What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.

Favorite Moments: ‘Cut ’em out!’

*My apologies regarding a post that went up earlier today that has since been deleted; it was a draft that had been set to be posted automatically, but I forgot to expand and revise it.*

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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Previous installments of this column have looked at scenes that I enjoy watching, but today marks the first that, while brilliantly done, is not a fun scene by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in 2001, I was a 15 year old teen in high school who was eagerly looking forward to ‘Pearl Harbor’ and all the explosions, sinking ships, and general war carnage that hot-blooded teenagers go nuts over. Imagine my surprise to find that most of the movie revolves around a romance that drags on for over an hour before the actual attack starts. When the film came to an end, I was annoyed and disappointed, with the film quickly fading from memory as I headed home.

That is, except for one scene.

For all the flak it’s taken about the unwanted romantic subplot, the inaccuracies of the attack itself (including clearly visible modern-day destroyers), there’s one horrifying scene that ‘Pearl Harbor’ does perfectly (skip to 1:32):

 

Even 18 years later, this remains the most unsettling moment in any war film I’ve seen, and is easily the most heartbreaking scene in any movie directed by Michael Bay: Several sailors are trapped inside the upturned USS Oklahoma and screaming for help as the ship continues to flood, but drown only inches from safety as their rescuers fail to cut them out in time, unable to do anything but listen to their muffled screams as they die.

What’s so unsettling about this scene is how it uses an inevitable suffering scenario: That is, people who are going to endure something awful and there’s no way to stop it. Here, it’s the sailors who are going to die in one of the most horrific ways imaginable (drowning), but to make it even crueler, the only thing keeping them from escaping is a single piece of steel. They can see the daylight outside, and the people trying to save them, but it’s too late to get them out. And to twist the knife even further, we see the rescue attempt not from their perspective, but from the people trying to cut through, forcing us, the viewer, to imagine what it must be like underneath that steel. All we see of these doomed sailors are their hands and a screaming mouth.

Pearl Harbor suffers from focusing too much on a romance that nobody really wanted, various inaccuracies, and other issues, but for one scene, it perfectly captures the horrors of war.

What we can learn from ‘Jakku: First Wave’

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

Consider having your story follow doomed characters just before their end

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

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

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

Consider making your story take place in one location

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

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

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

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

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

Consider focusing on why your characters fight

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

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

The Takeaway:

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

What we can learn from the scariest short story I’ve ever read

MasterpieceCover

Is there such a thing as the perfect horror story? One so tight, so focused, and so scary that it cannot be improved upon? Probably… but I haven’t found it. ‘Masterpiece’, comes close, though.

There are several versions of this story online, but this is the first one I read a few years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since, becoming one of my favorite horror stories; it’s short, concise, to the point, and haunts you long after its over with. But more than any other monster story, or tale where a ghoul or alien chases people around, ‘Masterpiece’ sticks with me not from the blood or gore, but from the way it so effectively uses sadism and the fear of inevitable pain. So in honor of Halloween, let’s see what we can learn from this short and chilling tale:

Consider starting your story in media res

What’s in media res, you ask? It’s when you start the story not at the beginning, but at the halfway point or later, before cutting back to the beginning, which is almost guaranteed to get your audience’s attention and curiosity immediately. ‘Masterpiece’ does so by starting with our unnamed narrator alone in his bedroom at night, staring at the dead bodies of his parents, leaving us to wonder how on earth he got there. Yikes.

Consider having something awful happen to your loved ones in a horror story

We often like to imagine ourselves in stories, taking the place of the protagonist as they go on adventures, save the day, etc. But when it comes to horror movies, that imagination can backfire. While we learn nothing about the narrator’s parents, that’s not necessary to feel the horror of them being murdered and defiled. It’s all to easy to imagine our own parents going through such horrific treatment, and while that would be enough to make some people close the page and walk away, it does serve as an effective way to suck readers deeper into the story. And it doesn’t have to be parents, either: it could be a beloved aunt, grandparent, or pet.

Consider having your antagonist be an intelligent, non-human being who psychologically torments its prey

It’s a bit cliché, but having your non-human monster be intelligent is a surefire way to ratchet up the creepy factory in a horror story. By going with something that can think, plan, and outwit the protagonist/s, or worse, torments its prey with tricks and mental torture, you make your protagonist’s predicament all the more dangerous and gripping, as cruelty can be more frightening than the raw power of a simple-minded beast. The monster in ‘Masterpiece’ is memorable not because it kills the protagonist’s parents, but because it toys with the narrator and letting them know they’re screwed no matter what they do, and presumably taking great pleasure in such a fact.

Consider having your protagonist be truly helpless in a horror story

It’s common for heroes to be initially helpless against a monster in a horror story, but as they learn more about their opponent, they’re able to fight back, either by getting a weapon, creating one, or exploiting a weakness of the beast. The narrator in ‘Masterpiece’ has no such hope. He/she is in a bedroom with a monster under their bed, and the moment they try to get out or run, they’re dead. That feeling of helplessness, of not being able to fight back or inflict any harm on a tormentor, is one of the most visceral and effective feelings in horror, and arguably the bedrock of the entire genre.

Consider ending your horror story with the promise of pain

Of all the ways to end a horror story, there’s perhaps none more chilling than letting the reader/protagonists know that the only thing they have to look forward to is pain and suffering. ‘Masterpiece’ ends not with the monster ripping the narrator apart, but the simple act of telling him/her that it knows that they’re awake. With the monster less than three feet away, it’s easy to imagine it smiling and waiting for the helpless narrator to just try and run, and that they have no chance of escaping. The narrator is going to die, no matter what.

What’s so good about this type of ending is that it’s a perfect example of the mind being more effective than anything the author can create. There doesn’t need to be any bloodshed, shots of mutilated flesh, or limbs being cut off because our imaginations are so much more effective. If you end a story with a scene of a person being dragged into a dungeon and seeing a tray holding an ice cream scoop just the right size for a human eyeball… well, you can guess what happens next.

Sometimes, not showing what’s going to happen, and leaving the details to the imagination, are far more effective than showing it.

The Takeaway

For a really effective horror story, have an intelligent, sentient monster do something horrifying happen to a helpless protagonist’s loved ones and then trap them in a situation where they can’t escape or fight. But to take the story to the next level (and freak out your audience), have the monster psychologically torture the protagonist.

Wow. That was intense. Here’s a video of someone being a goofball cop in 1940’s Los Angeles

Favorite moments: ‘You’re going to die. That’s what’s happening.’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘The Grey’

The Scene

Why it’s Great

It happens all the time: Someone gets injured. They’re bleeding out, they’re in shock, and their comrades, friends, and those they love are frantically telling them that they have to hang on, that help will be there soon, and that they’ll pull through.

How often do you see someone tell the injured person that they’re going to die?

When I first saw ‘The Grey’ back in 2011, this is the scene that stuck with me after I left the theater. Very rarely had I come across a story where a dying person was told, point-blank, that they’re going to die. But while Ottway’s honesty seems as cold as the frozen wastes of Alaska, the resulting scene is – surprisingly – quite touching. While he doesn’t mince words with Lewenden about what’s happening, Ottway does his best to make Lewenden’s last moments as comforting as possible.

Death has a way of revealing who someone really is when they’re faced with the unknown, and all their defenses are gone. There might be no better way to find out what a character is like than when they’re staring death in the face. in ‘The Grey’ we learn everything we need to know about Ottway in one scene: he’s a man who doesn’t hold back on telling the truth, no matter how hard or uncomfortable it is. Yet, he’s not a cruel, heartless person, and does his best to help others, no matter how grim things are, even if it’s only making someone’s death a little less fearful, a little terrifying as they slip away, turning what could have been a sad, heartless scene into one of the most touching moments of the film.