What we can learn from ‘Ator: The Fighting Eagle’

If there’s one film genre the 80’s loved, it was hack-and-slash barbarian fantasy films. There seems to be no end to them, ranging in quality from ‘Conan’ to ‘Yor,’ and ‘Ator, the Fighting Eagle’, a 1982 Italian flick featuring a hunky, muscular, handsome hero out to save a kingdom from an evil ruler who has enslaved the land while wielding a giant sword, facing monsters, and wanting to marry his sister.

Wait, what?

Knowing that ‘Ator’ was chosen as the season finale for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival should give you a clue as to its quality: it’s not a very good movie, and aside from the creepy incest vibe, doesn’t do much to stand out among it’s many competitors. Still, it’s good for some chuckles, and has its fair share of lessons for the aspiring writer. So, with that said, let’s take a look at what it has to offer.

If you include a prologue, keep it brief

Read any writing how-to book, article, or opinion piece, and you’ll be told again and again to avoid prologues, AKA, dumping mountains of backstory and info on the audience. It’s solid advice, but, surprisingly, ‘Ator’ does a good job with its prologue. While cliched (a kingdom has been enslaved and a Chosen One will be born one day to set it free), it sets up the story quickly. But, more importantly, the prologue only gives us the most critical information:

*A land is enslaved by an evil force

*A child will be born to free it.

That’s it. Nothing about bloodlines, the kingdom’s history, how the land was formed, the various gods, religion, etc.

In our own stories, a prologue should be as bare-bones as possible. Keep it brief, tell your audience only what’s relevant to the story’s main problem, and save more background information for later in the story. Some great examples of well-done prologues include Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’, New Line’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, and any of the Star Wars movies.

Be extra-careful including incest in your story

In a field as crowded as barbarian fantasy, ‘Ator’ stands out in a way it probably didn’t intend: by having the main character wanting to marry his sister. Thankfully, they’re not biologically related, but it leaves a creepy vibe that no amount of cute bear cub footage can get rid of, as Ator himself spends the movie fighting to save said sister so they can presumably become husband and wife.

In our own stories, there’s no topic that’s off-limits, but some should be handled very delicately, if at all, and incest is one of them. While the subject itself can be a topic for great drama and conflict (a married couple accidentally finds out that they’re brother and sister and has to deal with that, and the fact that they’ve had kids), how it’s handled is vitally important, and I think there’s two ways to do so:

1. You present the subject matter as a tool to tell a story.

2. You present the subject matter as something you want others to accept.

The first route, I believe, is safer. One memorable episode of the British TV series, ‘New Tricks’ featured a business owner who forced his sister to have an abortion after they had sex. The show didn’t endorse the act, instead using it as the catalyst for the episode’s mystery. Conversely, ‘Ator’ feels like it’s trying to say that incest is okay, even going so far as to reveal that Ator’s ancestors used to allow brothers and sisters to marry each other, making the film almost feel like a pro-incest propaganda piece. That can’t be what the movie intended, but it proves the value of being cautious in how controversial subjects are addressed.

Avoid having a random events plot

Much like ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom,’ most of ‘Ator’ feels like filler to kill time. Ator being seduced by a temptress, running away from random warriors in a foggy forest, and having his partner be trapped in a cave feel like time-killers that were put in without much consideration as to how they would tie into Ator’s quest to save his sister and the kingdom.

In our own stories, keeping all the events that happen in your story related to main quest/plot subtly tells your audience that you know where you’re going, and they’re more likely to hang around to see what’s going to happen. While it’s okay to occasionally have a random action sequence that doesn’t affect the plot in any way (such as the unique fight between Ator and a shadow), those should be the exception, rather than the rule. Action for the sake of action may be enjoyable for a short time, but it will quickly wear off its welcome when the audience realizes they’re not any closer to the story’s resolution.

Consider having the mentor betray the main character/s

Probably my favorite twist in Ator’s story comes near the end, when, having slain the leader of the spider cult, Ator is betrayed by his mentor Griba, who reveals that he only helped Ator so he could reclaim his position as the cult’s high priest.

We don’t see mentors betray their charges all that often in fiction – they can be mean, yes, and downright cruel, but they still want their students to succeed. But to betray them is rare, and gives writers a great opportunity to have the student fight the mentor, and use everything they’ve learned – and a few tricks they’ve picked up on their own – to win.

When people lose their loved ones, make sure they grieve

At the very end of the film, Ator’s companion, Roon, dies of her injuries after fighting off spider cult goons, but not before getting a chance to say farewell to Ator. It would have been a touching moment… had not the very next shot (and the last one of the film) been Ator and Sunya cheerfully running through a forest with big smiles on their faces, seemingly forgetting that Roon ever existed. While it’s natural for Ator to be ecstatic at having rescued his sister, an additional scene of him mourning Roon, or laying her to rest would have allowed him to give her some closure and a chance to honor and respect her memory before heading off.

Because of how final it is (at least, in real life), death shouldn’t be treated lightly when it comes to your story’s main characters. If one of them dies, have the others mourn. If there’s no time to do so (they’re being chased by giant spiders, for example), then have them mourn later, or, at the least, miss the presence of those they’ve lost. Otherwise, you run the risk of making the dead character feel like a throwaway piece of the scenery who aren’t worth remembering.

An Alternate Universe version of ‘Ator: The Fighting Eagle’ that learned from its mistakes

A brief prologue tells us about the prophecy of a child who will be born to save his kingdom from enslavement at the hands of a spider cult. Years later, that child, Ator, having fallen in love with a girl from his village, sets out on a quest to save her after she’s kidnapped by the cult’s leader. Along the way, he takes his bear-cub companion, meets up with an Amazon warrior named Roon, and works to build up his fighting skills with his mentor, Griba, and acquire weapons that will help him defeat the spider cult, while fighting off various challenges the cult’s leader sends his way (a seductive enchantress, a village paid-off to capture him, undead warriors the leader raises, etc.), defeating each one and growing stronger.

Finally reaching the cult’s temple, Ator uses all his skills to defeat the cult’s leader, only to be betrayed by Griba, who only helped Ator so he could reclaim his place as the cult’s leader. Using everything he’s learned, Ator barely manages to defeat him, kill the cult’s spider-god, and save his girlfriend. However, Roon is fatally wounded and dies. Mourning her, Ator buries her on a beautiful hillside and vows never to forget her for the help she gave him.

With his beloved as his side, Ator returns home, having freed his kingdom and found the love of his life.

What we can learn from the world’s shortest horror story

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Quick: Name the shortest horror story you’ve ever read.

Done? If you’re like many people, this probably came to mind:

‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…’

This tiny, Twitter-sized tale – Fredric Brown’s ‘Knock’ – is possibly the world’s most famous short horror story. Although it’s a condensed version of a longer (though not by much) story, the two-sentence version is a masterpiece of lean, efficient storytelling. So much is said, and implied – in just two sentences and seventeen words – that it becomes one of the best examples of ambiguity in fiction.

In my opinion, what makes ‘Knock’ so memorable (aside from its length) is that while it sets up an entire fictional world, it doesn’t tell us anything about it or who is outside the door. What happened to the planet? Why is there only one man left? Did everyone else die off? Did they evacuate and leave him behind? Likewise, who or what is knocking? An alien? A demon? An angel? A large duck? We don’t know, and like every great horror story, ‘Knock’ forces us to rely on our imagination to fill in the blanks, creating things more terrifying than anything Hollywood’s CGI maestros or an author’s prose can bring to life.

Not revealing the evil force menacing a character is a simple concept, but as countless horror tales have proven over the centuries, it can be chillingly effective.

The Takeaway

When writing a horror story (or a mystery/thriller) consider never revealing who, or what, is menacing a character or a group of characters. For extra points, leave this entity’s motivations ambiguous, such as if it’s malevolent or just neutral/curious.

Favorite moments: ‘Who’s that pokemon?’

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

This ancient video (well, ancient by internet standards) was a big hit back in 2007; I remember first seeing it in college and laughing out loud. While it doesn’t have that same effect over a decade later, it’s still really funny. But like Korn’s corn powers, there’s nothing out of the ordinary: Someone who’s very passionate about Pokemon incorrectly guesses which creature is on screen and throws a fit. What makes it funny, though, is the contrast of content: We have something cheerful and upbeat that mixes with vulgarity and anger, which can be good for a laugh if you don’t mind profanity, AKA, the Sugar Apocalypse.

What can we take from this? Contrasts of super cheerful and super vulgar can be great fun, but in moderate doses: too much profanity and vulgarity, and the charm can fade. Too little and it won’t have as much effect. And if that vulgarity descends into carnage and bloodshed… well, you might have gone a little too far. But then, why not have the cute side decide to fight back, and while still being cute? You can have a rainbow-colored bloodbath, which can be equally hilarious.

What we can learn from ‘Deep Blue Sea’

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Outside of ‘Jaws,’ it’s difficult to find good killer shark movies. There are dozens, if not hundreds of B-grade shark films, which makes finding the A-listers a real treat. In my opinion, ‘Deep Blue Sea,’ a 1999 horror/thriller that finds the staff of a research facility fighting for their lives against super-intelligent mako sharks, is one of those treats. While the premise is B-grade material, the high production values, humor, and willingness to embrace its R rating makes this one of Hollywood’s better shark films.

With all that said, let’s take a look and see (haha) what we can learn from this tale of genetic experimentation gone wrong.

1. Consider throwing the standard ‘who’s going to die’ rules out the window

Much like George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ saga, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ throws the conventional rules for who lives and dies out the window and spares those we thought would die, and spares those we thought would live. Some examples:

The horny young adults in the opening all survive:

 

The most famous actor becomes shark food less than halfway through the film:

 

 

 

All three ladies die (though only one in this clip):

 

 

 

 

And even the cute animal gets eaten!

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I saw the film, I was shocked at how everyone I thought was going to live, died, and was on the edge of my seat wondering who was going to get out alive or not.

In our own stories, defying the conventions of who’s going to die is a fantastic way of getting people’s attention. Instead of having the hyper-sexual, booze drinking teen die first in a slasher movie, have him survive all the way through. Have the intelligent, smart, resourceful character be the first to bite the dust. When your audience realizes that there really is no guarantees on who’s going to live and die, they’ll want to keep going to find out who makes it or not.

2. Consider putting your characters inside an isolated environment that’s failing

Like any good horror film, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ puts its characters inside a location that’s constantly unsafe and makes their escape to safety that much harder. In this instance, it’s a partially-submerged research facility that begins to sink once the chaos begins, letting the sharks swim inside to make escape even more difficult.

The advantage of having your main location falling apart in stages is that the characters never have much time to rest. They always need to stay on the move, with any safe place offering only temporary refuge, which helps keep them – and the audience – on their toes.

3. Consider making someone do the worst thing for the most righteous of reasons

While most shark films have a human villain corrupted by greed, a desire for power, or any other human failing, Dr. Susan McAlester is a refreshing chance of pace: she’s not motivated by greed or selfishness, but from wanting to cure Alzheimers. Considering that she finally has that cure within reach, it’s not surprising that she’s willing to bend the rules of what’s ethically and legally acceptable, but unlike so many other villains, she doesn’t set out to hurt anyone, which makes her the most interesting and multi-faced character of the film.

In our own stories, well-intended extremists, if handled well, can be the most interesting characters because they make us wonder what we’d be willing to do to accomplish a noble goal. Would we be willing to harm others? Would we be willing to break the law? And on top of that, would we be willing to sacrifice lives to accomplish that goal? Or would we still try to avoid hurting others as much as possible? Having seen the devastating effects of Alzheimers myself, I can understand why Susan did what she did, and I imagine many other viewers would feel the same way, which makes her ultimate failure in getting that cure to the surface all the more devastating.

4. Consider making the monsters more intelligent than we initially realize

The sharks of ‘Deep Blue Sea’ demonstrate their intelligence early on by using a stretcher as a weapon to break the underwater window of the main lab on the station, but it isn’t until near the end of the film that we learn that they’ve been secretly herding our protagonists where they want to ensure the station keeps flooding and sinking, so they can break out of the facility and into the open ocean.

In our own stories, gradually revealing a monster’s intelligence is a great way to make the audience realize that whatever our protagonists are messing with is more than just another dumb monster. It’s also a great opportunity for the audience to have an ‘oh crap!’ moment when we realize that the monster has had an ulterior motive all along that we weren’t aware of (but will subsequently catch on rewatches/re-reads).

5. Consider having your comedic relief be a competent fighter

It’s distressingly common for comic relief characters to be bumbling fools who are only good at cracking jokes, shrieking, and being burdens to the main characters. ‘Deep Blue Sea’ bucks that trend by having Preacher, the religious cook, be both amusing and a surprisingly good fighter: he manages to take out two of the three sharks in the film, survives being mauled by a shark (by using his crucifix to stab a shark in the eye), and saves the day by blowing up the last shark despite being badly hurt, thus keeping the sharks from breeding in the wild.

In our own stories, comedic relief characters need not be walking joke machines that everyone else would gladly leave behind: By making them competent (or at least willing to fight instead of trying to run away), and even come to rescue other characters, you can help make them the most likeable characters in your story.

6. Consider having the monster recognize its maker

 

 

What would you do if you came face-to-face with God? Would you shake His/Her/Its hand? Slap His/Her/Its face and scream about how unfair your life has been? In ‘Deep Blue Sea’ we get a moment where the last shark comes face to face with Susan and stops, clearly recognizing her… before chomping her into so many bite-sized pieces.

In our own stories, having a monster meet its maker offers an opportunity to get a glimpse of the monster’s inner workings. While killing its maker is the standard response, consider having the monster be awed, confused, puzzled, intrigued, or even worshipful; this gives us, the author, a chance to have the beast dispatched in a unique way (perhaps by having its maker lure it into a hydraulic press), or by persuading it to stop killing.

The Takeaway:

When doing a monster movie, consider having your characters be trapped in a location that’s failing, and killing off people we expect to see live, and vice versa, while having a competent comedic relief who’s not a burden to others, and having the main human antagonist be a genuinely good person who did something awful for the best possible reasons and create a monster that we come to realize is far smarter than we first imagined, and then having that monster encounter their maker and having it do something other than just treating them like any other victim they’ve met.

Favorite Moments: The Ringtone of Doom

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

‘Jurassic Park 3’

The Scene

Alan Grant and Erik have a heartwarming, conflict-free reunion with Erik’s parents and Alan’s protege, Billy.

Why it’s great

While ‘Jurassic Park 3’ is considered an okay movie by most Jurassic Park fans, it does feature one brilliant scene: The spinosaurus sneaking up on Alan Grant and the other reunited survivors, and announcing its presence via the ringtone of Mr. Kirby’s cell phone inside its stomach.

To me, this scene is great because it has several layers to it:

1. The reunion between Erik and his parents, who have been seperated for over two months.

2. The realization that Mr. Kirby doesn’t have his cell phone, leading us, the viewer, to try and remember where it is, as the last time we saw it was far earlier in the film, giving us enough time to gradually forget about it.

3. The sinking, ‘Uh oh’ feeling when we realize exactly where it is.

4. The revelation of the spinosaurus, and then realizing that it’s been watching the group in silence.

5. The idea that the spinosaurus was purposefully waiting to attack after everyone noticed it, which implies an intelligence dinosaurs don’t normally have, and even a dark sense of humor.

Is it a cheat to have the spinosaurus, the Kirbys, and Grant/Erik to be wandering all in the exact same area at a specific time when the phone jingles? Yes, but this is a time where such a far-fetched coincidence works, because it leads to a great scene that combines a heartwarming moment, humor, and then dread/terror all in a little over a minute, and manages to make a silly cell-phone jingle one of the most terrifying sounds in the world.

So, what can we take from this scene? It’s okay to occasionally have an impossible coincidence if it leads to a great scene, and making a corny sound effect herald the arrival of death and doom is a great way to have both terror and comedy coexist at once.

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.

 

The Journey Begins

There is arguably no greater love humanity shares than the love of a great story. From tales told around the campfire, to the latest multi-million dollar blockbuster in the cinema, we love stories of every kind. But there’s one problem: Most stories are flawed. Even the most polished story is bound to have a mistake or two slip past their creators. Some are minor, some major, and some stories just turn out poorly.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read or watch them.

My name is Ian, and I’m a writer who’s pursuing the dream of telling stories on both the big screen and between the covers of a book. To that end, this site is essentially my repository of notes from my attempts to study, analyze, and learn from all mediums of storytelling, from films to video games, to even internet fan videos, updated every Tuesday with an analysis of books, movies, video games, or other media, and Thursdays with various story related topics, including my favorite moments, theories, deeper musings on certain topics or story tropes, and anything else that tickles my fancy (more frequent updates can occur if a special event is in progress, or if my muse jumps into overdrive).

I should note that I’m not an expert in the craft of writing, nor is this site meant to be a scholarly site that analyzes works in-depth, looking at character relationships, arcs, stories, how various subplots interconnect, and so on. It’s meant to be a casual, quick look at what works and what doesn’t work in the story being studied, and what we can learn from them. If other sites are college courses that go over stories in-depth over a semester, this site is two friends meeting at a lounge and saying, “Wow! That was so cool!” or, “Man, that didn’t work at all!”

There are already many excellent movie and storytelling learning sites on the internet, many of them greater than I ever hope to be. But unlike so many sites, Youtube stars, or movie critics, I’m not looking to slam faults or call something terrible. Criticizing is easy, but critiquing is more useful. If we can learn from failure as much as we can from success, then every story, no matter how poorly told, can help us learn about the art of storytelling. Nothing is perfect, but there is beauty to be found in imperfection.

Even if a well-crafted plane of glass has a flaw, that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.

I hope my own journey of learning is as helpful to you as it is to me.

Failure, the greatest teacher is. — Yoda

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