Don't Alienate Your Readers

Should a writer listen to the readers and craft stories with their expectations? Especially in an established series such as Alien? No. But that was one of the biggest complaints for the new film Alien Covenant. More on that later.

For me I've crafted my story with something real to say about the human condition. Outside input would only muddle that message. Trying to convey my message is hard enough as it is.

This leads me to Alien Covenant directed by Ridley Scott. There appears to be a lot of discontent around the net regarding his latest effort. Scott seemed to have ignored the basic timeline of the Alien universe, logical storytelling, and has fallen to using the worst horror cliches since the Friday the 13th movies. Impossible, you may say. Would a skilled filmmaker and storyteller recycle a shower scene where a couple is making out and both are killed? Hell to the No, you scream at me. Unfortunately, yes he did.

However, most reviewers, both who favored and hated Covenant, didn't comment on the most glaring thing that was missing. I can't blame them, though, as there were a lot of things wrong. A huge indication of what's missing is with the casting of James Franco as the captain of the ill-fated ship. He dies in his hibernating capsule right after most of the crew has awaken. This is not a spoiler because it doesn't do anything except beg the question: Why cast such a named actor if Scott wasn't going to use him beyond the beginning? That's simple. I'm assuming here, of course, but Scott was probably banking on Franco dying to get the audience to care. If that's true, then I don't think it worked. At least not for me.

Scott used that death by having the loyal crew argue with the succeeding captain that they should have some sort of funeral. The new commander denies their request because the ship is falling apart and repairs are needed now. Makes sense to me. Everyone is in a spaceship...in space...where if it falls apart everyone dies. However, the crew gathers below deck anyway and salutes the dead captain as he's shot out into...space.  The filmmaker is hoping the audience will care because the crew was loyal.

The issue is that there are no character traits to separate the many crew members, most of whom end up as cannon fodder. No character traits means no character arcs of any kind. Some of the reviews had touched on this by stating they didn't care that this person or that individual was killed. They may have not known why they didn't care. But it was obvious the writers didn't root the audience to anyone except to use Franco as Franco—not as the captain—breaking the fourth wall, which is the movie screen.

Here's what I think Scott is trying to do:

See this movie star James Franco who's been in everything? You guys like him, right? Well...he dies.

The audience shrugs because they know this is just a movie, and Franco the actor wasn't killed in the making of this film.

At this point the director hasn't pulled the audience into the Alien world. We have yet to suspend our disbelief.

Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, is his wife—the original captain, not Franco. She cries a lot after his turbulent passing. Again, we don't care. We didn't see them interact as a couple. We don't know who she was. Does she prefer cats or dogs? Something, anything to hook our teeth into.

Now, if the writers had her share a moment with her husband, then it may have opened our hearts and drawn us in:

The ship rumbles, taking on damage. Mother, the computer, wakes the crew. The captain hauls himself from his hibernating capsule. After delegating orders to repair the ship, he pulls Daniels in and gives her a small birthday gift. They had gone into the capsules the day before her birthday, so he was saving this gift for when they woke up after arriving at the destination. The gift is a locket with a picture of them atop the first mountain they had scaled together. She recalls how cold it was that night. And he quips that she didn't complain inside their tent. She looks down at his pants and says that she had to take care of his little friend. He smiles and bites her nose.

On the planet, the crew explores the forest, WEARING SPACESUITS. The captain trips and falls on something sharp, unknowingly infecting himself with an alien virus. The day passes as the mystery grows: Who planted the wheat? Where are all the animals? Why is the captain getting sicker? The crew struggles to find what's wrong, but time runs out. Pain riddles the captain's body. He shakes and screams, giving birth to a xenomorph that rips him apart. Daniels screams, clutching the locket.

OK. Not my best.

Part of writing a story where death is such a prominent and visual aspect is rooting the readers or audience to the characters. Think of it this way: When we hear that someone is killed on the news, we're not really affected by it. We go on our day as if nothing happened. To that person's friends and family, the news hits them like a Mack truck because they're attached to the deceased. And that's the difference. Rooting is important to all stories. But when you begin to kill off characters without getting the readers to care, then they're not gonna care.

My point is, draw the audience in, give us a chance to suspend our disbelief, root us to at least one character, and slap us with tragedy. Badda-bing-badda-bang.