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

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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.

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.