Five Ways Sauron Is A Good Role Model

When it comes to role models, you can do a lot better than Sauron, The Lord of the Rings. Ever since his debut in 1954 with the publication of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring,’ Sauron continues to reign as one of literature’s most famous fantasy villains. Yet, as Elrond noted, nothing is evil in the beginning, and even with his egomania, his desire to brainwash and enslave everyone in Middle-Earth, and his desire to become a god king, there are still some good and noble traits to Sauron’s character. So let’s dive in and take a look to see the dark lord’s admirable traits:

5. He uses cunning and intelligence over brute strength

For those unfamiliar with the backstory of Tolkien’s world, Sauron is essentially an angel who served a god of evil (Morgoth) that sought complete and total domination over the world and everything in it, corrupting the very essence of the world so that his evil was forever entrenched with it, causing strife among all those on it forever.

While Sauron was incapable of performing similar feats, he was arguably more intelligent and strategic with the strength, power, and resources that he had. Instead of seeking to control everything, he only sought to control the minds of those who lived in Midde-Earth, using lies, charm, deciet, and his Ring to strategically advance his goals. If Morgoth was the overpowering brute who believed in overwhelming power and physical might, Sauron was the quiet, silent type who lurks in the shadows, biding his time until the moment is right to strike with a scalpel for maximum effect.

4. He commits himself 100% to making his dreams come true

In a way, Sauron is the ultimate made-man (maiar?). Before he fell into evil, he loved perfection and order, and joined Morgoth to help make his dream become a reality. When Morgoth fell, did Sauron run away, hide in a cave, and weep for his dead dream? Nope; he abandoned Morgoth and continued on his quest. No matter how many elves, men, hobbits, ents, and gods were against him, Sauron refused to abandon his dream of a perfectly ordered world, to the point that he was willing to risk everything and created The One Ring to achieve his goal, with the risk of being reduced to a permanently powerless, helpless spirit if it were ever destroyed.

Regardless of how abhorrent his actions were, you can’t help but admire Sauron for having the courage to follow his heart and do everything he could to make his dreams come true!

3. He isn’t afraid to ignore authority figures and forge his own path

If there’s one thing Sauron cannot be faulted for, it’s his courage in rebelling against actual, physical gods. While Sauron is a powerful angel (perhaps the most powerful), he’s still outmatched by the gods who rule over all of Arda, and the god who created them, a god that Sauron has seen in-person. Yet, Sauron willingly and purposefully defies all of them, refusing to let himself be bound by rules, orders, and commands forced down on him from those more powerful than himself. Sauron has a dream, and he’s not going to let anything stop it!

Who among us hasn’t felt the frustration and anger of being ordered to do something by our parents, our bosses, organizations, or the government? How about being told what to do and how to live our lives without those in power caring about what we want to do? How many of us have dreamed of giving those authority figures the finger? Sauron did, only he did it to gods who could wipe him out in an instant. Whatever his many failings, the guy’s got guts.

2. He’s fallible and fails as often as he succeeds

Hold on a second! Why should we admire a dark lord who fails just as often as he succeeds? Because that makes said dark lord a much more interesting, well-rounded character instead of the cliched dark lord who is all but unstoppable, who is the best fighter, has the best armies, and commands power beyond imagination. And at first glance Sauron appears to be such a character. Here’s a list of his greatest triumphs throughout his career in villainy:

1. Became the second-in-command of the most evil being who ever existed.

2. Created the most evil object in history that no mortal could hope to control.

3. Brought down the most powerful human kingdom to ever exist using nothing but words.

4. Created the Ringwraiths

5. Tricked the elves into creating magical rings that would allow Sauron to control their minds and the minds of anyone who wore them.

6. Could sing songs so powerfully and so skillfully that he defeated a very powerful elf in a battle of wills (presumably it was this song).

7. Came very close to conquering the world twice, and would have succeeded if not for last-minute interventions.

8. Created a language from scratch to allow all his followers to speak a common tongue.

But with the good must come the bad, and here are Sauron’s greatest failures:

1. Was defeated by a really big doggy in a fight.

2. Was beaten multiple times by the armies of elves and men.

3. Had his ability to take a pleasing appearance taken away by God himself.

4. Failed to take over the minds of the most powerful elves and the dwarves using The One Ring.

5. Was killed by an elf and a man on the side of a volcano.

6. Failed to take over the world due to the actions of a 600 year old schizophrenic midget.

While powerful, Sauron still failed in many of his quests. Every time he fought others in hand-to-hand combat, he lost, and his ultimate scheme to enslave the world failed as well. Yet, its this fallibility that makes Sauron so interesting. He’s like the Terminator in the first Terminator film: He’s stronger, more durable, more intelligent, and more powerful than everyone else in the story. Taking him on in a fight is incredibly dangerous. Yet, he is not invincible, and knowing that he can and does fail makes him more interesting as a character. And speaking of failure…

1. He never, ever gives up

He may have massive armies at his command, an unmatched intellect, the ability to use magic and trickery like no one else, and have the ability to take over the world, but Sauron’s greatest strength as a villain is that no matter how many defeats he suffers, or how many times his plans fail, and no matter how many times he’s killed, Sauron never, ever gives up. No matter what you throw at him, no matter how badly his armies are decimated, or how many times his kingdoms are overthrown, Sauron will just get back up and keep going. He will let nothing stop him, and he’s quite possibly the closest thing Middle-Earth has to a Terminator: No matter where you’re hiding in Middle-Earth, Sauron is out there. He can’t be reasoned with. He can’t be bargained with. He doesn’t feel pity or remorse, and no matter how many times you defeat him, he will come back and he absolutely will not stop, ever, until he has conquered Middle-Earth.

If you take away all his villainy and see his virtues, Sauron suddenly becomes a role model that anyone can look up to, including children. He fits the profile of the plunky underdog almost perfectly and delievers a timeless, universal message everyone can aspire to: You may not be the most powerful, the strongest, or the most capable of people, but if you make the most of what you have, follow your heart, refuse to accept defeat, and keep going no matter what life throws at you, you, too, can make your dreams come true!

Well, just as long you aren’t followed around by an elderly and demented midget. If that happens, you’re screwed.

How To Make ‘Aliens’ Even Better

Ever since the release of ‘Aliens’ back in 1986, it’s been hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi action horror films of all time, as well as one of the greatest sequels ever. While I agree with both sentiments, I still prefer the original, 1979 ‘Alien’. Where ‘Aliens’ is about highly-trained warriors taking on a threat they can kill, ‘Alien’ is about everyday people struggling to defeat an opponent who’s stronger than them, faster than them, and can kill them in an instant. ‘Aliens’ has a stronger focus on action, while ‘Alien’ has a better formula for horror.

Recently, that got me thinking: What would ‘Aliens’ look like if we were to, say, take away all the marines, guns and military-grade equipment?

In this parallel universe, ‘Alien’ ends with Ripley, Parker, Lambert, and Jones escaping the Nostromo, which explodes and kills the Xenomorph. Sixty years later, the three survivors are woken by the escape shuttle’s computer detecting a nearby colony. Ripley and the others set down on the planet, only to discover that the colony is in ruins. Sneaking inside, Ripley, Parker, and Lambert (Jones remains on the parked shuttle) find Newt and realize that the colony has been overrun by Xenomorphs. Needless to say, the group tries to get back into space to avoid facing any more penis-monsters from beyond the stars, but the shuttle is overrun by said penis-monsters. While they just barely manage to rescue Jones, the shuttle is rendered inoperable via acid blood, stranding Ripley and the others on the planet.

Lambert, predictably, freaks out. Parker’s not happy, either, but Ripley manages to calm them down: if they can use the colony’s communications grid to call for help, they can then hunker down and wait for a rescue, as Newt managed to survive on her own without any training. But due to damage to the colony’s atmosphere processing unit, power is out throughout the complex. Parker and Lambert jury-rig the system to let them send off a single broadcast, and then all they can do is survive until help arrives. But as in the original film, the processing unit begins to melt down, and without any means of escaping into space, everyone will be forced to flee into the inhospitable wilderness of LV-426 and fend off any Xenomorphs that come after them.

Would Ripley and the others be able to survive? Would they be able to drive far enough away from the plant before it explodes? Would they be able to last months before help arrives? And, most importantly, would they be able to discover why kids like the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? I’ll leave that up to you, but this thought experiment changes the tone and feel of the movie completely: by replacing marines and their weapons with untrained civilians, ‘Aliens’ becomes a more frightening movie because surviving becomes so much harder without smartguns, pulse rifles, and APCs. Ripley and her friends would have to scavenge whatever equipment they could find and improvise in order to fight for survival. And where they had to only face one alien last time, now they have to face dozens, if not hundreds. Survival is still a possibility, but much less likely.

The bottom line from this thought experiment? Untrained, unprepared, everyday people are almost always the best protagonists to have in horror movies, as the fight to survive will feel more authentic than if our protagonists are highly-trained, testosterone-filled, well-armed soldiers. Take away the big, powerful guns, the body armor, the apcs, grenades, missiles, and fighter craft, and you’re no longer the alpha predator; you’re prey, and your fight to survive will be all the more intense.

What We Can Learn From A Nightmare I Had Last Night

Normally most of us try to forget our nightmares, especially the more distressing ones, and I’m no different. But after a particularly vivid nightmare last night, I decided to instead remember it and see what nuggets of writing wisdom could be unearthed.

In the nightmare, I was in a future where poverty, suffering, and desperation was out of control in the United States (in other words, the present-day). But in this nightmare future, kidnapping is a frighteningly common occurrence, and I was only the latest victim. I was kept inside this grungy, run down house by a group of young 20 somethings who didn’t see me as a person but as a product to be used, sold, or traded. Thankfully, I managed to sneak out of the house and tried to run to freedom, including going through the backyard of a house owned by a bear and asking her for help. However, when I was being pursued and realized there was no way to escape, I used the back button on an internet browser to go back in time so I was back at the house to try and figure out a smarter way to escape.

Then, to make matters worse, I was shown why all this suffering was so commonplace: the kidnappings were done in such a way that if you resisted your captors or tried to escape, they responded by digging out your eyes, cutting off your limbs, then digging out your ears, ripping out your teeth, then your tongue, and finally tearing off your nose so you would become little more than a living sex toy to be used however rich people wanted to use you. It was no wonder so many people just meekly went along with whatever their captors wanted.

But it wasn’t just what happened to individuals: the kidnappings were all being orchestrated by an unspeakably powerful gang that was making headroads into the United States, and threatened all members of law enforcement that the fate of being turned into a blind, deaf, mute, and crippled sex toy was what would happen to their loved ones if they tried to stop the gang in each city they went into, and the gang had the power and ability to do so, meaning it was not an idle threat. Against such malevolence, police and federal law enforcement were all but powerless… and that’s when I woke up, thank God.

What did the nightmare do well?

It used the ‘If you try anything we will harm your loved ones’ trope to devastating effect

It may be used time and time again in countless stories, but there is no faster way to make a good character capitulate to evil than by having evil threaten his or her loved ones with horrific suffering. That taps into our deep-rooted desire for our loved ones to be safe, and the terror of something awful happening to them. While simple, it’s always a devastatingly effective storytelling tool (and an excellent way to make your audience eager to see the villains get their equally horrific comeuppance).

It showed evil as cold and indifferent

It’s easy to imagine evil as smug, cruel, and enjoying tormenting people. But the other side of flashy, smug evil can be equally frightening, if not more so: The kidnappers I faced in the story didn’t care about me or my feelings. They were unaffected by screams, pleas for mercy, threats, and begging. To them, captives were just products, and using torture didn’t bother them at all. They were indifferent to human suffering.

That kind of evil is, in my opinion, more frightening because we expect people to be swayed by emotions, even if it’s only to be more cruel and to laugh at our pain and suffering. But people who aren’t moved are like aliens or robots in human flesh: they may look normal, but we realize that something about them is wrong, and we instinctively fear them because they’re unpredictable and could do anything to us without any warning. They are like spiders, always watching you, never betraying any emotions, waiting to strike when you least expect it, and when they do, it’s unexpected and overpowering. At least with people who relish watching you suffer, you know what to expect and can try to prepare. But with these people? You can’t.

Cold and impersonal is the opposite of smug and selfish. Both work in different circumstances, but in my opinion the former is more frightening.

It threatened the protagonist with a fate worse than death

While death is often seen as the ultimate bad ending, there are fates far, far worse: Does spending decades as a limbless, blind, deaf, mute, and helpless living sex toy sound like fun to you? In any case, threatening a character with such a fate is a quick way to show that the antagonists aren’t messing around.

What could be done to improve the nightmare?

The bear could have had more characterization

The bear I encountered was a fascinating individual, as it was a single mother, had a house, and dressed in human clothes. Clearly, it was an intelligent being who was able to hold down a job and afford a house, but when it saw me and heard my pleas for help, it did nothing but stare at me with its stupid bear-face. The nightmare missed out on the chance to show what it would be like to interact with an intelligent, talking animal, but instead chose to do nothing. How lazy.

There was no explanation how time travel worked

In an otherwise rational, logical, and cruel world, there was no dwelling on the fact that time travel was real, or how it worked. There wasn’t even an attempt to explain how pressing the back button on an internet browser allowed me to reverse time and only have me be the one to realize it. What a disappointment.

Conclusion

Though there were some missed opportunities with regards to the bear’s characterization, and being able to time travel using the back button on an internet explorer was out of place in such an otherwise consistent and grim world, the nightmare did an amazing job showing how indifference can be terrifying, and how threatening ourselves and our loved ones with a fate worse than death is evil’s greatest and most powerful tool. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend revising this nightmare, as it really wasn’t fun to watch or experience. I’d recommend something like this instead.

“No”

One of the great pleasures in fiction is coming across characters who are focused, determined, and know exactly what they want in life, and if you’re a writer, you’ve probably looked into creating such a character yourself. Like most writers, you’ve probably read about how you’re supposed to ask what your characters want to learn more about who they are. While it’s sound, timeless advice, there’s a deeper, more meaningful aspect to it that’s rarely discussed.

First, though let’s take a look at some famous villains and what they want:

1. Sauron wants to conquer Middle-Earth, and he has the strength, the military might, and the intelligence to pull it off; all he needs is his ring, and he will stop at nothing to retrieve it.

2. The Deacon from Waterworld wants to find and pillage Dryland, and he never gives up, no matter what obstacles are in his way, including the incompetence of his underlings.

3. Disney wants to buy every corporation, media franchise, and nation on Earth, and they won’t let pesky things like laws, common sense, or an outraged public stop them.

Now, let’s look at some famous heroes and what they want:

1. Gandalf will stop at nothing to prevent Sauron from taking over Middle-Earth, but while he puts his allies and assets in harms way, he doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way as well.

2. Luke Skywalker will redeem his father from the Dark Side and refuses to give up, no matter the odds, even when he has to turn himself over to the Empire and stand before the most powerful and evil being in the galaxy.

3. Jack Dawson may be a scrappy beggar with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back and sketches of naked French prostitutes, but he’s not going to let anything get in his way from saving Rose aboard the Titanic.

All these heroes and villains have simple, identifiable goals, but have you noticed that there’s a common thread among them?

None of them will take ‘no’ for an answer.

This is the deeper meaning behind ‘what do your characters want?’ What do they want so badly that they will refuse to give up, no matter the odds, no matter how many people say, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ or even if they lose everything dear to them? Combine this determination with the classic advice and we get a new, richer version:

‘What do your characters want so much that they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer?’

Answer this question and you’re already halfway there to creating a determined, focused character. Even better, combining an antagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ and a protagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ results in guaranteed conflict, the lifeblood of any story. Better yet, make both sides morally ambiguous and the conflict becomes even richer:

1. A soldier has to maintain a quarantine on a city infected with zombies and knows that if any break out, his family will eventually be attacked and turned into zombies themselves. But while guarding a vulnerable section of a wall, a desperate survivor with her little boy comes up to escape. Problem is, her boy has been bitten and will inevitably turn and spread the virus. Her mother is aware of this, but is determined to find a cure and is willing to kill to get her son out of the city.

2. Two battlefleets sail towards each other: one is from an empire that is on the verge of total victory in the galaxy, and only needs to conquer one last planet to obtain complete control over the galaxy so they can use every world’s resources to build a fleet to combat an even bigger, more dangerous alien fleet that’s heading their way. But the fleet from the last planet will stop at nothing to protect their people from a lifetime of slavery, even if it means deploying planet-destroying weapons and wiping themselves out to defeat their enemies.

3. A terrorist organization sneaks into a city to plant a nuclear bomb and blow it up to kill an evil and corrupt president and his cabinet who have turned their once-democratic country into a third-world dictatorship; wipe them all out with one bomb, and the country has a chance to recover. The city’s police officers – who have dedicated themselves to protecting the innocent – set out to stop the terrorists no matter what the cost, even if some innocents are caught in the crossfire.

It’s easy to come up with ‘my character wants to save the world/get rich/win the baking competition/stop the Disney corporation from taking over the world,’ motivations when developing our characters, but if we take the time to ask what they want so badly that they will sacrifice everything to get, we will get to know them better, and make them even more compelling for our audiences to follow.

The Spiritual Side of Waterworld

While 1995’s, ‘Waterworld’ can be seen as a parable about industrialization vs. sustainable living, I realized the other day that it can also be viewed as – believe it or not – a spiritual film.

First, let’s consider the film’s setting: a wild, desolate world where people struggle to survive and constantly fight each other for food, resources, and housing, much like our own.

Secondly, consider the world’s inhabitants:

1. The Smokers, who represent the darker side of humanity: unmatched cruelty, out-of-control egos, stupidity, self-righteousness, inability to plan for the future while satisfying immediate, short-term goals, etc.

2. The Drifters, who are neutral and focused sorely on survival. With only one exception (an elderly man in the extended cut) all of them are selfish and greedy.

3. The Atollers, who represent the more enlightened side of humanity: cooperation, law, living close to the land, etc.

Seems simple enough, and it’s easy to guess who the good guys are supposed to be. But a closer look reveals the Atollers to be xenophobic, closed-minded, judgemental, prejudiced, paranoid, and isolationists with no interest in helping others unless there’s something in it for them. If the Smokers are the uneducated masses who are religious fanatics, then the Atollers are the science-oriented elites who see themselves as superior to everyone else who will let you drift away to your death unless you have something of use for them.

Now, both the Smokers and the Atollers want safety and security: the Smokers seek the mythical Dryland to rip up and use as they please, while the Atollers see it as superstitious nonsense and hide in gated communities. But in the end, neither get what they want: the Smokers are all killed, and what few Atollers are left are stuck out at sea. And while Dryland exists, only a few people make it there:

*Helen, who tries to persuade the Atollers to change their ways, and devotes her life to protecting a child.

*Enola, an innocent (if annoying) child.

*Gregor, a kind man of science and learning who accepts the Mariner, despite him being a mutant.

*The Enforcer, a firm, but fair lawman who assists Helen and Gregor in saving the Mariner and Enola.

*The Mariner, who starts off as a selfish Drifter, but learns to care for Helen and Enola and risks his life for them.

And if that’s not enough, all five of them make it to Dryland by flying through the clouds, like souls flying up to Heaven. Heck, the events of the movie begin (offscreen) with Enola’s parents – the only inhabitants of Dryland – sending off their only child to give humanity a way to Paradise. While anyone can still find Dryland, taking the time to learn and understand the message Enola brings will make it much easier and quicker.

When we combine all these elements, ‘Waterworld’ can be seen as a spiritual parable for life: We are all drifting through the world with various levels of comfort and privilege, and while everyone wants something better beyond the life they have, only those who are willing to change and help others freely will make it to Paradise.

What We Can Learn From The Biggest Plot Hole In ‘Titanic’ (And No, It’s Not That Hunk Of Wood)

No matter how careful or methodical a director or writer may be, mistakes and plot holes will always sneak into movies and books, and 1997’s ‘Titanic’ is no exception; despite being the most historically accurate film about the famed ship at the time, fans and viewers have long pointed out about how Jack describes Lake Wissota before it was created, about extras bouncing off foam capstans as the stern rises into the sky , and have gone on and on about how Jack could have fit on that hunk of wood after the Titanic sank, letting him and Rose survive the freezing waters of the Atlantic.

Yet, despite being out for over twenty years, one plot hole seems to have escaped notice, one that, if taken to its logical conclusion, would make the events of the film impossible.

In ‘Titanic’s opening scene, treasure hunter Brock Lovett and his motley crew retrieve a safe from the ship and bring it to the surface in search of the Heart of the Ocean, but find only random artifacts, including Jack’s drawings of Rose, which eventually leads to her coming out to the salvage ship and captivating them (and us) with her tale of love, loss, and survival. It’s a great start to the story, but there’s just one problem:

How did the salvage crew get the safe to the surface?

Now, this question seem silly, but the longer you think about it, the more apparent it becomes that getting the safe out of the ship is nearly impossible because of two factors:

1. The weight of the safe.

2. The safe’s location.

Let’s begin with the weight issue: I was unable to find any information online about the safe’s weight, the manufacturer, or the model used in the film, but a search on other safes of similar size from the early 1900’s revealed that they typically weigh around two to three hundred pounds, so we can assume the safe in the film has roughly the same weight (it’s telling that the only time we see the safe being moved in 1912 is when it’s been wheeled into Cal’s suite on a dolly).

Next, let’s look at the safe’s location: The safe is still inside of Cal’s suite on B deck, and within a fairly short distance to the remains of the grand staircase. To get to it, Brock has to dispatch his rover down two decks, go down a hallway, then go through two doors to reach the safe and then pull it out the same way.

Now, at first glance, that sounds difficult, but not insurmountable. But remember that Brock is trying to retrieve a safe that weighs a minimum of two hundred pounds. And unlike in real life, where a safe was retrieved from Titanic’s debris field, Brock can’t just attach the safe to a cable and pull the safe straight up. He has to somehow drag that heavy safe out of the suite, across B deck, and get it to the stairwell. Complicating matters further is that the only tool he has at his disposal is a rover that is not capable of moving heavy objects, much less a two hundred pound safe.

A potential solution to this problem might be to have the control ship Keldysh attach a net to the tow cable on the stern, lower it directly into the stairwell, and then have the rover maneuver the net into the cabin, put said net over the safe, and then winch it out of the ship. But this wouldn’t work: First of all, the end of the cable looks like this:

How is that big, bulky thing supposed to be dragged into B deck and through two staterooms by a tiny robot?

Second, imagine a helicopter hovering five hundred feet above a rotting two story house; it lowers a thick, bulky hook on a cable down the chimney and uses a tiny drone to try and maneuver that hook into a bedroom twenty feet away from the chimney, and then into a closet, then have the rover drape the net over a safe. What do you think will happen when the helicopter tries to winch the safe out of the closet? That’s right: the hook’s housing is going to get caught on the roof, the door frame, or any other number of obstacles. Applying more pressure will just damage the house, make the cable get caught on something else, or even fray it to the point of snapping, and that’s also assuming the net would even stay on the safe and not just slide off.

Now, if Brock wants to do something simpler, a more logical way would be to have the hook snaked in through the windows of the suite’s promenade deck and attach it to the safe, then drag it out through the window. The main advantage of this route is that the distance the safe needs to travel is much shorter, but I don’t think it would work, either; again, the end of the cable is much too big and can’t be maneuvered through the windows. Even if it was, it would get stuck on the window when it was being retracted. Secondly, considering how the metal has been rusting underwater for over 80 years, there’s a reasonable chance that it could break or shatter, creating sharp edges that could cut the cable, and that’s assuming that the safe doesn’t get stuck on debris on the suite’s floors while it’s being dragged about.

When we add in the factors of the safe’s weight, the distance it has to travel, the limited tools at Brock’s disposal, and the difficulty of getting such a heavy object out of a shipwreck, we are faced with one inescapable conclusion: there is no logical way to get the safe out of Titanic. And if there’s no safe, there’s no drawings, and there’s no movie. It would end with Brock being forced to give up his quest, Rose dying in her bed at home, and the movie being only eight minutes long.

And yet, even with all that in mind, this plot hole really doesn’t matter in the long run. At this point in the story, the point is to have the safe retrieved and Jack’s drawings be discovered. How that happens really isn’t important from a story perspective. And while that may sound like a cheat, consider other similar situations from other movies and TV shows:

1. King Kong: The crew of the Venture needs to get Kong from Skull Island to New York City. The story has two options:

Option A: Show Driscoll and the others constructing a raft, tying Kong to it, and sailing hundreds of miles while constantly trying to keep Kong unconscious and unable to break free.

Option B: Just cut to New York a week or two later.

2. Star Wars: A New Hope: Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are separated deep in the bowels of the Death Star, a moon-sized fortress they’ve never been in before and are unfamiliar with, and they have to get back to the Millennium Falcon to escape. The story has two options:

Option A: Show the four trying to find maps, read directions, and otherwise stumble around until they finally meet up again and find a way to the Falcon.

Option B: Just show them meeting up and seeing the Falcon.

3. The Last Ship: A small squad attacks a Russian warship that’s a long distance away from their own ship and need to be picked up.

Option A: Have the protagonist’s group mount a rescue operation and somehow retrieve the strike team from such a long distance without being blown up or captured by the Russians.

Option B: Cut to the protagonists sailing away from the battlezone with everyone onboard while discussing their next plan of action.

4. Godzilla vs Kong: Kong has to climb from the center of the Earth to the surface to fight Godzilla, a distance of over 12,000 miles, in less than ten minutes.

Option A: Have Kong struggle to reach the surface, taking frequent breaks to try and regain some of his strength from having to climb 1,200 miles a minute, finally reaching the surface so exhausted and so worn out that he has a heart attack and dies.

Option B: Ignore physics and have the giant gorilla get to the surface with no problem and with plenty of strength to fight the radioactive lizard.

In all of these examples, the problems they pose to the story are considerable, and in some cases logically impossible. And yet, they aren’t a problem because it isn’t necessary to see all the steps needed to move a story forward. With a limited runtime or amount of pages, a movie or book has to be choosy about what to focus on and what to show the audience (when was the last time you saw characters stopping to take a bathroom break?).

I think the ultimate takeaway from all this is that a plot hole can sometimes be ignored if it isn’t absolutely required to move the story forward. While writers can and should try to make a story as logical and airtight as possible, we should focus more on telling a good story with engaging characters, keep the momentum moving, and focusing on important details instead of explaining each and every detail. If we do our jobs well, our audiences will either be willing to overlook a problem, or not even notice them at all.

PS: If any readers have a good explanation about how the safe was pulled out of the wreck, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to update this article with said information.

What We Can Learn From ‘The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’

Super Mario Brothers. The Legend of Zelda. Doom. Metal Gear Solid: throughout the history of video games, certain titles have risen to the top as the titans of the field, champions who will be immortalized forevermore by history. But one title has long been forgotten, one that deserves to be remembered among the likes of Super Mario 64, Duke Nukem, and Grand Theft Auto:

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Released for the Philips CD-i in 1992, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a boring, barely-interactive wondrous experience that catalogs Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photography, allowing us, the unlucky viewers, to admire them at our leisure. After all, after a long, hard, day at work in a soul-crushing job, who wouldn’t want to come home, turn on a video game console, and watch pictures of flowers for hours on end?

So relax, settle down, and join me as we contemplate and admire the virtues of one of the greatest video games ever created by mankind, and what its blessings can do to enrich our efforts to craft stories of beauty and wisdom.

What does the story do well?

It’s simple and focused

The mark of a great story is that it can be summed up in one sentence. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe can be described as, “Enter a virtual museum to learn about and admire a collection of flower photographs.” It’s not flashy, it’s not complex, but it’s a streamlined story that’s easy to understand follow with no fat or unnecessary subplots that need to be trimmed.

It shows the timeless partnership of rock and elegant music

There are many different types of museums around the world – bare ones, colorful ones, and ones decorated to match a certain period in history. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe takes the timeless combination of grey rock with the eternal grace of classical music. If we, as writers, are looking to create a memorable museum for our characters to wander through, we should remember that a simple venue of stone and music can be the most effective, rather than something over-designed that takes away from the priceless art and artifacts on display.

It takes a comedic subject with the utmost seriousness

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’s greatest virtue is that treats photographs of flowers with the utmost seriousness. From the classical music to the curator trying his hardest to make photographs of flowers interesting instructing us in Mapplethorpe’s use of color and light, the whole game is insane a delight. Yet, this formula of a museum, classical music, and serious curators can be applied to any number of silly subjects to great effect. Consider the sequels we never got:

The mops of Robert Mapplethorpe

The toilet plungers of Robert Mapplethorpe

The flaming oil drums of Robert Mapplethorpe

Now, visualize people in a story wandering the sacred halls of exhibits and admiring these subjects with Beethoven playing softly through the speakers. The image is delightfully absurd and plays with the cliched-but-fun trope of fine art being incomprehensible and/or ludicrous.

What could have been done to improve the story?

Mention Mapplethorpe’s extensive BDSM photography

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Mapplethorpe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his career consisted entirely of flower photographs. But in reality, most of his work was focused on BDSM pictures, many of which included himself. For obvious reasons, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe doesn’t mention this, but it makes the whole game funnier when you think that the photographer spent most of his time photographing gay men wearing bondage gear. The contrast between such different subjects (with classical music, no less) is hilarious. Too bad the Phillips CD-i was never blessed with The BDSM photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe

Include some sort of action involving the flowers

While the elegance, beauty, and grace of the game cannot be denied, it also cannot be denied that it’s… well, not the most engrossing of video games to play as you click from one photograph to the next. This could have been avoided if there had been a campaign mode where you sent Mr. Mapplethorpe’s flowers into battle against giant robots, or something. That alone would have turned this into the greatest video game ever.

Conclusion

Though it is one of the most ludicrous videogames ever made not the most exciting videogame, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a shining example of how taking the most boring mundane subjects with the respect and seriousness you’d find in a fine art gallery is comedic gold. Yet, we must not also forget there there needs to be some sort of context or reason for people to pursue instead of the simple pleasure of looking at pictures when playing a videogame. If the game was about, say, a highly-trained operative traveling the world to rescue the stolen photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe from North Korea, Al-Qaeda, escaped Nazis, and other nefarious forces to return them to the museum, it would have been much more interesting to play.

Perhaps one day, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe will be given a high-definition treatment to upgrade the graphics, the presentation, and finally allow a new generation of gamers to experience the beauty of flowers. But until that day comes, we can be content with the lessons it teaches storytellers… and admire the flowers, too.

Try A Roadside Chat

Has the following ever happened to you? You’re outlining your next masterpiece, the script/book that will take the country by storm and cement your legacy as one of the finest writers of all time. You know how the plot will unfold and fit together, and how it will end in a way that will leave your readers and viewers in awe at your command of the written word.

Then you start to work on your characters, and realize that you have no idea who these people are.

Desperate, you try a few exercises: you write out incredibly detailed backstories that detail your character’s childhoods, their outlook on life, and their favorite flavor of chicken nuggets. When that fails, you try writing out an interview with your characters to know them better. You imagine that they’re a minute away from being eaten by a giant lobster, and find what it is they regret the most from their lives, and what they’re the most proud of.

Yet, nothing works. Your characters remain elusive; they’re shadowy forms within the ether of your imagination, blobs that are just out of sight. What do you do?

How about talking to them in the middle of the forest?

Lately, I watched an episode of Jim Henson’s ‘The Storyteller,’ where a princess’ brothers are turned into ravens by a wicked witch, and the only thing that can change them back is if she doesn’t speak a word for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. While living in the woods, she eventually meets a handsome prince traveling through, who spends some time talking with her and introducing himself. In a little under thirty seconds, we learn that he’s a prince, and that despite only knowing her for a few minutes, he’s madly in love (are we sure this isn’t a Disney story?), and that their love is true.

There’s more to the story, like how the princess keeps popping out babies despite having them get swiped away within a day, how she’s almost burned as a witch herself, and how one of her brothers becomes a half-raven, half-human mutant, but I was ruminating about how the prince had introduced himself. Not because it was a beautifully written scene or featured lovely acting, but because it was an interesting idea for writing:

If you want to figure out what the core of a character is, pretend that you only just met them besides a forest path while they’re on a journey. Have lunch with them, during which time they introduce themselves to you, explain who they are, and where they’re going before they resume their quest.

Think about this: If you’re having lunch with a stranger, the two of you likely aren’t going to stay together for long before going your separate ways. No matter how riveting you find each other, you’re not going to spend your brief time together giving each other your life’s story, your dreams, or how many Pokemon you’ve caught in the forest while playing Pokemon Go. You’re going to stick with the big stuff: your names, your professions, where you’re going, and what you hope to accomplish. Let’s try a few examples:

“I’m Roger, junior deputy from the nearby town of Windy Willow. A prisoner escaped on my watch and ran through here recently; since this is my first assignment, I need to catch him before he escapes into the wilds, because if he gets away I’ll be fired and have no way to feed my family.”

“My name is Ser Galbadon, royal knight of his Majesty King Arthur. A fearsome dragon has taken up residence in a nearby mountain; as his Majesty’s most experienced knight, I am on my way to slay the foul beast, even though I’m old and not as strong as I once was. Still, I shall see my task through to the end; would you care to join me? Our country and our king needs you!”

“Look, I’m Sarah and I’m in sort of a rush; a meteor is racing towards Earth and I have to get my family into my underground bunker. Problem is, they’re fifty miles away, and I only have a day to get to them! No, I can’t help you capture Pikachu! I’m sorry you and your folks are going to die, but there’s nothing I can do to help you. Now, I have to go! Good day!”

In less than a paragraph, we learn what each character wants, the obstacles in their way, and what will happen if they fail, far more useful information than what their childhood was like, their hobbies, and the like. Those are extras, bonuses that can revealed during the story; what you have here is the core of them, the thing that drives them, and that can be invaluable when it comes to learning who your characters are.

The next time you’re stuck trying to figure out who your characters are, try chatting with them during a break in their journey; you never know what new things you might learn about them!

The Murderer Made It In?!: The Importance of Avoiding an Afterlife Only For The Elites

If you were like most kids who watched Star Wars growing up, you fantasized about going on adventures with Luke, Han and Leia, exploring the galaxy’s many worlds, and chilling out in Han and Chewie’s sky house (or was that just me?). And at the end of your days, you would pass from the physical world and become a force spirit, where you could hang out with your best friends forever and become super sparkly!

But would you, really?

While kids (and many adults) fantasize about living in the Star Wars universe, a strong case can be made that it’s a terrible place to live, especially since it’s in a state of constant warfare, ensuring that you have a high chance of dying a terrible death, but there’s one aspect that’s rarely discussed:

The afterlife in Star Wars is unfair.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try a thought experiment and pretend that you’ve a typical person in the Star Wars galaxy who has just died:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but then you hear the Force itself telling you that your ultimate fate is to enter and become one with it… but in the process, you will lose your personality, your memories, your sentience, and essentially cease to exist.

Wait a minute! You say, That’s not fair!

The Force doesn’t care. You’re just one being out of untold trillions. Tens of trillions of beings have entered the Force before you, and tens of trillions more will come after you. It’s a fate that has already affected your parents, your deceased relatives, friends, and your beloved childhood pets. By becoming one with the Force, they no longer exist.

You scream that it isn’t fair! Isn’t there any chance of not being dissolved?

Yes, the Force says. About ten beings have died but preserved their consciousness and become immortal.

TEN?! You yell.

Yep. And all of them were members of a religious order that was barely known by the galaxy at large… Oh, wait. Another one has just arrived!

You turn around to see someone at the edge of the ocean, but they’re being embraced by a beautiful, glorious light shining down from above. But who is it? You squint, trying to see who had earned immortality when you didn’t. And then you see that person’s face, and all your faith in justice and mercy is shattered forever, for it’s Kylo Ren, leader of the First Order, the monster who killed your parents and family when he raided a planet two years ago.

Why does he get to be immortal and not me?! You scream.

Because I made him force sensitive, the Force says, and he was very sorry at the end of his life that he murdered billions of beings.

Before you can say anything more, the Force suddenly drags you into itself, where you dissolve into cosmic goo and are erased forever.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren high-fives Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, and the other lucky immortals.

None of them pay you any heed.

Harsh? Yes, but what you’ve just read is an accurate summary of how the afterlife in Star Wars works. If we only go by what we see in the movies, everyone who dies in the Star Wars universe becomes one with the Force. Exactly what happens to the individual themselves is not specified, but they apparently become part of a larger whole, like a drop of water entering an ocean, losing their personality, their memories, and everything that makes them, ‘them.’ However, there is one way to avoid that fate, and not get turned into non-sentient cosmic go. How does that happen?

1. Be born force-sensitive.

2. Be fortunate enough to join the Jedi Order.

3. Be fortunate enough to learn secret teachings that only a few Jedi know.

4. Spend the rest of your life not turning to the Dark Side.

4B. If you do turn to the Dark Side, repent at the very last minute.

5. Become a Force spirit when you die.

6. ???

7. Profit!

That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But there’s just one problem:

If you’re not born with the ability to use the Force, you’re screwed.

It doesn’t matter how you live your life. It doesn’t matter if you were devoted to destroying evil, helping space-orphans, or blowing up space-orphans in space-orphanages with their space-doggies mookas; you’ll be absorbed into the Force upon your death and cease to exist. And it’s not just you who suffers this fate, but all of your loved ones, and everyone who wasn’t chosen by the force to have the ability to sense it. Think being eaten by a sarlacc was bad? Imagine spending a thousand years being digested alive in unimaginable agony before finally dying, only to immediately be erased from existence instead of being reunited with your loved ones who have passed on before you, meaning that being tortured every moment of every day for a thousand years was all for nothing.

The longer you think about the implications of this, the more horrifying it becomes: Luke, Leia, and Anakin may have achieved immortality after their deaths, but they will never see their non-force sensitive friends or relatives again. Shmi Skywalker, Padme, Han, Lando, Chewie, Bail Organa, Uncle Owen, and Aunt Beru are doomed to be dissolved, or have already been dissolved. It’s amazing that Leia and Luke didn’t have a complete mental breakdown upon realizing that Han had died, and it’s no wonder Anakin was so desperate to save his wife after losing his mother.

And then, to twist the knife even further, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ ends with Ben Solo, the leader of a fascist empire, a mass murderer, emotional abuser, and willing follower of the Dark Side, gain immortality. In a truly rage-inducing moment for everyone who believes in decency and justice, the official novelization of the film has a line where Ben feels the Force reaching for him in welcome as he dies, all because he felt sorry for being the worst human in the galaxy since Palpatine and Anakin. The Force will happily grant a mass murderer immortality while consigning everyone he slaughtered to oblivion. It’s a disgusting perversion of justice and turns the Star Wars universe into a hellhole where only a chosen few who were gifted at birth have any chance at immortality, and everyone else have no chance of achieving the same thing, no matter how hard they try. And this isn’t wishful thinking; according to the Star Wars wiki, only force-sensitive individuals can become spirits:

“Not only was preserving one’s consciousness reserved for the Jedi, but also for users of the light side not affiliated with the Order.”

Damn.

When you realize how horrifying and unfair the Star Wars afterlife is, it becomes obvious that writers shouldn’t make their fictional afterlives favor elites and those with advantages they didn’t earn, condemning everyday people to oblivion or worse, all through no fault of their own. It’s cruel, sadistic, and once your audience realizes that, their view of your fictional universe will forever be tainted. After all, who would want to lose themselves in such a place, much less read about it? (though to be fair, an exception could be made for the purpose of social commentary, but that still won’t be enjoyable reading).

We must be fair when creating our fictional hereafters; If they must be grim, where the possibility of being dissolved or erased exists, then make sure that everyone has an equal chance of avoiding such a fate. If our characters have to earn their eternal existence, have them all know what must be done, make that information readily available, or make it so that the process is fair and applies to everyone (such as making immortality available to the compassionate and kind, but not the cruel and sadistic). Someone’s social standing or membership in an obscure organization with only a few hundred members should have no bearing on if they get to have a happy afterlife or not.

If writers make our afterlives fair, our audiences will be more willing to endure the trials and tribulations our characters will go through if there’s a chance they will make it to the great beyond, than if that possibility is denied to them. And to that end, let’s take another look at what the afterlife of the Star Wars universe might be like if it were fair:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but what comes next?

That’s up to you, a voice tells you. It’s a voice you recognize as the Force itself. You may become one with me, or you may remain an individual as long as you wish.

What happens then? You ask.

You’ll become a force spirit and can visit the physical realm, you’re told. You can interact with your loved ones, as well as go anywhere and see everything. Nothing can harm you, and if you ever tire of such an existence, you may join with me and become part of a greater whole. And if you tire of that, you may live again.

Sweet! You say. I think I’ll become a force spirit for now.

As you wish, the Force says.

Good choice, someone tells you. Turning, you find yourself face to face with the legendary Anakin Skywalker. And not only him, but his son and daughter, his mother, and many others you’ve heard about: Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and so many others, all welcoming you to your new existence as a force spirit.

Hey guys, can I join?

You turn and scowl. Kylo Ren, the murderous tyrant and leader of the First Order, walks up, having recently died. But before he can say another word, he’s suddenly yanked into the ocean and dissolved; while he was sorry for being a genocidal egomaniac with self-esteem issues, and did bring one girl back to life, that wasn’t enough to grant him the right to choose how he wants to spend his afterlife. Thus, he becomes one with the Force, much to the relief and satisfaction of his billions of victims, all of whom are now spirits who go spend time with their families in the world of the living.

Glad to see that little twerp get what’s coming to him, you head off back to the physical world to see how things are going. Watching the sunrise on Coruscant seems like a good place to start. And as you materialize on the top of the planet’s tallest skyscraper, a nice spirit named Beru appears beside you, offering you a glass of spectral blue milk to welcome the day.

As we can see, this scenario seems much more fair and just. Death is supposed to be the great equalizer, which pays no heed to one’s wealth, social class, or beliefs. We shouldn’t be afraid to make that true when it’s time for our characters to head to their final rest.

No Explosions, No Gun battles, and No Multi-Million Dollar VFX budget: Writing Your Book Like It’s A TV Episode

Recently, I came across an article on io9 about the future of Star Trek films, and a comment written by was a lengthy discussion on what course a hypothetical film should take. The whole comment is a great read, but these two parts jumped out at me:

‘2) follow ST:IVs “no gunfights, no explosions” rule, and that forces the story to find ways to challenge our characters in ways that let them express their character…

6) No gunfights, no explosions. I really want to stress this, because Star Trek doesn’t generally do action well. Even when the effects are great, you have to come up with weird contrivances to explain why Kirk needs to skydive or why Picard needs to take the dune-buggy out. TWOK, arguably the most “action oriented” of original films, doesn’t have much action, and the space battles are very much in the vein of Horatio Hornblower in spaaaaaaace: they’re slow, they’re about positioning and about the crew working together, about tricks and strategy. Which isn’t what audiences really expect, so hell, for our first outing, just don’t. Sci-fi action these days is supposed to look like Marvel movies, and you aren’t making a Marvel movie. Don’t try. Minimize the action beats, to make room for character and wonder.’

Can you imagine that? Writing a science fiction movie that doesn’t rely on explosions, actions, or gunfights? Such films are so common these days that it’s sometimes hard to find ones that don’t feature them. And the longer I thought about it, the more genius the idea became.

Picture this: You’ve been chosen by a major entertainment corporation to write the screenplay for your dream story. Even better? It’s your favorite genre! You finally have the chance to tell that war story, that monster movie, or finally bring your grade school masterpiece, ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ to the big screen!

But then the studio tells you that you have a tiny budget. Like, really tiny. Think, ‘TV Budget’ tiny. Because of that, you can’t have any explosions, any gunfights, or fancy visual effects in your story (a few miniatures and matte paintings are okay, but that’s it).

Can you write your movie under those constraints?

Now, take that same principle and apply it to a novel: Can you tell your story without explosions, gunfights, or sequences that, if adapted into a television show, would cost too much to make?

Looking at our work with this mindset may seem like a disadvantage, but it can work out in our favor: We’ll have to focus on characters, their motivations, and their relationships with each other. They’ll have to use their wits to overcome the obstacles in their path. They’ll have to talk more. Any fights will be with their fists and melee weapons, and not with miniguns and plasma rifles. Battles will be limited to maybe a dozen people, and everything takes place in apartment buildings, deserts, and parks conveniently located within ten miles of the LA area.

While it’s easy and fun to write scenes that would be impossible to film, there’s just one problem with that: if your magnum opus is ever published, Hollywood might pass on turning it into the next big blockbuster movie if the price tag is going to be over $300 million. But if your magnum opus could be turned into a movie that could be made for under $50 million, they just might give it a shot.

Consider the following:

*Instead of your epic space saga about aliens destroying the universe with massive fleets that engage in battles that destroy entire solar systems with a single blast, it’s now about an unarmed scout ship trying to find a way to stop the alien fleet before it arrives.

*Your epic, alternate-universe 1940’s WW2 movie that involves giant monsters and robots is now about two soldiers sneaking behind enemy lines to escape hostile territory and only face one monster at the end (that could be portrayed by a guy in a suit on a green-screen set).

*Instead of ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ following an epic war of thousands of Unicorns slaughtering armies hired by evil corporations who want to bulldoze Sparkle Forest and turn it into a sewage refinery, it’s now about two villagers trying to find the one unicorn (who turns out to be an anthropomorphic unicorn that could be portrayed by someone in robes and a mask) who could stop the evil corporations, and have to fight their mercenaries using bows, arrows, and knives in sneak attacks at night.

These three scenarios take unfilmable movies and instead turn them into focused character studies. Any action or big events happen sporadically and briefly, and aren’t the main focus of the story, giving our characters more time to grow, interact, and endear themselves to our audiences, who will become more emotionally invested in their adventures.

For all the fun it is to write books and stories about impossibly huge armies, futuristic societies, apocalyptic scenarios, creatures that defy description, and Michael Bay explosionfests, it might be worth trying to write on a budget. Books let our readers use their imagination to bring the impossible to life, but sometimes having limits can help us narrow, focus, and zero in on what’s really important in a story, and help it reach its full potential.