfort, pain, and love.
The mastery is in how the writers convey those things. No character ever exclaims: “It’s all about Wanda’s grief,” or “She’s doing this to process Vision’s death!” While this would have been the easy way out, the WandaVision writers chose to evoke theme instead of stating it outright. The themes are shown to the audience through storylines, in the relationships between characters, and clever lines of dialogue — a much more subtle, much more effective approach.
Marvel fans had high hopes for WandaVision, but I don’t think anyone expected this superhero series to be chock full of lessons for writers. But what else would you expect from a magical gal in a small-town locale and her hubby who’s part machine?
The screenwriting gods smiled and the universe created a sitcom starring two Avengers that just so happens to be a boon for screenwriters, regardless of genre.
Catch WandaVision showrunner and writer Jac Schaeffer at the 2021 ScreenCraft Writers Summit. The online event kicks off on April 9th!