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 ‘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.

What we can learn from: ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’

Halloween’s only a week away, and the internet is in full swing with all sorts of Halloween-themed posts, sites, and spooky sights to celebrate the season. But you know what? Let’s take a break from Halloween horrors and take a fun-filled trip back to the 90’s!

Umm… yeah.

Aside from the totally radical 90’s attitude (oh, those bright colors! The VHS scratch marks! The guitar music!), this charmingly gruesome commercial features a few treats for writers digging into it:

When doing a period piece, consider embracing cliches and stereotypes

What do you think of when you imagine the past several decades? Rock and roll music, drive-ins, and cheesy sci-fi B movies of the 50’s? The garishly bright colors, disco, outrageous hairdos, and shag carpeting of the 70’s? Or how about totally radical hipsters getting around on skateboards and surfboards while playing Nintendo 64 and watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the 90’s? While there was always more going on in those eras, embracing these stereotypes can work to our advantage when doing stories that don’t rely on historical accuracy: You can play around with these elements and exaggerate them, playing up the nostalgia factor for all its worth, bringing a smile to members of your audience who grew up in that era (and there’s nothing wrong with a little fun-spirited nostalgia every now and then).

If you’re doing a horror piece, consider starting off with ridiculously happy material before bringing the horror

What makes ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’ so memorable is that there’s no foreshadowing of its sudden swerve into horror territory. We’re sucked into this charming, goofy commercial of cliched 90’s kids heading out to the park to play football with a big name star (because that’s what every kid in the 90’s did) after drinking some totally awesome Capri-Sun Liquid Slam, only to be suddenly assaulted by a horrid, ‘Thing’ like abomination that proceeds to melt a kid’s face off.

Yikes!

In our own works, a sudden, unexpected swerve is guaranteed to get the audience’s attention because they’re not prepared for it. Such a swerve can work in blending different genres (horror to comedy, sci-fi to western, etc.) but going from comedy to horror may be one of the most effective because the audience will want to see how these happy characters deal with horrors that want to kill them in blood-chilling ways. Another great example of this is the opening to ‘Ghost Ship’ which, while not comedic, was still goofy with it’s family-friendly facade.

Consider having the comic relief/role model character be surprisingly effective at fighting

If there’s one thing more unexpected than seeing three children morph into an eldritch abomination, it’s seeing a professional football player yank a flamethrower out of nowhere and incinerate the beast while screaming for it to die.

In our own works, having role models/comic relief characters suddenly man up and take on monsters can be a great source of comedy (if it turns out they have no fighting skills at all and die almost instantly) and/or awesomeness. In real life, we love seeing a random stranger embracing their inner hero and saving the day when everyone is panicking, and the same runs true for fiction, especially if they’re larger than life characters like professional sports players who have never fought in their life.

Turning the comedic/role model characters into warriors also has the advantage of making them into the underdog: someone who’s phenomenally skilled at one thing, and then being thrust into a role they have no skill or talent in (You’ll also get comedy bonus points if they yank out a powerful weapon out of nowhere).

Consider throwing in product placement that makes everyone unrealistically happy, no matter the situation

How would you feel if you saw your friends be devoured/melted by an existential horror from beyond the stars? Shell-shocked, most likely, with a hearty dose of PTSD. In real life, such a catastrophe would take years of therapy to get over, but in commercial land, all you need to cheer someone up is give them some branded junk food.

Considering how short they are, commercials need to show you why using their product is a good thing, so it’s expected that eating junk snack food will make anyone in commercial land feel great. But why not try using that for comedic effect in in your own works? If you’re doing a comedy, have your characters recover from any experience, no matter how traumatic, by eating any manner of junk food: Someone lost a friend to rampaging dinosaurs? No problem! Your home planet just got blown up and everyone you know and love is dead? A few stuffed pizza pockets will take care of that! Died and ended up Hell for all eternity? Not to worry! A few microwavable tacos will have you dancing and singing your cares away!

Consider bringing the monster back at the last second, even if its been killed

Yes, it’s cliched, but bringing back a monster at the last second for one last jump scare is always effective, provided its appearance is pulled off well. Here, it comes in the form of another unexpected swerve, as the audience is expecting more jokes related to pizza pigskins, making the kid-monster’s appearance all the more unexpected.

Consider (very carefully) killing off a kid in your horror story

Aside from the sudden appearance of the Capri-sun Liquid Slam monster, what’s the one element of this commercial that sticks with you after you’ve seen it? I’d guess it’s that one of the innocent kids playing football ends up dead after having his face melted off. It’s arguably the one element that makes this video so memorable; if he had survived, or everyone had lived, the video wouldn’t have had the same impact.

While horror movies can get pretty bloody, there’s an unwritten rule that kids don’t die; breaking that rule tells your audience that you’re not fooling around, and can make for shocking moments that stick with the audience long after the story is over. Still, be cautious when killing children, especially in a comedy. It’s a very fine line between shocking and sickening.

The Takeaway

When doing a period piece, don’t be afraid to use stereotypes and cliches for comedic effect, and try using a comedic opening before starting your horror story so as to draw your audience in. When the carnage begins, considering killing off a child to show you mean business, while having your comic relief character be revealed to be a surprisingly good fighter, and then have everyone be cure of their depressions and trauma by enjoying blatant product placement before the monster unexpectedly returns.

BONUS

Just for fun, here’s some of the commercials being parodied here. I still remember seeing these, too!

What we can learn from ‘The Thing’ (the 2011 prequel)

TheThing2011Cover

How do you create a follow-up to a classic film? Do you remake it? Do a sequel? A prequel? Or do you do the sensible thing and leave it alone, not daring to possibly negate or tarnish its reputation with a dud that fails to take off? If there’s money to be made at the box office, you can bet it’s not going to be the latter.

John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is a horror classic, it’s simple, but effective story of isolation, paranoia, and one of the most terrifying (and disgusting) monsters from beyond the stars ensuring its cinematic immortality. Unfortunately, the 2011 prequel, ‘The Thing’ didn’t have the impact its predecessor did. Like many others, I was looking forward to seeing how almost thirty years of development and advances would affect the mechanical creatures on screen, only to be crushed at seeing all the practical effects be painted over with CGI ‘enhancements’. Eight years on, and the film has slipped into obscurity, seemingly fated to be seen only during series marathons, remembered as a noble but failed effort to live up to its predecessor.

However, while the film does have its share of problems, its clear that the filmmakers were great fans of the Carpenter original, and poured their hearts into creating a worthy side story to the ‘82 film. With that in mind, let’s see what we can learn from this chilly tale of Antarctic horror.

When doing a prequel, avoid making it a remake of a previous film

Writer Eric Heisserer had a daunting task when it came time to write ‘The Thing’: While a prequel was the most logical way to go (so as to avoid spoiling the original film’s ambiguous ending), the 2011 ‘Thing’ feels almost like a remake instead of a standalone story: it follows most of the same beats and ideas as the original movie, complete with figuring out that testing blood will reveal who’s a Thing and who isn’t (though the film cleverly subverts this by having the title creature destroy the testing equipment shortly after the realization is made). While there are substantial differences between the two films – such as heading inside the UFO – I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a modern-day version of the ‘82 film.

When doing our own prequels, consider mixing things up to avoid feeling like we’re watching a disguised copy of what’s come before: If you’re doing a slasher prequel, consider having only a few victims instead of many. Instead of having one villain, consider having two (found one creature in the ice? Perhaps there was a second one nearby that thawed out after the Norwegians recorded themselves excavating the first). The more you mix things up, the easier it is to avoid the feeling of ‘been there, seen that’.

When doing a prequel, ask if it’s a story that really needs to be told

As noted above, a prequel was logically the only way to add to the ‘Thing’ mythos that didn’t touch the previous film, but the cost of making a prequel is that there’s no longer any mystery of wondering what happened at the Norwegian base. As Youtube user LittleJimmy points out in his excellent analysis of the film, when we originally watch the 82 film, our imaginations race into overdrive wondering what happened when MacReady walks through the building’s burnt husk. Mine did when I first saw the film, wondering what on earth caused such carnage, death, and mystery, but the 2011 film removes that mystery, and what we get in return, as noted above, doesn’t feel all that different or substantial.

When writing a prequel to a story, ask yourself if it adds additional depth to the mythology of your series. Is it a story that manages to be standalone from the original? And, more importantly, would knowing what happens in your prequel enhance or take away from what happened in the original story? Would it add to mysteries, or take them away, leaving nothing to keep our curiosity engaged?

Consider revealing some new aspects about a monster (but not everything)

One thing the 2011 Thing does well is add more layers to the title creature by revealing that it cannot duplicate inorganic matter when assimilating someone, which makes for a reliable way to tell if someone is human or not, and even helps settle the ambiguous ending of the original film (if Childs still has an earring, then he’s definitely human… unless he’s a Thing that remembered to put an earring in).

The second reveal is a bit more subtle: in the original film, the Thing preferred stealth and staying out of sight unless it was attacked, while in the prequel, it’s much more aggressive and attacks others frequently. While this may seem like a contradiction, many Thing fans like myself theorize that the creature learns from its experiences in this film and is more quiet and subtle in the original after learning that running around and giving inhuman shrieks is not the best idea.

In our own stories, consider using a prequel to a monster story as a chance to add more depth and history to your monster. However, be cautious not to give away too much about the beast: the prequel smartly doesn’t tell us if the form found in the ice was the Thing’s original form, or just another creature it had assimilated. Nor does it tell us if it’s the pilot of the spacecraft, a passenger, or something else, leaving its origins and motives a mystery.

Consider having your victims be awake, aware, and helpless during a scene of body horror

While the original film is rightfully seen as a masterpiece of body horror, the prequel does surpass it one way: it shows how horrifying and painful being assimilated can be. The first death in the film is nasty because it looks like Henrik is being sucked on like a lollipop while still alive; Adam is worse because he’s being physically fused with a Thing and can’t do anything about it, but it’s Jonas who has the worst death in the series: a tiny but impossibly strong Thing latches onto his mouth and seemingly chews away at his own, eventually causing him to merge with it, culminating with a shot of the poor man silently begging Kate to kill him. Yikes.

In our own stories, there’s arguably no quicker way to make your reader’s blood curdle by giving characters a horrible, slow death where they’re overpowered by something stronger than themselves and physically violated, all while being helpless to stop it, and suffering horribly throughout the process. However, it might be a good idea to limit these deaths, as while they’re powerful, they’re also too emotionally taxing to bear one after another.

Consider having your protagonist discover an antagonist’s last minute disguise and triumph over it

In horror stories, it’s common to have protagonists think they’ve triumphed over the monster or killer, only to realize at the very last second that they’ve actually failed, and that the evil force of the story has won. 2011’s ‘Thing’ comes very close to such an ending, but Kate, proving that she has an unparalleled knack for catching tiny details, realizes that ‘Sam’ is actually a Thing, and kills it, saving herself from being attacked and assimilated by it in the middle of nowhere.

In our own stories, a fourth-act reversal can feel like a tease or a cop-out (or, if your story is long, leave the audience saying, ‘Oh come on! It’s not over yet?!’), but if it’s a reversal where the villain wins, it can leave your audience feeling crushed, and knowing that everything the heroes went through was for nothing. 2011’s ‘Thing’ smartly subverts that trend and lets the audience realize both how close an antagonist was to succeeding at its goals, and that Kate is far more resourceful and observant than we thought before. Best of all, a reversal where the hero triumphs makes for a refreshing and satisfying ending.

Consider leaving your character’s fate up in the air

The original ‘Thing’’s legendary ending leaves the viewer wondering if Childs is a Thing, or human. While the prequel doesn’t have the ambiguity of wondering if the Thing is truly defeated or just badly hurt, it does leave the viewer wondering if Kate is going to survive. Considering that we last see her staring out the window of her snowcat, miles from help in the middle of the Antarctic night, her odds aren’t good as the film fades to black and the credits roll.

In our own stories, there are advantages of leaving a character’s fate open-ended. The biggest is leaving the audience free to decide for themselves what happens next, instead of a clear-cut downer or uplifting ending. I like to imagine that Kate decided to at least try to get to the Russian station, if only to warn them about what was found in the ice (which would explain why there’s no sign of her snowcat when MacReady and Copper find the UFO in the original).

Either way, leaving thing up in the air and letting your audience imagine what happens next is a great way to keep them engaged with the power of mystery and the unknown.

Consider ending your prequel with a direct tie-in to the original

One of the biggest pleasures of any prequel is the opportunity to do an ending that ties in with the opening moments from an original, classic story. ‘The Thing’ ends with Lars and the last surviving Norwegian get into a helicopter to chase the husky-Thing that arrives at outpost 31, seamlessly leading into the opening of the 1982 film, complete with Ennio Morricone’s classic theme playing in the background for the first time in the movie.

In our own stories, the biggest advantage to doing an ending that directly ties in to an original story is that your audience’s nostalgia for the original story will skyrocket to 11: They know what’s coming next, and being able to see the events that lead into those moments are a thrill.

The Takeaway

When doing a prequel to a story, avoid making it a disguised copy of what came before, and consider if it’s a story that will add to your mythology, or take away from the mystery and wonder of the original. If that story is worth telling, add new layers and information to the characters or world of the original, and if its a horror story you’re writing, try grossing and terrifying your readers by having a victim suffer a fate worse than death by having the be awake, aware, and helpless to do anything about it. And when your antagonist tries a last-minute escape or execution of his/her/its plan, have the protagonist realize what’s going on and stop them, and then having that protagonist face an uncertain future while your prequel then ratchets up the nostalgia value by directly tying into the beginning of your original story at the very end.