What We Can Learn from ‘Sharknado’

Sharknado poster

Every so often, an idea comes to Hollywood: an idea that changes the world of cinema forever, that revolutionizes the artform, that makes people look at life through a new perspective.

Sharknado is one of those movies.

Okay, perhaps it’s not a life-changer. It may not make it onto AFI’s top 100 movies of all times list, but there’s no denying that in a genre as stuffed as the killer shark one, the idea of shark-filled tornadoes stands out, and somehow lasted for six films, featuring mech suits, worldwide devastation, sending the sharks into outer space, and even time travel. It’s impressive that a goofy, made-for-tv movie turned into a series that lasted as long as it did.

With that said, let’s take a look at where it all began, and see what we can learn from one of the goofiest shark films ever made.

No monster, no matter how outrageous, is out of bounds when it comes to storytelling

We’ve had robot sharks, snow sharks, countless giant sharks, and even multi-headed sharks in fiction over the years. In a crowded genre, you need to really work to stand out, and Sharknado manages this with a premise that is as impossible as it is cool.

A good rule of thumb: If your monster/disaster idea makes people stop and do a double take, that’s a good thing, because they’ll want to know how such an outlandish beast could work out.

Consider making your protagonist a well-meaning loser

While he would later become the stoic everyman who’s thrust into increasingly absurd scenarios, protagonist Fin Shepard isn’t all that memorable here, along with most of the characters. While he is divorced and risks everything to save his family from the sharks, Finn feels like so many other protagonists we’ve seen in these types of films over the years, and does little to stand out, being upstaged by Gerald. At first glance, he appears to be a stereotypical middle-aged drunk and womanizer, but we soon learn that he’s a lonely man who’s too old to enjoy surfing anymore, the one joy he had in his life. Furthermore, instead of being a coward who runs at the first sign of trouble, he stays and does what he can to help. These contrasts make him interesting, and one of the people I was hoping would make it to the end. (Sadly, bar stools just aren’t enough to keep hungry sharks at bay.)

The takeaway? Protagonists who care about their family are easy to do, but well-meaning losers can be far more interesting.

Be cautious with padding action sequences

About halfway through the film, Sharknado has a brief police chase, in which Fin and other survivors fight to reach his daughter while outrunning the cops. While it’s understandable that a father would do anything to reach his daughter, it’s an odd sequence for a film about sharks in tornadoes.

While it’s inevitable that you may have to pad your story at some point to kill time, try making it appropriate to the style of the story. In this instance, the chase scene could have started off with the police chasing Fin, only to then run away with him as sharks start chasing both vehicles.

Save the big event for the climax

Sharknado deserves credit for resisting the urge to unleash its title creation early in the film, instead slowly building up to the big event via the hurricane, then flooding, and then finally unleashing the title monster at the end, and then amping it up even more by having not one, not two, but three sharknadoes for our protagonists to deal with. Had the film unleashed the sharknado in the first act, or even the second, then it would have felt like it was climaxing too early.

Like monster movies, it’s a wise idea to start slowly in our disaster movies and slowly build up to the main event with ever-escalating events, whether it’s natural disasters or monsters out to gobble up everyone in your group. If you must have the disaster/monster show up early, consider having it only appear briefly, and then have it inflict the most damage in the third act.

Keep your focus on the climax once it starts.

When the climax of your story kicks into high gear, all other concerns become secondary: When the Titanic hit the iceberg, Rose and Jack focus everything on surviving. When the meteor in Deep Impact is less than an hour from hitting the earth, all efforts go towards survival or tying up one final loose end before death comes, and when the Death Star is about to blow up Yavin in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, everyone puts everything aside to deal with it. In Sharknado’s case, Fin and friends focus their attention on stopping the three sharknadoes from devouring Los Angeles.

However, while Fin and the others construct bombs to drop into the sharknadoes, the film slows down to give Nova time to detail her backstory and why she doesn’t like sharks. While character development is always good, putting her past here was a mistake: We want to see our heroes take on the sharknadoes, and stopping to learn about someone’s backstory puts the brakes on that excitement.

When letting us learn about your characters, their motivations, and what makes them tick, do so in the first two thirds of your story. If you’re about to do the climax of your story, and we still don’t know or care about your characters, your chances of helping us do so are low.

Chainsaws are always awesome

Though they may be impractical as weapons in real life, chainsaws are one of the most awesome weapons a character can wield in fiction: it’s noisy, intimidating, and satisfies the primal bloodlust of have a weapon that can obliterate an opponent and leave you looking like a badass. In other words, chainsaws are cool, and Sharknado doesn’t disappoint in its most famous scene, where Finn, to save his daughter, shoves her to safety and leaps into the mouth of a great White Shark, carving it up and slicing his way free from the inside, saving his girlfriend in the process. It’s ludicrous, awesome, and funny all at once, and arguably wouldn’t have worked with any other weapon.

In your own stories, as long as it isn’t out of place with the tone (such as a story that’s trying to be as realistic as possible), having your characters wield a chainsaw in combat is all but guaranteed to get your audience’s attention and end up with them thinking, ‘hell yeah!’ at seeing the antagonist be dispatched with said weapon.

The takeaway:

When it comes to making monster stories, there’s no limit as to how ridiculous they can be, but take care to make sure we have interesting characters to fight them, while doing a steady buildup to the monster’s big rampage scene (being careful not to pad the story too much, or giving background when it’s not appropriate), and making sure the story focuses on that rampage when we reach that point, preferably with a chainsaw or equally awesome weapon.

Favorite Moments: ‘Oh well!’

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

‘JAWS by 70’s Kids’

The Scene

A teenage Chief Brody, his best buddy Ben, and a random kid in swim trunks head out to take on a killer shark in a lake. It goes as well as you’d expect.

Why it’s great

While this fan-made squeal to 1975’s ‘Jaws’ is charming on its own with its homemade production values, it features a moment that always cracks me up whenever I see it: At 3:04, the shark attacks a sailboat, knocking the random kid into the water. His companions yell at him to swim for his life, but to no avail; the poor kid is gobbled up by a plastic toy shark in a fish tank the bloodthirsty shark. But what’s different is what happens afterwords: Brody and Ben shrug, and Brody says, ‘Oh well.’

If ‘Jaws by 70’s Kids’ was made today, Brody and Ben would be stricken with grief, wondering if they could have done anything to save their fallen comrade. It’s a scene we see over and over again in any movie involving… well, danger of any kind. But when was the last time you see one of the survivors shrug, admit there’s nothing to be done, and move on immediately without any kind of grief?

A character with that kind of reaction tells the audience there’s something off about that individual: They might be a psychopath who has no emotional attachment to anyone besides themselves; they might be a ditzy-do who is seemingly oblivious to suffering; they might have been so traumatized by losing people they love in the past that they now treat everything as a joke to cope with it. But here, it’s just funny seeing two kids frantically yell at someone else to swim for their life, and then half-heartily mourn his death afterwords.

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the film)

TheRitualFilmHeading

Last week, we took a look at the book version of ‘The Ritual.’ Today, let’s take a look at the film adaptation and see what writers can learn from the big (small?) screen version of the novel:

Consider starting your story with a lighthearted touch, then immediately shifting to horror

‘The Ritual’ begins with Luke and the others (and newcomer Rob) having a typical guy’s night out with drinks, joking, and taking in a city’s nightlife. I first thought it was going to be a predictable scene of the group wanting to get away from their boring lives, but was quickly proven wrong when Luke and Rob stumble into a robbery, and Rob is killed. Only then does the film cut to the outskirts of Sweden’s Forest of Death six months later.

The brilliance of this sequence is how it plays with our expectations: We expect it to be another buddy-movie opening, but by then shifting into horror, it grabs our attention like a slap to the face. Consider doing the same subversion in your story: while the first part risks having the viewer say, ‘Oh great, not another cliched opening,’ the unexpected always gets their attention, letting them know that this isn’t going to turn out the way they think.

Consider having your characters learn to overcome fear

It’s standard advice for writers to have characters change and grow throughout their stories, giving readers the sense that their heroes are capable of learning and growing from both triumph and failure. But what kind of arc should they have? Here, Luke’s arc takes him from being a coward (not helping Rob when he’s being beaten by thugs), to learning to face fear (in this instance, a forest god who will turn you into a flayed flesh-flag if you don’t worship her).

One advantage of having your character learning to stand up for themselves is that everyone can relate to it. Who among us hasn’t felt small and afraid when faced with bullies, angry parents, or enraged employers? And who hasn’t felt the elation of finally standing your ground and fighting back? Having your characters do the same is almost guaranteed to be a fist-pumping, ‘hell yeah!’ moment because we know the struggle it takes to get to that point.

(In all fairness, though, you can’t blame Luke for not stepping in to help in the market; a glass bottle wouldn’t do much against two thugs who aren’t afraid to kill to get what they want.)

Consider having the victim make everything worse for everyone else

After injuring his knee early in the hike, Dom wants nothing more than to get out of the forest. But while his pig-headed stubbornness to get out as quickly as possible is understandable and relatable, it has the side effect of leading almost everyone else to their doom. Had the group just turned back, they probably would have gotten out of the forest alive. Such a contrast creates mixed emotions for your audience: they can sympathize with the victim who just wants to live, but also be angry at him/her for making things worse for everyone else by refusing to listen to reason.

Consider having a small mystery that’s never solved

About halfway through ‘The Ritual,’ Luke and the others find an abandoned tent that belonged to Anna Erikson, a woman who went missing in 1984. While this mystery is never solved, it does engage our imagination: What happened to Anna? Did she escape the forest? Did Moder kill her? Or did she join the cult and worship Moder? It may be possible that the villager who explains to Luke who Moder is Anna. Either way, the ambiguity behind the mystery helps reinforce the fact that Moder has been active for a very long time.

It’s important to note that this mystery is a small one, and not important to the plot. Had it been the main focus of the story, where Luke and the others heading to the forest to find this woman, then it would need to be solved.

Consider hearing something horrible instead of seeing it

It’s common to hear a monster in a creature feature long before it’s seen, and for good reason: Hearing an unearthly beast allows the reader’s/viewer’s imaginations to run wild, and making them lean close the screen or the page in hopes of catching even the smallest glimpse of the monster. However, using sound instead of visuals can also be effective in many other situations. In ‘The Ritual,’ it’s used to chilling effect when Phil is dragged upstairs where we hear him shrieking. We don’t see what’s going on, which makes us wonder what’s terrifying him so much. Torture devices? Other captives who fought back and were mutilated? A big, fat, naked man trying to seduce him?

By leaving something unseen, even if it’s not a monster, you can turbocharge your audience’s imagination… and make their skin crawl as they debate whether they want to see the unseen horror or not.

Consider having your characters sacrifice something for their freedom

In many stories where a character has to escape a location (a cell, a locked room, etc.) they manage to get out of their restraints without any pain. But if you want to turn up the tension, and make your audience squirm, consider having your characters sacrifice something to achieve that freedom. Here, Luke has to sacrifice his thumb by breaking it in order to free himself from his bindings.

Part of fiction’s appeal is imagining ourselves in the place of our heroes and imagining us accomplishing what they do, escaping from impossible situations included. Why not make them squirm by having them wonder if they’d be able to sacrifice a body part to escape. Would they be willing to break their arm? Lose an ear? How about an eye?

Consider having your final confrontation be a battle of wills, not physical strength

In my opinion, the most interesting thing ‘The Ritual’ changes from the book is the final showdown between Luke and Moder. In the book’s climax, the two collide in a van, and Luke drives her off with a pocketknife. Here, however, Moder tries to force Luke to worship her, presumably so she can continue to live from the strength of his prayers. In a physical fight, Luke is no match for Moder, but she’s in a difficult situation: if she kills Luke, she loses her last chance of getting a follower. Thus, Luke finally gains his resolve and refuses to kneel. And thanks to an axe-to-the-face moment, he manages to defeat Moder: not by killing her, but by leaving her powerless, alone, and trapped in a prison she cannot leave.

It’s a fascinating twist on the standard climax of having hero and monster fight in a duel to the death. Here, both parties survive, but Luke is still the winner. ‘The Ritual’ is proof that not every confrontation needs to involve weapons, fists, and pitting strength against strength. Sometimes the most amazing duels are fought with words and wills, where even the weakest in body can stand up to the biggest of bullies.

The takeaway

When writing a story about monsters, a good way to quickly suck viewers in is to start off with a familiar plot, only to quickly swerve into horror territory, setting up a story where the main character has to learn to stand up for himself and face his fears while dealing with injured companions who make things worse for everyone due to their stubbornness, creepy mysteries that they’ll never solve, unseen horrors that he doesn’t want to face, enduring great pain to gain freedom from captivity, and facing the beast and defeating it with courage and their will instead of weapons and strength.

BONUS: When all else fails, punch the evil old woman

Just for Fun: ‘The Ritual’ sequels we’ll never get (that would be awesome)

Imagine for a moment that you’ve published a best-selling book, or have had one of your screenplays adapted into a blockbuster film. You’re now the darling of the literary world/Hollywood’s hottest author. The people are clamoring for your next masterpiece, and you have a choice to make: Do you write a new, original story, or do you write a sequel to the tale that has brought in enough money for you to buy a luxury yacht that would make Jeff Bezos jealous? (Don’t we wish?)

Let’s pretend that after the success of ‘The Ritual’s film adaptation, a franchise is born: Action figures, licensed sleepwear, coloring books, and a child’s cartoon show all are produced to satisfy the public’s need for more tales of Moder and Luke’s adventures, along with more movies! But what would those sequels look like? If history tells us anything about franchises, it’s that, no matter how great they are to begin, they will inevitably decline in quality over time as creators, having gone past the story’s natural ending point, resort to increasingly outlandish plots to attract viewers.

With that in mind, let’s theorize how some of those outlandish sequels to ‘The Ritual’ might be. Here are my guesses:

The Rituals

After barely escaping from Moder with his life, Luke makes a vow never to return to those accursed woods. But when dozens of campers go missing, the United States hires Luke as an adviser to a group of Marines heading in to free the campers, and he must one again face the terror in the woods.

The Third Ritual

Ten years have passed since Luke and the Marines defeated Moder by nuking her forest from orbit, and Luke has finally moved on with his life. But evil refuses to die, and when his wife and children are kidnapped and taken to the forest, Luke, now an obese, middle-aged man, must make one final trip into the forests of the damned to defeat Moder once and for all.

Revenge of the Ritual

Luke’s teenage son and daughter can’t wait for prom night to begin. Problem is, Moder can’t, either. Reborn after being carved in half by Luke’s chainsaw, she’s back for revenge, and aims to teach Luke that revenge is best served alongside fruit punch and refreshments in the gym.

The Ritual In Da Hood

Five years have passed since Luke’s son and daughter barely escaped from the worst prom ever. Now heading out on their own, they take up residence in the low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But evil never dies, and soon they have to deal with bloodthirsty gangsters, drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and an evil god who refuses to die.

The Ritual: Back 2 Da Hood

They thought the terror was gone forever… but they should have known better. Now, to save themselves and Los Angeles, Luke’s son and daughter must unite all the gangs, pimps, hos, and low-income residents of Los Angeles to stand a chance of defeating Moder once and for all.

The Ritual: Tropical Getaway

Finally retired and ready to enjoy his golden years, Luke and his wife head for Hawaii for a week of fun in the sun. Little do they know that someone else has packed their suitcase and swimtrunks: Moder, who’s lust for vengeance knows no bounds.

The Ritual: Moder vs Mecha-Moder

Desperate to end Moder’s relentless attacks against his family, Luke heads to Japan and joins the world’s leading experts on robotics to create the only thing that has a chance of stopping Moder once and for all: a mechanical version of herself. Now, it’s flesh vs steel as two titans clash, with the fate of the earth at stake.

The Space Ritual

Luke and his family blast off as they join mankind’s first colony ship on the way to Alpha Centauri. But humanity’s quest to find a new home among the stars may end before it began, as Moder, having wrecked the earth beyond repair, seeks to conquer the universe. But Luke and his family won’t let humanity die without a fight in the final chapter of the Ritual saga.

The Ritual Babies

In this light-hearted prequel to the original story, a spell accidentally turns Moder into a child and sends her back in time to preschool, where she learns – with an equally young Luke, Dom, Phil, and Hutch – about the power of imagination, make-believe, and friendship. Sadly, the relentless teasing Moder endures from her new ‘friends’ turns into a murderous rage, setting up her quest to kill and enslave them decades later.

And for even more fun, here are some crossovers and comedies I’d love to see.

The Ritual 2 Fast 2 Furious

In this side story to ‘The Ritual in Da Hood’ and ‘The Ritual: Back 2 Da Hood’, Dom and the family find themselves racing their lives as Moder gets behind the wheel and challenges them to a series of increasingly lethal street races. In the wildly-popular finale, Vin Diesel and the Rock punch Moder to death.

The Ritual: First Blood

John Rambo thought he had left the battlefield for good. But when you’re pushed to the limit, killing’s as easy as breathing, as several death-metal teens are about to find out. Kidnapped as a sacrifice to Moder, Rambo now must use every skill he’s learned to put an end to the forest god and her unholy followers.

The Sharknado Ritual

Luke, Dom, Phil, Hutch, and Moder must put aside their differences and work together if they’re going to have any chance of surviving when a continent-sized sharknado heads towards their forest.

The Ritual: Adventures in Babysitting

Moder’s seen it it all throughout her many centuries of life, but she’s never had to tackle babysitting before! In this beloved family comedy, Moder finds herself babysitting several preschoolers when some of her followers head out to recruit more worshipers, and soon learns that not even godlike power is enough to make a rowdy 5 year old take a nap.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Ritual

In this radical adventure, Bill and Ted’s time traveling exploits deposits them in the mysterious forests of Sweden, where they’ll take on some viking death-metal teenagers in a battle of the bands! But even if they win, they’ll still have to fight off the totally wicked forest god out to enslave their minds! Good thing they’ve got Death and a bunch of historical figures backing them up!

Follow that Bird! A Sesame Street Ritual

When Big Bird tries to get back to Sesame Street after running away from his foster family, he takes a wrong turn and ends up lost in a remote Swedish forest. Now Grover, Bert, Ernie, the Count, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, and all of Big Bird’s friends must journey into untold depths of terror to save their best friend. Features four Academy Award-winning songs:

‘In the Forests with My Friend’

‘Flayed Flag Fun!’

‘The Immortality Song’

‘Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do!’

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the Book)

The Ritual Book Cover

Monster horror stories are everywhere these days, and for good reason: There may be no better way to get the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing than knowing that you’re being hunted by a unseen creature, and ‘The Ritual’, by Adam Nevill, joins those ranks.

‘The Ritual’ made quite a splash when Netflix aired its adaptation of the book last year, with acclaim given to the design of Moder, the story’s monster. I wanted to read the book before seeing the film, so let’s see what writers can learn from this tale of horror in Sweden’s forests.

Consider making your protagonists anything other than hot teenagers

Unlike so many horror victims, the protagonists of ‘The Ritual’ aren’t attractive youngsters in their 20’s with fantastic bodies, but middle-aged men, two of whom are in poor physical shape. Furthermore, they’re not out to get laid or do drugs; they’re on a hiking trip to try and rekindle their friendships that have been fading with time, and dealing with various problems:

      1. Not getting anything out of life

      2. Being overweight

      3. About to loose everything in divorces

      4. Trying to restore old friendships that have clearly run their course

      5. Being dirt-poor

These out of shape, depressed underdogs are far more interesting to follow than young people who are having pretty radical lives. Even Luke, the youngest and most carefree, has to endure the silent scorn of his companions for refusing to take any initiative with his life (to the point that he realizes that if he went missing, it’d be months before anyone would bother to look for him, which makes us wonder if he even has a future to look forward to if he escapes), and it isn’t long before all four are at each other’s throats.

These are not happy campers, and their struggle to deal with depressing lives while tying not to become gutted flesh-flags hanging from trees makes for gripping reading. In our own stories, consider making your protagonists the last kind of people who should be dealing with monsters. Why not try released inmates who can’t get a job or acceptance? Or try senior citizens who’s tour bus broke down in the middle of an abandoned city. (Admit it: You’d pay to go see the Golden Girls fight zombies.)

Make your environment an antagonist

Much like the Moder, the forest our protagonists stumble into is a threat as well. While many horror locations are far from help (Space, the ocean, or a crumbling mansion in the center of a forest far from civilization), the forest seems to have a malevolence to it, as if it’s working with Moder to disorient our protagonists and making it impossible for them to just turn around and leave the forest, as any sane person would do.

It’s left ambiguous if the forest is malevolent, but having an environment seemingly working with the monster is a great way to make survival even more challenging for our characters.

Have your characters face ethical decisions when it comes to survival

The forest our heroes find themselves trapped in strips away all the niceties and rules of civilization, reducing everything to a simple formula: Survive or die. In the first half of the story, Luke has to decide whether to abandon his out-of-shape companions so he can make a break for safety. Then, in the second half, he faces an even worse dilemma: Does he kill the teenagers who have taken him captive so that he can survive?

In the former example, Luke comes very close to abandoning Phil and Dom, but ultimately doesn’t. However, he does end up killing two of the three teenagers, but not before debating whether he should or not. The teens are cruel vagrants who are willing to torture and sacrifice Luke for their own pleasure, but their gung-ho toughness vanishes when they have a gun pointed at them.

Putting these dilemmas in our stories is a smart move for two reasons:

1. They reveal what a character’s true personality. What do they do when all their defenses have been taken away and they have to make a hard decision? Do they choose to spare others? Do they save themselves? Or do they try a third option? Furthermore, how do they deal with their choice after it’s been made?

2. They make the reader ponder what they would do in such a situation. Would you have it in you to kill teenagers who would otherwise kill you?

It’s a sign of good writing when dilemmas stay with the reader long after your story has been finished.

Consider having your characters made amends in the face of death

Though they’re trying to mend their old friendships, it’s clear from the beginning that Luke and the others just aren’t a good fit anymore, and that their hiking trip was an exercise in futility before it even began. What few connections they have are strained and then shattered when stress makes them snap at each other and permanently destroy their relationships. But, in a smart move, Mr. Nevill makes it so that they still have to work together to get out of the forest alive, even if they hate each other, which only adds more tension.

Then, in an even better twist, Luke and Phil, the last two survivors, realize that they’re almost certainly going to die and try to make amends to each other in the book’s most heartwarming moment. Death, in fiction and in real life, has a way of cutting through all our anger and self-righteousness and makes us realize what truly matters: each other. After all, when faced with a horror beyond human comprehension, we all want someone by our side, even if it’s just to hold our hand when the end comes.

In our own works, we should consider giving our characters the chance to make amends and heal any hurts they’ve had with other characters. While Phil dies in ‘The Ritual’, you could make it so that your characters survive, giving them a chance to go on in life with a newfound appreciation and respect for one another.

Be careful when stopping your story halfway through

‘The Ritual’ is a gripping read (I read through all of it in one afternoon), but I was caught off guard at the halfway mark, when the story shifts from Luke surviving against an unseen evil to Luke being kidnapped by homicidal teenagers and trying to escape becoming a human sacrifice. It was as if in ‘Jaws’, Chief Brody and his companions went out to hunt the shark, only to run out of supplies and food and pass out, then wake up on a deserted island with natives who worship the shark and want to sacrifice them to it. While Brody would still end up killing the shark, the straightforward story of three men vs a really big shark would become needlessly expanded.

In a way, ‘The Ritual’ is like a roller coaster ride: it’s a fast, gripping adrenaline rush, but suddenly stops halfway through before starting up again. And while we do learn more about Moder during the slower-paced second half, it takes a long time for the gripping survival story to come back to the forefront.

In our own work, it’s understandable if we want the audience to have some breathing room. How that’s implemented, though, is vital. If, for example, we want to have protagonists in a survival story to get a break from a monster, we can try the following:

*Have our characters be captured by natives, but make them as threatening and alien as the monster: They don’t speak a language anyone can understand, have customs that make no sense, etc.

*Have our characters stumble into the village of cult members, who are all long gone, but there are clues left to be found that will help our protagonist realize what they’re going up against. For bonus points, you can have the village only seem to be deserted, and then have the locals come back. (Walt Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ did this well with the crew of the Nautilus.)

*Have our characters meet the villagers, but they’re as terrified of the monster as our characters are, and a constant life of fear makes them lash out at anyone and anything they don’t recognize (like the tribe in the 2005 King Kong film).

Consider having a morally ambiguous ‘ally’ help your characters

One of the most interesting characters in ‘The Ritual’ is the old woman in the house where Luke is kept captive. Seemingly helpless and useless throughout the story’s second half, it’s gradually revealed that she’s the only one who can summon Moder (who is secretly her mother), and while she’s kind to Luke, we learn that’s only an act, as she intends to sacrifice him after he helps her by getting rid of the teenagers (and all without her saying a word we, the reader, can understand).

Such moral ambiguity keeps readers invested in a character, as they will want to figure out if he or she is a hero, a villain, or someone who’s neutral. A good example of this is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, who kept people wondering for years just who’s side he was on.

Be cautious when your protagonist fights the monster

Moder, like all great monsters, is only glimpsed and heard throughout the story, not making her full appearance until the very end. And like so many other great monsters, Luke finally faces her at the climax. However, Moder’s buildup is popped when, for all of her speed, strength, and cunning, this ancient god of the forest is driven off by a pocket knife to the throat. While she’s in rough shape at the time (tangled up in the wreckage of a van after ramming it head-on), it feels almost anti-climactic to have her defeated (but not killed) by such a tiny weapon.

If our character/s are finally facing the monster, how they are defeated should be relative to how powerful they are. If your character is fighting a T-rex, have them use a spear or an axe. For a large monster like Moder, a shotgun, machete, or other large weapon is appropriate. Or, if our character doesn’t have any weapons, have them resort to traps, similar to Dutch during the climax of ‘Predator,’ or Nancy in ‘The Shallows’. And even then, the trap doesn’t have to kill the beast; it can just slow the monster down enough for our protagonist to get away.

Consider having an uncertain, but hopeful ending

‘The Ritual’ doesn’t have a happy ending: Luke has managed to escape Moder and kill all her followers, but he’s naked and far from civilization, with a low likelihood of survival. But even in his lowest moment, he realizes that all the labels he has, all the things that he has – his job, his check, his living spaces – don’t matter. All that matters is being alive, and free to do what he wants.

It’s not a clear-cut, happy ending, but there is still a glimmer of hope, leaving us to imagine what happens to Luke. When doing horror stories, pulling off a happy ending can be very difficult, as it’s easy to make it sappy or unearned. Bittersweet ending, however, feel more logical: Things can be bad for our protagonist/s, but there’s still hope that things can or will get better. And as a bonus, leaving it open-ended allows the viewer to imagine for themselves what happens next. Personally, I like to think that, against all odds, Luke does make it to safety, and returns home.

The takeaway

When doing a monster horror story, try having the victims be down on their luck underdogs who have to make brutally difficult choices when trying to survive, but be careful not to interrupt the flow of the story to introduce a new plot idea, nor make the monster easy to drive off or defeat at the end before having an uncertain but hopeful ending.

Favorite Moments: Gretta Attenbaum vs Killer Tomatoes

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

‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’

The Scene

Gretta Attenbaum, the swimming expert for Mason Dixon’s anti-tomato squad, has been dispatched to Sector Two to monitor for tomato activity. While eating breakfast, she is attacked by the vicious vegetables fruit and struggles to defend herself.

 

Why it’s great

As I noted in my critique of ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’, viewers want to see scenes of tomatoes attacking humans, and in my opinion, the best example of this is Gretta Attenbaum’s valiant, but doomed attempt to defend herself from a barrage of the killer vegetables fruit.

Even as a kid, I thought this scene was hilarious, and as an adult I can see that it’s a perfect blend of the absurd. We have:

1. A ridiculous monster

2. An underdog who’s out of her element (an Olympic swimmer who’s been dispatched to a desert/creek bed where there’s nowhere to swim).

3. A fight that’s portrayed in a serious manner.

4. A constant escalation of the threat (small tomatoes, then bigger ones, and then one that’s taller than a person)

Part of my fondness for this scene is due to nostalgia, but from a writer’s perspective, it gives the audience what they want: the underdog fighting against hopeless odds against an absurd monster in a manner that’s portrayed without any tongue-in-cheek humor or winking at the audience, which only makes it funner, and a great reference piece for people fighting monsters.

What we can learn from ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’

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Everyone has a favorite movie, a film you can watch over and over again without ever getting tired of, even after you’ve long memorized all your favorite quotes and scenes. For me, that movie is ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’. I remember watching it as a kid on my parent’s Betamax tapes, fascinated (and a bit scared) at seeing those red, growling balls of doom rolling around killing everyone in sight. From the opening scene to the (unintentional) helicopter crash, to a giant, suited chicken fighting to save San Diego at the climax, it was a mesmerizing spectacle to my young mind. And although the film isn’t as gripping from an adult’s perspective, ‘Tomatoes’ still has a quirky, goofy charm that cannot be denied, and it’s still just as much fun to watch today as it was all those years ago in my parent’s bedroom.

Now, let’s see what storytellers can learn from this tale of vicious vegetables fruit.

Give your audience what they came to see

It’s a solid bet that when people watch ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,’ they’ll want to see tomatoes attacking people. We do get a steady stream of such attacks, but a good part of the film is taken up by subplots of the government trying to cover up the tomato threat, and Lois’ attempts to get a scoop for her paper. These scenes, while having some good jokes (Lois’ out-of-nowhere love for Mason at the ending and the subsequent song is brilliant), slow the film down when they aren’t focused on dealing with the tomatoes. Conversely, every scene of tomatoes attacking, chasing, or eating people are far more interesting (poor Greta’s last stand is a hoot).

When writing our stories, we should consider what our audience expects, and give that to them. If it’s a monster movie, then we need to be vigilant if what we’re writing focuses around that monster, even if they’re not on screen.

Consider have your team of experts be bottom-of-the-barrel numbskulls

Pop quiz: Which do you think is more interesting to watch?

A: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a team of the best of the best to solve it.

or

B: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a bunch of unqualified nobodies who have no idea what they’re doing.

Mason Dixon’s anti-tomato squad, which is in charge of saving the United States from the killer tomatoes, consists of:

*Mason Dixon, a washed-up government agent.

*Wilbur Finletter, a paratrooper who isn’t particularly bright.

*Sam Smith, the world’s worst disguise expert.

*Greg Colburn, an underwater expert who wears his scuba outfit everywhere he goes, even when he’s deployed to the desert.

*Gretta Attenbaum, a Russian Olympic swimmer who is also deployed to the desert.

By being not particularly well-suited to fighting tomatoes, a squad of z-grade agents instantly gets an underdog feel, which helps us root for them. We want to see these people work harder to overcome their underdog status, and it’s more satisfying to see them triumph instead of professionals who know exactly what they’re doing.

The best political jokes are not specific to any administration

Though ‘Tomatoes’ is set firmly in the 70’s, complete with wood panels, garishly bright clothes, avocado-colored walls, and harvest gold-colored bedsheets, it smartly doesn’t include any jokes towards the Jimmy Carter administration, instead choosing to go with mostly generic jokes such as:

*“We’ll never have a president as bad as this one!”

*An investigative committee that doesn’t investigate or accomplish anything.

*An administration that lies about trivial items (such as using public funds to buy fluffy flower print toilet paper).

Few jokes age as fast as political ones, so if you simply must write them, having them not refer to a particular person or administration is the way to go.

If your story has an out-there monster, have the military fight it

It’s natural to assume that when a Monster of Doom arrives in a film, the military will become involved, and inevitably fail. It’s all part of the fun watching the armed forces throwing everything they have at the beast and seeing man’s mightiest weapons amount to nothing. When they fight a scary monster such as Godzilla, the Cloverfield monster, or some other abomination, it’s chilling. But when those weapons fail to defeat a goofy monster? It’s comedy gold.

Thus, it’s no surprise that one of ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ most memorable sequences is a nighttime battle between the US military and the evil fruits. It’s hilarious seeing the military trying and failing to stop these giant beasts, and a good reminder that seeing determined soldiers fighting goofy monsters to the death is all-but guaranteed to get a laugh from your audience.

Considern summoning everyman heroes to save the day.

In the film’s climax, it’s not the military, law enforcement, or even the government that defeats the tomatoes, but a bunch of random citizens from San Diego (or, as the credits list them, every screwball in the county). Once again, the underdog principle comes into play, as watching ordinary, everyday people step up to save the day is more satisfying, especially when they win. Bonus points for making them a colorful bunch, such as Ms. Potato Famine, the Marx brothers, an Arab Sheikh, and a costumed chicken.

The takeaway:

When doing a monster movie (even a parody), try to have an interesting creature, keep the action focused on the monster (even when they’re not on screen) by limiting subplots that don’t involve them, and having unqualified, everyday people battling the creatures will have us more invested in their survival than well-trained experts.