A Dark Fate vs A Force Awakened

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ was intended to be the start of a new ‘Terminator’ trilogy that would eventually close the book on the story that began all the way back in 1984. However, despite making over $249 million dollars at the box office, ‘Dark Fate’ appears to signal the end of the Terminator franchise (for now, at least). Yet, despite the overall lukewarm reception, and disagreeing with some of the story choices, I’m still a fan of the film, thanks to the enjoyable cast (especially with Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger back together) and action scenes.

However, when writing about the film two weeks ago, I realized that ‘Dark Fate’ is surprisingly similar to 2016’s, ‘The Force Awakens’: Both are sequels to popular movies that feature new female leads, have the new antagonist that’s almost identical to the old one,  have a character from the original series be killed, and end with the main leads heading out to fight the new antagonists.

Yet, while I was disappointed with ‘The Force Awakens’ for feeling too much like a remake of ‘A New Hope’ with elements from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ sprinkled in, I had no such problems with ‘Dark Fate’, and ever since realizing how similar both movies are, I’ve been brainstorming why that’s so, and I think I’ve figured it out: The main reason I prefer ‘Dark Fate’ over ‘The Force Awakens’ is how they treat characters from the original series. In ‘Awakens’, most of them are given only minor roles, with only Han, Chewbacca, and Leia getting the most screentime. In ‘Dark Fate’, though, Sarah and the T-800 have large roles to play, with Sarah being newcomer Danni’s mentor throughout the runtime, and the T-800 acting as a bodyguard/protector who ultimately destroys the REV 9, ensuring Danni’s survival.

In short, ‘Dark Fate’ brings back legacy characters and gives them plenty to do alongside new characters. ‘Awakens’ may bring back more of its original cast, but only gives two (Han and Chewie) substantial roles.

When writing legacy sequels, or sequels that take place a long time after the previous entries, it’s important to let original characters have the limelight: longtime fans love seeing their favorite characters again, and it’s a good bet that newer fans enjoy seeing them, too. Despite killing off John Connor too quickly and easily, ‘Dark Fate’ honors and respects Sarah and the T-800 by giving them a lot to do and making them vital to the story. Considering how it’s unlikely we’re going to get a new Terminator film for a long time – if ever – it was a wise choice.

What we can learn from: ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom’

Wizardsofthelostkingdomcover

Ah, the 80’s. A magical time for fantasy cinema. From that era we got such classics as ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ ‘Krull,’ and ‘Dragonslayer.’ But every golden era has it’s… not-classics, films that end up becoming snark bait on Mystery Science Theater 3000. ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom’ is one of those films. Made in 1985, ‘Wizards’ feels very much like a movie made to cash in on the fantasy fad, and while it’s no classic of the fantasy era, writers looking to create their own sword and sorcery epics will find a lot to learn from its mistakes, so let’s dig in and see what this Argentinean epic has to offer.

Consider having a nobody take on the most powerful bad guys in your story

He’s barely in the film, but king Tyler manages to get the most impressive background of anyone we meet: the opening narration tells us that armies of wizards and sorcerers were fighting each other, but it wasn’t a powerful warrior, or a good wizard who defeated them, but a simple peasant who united the common folk and took them out.

It’s common to have underdogs take out much more powerful antagonists in fiction, but it’s all the more impressive when a person with no magical or extraordinary powers manages to do so against characters do have those abilities, and giving such a backstory – or showing it – makes for an interesting character. Indeed, Tyler is the most intriguing character in ‘Wizards’ based off that intro… which makes it a pity that he has less than two minutes of screentime before being killed.

Avoid rushing the first act of your story

There’s something to be said about leaping into a film and getting right to what the audience wants. Heaven only knows how, as a kid, I got bored about how many movies seemed to take forever to get going. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize the value of setting up a story, characters, and necessary background in the first act.

‘Wizards’ has to be credited for getting going right out of the gate. After the opening voiceover that sets up the backstory, we’re off and running with Simon, the young wizard, as he sets out to save his kingdom from Shurka, an evil wizard. The problem? The first act lasts only thirteen minutes, and we have barely any time to settle in before the main quest begins. While that’s impressive from a time perspective, it gives us barely any time to know anyone in the story or understand what the main problem is, and why we need to be invested in it. It’s like heading out on a hiking trip, but you only get thirty seconds to meet everyone before being dumped on the trail with only the faintest idea of where you’re going. It’s disorienting, makes you wonder if taking this trip is a good idea, and ‘Wizards’ feels the same way.

In our own stories, there’s no problem in getting going right away, but be sure to lay the foundations for your work. Audiences will want to know what they’re getting into, and taking the time to give them even the most basic of information about the world, characters, and story will get your story off to a good start. When in doubt, it’s better to take your time and let the audience settle in, than to rush and leave them wondering what on earth is going on.

Give your main character a goal

It’s one of the most basic storytelling rules, but it cannot be understated: one of the keys to an interesting character is giving them a goal, something they want and need to work towards. Simon, by contrast, only wants to get back to the castle and stop the wizard. While wanting to save a kingdom is a noble goal, the problem is that he doesn’t make the choice to do so: he’s told by his wizard father, and, like a loyal dog, sets off on his quest. Compare Simon to Luke Skywalker: Luke was bored living on his moisture farm and wanted to leave and find adventure in his life. He had a motivation for leaving, and after his aunt and uncle were barbecued, he had the new goal of fighting the Empire to stop them from committing any more atrocities. Compared to Luke, Simon is a chess piece being moved across the board without making any decisions on his own.

When it comes to doing your own characters, their own goals don’t have to be big, but just having something they want to achieve makes them feel like a person, instead of a robot just doing what it’s told to do (though to be fair, having a robot set off to save a magical kingdom could make for an interesting story on its own).

For the love of all that is holy, think twice before making your ‘chosen one’ a teenager

If there’s one story trope that’s been done to death, resurrected, beaten, killed again, and brought back to life over and over, it’s the idea of a youngster chosen by fate to save the day. While the trope itself isn’t bad, Simon is the embodiment of its most cliched portrayals: he’s whiny, hardly does anything on his own, and is a brat at multiple points. In his favor though, the film does show why Shurka would want him dead, by demonstrating that Simon can give life to inanimate objects and raise the dead… pretty fearsome powers indeed.

If you’re going to do your own chosen one who’s a teenager, then try flipping some of the cliches Simon has: Have your character be confident, but aware that he has a lot to learn. If he’s going to whine, have him whine at characters who are slacking off or not doing their jobs instead of how hard life is for him. Show him taking the initiative and doing as much as they can on their own, even if they’re afraid or aware that they aren’t going to succeed, and show some of the skills they have that are key to winning the day, even if they aren’t fully developed yet.

Consider having your character summon incredibly powerful allies who want nothing to do with their quest

One of the best parts of the film involves Simon coming up with the clever idea of summoning several dead warriors to help him take out the evil wizard and save his kingdom. And, amazingly enough, he actually pulls it off, awakening the corpses of four dead warriors… who have no interest in fighting whatsoever and almost immediately sink back into the earth.

The genius of this scene comes from the buildup: the idea of summoning legendary dead warriors to fight off an evil wizard makes sense, and there’s a lot of potential for interesting interactions with them as they trudge back to the castle, which makes the audience expect those warriors to stick around. Having them have no interest in fighting at all and wanting to go back to sleep is a nice twist on our expectations, and is… kind of pathetic, really, which makes it amusing.

Save the comic relief for the first half of the story

A little bit of humor in any story is always welcomed. But, like all things in life, there’s a time and place for it. ‘Wizards’ has a sequence near the end of the second act where Simon’s protector, Kor, is captured by a cyclops and threatened with death if he doesn’t marry his sister, who Kor ran away from after apparently getting engaged. While some parts of the scene are amusing (primarily the one soldier who runs away via sped up footage ALA Benny Hill), the problem is that the scene feels out of place. We’re coming up on the climax of the story, and things are supposed to be getting more focused, tighter, and more serious. Pausing the story to have a sequence that doesn’t advance it is not a good idea. If anything, this sequence should have been earlier in the film, shortly after Kor and Simon met: Helping Kor out of his jam would have shown Kor that Simon wasn’t just a whiny, pink shirt-wearing useless kid, and that helping him out would be a worthy cause.

In any case, be very careful where you put comedic scenes in non-comedic movies. While there’s no rule saying you can’t put them later in the film, it’s generally better to have them take place earlier on, and, more importantly, have them advance the story instead of being a side trip that doesn’t add anything to the movie.

Consider how many secondary characters you need, and set them up

No film is complete without a supporting cast, but making sure that cast contributes to the plot is vital: ‘Wizards’ features two characters, Gulfax the… shag carpet monster thing, and Hurla the gnome, neither of whom contributes anything to the story. Gulfax is a clear Chewbacca stand-in who’s only contribution is to whack someone in the head, and Hurla guides Simon and Kor to the fearsome Suicide Cavern the promise of helping him again… which he doesn’t. Both could have been easily cut from the story without any ill effect.

Granted, not all side characters have to do big, mighty things: Chewbacca, in ‘A New Hope,’ mainly helps fly the Millennium Falcon and assists in freeing Leia from the Death Star, but his contributions feel important. If Gulfax, for example, had acted as a guide to Simon on their journey back to the castle, and the gnome been mentioned earlier as someone who can give Simon vital help in stopping the sorcerer, their roles would have been more substantial and meaningful.

In our own stories, don’t pad your story with characters just because you can. Each of them needs to play a role, and the more you have who don’t do anything is less time you can spend on the characters that do matter.

Avoid a random-events plot, and have all your scenes and locations contribute to the story

For all of ‘Wizards’ flaws, perhaps the most glaring is that it the story feels unpolished. All the events are in place, but don’t have the narrative glue binding them together, making the story feel like a bunch of random events taking place between the beginning and the end. Very few of these scenes add anything of value to the story, and those that could have don’t live up to their potential: The Suicide Cavern, for example, could have let us see what Kor and Simon are afraid of, and then have them work to overcome them, and strengthening their bond in the process. Instead, they just sing songs and pass through easily. After several more of these scenes, we finally reach the climax, and then the movie’s over, leaving us with the feeling that we don’t know anything about anyone, or why it all happened in the first place.

How can you avoid this mistake? When doing your own story, take the time in the first act to set up everything that’s coming afterwords. If your characters have to go on a quest, tell them where they’re going and why they’re going there. Warn them of the dangers they might face, and allies who might be able to help them, so that we, the audience, has an idea of what’s coming. While we want to be surprised by something unexpected, there’s still great value in anticipating something exciting or frightening coming our way.

The Takeaway

When doing a story, it cannot be overstated how important it is to give your characters (one of whom is hopefully not a teenager ‘chosen one’ who whines all the time) goals and motivations, to have every scene and character contribute to the story, and to set everything up in the first act so the audience has a good idea where they’re going and what to expect. Once you get going, limit comedic scenes to the first half of the story so the second can focus on the climax.