Favorite Moments: IT + The Lord of the Rings

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 video:

Why it’s great:

Today’s video is a great example of fans taking two unrelated franchises and combining them to create something new and fascinating. In this case, combining the Lord of the Rings trilogy with the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘It’ to create a version of Middle Earth where the greatest threat isn’t an evil ring, but an evil clown.

While it’s amusing to see Gandalf getting creeped out at seeing Pennywise, or Frodo shaking as a bloody balloon floats his way, what’s great about this crossover is how it stimulates the imagination into thinking how Middle-Earth would react to the presence of such an evil, shape-shifting entity from Earth. Would Gandalf be able to deafeat him? What would Pennywise do if he got the Ring? What would happen if he and Sauron got into a fight?

The best fiction, in my opinion, invites our imaginations to play around with wondering what might happen beyond the pages or the screen. We only get a few snippets of Pennywise interacting with the Fellowship and the denzins of Middle-Earth here, but it’s fun to wonder what might happen if he met other characters or went to places not shown in the video, and a reminder that writers don’t have to show or explain everything: Leaving some blank spots for our readers to fill in for themselves lets them conjure exciting scenarios and ideas beyond what we could ever hope to put on the page or on the screen.

What we can learn from ‘Limbo with Lyrics’

NOTE: The music video for this song features a child drawn in a stylistic manner repeatedly dying violent deaths.

When it came out in 2010, ‘Limbo’ quickly became one of the most famous independent video games ever created, quickly putting developer Playdead on the map. With it’s beautifully dark art style, bleak aesthetics, brutal violence, and haunting soundtrack, ‘Limbo’ is a masterpiece of grim video games… so, naturally, parodies starting coming our way, including this rather amusing song.

There’s only one lesson to learn from this video, but it’s a good one:

Be cautious when doing making light of real-life horrors

If you haven’t played ‘Limbo’, here are two videos to show you what kind of game it is:

When I initially started this article, I was going to write about how the use of an upbeat tune and comedic sound effects makes for comedy gold when contrasted with very dark media (which it does very well). After all, such a mix has worked before:

However, I then realized that while that combination of lighthearted fun and horrific suffering is funny for fictional stories, it doesn’t work as well when used in real life: A fun Reggie song about concentration camps in Nazi Germany would be rather… tasteless. So would a happy jazz tune about atrocities committed by ISIS to innocent people. It’s easy and fun to parody Jason Vorhees, Darth Vader, and the Alien and Predator, but when it comes to poking fun at torture, genocide, or the mutilation and murder of ordinary people, we walk a very dangerous line between making a point and being tasteless.

Now, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. Writers should be free to do dark comedy if they wish, on whatever subject they wish. But discretion is important: Doing a parody song about how millions can’t pay their bills, afford insulin, or even a place to live can be funny because it critiques society and makes a point. Doing a Reggie song about children having limbs hacked off because their parents couldn’t make daily quotas on a rubber plantation probably won’t have the same effect.

When audiences watch or read comedy, they want to laugh and get away from the horrors of the world, if only for a few minutes or even a few seconds. As writers, we have to be careful how we use horror to make them laugh. If we use the horrors of a fictional world, we have more leeway because those horrors don’t really exist. But if we use the evil that surrounds us in everyday life, we must be careful of the point we’re trying to make… unless we’re talking about people who push shopping carts in grocery stores at half a mile an hour and block isles so that no one can get past them. They’re fair game.

What we can learn from ‘Spider-Man’ (2000 video game)

Everyone who ever grew up playing video games has a favorite, a treasure that they enjoy coming back to year after year, even when the game is outdated and forgotten by the gaming public at large. Having gone from playing The Oregon Trail’ on black and green apple computers in grade school, to experiencing the power of the PS3, there are many games I count as personal favorites, but when it comes to superhero games, there’s only one choice for me: ‘Spider-Man’ for the Playstation 1. In the 19 years since it came out, I continue to pop it into whatever Sony console I have at the time (hooray for backwards compatibility!) and give it a go every now and then, and every time I’m delighted that it still holds up. Yes, the graphics are outdated, the camera and controls a little wonky, but it’s a fun, colorful, light-hearted game that offers so much for Spidey fans, including an often hilarious ‘What if?’ mode that tweaks little things in the game, including giving having one of the bosses be voiced by a little kid.

If I had to take only one superhero game with me to a deserted island for the rest of my life, ‘Spider-Man’ would be the one packed inside my bags. But enough nostalgia-gushing. Let’s see what writers can learn from Spidey’s successful leap into the third dimension.

If the situation is right, consider bringing all your A-list characters together in one story

Doc Ock. Venom. Carnage, Mysterio. Scorpion. The Rhino. Captain America. The Punisher. Daredevil, Black Cat. ‘Spider-Man’ didn’t hold anything back when it came to filling out the roster of Spidey’s foes and friends, giving each one at least a satisfying cameo, or a pivotal role in the game. The sheer weight of all these characters – with their backstories, history, and personal grudges against Spider-Man – shows that that Activision and Neversoft held nothing back when it came to bringing in familiar faces for fans and newcomers alike.

In our own stories, it’s tempting to hold back when starting out with multi-part epics, and not put all our most prominent, heavy-hitting villains and allies in the first story, either from a desire not to have the plot be overstuffed, or not wanting to use up all our best characters at once. Both are valid concerns, but ‘Spider-Man’ proves that you can have multiple A-list characters: Only a few (Doctor Octopus, Venom, and Carnage) have prominent roles, but everyone else still has their moment to shine, even if only just a cameo – the important part being that those one-off appearances does impact the plot, and Spidey’s journey, and aren’t just there for fan-service.

Have both the villains and the good guys come after your hero

Like all good stories, ‘Spider-Man’ raises the stakes for our hero by having not only all the bad guys of New York City going after him, but the good guys as well: The police, thinking that Spidey’s the one behind the heist that starts the game, unleash everything they have to catch him (including the world’s most relentless helicopter). Even heroes like The Punisher and Daredevil aren’t sure if Spidey is innocent or not. Thus, not only does Spider-Man have to stop Doc Ock’s diabolical plan to rule the world, but also have to clear his name at the same time.

In our own stories, it’s typical for the hero to have to take on more powerful villains, but having him or her have to take on the good guys adds an extra layer of danger and moral complication. As the hero, our protagonist can’t just kill the forces of good, as this would make his or her situation even worse, forcing them to be creative when it comes to incapacitating good guys without killing or harming them. Our audiences enjoy seeing that creativity at work.

For extra points, this trope can also apply to villain protagonists. If your protagonist isn’t trying to redeem themselves, they can go to war with both good and bad guys; if they’re trying to redeem themselves, they have to struggle against their corrupt nature to try and do what’s right, ensuring even more drama.

Consider giving your villain a code of honor

Of all of Spidey’s villains to appear in-game, it’s Venom – in my opinion – who fares the best. Unlike Doc Ock, Carnage, Rhino, or Mysterio, who just want to get Spider-Man out of the way so he won’t interfere with their plan, Venom isn’t out to conquer the world, but to bring Spidey to justice for (supposedly) stealing Doc Ock’s machine. Yet, after Venom learns that Spidey is innocent, he immediately joins forces with him to find out who really caused the heist.

In our own stories, villains with a sense of honor – and even a willingness to team up with protagonists if the need arises – are far more compelling and interesting than those who are just cruel, evil, and have no redeeming traits. While he’s clearly not a nice guy, Venom’s contrasts make him fascinating to follow, especially his sense of humor: I never fail to chuckle at seeing him surfing the internet and asking for Captain America’s autograph.

Consider a sudden genre change at the climax of your story

Compared to many superhero games of the past nineteen years, ‘Spider-Man’ is a lighthearted tale. Yes, it has the occasional serious moment (Black Cat being impaled by Rhino’s horn certainly takes the cake), but by and large it’s a kid-friendly game that anyone can enjoy.

That is, until the final level.

Back when I first played ‘Spider-Man’, I was wondering who the inevitable final boss would be. Doc Ock was an obvious choice. If not him, then Carnage. To my surprise, both were defeated, but the game wasn’t over. Then I saw who the real final boss was: Monster-Ock, a combination of Doctor Octopus and the bloodthirsty personality of the Carnage symboite, who chases after you in darkened tunnels while howling at the top of its lungs.

Like any kid of the late 90’s, I did what any other kid in that situation would do: Have crippling nightmares for life.

Okay, not really. But the final level of ‘Spider-Man’ is such a radical departure from the rest of the game. There’s no jokes from Spidey, no quippy one-liners, and no humor. It’s a segment out of a horror game where you have to outrun an unbeatable foe. There’s no one to help you, no one coming to save you as you fight to outrun this screaming, multi-toothed, skinless-looking monster that will cave your face in if it catches you, and all the while trying to escape an underwater base before it explodes.

Awesome, right? And what makes it so memorable is because it’s so unexpected. First-time players expect an epic boss fight against one of Spidey’s legendary villains, with him finally winning the day and swinging off into the sunset with a witty joke. Instead, he has to run for his life, so scared that he doesn’t even try to be humorous. In our own stories, such shifts in tone shows the audience that things have gotten serious; the stakes are at their highest, the danger has never been more immense, and failure will bring catastrophic consequences. Doing such a shift can be difficult, and if done wrong, it can ruin the immersion. But when pulled off correctly, it can create moments our audience will remember for years to come. To this day, the ‘fight’ against Monster-Ock remains one of my favorite boss encounters in any video game, and is a great ending to a great game.

The Takeaway:

If the conditions are right, putting in all your A-list characters in one story is a surefire way to please fans who want to see their favorite characters team up, and having your hero having to not only face off against their most powerful villains, but against other good guys, will make the stakes higher than ever, especially if one of those villains has a code of honor that they follow religiously. And to cap off such a story, consider making a genre shift at the very end to catch your audience off guard and surprise them with something they didn’t expect, like horror.

What we can learn from ‘The Northern Incident’

 

Is there such a thing as a perfect horror story? A few months ago, I took a look at one of the best written examples, and today I want a look at one of the best animated examples: A 2011 animation titled, ‘The Northern Incident’ that freaked me out the first time I saw it, and has remained with me ever since as one of the scariest horror shorts I’ve ever seen… up until the last minute. But before we get to that minute, let’s take a look at what this short does so well.

In a horror story, the more remote and more isolated your setting, the better

In the grand tradition of horror stories being set in remote, hard-to-reach locations, ‘The Northern Incident’ takes place at a cabin in the remote, snow-covered forest far from civilization. In a nice twist, though, the cabin’s just close enough that the man has access to a television and a phone so he can call for help… but when the phone line is cut, he might as well be on a different planet. He has a way back to civilization, but no way to get there without freezing to death. There’s nothing worse, after all, than being in sight of safety, but being unable to get to it.

Consider making your audience hear your monster more than they see it

It might be a cliche, but keeping the monster/threat in a horror story out of sight is one of the best things writers can do. Without knowing what the threat looks like, audiences are forced to use their imagination to create the threat, coming up with horrors more terrifying than anything any writer or concept artist could create. Before they’re fully revealed, all we know about the monsters in ‘The Northern Incident’ is that they’re roughly human-sized, intelligent, and can move with astonishing speed.

While ‘The Northern Incident’ follows this trope perfectly, it masterfully uses another aspect to enhance it: Using sound to show where the creatures are. We hear them knocking at the cabin’s door, walls, ceiling, and even driving a car. It’s one thing to see a terrifying monster, but it’s even more terrifying to know that it’s close by, but only being able to hear it.

Consider making your monster smart and sadistic

While the unseen and the unknown is terrifying, it becomes even more frightening when your audience realizes that the monster isn’t some mindless beast, but something that’s smart. The creatures in ‘The Northern Incident’ are smart enough to know how to hotwire and drive a car, as well as knowing how to disable a phone, but there’s a more subtle horror that’s not easily noticeable at first: The creatures toy with the man. They want to make him afraid, and are holding back on killing him (or whatever they plan to do) to try and drive him mad. They’re sadists, and there are few things as frightening as having your characters deal with something that’s human, smart, and loves inflicting misery on others.

Be very careful revealing that your monster is a joke character

Years ago, my father made an observation that’s stuck with me ever since: ‘The closer you get to perfection, the more obvious a flaw becomes.’ ‘The Northern Incident,’ regrettably, becomes a perfect example of this saying. The first 90% of the story is a masterpiece of pacing, animation, sound design, and horror. Then, in the final minute, we finally see what has been stalking the man and his dog… Furries.

The first time I saw ‘The Northern Incident’, I was shocked at the ending, and not in a good way. All the horror, the tension, and the scares were forgotten as I realized that all of it had been the setup for a joke, retroactively ruining everything that had come before.

For years, I’ve thought about why I find the ending to ‘The Northern Incident’ to be such a disappointment; other films effectively blend horror and comedy, so why does this one fail? I think it’s because the tone isn’t consistent with what comes before. By the end of the short, we – the audience – have been conditioned to expect a serious horror story, and the revelation that the man was attacked by furries retroactively makes us realize that everything that came before was a lie to throw us off guard. Had there been more comedic elements earlier, or hints about the creature’s true identity, the ending would have been easier to accept. As it is, it’s proof that while out-of-nowhere endings are memorable, they should at least fit with the tone of what came before.

The Takeaway

When doing a horror story, set it in a location far away from help (or have it so that characters can see help, but can’t get to it) and consider keeping the intelligent and sadistic monster hidden, with the audience hearing it instead of seeing it. When it comes time to do the ending, it’s okay to try something different, but keep the tone of it consistent with what came before.

What we can learn from the world’s shortest horror story

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Quick: Name the shortest horror story you’ve ever read.

Done? If you’re like many people, this probably came to mind:

‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…’

This tiny, Twitter-sized tale – Fredric Brown’s ‘Knock’ – is possibly the world’s most famous short horror story. Although it’s a condensed version of a longer (though not by much) story, the two-sentence version is a masterpiece of lean, efficient storytelling. So much is said, and implied – in just two sentences and seventeen words – that it becomes one of the best examples of ambiguity in fiction.

In my opinion, what makes ‘Knock’ so memorable (aside from its length) is that while it sets up an entire fictional world, it doesn’t tell us anything about it or who is outside the door. What happened to the planet? Why is there only one man left? Did everyone else die off? Did they evacuate and leave him behind? Likewise, who or what is knocking? An alien? A demon? An angel? A large duck? We don’t know, and like every great horror story, ‘Knock’ forces us to rely on our imagination to fill in the blanks, creating things more terrifying than anything Hollywood’s CGI maestros or an author’s prose can bring to life.

Not revealing the evil force menacing a character is a simple concept, but as countless horror tales have proven over the centuries, it can be chillingly effective.

The Takeaway

When writing a horror story (or a mystery/thriller) consider never revealing who, or what, is menacing a character or a group of characters. For extra points, leave this entity’s motivations ambiguous, such as if it’s malevolent or just neutral/curious.

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.