image credit: Screen Media Films

Say Less: 4 Lessons for Writers from Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

Have I ever told you about one of my favorite good-bad movies, Willy’s Wonderland?

Willy’s Wonderland is essentially an unlicensed Five Nights at Freddy’s-like horror movie. If you don’t know FNAF, you probably know Chuck E Cheese. It’s a family restaurant and arcade with animatronic mascots for entertainment. In both FNAF and Willy’s Wonderland, the animatronics are evil murderers.

Willy’s Wonderland is one of those movies that isn’t good, but it’s kinda great: you won’t be scared by the horror content, but you’ll laugh, and the central performance from Nicolas Cage is one of his good ones. You’re never sure which version of Nicolas Cage you’re going to get. Here, he’s flawless.

What makes Nicolas Cage so excellent is the fact his character has no dialogue. I’m not talking minimal dialogue like Mandy (2018). I mean, none. Reportedly, Cage agreed to do the movie only if they cut his dialogue completely.

You’d think it’s a weird choice for the big-name star playing a hero to keep his mouth shut through a film, but I’m convinced that’s the only reason Willy’s Wonderland is any good.

There’s a great history of low-dialogue characters across media. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal are notorious for their silence. One of Jack Reacher’s most common lines of narrative (not dialogue) is “Reacher said nothing.” I’ve used this myself: In my Descent/Ascension Series, Elise Kavanagh is someone whose dialogue is heavily limited to increase mystique.

You can learn a lot about writing from Willy’s Wonderland.


Lesson One: You don’t actually need character back story.

Since Nicolas Cage can’t tell us what’s on his mind, or where he came from, we can only make guesses. His hero reacts to the horrifying situations without hesitation. What kind of man doesn’t seem to care about murderous animatronics on a job site? Over the course of the movie, Cage’s commitment to doing the agreed-upon job despite peril gives you the impression of Willy’s Wonderland accidentally hiring John Wick.

By showing what he hates (bad work/life balance) and what he loves (his soda and a pinball machine), you get a strong impression of a sentimental but practical man who is a bit of a jaded, overgrown child with a hard life. It’s mounds better than anything the dialogue would have been capable of delivering, as evidenced by the back story everyone else shares.

Give your audience some credit: Write less dialogue, and write less explicit back story. Events can do the heavy lifting.


Lesson Two: Quiet characters provide opportunities for contrast.

You can contrast a quiet character to more talkative characters, sure. That’s the most obvious utility. If you’re writing for fiction, where it’s a massive wall of text, distinguishing characters can be different; contrasting how much dialogue they use is a simple-but-effective way of delineating them.

You can also contrast the character’s different emotional states to create a more dynamic narrative landscape. It builds punchlines into the narrative. You can’t help but laugh and get excited when the janitor tears into his animatronic foes.

It’s shocking when the Janitor goes from working with his head down into a violent, roaring rage, beating the crap out of his attackers. The energy level of the film is also naturally improved simply by going from longer silent periods with occasional action, to a lot of action with less quiet.


Lesson Three: Bolster your writing weak spots by working around them.

The dialogue other characters have in Willy’s Wonderland is…not a highlight. Every single line could have been cut back dramatically. Nothing can go unstated, the actors struggle with long sentences, and little room is given for emotional displays that aren’t shouted at one another. So much of it is simply unnecessary.

That isn’t to say the writing is all bad, though! The good in Willy’s Wonderland is general plot structure, the concept, and the heroic character. It’s simply fun to watch. One little edit (silencing the hero) took this from labored to a delight.

When you’re writing, you can choose to bolster the stuff you’re good at and mostly skip over the stuff you’re bad at, too.

Where are your weaknesses? If your dialogue isn’t strong, you might find yourself focusing on plot…which is what I tend to do. On the other hand, if you’re great at dialogue, maybe you want to enhance that at the cost of narrative. Play to your strengths! It’s your story.


Lesson Four: Don’t drag everything out.

Willy’s Wonderland is a brisk 1.5 hours long. Much like the hero, it shows up, does its job, and leaves.

The story begins when Cage’s hero arrives in town. His work-life balance in this flick is legendary; he walks away from active fights when it’s time to take a break. In the morning, he clears out of town promptly, and that’s where the movie ends.

My favorite writing advice I’ve received is “Enter the scene late, leave the scene early.” Willy’s Wonderland and its Janitor both exemplify this rule perfectly. It keeps things punchy, focuses on the delightful strengths, and doesn’t blow out its back dragging things out for an extra twenty minutes on the reel.


Even though this campy, low-budget ripoff of a kids’ horror game isn’t “good,” the choices the team made transformed it into an outstanding delight of infinite rewatchability. You can take these lessons into your writing, whatever your format. When you find yourself struggling with a scene, try asking yourself: “What would Willy’s Wonderland do?”

(image credit: Screen Media Films)

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