Monkey Wrench

13 10 2010

This weekend my dad and I went to see Let Me In.  What an intense ride that was.  I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, though I cared little for the evil portrayed in some of the younger cast members.  Let Me In is a very well crafted work of art, though, in direction, acting, and—more importantly to me—screenplay.

There are three scenes in particular that I really appreciated.  If you’ve seen the movie, read on.  If not, kindly skip the next spoiler-laden group of paragraphs and save the surprise for your moviegoing experience.

Don’t worry, if you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll still be explaining the importance of monkey wrenches and teaching you one of the writer’s most important most effective—and most important—tools for any story.


 Let Me In – A Box Full of Monkey Wrenches


Let Me In is a story about a boy named Owen, who quickly becomes entangled with his new neighbor—a vampire named Abby, who appears as a young girl.  The movie is full of heavy moments that deal with the disturbed states of their young cast of characters, human or otherwise, and as such is an uncomfortable, dark, and thoroughly well-crafted film.

At several points during the film I found myself smiling at the screen.  This was not necessarily for the scenes, many of which you will cringe at, but rather the powerful art of the screenplay behind the scene.  Perhaps my favorite of these scenes is the sudden and unexpected death of the caretaker—a man who nightly goes out to kill so that Abby can feed.  I found the caretaker character surprisingly sympathetic, and so it’s both shocking and sad when he makes a mistake in targeting that night’s victim.

The caretaker is perhaps something akin to a serial killer, not addicted out of a lust for killing, but “forced” out of a twisted sense of love and duty.  He targets his victims, hides in their car, and carries out the murder and draining of their blood in some deserted area.  So when the caretaker hides in the backseat of a character’s car and a second person jumps in the passenger seat, plans quickly go awry.  Suffice it to say that there is a short scuffle and a car crash and the caretaker soon dies afterward, leaving Abby alone, and leading the plot into those unsteady waters that audience are hinged on in films.


This is what I call the Monkey Wrench.  Throw a monkey wrench into a large machine, and what will happen?  The machine will smoke and sputter and perhaps die, leaving whoever depends on that machine in a crisis.

Stories depend on conflict.  Stories are chronicles of a character and that character’s goal, and the obstacles, conflicts, and crises that stand between said character and goal(s).  Have your character on his way to that rent-saving job interview; then throw a Monkey Wrench under the hood of his car and watch as the story takes an abrupt—and much needed—twist.


Monkey Wrenches vs. Twists

So, you ask, is “Monkey Wrench” just another name for “twist”?  Yeah, we already know what that is.

Well, actually, it’s not.

M. Night Shyamalan has been under a bit of fire as of late.  But I remember a time when everyone couldn’t wait to see the next M. Night film.  I remember people getting all excited about that new big twist that he was famous for.  The main characters have been dead all along (The Sixth Sense); there was a divine reason for your son’s asthma and your daughter’s OCD water collecting (Signs); wait, we don’t live back in the Pilgrim Age, and the monsters in the forest were dorks in costume? (The Village)

Yep, those were some pretty darn good twists.  But they weren’t Monkey Wrenches.

In the case of a good old Shyamalan flick, a twist is a big revelation near the end of the movie.  A Monkey Wrench, however, should be something that happens to the protagonist, something that radically changes his or her situation; ie. conflict.  It can happen in the beginning of a story (what Snyder calls a “catalyst” in his great book Save the Cat), in the middle (like Let Me In) or near the end (think the showdown at the end of Edward Scissorhands).  The Monkey Wrench is that scene in a movie, that moment in a book, when everything changes for the worse, and the characters are left to cope and try to make the best of the circumstances.

This is essential for writing.  Any kind of writing, whether it be book, script, or comic.  Conflict is what keeps readers reading, audiences watching.  Without it, you have Goodnight Moon; which is a successful book for preschoolers, don’t get me wrong.  But do you want to write another Goodnight Moon?  Didn’t think so.


Homework Project

The best of the best know this.  Pixar, Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Rowling…  Go and see for yourself.  The next story that you have the joy to be a part of, take notes at the conflict that rains down on the protagonist; what happens, how many times, how is the character backed up against a wall, what is their response?

The Monkey Wrench is a must for your writing tool box.  You may already think in terms of conflict for your story, but this is something you really need to dig down deep and study.  If you’re serious about your craft, then stop and study some great examples of this vital tool.

Here’s a list of ten great examples, books and movies.  I’ve tried to include literary classics with modern successes.  If they sound familiar, don’t be surprised.  There’s a reason you’ve heard about them, after all!


The Count of Monte Cristo – A classic book by Alexander Dumas; a boy is falsely accused and sent to jail right as he’s marrying his fiancé.  How does he react?

Les Miserables – Also a classic, written by Victor Hugo.  A bitter convict starts life anew and becomes a rich, well-intentioned mayor.  When he’s found out by a bitter old enemy, he is once again thrown into life on the run, and having to care for a little girl to boot.  How does this change the path of his life?

Lord of the Flies – Written by William Golding is the story about a group of young castaways.  Faced with isolation, their small society slowly descends into bloody madness.

Harry Potter – Hint, hint.  We all know about J. K. Rowling’s record breaking series.  Follow the books to watch as Harry and his friends encounter conflict after conflict to their wants and dreams.

The Ranger’s Apprentice – A great series by John Flanagan.  These books about a boy unwillingly apprenticed to a mysterious ranger are marked by great hooks, always challenging the reader’s expectations.  Watch as the situation tumbles out of the characters’ control over and over again.

Let Me In – Already discussed.  Let Me In was originally a book and has been adapted by two movies in Sweden and America.  Although the American film was just released, the other versions have already proven themselves to be cult favorites.  Count how many times an event happens that markedly changes the plot’s direction.

Toy Story – Who hasn’t seen Toy Story!?  A now-classic example.  What does Woody do when Buzz gets lost? 

Spirited Away – Miyazaki’s masterpiece follows a young girl whose parents eat enchanted food.  As a result they are turned into pigs, and she is trapped in a world full of monsters and spirits.

Incredibles – To former superheroes and their children cope with being unable to legally use their superpowers.  This is a great example of Desire vs. Circumstance.

Ratatouille – Incidentally, my little brother’s been on a Ratatouille kick lately.  I had to add this movie to the list, even though it’s the third Pixar film on here.  Remy the rat gets separated from his family and is led to working with a human in a world class restaurant.  This movie is particularly great because it has more than three Monkey Wrenches thrown at you.  How does it change the story each time?


Already know about all these?  Go ye out into the world and study, study, study!  If you’re unwilling to study your craft, then you’re not serious about it.  Show us you’re serious, and we’ll show you our love for your written work.


“The greatest rules of writing are conflict, conflict, conflict.”
-James Frey




2 responses

19 10 2010
Marcus Twyman

You should check out the original movie (it’s in German but subtitled). If you have Netflix you can watch it instantly from your computer. I had to skip most of your review because I haven’t seen the American version yet, but I will this week 🙂

After I see it I’ll make sure to come back and read your review!

Best Regards,

Marcus Twyman

19 10 2010

Thanks, Marcus! I’ve been trying to get my hands on the original, as well as the book, but haven’t yet. Definitely will as soon as I can. When you see Let Me In, please be sure to let me know how it compares to the Swedish version.
Thanks again!

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