Thursday, July 18, 2013

5 Writing Tips from Sharknado

So, Sharknado happened. The monster feature/disaster movie mash-up conquered twitter and created an internet sensation. The live-tweeting was fun, the snarking was satisfying, the one-liners were... well, the one-liners were actually not that good, but, really, how do you top "sharks in a tornado"?

I joined into the Twitter movie party as a lark. Mostly, I was hoping for some good snark. I got that, but I also got an unexpected bonus.

I got a really fun movie.

This was a surprise. I've fallen for the SyFy mash-up hype before. I followed the Piranhaconda and Sharktopus hashtags and tuned in for various other cheesy monster movies. The concepts sounded like a lot of fun.

I didn't even finish one.

I love monster movies. I was raised watching "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "The Thing." My hometown TV station ran Japanese monster flicks on Saturday afternoons. I dressed up as Mothra for a college halloween party (don't ask).

I expected to love these movies. It didn't happen.

The endless parades of good-looking, scantily-clad youngsters fleeing for the latest mutant horror were boring. After about a half-hour and a good look at the monster-du-jour, I just lost interest. I couldn't figure out why. Really, how can you lose interest in a piranha/anaconda hybrid?

Sharknado was different. Sharknado held my attention. I watched Sharknado all the way through and enjoyed every minute. And it wasn't because of the live tweeting (okay, maybe a little bit), it was because of the movie.

So I spent a long time trying to figure out why Sharknado worked for me. I came up with a couple of writing tips that I hope to incorporate into my own work.

1. The Hook is Everything.

The hook was "sharks in a tornado." That's why we all tuned in. So the first writing tip from Sharknado is "pick a good hook."You're not going to beat "tornado full of shark," but you can try to come close.

2. Characters Need Agency

It took me a while to come up with this one, because this move has a very basic plot. All monster/disaster movies have the same plot: survival. The characters were always reacting to the disaster. You just pile up disaster upon disaster and, voile, instant plot.

Sharknado uses that but it adds a twist: Ian Ziering drives off to rescue his estranged family (hapless family members pop up so often it becomes an inside joke). This was a small, but significant change. It turned a passive character into an active character and made the movie a lot more interesting. Rachel Aaron has a great post on character agency.

Heck, Ian Ziering cuts his way out of the shark with a chainsaw. Now that's agency.

3. Commit To Your Hook

Monster/Disaster movies often get sidetracked. Once the big disaster/mutant monster strikes the whole thing goes off the rails and the writers start exploring ancillary disasters, failed group dynamics, romantic plotlines, government conspiracies, political rants, ad nauseum infinitum. A traitor within the group will sabotage survival efforts, a group member will turn into a sociopath and start murdering folks, black helicopters will swoop in, and so on.

Why do the movies add all of this stuff? They don't believe in their hook. Once the two-headed shark strikes, the move is over. They ditch the hook and start adding filler.

Sharknado avoids all of these temptations. The hook promises you shark mayhem and it delivers. All the action is shark-related. Will the local drunk be a plot-line? Nope, he's shark bait. Is the stupid ex-boyfriend a source of conflict? Nope, he's a shark snack. Will the bar waitress blossom into a love interest? Nope, her job is to shoot sharks.

This is a movie that believes in its hook. And it works. Time magazine calls this "the genius" of Sharknado. The website i09 asked Thunder Levin, Sharknado's writer, about the movie concept and his answer was "[i]t all seems like common sense to me."

A shark tornado is "just common sense to me." Now that's committing to your hook.

4. Build-up is Your Friend

Sharknado builds up its shark tornado slowly. It really milks the flying shark concept. First, there's flying sharks on the open seas, crazy, but well within shark movie parameters. We haven't even reached monster movie territory yet. The sharks finally reach the seashore, again, standard shark movie treatment. Then the storm moves in and the sharks land on the pier. Fun but still Jaws canon. Four escalations and we're still watching a standard shark movie.

The group drives into town and the sharks start invading the flooded streets. We have sharks in the pool and in the flooded house. Now things are getting interesting.

We still don't have a tornado, though. We just have a shark-infested flood.

By the time the shark tornado shows up, we've seen half-a dozen cool shark attacks. The writers have been delivering escalating weirdness and our expectations are high. We're primed for the climax. The chainsaw scene flows in effortlessly. At this point, it's not cheesy or unlikely, it's simply inevitable.

And satisfying.

Build-up is a writer's friend.

5. Surprise The Reader

I had low expectations for Sharknado. The trailer had already given away the highlights of the movie and I was expecting no surprises.

I was wrong.

There were no major twists and turns, but there were a lot of little shocks throughout the movie. Weird things were used as weapons, L.A. landmarks got blown up, people died in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. The surprises were all pretty minor, but they kept me glued to my seat. I kept waiting to see what the writers came up with next.

Small surprises add up to big delight. Rachel Aaron calls it "story velcro" and she wrote a great post on it. I know, I know, I keep linking to Rachel Aaron, but, really, her blog's amazing.

So there's my movie analysis. I'm going to give this some though, particularly the hook tips. Am I going all out on my hook? Does my MC have a "chainsaw your way out of a shark" moment? I'm not sure. I really like my hook, but I'm not going the whole Sharknado. Should I go whole hog? Would it be too much?

Here's a Jennifer Crusie post that answers that question. Hint: the tile of the post is Carpe Sharknado.

Food for thought.

How about you, did you glean any tips from Sharkando?

Note: All images belong to the SyFy Network.