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. 

Dude...

When I first started to develop the characters of my book, Nightfall, I knew one of the subjects I was going to be exploring was ego, and how ego weaves its ugly opinions into their lives and shape their world. And the startling thing I've found was that part of the development wrote itself. It's character arc, how a person moves from who they are today to who they should be tomorrow. 

The story of Scrooge is a great example. When the story begins, Scrooge is greedy, hoarding his riches. Through spiritual enlightenment, namely the three ghosts, Scrooge evolves into a person who is giving and caring.

I was like that. Being Asian, I was raised to save, save, save. Before I was born, my family of six lived in a bedroom-sized apartment. My mother is a huge saver. So I grew up to be very cheap. I had an argument with an ex one time because she asked me to buy her a three-dollar bottle of water at a movie theater. I bought it, but then we fought about it because I was upset at having to spend that much money for water. Safeway sells it for less than a buck. Common!

But I realized that I wasn't poor anymore. I was earning more than enough money to live on, my savings was healthy, and I wasn't living from paycheck to paycheck. But I was still in the mental space of being poor. Luckily for the woman in my life today, I'm not in that head space anymore.

Recently, I asked a friend if I can get a ride to a dinner event. I would take Bart, a public transit system, and get off at the 16th Street station that was literally a five minute drive to the restaurant. He wanted me to get off several stations passed that because it was closer to where he lived. So I reiterated that the restaurant was only a five minute drive from the 16th station.

He then went off and said, "You're the one who needs a ride, dude. Not me, dude. Just meet us at Balboa. I don't mean to be rude, dude!"

Hmm. OK. I can understand if I was asking for rides all the time, but we hadn't hung out for a couple months, so I wasn't sure what his problem was.

Dude. Deeeoooood. Dewd. Dood. Diud. Dhude (the H is silent).

Then I remembered an incident. He had liked this girl for a while and was stalking her online. He asked her a question about a conversation she and I had had. We were talking about FOBs (fresh off the boat) and traded our experiences with them. He then asked her if he was an FOB and she said yes. He took offense to that and might have blamed me for that classification. It wasn't I who had turned him down for a date. But I think he started using the word 'dude' a lot to further himself from being a FOBby dude.

A friend and I met up with a girl one Friday evening to watch a group of bands play. I'm not a huge fan of live music, but I went because I'm always trying to break old habits and thinking. The girl was late, Asian time, and the first thing she said was, "San Francisco is so pretentious."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because the restaurants and bars are very douchery." Translation: they charged a lot. "I've been to a lot of them and they're all like that."

"How many restaurants have you been to?" I asked.

"Thirty."

There are over 4,000 restaurants in San Francisco. It's a foodie town that houses everything from food trucks to Michelin rated establishments (Translation: hella good grub). So for her to make a determination that the city is douchery from a sample size of thirty restaurants is kinda small, especially when the variability seemed to be non-existent because she's choosing expensive places, obviously.

Thinking that you deserve to eat well versus just eating good food is egotistical. Personally, I love hole-in-the-walls (not glory holes) just as much as Michelin rated restaurants.

I've always hated the corporate world. I work in it because it's just a paycheck to me. And that's what is so soul-sucking, that the work has no meaning to me. Think of a woman having sex for money, so she can eat, shade herself from the rain, feed her children. Sex should be pleasurable, be an intimate communication of the bodies, and/or maybe, depending on who came first, to procreate.

I look at everyone who seems to love the corporate world and ask myself, "Don't you all want more out of life?" I hear from old corporate execs that they should have spent more time with friends and family. And if I were to get laid off, I don't think I'd mind it so much. I would be shocked at first, but then I'd be free of my voluntary jail sentence to my 6X6 cubicle. 

All of this thinking, of course, is egotistical, like I'm too good for the corporate world. And me spending all this time writing isn't taking away from friends and family, that my writing is more important than the job that affords me to write. Well, yes, to me. But it's still ego. Knowing this truth doesn't change how I feel, but it helps take me off of my high horse. And get on a smaller one. What? It's not a bad joke!

Franchises

Most people abhor movie sequels. Not sure why since they usually do well in the box office. But I think the lost love comes from not being as good as the first movie. Part of that comes from character development.  With a lot of stories, the main character goes through a change like going from being unconfident to confident.  And once that's done that character becomes uninteresting.  The sequel now has to depend on plot. James Bond as a character doesn't change at all.  All of his stories are sold based on plot and fan base.  It's no wonder the actors change so much.  They have to to keep the audience interested.

Then came Casino Royale.  One of the things Bond doesn't do is fall in love.  He's a slam-bam-thank-you-mam kinda guy.  Nothing wrong with that.  He whips it out, tugs hard, holds tight, and bam.  I was talking about the gun.  But in Casino, Bond not only whipped it out--not talking about his gun--but let his love interest have it.  I'm talking about his emotions.

The man fell in love.

Add the banter between the two love birds, the plot, and a blonde Bond, and you get one of the best Bond movies ever made.  But once Quantum of Solace came out, it received mixed reviews.  And here we get into franchises.

In my search for a literary agent, I came across an article written by one.  He wrote something that made a lot of sense.  As writers, we have to know that the publishing industry is a business.  As a business, once a platform does well publishers will want to build off it to make more money.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a five-book series.  I haven't read the books, but I've spotted them as I walk through Borders.  There are tons of Trilogies.  But they're small potatoes.  There are book series that last a dozen books.  Some series are even ongoing.  Publishers often urge the writer to continue the series before venturing outside of that domain.

It's a business.

The problem, as stated above, is character development.  How can a writer continue to make the character interesting?  Put her through a lot of crap through plot?  Maybe.  How about having change occur in supporting characters?  Or what about creating new issues with the main character, and adding change in supporting ones?

Here's where J.K. Rowling did a great job.  As Harry grew up in those seven years, he changed just like a real person.  Shocking.  That and the red herrings, plot, the close knit friendships made for a great read.  Rowling satisfied the publishing world's philosophy of building on a fan base, but satisfied her fans by creating incredible plot with highly relatable characters.

As writers, we need to keep at heart the art but also keep an eye on the world of business.