What we can learn from ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

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45 weeks ago, we took a look at ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’, and now, at long last, it’s time to take a look at the final film in the venerable series: ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

After five long years of sharknados taking out cites, going into space, becoming radioactive, and destroying the world, the series finally comes to an end with ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’ which, having exhausted all other possibilities, sends the title monster back through time (the only other sensible option would have it going to the afterlife), with surfer-rurned-barternder-turned-sharknado killer Fin Shepard on a journey to stop the sharknados for good. Let’s journey along to see what valuable story lessons we can learn by watching sharks terrorize people throughout history.

Avoid abandoning a greater-scope villain after establishing them

In the previous film, ‘Global Swarming,’ we learned that the sharknados were not just a freak of nature, but were created by a malevolent shark god that Fin and friends (I never get tired of writing that) set out to stop. While they did stop the sharknados at the end of the fifth film (at the cost of every other human alive), it’s odd that the shark god isn’t mentioned in ‘It’s About Time’.

When we introduce a supernatural threat – or any threat so big that it effectively becomes the main antagonist for a franchise – it’s imperative not to have that threat dropped so quickly, especially when it’s a supernatural one. It’s logical to think that Fin would have to take out the shark god to prevent any further sharknados from being made, but its nowhere to be found. If our own greater-scope villains need to be dropped, a good reason needs to be established instead of never mentioning them again, hoping that audiences won’t notice. They will.

Establish solid rules for time travel, lest audiences get hopelessly confused

While traveling through time offers nearly endless possibilities for exciting storytelling, it can quickly become a mess of intersecting timelines, cause and effect, and how actions in the past affect the future (and that’s without getting into the grandfather paradox). ‘It’s About Time’ tries to make things simple by stating that everyone can only travel back in time once, but then it has Gil continuously going through different eras. When it comes to time travel, it’s best to make things as simple as possible. Better to have our audiences focus on the fun shenanigans going on, then wondering how such things are possible.

When doing time travel, consider bringing back minor characters for big roles

One of the things that ‘It’s About Time’ does best is bringing back minor characters for bigger roles in the story, like Bryan and Skye. While they may have served as cannon fodder in their original appearances, or had a small role that didn’t affect the story all that much, we don’t expect much from them. They’re background characters, ones who don’t take the spotlight. Thus, when they come back as main characters, they become underdogs who have a chance to shine and help save the day. Even better is if they’re in a completely new time and location (like the prehistoric era), as not only do they have to contend with being in the spotlight, but now they also have to try and survive in an environment they’re not familiar with.

Consider having monsters and antagonists from the future battle people from the past

One of the most enjoyable aspects of time travel stories is seeing people and technologies from different eras interact with one another. How, for example, would a modern-day person fare in the Revolutionary War era? Or in Ancient Egypt? How do technologically disadvantaged people fight off opponents from a different era? ‘It’s About Time’ has medieval knights, Revolutionary War soldiers, and Cowboys fight off sharks, and those battles are easily the highlights of the movie.

The reason these fights are so interesting is that the people of the past are automatically the underdog and have to fight harder to win. Cowboys have the advantage of guns when fighting sharks, but revolutionary war soldiers only have muskets, while knights are stuck with swords and bows, which makes audiences wonder how on earth they’re going to win. An even cleverer version of this trope is to have the people of the past take advantage of futuristic tech: When sharknados attack Revolutionary America, the British use a sharknado to gain an advantage in their war, almost changing the course of history in their favor.

When writing historical characters in time travel stories, the more authentic they are, the funnier they are

Another draw of time travel stories is being able to use famous people throughout history and put them in exciting fights and teamups with monsters and people from other times in history. Part of this draw is seeing how someone from one era coping with another, and how they would react to, say, modern weapons and technology. However, for this trope to be most useful, it’s important to make historical characters as accurate as possible; much of the humor/awesome factor in their appearances is that they take things seriously. While comedic or light-hearted time travel stories can make famous people goofballs (Think ‘Bill and Ted’), it is possible to go too far: When Finn and his friends go to the Revolutionary War era, I was excited at the thought of seeing George Washington fighting a sharknado. Instead, we get a man who’s more interested in taking a nap and cracking jokes instead of fighting or taking the situation seriously.

Consider having someone alter history in a time travel story, even when they know it’ll hurt them

While ‘It’s About Time’ engages in all the standard time-travel tropes (meeting famous figures, having historical characters and groups fight monsters from other eras, etc.) and get into debates about changing the future to avert a personal catastrophe (Nova trying to save his grandfather), the film smartly changes things up by giving Finn an impossible choice: He has a chance to stop sharknados forever by traveling through time, but at the cost of losing his son, who will never be born, and even be erased from Finn’s memory.

So often, time travel stories are about changing the future for the better, or preserving it, but rarely do we see stories where travelers doing the right thing know they will suffer greatly, even if its for the greater good. By having our characters lose something important to them, whether it’s a loved one, a job, or a dream, and being willing to let them go to save so many others, we give them an unparalleled chance to shine and show how brave and heroic they can be.

If it fits the theme of a series, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending

It’s a classic trope: The characters of a story manage to succeed in their fight. They achieve their goals, get what they want, and live happily ever after. It’s so overused that it’s a scenario that could easily turn into a parody, and many stories try to subvert it by using a darker, or more bittersweet ending where not everything is right or well. But there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, especially if it’s well-earned, and the end of the Sharknado series has a very well-earned one indeed: Fin manages to restart history and create a timeline where sharknados don’t exist, saving all his friends and acquaintances, and even Gil, with the very last shot of the series has Al Roker declaring that it’s going to be a beautiful day with nothing unusual going on. It’s a satisfying conclusion that ties everything up, and gives everyone a happy ending without any tease or hint of further adventures, giving the characters – and us – closure.

And so, after a year, we finally finish our marathon of all the Sharknado films. Turn in next week, when we’ll do an analysis of the series as a whole.

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 3

This week, I was going to take a look at the duels in the movie, ‘The Matrix Revolutions’, but I realized there were two other chapters of the Matrix series that I had forgotten about: The 2003 direct-to-dvd anthology series, ‘The Animatrix,’ and the videogame, ‘Enter the Matrix,’ which looks at the events of ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ from the perspective of Niobe and Ghost, two minor characters who appeared briefly in the film and its follow-up. While neither are required viewing for fans of the films, both do a good job expanding the Matrix universe, and today, we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘Enter.’

Please note that while there are several duels in in ‘Enter the Matrix,’ many – like Niobe and Ghost’s fights against the leaders of the Merovingian’s vampire and werewolf henchmen – add little to the story beyond needing to defeat an enemy to progress or rescue someone, so we’ll be looking at the more substantial and interesting fights.

Niobe vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Niobe has to defeat an agent so she can escape with her life

Analysis: The first big duel of the game has Niobe saving one of her fellow Zion operatives from the cargo hold of a C-5 galaxy in flight. But after saving him, she then has to deal with an agent; unlike Neo, Niobe is an average Matrix operative who can’t stop bullets or fly. She’s facing a foe far stronger, faster, and more skilled than her, and who can’t be defeated with martial arts or bullets, while trapped on a plane and unable to escape.

This fight is a good example of how duels can be more interesting when one character is hopelessly outmatched, and victory is a matter of surviving, not killing an opponent. In this instance, Niobe – the underdog who doesn’t stand a chance of defeating Agent Johnson in a one-on-one fight – triumphs by opening the cargo hatch and knocking Johnson off the plane.

Ghost vs Trinity

Emotional Context: Ghost and Trinity spar to let off some steam and relax

Analysis: Much like Neo sparring with Morpheus in the first film, this duel is not about killing anyone or fighting to complete an objective in the war between humans and machines. It’s two characters relaxing during some downtime by sparring with each other. It’s easy to label this fight as pure fanservice, as it gives players the chance to duel Trinity, and could be cut from the game without affecting the storyline. But it does help to build upon ‘Enter the Matrix’s most surprising storyline: Trinity’s relationship with Ghost. Unlike so many other love triangles featuring people squabbling and sparring over who loves who, ‘Enter’ has both Ghost and Trinity acknowledge that while they love each other as friends, their relationship will never go beyond that, and they’re okay with it.

Ghost vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Ghost has to defeat an agent so he can blow up a nuclear power plant, or the mission will fail, Neo will not be able to see the Architect, and every human on Earth will die. So, no pressure or anything

Analysis: This duel plays out almost exactly like Niobe’s fight against Johnson on the C-5 earlier in the game, with an underdog having to defeat a superior opponent using their wits. What’s different, though, are the stakes. Earlier, Niobe was saving a fellow Zion operative. Here, Ghost has to keep Agent Johnson from killing him so that the reactor can be destroyed, allowing Neo to save humanity. If Ghost dies, the plan will be thrown into chaos, and Neo will fail, raising the stakes and giving the outcome of the fight much greater weight.

Ghost/Niobe vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Ghost/Niobe have to prove themselves to Seraph so that they can see the Oracle

Analysis: Much like Ghost’s fight against Trinity, this duel is about giving players another opportunity to fight against one of the characters from the films. However, unlike Neo’s spar with Seraph in ‘Reloaded,’ the duel doesn’t slow down the pacing of the game’s story, since it comes later instead of earlier. It also explains that Seraph doesn’t fight people to see who they are, but to test their heart’s resolve, a much more focused and specific answer than, ‘you do not know someone until you fight them.’

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘The Animatrix.’

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 2

Last week, we took a look at the duels in the first Matrix film. Being the biggest surprise of 1999 (quite a feat considering the cultural juggernaut that was ‘The Phantom Menace’), it’s not surprising the film got two sequels, and bigger budgets to allow for more lavish and spectacular action scenes. But is bigger always better? Let stake a look at ‘Reloaded’s duels and find out.

Neo vs Upgraded Agents

Emotional Context: Neo holds off three agents from getting to his fellow rebels.

Analysis: The first duel in ‘Reloaded’ is short, but shows how Neo has grown since the first film. No longer is he the wide-eyed rebel who was pushed to the brink of death trying to defeat Smith in a fight: now he’s a stylishly-dressed warrior monk who can easily take out three agents without breaking a sweat, all with a minimum of flashy moves. It’s a brief, but effective fight that tells us a lot about Neo’s skills, setting the stage for his later fights.

Neo vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Neo duels Seraph to prove that he’s worthy of seeing the Oracle

Analysis: This duel feels like a logical attempt to inject some action into a scene that would otherwise play out like this:

Neo: Hello?

Seraph: You seek the Oracle.

Neo: Yes.

Seraph: What is your name?

Neo: Neo

Seraph: Can I see your ID?

*Neo hands Seraph his driver’s license*

Seraph: Good. Come. She is waiting.

In the film’s defense, having Seraph test his visitors by fighting them to see how determined they are to see the Oracle is an intriguing way of vetting someone’s character. But at this point in the story, Neo needs to get to the Oracle and discuss vital information regarding saving Zion. Pausing the film to have him fight Seraph just slows things down when the story needs to keep going.

The Burly Brawl

Emotional Context: None.

Analysis: If you were to ask a fan of the Matrix series what scene they would choose to sum up ‘Reloaded’, the Burly Brawl would be a good choice. As one of the more hyped scenes of the film before its release, it’s an impressive feat of CGI and visual spectacle, managing to pit Neo against a hundred Agent Smiths at once. However, while this scene is fun to watch, it has one substantial flaw: It does nothing to advance the story. Zion has less than twenty four hours before the machines come in and blast it into dust, and Neo, having just learned about the Keymaker’s existence, should logically want to find him as quickly as possible. Instead, he takes several minutes out of his busy schedule to fight multiple Smiths before realizing that punching, kicking, and hitting them doesn’t seem to be working (with the exception of the Smith who literally breaks into pieces upon hitting a glass wall at 1:43 in the second clip) and flies away.

The Burly Brawl is impressive from a technical and cinematic viewpoint, but it doesn’t advance the story in a meaningful way outside of showing that Smith can now make copies of himself, and that Neo is now really good at fighting. A more logical fight could have Neo trying to get away to find the Keymaker, only to be swarmed by Smith doing everything in his power to keep him grounded and assimilated. Or, we could go with the fight as it was presented in ‘The Path of Neo’ and have Neo resort to taking out the buildings to stop Smith before flying away:

The Twins Fight

Emotional Context: Morpheus and Neo fight to get the Keymaker to safety while holding off two foes they can’t defeat.

Analysis: While it’s the shortest duel in the film, this brief fight comes closest to the feel of the original film. Morpheus and Trinity – while highly-skilled – aren’t Neo. We know they can be hurt or killed, making them the underdogs as they struggle to hold off the French prick’s Merovingian’s albino henchmen, who can materialize and de-materialize at will, making it exceedingly difficult – if not impossible – to put them down for good. Morpheus and Trinity are outclassed here, adding considerably more suspense and a sense of danger than if Neo were fighting, but they manage to accomplish their goal of getting the Keymaker to safety, showing that in stories, running away from a fight can be a better choice than trying to defeat an antagonist.

Morpheus vs the Agent

Emotional Context: Morpheus has to protect the Keymaker from being killed by an agent.

Analysis: What I like about this fight (which is my favorite in ‘Reloaded’) is that it’s essentially a rematch between Morpheus and Smith… once again, Morpheus doesn’t win. Morpheus may be Neo’s mentor, but he’s still the underdog here, struggling to survive against a vastly-superior opponent while protecting the Keymaker; unlike Neo, he’s hit quite a bit and thrown around, coming dangerously close to death several times, and not even wielding a sword against an unarmed opponent is enough to secure victory, giving the fight a sense of danger and urgency.

In the end, Morpheus only wins by taking advantage of the agent being distracted: Like the duel with the Twins, Morpheus’ victory isn’t in defeating his opponent, but in getting out of the fight alive while completing his objective. Personal glory or victory means nothing when there’s something greater is on the line.

Hallway fight

Emotional Context: Neo and Morpheus have to get to the door leading to the Architect while also protecting the Keymaker

Analysis: The last duel of ‘Reloaded’ could be seen as a mini-version of the Burly Brawl, but is, in my opinion, much better. It has a solid goal for both the protagonists and antagonists (Get the Keymaker to the right door, and stop/assimilate the heroes, respectively), but the tight confines makes Neo, Morpheus, and the Keymaker’s escape a difficult proposition, not to mention being outnumbered. Even better, this is one time where Neo’s superhuman abilities are negated: he can handle Smith by himself, but he has to protect Morpheus and the Keymaker, who aren’t as strong as him, which adds more suspense to the scene. And as a final twist, we, the viewer, know that if Neo and the others get to the door before Trinity disarms the bombs, they’ll be blown to pieces. Thus, we have a paradox: Neo and the others have to get to the Architect’s door, but if they get to it too soon, they’ll die, and they don’t know that.

Though it may be quite small for a final fight of a film, the Hallway Fight is a great example of a fight that moves the plot forward, has multiple layers beyond ‘punch everyone to death,’ and adds in some twists that the audience knows about, but the characters don’t.

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels of the third and final Matrix film, ‘The Matrix Revolutions.’

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

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

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The game

‘War in Middle Earth’

The video

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

Why it’s great

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

Wait, what?

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

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

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

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

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

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the Book)

The Ritual Book Cover

Monster horror stories are everywhere these days, and for good reason: There may be no better way to get the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing than knowing that you’re being hunted by a unseen creature, and ‘The Ritual’, by Adam Nevill, joins those ranks.

‘The Ritual’ made quite a splash when Netflix aired its adaptation of the book last year, with acclaim given to the design of Moder, the story’s monster. I wanted to read the book before seeing the film, so let’s see what writers can learn from this tale of horror in Sweden’s forests.

Consider making your protagonists anything other than hot teenagers

Unlike so many horror victims, the protagonists of ‘The Ritual’ aren’t attractive youngsters in their 20’s with fantastic bodies, but middle-aged men, two of whom are in poor physical shape. Furthermore, they’re not out to get laid or do drugs; they’re on a hiking trip to try and rekindle their friendships that have been fading with time, and dealing with various problems:

      1. Not getting anything out of life

      2. Being overweight

      3. About to loose everything in divorces

      4. Trying to restore old friendships that have clearly run their course

      5. Being dirt-poor

These out of shape, depressed underdogs are far more interesting to follow than young people who are having pretty radical lives. Even Luke, the youngest and most carefree, has to endure the silent scorn of his companions for refusing to take any initiative with his life (to the point that he realizes that if he went missing, it’d be months before anyone would bother to look for him, which makes us wonder if he even has a future to look forward to if he escapes), and it isn’t long before all four are at each other’s throats.

These are not happy campers, and their struggle to deal with depressing lives while tying not to become gutted flesh-flags hanging from trees makes for gripping reading. In our own stories, consider making your protagonists the last kind of people who should be dealing with monsters. Why not try released inmates who can’t get a job or acceptance? Or try senior citizens who’s tour bus broke down in the middle of an abandoned city. (Admit it: You’d pay to go see the Golden Girls fight zombies.)

Make your environment an antagonist

Much like the Moder, the forest our protagonists stumble into is a threat as well. While many horror locations are far from help (Space, the ocean, or a crumbling mansion in the center of a forest far from civilization), the forest seems to have a malevolence to it, as if it’s working with Moder to disorient our protagonists and making it impossible for them to just turn around and leave the forest, as any sane person would do.

It’s left ambiguous if the forest is malevolent, but having an environment seemingly working with the monster is a great way to make survival even more challenging for our characters.

Have your characters face ethical decisions when it comes to survival

The forest our heroes find themselves trapped in strips away all the niceties and rules of civilization, reducing everything to a simple formula: Survive or die. In the first half of the story, Luke has to decide whether to abandon his out-of-shape companions so he can make a break for safety. Then, in the second half, he faces an even worse dilemma: Does he kill the teenagers who have taken him captive so that he can survive?

In the former example, Luke comes very close to abandoning Phil and Dom, but ultimately doesn’t. However, he does end up killing two of the three teenagers, but not before debating whether he should or not. The teens are cruel vagrants who are willing to torture and sacrifice Luke for their own pleasure, but their gung-ho toughness vanishes when they have a gun pointed at them.

Putting these dilemmas in our stories is a smart move for two reasons:

1. They reveal what a character’s true personality. What do they do when all their defenses have been taken away and they have to make a hard decision? Do they choose to spare others? Do they save themselves? Or do they try a third option? Furthermore, how do they deal with their choice after it’s been made?

2. They make the reader ponder what they would do in such a situation. Would you have it in you to kill teenagers who would otherwise kill you?

It’s a sign of good writing when dilemmas stay with the reader long after your story has been finished.

Consider having your characters made amends in the face of death

Though they’re trying to mend their old friendships, it’s clear from the beginning that Luke and the others just aren’t a good fit anymore, and that their hiking trip was an exercise in futility before it even began. What few connections they have are strained and then shattered when stress makes them snap at each other and permanently destroy their relationships. But, in a smart move, Mr. Nevill makes it so that they still have to work together to get out of the forest alive, even if they hate each other, which only adds more tension.

Then, in an even better twist, Luke and Phil, the last two survivors, realize that they’re almost certainly going to die and try to make amends to each other in the book’s most heartwarming moment. Death, in fiction and in real life, has a way of cutting through all our anger and self-righteousness and makes us realize what truly matters: each other. After all, when faced with a horror beyond human comprehension, we all want someone by our side, even if it’s just to hold our hand when the end comes.

In our own works, we should consider giving our characters the chance to make amends and heal any hurts they’ve had with other characters. While Phil dies in ‘The Ritual’, you could make it so that your characters survive, giving them a chance to go on in life with a newfound appreciation and respect for one another.

Be careful when stopping your story halfway through

‘The Ritual’ is a gripping read (I read through all of it in one afternoon), but I was caught off guard at the halfway mark, when the story shifts from Luke surviving against an unseen evil to Luke being kidnapped by homicidal teenagers and trying to escape becoming a human sacrifice. It was as if in ‘Jaws’, Chief Brody and his companions went out to hunt the shark, only to run out of supplies and food and pass out, then wake up on a deserted island with natives who worship the shark and want to sacrifice them to it. While Brody would still end up killing the shark, the straightforward story of three men vs a really big shark would become needlessly expanded.

In a way, ‘The Ritual’ is like a roller coaster ride: it’s a fast, gripping adrenaline rush, but suddenly stops halfway through before starting up again. And while we do learn more about Moder during the slower-paced second half, it takes a long time for the gripping survival story to come back to the forefront.

In our own work, it’s understandable if we want the audience to have some breathing room. How that’s implemented, though, is vital. If, for example, we want to have protagonists in a survival story to get a break from a monster, we can try the following:

*Have our characters be captured by natives, but make them as threatening and alien as the monster: They don’t speak a language anyone can understand, have customs that make no sense, etc.

*Have our characters stumble into the village of cult members, who are all long gone, but there are clues left to be found that will help our protagonist realize what they’re going up against. For bonus points, you can have the village only seem to be deserted, and then have the locals come back. (Walt Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ did this well with the crew of the Nautilus.)

*Have our characters meet the villagers, but they’re as terrified of the monster as our characters are, and a constant life of fear makes them lash out at anyone and anything they don’t recognize (like the tribe in the 2005 King Kong film).

Consider having a morally ambiguous ‘ally’ help your characters

One of the most interesting characters in ‘The Ritual’ is the old woman in the house where Luke is kept captive. Seemingly helpless and useless throughout the story’s second half, it’s gradually revealed that she’s the only one who can summon Moder (who is secretly her mother), and while she’s kind to Luke, we learn that’s only an act, as she intends to sacrifice him after he helps her by getting rid of the teenagers (and all without her saying a word we, the reader, can understand).

Such moral ambiguity keeps readers invested in a character, as they will want to figure out if he or she is a hero, a villain, or someone who’s neutral. A good example of this is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, who kept people wondering for years just who’s side he was on.

Be cautious when your protagonist fights the monster

Moder, like all great monsters, is only glimpsed and heard throughout the story, not making her full appearance until the very end. And like so many other great monsters, Luke finally faces her at the climax. However, Moder’s buildup is popped when, for all of her speed, strength, and cunning, this ancient god of the forest is driven off by a pocket knife to the throat. While she’s in rough shape at the time (tangled up in the wreckage of a van after ramming it head-on), it feels almost anti-climactic to have her defeated (but not killed) by such a tiny weapon.

If our character/s are finally facing the monster, how they are defeated should be relative to how powerful they are. If your character is fighting a T-rex, have them use a spear or an axe. For a large monster like Moder, a shotgun, machete, or other large weapon is appropriate. Or, if our character doesn’t have any weapons, have them resort to traps, similar to Dutch during the climax of ‘Predator,’ or Nancy in ‘The Shallows’. And even then, the trap doesn’t have to kill the beast; it can just slow the monster down enough for our protagonist to get away.

Consider having an uncertain, but hopeful ending

‘The Ritual’ doesn’t have a happy ending: Luke has managed to escape Moder and kill all her followers, but he’s naked and far from civilization, with a low likelihood of survival. But even in his lowest moment, he realizes that all the labels he has, all the things that he has – his job, his check, his living spaces – don’t matter. All that matters is being alive, and free to do what he wants.

It’s not a clear-cut, happy ending, but there is still a glimmer of hope, leaving us to imagine what happens to Luke. When doing horror stories, pulling off a happy ending can be very difficult, as it’s easy to make it sappy or unearned. Bittersweet ending, however, feel more logical: Things can be bad for our protagonist/s, but there’s still hope that things can or will get better. And as a bonus, leaving it open-ended allows the viewer to imagine for themselves what happens next. Personally, I like to think that, against all odds, Luke does make it to safety, and returns home.

The takeaway

When doing a monster horror story, try having the victims be down on their luck underdogs who have to make brutally difficult choices when trying to survive, but be careful not to interrupt the flow of the story to introduce a new plot idea, nor make the monster easy to drive off or defeat at the end before having an uncertain but hopeful ending.