What we can learn from ‘Sharknado: The Second One’

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Last week, we took a look at Sci-Fi’s surprise hit, ‘Sharknado,’ This week, let’s take a look at… well, The Second One.

Consider having your hero rush in to help, even when he has no idea what he’s doing.

In the film’s opening scene, Fin and April are en route to New York City, only for their plane to be attacked by sharks. Even though Fin’s a surfer with no flying experience, he still tries to fly the plane to safety instead of waiting for someone else to do so.

Not only does rushing in to help make our characters active protagonists, but it also gives them an underdog quality, in that they have to accomplish a task they’re not qualified to do.

Have your characters save someone they don’t like

While it’s easy for our characters to rush in and save people they care about, or even just bystanders they don’t know, it takes more courage to rush into danger to save someone they don’t like, as Fin has to do with Martin, an old childhood friend of his. While we may enjoy seeing mean people get their comeuppance (though not Martin, in this case), having our heroes take the high ground and save their lives says a lot about their character.

For bonus points, consider having the two characters take advantage of their situation to heal any emotional rifts they have and become friends again, as Fin and Martin do. Or, if not that, at least no longer hate each other.

Consider having an old-timer finally get to fulfill a failed dream decades later

His role isn’t necessary to the story, but it’s satisfying to see Harland McGuinnes – an old, retired baseball player – finally get the home run he never got to get in his last game by whacking a shark into the billboard at Citi Field. Who among us doesn’t have a dream that never came true, whether from circumstances beyond our control, or because of our own failings? That’s why it’s so satisfying to see characters get a second chance to make that dream come true and pulling it off, especially if they’re older and past their physical prime.

Consider doing crazy chase scenes

Car chases, foot chases, motorcycle chases, boat chases, helicopter chases; all of them have been done thousands of times in films. But how about a chase where the monsters are pursing an out-of-the-ordinary vehicle? One of ‘The Second One’s most creative scenes has Fin and friends riding a subway car that’s not only trying to outrun a tidal wave, but the sharks it’s carrying as well.

When it comes to chase scenes, the sky’s the limit, so why not try including two different antagonists at once in your own?

Consider trapping your characters be trapped between two bad choices

As the old saying goes, sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils in life. A similar situation has characters being forced to choose between two very unpleasant outcomes. In ‘The Second One,’ Fin and friends are trapped in a stairwell trying to get a door open. If they fail, they have to make a choice:

1. Do they choose to be killed by sharks who are rising towards them via flooding?

2. Do they choose to be killed by sharks descending towards them who are on fire?

Thankfully, they get the door open, but such no-win scenarios not only helps reveal more about a character’s true fortitude (are they brave? Panicky? Do they sacrifice others to save themselves?), but makes the viewer wonder what they’d do in the same situation, which keeps them engaged and wanting to find out what happens next.

Have the commoners rise up to save the day

If there’s one trope all but guaranteed to warm the heart, it’s seeing everyday people take up arms to fight the monster/menace of your story, and win. When this trope comes in to play, the authorities have failed to save the day, and the only people everyone else can rely on is themselves, which adds further drama to the scene. Here, the citizens of New York grab all manner of weapons and take on the sharks. Considering that these weapons include pitchforks, guns, chainsaws, and flamethrowers fashioned from super soakers, it’s as goofy as you’d expect, but still great fun.

Consider having a mid-air fight

(Play the clip to jump right to Fin’s mid-air fight)

They’re rare. They’re impractical, They’re all-but impossible to pull off in real life, but there’s no denying that a free-fall fight between two characters is awesome. In the climax of ‘The Second One,’ Fin flies through the sharknado towards the Empire State Building with his chainsaw, carving up sharks left and right, and eventually riding one onto the tower’s antenna.

The advantages of such a fight are numerous: Both participants are in a hazardous environment, the fight has to be decided quickly, which increases the ferocity on both participants, and unless they can figure out a way to land safely or get away, both fighters are going to die a very unpleasant death on impact. When you need a hazardous environment to stage a fight, it’s hard to top one in the sky.

Reconsider killing off likeable side characters

It’s distressingly common for disaster films to kill off side characters who are often more interesting than the protagonists, and ‘The Second One’ follows that trend, killing off Fin’s old love interest, Skye, and a helpful cab driver, Ben, played by the great Judd Hirsch. I liked both of these characters, and how they were competent, resourceful, and did their part to help Fin and the others survive; I especially liked how Skye, while still in love with Fin, doesn’t try to stop him from healing his relationship with April, which makes her death feel cruel and unnecessary (and Fin doesn’t even mention her afterwords!).

In our own stories, think carefully before killing off these side characters. While audiences expect a certain amount of casualties in a disaster film, having these side characters survive, even if longer than expected, can be a welcome surprise because we’re conditioned to believe they’ll die. If your viewer likes these characters, they’ll be grateful to you for saving them, and walk away happier than they would have otherwise been.

The Takeaway

We like seeing our protagonists rushing in to help, even when they don’t know what they’re doing, especially if it’s to save someone they don’t like and would otherwise leave to die, while watching older people fulfill a dream that never came true before escaping in a crazy chase sequence and then end up being trapped between two terrible ways to die, before rallying the common folk to save the day before charging into battle that includes a mid-air fight, and hopefully doesn’t involve the death of a likeable side character.

Favorite Moments: Gandalf Destroys the Ring

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

‘Gandalf Destroys The Ring’

The Scene

Having finally found the One Ring, Gandalf destroys it.

Why it’s great

When it comes to dark lords in fiction, we expect them to be nearly-invincible abominations who can only be defeated through great sacrifice, peril, and suffering. But what if they could be defeated with hardly any effort?

The reason I love this fan edit so much is that it turns Sauron, a dark lord so powerful that he’s almost impossible to defeat, into a joke. His source of power, instead of being thrown into a volcano in the heart of his own realm, is destroyed by being thrown into a fireplace. It’s a brilliant subversion of the dark lord trope, and helps us imagine an alternate version of The Lord of the Rings where Sauron is so determined to conquer Middle-Earth, but he’s incompetent and easily foiled, turning him into a comedic figure instead of a force of pants-wetting terror.

In our own comedic stories, consider making your dark lord a force of utter terror that scares the pants off everyone who hears his/her/its name, who has armies beyond count, minions without end, and a will that can never be broken, and then have him be defeated in seconds:

*Someone shoots him with a gun or a bow.

*He’s hit with a rock.

*He trips and breaks his back (due to the ornate, impractical, and scary armor they’re no doubt wearing).

*His object of power is destroyed by hitting it with a rock (or a hammer).

And when all is said and done, the Dark Lord’s forces stand around in awkward silence and wonder what they’re going to do now.

 

What We Can Learn from ‘Sharknado’

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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)

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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