Book Coach Corner: Top Gun: Maverick

Background: What Is Book Coach Corner?

(For those of you who have seen these types of posts before, you can jump down to Synopsis :)

I am a certified book coach via Author Accelerator. The goal of a coach is to help writers get their best story into the world. This covers support in every part of the writing process: planning, drafting, editing, polishing, and publishing.

A big part of the job, though, is helping writers create their best stories. This means strengthening character motivation, tightening cause and effect threads, assisting with plotting, and much more.

In this blog series, I thought it would be fun to look at popular and classic books, TV shows, and movies with the eye of a coach. What would I suggest to the artist to help make the narrative stronger? What are the strengths and opportunities in the piece?

A couple more details to see if this tantalizes your blog-reading taste buds:

  • The reviews will go in-depth on the subject, so it may not make sense if you haven’t read/viewed it
  • It will spoil everything if you haven’t read/viewed the blog’s subject
  • At the beginning, I’ll give a quick synopsis and my “gut” reaction to the work. This is the subjective stuff, so that I can then get into the work’s architecture with more of an objective eye to story, improvement, and praise

Those are the details. This entry takes a look Top Gun: Maverick, a movie I had low expectations for and ended up loving.

Synopsis

Top Gun: Maverick follows the story of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. He is called back to become an instructor at Top Gun to train a series of young pilots to accomplish a nearly impossible mission.

Quick Thoughts

I saw the original Top Gun once and that was on a bus with my college rowing team. On those bus rides, it was always protocoled to choose a very male-centric, testosterone-fueled movie (except the time we watched Mean Girls). I loved the music, the action, and the volleyball. It was fun and exciting — I could see why so many people loved it.

This sequel is much in the same vein, however, 2022 is far away from 2005 when I saw the original, and, I have to say, I have missed this type of movie.

What type?

Well, basically, a movie about people doing cool things that aren’t superheroes. The practical special effects, the flights, the banter, it was fun to see all the action set pieces and a real-world setting. The acting was good and the plot was straightforward. It is basically the final act of Star Wars: A New Hope expanded out to two hours (a ragtag team has to make an impossible run through a tight trench and fire two shots into a tiny target). I thoroughly enjoyed it and left the theater with my heart racing.

Appreciation

I think the most outstanding thing about the film was its action sequences. They are executed at a level of near perfection. Of particular awesomeness was the scene when Maverick makes the test run alone to prove it can be done. I saw the movie opening weekend and people were literally gasping as he raced through the mountainous trench to beat the 2:15 time limit. Even the beginning scene (which is completely gratuitous) was fantastic: Maverick pushes a new plane prototype to hit Mach-10 to keep the testing team from losing their jobs.

Takeaway

There is a lot to learn cinematically from these action scenes (the pacing, editing, and sound design), but I think story-wise the scenes are calibrated to 3 key things that it’s useful to keep in mind when constructing a tense atmosphere:

  • High emotional stakes
  • A threshold to push against
  • Collage construction

I’ll break these each down with some additional context.

High Emotional Stakes

To take the example of the scene when Maverick goes through the mountainous trench, there was A LOT at stake.

  • There are the simple stakes of completion. It’s an impossible run — can he even do it? We are afraid for his life.
  • He is providing hope. While the students have been trying for weeks to complete it under 3 minutes, Maverick has to show that there is a way to finish it in 2:15, proving that it can be done AND they can all live through it. We are seeking hope for the team to finish the run and live.
  • Maverick is at his darkest hour. He has just been fired. He lost his experimental plane role. He is putting everything on the line to do this run, save his class, and prove himself. We are cheering for his moment of redemption.
  • The scene is one of the climaxes of the movie. It is the final battle between Maverick and his primary antagonist at Top Gun, Admiral Simpson. If he can prove this run can be done, he can take back his class and prove once and for all that he deserves to be a teacher. We are cheering for him to topple his antagonist.

Even one of these stakes in a story is powerful enough to keep the audience engaged, but when you have many combined together, it makes it absolutely riveting. In the above list, 50% of the Maverick stakes are life and death! Maverick completing this run saves his life and the lives of his entire team.

Thresholds

The threshold rule is pretty simple, but it’s a really powerful way to inject suspense into the story. Essentially, it’s putting a time-bound or high-stakes wrapping around the climax.

I’ve already mentioned Star Wars: A New Hope. In that final scene, the rebels have one chance to shoot two missiles into a nearly impossible target. Even if there is nothing else going on in the story (Luke proving himself, Luke’s life at stake, the primary showdown between Luke and Vader), we are riveted because we want to see if it can be done.

It’s why live sports will always be so entertaining. You have two teams with a set time limit and only one will emerge victorious. We want to see what will happen. Add to the time limitation our support for the players and loathing of the antagonistic rivals, and the stakes go up even higher.

The one thing Top Gun adds to this so deftly is Maverick pushing the threshold even further. We are given the 3-minute mark as a way to make it “maybe” possible. When Maverick makes it 2:15, some people in the audience of my theater gasped. CAN HE DO IT? THAT’S WAY FASTER THAN WHAT WE, AS AN AUDIENCE, EXPECTED!

If you are writing something and need to inject some life into the climax, think about how you can bind it into a high-stakes or time-bound conclusion. Don’t do it arbitrarily, but if you can make the villain give a meaningful time crunch on the protagonist, go for it.

Collage Construction

I completely made up this term, but what I’m trying to get across is that the scene isn’t constructed from a single perspective. It would be tense to simply show Maverick shooting through the mountainside, making dramatic turns, and gasping as he is assaulted by g-forces, but director Joseph Kosinski lets us see the moment from multiple perspectives. We see:

  • His students cheering him on
  • His superior holding back his fury
  • His colleague trying to show no emotion to not upset the superior
  • (Bonus in the theater: Getting to hear the sighs and gasps of the audience members beside you.)

When mixing these perspectives, we are also mixing emotions: not only are we feeling the fear of Maverick, but also the hopefulness of his students, the anger of his superior, and the mixed feeling of “this guy is nuts” from multiple actors on the screen.

I recently read the book The Science of Storytelling. I could rant about how brilliant this book is for hours, but the key thing for this post is that the author, Will Storr, highlights a major cognitive thrill that stories give us: They allow us to see different perspectives and enjoy unique experiences which free us from our own individual, biased points of view. When a writer (or filmmaker or artist) allows viewers to experience a scene from multiple perspectives with multiple emotions, it thrills our brains because we get to see complex emotions reflected back to us. In his words:

Identifying and accepting our flaws, and then changing who we are means breaking down the very structure of our reality before rebuilding it in a new and improved form. This is not easy…This is why we call those who manage it ‘heroes.’

In scenes like the mountain trench run in Maverick, we see one moment broken into multiple realities that we get to experience as one scene. A full gamut of emotions can be experienced in five minutes of film. This helps us empathize, connect, and rebuild our realities in new and unique ways. It stretches our humanity. Our brains love that.

Opportunity

The biggest issue I had with the film’s story was regarding its secondary main character, Bradley “Rooster” Shaw. The key thing was that Rooster is pegged from the beginning as someone who hesitates and can’t commit to trusting his own instincts.

The issue is that Rooster never overcomes this problem in training. Despite this, Maverick chooses him to be his wingman in the final run against the enemy. As a viewer, I was kind of like “Um. Mav…Maybe go with one of the five other people who doesn’t have a tragic flaw?”

It would have made more sense (and been more satisfying narratively) if Rooster had a breakthrough moment prior to the final mission. This would earn Maverick’s trust BUT, of course, we wouldn’t know if Rooster would be able to trust his instincts in a higher-stakes environment. This could lead to a really dramatic moment when Rooster has to trust his instincts but is caught in a spiral of self-doubt during the final mission.

In the actual movie, he just kind of gets over his issue during the last moments and then is a perfect pilot/hero to the end.

Takeaway

If you set up a tragic flaw in a character (especially a main one), make sure to exploit their battle with it for catharsis with your audience. In Maverick, Rooster’s story felt a bit half-baked but I WANTED him to have a moment when he fully battled his demons and took control of his own instincts. In the current film, it feels like they rushed over this conflict to keep the story moving.

Conclusion

Top Gun: Maverick is awesome. I haven’t had that much fun in a movie theater in a long time. The audience participation (laughter, gasping, and cheers) made me remember why I loved going to the movies in the first place.

Thank you to the whole film team for making a truly memorable and wonderful summer blockbuster.

Tedd Hawks is a writer, trainer, and book coach from Chicago. You can follow his Instagram and humor blog. If you’re interested in book coaching services check out his offerings here.

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Tedd Hawks

Tedd Hawks

I'm a Chicago-based writer and book coach who loves to write and help others write better.