With WandaVision, series creator Jac Schaeffer brought a fresh take to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the form of a nine-part Disney+ series. It explores grief and loss in a way the Marvel films have only glossed over. The closest we might have seen was the way Iron Man 3 tackled the PTSD suffered by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). WandaVision stars Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision. What the overarching story might be isn’t apparent at first, but becomes apparent as the story unfolds. The structure of the series is solid and makes a fascinating case study for a number of techniques that can teach all of us about writing.
WandaVision is divided into three distinct trios of episodes. On a base level, the structure is exactly what it looks like on the surface. With nine episodes, the first three become act one, the second become act two, and the final episodes turn into act three. Though it’s a little more complicated than that, each of these acts bears its own distinctive features and purpose, all the while mimicking the comfort television of Wanda’s youth as she looks to sooth her own grief. As she embraces her grief at the end of the second act, or at least acknowledges it, the trappings of television shows in her control fall away and the final act brings her back toward the “real” world of the MCU.
As each of these major movements progress, they turn the screw of pressure on the characters and advance the story.
In part one, the show is driven by narrative intrigue. The second trio of episodes focus on adding complications and context. The final trio of episodes braids all of the threads from the first two together to build an impossible dilemma.
The first three episodes of WandaVision are three of my favorite and the reason is simple: the way they build intrigue in the narrative. As you watch the first three episodes again, go back and try to think about how you’d feel watching these episodes for the first time. Catalog the questions that the first-time audience must be asking, because there are many.
The three key questions an attentive audience member will ask are:
- Is this some sort of dream?
- Why are things in black and white?
- How is Vision still alive?
These mysteries build as Vision begins to ask these questions himself and wonder about what is happening around him. By the second episode, time advances and the show slowly turns to color, forcing the audience to wonder why? Then, with Wanda’s pregnancy, another layer is added to the mystery, keeping attentive audiences watching.
The third episode of the first act ends with the first major turn in the narrative. Wanda has her children and begins to realize that someone has intruded on her dreams. This is when she expels Monica Rambeau (known to her as Geraldine) out of Westview and back into the real world.
For Wanda, this is where she commits to her course of action. Anyone who threatens her dream life will be cast out and she will do anything to protect her family which includes Vision and two new twin boys.
This is the lie she tells herself that she’ll have to develop out of, but the audience doesn’t know that at this point. All the audience wants to know is how far is Wanda willing to go to protect her babies.
As you’re crafting your screenplay, constantly ask yourself what the audience will be thinking and work on ways to build those mysteries and slowly dole out answers at an appropriate pace. As you revise, make a list of the questions the audience will be asking as each line unfolds. If you’re finding that your audience isn’t asking enough questions, this is something to consider revising to increase the narrative intrigue.
As we head into the second act, the stakes of the world need to be raised. Wanda has so completely closed off her bubble around Westview, we need to know what’s happening in the outside world. To that aim, the writers add more elements to help us understand. In a story, you never want to give an audience more information than they need in a given moment, otherwise you’ll kill their sense of intrigue through the narrative. Give them too little and they’ll get annoyed. So this is the phase of the story where you add complications that will keep the audience’s attention, deepen the mystery, and build toward the eventual dilemma at the end of the piece.
For WandaVision, this really comes to adding the story of the outside world. Monica Rambeau, Jimmy Woo, and Darcy are brought in to explain to the audience how SWORD works and what the stakes are for the outside world. They help us understand the time and place inside the broader Marvel Universe timeline and we begin to get hints that the in-show WandaVision show is really Wanda trying to cope with her grief. As Vision continues his investigation, trying hard to understand the gravity of the situation, he realizes a taste of the torture the people of Westview are going through.
At the same time, the children of Wanda and Vision grow at an alarming rate and get adorable personalities. They’re instantly lovable. Wanda and Vision would die to protect them, like the parents of any children.
But where does Wanda’s brother fit? While many mysteries have been explained, at least partially, this new one helps maintain that sense of intrigue as we move into the third movement of the story.
You can see the building blocks of the ultimate dilemma for Wanda and Vision here in the second part.
The ending of this phase of the story shows the literal cracks in Wanda’s world and she has to exert more energy to further extend her control and unwillingness to confront herself over what she’s doing.
As you’re building your screenplay’s middle, think of ways your characters can reinforce the lies they’re living and what consequences that would have. How can these consequences further spiral things out of control and set them on a path like a barreling freight train toward the ultimate choice they have to make? This is Luke Skywalker ignoring his masters and confronting Darth Vader. This is Marta in Knives Out trying to give up the investigation and confess to the family what happens. This is Ian in Onward rejecting his brother for meddling with their quest to meet their father again. This is the dark moment for the main character in the narrative to protect the lie they’re living and forces them to change as they make the right decision at the height of the narrative in the next part.
Building The Dilemma
As Wanda fights to defend the life she’s built, she needs to be broken and reach her lowest point. Agatha Harkness, played by Kathryn Hahn, brings Wanda to that low point by threatening her children and builds to the dilemma of the final episode. All the while, mysteries are revealed. Yes, Agatha was manipulating some things behind the scenes, but ultimately, Wanda’s despondent grief was responsible for harming all of the residents of Westview.
Agatha, an ancient witch who wanted to discover the nature of Wanda’s power, poses an impossible dilemma for her as she tears the curtain covering over Wanda’s idyllic life. You’ll even notice many Wizard of Oz references, from Agatha’s boots under the car to Oz the Great and Powerful written on the Westview theatre marquee. Both the audience (and Wanda!) expect Agatha to be the one behind the mind-control of all of the Westview residents, but it’s been Wanda all along. Agatha wants to take this power from Wanda and forces her into something of a “Sophie’s Choice.”
Wanda can be a hero and free everyone she’s harmed, but she has to give up the comforting iteration of a family she’s created to shield herself from her grief. Or she can save her family and continue oppressing those around her.
It might be one of the most difficult choices Wanda has ever made, but it is only a difficult decision because of the context built by the middle section of the show. The twins themselves don’t appear to be creations. Despite their rapid growth rate, they seem like living, breathing people. We get more than an hour of the show dedicated to showing these kids as actual kids that we connect to. At the same time, the residents of Westview remain an abstract concept to Wanda, happy and in the background. It’s only Vision who realizes how much pain they’re in, revealing that to us in the audience.
How do you build to a decision point for your characters in a way that can wrap up in a way that seems surprising but inevitable?
Focus on the initial mystery, add complications and context, and then show us how impossible the choice will be to make.
Deep down, we know that Wanda will make the right choice, though. How do we know? Just like she knows Hal from Malcom in the Middle won’t die when the deck roof collapses on him. “It’s not that kind of show.”
For all of its twists and turns, WandaVision is still a show about superheroes and they’ll make the right choice, no matter how heartbreaking that choice might be. And by making us feel like Wanda was so deep in her grief that she couldn’t make that choice, we were led to believe that the worst possible scenario could come true.
But it’s not that kind of show.
WandaVision is very well structured, splitting off a third for each goal it has and ending the first two with a tantalizing twist, it creates a very satisfying storytelling experience. The show does so many other things well, too. The way it mirrors the tone of television shows in the past works on an aesthetic level to create something interesting but also works as commentary about the cathartic nature of nostalgia and television as a medium. But the chosen shows also tell a story in visual juxtaposition, moving from the idyllic family life of the ‘50s and ‘60s to the more complicated and dysfunctional iterations of family life represented through time.
Whether it’s the dialogue you want to learn more about, or the structure, or aesthetic, WandaVision will be worthy of study by writers for a long time.