Keys to a Successful Action Finale

The climax of any story is one of the most difficult elements to conceive, let alone execute successfully. It takes up the bulk of the third act, contains emotional highs and lows akin to a Cedar Point trip, and through it all needs to hold the audience’s interest. If you fail in this goal as a writer, you lose your audience at the point where it’s all supposed to come together.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on more action oriented finales. The conclusions of stories like tragedies, romances or any number of comedies typically have free reign to do whatever, but action requires a little something else. As the conclusion of a comedy should be funny, action or adventure stories should be, well, exciting.

There are many examples of climaxes that fail. I for one am not a terribly big fan of the Bay TransFormers films in part due to their climaxes.

The endings of any TransFormers movie suffer from common issues. There’s a lack of variety in their set pieces, and the stakes aren’t high enough. Yes, the heroes, metal and cardboard as they are, are trying to prevent the destruction of the world. This is the plot device sometimes referred to as the Countdown.

We’ve all seen or read those parts of two characters fighting while a clock ticks lower in the background. The characters need to prevent something from happening, but are inhibited from doing so in order to create suspense. We watch the fight go on while being constantly reminded that this bad thing that shouldn’t happen is edging ever closer. This works when we believe when that clock runs out, our worst fears may be realized. That’s why it doesn’t work in TransFormers.

In a series like TransFormers, does anyone really think the creators are going to let Megatron push the button and kill everyone? Of course not. That would pretty much drive away its audience of young boys looking for jaws getting smashed. In stories, the world is not enough. So what you have to do is hold another threat over them, the threat of losing something or someone that may actually be sacrificed.

To continue my endless love for the Alien series, Aliens has one of the most successful final acts of any story ever. It knows how to threaten its audience. The character of Newt is taken by the creatures to be implanted with one of their ilk. In an R rated horror film dealing with interspecies rape, we have no guarantee that won’t happen. It’s already been established that the monsters kill indiscriminately, so the audience is unsure if Newt will be saved, or if this will very quickly become about avenging her death.

Long story short, when you make a threat, make sure your audience believes you may go through with it. Since they don’t know what will happen, that will keep them coming back.

While we’re on that topic, lets discuss variety.

If you don’t love Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong. Hate to break it to ya, but this movie rules. It knows how to keep the audience invested in what amounts to 20 minutes of none stop action in its hair raising third act. It does this by giving its climactic escape so much variety, it almost has three acts in and of itself.

It begins with the rescue of Willie from the lava pit, then goes into a conveyer belt fist fight, then moves on to the movie’s trademark mine cart chase, and finishes up in a great action scene on a rope bridge. It goes on and on, but no sequence outstays its welcome. Your battles can be as spectacular as anything that has ever been put on screen, but without variety, it won’t take very long to get dry.

Another key to delivering a successful conclusion to stories like this is the structure that goes into it. This is what the entire thing has been built up to, so it better deliver. What I’ve seen in some of my favorite climaxes is, as mentioned above, they’re divided into an entire three act stories themselves. It contains all the emotional highs and lows of any given narrative, though a little more condensed.

Three Act Structure Graph

As this structure works for an entire story, it can also be applied to your final act, with all the built in peaks and valleys to keep your audience strangling the armrests on their chairs. You have your set up, build the action, things go well at first, then go wrong, a low point comes up, and when it looks like your audience won’t take a breath until you finish things, you grant them relief or despair. Think of it as a short story or film that goes into the whole. It should have a solid enough framework to stand on its own.

In my opinion, those are the big three elements that go into a successful action climax. Your threat should seem credible, the action should have variety, and the entire movement should be well structured. Because without a credible threat, there is no suspense, without variety, it gets dull, and with no structure, all you’re left with is a loud noisy mess. It may seem simple just to keep someone excited, but action and adventure are as difficult as any genre. It’s one thing to get an audience excited. It’s a whole other story to keep them there.

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Writing at the End of the Universe

The time I’ve taken off writing has given me much time to reflect and prepare for the eventual return to my days of keyboard waltzing. One discovery I’ve made in this time is how much environment can effect one’s writing. I never did like writing in my bedroom. It’s a place of rest, not of work. The moment I walk inside, I feel peaceful and relaxed, not exactly what one needs to get the creative juices flowing.

For a while, I had been writing at the store while waiting for my shifts. My shift would run from 2pm to 11pm. I’d go in at 7 or 8 to beat the traffic, and then work for the next six hours. This worked well, until someone gave me the WiFi password for the store, severely cutting into my time.

After much work, I was able to get my shift changed to the morning, arriving at 4:30 am and leaving at 2pm. Now there was no more time to write at the store, and I had an entire rest of the day to work with.

I had more time, but no place. I needed a place that kept me on edge, put me in the right mood, and didn’t have the distractions of the information highway. As it turned out, my dream location turned out to be a little place at Griffith Park Observatory.

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The Cafe at the End of the Universe is a great little place near the planetarium’s gift shop. It sells a hot meal with a menu that rotates by the day, as well as its usual quarry of massive hot dogs, cold subs, ice cream and chips. It has great windows that overlook the city of Los Angeles, letting the sun pour in during the day before turning blue by moonlight.

Best of all, it’s open late. Very late.

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As the hours wear on and the light drops lower, the Cafe at the End of the Universe grows ever more  and more quiet and isolated. Kind of like a blend of coffee shop and Overlook Hotel, minus the crazed Jack Nicholson. You can hear the insects chirping on the lawn outside amidst the chatter of late night star gazers. Little by little there are less and less people in the cafe, until only the custodians shuffling their brooms across the floor to pick up any stray debris left behind by the day’s usual festivities.

I went there last week on Wednesday to do some last minute edits to a horror script, to kind of test the waters and see how late this place stayed open. It doesn’t close until 9 pm. So, where I to arrive shortly after noon, the peace and time provided by this location would be most plentiful. For that, I would be most productive. I certainly was last week.

9 o’clock came and I packed up my computer bag and headed outside for the short walk back to the car. With the air clear and the night quiet, I cast a look to the south to see the ledge overlooking Los Angeles. What a sight it was.

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The lights of the Hollywood Bowl aimed high in the air, almost directly at the crescent moon that served as our night light. A smog lit the air over the skyscrapers, apartment buildings and retail venues who too were preparing to close their doors for a long night. The lights below cast themselves against the rancid vapor, illuminating it as a white mist that lingered over the city like a blanket. Leaving the cafe and looking at this place, I felt such satisfaction.

Satisfaction. Enough satisfaction to warrant a performance by the Rolling Stones. Such satisfaction that I’d come to this place and done so much work, and this peaceful if a little polluted vision was my reward before the short drive back to my Burbank apartment and a good night’s sleep.

Many writers look a long time to find a place that speaks to them, that lets them tap into their very soul and unearth the words that try to escape every day. I believe I’ve found mine, and all I had to do was go to the end of the universe.

And the hot dogs are good too.

Dialogue Can Make a Character

Dialogue is a simultaneously overlooked and much appreciated part of storytelling. It is through dialogue that characters relay information to us, be it how they are feeling, or how a story is developing, or just summing up a particular plot point so maybe we don’t get too confused. It’s through dialogue that the detective reveals to us just how he solved the case, or that a great hero gives a big motivational speech to a waiting crowd.

Dialogue is one of the most important elements in traditional fiction, from novels, to plays, and even to film which is generally a visual art form. Since many of us assume we know dialogue very well (we do after all exchange it every day), it can be easy to take it for granted and not do it quite right, but this is a mistake. Dialogue can make or break a character.

One of the biggest points in dialogue is it’s not necessarily which information is conveyed, but how it is conveyed. For example, take this line here.

“Hey everyone, come this way. I found where all the colonists are hiding.”

This is a simple line that reveals a plot point, our characters looking for some missing people. However, it doesn’t say much about the character who delivers it. What type of person are they? What archetype do they fall into and so forth? This line is actually an altered line from the movie Aliens, which in its original form reads like this.

“Yo! Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen. Found ’em.”

As you can see, we’ve received the same information as before, and are brought up to speed on the current plot point. The only difference now is some flare has been added to the dialogue, which now reveals a lot more about the character. He’s a jokester, seems to have plenty of confidence, and may not be taking the situation all that seriously.

Simple injection of words in an otherwise unremarkable line of dialogue can also drastically change it’s meaning. For instance, in Ghostbusters after Spangler says they’ll be able to capture a ghost, Venkman is impressed and responds with

“Egon, I’m going to take back some of the things I said about you.”

The injection of the word ‘some’ completely changes the sentence from an ernest apology to one Venkman’s usual snarky backhanded compliments. It also says a lot about Venkman, that he has ridiculed Spangler for some time and in spite of being impressed with his new ghost catching technology, still doesn’t completely respect him. All from a simple word with the proper placement.

Another point to remember about dialogue is sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. It is tempting, especially for first time writers such as myself to have characters speechify and deliver information and backstory with long drawn out speeches.

This can be very effective when done correctly, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech in Jaws. The scene is permeated with a feeling of dread, only strengthened by the haunting way in which Quint recounts the horrors experienced by him and his shipmates. But it’s not the length of the speech that makes it work. Rather, it’s the words Quint uses, such as comparing a shark’s eyes to a doll’s eyes. This speech lasts several minutes, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Keep speeches and monologues to a minimum. Usually you can only get away with one.

But as there’s a time and a place for speeches, there’s also a time and a place to just keep it short. In the movie Escape from Alcatraz, a counselor asks the Clint Eastwood character what his childhood was like, to which Eastwood replies “Short.”

So much about the character is revealed in that one word. He doesn’t go into a big long speech about how his mom was a neglectful sex worker or how his dad got drunk and hit him, or how he had a dog named Spot who was his best friend in the world before he got run over by the milk truck. All we know is this character never had what most would consider a childhood, so whatever did happen must have been pretty awful. Our mind fills in the blanks in a far more effective way than a monologue ever could.

While this approach wouldn’t have worked during the Indianapolis speech in Jaws, it does work here. The trick for a writer is to see which situation calls for what approach, the monologue or the story of few words.

One of the biggest tricks in dialogue is how the exact same lines can have drastically different meanings based on how they’re delivered. An ‘I’m fine’ told with a wink and a smile tells of a person who is well, whereas an “I’m fine!” shouted through gritted teeth tells of a person who is obviously not doing very well and trying to hide it.

This was a simple example, but picture this used in another situation. What if instead of the quiet and dignified way Atticus Finch delivers his closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird, we switched it out with him being red in the face, frothing at the mouth, and flipping over tables in the gallery? The words are the same, but the actions speak of a man not interested in justice and protecting an innocent man, but an obsessed lunatic coming undone when he realizes he’s losing. A stirring speech can be transformed into a paranoid rant at the drop of a hat.

In closing, treat your dialogue with care. Carefully consider your word choices and understand the importance of each one, think carefully about whether a monologue or a short sentence will be more effective, and after all that is done, think about how these lines are delivered. I myself am still a relatively new writer. There’s much for me to learn and hopefully plenty of time to learn it. In re-writing my own manuscript time and again, I’ve come to realize just how important a part of character and story dialogue can be. All of these elements can make a huge difference, and can come together to create magic when executed properly.

 

A Hero Shouldn’t Be Perfect

I’ve been seeing the pictures a lot on the internet as of late. Batman taking down every challenge with all ease and no sweat, or Goku and Vegeta of DBZ fame strolling towards the entire Marvel line-up with the feel of two friends taking a walk in the park.

More interesting yet is that I’ve seen such attitudes leak into writing, with characters facing nary anything to make them wonder whether a battle is winnable. This brings me to something that every writer must consider.

Don’t make your hero perfect. Don’t make them emotionally flawless, and certainly don’t overpower them.

I count Indiana Jones as probably my favorite fictional character ever. What’s not to love about the guy? He’s a gentlemen and a scoundrel both, he can fly off the handle at times and get in over his head, he throws Nazis under trucks, you name it. However, if you were to ask me who would win in a fight between Indiana Jones and Superman, I would probably plant myself in Team Kent. I love doctor Jones, but he can’t win all the time.

Indiana Jones is a flawed character. His hot head can get him into trouble, he often needs other people to save him, and by the time each movie is done, he’s hardly in the best shape. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that final image though of his bruised and broken body coming off his latest adventure is one of the things that makes him so lovable, because it reminds us of the insurmountable odds that he was able to overcome.

The main purpose of a hero in fiction is to create a character that takes your audience on a journey. In order for a character to do that, they need to be relatable for your audience.

It’s true that some heroes are less figures to relate to, and more for the audience to look up to. Part of the appeal of the Goku character is that he basically has the powers of a god, but also has the naive innocence of a child. The character is still challenged by equal opposing forces. However, having a hero that is overpowered can be a great risk because it can send a bad message. When you see a hero go continuously unchallenged or beat their adversaries with special powers the reader does not have, it can make them feel as if those powers are the only way to solve their real life woes.

In Lord of the Rings, the hero wasn’t the immensely powerful Gandalf, but the tiny Frodo Baggins. This worked so well since like Frodo, the reader was often in awe at the characters that filled with world, and could at times feel unable to measure up. Frodo didn’t really have any special powers or skills to get him through the day, and in the end he needed to make it on power of sheer will. It was a will that failed him at times, but in the end he was still the most important character of all. It was something that was very inspiring for the reader, in particular those among us who often feel small.

If Frodo could go Super Sayan, how would that message have been affected?

That’s not the only way a hero can be sunk, though. One equally dangerous way to deliver a hero is to make them perfect morally.

I’m a fan of the movie Krull, the 1983 cult classic about aliens invading a fantasy world. It has a certain endearing charm that makes it impossible to hate, in spite of its incredibly poor screenplay. Its main weakness is its writing, both in the story and characters. The character that suffers most is the hero, Colwyn.

Colwyn is a Disney Prince. He’s polite and charming, chivalrous, and never does anything selfish or self serving. That’s part of his problem. He doesn’t learn to be a better or braver man since he is already that way at the start of the journey. He just goes from point A to B, and that’s not what a story should be.

Going back to Indiana Jones, he does some morally questionable things often. He cuts off a man’s finger and threatens to murder a helpless woman in Temple of Doom, shows poor judgement in character when picking his guides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and allows himself to be fooled by a seductive Nazi in Last Crusade. These mistakes and flaws leave opportunity for him to grow, which is just what a character should do. He goes from threatening women to saving enslaved children, goes from picking scoundrels to surrounding himself with friends, and overcomes his lust to see what lies beneath false beauty.

An overpowered or otherwise flawless character is something I think about often. It can be tempting to do this to your hero, because your hero is a character you love, and you don’t want to hurt your baby. Take my advice though, hurt them. Hurt them bad and hurt them often, because there is something inspiring about it.

There’s something more inspiring about seeing John McClane run across a glass covered floor than there is watching Superman fly across the world in a flash. There’s something more endearing about seeing a frightened Ellen Ripley journey into an alien nest than seeing King Arthur go to take on a dragon without dropping so much as a bead of sweat. This is because these characters are us.

The best characters are always us.

My First Script Review

Today I got an unexpected treat in the world of writing, and an opportunity to test one of my long held beliefs when it comes to criticism.

Some weeks ago, I submitted one of my scripts, the horror tale Abyssus to a screenwriting festival dealing in the horror genre. I don’t know what I was expecting back, though I certainly wasn’t expecting a rave.

Abyssus is a script that, in its current form, I’m very happy with. A tale of oil rig workers pitted against a malevolent sea monster, it’s a love letter to some of my favorite films in the horror genre, most notably both versions of The Thing and the 1979 classic, Alien.

Today I got a review back. The review said the script was okay.

For most, that would be a slap in the face, but not to me. This was the first time I ever submitted a script and I was expecting much harsher treatment to be honest. I read the review carefully, finding myself agreeing with the valid points my critic put forward. The good news is the critic felt the horror elements worked splendidly. The script was complimented on the pace at which the story moved, and the creative and unexpected scares.

The criticism was more towards the characters, which my critic felt were too underdeveloped. They listed specific examples where this could be strengthened, and offered many wonderful and informative thoughts on how to improve it.

I also learned, once again, that I’m terrible at self editing. Typos abound, my friends. This is the last time I’ll be making that mistake.

The ending consensus was the script was an overall good read, but these few elements stopped it from being a great one. That is a much better review than most get on a first outing, and I couldn’t be happier.

I take it as a challenge. Abyssus, even in its current form, I’m most happy with and list it among my favorite achievements. The idea of it getting even better makes me most enthusiastic, and that is my challenge. It will be better, so next time I submit it, it will do better.

On this blog, I’ve spoken many times about how you shouldn’t shy away from the critics as bullies tearing apart your dreams. Instead, take their words as a challenge to take something you made and that you love, and make it even better so you can love it even more. It is these words and thoughts that can take an okay story and make it into a great one.

For all interested parties, you can read the first act of the current, though flawed incarnation of Abyssus at this link. Expect to see an updates version later this year once work on Never Heroes cools down again.

SCRIPT – Abyssus Act 1

Thank you for reading and I’ll get back to you soon.

Downer Endings

Every once in a while you have that conversation with someone where you got into a book or a film you really enjoyed. One of the most significant parts of any story is the ending, as the third act is where the action of any story comes to a head. You will often find that story with the dreaded ‘downer’, one that doesn’t provide any sense of relief or satisfaction when the story is done, and just leaves you feeling on edge or depressed. As much as we dislike these endings, sometimes they are necessary.

In the endings discussed below, I’ll try to keep things spoiler free while still explaining how and why they work.

Some genres work well with the so called ‘downer ending.’Tragedies such as Romeo &  Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and so forth have incredibly bleak endings where the heroes are denied their happy endings, in spite of the stories constantly, sometimes cruelly, teasing us with the promise of them riding off into the sunset. It is this unattainability of the happy ending that makes these stories so frustrating, but at the same time so endearing. They would not have had their long lasting power had they contained more upbeat endings. Other genres such as horror and thrillers often set their characters up for less than sunny conclusions, as per the conventions of the genre. Sometimes a bleak ending is just appropriate for a story, and having your heroes escape it can betray what the narrative is all about.

Dystopian stories for example are about being stuck in a cruel oppressive world and the despair such a world can bring. 1984, Brave New World, The Giver and Harrison Bergeron have notoriously dark endings, but one must think of just how the protagonists could have gotten out of the scrapes they were in. Each having the happy revolutionary ending would have quickly turned the genre stale and repetitive. Like tragedies, having a happy ending in such stories would have done more harm than good, because it would have negated the purpose of the narrative. The purpose of dystopian fiction is about the dangers of losing individuality and freedom. The most effective way to convey that message is to not to show an individual the audience cares about rise up and save the day, but show them being destroyed.

There can be a compromise to this type of ending in dystopian fiction. Escape From New York is a good example, where the hero still triumphs and delivers one final insult to the system that used him. When all is said and done though, the oppressive system is still in power, ready to use someone who won’t be as resilient as our hero. Though our hero is safe at the end, the rest of the world is not.

Horror is another example of a genre that can require a downer ending. Looking at classic horror stories like The Wolf Man, Halloween, Frankenstein, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others, they have some very bleak, but also satisfying endings. This is because the primary focus of horror stories is to frighten their audience. Sometimes the most effective horror is that which continues after the story is finished, leaving the audience with that one final sentence or image that stays with them after the final page is turned or the end credits roll. You go to bed at night, find yourself unable to turn off the lights, and find yourself jumping at shadows. There’s something enjoyable about being scared in this way, and it’s something very hard to do if the story ends with the evil vanquished.

There are examples of successful horror stories that have happy endings. Jaws and Poltergeist are a few. In those cases though, it seems tonally appropriate for the stories to end on the notes they do. By contrast, take a look at a movie like The Thing. This story tells of a twelve man crew in Antarctica battling a shape shifting alien able to mimic any life form it touches perfectly, right down to their memories. An atmosphere of paranoia and dread permeates the entire film as the ever dwindling crew tries to find out who among them is the imposter. The film’s ending offers no guarantee the villain has been vanquished, leaving the audience with the same uncertainty the characters have. Anything else would have been a cheat.

Even a crowd pleaser story can have a somewhat bleak ending. Raiders of the Lost Ark for example is one of the best films ever made, as well as one of the most guaranteed good times anyone can ever have at the movies. In the end, our hero does triumph over evil, throwing many Nazis under trucks and in plane propellers in the process. But the Ark of the Covenant, the artifact he sought to keep it out of the wrong hands, is taken away from him by members of the government. As Indiana Jones leaves with Marion Ravenwood, he wonders whether he has done the right thing, or if the Ark should have been left buried. The Ark is wheeled away into a warehouse, perhaps set to be misused all over again. Even with a bleak ending like this, people still left the theater satisfied.

A dark ending can sometimes be necessary note on which a story can end, but sometimes not. As a happy ending can be forced, so can a ‘downer.’ I may stir the pot when saying this, but I didn’t much like the ending of Easy Rider because it seemed to go too dark. Prior to the ending, there’s a scene between Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper where Fonda laments that they may have all the money they will ever need, but their trip was a spiritual failure. That would have been a perfect ending for the movie. It was bleak, but also thought provoking, and showed how the characters had grown. Then it continues on, ending on a note that seemed to speak of the hardships the counterculture was facing at the time. I argue the movie already made that point before, so to me, the ending was overkill. I understand many will disagree as this is a beloved film, and rightfully so. Just remember that if you want to end your story on a downer, only do it if the story calls for it.

One of the primary purposes of fiction is to allow us an escape from mundanity and grant us a little excitement for a few hours. However, fiction does have another purpose, and that’s to examine the real world, the good and the bad of it. It is a sad fact that in the real world, not every life has a happy ending, so putting the dreaded ‘downer’ in a story may make it easier on someone when something doesn’t work out for real. Lets face it, you can’t cheat your way out of a sad ending in life. Also, these bleak endings can serve as warnings for us in the real world. They usually come from the characters in the story making mistakes. If we see those mistakes, and learn from them, maybe those sad endings don’t have to be ours.

Balancing Convention & Innovation

A few years ago, it must have been around 2012, I went to a lecture being given by one of my professors, my teacher in screenwriting. The topic of the day was stories, more specifically, how to keep an audience invested in genre pieces and series. My professor put forward this little tidbit.

“The key is the audience wants both convention and innovation. The audience goes into a story wanting to see some of their favorite character types, cliches and story beats, but they want to see these things done in new and interesting ways.”

Though it took me a while, I eventually came to understand what he meant.

It goes back to the old saying about stories, and that’s that everything has been told, just not in every way. There are so many story elements that we have collectively inherited in our culture that they can be put together any number of interesting ways to create something completely new. If you stick too close to the same formula, you will eventually run stale. That’s a risk best illustrated by a long running film series.

The Friday the 13th series is very beloved among horror fans. The original film was a charming little horror story based around campfire lore. Unfortunately this didn’t lend a lot of room for innovation. Though the early films enjoyed great success, the series quickly went from charming to tedious. The villain rose from the grave, was pitted against a psychic, and thrown into New York and even space, but it was just the same thing with a few insignificant changes of setting. The make-up became dull, there was no suspense over who would live or die, and the scares could be predicted with the regularity of a kitchen timer. But if you experiment too much, you lose what made something attract people to begin with. How does one find a healthy medium?

There aren’t a lot of series that I would call perfect, but the original Indiana Jones trilogy is certainly one of them. Each of the original three movies is so different from the others, yet they fit together so well as self contained stories but also a larger arc. Part of the draw to the original film was watching the hero go to many exotic locales, so in this case the experimentation helped a great deal. Though the artifacts he differed greatly, they still followed a certain set of rules, a MacGuffin the hero needs to get that usually causes the death of the villain. More importantly, the series expanded on the character without destroying him. The Bond-esque ladies’ man was revealed to have a more tender side when he risked his life to save enslaved children, and his feelings of inadequacy were explored quite nicely through his turbulent relationship with his father. Through it all, these films still delivered on the spectacular action and clever wit that made the original great.

But this is just looking at innovation and experimentation within a series. That alone can be fun and challenging to try new things while still delivering on the promises of a specific property. To start something new however, that’s where the entire collective heritage of fiction becomes your playground.

Moving beyond self contained series, there is a variety of ways one can experiment with existing genres. Taking the conventions or iconography of one genre and blending them with another is a fascinating way to creature wholly original works. The Star Wars series for example doesn’t follow typical science fiction conventions, though it is often labeled as science fiction. Instead, it follows more along the lines of medieval fantasy, with sword battles, princesses needing to be saved, and evil kingdoms to be toppled. This is a tale of swords and chivalry that just so happens to be in space, with spaceships and lasers.

Another successful example of genre blending is the 1984 classic, The Terminator. This masterpiece was modeled after the slasher films that were popular at the time, its title character in many ways being the ultimate slasher archetype. This piece of concept art done by James Cameron shows the Terminator wielding a butcher knife, when the film was originally pictured sticking closer to its slasher roots. Cameron incorporated things like time travel, assassination plots, dispensed with bladed weapons in favor of firearms, and created a vast mythology around the simple plot of a robot trying to kill a down on her luck waitress. The result is something that does follow slasher conventions, including a high bodycount, punishment of sexual promiscuity and a prolonged final chase. With these new elements however, The Terminator overcame its competition and became hailed as a classic of creative storytelling, even though its origins are in one of the most maligned genres in cinema.

Slasher films have been used as the basis for many classics. They were heavily influential on monster movies that came after, such as Alien and Predator, and even influenced action films such as Die Hard, where the hero colorfully dispatches a number of villains in an isolated setting with the same brutality as a Jason Voorhees. The story of a mad slasher is so simple, that many things can be done with it in blending genres. This makes it one of the best examples of how one can experiment with a certain genre to create new stories.

This is true for any genre. The story about a knight saving a princess from a dragon? How about a dragon saving a princess from her evil would be suitor instead? An Oliver Twist kind of story about a boy moving off to a better life? What if the boy was a wizard and got sent to Hogwarts? Have a story of adventurers out to kill a beast? How about those adventurers become a cop, biologist and fisherman out to kill a giant shark?

Convention and innovation can go hand in hand, and great things can come of their partnership. Though by this point, I was no longer in class with that particular professor. He wasn’t even aware I had gone to see him as a matter of fact. That simple statement though on using both convention and innovation was the most important thing he ever taught me out of every lesson he ever gave. It is fascinating how the smallest things can put creative storytelling into perspective.

 

Commercial Can Be Important

It is something that a lot of artists say, myself included. They don’t want to do shallow art just for the sake of selling it. There is no real interest in creating the next big franchise or money maker. That art is shallow. In fact, it may not even be art, and just a product people create to sell and line their pockets. There’s also a certain bitterness that more ‘important’ and ‘thoughtful’ fiction is not as widely seen as the latest big action film. People have a hard time quoting a French film about the Holocaust, but most people can drop lines from any Schwarzenegger action epic.

But commercial art can have messages that are important, and packaging it right can help that message reach more people.

Take for example the Disney film Zootopia. This recent smash has been making waves and gaining praise for much more than just its animation. While on it’s surface it looks like a mere cartoon about cute anthropomorphic animals, it discusses a much more important and relevant topic.

In Zootopia, the populace is divided into predators and prey, though the two no longer eat each other. A series of strange incidents start occurring where predators go insane and revert back to their predatory instincts. The two main characters are a cop bunny named Judy Hopps and a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, prey and predator respectively.

After uncovering that predators are reverting to their natural instincts seemingly without cause, Hopps holds a press conference, speculating that these attacks are due to natural instincts. The exchange between her and Nick after the conference sounds a lot like something out of a different kind of film.

Nick

Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways? Are you serious?

Judy

I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, its not like a bunny can go savage.

Nick

Right. But a fox could, huh?

Judy

Nick stop it! You’re not like them.

Nick

Oh, so there’s a them now?

Judy

You know what I mean! You’re not that kind of predator.

Nick

The kind that needs to be muzzled? The kind that makes you believe that you need to carry around fox repellent? Yeah the only thing I did notice that little thing on the first time we met. So l-let me ask you a question; Are you afraid of me? You think I might go nuts? That I’ll go savage? You think that I might try to eat you!?

Judy reaches for her fox spray. Nick’s face drops.

Nick

I knew it. Just when I thought someone actually believed in me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this movie is about. One reviewer said it best when they said  Zootopia was Disney’s answer to Crash.

Some will say it’s a cheap bait and switch, advertising something as a children’s film only for it to be a ‘message movie.’ Here’s the thing though. Shouldn’t that be what mainstream movies try to do?

You see this in a lot of different eras and a lot of different genres. The 1980s saw a slew of highly commercial and highly profitable movies dealing with the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the most famous of which, War Games, had a computer attempting to start World War III, unable to tell the difference between the projections in its program and the real people it was going to kill. When the young hero, played by Matthew Broderick, uses a game of tick tack toe to teach the computer that nuclear war is a no win scenario, the computer laments the following.

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The preview audience cheered at the line.

Two of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien and Aliens, feature strong anti-corporate messages. The best example is in Aliens where a corporate CEO, played by Paul Reiser, attempting to smuggle one of the deadly creatures back to Earth for use in their bioweapons division. When his plan is revealed, the heroic Ellen Ripley calls him to the carpet for his greed, saying he is lower than the monsters she and the marines are fighting.

“You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

While it’s sometimes popular to disregard commercial film and literature as being just that, the fact remains that this work is the most widely seen. Experimental art films are wonderful, visually stunning, and psychologically unsettling pieces, but they don’t appeal to the masses. A story about a young boy going to a school for wizards does. People may not be too interested in seeing another documentary warning about the dangers of climate change, but an adventure to preserve the beauty of the far away Pandora is something people will flock to. An anti-corporate message will bore most people, but throw in acid bleeding aliens and you will draw a crowd.

Important and relevant messages can reach a wide audience if they’re packaged right. This isn’t a cop out and it doesn’t diminish the purpose os your art. Doing this only increases its chances of reaching more people, ensuring your message is heard by a wider audience, and allows the to have fun while you’re discussing potentially hot button topics.

Balancing both commercial and topical art can be difficult, but if you go too far in either direction, you have failures. The Transformers movies may earn a lot of bank, but they’re pretty shallow and exploitive action films. A French art film about genocide may be well made and heartfelt, but people need to see it for the message to be heard. If you find the healthy middle ground, you can make something people love, something that lasts, and something that gives an audience food for thought.

Zootopia has a cast of cute animals, but it’s still about the problems our society continues to face with ethnic and racial groups continuing to mistrust and categorize each other. If that message is still there, who cares if it’s told with a fox and a bunny?

When Do You Kill The Kid In Your Story

You have to look a good long while to find a work of fiction where someone doesn’t die. It happens all the time, from the most blood soaked of Goodfellas style movies to the most seemingly innocent of Bambi like stories of fluffy animals frolicking through the forest. Inevitably, someone is going to take anything from a tumble to a bullet. But there are a few no-nos in such stories, namely that killing a child is generally frowned upon.

It’s one of the things that most fiction writers try to steer clear of, be they screenwriters or novelists or anything in between. Generally there’s a fear that doing something like this will turn off one’s audience, and often this type of thing is used for no other purpose then to stir controversy. Sometimes though, taking that extra step can help a story, and be used as a great dramatic device. Let’s start with the death of a child in something relatively well known, like Jaws.

Jaws, both the book and film, has a child getting horribly killed before the closing of the first act. The film is especially graphic in its depiction, a fountain of blood surging out of the water as the child is torn to pieces by the shark. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t get an R from this scene alone.

The scene does help the film though. The unexpected violence of the scene puts the audience on edge, and the stakes are raised immediately. The film’s hero, Chief Brody, has several children, and now their safety is not guaranteed to him or us. More interestingly, the aftereffects on Brody become an important part of the plot, him getting angrily confronted by the dead child’s mother, and sinking into an alcoholic stupor afterwards. The death of the young boy does serve the story well. Alligator is not nearly as good an example.

Alligator is nothing special, a Jaws knock off from the 80s. There’s a scene where the monster is hiding in a backyard swimming pool during a child’s birthday party. Seeking to bully the the toddler, his older brother pushes him into the pool, where he is killed in a geyser of gore in front of horrified onlookers.

This scene fails for a number of reasons. One, it should be horrific, but unlike Jaws, it comes across as laughable. Worse yet, it in no way effects the plot. The leading characters are never aware of this attack. It doesn’t clue them in to the monster’s location, and afterwards it’s never mentioned again. What could have been a terrifying and even poignant scene is but a brief aside in the story. Cutting this element out of the film, it moves just as smoothly with no sense of anything being lost. It has no effect on the plot, so it has no place in the narrative. While the scene in this film is useless, it doesn’t come across as insulting and is actually good for a laugh. That isn’t the case for Aliens. vs. Predator Requiem.

Words cannot express how much I despise this picture. Not only does it ruin my two favorite science fiction icons of all time, but it contains some of the most shameless and exploitive violence ever put on film, and all for the purpose of garnering controversy. The film gets off to a poor start when a child is attacked by a facehugger and gives birth to the chestburster inside of him on camera. It is well known to fans of the series that the facehugger is a rape allegory, so using it on a child, and onscreen, was incredibly ill advised. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the film sinks to new lows when we witness one of the leading monsters massacre a nursery and a ward filled with pregnant women.

Now, the previous films in both the Alien and Predator series are not family material by any stretch. Aliens for example does kill many children, but it’s off screen. When either series was at its best, they were tense, suspenseful and well made films with well rounded characters that didn’t need gore or violence to sell themselves. There is no such tact or skill to be found in Aliens. vs. Predator Requiem. The above mentioned scenes are not well made in any sense of the word, and are blatant attempts to sell the film by stirring the pot. It’s only appropriate that the film failed. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t have something in bad taste and still have it serve a story. Arguably the best example on this list is one of the most disgusting sequences ever put to film.

John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 is an underrated gem that serves as the first in a series of incredible films from the talented director, and is easily one of the best action films of the 1970s. The plot concerns a team of police officers and convicts who try to fend off an attack on their precinct by a violent street gang.

In the film’s most famous sequence, a child is shot with a silencer by the head of the gang. It is sickening, in bad taste, and absolutely brilliant in how it’s executed. You could teach an entire class on editing from this scene alone, but lets take a look at how it effects the plot. After the little girl is killed, her father takes revenge on her killer, retreats inside the titular precinct for safety, and is followed by the gang bent on revenge. In one fell swoop, Carpenter both gets the plot of his siege thriller started, and removes any sympathy the audience might otherwise have for the gang. The entire story hinges on this horrific scene, for it creates the conflict that the characters must resolve.

In closing, killing a child in your story doesn’t have to be purely exploitive. It can be a very potent, dramatic, even tragic device. It can get your plot rolling, let your characters know how serious a situation is, or just put your audience on edge for the rest of the ride. There are however many other ways to do this. Use this dramatic device as you would any other that could be controversial, and use it responsibly.

Books or Movies? Evaluating My Career Path

In these two years since I got out of college, a lot has happened in my professional life to give me pause over which career would be best for me, film or books.

When I was a young boy of around six years old, I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom. The movie was so rich with imagination, action and creative imagery, I fell in love with it right away. Looking at what was playing out on the screen, I asked a question that changed my life forever.

“How did they do that?”

I had never considered the question before when watching a movie. I had always assumed these wonderful things just winked themselves into existence. After that question, I watched documentary after documentary on how these works of art were created, and made the declaration when I was 10 years old.

“That’s what I want to do.” So I went to college for it, aced my grades, and learned everything I could about the elaborate and complex craft of filmmaking, from conception to the screen. I was going to be the greatest director ever. Now 27, I have only made a few short films, no features, and have a small job in a film company. They are good achievements to be sure, but not my greatest. My greatest was that I wrote a book.

Over one hundred thousand words, over three hundred pages. I sooner saw myself directing a massive budget epic then I did writing so much as a short story, but here it is. Locked away in my external hard drive is a book, and I had the time of my life doing it. It has made me wonder which art form is more right for me as a career path.

Two questions go into choosing books or film, how each works as an art form, and what goes into making either one.

Movies are an art for that interest me a lot more than books, because they are every art form rolled into one. They have writing, acting, music, digital and painted art, architecture, everything. Whenever a new art or technology comes along, movies absorb it, growing as humanity grows. They are in many ways the universal art form. Not everyone has the time or the patience to read a book or play a video game, but with a movie all you need to do is sit back and take it all in.

Books by contrast only deal in writing. There is no music, no acting, no effects work of any kind. They are just words on a page. Unlike movies, books ask a lot of their readers. They ask for time, concentration, but greatest of all, they ask for imagination. That is the one thing books will always win at. A book is different for each person, and on each reading. The words change and grow with you, and you are in control of it all. How the sunset looks, how the birds sing, how the couple kiss under the moonlight. Movies have the personality of their makers, while books have a lot more of their readers in them.

Movies and books are both wonderful, beautiful things. Thing is, I know much more about movies than books as I’m a very visual thinker. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the great authors of our time, but you ask me one question about any film from a Hollywood blockbuster to an 80s slasher film and I can spew out more trivia than your average google search.

As for reading books, I’ll freely admit my guilt in not reading some of the best ever written. The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, the list goes on and on of great books which never graced my unfortunate eyes. Perhaps it’s because I better process the auditory and visual information in movies. I like seeing and hearing all these things, looking at a good piece of cinematography or hearing a great score to go along with it. With books however, you get to make your own. Chose your own actors, write your own music. You could have Dumbledore played by everyone from Gregory Peck to Harrison Ford.

Harrison Ford as Dumbledore. How kickass is that?

What about what goes into making either one? That perhaps is where the two differ the most. Though I always dreamed of being a film maker, the actual making part always filled me with dread.

Movies require many things. They require money, untold numbers of man hours, crew, safety regulations, you name it. These are all things one must consider when making a motion picture, because movies do have limitations. A first time director isn’t going to get a job directing a megabucks movie.

Also, as much as this pains me to admit, you don’t have that much creative freedom in movies, especially a big studio film. Studios give you the money, and they want a product they can sell. I suppose this does make sense. If I shoveled that amount of cash at someone, I would want them to follow certain rules also. Studios won’t give you that kind of money to see your dreams come true. Movies are art, but they’re expensive art, and expensive art has to sell.

With a book though, there is no crew, there is no limit on budget, and there is no person looking over your shoulder whispering yay or nay. You just set your fingers loose on a keyboard and watch them dance. You can do this anywhere you want. On a lake, in the few hours before work, on a vacation to Universal Studios, wherever your fingers can meet those keys. If something goes wrong, just erase it and start over. No time to reset the effects and actors. It’s ready to go as soon as you are.

Best part about a book though, is there is no waiting. No waiting for someone to green-light a passion project you’ve been wanting to make for the last twenty years. No waiting for a bigwig to take a passing interest in that baby that means so much to you. Whatever project you want to do, whichever one is most in your heart at that moment, that’s the one you make.

You can do whatever you want, whenever you want when writing a book, and that’s the dream of any artist. You want to sink an entire continent into the sea? Have an entire city fly to the moon? Whatever you can imagine, it only costs the ink to print it and the paper to put it on, available at any fine retailer. It takes only two things, your patience, and your time.

Still, making a movie is an experience. It’s collaborative. You meet and work with a lot of people. You make memories while making a movie, of late nights and early mornings, hanging out and trying the catering, all the things that have gone wrong and all the things that went right. It may be stressful, but it’s the stuff memories are made of. When all is said and done, it’s a mountainous achievement.

Making a movie is much more challenging than writing a book, but in the end, both are just as rewarding for the artist and their audience. Honestly, I’m not sure which is better for me now. Film has made a much greater impact on me. They were my focus on college and in my dreams for almost twenty years. But the writing of a book was such an enjoyable and free process, it was the first time in my life where I felt free of any limitations. Whatever story I wished to tell, I could just get started.

I’m still working on both careers. I have a meeting with someone who’s wanting to work together on shorts and features, and you better believe I’m completing my fantasy/adventure book series. The question now is which one I find more fulfilling, the challenge of filmmaking, or the freedom of book writing.

It has given me a lot to think about.