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: ‘Captain… Help…’

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

‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)

The Scene

(skip to 1:35 for the moment in question)

Why It’s Great

As a child of the 90’s, I was privileged to see a lot of great TV shows growing up: ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘M*A*S*H’ reruns, ‘Dinosaurs!’ and almost every Nickelodeon cartoon and game show constantly played on the family television, but it’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ that’s stayed with me well into adulthood. Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, and all the Enterprise crewmembers others were as much a part of my childhood as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Indiana Jones. I watched as the Enterprise and her crew as they explored the cosmos, negotiated peace with hostiles species, got into firstfights and phaser shootouts… and also turned into children.

Throughout it all, though, Picard was the character who left the greatest impression with me. He was the champion of reason and diplomacy, yet not afraid to get into a fight if he needed to. He was firm, but fair, and to my young eyes he was the leader who always did what was right.

Then came 1996’s ‘First Contact,’ and in a film filled with action, horror, shootouts, and scary Borg monsters, the thing that stuck with me the most was the shock of seeing Picard shot an infected Enterprise crewmember begging for help. As a young kid, that blew my mind: Picard was the good guy! He wouldn’t kill his own crew! And yet, he had just killed one!

To a pre-teen like me, this was the moment where I realized that the right thing to do isn’t always the nicest. In the cartoons and kids shows I watched, the heroes always saved innocent people from the bad guys. To see one of those heroes kill an innocent person – even if it was an act of mercy – made me realize that sometimes the good guys must do things that are morally questionable, even if there’s no malicious intent. It was a big step forward in realizing that things aren’t always black and white, and a big step in realizing that writing stories where things aren’t clear cut are a great tool for creating moral delimas that stay with audiences long after the story is over.

What we can learn from ‘Jakku: First Wave’

Today, we’re taking a look at Star Wars, but not at one of the official movies, books, or games; we’re into the world of Star Wars fan films, and one that focuses on everyone’s favorite movie mooks: the stormtroopers. Unlike most fan films, though, this one is quite unique: There’s no laser blasts, no lightsabers, no force powers, or any of the other famous features of the galaxy far, far, away. Instead, it’s a psychological story that takes a look at three stormtroopers before entering the biggest battle of their lives. Let’s take a deeper look at what this short can teach us.

Consider having your story follow doomed characters just before their end

‘Jakku’ sets its tone instantly by telling us that everyone we’re about to see are going to die. That knowledge hangs heavy throughout the runtime as we watch the final minutes of the stormtrooper’s lives, knowing that they’re not going to make it through the battle to come.

In our own stories, focusing on the end of a character’s life – whether they know it or not – is an excellent way to get the audience’s attention. We’re used to our heroes charging into combat and making it out alive, sometimes without a scratch… but what about those who don’t have a chance? How do the underdogs, the faceless, nameless people who don’t have plot armor or aren’t main characters, face their end? I find that more fascinating than following someone who will survive because of their importance to the plot.

As I’ve written before, staring death in the face reveals who someone really is: Just how would you react to knowing that your end is about to occur in the next few minutes? Do you run? Hide? Face it head on? Incorporating such questions gives you the chance to see a character’s deepest self.

Consider making your story take place in one location

It may sound counter-intuitive – and even boring – to set your story in a single location. Who can make compelling stories about love and war, loss and betrayal in just one room? (or a cockpit, or a boat, or a car, etc.) Yet, such a thing is possible; ‘Jakku’ takes place entirely inside the hold of an AT-AT, and is captivating thanks the power of its story and the situation, instead of big, flashy visuals.

The advantage of doing a story set in a single location is that it forces you, the writer, to be creative with how you tell your story, as well as almost mandating that it becomes a character piece, as you won’t have access to big-budget special effects. Can you tell a sci-fi story in a single room? A post-apocalyptic drama? A historical period piece? No matter what tale you tell, it will be more intimate than the most sprawling, epic tale that goes to numerous exotic places. (and as a bonus, if you’re doing a movie, you’ll save a lot of money from only having to build one set)

Consider having your big, tough guy join the armed forces for a silly reason

The lone moment of humor in ‘Jakku’ is an effective one: The stoic, fearless trooper seems to fit the mold we’ve seen many times elsewhere: the tough guy who loves to fight and believes whole-heartily in his country. The patriot, so to speak, who joined the armed forces for the noblest of causes. But that’s not the case: he joined the Empire just because he wanted to wear stormtrooper armor.

Silly? Yes, but it’s amusing because we, the audience, expect the big, buff, military types to love their countries and wanting to serve it above everything else. Learning that they joined the armed forces for the silliest of reasons makes them more memorable by defying our expectations.

Consider focusing on why your characters fight

In my opinion, the one thing ‘Jakku’ does best is showing that these stromtroopers aren’t fanatical troopers who mindlessly follow orders and charge into battle without a second thought. They’re human, with different levels of fear and courage. One wants to avenge his younger brother, who died on the Death Star. The other wants to fight for the Empire’s ideals, and the last is there to prove to himself that he really can fight. This humanization helps us see the Empire not as an endless wave of white-coated redshirts who can’t shoot the broad side of a barn, but as people with different reasons for joining the Empire: Some selfish, some noble, and others who are just looking to try something new.

In your own works, exploring why characters fight and risk their lives makes the more human. It’s one thing to read about soldiers charging into battle, but knowing why they’re doing it (beyond being ordered to by their superiors) makes for more compelling storytelling. Knowing that someone is fighting to avenge a fallen family member or friend, or fighting dirty just to end a war so they can go home, or that they’re trying to prove to themselves that they’re brave makes the more compelling than gung-ho marines.

The Takeaway:

Doing a small scale story helps you focus on characters instead of distracting your audience with flashy visuals, and exploring why a small group of doomed people do what they do (such as fighting in a war) makes for compelling drama, even if their reasons for doing so are on the silly side.