Favorite Moments: The saga of Dervorin, the… ringbearer?

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 game

‘War in Middle Earth’

The video

(Skip to 27:35 to reach the relevant part of the video)

Why it’s great

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: In the land of Middle-Earth, the Dark Lord Sauron seeks to reclaim his Ring, which will give him the power to enslave the world. After the Ring is found by Frodo and his friends, they head for Rivendell, only for Frodo, Sam, and Merry to be cut down by Ringwraiths, leaving Pippin to be the Ringbearer.

Wait, what?

Afterwords, Pippin eventually makes his way to the city of Minas Tirith, where he personally commands the defense of the city, but during one of the seemingly endless assaults, Pippin falls in battle, leaving only heroic Dervorin to take up the ring, at which point he bravely sets out to reach Mt. Doom with 881 of Gondor’s finest infantry. But the quest runs into disaster when all of Dervorin’s troops are mowed down by 500 trolls; now alone, Dervorin continues on, sneaking through the mountains of Mordor before finally reaching Mt. Doom and chucking the Ring in, defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth!

Okay, so that’s not how The Lord of the Rings played out. But thanks to the computer game, ‘War in Middle Earth’, we have this curiously compelling tale of what might had happened in the tale to save Arda. Aside from the obvious deviation of having all the hobbits die – save Pippin – we get a story where it isn’t some legendary or heroic figure who takes the Ring to Mt. Doom, but some random guy most Tolkien readers have never heard of. I don’t blame any of them either; Dervorin appears only briefly in ‘The Return of the King,’ where he leads 300 men to the defense of Minas Tirith… and that’s all he contributes to the story. We don’t even know if he dies or not, which makes him an odd choice to entrust the fate of all Middle Earth to.

So why do I like this video so much? There’s the novelty factor of seeing a beloved tale being changed so drastically that it’s almost entirely new, of seeing favorite characters take on new roles and getting into interesting situations (like Gimli somehow evading 492 trolls by himself in the wilderness), but what captivates me the most is Dervorin himself. In a film, he would be an unnamed extra, someone in the background who doesn’t draw attention to himself. In battle, he would be one of the countless mooks who’s only purpose is to provide cannon fodder for the enemies, and to die to emphasize how dangerous the battle is. In every aspect, Dervorin is a nobody, an unimportant character who doesn’t have the luxury of plot armor to keep him alive.

Now, imagine what it must be like to be one of this unnamed, unimportant background characters, and suddenly be entrusted with the fate of the world.

When he gets the ring, Dervorin goes from being a nobody to being the most important person alive in Middle Earth. If he fails, Middle Earth is doomed. He’s the ultimate underdog, and we suddenly become invested in his survival, eager to see if he triumphs. And aside from the aforementioned skirmish with all those trolls, Dervorin somehow manages to pull it off, making his way to Mt. Doom all by himself, and managing to throw the ring in, all while apparently being immune to its corruption. That makes him awesome, and a fantastic example of an underdog rising to the occasion and saving the day.

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado: The Second One’

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Last week, we took a look at Sci-Fi’s surprise hit, ‘Sharknado,’ This week, let’s take a look at… well, The Second One.

Consider having your hero rush in to help, even when he has no idea what he’s doing.

In the film’s opening scene, Fin and April are en route to New York City, only for their plane to be attacked by sharks. Even though Fin’s a surfer with no flying experience, he still tries to fly the plane to safety instead of waiting for someone else to do so.

Not only does rushing in to help make our characters active protagonists, but it also gives them an underdog quality, in that they have to accomplish a task they’re not qualified to do.

Have your characters save someone they don’t like

While it’s easy for our characters to rush in and save people they care about, or even just bystanders they don’t know, it takes more courage to rush into danger to save someone they don’t like, as Fin has to do with Martin, an old childhood friend of his. While we may enjoy seeing mean people get their comeuppance (though not Martin, in this case), having our heroes take the high ground and save their lives says a lot about their character.

For bonus points, consider having the two characters take advantage of their situation to heal any emotional rifts they have and become friends again, as Fin and Martin do. Or, if not that, at least no longer hate each other.

Consider having an old-timer finally get to fulfill a failed dream decades later

His role isn’t necessary to the story, but it’s satisfying to see Harland McGuinnes – an old, retired baseball player – finally get the home run he never got to get in his last game by whacking a shark into the billboard at Citi Field. Who among us doesn’t have a dream that never came true, whether from circumstances beyond our control, or because of our own failings? That’s why it’s so satisfying to see characters get a second chance to make that dream come true and pulling it off, especially if they’re older and past their physical prime.

Consider doing crazy chase scenes

Car chases, foot chases, motorcycle chases, boat chases, helicopter chases; all of them have been done thousands of times in films. But how about a chase where the monsters are pursing an out-of-the-ordinary vehicle? One of ‘The Second One’s most creative scenes has Fin and friends riding a subway car that’s not only trying to outrun a tidal wave, but the sharks it’s carrying as well.

When it comes to chase scenes, the sky’s the limit, so why not try including two different antagonists at once in your own?

Consider trapping your characters be trapped between two bad choices

As the old saying goes, sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils in life. A similar situation has characters being forced to choose between two very unpleasant outcomes. In ‘The Second One,’ Fin and friends are trapped in a stairwell trying to get a door open. If they fail, they have to make a choice:

1. Do they choose to be killed by sharks who are rising towards them via flooding?

2. Do they choose to be killed by sharks descending towards them who are on fire?

Thankfully, they get the door open, but such no-win scenarios not only helps reveal more about a character’s true fortitude (are they brave? Panicky? Do they sacrifice others to save themselves?), but makes the viewer wonder what they’d do in the same situation, which keeps them engaged and wanting to find out what happens next.

Have the commoners rise up to save the day

If there’s one trope all but guaranteed to warm the heart, it’s seeing everyday people take up arms to fight the monster/menace of your story, and win. When this trope comes in to play, the authorities have failed to save the day, and the only people everyone else can rely on is themselves, which adds further drama to the scene. Here, the citizens of New York grab all manner of weapons and take on the sharks. Considering that these weapons include pitchforks, guns, chainsaws, and flamethrowers fashioned from super soakers, it’s as goofy as you’d expect, but still great fun.

Consider having a mid-air fight

(Play the clip to jump right to Fin’s mid-air fight)

They’re rare. They’re impractical, They’re all-but impossible to pull off in real life, but there’s no denying that a free-fall fight between two characters is awesome. In the climax of ‘The Second One,’ Fin flies through the sharknado towards the Empire State Building with his chainsaw, carving up sharks left and right, and eventually riding one onto the tower’s antenna.

The advantages of such a fight are numerous: Both participants are in a hazardous environment, the fight has to be decided quickly, which increases the ferocity on both participants, and unless they can figure out a way to land safely or get away, both fighters are going to die a very unpleasant death on impact. When you need a hazardous environment to stage a fight, it’s hard to top one in the sky.

Reconsider killing off likeable side characters

It’s distressingly common for disaster films to kill off side characters who are often more interesting than the protagonists, and ‘The Second One’ follows that trend, killing off Fin’s old love interest, Skye, and a helpful cab driver, Ben, played by the great Judd Hirsch. I liked both of these characters, and how they were competent, resourceful, and did their part to help Fin and the others survive; I especially liked how Skye, while still in love with Fin, doesn’t try to stop him from healing his relationship with April, which makes her death feel cruel and unnecessary (and Fin doesn’t even mention her afterwords!).

In our own stories, think carefully before killing off these side characters. While audiences expect a certain amount of casualties in a disaster film, having these side characters survive, even if longer than expected, can be a welcome surprise because we’re conditioned to believe they’ll die. If your viewer likes these characters, they’ll be grateful to you for saving them, and walk away happier than they would have otherwise been.

The Takeaway

We like seeing our protagonists rushing in to help, even when they don’t know what they’re doing, especially if it’s to save someone they don’t like and would otherwise leave to die, while watching older people fulfill a dream that never came true before escaping in a crazy chase sequence and then end up being trapped between two terrible ways to die, before rallying the common folk to save the day before charging into battle that includes a mid-air fight, and hopefully doesn’t involve the death of a likeable side character.

What we can learn from ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’

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Everyone has a favorite movie, a film you can watch over and over again without ever getting tired of, even after you’ve long memorized all your favorite quotes and scenes. For me, that movie is ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’. I remember watching it as a kid on my parent’s Betamax tapes, fascinated (and a bit scared) at seeing those red, growling balls of doom rolling around killing everyone in sight. From the opening scene to the (unintentional) helicopter crash, to a giant, suited chicken fighting to save San Diego at the climax, it was a mesmerizing spectacle to my young mind. And although the film isn’t as gripping from an adult’s perspective, ‘Tomatoes’ still has a quirky, goofy charm that cannot be denied, and it’s still just as much fun to watch today as it was all those years ago in my parent’s bedroom.

Now, let’s see what storytellers can learn from this tale of vicious vegetables fruit.

Give your audience what they came to see

It’s a solid bet that when people watch ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,’ they’ll want to see tomatoes attacking people. We do get a steady stream of such attacks, but a good part of the film is taken up by subplots of the government trying to cover up the tomato threat, and Lois’ attempts to get a scoop for her paper. These scenes, while having some good jokes (Lois’ out-of-nowhere love for Mason at the ending and the subsequent song is brilliant), slow the film down when they aren’t focused on dealing with the tomatoes. Conversely, every scene of tomatoes attacking, chasing, or eating people are far more interesting (poor Greta’s last stand is a hoot).

When writing our stories, we should consider what our audience expects, and give that to them. If it’s a monster movie, then we need to be vigilant if what we’re writing focuses around that monster, even if they’re not on screen.

Consider have your team of experts be bottom-of-the-barrel numbskulls

Pop quiz: Which do you think is more interesting to watch?

A: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a team of the best of the best to solve it.

or

B: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a bunch of unqualified nobodies who have no idea what they’re doing.

Mason Dixon’s anti-tomato squad, which is in charge of saving the United States from the killer tomatoes, consists of:

*Mason Dixon, a washed-up government agent.

*Wilbur Finletter, a paratrooper who isn’t particularly bright.

*Sam Smith, the world’s worst disguise expert.

*Greg Colburn, an underwater expert who wears his scuba outfit everywhere he goes, even when he’s deployed to the desert.

*Gretta Attenbaum, a Russian Olympic swimmer who is also deployed to the desert.

By being not particularly well-suited to fighting tomatoes, a squad of z-grade agents instantly gets an underdog feel, which helps us root for them. We want to see these people work harder to overcome their underdog status, and it’s more satisfying to see them triumph instead of professionals who know exactly what they’re doing.

The best political jokes are not specific to any administration

Though ‘Tomatoes’ is set firmly in the 70’s, complete with wood panels, garishly bright clothes, avocado-colored walls, and harvest gold-colored bedsheets, it smartly doesn’t include any jokes towards the Jimmy Carter administration, instead choosing to go with mostly generic jokes such as:

*“We’ll never have a president as bad as this one!”

*An investigative committee that doesn’t investigate or accomplish anything.

*An administration that lies about trivial items (such as using public funds to buy fluffy flower print toilet paper).

Few jokes age as fast as political ones, so if you simply must write them, having them not refer to a particular person or administration is the way to go.

If your story has an out-there monster, have the military fight it

It’s natural to assume that when a Monster of Doom arrives in a film, the military will become involved, and inevitably fail. It’s all part of the fun watching the armed forces throwing everything they have at the beast and seeing man’s mightiest weapons amount to nothing. When they fight a scary monster such as Godzilla, the Cloverfield monster, or some other abomination, it’s chilling. But when those weapons fail to defeat a goofy monster? It’s comedy gold.

Thus, it’s no surprise that one of ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ most memorable sequences is a nighttime battle between the US military and the evil fruits. It’s hilarious seeing the military trying and failing to stop these giant beasts, and a good reminder that seeing determined soldiers fighting goofy monsters to the death is all-but guaranteed to get a laugh from your audience.

Considern summoning everyman heroes to save the day.

In the film’s climax, it’s not the military, law enforcement, or even the government that defeats the tomatoes, but a bunch of random citizens from San Diego (or, as the credits list them, every screwball in the county). Once again, the underdog principle comes into play, as watching ordinary, everyday people step up to save the day is more satisfying, especially when they win. Bonus points for making them a colorful bunch, such as Ms. Potato Famine, the Marx brothers, an Arab Sheikh, and a costumed chicken.

The takeaway:

When doing a monster movie (even a parody), try to have an interesting creature, keep the action focused on the monster (even when they’re not on screen) by limiting subplots that don’t involve them, and having unqualified, everyday people battling the creatures will have us more invested in their survival than well-trained experts.