Favorite moments: ‘Stick to the shadows, Master Frodo’

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:

(Skip to 5:40)

Why it’s great:

In most kids movies, there sometimes comes a moment where the young star of the show has to embark on a dangerous mission to save the day, and sometimes those missions involve sneaking around without being seen. Looking past the obvious question of why it’d be sensible to send a pre-adolescent out on a solo sneaking mission up against dangerous, competent, and trained adults, those missions usually end with the youngster managing to embrace the spirit of the ninja and succeeding in saving the day.

But what if they didn’t?

As seen in the video above, Frodo Baggins bravely attempts to – in the words of reviewer OhhhMarmalade – become one with the shadows and escape from the Shire, complete with the theme music from Metal Gear Solid… only to instantly fail, be caught by the Ringwraiths, and plunge Middle Earth into a never ending age of darkness and hellish suffering.

Whoops.

What amuses me most about the segment above is showing what would really happen if Frodo, or any unqualified person, tried to become a ninja and become one with the shadows as they tried to sneak out of a heavily patrolled area: They would probably be caught almost instantly. It doesn’t matter how pure of heart they are, how noble their quest is, or that they love their family very much: They’re not trained, they’re not qualified, and they’re doomed from the moment they set out.

While there’s far, far too many instances of people failing at trying to do something they can’t in real life, having someone fail immediately at the big, important task/quest they set out to achieve seconds after starting can make for some great comedy, as poor Frodo demonstrates. It gets even funnier if they’re The Chosen One who have to save the world, which can then lead to all sorts of interesting situations: What do the other characters do now that the Chosen One has failed/is dead? Do they try to fulfill the quest? Realize that it was a terrible idea to send a child out to do an adult’s job? And if they do try to pick up the quest, do they have any chance at all at succeeding, since they weren’t chosen by fate/prophecy/God?

Failure can be funny, but it can also open up new avenues and scenarios in storytelling that are otherwise underutilized.

What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.

Favorite Moments: It’s a Giraffe!

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:

It takes one of the greatest film moments of the 1990’s and gives Alan Grant the voice of Patrick Starfish. That’s all you need to know.

Okay, maybe a more detailed explanation is in order. I adore how taking the audio from an episode of Spongebob Squarepants changes the mood and feel of such an emotional scene by making it comedic. It’s probably a cosmic law that adding circus music to anything makes it funnier, no matter how dramatic, heartwarming, or awe-inspiring it is, a law I’d love to explore and see if it’s true or not. But until then, I’ll continue chuckling at Dr. Grant acting like an over-excited starfish.

What we can learn from ‘Honest University Commercial’

Today’s video should hit pretty close to home for anyone who’s ever gone to college. While a college degree has long been held as the key to financial and personal success, they’ve been getting more expensive as time goes on, to the point where your great-great-great grandchildren will have to tell their grandchildren that they’ll have to work to pay off your debt. Okay, maybe not, but there’s no denying that college can be a major source of sticker shock. Making matters worse is how many of these universities and colleges produce fancy commercials to make it seem like attending their hallowed halls was a guaranteed path to success, instead of a one-way ticket to catastrophic debt and no guarantees of a job that can even pay the bills.

But what if these for-profit colleges were unashamedly honest about themselves? That’s where the hilarious (or heartbreaking) Honest University Commercial comes in, with three great lessons for writers:

Consider having a shady organization cheerfully promote their vices

We expect commercials – already little more than capitalist propaganda – to be as clean, friendly, and idealized as possible, their producers doing everything they can to convince you to buy their product or service. We, as readers and viewers, expect fictional companies to do the same.

But what if they didn’t?

In our own writing, and if the situation fits (i.e. you’re doing a comedy), try having an evil or shady organization doing a commercial to promote themselves, and not bothering to hide how shady and evil they are, even relishing in pointing out how greedy or corrupt their institution is. That’s what ‘Honest University Commercial’ does so well. We’re used to seeing ‘good’ institutions doing so, or even having evil companies putting on a good face, but when they don’t bother, it’s more memorable, and will stick with our audience. For another great example, look no further than one of the all-time classics, ‘Big Bill Hell’s’ (warning: Video is NOT safe for work).

Consider having people be relentlessly cheerful about their problems

What happens when things aren’t going your way? You get upset. You get angry. You complain. It’s only natural, and no one would begrudge you for needing to vent. But if you were cheerful and upbeat about how life is awful, you’re going to get a lot of baffled looks. You’re not supposed to be happy about getting into crushing debt for the rest of your life, about losing your loved ones, or having an unsustainable lifestyle (unless you’re a spiritual masochist, but we won’t go into that), which makes such a reaction stand out.

For writers (especially comedy writers), having characters be relentlessly cheerful about their problems can be a comedy goldmine because audiences don’t expect them to be that happy. After the initial humor wears off, they’ll want to learn if the unfortunate soul is delusional, crazy, a masochist, or someone who’s about to snap and go on a blood-drenched rampage. Consider poor Stanley Johnson:

Someone who’s happy when anyone else would be miserable makes audiences suspicious because there’s so many things that could be going on behind that stepford smile, giving writers plenty of material to work with. (personally, I think it’s only a matter of time before poor Mr. Johnson straps some chainsaws to that lawnmower, dons a hockey mask, and sets out to take his revenge on capitalism.) 

Consider using humor to make a point about absurdities in everyday life

Humor is great for more than just a quick laugh: the very best humor makes us reflect on life and it’s more absurd situations. ‘Honest University Commercial’ is merciless in pointing out how our higher-learning institutions are more focused on making money and how expensive it is to get a degree than they are about giving their students practical skills and not wasting time on subjects they have no interest in or will ever use (damn you, physical anthropology!). It’s funny, but also thought-provoking and sad at the same time.

There’s no shame in going for humor that’s meant only to make our audiences laugh and feel good for a few moments, but making them laugh while thinking and realizing a deeper meaning will leave a longer, more lasting impact.

The Takeaway

When doing a comedy, consider having an evil or shady organization promote themselves and not caring about broadcasting that they’re evil or shady (or both). For people who are affected by that organization (or the harsh realities of life in general), consider having them be relentlessly cheerful about their problems and difficulties, while using the absurdity of it all to point out how absurd real life can be.

Favorite Moments: ‘Cut ’em out!’

*My apologies regarding a post that went up earlier today that has since been deleted; it was a draft that had been set to be posted automatically, but I forgot to expand and revise it.*

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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Previous installments of this column have looked at scenes that I enjoy watching, but today marks the first that, while brilliantly done, is not a fun scene by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in 2001, I was a 15 year old teen in high school who was eagerly looking forward to ‘Pearl Harbor’ and all the explosions, sinking ships, and general war carnage that hot-blooded teenagers go nuts over. Imagine my surprise to find that most of the movie revolves around a romance that drags on for over an hour before the actual attack starts. When the film came to an end, I was annoyed and disappointed, with the film quickly fading from memory as I headed home.

That is, except for one scene.

For all the flak it’s taken about the unwanted romantic subplot, the inaccuracies of the attack itself (including clearly visible modern-day destroyers), there’s one horrifying scene that ‘Pearl Harbor’ does perfectly (skip to 1:32):

 

Even 18 years later, this remains the most unsettling moment in any war film I’ve seen, and is easily the most heartbreaking scene in any movie directed by Michael Bay: Several sailors are trapped inside the upturned USS Oklahoma and screaming for help as the ship continues to flood, but drown only inches from safety as their rescuers fail to cut them out in time, unable to do anything but listen to their muffled screams as they die.

What’s so unsettling about this scene is how it uses an inevitable suffering scenario: That is, people who are going to endure something awful and there’s no way to stop it. Here, it’s the sailors who are going to die in one of the most horrific ways imaginable (drowning), but to make it even crueler, the only thing keeping them from escaping is a single piece of steel. They can see the daylight outside, and the people trying to save them, but it’s too late to get them out. And to twist the knife even further, we see the rescue attempt not from their perspective, but from the people trying to cut through, forcing us, the viewer, to imagine what it must be like underneath that steel. All we see of these doomed sailors are their hands and a screaming mouth.

Pearl Harbor suffers from focusing too much on a romance that nobody really wanted, various inaccuracies, and other issues, but for one scene, it perfectly captures the horrors of war.

What we can learn from my favorite videogame commercial

In tales, myths, and legends told throughout the centuries, one constant rule is that the characters in our stories are unaware that they’re fictional. It’s only been in the past few decades that writers have played with this idea by occasionally having these characters realize that they’re characters in a book, a movie, or a video game, existing only to give pleasure and enjoyment to their observers. Naturally, it’s logical for these characters don’t react well then they realize that they don’t exist beyond the confines of the medium they’re in, that they’re little more than playthings of the author. And who can blame them? If I found out I was a background character in a sitcom, I’d probably go crazy, too.

But what we rarely see is when the fourth wall is broken is characters who are okay with their situation. Even rarer is the work where the characters are grateful to their author, player, or audience, which is shown so beautifully in the Sony PS3 ad, ‘Long Live Play’:

When doing a fourth-wall breaking story, consider having your characters be grateful to their creator/audience.

‘Long Live Play’, my favorite video game commercial of all time, is perhaps the best example I’ve found of fictional characters being grateful to their audience. Aside from the coolness of seeing numerous characters from different video game franchises coming together (and just hanging out instead of fighting), it runs with the idea of the player (in this instance, Michael) being a sort of god who helps all of them accomplish great things, which they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, ending with all of them cheering Michael’s name in gratitude for everything he’s done for them.

For writers, ‘Long Live Play’ shows that when the fourth wall is broken, it can lead to fascinating story concepts. We aren’t confined to tales of fictional characters fighting off suicidal depression at realizing that they’re not real, or raging against all the hardships and sufferings they’ve been forced to go through; why not try a story where those characters look at their creator, audience, or player with gratitude and reverence for all the good things they’ve been given? Even better, explore how would self-aware fictional characters interact with their creator? Do they try to have a face-to-face meeting with him/her/it? Do they start a religion? Do they ask for certain things to happen to them, in hopes that the author will grant them that request?

Breaking the fourth wall can be a good source of comedy and tragedy, but it also gives the author a chance to explore what it means to be a god, and the relationship that god has between themselves and their creations. And in doing so, it also invites the reader to rethink our relationships with our favorite characters from books, films, comics, and games. How would they react if they learned about you, or the reasons why you enjoy following them? Such questions invites us to expand our thinking and see fictional characters in a whole new way. And while it was meant in the context of videogames, consider what Youtube user Tia Shok said:

“This was the commercial who showed us that game companies can give characters souls, but it’s the players who give them heart and morality and nobility. Players can make characters into heroes. Thank Sony for understanding the power gamers give their characters.”

Favorite Moments: Enya’s Space Jam

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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Today’s post doesn’t cover a favorite literary, film, or videogame moment, but a musical one: After I discovered the magical world of Space Jam remixes, I’ve been on a quest to find the best, most catchy, most implausable mashups I can. I’ve found many, but this one, which combines outer space basketball with my favorite musician, has quickly become a favorite. Enjoy!