In the midst of my absence last month, I managed to squeeze in some time to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
It was only 1000 pages of very fine print – no problem!
I had been meaning to read the book for years.
I once knew a certain female executive whose passion for work knew no bounds and who once admitted to me that the source of much of her passion came from Atlas Shrugged.
I once played Bioshock on my laptop. The entire backstory and characters involved in the underwater city of Rapture were based upon the ideas of Atlas Shrugged. There are many references in the game to Ayn Rand’s story and characters and even Ayn Rand herself.
I also read Francis Ford Coppola’s unproduced years-in-the-making epic script, Megalopolis, which Coppola said was influenced by Atlas Shrugged.
In any case, I could not put the book down. I flew through the thousand pages without a sweat. It’s amazing to me how on the one hand, some 120-page amateur screenplays require monumental acts of willpower to get through them and yet, on the other hand, there are giant, thousand-page books that are hopelessly addictive. Why is that?
What is it about one story that makes it addictive and another one arduous? How can a writer hold a reader’s attention so intensely for so many pages?
8 Effective Writing Approaches in Atlas Shrugged
1) The stakes were raised sky high – In so many reviews I’ve done on amateur screenplays, I’ve complained about the stakes being too low. “Why should we care?” I’d often write. And yet, in Atlas Shrugged, the stakes could not have been raised any higher.
Nothing less than the life of a giant railroad, Taggart Transcontinental, hung in the balance throughout the story and subsequently, the economic life of ‘50s America hung on the existence of Taggart Transcontinental. This is a railroad we grow to become invested in as much as the protagonist, Dagny Taggart, because this was her family’s business.
In so many reviews I’ve done on amateur screenplays, I’ve complained about the stakes being too low.
In the opening section of the book, the goal was to build the “Rio Norte” line in Colorado or else the railroad will go bust. Add to that the risk of using a new untested metal for the rails, and then pile on obstacle after obstacle after obstacle to get the job done, and you have a compelling story. No pressure, right?
I loved every word of Part One, and the first chapter is nearly flawless.
2) The obstacles grew increasingly monstrous over the course of the book – What started as a seemingly simple task of building a new line in Colorado to save the railroad evolved into battles with bigger economic, political, and philosophical forces that threaten to undermine everything Dagny held dear.
Toward the end of Part Two, they were fighting everyone in the face of total hopelessness.
3) High drama – Scenes were consistently compelling because not only were the stakes sky high but there was an epic battle of philosophies or the threat of corruption that put at risk something dear to a character.
I loved how some characters, like Hank Rearden, could face open threats to his livelihood and ingenious creation of new metal and yet, he could still distance himself somewhat emotionally and stay focused enough to attack that threat intelligently and brilliantly.
Not only were the stakes sky high but there was an epic battle of philosophies or the threat of corruption.
Ayn Rand was always drawn to scenes of the highest drama with tension so thick you could cut it with a chainsaw.
4) Rand makes her points by showing what’s wrong with the world – Before this, I reviewed a novel by a friend in which everything went right for her protagonist. I told her, “Too many of your characters are saying all the right things and behaving like good people. In life, we lead by example. In storytelling, we make our points by showing the world what’s wrong with it through characters who say and do things that are so very wrong. Avoid speeches. Show things going wrong in your protag’s world to make your points and create meaning. Everything that goes right for your protag goes wrong for the story.” And of course, every conceivable way that something could go wrong, went wrong in Atlas Shrugged.
In storytelling, we make our points by showing the world what’s wrong with it.
5) I loved the symbolism – In the opening chapter, you had Eddie Willers walking through the city and something made him think of an oak tree from his youth that stood on a hill, that had looked as if it stood there for hundreds of years, and that Eddie Willers thought would stand there forever…
“Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree’s presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength…”
Until one day, lightning struck it.
“Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it had not been able to stand without it.
Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain, or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal – the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.”
The symbolism here, as I’m sure you can tell, cannot be missed. What he was doing, walking through the city, evoked a thought about his childhood that spoke to a greater truth – what he trusted was dead and hollow inside, kinda like his faith in the Taggart Transcontinental company he worked for.
There was also the moment when Dagny saw the old piece of machinery:
“On her way through the plant, she had seen an enormous piece of machinery left abandoned in a corner of the yard. It had been a precision machine tool once, long ago, of a kind that could not be bought anywhere now. It had not been worn out; it had been rotted by neglect, eaten by rust and the black drippings of dirty oil. She had turned her ace away from it. A sight of that nature always blinded her for an instant by the burst of too violent an anger. She did not know why; she could not define her own feeling; she knew only that there was, in her feeling, a scream of protest against injustice, and that it was a response to something much beyond an old piece of machinery.”
Ayn Rand made ordinary moments compelling in ways that revealed character. We do this, too, via our own unique, visual approaches in screenwriting.
6) Effective use of flashbacks – This book probably had the most effective use of flashbacks I’ve ever seen. A flashback existed not for the sake of exposition only. It existed to set the stage for an upcoming scene. It’s a setup to a payoff.
For example, a wealthy playboy by the name of Francisco D’Antonia did some diabolical scheming that nearly destroyed Taggart railroad. Dagny Taggart, who was the VP of Operations, is walking to the New York City hotel where D’Antonia is staying. On her way to the hotel, we’re given a flashback that explains the emotional personal history between Dagny and Francisco which goes all the way back to their childhood.
A flashback existed not for the sake of exposition only. It existed to set the stage for an upcoming scene.
Francisco’s philosophies about succeeding in business shaped Dagny’s life and passion for the railroad and now Francisco’s behaving in ways that go against everything he ever believed. They also had a love affair, the first love of Dagny’s life. So all of these things set the stage for an epic scene of confrontation between Dagny and Francisco.
The flashback existed to help us understand the heavy words these two characters will say to each other.
7) Rand was always thinking big – This aspect drives me crazy about most amateur screenplays, because too often, new writers think too small. Ayn Rand had big introductions to big characters with great depth trapped inside epic conflicts of the highest human stakes imaginable played out in scene after scene of rich drama thick with tension. That’s writing that’ll blow your hair back.
8) “Who is John Galt?” – Last but not least in any way, the most common aspect Rand keeps readers hooked is to throw questions out there and make them keep reading to get their answers.
But I think there are two kinds of questions: the big picture questions (“Will Taggart Transcontinental Railroad survive?” “Why are the leaders of industry disappearing?” “Who is John Galt?”), and then there are little questions to keep you hooked scene-by-scene (“Why is a character saying strange things and not revealing the answers?” “Why is this pirate offering a bar of gold?” “Who is the mysterious person Eddie Willers keeps talking to in the cafeteria?”)
Too often, amateurs are too obvious and throw out too few questions and reveal answers too quickly. I think many great authors are more disciplined about waiting until much later before revealing the big and little answers. They also toss up interesting developments to make you keep guessing and asking more questions. (Which reminds me of the Lost TV show. Of course, we hope now that the answers are worthy of the questions we’ve been asking.)
Is Atlas Shrugged adaptable for the big screen? Absolutely. Ayn Rand was a former Hollywood screenwriter herself and began writing her own Atlas Shrugged screenplay but passed away in 1982 with only 1/3 of the script finished. There’s been a long history of development for the project.
Personally, I think a trilogy is the way to go.
– Mystery Man
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I also write for Script Magazine.