What We Do When The Sky Falls

Consider these four films that all start from the same basic place: When Worlds Collide, Armageddon, Melancholia, and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

All of these movies have a big thing in common: Something large is headed toward Earth and will obliterate it. That’s it. Half a log line. But the characters the narrative focuses on, the degree of agency they have in the chain of events, and the tone the film chooses to take make each one unique.

When Worlds Collide focuses its story on a group of scientists and survivalists who discover that a star named Bellus is moving toward Earth and will consume it. They propose to build spaceships to take settlers from Earth to Zyra, an Earth-like body orbiting Bellus. With no hope for the Earth to survive, the movie puts its focus on the scientists, pilots, and engineers involved in the escape effort. The core conflicts involve the construction of the rockets to take people to the new planet, deciding who will be able to make the journey and who will be left behind, and the gamble of whether or not the escape from Earth will succeed.

Armageddon has a slightly smaller object hurtling toward Earth, but one that will still wipe out all life. Like with When Worlds Collide, the focus is on people whose efforts impact more than just themselves. NASA recruits a drilling team to go up and detonate the asteroid before it can hit Earth, and the conflict of the story focuses on whether or not this mission succeeds (since this movie offers the possibility that Earth may survive).

Melancholia opens with a flash-forward, showing that the Earth is definitely going to be crushed by a giant planet entering its orbit. There is no hope of escape. No chance of averting extinction and destruction. And then it cuts to a wedding. The movie focuses not on people who have any particular connection to astronomy, the government, or the military. These are people whose understanding of what’s happening is filtered through reports that they hear and strange events that they witness. The movie focuses on how these people deal emotionally with the certainty of impending doom; people who have no position or ability to alter the larger course of events. Because of their lack of agency against the large object hurtling toward them, their story comes from the way they interact with each other, and how they work toward resolving their interpersonal conflicts before the inevitable collision.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is similar to Melancholia in that its main characters lack the ability to stop the inevitable extinction of life on Earth (For example, Steve Carell’s Dodge is an insurance salesman). However, the tone is different, and the focus more hopeful. Instead of waiting out the end, this is a movie where the main characters are looking to reconnect with others before the end: a long lost love, an estranged father, distant family members, etc. Despite the certainty that by the end of the movie all these characters will be dead, the movie plays out as a romantic comedy.

Doubts will come up about your writing, sometimes about whether or not you’re saying anything original, or if you’re doing anything different enough to get noticed. Similarities to other stories or conflicts don’t necessarily mean that you’re telling the same story. Elements like giant asteroids/planets hurtling toward Earth, vampires, terrorists, or the breakup of a marriage are jumping off points. Unique storytelling is all about who and how.

Who do we focus on in this situation?

How do they tackle the obstacles presented to them?

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A matter of perspective

This is a corollary to the previous post on the dangers of the writing what you know mentality. If you do choose to write a story based on something from your own personal experience, the closer you are to that moment, the less sense of perspective you have on it.

Think about perspective as being the range of magnification that you can see an event with. When dealing with something that happened five minutes ago, you can only see the situation in close up. You’re able to see the details of that moment, but not the larger context. Compare that experience to something memorable that happened seven years ago. You can still see the close up details of the event, but you can also pull further back to see the chain of cause and effect that lead to and from that moment for you. You can pull further back to see how that moment relates to other, similar moments you may have experienced. You can even see how others involved in that moment have been affected by it, and you may even be able to make assumptions about their motivations and actions while in the moment you’re remembering.

There’s also a process of natural selection that happens to choosing ideas to work with. Every idea seems fantastic when you first have it. Ideas that still seem great months or even years later are ones with staying power. Writing something based on an event that hasn’t had that time to fight it out with competing ideas does a disservice not only to your writing, but the idea. Without giving the idea time to prove its strength and fully ripen, you’re cutting the thought off at the root and freezing it in a state of immature development.

This isn’t to say that an idea based on something that has happened to you recently can’t become a great story, but by giving the inspiring event time to move into the past tense, you allow yourself to detach the idea from the facts of the moment so that you can focus more on its truth. “That’s how it actually happened!” is a weak justification for plotting, but weaving something that did happen into a fictionalized version of events can be a way to make the fictionalized aspects of a story feel more honest and real.

Your duty is to your story, not to your past.

Unique and Relatable

A strong premise has elements that are both unique and relatable. One way of looking at the unique/relatable balance is the relationship between the protagonist and the world of the story.

For example, consider stories with a relatable protagonist, but a unique world:

  • Jurassic Park, where Alan Grant (a man who likes getting his hands dirty, doesn’t trust technology, and isn’t horribly fond of kids) travels to an island full of cloned dinosaurs.
  • Harry Potter, where a lonely, bullied boy finds out that he belongs in a hidden world of magic.
  • Back to the Future, where an 80s teenager who has a difficult relationship with his parents finds himself displaced to the past, where he encounters not only a vastly different world than the one he’s used to, but the teenage version of his parents, who are different people than he expects.

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin, where it’s a unique character in a relatable world:

  • A History of Violence, where a seemingly average family in a sleepy little town is turned upside down with the revelation of the father’s violent past and the further violence he deems necessary to keep his family safe.
  • The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where the title character attempts to navigate the dating world and its relatable series of pitfalls, but seen from his specific perspective.
  • Grosse Pointe Blank, a professional hitman going through an existential crisis attends his high school reunion while on assignment.

The clash between the relatable and unique elements of the premise gives a story narrative friction. That friction between protagonist and world gives us conflict to propel the story.

If a character and their world are both relatable, we’re not only missing out on a unique element to hook the audience into the story, but we’re losing the potential for conflict. If a protagonist has nothing unexpected to come up against, what are they going to spend their time doing?

Or, if a unique character exists in a unique world, what gives the audience a foothold to understand what’s happening? If all elements are attempting to be different from the world and the people we know, what gives the story the connective tissue it needs to grab the audience and bring them in?

This doesn’t mean that every story needs to be an easily explained high concept piece. Even in smaller, character-driven and intimate narratives you can see the friction between the unique and relatable. For example, The Squid and The Whale and Kramer vs. Kramer both take place in the relatable world of a family going through divorce, but their unique characters create two very different stories.

Look at your premise. Ask yourself what elements make your story unique and relatable. Do you see the friction? Do you see potential to make that friction more clear?