Perfect Moments: My favorite Christmas Moment

Because of the Christmas holiday, I’ll be taking a break from posting until January 3rd. But before then, I’d like to share my favorite Christmas related media. It’s not a movie or a TV special, but – of all things – a commercial for Directv.

While Christmas traditions revolve around giving gifts, celebrating the birth of Jesus, and many festivities, the one aspect of the holiday that often gets overlooked is the wish for peace on earth, and goodwill to all.

Imagine a world where there’s no evil or war. A world where everyone – including villans – are at peace with themselves and each other. It’s a dream that only gets more beautiful the older I get… but one that I know will almost certainly never happen. But thanks to this silly commercial, we can have a glimpse of what such a paradise might look like, where Darth Vader, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger, Dracula, The Mummy, Chucky, Hannibal, and the girl from ‘The Ring’ celebrate Christmas with an ordinary family.

Is it cheesy? Yes. Is it goofy? Oh heck yes. There are other movies and stories that are more emotional, more heartwarming, and that inspire us to be grateful for all the wonderful things in our lives, including our loved ones. But this commercial shows us a world where peace, love, and goodwill reign, and everyone – including the most despicable of people – have turned to the light, and that’s why it’s my favorite piece of Christmas media.

Well, that, and seeing this once-in-a-lifetime image:

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(GIF from this page)

May you all have a wonderful and heartwarming holiday season.

Favorite Moments: The TRON Holiday Special

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

No, this isn’t a long-lost relic from the 80’s that should have stayed lost: this Funny or Die video pokes fun at the Star Wars Holiday Special by imagining what might have happened if TRON had a special of its own. The answer? It would have been as terrible/awesome as it’s infamous real-world counterpart.

While my favorite moment is poor Santa being de-rezzed, the whole video is a great example of the Christmas Special trope, and why it’s a near-perfect formula for comedy gold:

1. Take any franchise and give it a Christmas special, no matter how absurd it might be (Can you imagine a Hellraiser Christmas? How about a Waterworld Christmas?).

2. Have your characters save Christmas.

3. Have said characters learn the True Meaning of Christmas (which may or may not involve Jesus, depending on your audience).

If you’re looking for comedy, you really can’t loose with the Christmas Special: the more outlandish and non-family friendly franchises you get, the better the comedy. Imagine how hilarious it would be if Darth Vader had to deliver presents to all the good Stormtroopers on the Death Star and learn that it’s better to give than to receive. Or imagine Gandalf, Frodo, and the Fellowship traveling to Mordor to save Santa after he’s been kidnapped from Sauron. Or contemplate how amusing it would be for the Umbrella Corporation to feel the holiday spirit and work to make everyone’s Christmas a little merrier while simultaneously trying to destroy with with zombies.

No matter what genre your franchise is, injecting some holiday cheer is a great way to make your audience laugh… even if said franchise involves giant, shapeshifting robots from beyond the stars.

What we can learn from: ‘Killer Fish’

NOTE: My apologies for posting this two days late: Christmas and all it’s related fiascos has been taking up more of my time than I expected.

Forget Jaws. Forget ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘47 Meters down’ or ‘The Shallows’. If you’re looking for man vs killer aquatic animal action, look no further than the 1979 Italian caper, ‘Killer Fish’, a gripping, heart-pounding tale of criminals vs some of the most ferocious fish ever known to mankind!

Okay, it’s not that exciting. Or quick-paced. Or even on league with the aforementioned films. ‘Killer Fish’ won’t win any awards or be remembered out of bad film circles, but with its beautiful scenery, silly effects, and groovy 70’s soundtrack, it’s good for a laugh or two. Let’s dig in and see what writers can learn from this tale of diamond thieves vs fish.

When doing a killer monster movie, give a tease of your monster at the beginning

It may be a cliché, but giving your audience a tease of the monster at the beginning of the story (without fully revealing it, of course) gives them a delicious tease of the carnage to come after the inevitable first-act setup. In ‘Killer Fish’, however, the piranha are nowhere to be seen for the first half hour, as the film instead focuses on people blowing up a refinery, stealing diamonds, and then sneaking through a jungle and starting to argue with each other at a resort, leaving the audience wondering if they came to the wrong movie by accident; they came to see piranha wreaking havoc, not a criminal heist movie.

As a writer, keep the characters, plot, and action tied to the killer monster, even in the first scene: Imagine ‘Jaws’ without the opening attack; the film would have a much slower, less interesting start, and a bored audience will quickly become an audience that walks away.

Consider having the antagonist’s plan to use the monster backfire

Unlike most monster stories, where the beasts are either discovered or accidentally released to wreak havoc, ‘Killer Fish’ is unique in that the leader of the thieves release the piranha into the lake to guard ‘his’ diamonds, a refreshing change from the usual ‘monsters are accidentally released or are discovered’ storyline we frequently get. What’s great about this subversion (beyond giving the main antagonist an admittingly clever idea for guarding the treasure) is that it also sets up the inevitable moment where the antagonist is done in by their own plan, which is always a crowd pleaser.

Unless you’re going for a jumpscare, foreshadow big events in your story

When the piranha finally claim their first victim, the moment we’ve been waiting a half hour to see, it happens so quickly that – aside from seeing some terrifying bubbles – there’s no foreshadowing of the piranha’s attack. We, the audience, expect that the diver will go down, there’ll be a minute or two before something happens, and… oh, wait. He’s already being attacked. Nevermind.

There’s something to be said about giving audiences what they want in a monster film, but it’s important to remember that building up to the carnage makes the payoff even sweeter. Knowing that they’re finally on the verge of seeing the juicy bits lets creators ratchet up the tension and suspense before a monster attacks. This also applies to non-monster attacks; “Killer Fish’ features a tornado that destroys a dam, unleashing a tidal wave. The problem is, there’s no foreshadowing, or even hints about the tornado’s appearance, making it feel like something the script threw in to keep the plot moving, instead of a well-thought out event that feels logical and not a Diabolus ex Machina.

Consider having your character’s place of refuge slowly fall apart around them

Much like ‘Deep Blue Sea’ 19 years later, ‘Killer Fish’ smartly has the characters trapped in a location that’s slowly sinking, meaning that if they don’t find a way to escape to shore, they’re doomed to a terrible, fishy death. By preventing them from just sitting around and waiting for rescue, the story ensures that they have to stay active and work hard to ensure their survival, which keeps things moving forward. Even better, almost all those on board are thieves who want the diamonds and are willing to betray each other to get them, making their interactions more interesting than ordinary people just trying to stay alive.

Consider having your jerk have one completely selfless moment of compassion for others

Ollie the photographer is a pretty standard camera snob who’s only interested in getting his shots throughout the film (but with Brazil’s gorgeous scenery, can you blame him?). But in a smart move, Ollie does get one good moment on the sinking boat where he tries and help an injured crewmember without any ulterior motives. While he’s not the standard, ‘heartless, smug professional who’s not interested in helping others’ type, it is a nice, effective redemption moment for him.

Having a selfless moment for your own jerk characters allows you to make them more interesting: Imagine a snob who is mean to everyone they meet throughout your story. They insult, put down, and offend everyone they can, just because they can. Then, imagine that they’re seen handing out food and supplies to the homeless in subzero weather without any regard to their own comfort. Though it won’t automatically make them a well-rounded, compelling character, such opposites will help in developing them, and maintain the interest of the audience.

Consider having two characters who hate each others guts declare a truce during a bigger disaster

It’s always interesting to see character who hate each other’s guts being forced to work together, which is what happens with Robert and Paul, who have to put aside their desire to kill each other to survive piranha who want to kill them both… at least, until they can both survive long enough to try and kill each other again.

While mutual survival is the most common reason for enemies to work together, writers have a great opportunity to try many different things with such a relationship:

*The two can learn to like each other and become friends.

*The two work to irritate each other as much as possible.

*The two gain a begrudging respect for one another that lasts after the crisis has passed.

*The two still try to kill each other at every available moment.

*The two immediately fall in love and marry each other (not likely)

The possible outcomes for such a relationship are almost endless; few storytelling techniques leave your audience completely in the dark on what can happen, making for compelling drama, comedy, or whatever genre you want to explore.

If you’re doing a monster story, have the monsters be the focus of said story

Perhaps the biggest error ‘Killer Fish’ makes is that it’s not a movie about killer fish: it’s a film about thieves betraying each other and trying to get some diamonds while having to deal with the inconvenience of piranha stopping them from getting away with said diamonds. Most of the film revolves around them betraying each other, with the aquatic menace being regulated to a subplot, instead of the other way around.

No matter your genre, remember to keep the focus on what your audience came to see, whether it’s monsters, a natural disaster, aliens, etc. To use ‘Jaws’ as an example again, imagine if the film revolved around Brody and Co. fighting to save Amity’s only seafood restaurant, with them having to fight the shark to retrieve the sunken deed to the building. Yes, they’d still blow it up, but at the end of the day it would be about saving a restaurant, not saving Amity from a killer shark. Audiences would be disappointed that they didn’t get a shark-focused story, and would be angry at having been tricked into seeing a story about saving a restaurant.

The Takeaway

When doing a monster movie, keep everything focused on the monster, including opening with a tease of its fearsome abilities, foreshadowing its appearance later on (along with any other disasters that might occur). When everything falls apart, consider having your character’s place of safety slowly fall apart, forcing two characters who hate each other to work together for survival, giving a jerk a chance to do one truly selfless, charitable act.

Favorite Moments: Soaking Vengeance

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

Ah, the Noir film: A genre unafraid to portray the dark, seedy underbelly of humanity, a genre where hope dies in the drains, bloated and soaked with the rain of an uncaring sky… which means it’s a good idea to have an umbrella in hand.

Though it’s astonishingly short (5 seconds), ‘Soaking Vengeance’ features my favorite type of comedy: Fish out of water. In this case, it’s the hard-boiled guy heading out into the darkened night with a scowl on his face, and a bright, blue umbrella in hand. The contrasts between the dark tone, the childish umbrella, and the dramatic music makes a strong case for two storytelling points:

*Any dramatic character becomes hilarious when wielding something made for a child.

*The Noir genre can be a gold mine for parody, especially if their tough guys stay tough, no matter how ridiculous things get around them.

What we can learn from: ‘Ring One’

 

One of the greatest pleasures of our digital age is how easy it’s become for fans to create crossovers of their favorite franchises and play around with all manner of ‘what if?’ scenarios. Most of these revolve around characters and factions from different franchises fighting each other, but every so often, we get a crossover that tries something a little different.

This mashup of ‘The Return of the King’ and ‘Rogue One’ sounds like it would focus on, say, the Fellowship of the Ring infiltrating Scarif to steal the Death Star plans (Oh, how I would love to see Legolas taking out stormtroopers with his arrows), but  ‘Ring One’ tries something we don’t see very often in these mashups: Tragedy.

While it’s fun to imagine the Empire and the free people of Middle Earth fighting one another, and our heroes saving Middle-Earth, this mashup shows how it would really go: Everyone would die. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Sauron, and everyone else are obliterated by the Death Star. Yet, while such a situation can be depressing, ‘Ring One’ makes it a great example of the ‘Face Death with Dignity‘ trope. We’re so used to seeing characters be brave and courageous when facing impossible odds in everyday life, but what happens when they face their inevitable deaths? Are they still brave and courageous? Do they try to flee, even when it’s hopeless? Do they pray? Do they try to comfort others?

For writers, having our characters know they’re going to die is a fantastic way to see their deepest qualities, to find out who they really are when they face the end. Here, Frodo still tries to get to the Crack of Doom, Sam spends his final moments of life trying to comfort him, and Gimil and Legolas finally reconcile from their trilogy-long distrust of each other.

Is it sad to see the Fellowship all die? Yes. But it’s beautiful in a bittersweet way: some of fiction’s most memorable moments occur only at the end of a character’s life, moments that can stay with us like nothing else can. We remember those who give their lives to save others, who spend their final minute trying to comfort someone else, or refuse to give in to fear. When you bring your character’s stories to a close, you have a chance to give them one final, shining moment of glory. Take advantage of that, and you’ll give your audience a moment that will stay with them forever.

Favorite Moments: ‘Open the Door!’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation’

The Scene

Why it’s great

No story-related clips today, or musings on story and action. Instead, I wanted to take a moment to showcase one of the best stunts I’ve seen in years: Tom Cruise, hanging off plane.

While many moviegoers may groan about the deluge of CGI replacing practical effects, some movies do make them work, and I can think of no better example than seeing Tom Cruise hanging onto a plane in mid-air. This shot is the perfect example of how CGI and practical effects can work together: The CGI compliments and aids the shot by digitally removing the safety harness, instead of dominating it by having the whole thing be shot on a soundstage.

While practical effects and CGI have their places in filmmaking, this shot shows how, when working together, they can create movie magic.

What we can learn from: ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2’

Wizardsofthelostkingdom2cover

Two weeks ago, we took a look at the 80’s fantasy film, ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom,’ a flawed film that had a lot to teach writers on approaching fantasy tropes. When I saw that a sequel had been made, I was curious to see if it had learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, and after watching I can say that while the end result is… well, while not a classic film, or a well-made one (it features the most obvious rubber snakes in film history), it is an improvement, if only a little. I was especially pleased to see that ‘Wizards 2’ corrects the lack of a focused plot: instead of a vague goal and random events, our protagonists here have a clear, achievable goal from the beginning and a general knowledge of what they’ll face. As a whole, ‘Wizards 2’ is better than the first, including a few genuinely clever ideas, but you’ll probably get the most entertainment out of watching it on ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000.’

Now, strap on your sword, and let’s return to the world of Argentian sword-and-magic epics to see what we can learn from the last tale set in the world of Axeholme.

Avoid doing a follow up that invalidates everything your heroes did the last time around

In most stories, victories, triumphs, and success are hard-won, bought with sweat, blood, and tears. Heroes fight, struggle, and strain to achieve their goals… which makes it especially cruel when a sequel invalidates everything they achieved. ‘Wizards 2’ (which has no characters or locations from the first film) starts with the kingdom getting into yet another war, and killing everyone from the first film.

In our own stories, doing a ‘all of it was for nothing’ sequel isn’t the wisest course of action if we want to keep fans satisfied; if a sequel makes the first pointless, who’s to say a second sequel will do the same to the first? It also retroactively harms the previous story, making rewatches or re-reads feel futile, as we know that everything we’re seeing the protagonists do will be for naught.

Consider having a grade Z mentor for your hero

In fiction, having wise, knowledgeable mentors is a standard story trope, both for helping guide the hero on the journey, and for explaining to the audience how the world and its various traits (such as magic) work. One thing ‘Wizards 2’ does well is invert that by having Caedmon – Tyor’s mentor – be not very wise, or even powerful. He’s a discount Obi-Wan who initially doesn’t even want to help Tyor due to feeling inadequate and not up to the task, but still takes up the mantle, even if his magic isn’t all that great (like turning straw into dung instead of gold).

In our own stories, having a mentor be a less-than-ideal candidate adds a unique spin on the typical student and master relationship, in that both don’t really know what they’re doing, and both have to learn and grow during the course of the story.

Consider not dumbing down your bad guys because they’re in a family movie

We’ve seen it so many times: Whenever the Chosen One (inevitably a young boy or girl) comes across an evil lord or a minion of the evil lord, said villains never just try to kill the child, instead gloating, mocking, and all but allowing themselves to be inevitably defeating in an embarrassing way (bonus points if they yell “This cannot be!” in the process). ‘Wizards 2’ is no exception, as the evil sorcerers Tyor faces are… well, either defeated too easily (Loki), give up too easily (Freya), don’t even try to take him on when they’re obviously more powerful (Donar), with only Zarz putting up an actual fight, but not taking obvious opportunities to kill Tyor when the moment arises.

Considering how family-friendly fantasy films wouldn’t take kindly to showing dark lords killing children, and making them incompetent makes the hero’s quest feel too easy, what’s a writer to do? I believe the answer is simple… don’t dumb down the villains. As an example, take what I consider to be one of the best villains ever to appear in a child’s film: Sharptooth from the 1988 film, ‘The Land Before Time’

In both of these clips, Sharptooth doesn’t mess around with Littlefoot and his friends. He sets out to eat them, no matter the cost, forcing Littlefoot and his friends to work together and rely on their wits to defeat him. When they finally achieve their victory, it feels well earned. Now, compare Sharptooth to all the villains on ‘Wizards 2’, and they don’t present any threat, and their inevitable defeats don’t feel earned at all.

Bottom line: Make your villains dangerous. Make them so determined to get their goals that they treat young Chosen Ones as adversaries to be disposed of, not played with, unless it’s to mess with their minds and weaken them.

Consider having characters in a fantasy treat our everyday objects as bizarre, frightening things

In fantasy, writers have the unique opportunity to take the ordinary and turn them into mysterious objects for their characters. A remote control becomes a summoning device for long-gone monsters. A cell phone becomes a holy device to contact the gods, and an ordinary piece of fruit becomes something bizarre and dangerous. In ‘Wizards 2’ ‘s most (intentionally) amusing scene, Tyor tries to turn a rock into a sausage, but accidentally creates a banana, which neither he or Caedmon recognize, and immediately throw away.

The biggest opportunity this trope presents to writers is letting us play around with everyday items, allowing us to either get a good look at how silly they can be, or, better yet, get an opportunity for some great humor. We, the audience, know the true nature of everyday, harmless objects, but characters don’t, and that can lead to some good laughs.

Consider limiting the number of places that must be freed/ bad guys that must be fought

‘Wizards 2’ takes the well-tread trope of having its characters go to three separate places to gather three separate things, and defeat three evil characters in each. Nothing wrong with such an idea, but the problem comes that the movie is only an hour and twenty minutes, and we don’t have much time to get to know each location before heading off to the next kingdom/item.

In our own stories, consider limiting the number of kingdoms to be liberated, dark lords to be fought, and items to be gathered. If there are too many, we risk rushing the story, never giving the audience the chance to slow down and take things in before the ending shows up. Perhaps there’s only one kingdom to save, or there’s only two bad guys, and only one item to find. The fewer we have of each, the more time can be spent on them.

Don’t have your Chosen One have everything given to him

An important part of any quest, Chosen One or not – is having the protagonists grow from their experiences, whether they end in success or failure. As in life, it’s okay to give them advice from other people in the story, but there’s a fine line between helping and telling them what to do in every situation that comes up. ‘Wizards 2’ has a problem with Tyor’s allies bailing him out, and even telling him exactly what he needs to do instead of letting him figure it out himself. While it makes sense to save his life when he’s in mortal danger, having a disembodied voice say “No, do this’ or ‘No, do that’ feels like cheating. It’s especially egregious at the climax, where Caedmon has numerous opportunities to actually fight and stop Zarz, but doesn’t, instead telling Tyor to arm himself instead of whacking Zarz or setting his robe on fire to distract him.

In our own stories, by all means, have allies help the protagonists, but also leave room for your main characters to try their own things and learn from their own experiences. They may reach victory more quickly if they’re shown the path, but it’s more satisfying for them to put in the effort and figure out the way to it.

Consider forcing your characters to defeat a villain without using violence

My favorite moment in ‘Wizards 2’ comes at the climax, where Tyor faces Duran and Zarz, but has a delima: if he kills them, he’ll become evil and join them, forcing him to try and find a way to win without resorting to violence. This presents an interesting challenge, where the key to Tyor’s victory lies in his wits, cleverness, and morals, instead of strength and bloodlust.

While audiences expect the climaxes of fantasy films to include fighting and weapons slamming into one another, trying something different can help make your story stand out. Having to do something other than violence helps authors come up with creative victories and resolutions, and I would argue that giving Tyor this situation is ‘Wizards 2’ ’s most creative moment… had the movie not proceeded to ignore it and have Tyor kill both Duran and Zarz without any consequences. Whoops.

Consider having the student become the master to her/his mentor

In an amusing twist, Caedmon becomes the student to the now powerful Tyon at the end of the film after defeating the sorcerers and reuniting the Powers of Creation, leaving the two set off on more adventures together. It’s not everyday we get to see this kind of inversion, especially when the mentor survives the story (can you imagine Obi-Wan becoming Luke’s student at the end of ‘A New Hope’? Me neither). Because of its uncommon nature, it opens up all sorts of interesting avenues and ideas for a relationship between two individuals, making the story as a whole more interesting.

The Takeaway

Be very careful choosing to do a sequel to a story that invalidates everything the protagonists did (but if said story wasn’t too good, you can turn this to your advantage). Regardless of what you choose, consider having your protagonists be baffled by everyday objects common to us, be mentored by a less-than-ideal mentor, and face off against villains who won’t treat young, ‘Chosen Ones’ differently than any other enemy, while limiting the number of those villains and their kingdoms to a reasonable amount to avoid rushing through all of them. When the time comes for the final conflict, consider forcing the hero to try and resolve it without killing, while not telling the protagonist everything he needs to do, and then switching positions between the mentor and the student to mix their relationship up