I swear when this all started, I was only doing research for my next Lorna Lockheed story.
I had this epiphany that I could use The Fast and the Furious as a structural template for Lorna's next adventure in much the same way Director Sam Mendes admitted to using Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight as a visual, thematic and structural template for his popular James Bond film Skyfall (Or to use a more relevant example, how The Fast and the Furious itself was modeled after Point Break). Movies and stories are doing this sort of thing all the time, borrowing the bones of some well established or literary benchmark and growing new muscle and skin over the top to breathe life and depth into their work. I wanted my story to be about family, to pit rival gangs against each other and the police, to feature visceral, high-octane racing scenes, and indulge in a little exuberant attitude along the way (as Lorna is wont to do). What better film to homage than The Fast and the Furious, which, for all its flaws and cheap thrills, nonetheless hangs on a straight forward and functional plot progression I could very much take advantage of. The film is pretty dated, I'll admit, but there is something compelling beneath all the gratuitous bikini B-roll and thug culture that surprised me this time.
It's nothing so flashy as complex characterization or culturally critical commentary or even ambitious artistic aspiration. It's just good old fashioned serialized soap-opera continuity porn.
Wait, what? What does that even mean?
Let's take a closer look.
Flashback to 2001 or so. I was 16 and fresh out of the DMV with a certifiable driver's license in my wallet at a time when few of my friends could claim the same (the laws changed after my birthday to drag out the process an extra 6 months and hamper the new drivers with restrictions on time of day and number of passengers. But not me!) I'm not joking when I say everyone was racing their engines coming out of that theater parking lot that night. I saw the film a buncha times, back then, so I was well aware at how obvious and campy it was, but geez, those races! It wasn't boring. Paul Walker's bad acting aside, you could sure eat some popcorn to that sh*t, and eat popcorn I did, on many repeat viewings.
Eh, but the sequels sucked, right? By the time Tokyo Drift, the third installment came around, not even Paul Walker could be bothered to show his face. And it's not like anyone else would give him work. (These movies were the height and breadth of his career, even then!) The stars were jumping ship. What I didn't know was that Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan had actually begun to right that ship, and over the next four films revitalize it into a star-studded Hollywood blockbuster comeback franchise of classic serialized cinema.
And what is it that redeems these films I and so many others have rolled our eyes at all these years as the top talent in Hollywood begs to get on board and literally billions of dollars are earned worldwide? You might be surprised it's the same basic formula underpinning Hollywood's other giant cinematic universe of money-printing proportions: Marvel. That common denominator goes all the way back to Greek and Roman religious cults: myth-building. Take a pantheon of distinct archetypal characters with unique attributes and intertwine their stories in a tapestry of perpetually unending predicaments. And the crowds will follow.
Comic books and soap-operas have been doing this for decades. Never let the story end. Your favorite characters always come back, even from the dead (if they're popular enough) and eventually they will grow on you to the point of cheddar and sour-cream potato-chip level addiction. It's only a matter of time. For example, even Marvel couldn't quite nail their portrayal of the Hulk in two successive outings, but throw him in the sandbox with the other toys for his third appearance and watch 'em strike gold. Captain America, likewise, wasn't a huge draw his first outing. His second appearance in Avengers helped, but it wasn't until his third appearance in Winter Soldier before he sealed his popularity and fully rounded his relevance within the canon.
The Fast and the Furious pulls off this same trick, and luckily, too, because it was their fourth and fifth films before they found their groove.
If Vin Diesel couldn't save the franchise he started, no one could. But it wasn't so much his return that saved it as it was his character and what he's been up to since we last saw him. His future was unknown. Now we get to find out! Turns out, his girlfriend got murdered, so he's gotta get revenge, is basically it. The best line in the film is when he's sitting opposite his frenemy Paul Walker (who previously betrayed him, but not really), when someone asks if they know each other. After an awkward pause (awkward because he knows Walker is an undercover cop but he still keeps his mouth shut about it because their agendas are temporarily aligned) he answers, "He used to date my sister." Boom! Continuity. It's just a throwaway laugh, but it exemplifies the history of these characters and the perpetually shifting status-quos that drive their unending drama. Paul Walker fell in love with Vin Diesel's criminal "family" (and the sister, too, more literally) and reluctantly lets them escape because even though they're the criminals he's been looking for, they've got heart... or something (terrible police work, amIright?!). This time, they're not on good terms, but they're after the same bad-guy so it's cool. In the next film, they literally build their team together--as best friends--and Paul Walker begins a literal family with the sister. And that's where it really kicks off.
By the fifth film, they bring back characters from all the previous films. Now that's continuity! Both the "replacement Vin Diesel" (Tyrese Gibson) and the actor wannabe (rapper Ludicris) from Too Fast, Too Furious. The sexy femme fatale (and future Wonder Woman) Gal Gadot, a seductive tag-along villain from the fourth film. The popular Han Seoul-Oh (get it?) from Tokyo Drift, even gets to join in despite the fact that he died in that appearance! Turns out, they reorganized the chronology of the films in order to keep using a fan favorite a little longer. He survives into film six, by the way, and even gets to hook up with Gal Gadot in that installment, which also brings back their nemesis from the Five, Duane "The Rock" Johnson, but now as a reluctant frenemy. Vin's dead girlfriend from Four turns out to be alive after going undercover, surviving her murder with amnesia and now working for the new British bad guys (sheesh). Film Seven adds famous car-chaser Jason Statham as the brother of the previous film's now deceased* villain, looking for revenge. If this is starting to sound like a soap-opera, don't say I didn't warn you. It's crazy utter nonsense, is what it is. But it's beautifully orchestrated and equally addicting.
*Either I misunderstood that ending or it all just blurred together, but turns out, he survived into Seven, and even plays a small part in Eight, wherein he and Jason Statham even pall around a bit with their previous nemesis, The Rock.
You see, each time a character switches sides, teams-up with or betrays the others and upends the story, you kinda gotta see what'll happen next. It's not the reversals and cheap plot devices per se that work, it's that the characters we kinda liked are back and kind of even more likable than before. Each re-appearance, they grow on you. Each re-appearance, they're a little more well defined. Now they're global fugitives. Now they're pardoned. Now Vin Diesel is hooking up with The Rock's Brazilian partner. Now the Rock's new replacement partner betrays them. Now Gal Gadot is working for the bad guy. Now she's giving googly eyes to Han and promising to run off to Tokyo with him. Now she's dead and he's going to to have to go off without her, where we've already seen that he finds his own fate three films earlier. But wait! Turns out he didn't die accidentally, it was Jason Statham all along, beginning the arc of his revenge in a post-credits zinger for the ages and which finally brings the chronology full circle in time for film Seven. This is character building by quantity rather than quality, but with endlessly recurring installments (I hear there are two more films pending for a total of ten?!) that's not a problem.
Every new entry answers two questions that keep viewers coming back: What really happened to so-and-so, and what's gonna happen next because of it? They aren't merely arbitrary episodes of the week a la Star Trek television, with no connective relevance to each other. They build story holes and then double back and fill them in, even when you didn't realize it mattered. They improvise after the fact, but it's always character driven backstory and audiences can't help being curious. Now Letty's back? But wasn't she dead? How is she a villain? Now The Rock's back? Wasn't he chasing them? How can he not arrest them? Etc. Etc.
This is the kind of intertwined, out-of-order myth-building that western society is built on (go ahead and try reconciling the life of Theseus with his appearance in Jason and the Argonauts which predates his parents). You find it in Charles Dickens' novels, the way they were originally published periodically before being collected into tomes. You even find it in Star Wars where George Lucas has admitted to mimicking Saturday morning serials like Buck Rogers when he uses "Episodes" in his titling (and then starts in the middle of the saga!) Hell, just try telling a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the show isn't about the extended ensemble. I think they actually teach that show in certain academic classrooms as an example of long-form character development. Even in brief, sparse scenes, you can find space to hint at even the most obscure character's rise, fall and redemption without upending the main plot line, and your audience will have more characters they might relate to, that might keep them coming back.
Therein lies the secret formula. Everyone expects you to bring back the protagonist. But whatever happened to that endearing side character I liked so much? Marvel Comics has a history of publishing comic issues titled exactly that: "Whatever happened to so-and-so," in which they dedicate an entire issue to the secret heretofore unknown sub-plot of a B-tier character who's about to rear his head back into the main story. For some readers, he or she was always their secret favorite anyway, far and above the protagonist. But even if not, it's a temporary close-up that adds depth and value to even the most obscure members of the larger cast.
X-Men is renowned for this, especially under the 80's pen of Chris Claremont, who never introduced a sister, a love-interest, a dance-teacher or sewer-dweller who didn't later feature prominently in the spotlight eventually. Just look at Rogue's character arc. Everything is a setup for later, or a payoff of the past. In the process, he makes you fall in love with everyone. And he makes everyone fall in love with someone. You knew if you came back long enough, it'd be worth it. And along the way, two characters would turn out to be siblings and the bad guy would turn good and somebody you never noticed much before would suddenly become your new favorite. Until he killed , de-powered, de-aged, cloned, or resurrected them too many times.
That's why The Fast and the Furious movies are so well loved by those who give them a chance. And why even I must give them their due after all this time, having finally marathon'ed the entire series (okay, not the second one). And I must admit, even Paul Walker, bless his blonde soul, began to grow on me with his wife and son and CGI happy ending (remember, he died before they finished filming?). That's exactly how comics grew to take over Hollywood. That's why everyone still knows who Hercules is, and Achilles. And that's at least one of the secrets to keeping your readers hooked in your own writing. Bring back all the side characters, one at a time, give them their moment in the sun. Tell us what they've really been up to, between the scenes, and build a new story out of it. If you hear one is growing in favor with the fans, bring 'em back again, only this time brainwashed. Only this time in love with the villain. Only this time it's a twin. Only this time... Only this time... Only this time... After all, the readers are gonna ask, "Whatever happened to so-and-so?"
So tell them.