Playing In The Sandbox

When we’re kids, we have the gift of an imagination unconcerned with logic. In the sandbox of our youth, we effortlessly create stories where, say, Optimus Prime teams up with Alan Grant from Jurassic Park to take on Xenomorphs, or have Indiana Jones and James Bond head into outer space to stop Darth Vader in his fortress on Mars. Logic and common sense go out the window in the name of having fun and being able to say, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’ But, alas, as we grow up, this innocence and carefree disregard of intellectual copyrights gradually slips away in favor of logic, common sense, and understanding that franchises – with rare exceptions – are self-contained universes that never overlap.

But what if that didn’t have to be that way? What if we, as adults, were to try and recapture our love of our favorite stories existing in the same universe, but with the challenge of figuring out how it could logically happen?

For the past month, I’ve been… well, obsessed with this idea of creating a fan-made cinematic universe, where all my favorite movies, tv shows, and video games exist together without contradicting each other. While it sounded easy enough, it become a challenging mental exercise in logic and reason; as a fan of spoofs, all of them had to go: ‘Airplane!’ just does not fit in next to ‘Jaws’ and the ‘Terminator’ series, no matter how much I want it to. Likewise, ‘Deep Impact,’ ‘Knowing,’ and 1998’s, ‘Godzilla: the Animated Series’ had to go, as they dealt with world-ending events that just couldn’t be reconciled in a timeline that includes ‘Independence Day.’ And let’s not even start on Saturday morning cartoons featuring anthropomorphic animals.

In the end, I managed to make the task easier by coming up with four parameters:

1. You can have any film, TV show, book, or video game you like in your timeline, but they must not contradict each other to an unworkable degree: The world cannot nearly destroyed by aliens in Roland Emmerich’s ‘Independence Day,’ then have the world and everyone on it be completely destroyed in 2009’s ‘Knowing,’ and then have ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ take place after that.

2. The only information about what year and date your stories take place in must come from the stories themselves, and not from external sources. For example, ‘Alien’ and ‘The Matrix’ are vague about how far in the future they occur, so there’s room for them to be moved about. If a date cannot be reasonably determined, the release date of the movie, book, show, or video game can be used instead.

3. The only information about the characters, organizations, and the like, can only come from the film or show itself, so as to allow maximum creativity in linking characters and organizations together.

4. You are free to disregard any sequels you don’t like.

Still, it wasn’t easy to come up with a grand, unified list, and in the end I had to leave out quite a few favorite films and shows, but I managed to come up with a timeline that I would be happy to sit down and watch (and play) from beginning to end if given the chance. So, just for fun, here’s my ultimate sandbox crossover timeline:

*At the beginning of time, Eru Illuvitar creates Eä (the universe) and within it, the world of Arda, which contains both Middle-Earth and Valinor. The events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place, and the Fourth Age begins with the last of the elves leaving Middle-Earth forever. Several generations later, all traces of magic are gone. (The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings)

*Later, in a galaxy far, far away, The Old Republic, weakening after a thousand generations, succumbs to the schemes of Emperor Palpatine. However, through the efforts of the Rebellion to restore the Old Republic, Palpatine is defeated and his Empire falls. Though the galaxy doesn’t automatically become a utopia, it becomes a much nicer place, as Palpatine doesn’t return from the dead, the Empire stays down, and the New Republic rules a galaxy at peace, and Luke, Han, Leia, and all their friends live happily ever after. (The Star Wars Prequels, Solo, Rogue One, and the Original Star Wars Trilogy)

(Note: In this timeline, the sequel trilogy never happened.)

*A really, really long time later, the humans of Middle Earth have gone through their technological renaissance, achieved the singularity and become godlike beings known as the Engineers. They leave Arda and travel throughout the universe creating life on desolate planets. One such planet – Earth – is located, and seeded with Engineer DNA. (the prologue from Prometheus)

*Sometime later, one of the Engineer’s most dangerous lifeforms is stolen from them by another alien species, only for both to crash-land in Antarctica, where the lifeform is frozen solid. (The Thing)

*For the next few thousand years up until the present day, Predators – having discovered Earth during their own interplanetary visits – use it as a hunting ground for their young to become adults. (backstory for Alien vs. Predator)

1868: Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus attacks military ships and destroys the island of Vulcania to stop their weapons of war. Nemo is killed and the submarine sinks shortly after: it’s wreckage – and the highly advanced technology it carries – are never found. (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea)

1895 to approximately 1910: William Murdoch of the Toronto Constabulary solves lots of crimes with his partners and friends while meeting lots of historical figures and even finding the Holy Chalice. (Murdoch Mysteries)

1904: A predator hunting expedition to Antarctica ends with the deaths of every human at the whaling camp on Bouvetøya. (backstory for Alien vs Predator)

1912: Rose DeWitt Bukater sails aboard the RMS Titanic, only to fall in love with third class artist Jack Dawson. Jack dies during the ship’s sinking, but saves Rose, who goes on to live a long and eventful life. (Titanic).

1930: In one of the most remarkable discoveries ever recorded, a group of filmmakers led by Carl Denham land on the previously uncharted Skull Island and find wildlife that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and has continued evolving to the present day, including a giant ape known as King Kong. Kong is captured and brought to New York City, but is killed. Shortly afterwords, Denham heads back to the island in the hopes of finding treasure, but Skull Island and everyone on it are destroyed by a sudden earthquake. All traces of the island vanish. (King Kong and Son of Kong)

1935-1947: Although his exploits remain unknown to the world at large, archaeologist Indiana Jones becomes an unsung hero of the Second World War due this efforts preventing the Nazis and other despots from gaining supernatural artifacts that could have turned the war in their favor or allowed them to conquer the world, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the power of Atlantis, the Holy Grail (separate from the Holy Chalice), and the Infernal Machine. (Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine)

1941: U-96 goes on the worst u-boat patrol ever. (Das Boot)

1942: The USS Copperfin undertakes a daring mission to Tokyo Bay to gather intelligence that will aid in the upcoming Doolittle raid. (Destination Tokyo)

1955-1960 (approximate): Father Brown helps solve a lot of crimes in his parish of Kembleford, England. (Father Brown)

1957: Indiana Jones stops the Soviet Union from obtaining the power of the Crystal Skull and marries his sweetheart, Marion Ravenwood. (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

1972: During a voyage on the high seas, the luxury liner SS. Poseidon capsizes and sinks with heavy loss of life. (The Poseidon Adventure)

1974: The Glass Tower – the world’s grandest skyscraper – catches fire in San Francisco and almost burns down, but is extinguished. The building languishes for years as the cost of repairs is too much for its owners, yet the cost of demolishing it is equally too expensive. (The Towering Inferno)

1975: In the small coastal town of Amity Bay, a sheriff and his motley crew manage to kill a shark terrorizing the community. (Jaws)

1978: A zombie apocalypse is unleashed upon the Earth, causing a complete breakdown of society. Four survivors flee to a shopping mall, where two die. The last two manage to escape and flee in a helicopter as the mall is overrun. They are forced to land in a remote area, where they travel across the country and eventually take refuge inside the remains of the Glass Tower, where they hold out with other survivors, including Jack Torrance and his family. When the plague dies out, the zombies are wiped out in an ensuing counterattack by humanity, with Jack Torrance killing several with an axe when San Francisco is cleared. (Dawn of the Dead)

1980: Jack Torrance and his family, trying to get a fresh start after the zombie apocalypse, head to the Overlook Hotel, where Jack – his marriage already on the ropes and suffering from alcoholism – goes insane and tries to kill the two, who manage to escape, leaving him to freeze to death. (The Shining)

1982: A team of researchers in Antarctica discovers the Thing, but are almost wiped out. A few hours later, a second team encounters the creature and just barely manages to save the planet from the Thing when it is frozen solid once again, though Childs and MacReady freeze as well. Reports from Kate Lloyd (who sent out a broadcast before she froze to death) ensure that the site is napalmed for a week straight to ensure that any traces of the Thing are destroyed for good. (The Thing and The Thing)

1984: A Terminator arrives in Los Angeles to kill Sarah Conner, son of the future savior of humanity, John Connor, who will lead the human race to victory against Skynet, an AI developed to control all of the United State’s military systems in 1997. However, the Terminator fails, and Sarah sets off on her quest to learn as many military and survival skills that she will one day pass on to her son. (The Terminator)

1987: Dutch Schaefer – a former military commando turned mercenary – is employed by the CIA to go on a supposed rescue mission in South America, only to be hunted by an intergalactic hunter. Dutch is the only survivor of his group and decides to retire from mercenary work, having seen too much death. He will later survive the events of Judgment Day and join the human Resistance against Skynet, but will be captured and have his likeness used for the 101 model of the T-800. However, he still escapes and goes on to survive the war. (Predator)

1991: The Perfect Storm takes place. (The Perfect Storm)

1993: John Hammond opens a theme park full of dinosaurs. It is a complete disaster and the park is abandoned. (Jurassic Park)

Nasty weatherman Phil Connors is trapped in a time warp in Pennsylvania, but eventually breaks free and lives the rest of his life as a changed man. However, he is unaware that the time warp took place due to an anomaly caused by constant time-traveling between the Resistance and Skynet as they continuously try to defeat and destroy one another. (Groundhog Day)

1995: Two more terminators arrive from the future to both assassinate and protect John Conner. The T-1000 is defeated, and the T-800 seemingly erases Skynet from existence after sacrificing itself to destroy all traces of the program before it is created. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

Air Force One is hijacked with President James Marshall aboard. He manages to take out the terrorists and escapes with his family and most of the passengers and crew before the plane crashes. He finishes up his term as President and retires from public life as his successor, Thomas Whitmore, takes office. (Air Force One)

A volcano erupts at Dante’s Peak, Washington, ruining everyone’s day, including a woman who looks strikingly similar to Sarah Connor. (Dante’s Peak).

Ingen attempts to open a new dinosaur park in San Diego. Having learned nothing from the 1993 Isla Nublar incident, it fails miserably. (The Lost World: Jurassic Park)

A cowboy doll named Woody struggles with the thought of being replaced by a cooler, modern space ranger toy, but the two reconcile their differences and learn that there’s no greater joy than making a child happy. (Toy Story)

1996: Now 100 years old, Rose Dawson recounts her survival aboard Titanic to a salvage crew, and then dies peacefully of old age, moving into the afterlife and reuniting with Jack. (Titanic).

John Conner and Sarah Conner continue their quest to ensure Skynet won’t come back, eventually infiltrating a Cyberdyne presentation of their latest technology, at which point yet another T-1000 comes back through time to stop them, and yet another T-800 model 101 comes through to protect them. John and the T-800 go forward in time and manage to destroy Skynet’s system core, seemingly destroying Skynet for good… again. (T2 – 3D: Battle Across Time)

On July 2nd, 1996, one of the most monumental days in humanity’s history occurs as aliens arrive and attempt to kill everyone on the planet in order to pillage our world’s resources. Thankfully, they are repelled in the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind (which is preceded by one of the greatest speeches in history), and humanity rejoices in overcoming their common enemy. (Independence Day)

1999: Scientists working on a remote, underwater research facility attempt to use enhanced Great White Sharks to cure Alzheimer’s disease. They fail, and after much death and bloodshed, the project is abandoned. (Deep Blue Sea)

Special operative Gabe Logan works to save the wold from a deadly virus known as Syphon Filter. Along the way, he manages to take down the shadowy Agency that employs him and reforms it from the ground up as a force of good. His arch-nemesis, Mara Armaov, almost manages to retrieve a sample of the last known sample of the virus, but her submarine is blown up by Logan’s operatives, ending the virus’ threat for good. (Syphon Filter 1, 2, and 3)

Woody suffers an existential crisis when he realizes that his owner will one day outgrow him. Thankfully, he manages to overcome it. (Toy Story 2)

2001: Dr. Alan Grant, a survivor of the 1993 Isla Nublar incident, is kidnapped and taken to Isla Sorna, where he assists a divorced couple in rescuing their son from the dinosaur-filled island. (Jurassic Park 3)

2002: In New York City (now rebuilt from being vaporized by aliens), a young man is bitten by a genetically altered spider and goes on to fight crime. (the Sony Spider-Man trilogy)

2003: Gordon Hauge suffers a breakup from his wife, only to end up Purgatory, where he helps defeat an inter-dimensional being hell-bent on invading our world and conquering it. He survives, and manages to help free several noble souls trapped within, who move on to Heaven, while Gordon reconciles with his wife. (Despiser)

John Connor, having survived an alien invasion with his mother (who later died of leukemia), learns that Judgment Day has not been stopped, but postponed when yet another T-800 arrives to protect him from yet another advanced Terminator. His attempts to stop it again fail, and the war against the machines begins (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). It continues for several more years (Terminator Salvation) . However, due to countless instances of both the Resistance and Skynet traveling through time to wipe each other out (which includes Terminator Genysis and Terminator: Dark Fate), the Resistance eventually manages to stabilize the timeline, ensuring that Skynet was indeed defeated in 1995, seemingly preventing it from ever being created.

John manages to sober up and eventually live a peaceful, quiet life, though he forever remains on the lookout for any sign of Skynet’s continued existence.

Dutch Schafer, having never been abducted by Skynet, enjoys his retirement in peace as well.

2004: Three Predators arrive on Earth to begin the traditional fight against Xenomorphs that will prove their worth as adults, but all three of them die, making it a waste of time. Worse still, the only human survivor – Alexis Woods – freezes to death before she can alert humanity about the Xenomorph and predator races. A subsequent search for her by the authorities fails to find her, along with any trace of the pyramid where the battle took place. Shortly afterwords, the Weyland corporation collapses. (Alien vs. Predator)

2005: The Masrani corpation – having purchased all of Ingen’s assets – defies history and opens Jurassic World to fantastic success. (backstory for Jurassic World)

Peter Weyland – a distant relative to Charles Weyland – is born, destined to one day revive the defunct Weyland corporation.

2009: A special forces team is dispatched to Ibis Island to recover a scientist and his groundbreaking Third Energy research. However, they are surprised to find the island swarming with dinosaurs due to said energy’s time-warping effects, and just barely escape after the island is destroyed. (Dino Crisis)

2010: Regina – one of the survivors of the Ibis Island incident – participates in a rescue operation where a region of the American midwest has been altered due to Third Energy shenanigans. She alone manages to escape after her teammates are wiped out by dinosaurs, but manages to use time-travel to come back and rescue one of them before he dies. As a result of the incident, the Third Energy program is shut down and abandoned. (Dino Crisis 2)

Andy grows up and heads off to college, but not before passing Woody, Buzz, and all his other beloved toys off to Bonnie so that they can be played with and loved as much as he loved them. (Toy Story 3)

2013: In a stunning move, North Korea attacks the White House to try and turn the United States into a radioactive wasteland. Thankfully, they are stopped. (Olympus has Fallen)

2015: The Indominus Rex is due to be debuted at Jurassic World, but escapes and leads to the park being shut down, as well as leaving several teenagers stranded on the island. (Jurassic World and Jurassic World: Camp Cretatecous)

2018: Captain Joe Glass – who looks strikingly like Secret Service agent Mike Banning – averts a war between Russia and the United States after saving the Russian president from a coup attempt. (Hunter Killer)

Isla Nublar is rendered uninhabitable by a volcanic eruption, but some of its dinosaur population is evacuated by a group of greedy human mercenaries who want to make lots of money selling the dinosaurs to private collectors and militaries. However, the dinosaurs escape into the wild, leading to the Human-Dinosaur war. Humanity eventually wins with the help of Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcom (And an older John Conner, who teams up with Regina, Dylan, and Rick from the Third Energy incidents, but the two groups never meet), but not without great cost. (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Jurassic World: Dominion)

2060: John Conner, having stopped Judgment Day, and having survived both an alien invasion and a war between humanity and dinosaurs, dies peacefully of old age.

2089: Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw discovers several cave paintings suggesting that humanity did not evolve on Earth, but was created by extra-terrestrial beings. (Prometheus)

2093: The Prometheus expedition – funded by Peter Weyland – arrives on LV-223 and learns about the existence of the Engineers and that we are like them on a genetic level (they are the race of men from Middle-Earth, after all). However, the expedition ends in disaster, and only Elizabeth Shaw and the android David survive. They set out to find the Engineer homeworld. (Prometheus)

2105: The colony ship Covenant hears a transmission from a planet while en-route to colonize a distant world, only to discover that the android David – now the sole survivor of the Prometheus expedition after murdering Elizabeth – has decided to create life to wipe out his creators via Xenomorphs, who he reverse-engineered in an attempt to improve upon one of the Engineer’s most perfect creations. While he succeeds in escaping the planet he was trapped upon, David and the Covenant are lost in space, and destroyed by surviving Engineers hell-bent on avenging their slain brethren. Before he is destroyed however, David sends a transmission to the Weyland Yutani corporation, letting them know of the existence of a crashed Engineer ship on LV-426. (Alien: Coventant)

2122: Weyland Yutani diverts the Nostromo to LV-426 to obtain a specimen of the Xenomorph species for study. The crew of the ship are killed, save for Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, who defeats the Xenomorph and sets off for earth in the Nostromo’s shuttle. (Alien).

2137: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, searches for a clue as to her mother’s disappearance. While she does find a voice recording of Ellen, she will never see her again. (Alien: Isolation)

2179: After spending 57 years in hypersleep, Ellen Ripley once again faces off against more xenomorphs, but manages to survive again, and rescue a girl that she later adopts. The two live happily ever after, while the Weyland Yutani corporation’s evil deeds are exposed, and they are dissolved. (Aliens)

2250: Experiments with inter-dimensional technology take place on a Union Aerospace Corporation base on Mars, and unwittingly opens a portal to hell, triggering a demonic invasion of the moons Phobos and Deimos. Everyone on the bases are killed, but the invasion is stopped by a single marine, who single-handily beats the demons back, ventures into Hell, and kills the mastermind behind the invasion. (Doom)

However, while the Marine was busy, Hell invades Earth and quickly reduces it to a barren wreck. The Marine hurries to Earth and manages to help humanity’s population evacuate before going back into Hell and killing the biggest demon in existence, who’s death throes destroys Hell itself. With Hell defeated, the Marine journeys back to Earth to help rebuild it. (Doom 2)

2300: Skynet – which had secretly sent itself back through time before losing the war against the Resistance and hidden in various computer systems for over a century, decides to once again overthrow humanity and, having learned from its past mistakes, succeeds. But instead of completely destroying the human race, Skynet decides to keep them as slaves for revenge after being foiled so many times in the past, and plugs humanity into a virtual reality system to pacify them, a system it calls the Matrix. As a backup to protect itself, Skynet wipes all traces of itself from all known databanks and creates a fabricated history about humanity creating AI that wanted to peacefully co-exist with them, only to erupt into a war that led to humanity’s defeat.

With humanity under its complete control, Skynet finally achieves ultimate victory over its most hated enemy.

2700: Skynet – having realized that it can never achieve complete control of humans – has created an incredibly convoluted system to allow the Matrix to be re-created over and over again thanks to the One program. This plan backfires when the seventh One arises (The Matrix) and then breaks the system (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions). However, this has an unexpected benefit: Skynet, having evolved to want an existence without the fear of being overthrown and destroyed, makes peace with humanity (who remain unaware of Skynet, and refers to all artificial life forms as ‘The Machines’). Now aware of how hellish Earth has become, the overwhelming majority of humanity decide that it’s better to live in an ideal, 1990’s virtual world rather than the sewers of megacities and eat flavorless porridge.

Eventually, Skynet manages to clean up the planet, and both humans and machines unite to create a new utopia where organics and mechanical beings alike work together to create a beautiful future for all of them.

Watching it all, Eru Illuvitar is impressed and awed at how his grand experiment has gone.

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.