The fatal flaw with zombie apocalypse movies

There are great zombie movies, and horrifically beautiful apocalyptic films.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, WATERWORLD (hey, I’m kidding)–you get the idea.

So why do zombie apocalypse movies smash into the brick wall of failure?

Zombie comedy? Sure. SEAN OF THE DEAD. Zombie romance? Yeah, they’ve tried that. Zombie drama? Yep.

You’d think this would be like peanut butter and chocolate, two great things that taste even greater when mashed together. But I can’t think of a single zombie apocalypse movie that truly works.

The biggest such film–WORLD WAR Z–went splat, despite the star power of Brad Pitt and a big budget. Why? 

I’ve pondered this, downed a pot of coffee and consulted the oracle.

Here’s the deal.

In a horror movie, everybody dies

Not because the screenwriter and director are sadistic. The whole point of a horror movie is society getting punished for its sins by the monster, who’s actually the hero.

That’s why Freddy, Jason and all the other horror monsters never truly get killed off.

Slasher movies show teenagers breaking the rules–shoplifting, getting drunk, having premarital sex, lying to their parents about it all–and getting punished by the boogeyman for their sins.

Another big branch of horror movies is about man playing God–inventing super-smart sharks with lasers, creating hybrid genetic experiments that go wrong, or sewing together body parts from the grave and using lightning to reanimate the thing. Then those creations rise up to punish the scientists for their arrogance.

This is why horror movies can fail. If the teenagers or scientists actually win in the end, the movie confuses the message. You might start out rooting for the teeny boppers or mad scientists, but in the end, you’re supposed to see the monsters as agents of rough justice.

Same thing with a zombie movie.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is actually about racism.

DAWN OF THE DEAD is about consumerism, which is why it’s set in a mall.

Monster in the House is a great story and a dangerous one for zombies

There’s a primal story that screenwriter Blake Snyder identifies as Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed space and either it’s gonna kill you or you’re gonna kill it.

JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION are all Monster in the House stories.

There’s a big difference between these stories and a true horror movie. The ending is completely opposite. 

The shark dies in the end of JAWS, as does the alien and the obsessed, discarded mistress played by Glenn Close. 

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD feature the same enclosed space problem, because it’s good storytelling to put characters in a cage with your monster. But they stay true to the message and let the monsters win, punishing society for our sins.

In an apocalyptic movie, tons of people die–but the story ends with hope

The storytelling bones of a good apocalyptic movie are completely different than a horror story.

Civilization goes buh-bye, and the fun of an apocalyptic movie is seeing how that happens and what replaces the status quo.

Also, you get to loot the hardware store and the mall. Who doesn’t like to see that on film? Always a good time.

The message of an apocalypse film, though, is that lots of people die because they make bad, selfish choices, while the few heroes who survive make good, unselfish choices.

It just doesn’t work to mix a true zombie movie, where everybody dies as punishment for society’s sins, with an apocalyptic film, with its message of survival if you make the right choices.

So: back to the movie, WORLD WAR Z, which is a confused beast.

If you read the novel–which you should–it’s not a horror story, where everybody gets nom-nommed by the living dead. It’s a true zombie apocalypse story that can work, with the end showing the undead almost destroying the world. They’re only beaten when society makes painful, fundamental changes to work together and win the war.

Hope and survival. That’s the right way to thread the needle and tell a zombie apocalypse story that works. Give us that, Hollywood–Brad Pitt is optional.

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

Here’s why THE MEG works

The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.

Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)

1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story

THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.

In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.

Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.

Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.

The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.

Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.

And it’s a story that’ll always work.

2) Jason Statham sells tickets

There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.

Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.

You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.

Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.

That’s box office gold.

3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears

Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”

Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.

We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.

Why the USS CALLISTER worked so well while METALHEAD turned meh

BLACK MIRROR is a beautifully strange British sci-fi series playing on this thing called Netflix, except they call it “streaming” now and you can do it on your phone, PC, iPad, Nook or 65-inch plasma wallscreen.

Each episode is different, and the showrunners take massive, massive risks. They’re not afraid to fail.

This season, everybody seems to love USS CALLISTER, which is a genuinely great episode starring Meth Damon from BREAKING BAD.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s that same actor rocking the role of Todd in BREAKING BAD:

The other episode I truly, madly and deeply wanted to see this season is METALHEAD, an entirely black-and-white story about an apocalyptic world. Check out the trailer:

So: why does USS CALLISTER work so well while METALHEAD fizzles out at the end?

There’s nothing here about the acting, the sets, the special effects or the directing. All are top notch.

What’s different is the writing.

The trick is, every episode in this series is a horror story. You can say it’s sci-fi, but that’s the setting, not the story.

Horror stories are about punishment. The monster is really the hero, and everybody dies in the end except for the monster, who comes back for endless sequels.

Good horror movies show the people who die first, committing sins they’ll get punished for later. In slasher films, it’s teenagers typically drinking and carousing and breaking the rules. In other horror movies, scientists (and society) get punished for being arrogant enough to think they could invent some insane new technology that, of course, turns on them in the end.

Bad horror movies reverse this and make the regular actors into heroes and the monster into a villain that dies in the end. Doesn’t feel right. That’s a different kind of story with different beats and twists.

The type of story where good guys kill the monster is what Blake Snyder nicknamed Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed place, and either you’re going to kill it or it’s going to kill you. That’s a primal story, something that touches us deep in our caveman souls, and you can see the same essential beats in movies that seem dramatically different: JAWS, ALIENS and FATAL ATTRACTION aren’t really a horror, a sci-fi and a domestic drama–they’re the same story in different settings.

USS CALLISTER is actually Monster in the House instead of horror. There’s a monster in an enclosed place–the starship–and the crew is either gonna kill him or get tortured and killed, forever, by an all-powerful bully who created this world. It takes a lot of creativity and guts for the crew to beat him in the end, and it feels right. They deserve their freedom and he’s a monster who deserves his fate.

METALHEAD is a horror story where everybody dies in the end, except the monsters. Where it goes wrong people don’t get what they deserve. The monster is punishing everyone for a sin you never witness, which makes all the deaths caused by the killer robots feel senseless.

This is why horror movies always start by showing the sinners running around, committing the sins they’ll be punished for later. It doesn’t matter how good-looking and wholesome the teenage actors in a slasher film are, they’re going to die for their sins. Same thing with horror movies with scientists trying to play God: they might be great actors, and the entire team may not be evil, but the whole lot of them get punished for the sin of thinking they could (a) make an army of robots to do all the work, (b) genetically engineer a way to life forever or (c) create super-smart sharks with lasers.

If we had seen the original sin in METALHEAD, and the characters who all die were somehow associated with that sin, then it would feel right for them all to get punished. Instead, the killer robots seem off. It feels like the most likely explanation is whoever created and programmed security robots for warehouses did waaaaay too good of a job. Now if that man and his team got killed by his own creations, the audience would swallow it.

4 ways to improve STARLORD VS MUTANT DINOSAURLAND (aka JURRASIC WORLD)

Seen it yet? Go buy tickets and eat insane amount of popcorn. Everybody on the planet is required to do so.

I’ll wait. Don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

Actually, I want to improve the ending. And the beginning. Maybe the middle, too.

Not that this is a bad movie. It’s summer popcorn fun and will make bazillions of dollars. Chris the Pratt is a great actor, our generation’s Harrison Ford, an action star who makes you laugh.

HOWEVER: there are four easy ways to radically improve JURASSIC WORLD, especially compared to the last two Chris Pratt movies, which were structurally sound.

This is more important than you think. A solid story is the difference between “Yeah, that was fun” and “Even though we just saw it, I’d happily pay another $15, keep this dorky glasses on and see this in 3D again right now.”

Despite my dislike for Tom Cruise, an amazing story structure is why I paid cash money to see THE EDGE OF TOMORROW in theaters three times and bought the Blu-Ray to see it twice more.

Want the easy way to see if a movie has story problems? Count the number of writers. One is great. Two might work if they collaborate a lot, or if they’re the Coen brothers. Three means trouble.

If you see four or more writers when the credits roll, that says “People gave us $389 million dollars for a film about transforming robots, lightsabers or mutant dinosaurs, so we spent about half a percent of the budget on script rewrites until we had a story that would thrill the high tastes and standards of 9-year-old boys sitting in theater seats as they drink 72 ounces of Mountain Dew.”

On to four easy ways to improve JURASSIC WORLD: Continue reading “4 ways to improve STARLORD VS MUTANT DINOSAURLAND (aka JURRASIC WORLD)”

The Greatest Synopsis that Ever Lived

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Dear Agent Sir or Madam,

This is a follow-up to my querying letter about a million-word fictional novel trilogy. You can read that letter anywhere on the planet by firing up AOL and clicking on this World Wide Web thingy here: The Mother of All Query Letters.

Maybe you haven’t gotten to reading it yet, seeing how you’re busy selling my trilogy to Warner Brothers for one million dollars (I figure a dollar a word is fair). My niece Daisy has a library card and her nose in all kinds of books, not just Twilight, and when I told her about my fictional novel, she said I need to send every agent and editor in Manhattan a synopsis.

Now, “synopsis” sounded Latin and possibly dirty to me, so I asked whether that word involved sins, and Daisy said, “That’s a good way to look at it. List all the sins you commit in that book of yours.”

So here’s my list of the sinful things happening in each book of the trilogy, with each novel coming in at 333,333 and 1/3rd words apiece.

Book 1: I KNOW WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED, DARTH SAREK OF VULCAN

A grave-digger falls into a grave and hits his skull on a fat hunk of rock, then wakes up on an alien planet to find he’s six inches taller and half-ninja, half-Jedi, half-Vulcan.

First off, he’s bound for alien slavery on a pirate ship, and I believe slavery to be a sin, despite what Uncle Will says about the War of Northern Aggression.

Second, he kills bushels of aliens, and killing is a sin, though he does it to win his freedom from slavery, so I figure those sins cancel each other out.

Third, our hero does have relations outside of marriage with an alien princess or three, plus an android on a planet run by robots and an evil super-magneto computer made by Bill Gates himself after he bought up an entire Best Buy and started soldering stuff together.

Book 2: LOST IN SPACE AND TIME WITH A GREEN LASER SWORD AND A PURPLE ALIEN PRINCESS

The robot king and his super computer can plug you in, like that Matrix or that Tron video game they had at the 7-Eleven on third street until some pansy replaced it with Ms. Pac Man.

The robot king makes our hero think he’s waking up in that grave, and that nothing in the first book really happened, kinda like that season of Dallas before J.R. got shot and such, and let me tell you, I’d shoot that man myself with my grandpa’s Colt and proudly do whatever time a judge handed down with the bang of his mighty gavel.

Back to the story. After learning kung fu and how to bend more spoons than Yuri Geller, the hero busts out of the fake holodeck world of the robots and uses his laser sword to cut Bill Gates and his super-magneto computer clean in half. Murder is a sin, but he says his prayers and gets forgiveness from his maker while the aliens rejoice in their freedom and put him in charge of their army of spaceships and purple alien princesses.

Book 3: MASTER OF OUTER SPACE,INNER PEACE AND DESTROYER OF SUNS

There’s peace in the galaxy with the hero running things, so he studies his Jedi and his Vulcan to learn the secrets of immortality, raises generation after generation of his young ones with the purple alien princess who’s his queen, and teaches the purple alien army how to be kung fu ninjas — but a new threat arises.

See, suns are alive. That’s right — they’re born, they live, they evolve and they die, with new baby suns arising from the dusts of their supernova. And they see themselves as gods, seeing how they create all the elements in the universe and provide all the heat and light and such. They’re mad as tarnation and they’re not gonna take it one second longer.

I see this third book as a tale of redemption, seeing how the hero starts out committing all kinds of sins in books one and two. Now he’s married and living right, unlike my second cousin Nellie, who’s on her fourth divorce and odds are she’ll hit number seven before we wheel her into the Willapa Valley Nursing Home.

Back to this book: Our hero flies right up to the face of the biggest, maddest, meanest sun and finds a way to communicate, but the solar gods are hell-bent on war and destruction, and they start frying alien planets like eggs on a hot grill with a fine sheet of lard already melted on top.

As a last act of sacrifice at the age of 984, the hero mind-melds with the suns and hypnotizes them into calmness by bringing them into his memories and dreams, which lands himself into a coma for a spell until I figure out the next trilogy of 1 million words, which I figure has to involve the only thing bigger, badder and more amazing than killer suns: black holes with father issues not even Dr. Phil can solve.

So, that’s a full-on synopsis of the first trilogy, with book one attached as an encrypted WordStar document and also available on 5.25″ floppies. Though like I said in that querying letter, I’m running out of those floppies, so make it snappy.

Sincerely,

Sensei George Lucas King

P.S. This is my new pen name, guaranteeing my trilogy sits smack dab next to all those books by Stephen King while appealing to fans of Star Wars and all those kung fu movies, which I figure covers just about every man still breathing, then you got the alien princess love story thing for the women. To write me checks, you’ll need my full legal name, though I’d prefer cash on account of some trouble with the IRS that started in 1997.

Why PROMETHEUS was such a Big Movie Mess

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Now, I am not some kind of movie snob who only watches black-and-white French existentialism plus “films made in the early years of Wes Anderson‘s career, before he went corporate.”

However: Ridley Scott is a crazy great director who made a crazy bad mess out of PROMETHEUS.

Yes, he is a film god for making the original ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER and GLADIATOR.

Being a film god, though, means you shouldn’t spend the gross domestic product of Paraguay on a movie that, with a few tiny little fixes, could have been 5,982-times better than it was.

Because — let’s be honest — PROMETHEUS stank up the joint.

 

Fix Number 1: Give us some flipping aliens in our ALIEN movie

There was all sorts of noise from Ridley Scott that this wasn’t, technically, an ALIEN movie.

Well, no. Because there was a complete shortage of the alien.

This movie is like selling people bacon cheeseburgers and making them all wonder why they’re looking at a bun with some fried pork bellies on it, but no actual hamburger.

Sure, there are tall bald bodybuilder Engineer guys, who technically are aliens, except their DNA is the same as ours, so technically they’re not. IT IS CONFUSING.

And yeah, we get about six seconds of an alien on screen at the very end when (spoiler!) a baby alien bursts out of the chest of an Engineer after he refuses to pay his dues to the Squid Facehugger Engineering Brotherhood, Local No. 1291.

But otherwise, we all paid $9 for 3D tickets and $8.50 for popcorn that cost 12 cents to make to watch an ALIEN movie with no aliens except for those six seconds.

Instead, we got this stupid black goo that makes no sense whatsoever.

Fix Number 2: Lose the Black Goo nonsense

So, there’s this Black Goo that the Engineers use to: (a) disintegrate some other Engineer they left on earth like some kind of frat-boy prank, you know, filling the bottle of shampoo with Nair, except Engineers are hairless, so hey, we’re gonna turn you into dust; (b) bomb planets far, far away with their donut spaceships; (c) turn worms into snake things; (d) turn humans into zombies; (e) turn lead into gold; and (f) make it so zombie boyfriends who get busy with their sterile human girlfriends create squid facehugger things the size of Volkswagens.

I may be missing five or six other things the Black Goo does. IT IS MAGIC.

Here’s the problem: the Black Goo commits the classic storytelling sin of Double Mumbo Jumbo, which is a technical Tinseltown term that means, “The audience will believe one piece of crazy sci-fi nonsense, but they won’t swallow 17 of them.”

The original ALIEN did this right. Can we believe a cute little facehugger will hatch from an egg, find a human host, implant an egg in his stomach and make an adorable little chest-burster who grows up to become a big, strong Alien?

Yes, we will.

The audience might have bought the notion that this Black Goo could do one magical thing, or maybe two, but not five or six or 30.

Fix Number 3: Cut the crew down from a cast of thousands to like, six people

Pop quiz: Name half the characters on the PROMETHEUS.  Now, that’s not fair. Let’s go with 25 percent of them. Ready? Go.

There’s no way. Unless you have a copy of the script and a rewind button, you don’t know who the hell these people are except for (a) the girl with the dragon tattoo, (b) her boyfriend, (c) Magneto and (d) Charlize Theron.

Everybody else gets about 30 seconds of screen time, including Guy Pearce looking like Yoda for some reason.

Kill off all the other guys. We don’t need them.

The original ALIEN had something like six characters. You could keep track of those guys as the alien killed ’em all off until Sigourney Weaver was all alone with the Alien, which was the main event anyway.

Peoples of Hollywood, hear me now and believe me later in the week: Kill off every character you can. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. This will both save you money (good!) and make for a better film (better!), which will make you even MORE money at the box office (amazing!).

Fix Number 4: Engineers should not be super-smart 7-foot tall toddlers throwing a tantrum

OK, I can buy that a bunch of space-faring aliens run around the galaxy, putting the seeds of life on planets. Maybe they got bored of spending their days playing MEDAL OF HONOR: THE BATTLE FOR XENOS, PART 873.

Having the Engineers go wacky, though, makes no sense. Why would they want to bomb earth with Black Goo?

Why would the one Engineer wake up from a long sleep, see the handsome face of Magneto and decide to twist his head off before Magneto says more than two sentences? Because the Engineer, he’s got such a busy schedule that day, just waking up and all. “I have things to do, humans! I have planets to bomb for some random reason!”

There are rumors on the Series of Tubes and papers of news and magazines of film that Ridley Scott himself said little baby Jesus was an Engineer, and they all got mad that humans killed him.

OK, that’s wild and crazy, and would have brought down the wrath of all kinds of church people, so maybe that’s why Ridley the Scott left it on the cutting room floor. HOWEVER: At least that would be a reason for the Engineers acting like two-year-olds all hacked off because Mom won’t let them watch The Wiggles for the 11th time this week.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire
A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster
The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.