asked me awhile back to tackle some major cliches associated with the 'big three' of genre fiction that need to die: from Horror, Action and Sci-fi.
Don't get me wrong here. I LOVE genre fiction! I read it, watch it, play it every day I can in every form there is from novels to comics to audio books to video games to films. Tropes and cliches are going to crop up in any form of prolonged idea. Like defining weeds as 'plants that grow really well' you can also define a trope as 'ideas that show up a lot'. But like weeds they can get mighty samey when spread over a wide area and they are almost always considered a stumbling block to a production rather than some kind of welcome addition. Like weeds it takes some effort to uproot and replace them as well, but I think it's worth it in the long run to put in that hard work to see an improvement overall.
With the tropes I mean. Weeds are a pain in the neck.
Four tropes per major genre oughta do it.
SCI-FI TROPES THAT NEED TO DIE
1: People Being Stupid Around Aliens
People have a self-preservation instinct. This tends to only be exacerbated by respect earned with extended knowledge. If you're a scientist who has been steeped in the research of hundreds of creatures who can kill you fairly easily you might not become a paranoid shut-in but you will become cautious, especially with animals and plants and insects and microbes you don't full understand.
What you will NOT do is slowly approach an alien you've just spotted for the first time with your dominant hand extended making cooing sounds and reassuring it 'I'm not going to hurt you little fellow!'
On Earth doing this to, say, a marmot is at least understandable because in no case I can think of did a marmot suddenly sprout deadly bloodsucking tentacles and so it only makes sense the most the creature will do is run away or growl.
This is not the case for a completely undocumented species, and a scientist (AKA pretty much anyone a research team to another planet has bothered to bring in their spaceship anyway) will not make the same mistake that any other person wouldn't on principal. When I see a bear and I'm all alone and perhaps in a woodland area without immediate access to help my first reaction is not to try and make friends or 'get a closer look'. It wouldn't be to run or antagonize the bear either, but I'd probably think seriously about hiding or freezing still and hoping not to be noticed. Yes bears won't necessarily attack but I'm looking at a creature I can't predict and which presumably has the capacity to injure me. I'm not going to fall for that fuzzy exterior: I'm going to be extremely careful.
The otherwise excellent movie Europa Report had this problem and it really detracted from what till that moment had been a fairly accurate 'hard sci-fi' experience. Prometheus infamously has the scene where a supposed genius level researcher all but invites a writhing alien snake monster to eat him.
Scientists and people in general of many different professions and outlooks and creeds and background DO NOT ACT THIS WAY. Unless you're really stupid or careless anything from a spider to a frog to an elephant is something you may regard with awe but you will not immediately invite it to crawl up your arm.
I understand why this keeps happening. We supposedly need to have the suspense of someone slowly approaching danger they don't understand but the audience does so the tension can build until the seemingly harmless creature strikes and shocks us all. The problem is that this is unrealistic behavior to a laughable degree, the actions of the person involved is so pitiable the audience will not sympathize with them after the monster they should have known better than to bother starts chewing on them, and there's the little issue of this cliche being so old and creaky that playing it straight comes across as being blind and ignorant to the genre itself. You wouldn't in all honesty have a character throw up their hands and declare 'WHAT HAS SCIENCE DONE!?' in even a semi-serious sci-fi story, so why then do you think people will buy it when your super smart science crew start treating the local wildlife like their own personal petting zoo?
This trope needs to die. It breaks immersion and unless you're making a parody immersion is the glue holding an experience together. If you absolutely must have the alien attack someone HAVE IT ATTACK SOMEONE. A jump scare without meaning is as flat as this kind of scene played straight, but used sparingly and logically it can also work fine. And if you have to have someone acting stupid around aliens establish them as a starry eyed dreamer who believes all life is benign or something. That way you can have your irony, your suspense, even your pathetic character creeping towards their unknowing doom, but at least now it makes so kind of sense.
And don't have them EAT the wildlife either unless they absolutely must. That's so stupid I can't think of a way to fix a scene like that short of a laugh track.
2: The Planet of Hats
This term I believe was originally coined by TV Tropes: the great bastion of genre wisdom. It refers to a placeholder cliche leftover from the golden age of sci-fi like Star Trek and Star Wars but which is present in some form in practically every production involving alien worlds. Lets think about this for a moment.
The Klingons are all honor obsessed warriors. The Vulcans are all logic obsessed diplomats. The planet Coruscant is all one big city. Dagobah is the swamp planet.
Nothing but swamp. Like Hoth there are no other biomes. There is no diversity.
And there's no diversity for aliens either. All aliens in Independence Day are bad. All aliens in Avatar are good. All aliens in District 9 act exactly the same way.
All aliens and their worlds look, act, talk, think the same throughout run by a consistent theme. Hence: planet of hats. One size fits all.
The Earth itself can be a planet of hats. Avatar again would have it all humans with only a few exceptions act exactly the same way to the point that collectively they're a menace. In early Star Trek The Federation was a utopian society because everyone in it supposedly conformed to the same ideals. Even in later Star Trek productions those who step outside of the line of Federation behavior are the outliers, not the rule. All Imperials in Star Wars are villainous and lockstep while all rebels are noble and self-sacrificing. Just factions of ideals can peg people as being exactly the same, inside and out.
Now consider the human race as it actually exists.
In a subsection of mankind taken from even something as arbitrary as a small group of people of the same race, same political affiliation, same religion, same location, can you predict with unerring certainty how these people would act? Not every one from Italy conforms to stereotypical 'Italian' behavior. Not everyone from any nation by any creed with any pigment can be said to always act or think or talk the same way.
And this is only THE HUMAN RACE we're talking about here. Our sentient species comprises three to four 'base' races which are divided into thirty subgroups, and that's only the species as it exists today. How many religions are there? How many political theories? How many philosophies and perspectives and lifestyles?
BILLIONS out of millions of creatures, many of whom grew up into cultures they eventually ignored or rebelled against or changed or maintained as they pleased to.
In the same species that a man decided he was going to get himself surgically altered to look like a tiger we have people who have learned how to dance with missing legs, were born with conjoined siamese twins, who dug up historical basis for refining existing practices, whose visions prompted entirely new ways of thinking.
So...why is it that all Wookies look, act, sound, and dress exactly the same way? Why do all Na'vi whether they live in the forest or on the coat look, act, sound and dress exactly the same? How about Ferengi? How about the Narn or the Delvians or the Wraith or the Mangalors? Come to think of it, why do all elves and dwarves and orcs and whatnot all act and look and sound and dress THE EXACT SAME WAY?
The explanation usually boils down to time and to resources. In the video game series Dragon Age and in Mass Effect there was a lot of effort put into making the different races have many different outlooks and attitudes, but there couldn't easily be situations where their appearances or lifestyles varied so drastically with only a few exceptions. I understand in a game where there's lots and lots of non-player characters you can't always fine tune each and every example, but why is it in movies and in books this same kind of creeping sense of conformity steals upon every fantastic race and even our own? Even in books I love like Dune the representatives of House Harkonnen are all sadistic crazies and the members of House Atredides are stalwart and sophisticated. I'm not saying no society can be crafted in such a way the vast majority of representatives will not act predictably in a certain way, especially under pain of punishment or if they've been brainwashed, but there has never been a human society in which EVERYONE acted exactly the same way even with the threat of death or lifelong indoctrination.
So I say this trope needs to die. It will probably be with us forever as long as it's an easy alternative to drawing outside the needed lines of fiction, but I say if diversity of opinion and attitude and appearance is good enough for humans, why isn't it good enough for fantasy races too? Lets see some variations or these poor saps are all going to die out the first time a virus hits their planet or someone comes up with an original concept.
3: It's Science Therefore It's Magic
My least favorite aspect of the film Interstellar is the same idea everyone else loved (imagine that). No real spoilers here but there's a robot with a 'humor setting' involved who can literally be fine-tuned to be as sarcastic or as sober as you want, with percentage settings no less. This does lead to some clever jokes but it also brings up the problem with this trope that always really annoys me, specifically in supposed 'hard sci-fi' genre productions.
In Star Wars it makes sense that the robots have personalities but for one reason only. Star Wars is science FANTASY. Like the old movie serials it's based on the concepts of science fiction are taken and overblown into dream logic. You don't question too much because at base the story is a fairy tale so things like robots with personalities is just accepted.
With something like Interstellar however or even movies like Iron Man that try very desperately hard at times to be believably grounded I have a real issue with science used like a magic wand. By magic I mean it works via wishes and dreams rather than any kind of sense. Why would a robot have a humor setting? Who would build it and why would this setting be in percentages? Why does Iron Man have a fully conscious A.I in his helmet named JARVIS who seems to have emotional responses to events? You might bring up the Star Wars argument but it doesn't work here. Star Wars is set 'A long time ago in a galaxy far far away' but Iron Man and Interstellar are set ON EARTH. Perhaps in the future but that's no excuse for robots to suddenly develop interpersonal SOULS. I can buy giant hovering gun platforms, suits of invincible armor that can fly and serums that can change a scientist into a big green monster. I can't buy a fully sentient interface that Tony Stark somehow hasn't patented or something which had once been a military robot somehow still coming installed with the ability to joke about self-destructing.
REALLY useful to have something like that on the battlefield.
Same goes for holographic interfaces. We don't have them. Coherent light is not a thing that exists, yet in movies like The Amazing Spiderman supposedly set in present day we have giant spinning indoor three dimensional laser images that talk and can be manipulated with glowing, floating control panels. I can understand if your story is set in some kind of lazily established distant future and you want 3-D holographic things to establish how very futuristic the future is, but set in modern times it just comes across as pointless and silly. Science doesn't mean you don't have to explain it or it doesn't have to make immediate sense. If you can get the same effect from a non-holographic display as you can with what must be a massive array of expensive projectors, why not do that instead besides the fact it 'looks cool'?
This is to say nothing of movies like Elysium where DEATH can be cured and it hasn't really effected the human condition all that much. Uh huh.
The Rule of Cool can work out fine, but not when you're trying to get people to take your production the least bit seriously. I can't get into the drama of the situation if you've already introduced a literal wise-cracking robot side kick or the 'present' has some kind of magical endlessly enhancing touch screen technology which puts Bladerunner to shame. All procedural cop shows nowadays seem to stumble into this trap and have our hip team divulging all kind of impossible information with the use of lightning fast imaging software that can pinpoint and render any little detail from any distance with a few brushes of a keypad and some techno-jargon. I'm sorry. Unless you're literally onboard a spacecraft suggesting untold leaps in technology our science is not only not up to that kind of snuff, but it isn't even really that close. We have touchscreens, fine. We have imaging software and holograms, yes, but NOTHING compared to the wonders that productions keep suggesting we're days away from. It's been many, many years and the most widespread technological development nowadays is a wireless personal phone. I don't think we'll be seeing intelligent machines any time soon, and even if we could why would we? Do you really want an intelligent robot if you intend for it to be essentially a worker slave or a soldier? Do you really want a computer that can second guess you? Do you really need a holographic interface if a keyboard works just as well?
The future might lead to nifty new inventions but unless you replace fiction with fantasy I just can't grant suspension of disbelief on the heels of technology bordering on pointlessly elaborate wizardry. Hal 9000 talks like a speak and spell: and that makes sense. He's only programmed to answer certain questions and formulate his responses. He's not made to feel pain, not constructed to talk back without extreme passive aggressiveness. The very iconic phrase 'I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that' is telling. Hal can't say 'No' in as many words. He needs to use another phrase which was probably programmed into him to use when something went wrong and he was literally incapable of doing something.
This compared to JARVIS who can sigh. Why would you program a computer to SIGH?
This trope needs to die. I know we're all head over heels about all the cool stuff we can do with technology but think back to how the past viewed us now and project that ahead. Yes we have the internet and better medicine and cars, but what are cars except basically 'horseless carriages'? What is a gun except throwing rocks really fast? We don't have hover bikes and jet packs because when we tried to make both, surprise surprise, they turned out to be more expensive and less efficient than just using a regular ol' car.
The more things change the more they stay the same, and they rarely change just to change. Did people stop using radios just because of the invention of television? It's less use but it's not a total shut out and by the same token just because we cars doesn't mean we don't also use bikes...or even walking. It seems more likely the future will be SLIGHTLY improved rather than vastly so, even if a massive technologically minded tyranny breaks out. Even then the technology won't be ubiquitous. America might have wi-fi and instant coffee makers, but Cuba is still driving cars from the 70s and 80s.
Just exercise some perspective. Science is cool, but it hardly is a god.
ACTION TROPES THAT NEED TO DIE
1: Bad Guys Can't Hit Anything
I realize the hero can't die. Without a hero there's rarely a story to be told, but there has to be the threat of injury or death to the hero or we have no suspense. You can still sustain a production on sheer charisma, sure, but even that is no excuse for a massive crowd of villains to fire off round and round and miss EVERY SINGLE TIME.
The thing about firearms is that you can aim them and they tend to hit what's in the crosshairs. With a pistol or an older weapon or an automatic in full swing or an inexperienced shooter the aim can be off, but usually the brunt of a minion army is invariably made up of toughened street gang members, paramilitary mercenaries, corrupt cops, or outright soldiery.
People trained to hit things they're aiming at with guns.
The same counts for the villain who perhaps up to this point could blast anything with nigh unerring accuracy from cringing innocents to his own failed accomplices. But our hero or heroes can literally stand in the open and gunshot after gunshot whizzes merrily by, peppering the wall but not one hitting our lead.
This might be one thing if no one ever got this right, but Die Hard did and with flair. In this movie John McClain is not only shot several times in the course of the film but his enemies are usually rattling away in his general direction while he's running explaining how he only receives minor injuries AND when he can he gets the drop on them. There are no instances of him striding towards armed villains blazing away and expecting to emerge unscathed. This is the issue with something like The Expendables where the leads have multiple scenes where they are walking forward slowly without cover in the face of hundreds of armed bad guys. Over the course of three movies not one of our main cast has been hit by a bullet except once and that was during a 'plot moment' from a sniper rifle.
Don't get me started on Storm Troopers. I know they're supposedly militia perhaps given a crash course before being shipped to war, but there are two problems with this from the Star Wars movies themselves. First of all the initial combat between Storm Troopers and rebel soldiers ends with ALL the rebels lying dead. Storm Troopers actually CAN hit things especially in larger numbers, and some people talk about how they are the 'elite' of the imperial war machine. That would imply they have some degree of prestige, perhaps even skill. And they do manage to hit our heroes sometimes (Princess Laia takes a blast to the shoulder) but the trope still stands that the Storm Troopers did exemplify the heroic death exemption rule.
Bad guys can't hit sh*t when they aim at the heroes.
This translates into the same issue that bad guys never USE their guns either. When facing a martial artist the baddies will brandish their weapons but never just shoot the guy who is literally unarmed until they've been kicked in the face. Bad guys will usually deliver a little speech while aiming at their intended targets for no reason, forget to undo the safety of a weapon they've borrowed, shoot their target without fatally injuring them despite there entire purpose being to kill the person. Baddies it seems just don't understand the elegant finality of the firearm: shoot the hero and they are dead.
Bad guys also never, ever, shoot the hero in the head.
Clearly you can't kill the hero (unless that's how the story goes) so another answer is needed. This tropes needs to die because it's verging on ridiculous and well past lazy at this point. I'm not supposed to be sniggering when our heroes are facing off against the army of evil because I can see the front row of minions is all carrying assault rifles but are staring like goldfish at their enemies instead of riddling them with holes.
So what to do.
How about someone gets off a shot? You don't have to kill the hero but unless they're wearing a bulletproof vest they're not invincible. Make a bullet graze them. Make them take a shot to the calf or a scrape across the ribs or lodge a pellet in their legs or arms. It's grisly, but that's kind of the point here. The people shooting at our hero want to KILL them, and to imply that they should at least appear to have the capacity to do so. Injuring the hero makes them human in our eyes, makes them vulnerable and fallible. Even a bloody scratch over the eye indicates they can be hit and they can bleed: they're not just going to waltz out of this adventure untouched.
How about our hero, gasp, CAN'T GET INTO A SITUATION OF MASSIVE FIREPOWER WITHOUT POSSIBLY DYING?
Even if you're Han Solo you know better than to bullrush a group of laser toting Storm Troopers. In fact, rather beautifully, A New Hope illustrates this when he recklessly charges a squad of them firing away...and ends up running back the way he came literally whimpering. John McClain in Die Hard again doesn't go out of his way to confront a blockade of terrorists who would be facing him and carrying guns.
He would die, and he'd really rather not die thank you.
It's empowering to a certain extent to see our hero take on an army of goons and reduce their ranks in record time with flawless precision, but this too often makes the situation incredibly hokey. You can't charge a fusillade of bullets carrying something like a sword and emerge unscathed. Interestingly classic Japanese movies like Lone Wolf and Cub and The Seven Samurai are great counterpoints to the idea that the skilled warrior will always make it through a battle without injury. In those films the men involved are incredibly skillful...and yet they also take horrible injuries and can even die against overwhelming odds.
So how do you keep the hero alive and also keep the villains as a credible threat? Simple. Let the hero grow a brain. Unless they have to nobody is going to march into the detention level without a disguise because there are lots of men with guns there. Nobody is going to leap into a packed troop of orc soldiers because they have lots of pointy weapons and thick armor to prevent something like that from happening.
Let the bad guys hit once in awhile, or make the heroes smart enough to avoid situations where they could.
2: 'I'm Fine!'
My dad likes to say this in situations where our lead has been thrown through a window, fallen a story, rolled off an awning and grunted as he hit a concrete sidewalk face first or when the villain has tossed him blithely through wooden four walls.
And it's true. The guy or gal will without many memorable exceptions get right back up, shake off the dust, and leap into the fight none the worse for wear. Whether its being shot, stabbed, electrocuted, drowned, set on fire, falling, or being punched it takes an inhuman amount of punishment to lay a hero out flat, let alone get close to mortally injuring them. Not only this but all this nonsense can't even make them limp for more than a few minutes or effect their judgement or eyesight or coordination.
Shock apparently doesn't exist in the world of fiction.
This occurred to me most vividly while watching the excellent horror comedy Grabbers. Our hero O'Shea is grabbed by one of the monsters of the title and falls a good three feet onto soft mud.
And he stays there. In fact when he tries to move he can barely crawl.
The reason? That kind of thing HURTS. The shock of being hooked in the neck of an alien tentacle and then tossed onto your back even from a three foot ledge and even onto a muddy surface knocks the wind out of you. You're bruise, dazed, and all kinds of messed up especially if you don't take sudden falls of ledges for a living. I once bashed my head on a wall and it left a scar, sending pain shooting through my body. You get a funny feeling when you've been hurt, more so if you aren't used to that sensation.
So you might call O'Shea a wimp but the truth is that people like Jason Bourne are super heroes in all but name when they can fall the length of a staircase and then GET BACK UP without even panting for breath. I don't care if they're riding on a corpse to break their fall. That kind of impact is jarring!
And so is getting stabbed or shot. Even in the shoulder the human body hates being deeply injured and will let you know something is wrong. You flush hot and cold and sweat and your nerves are on high alert, and as the blood leaves your body you get weaker not stronger. People can get used to pain and hardship, yes, but no one enjoys it and even if you condition yourself to receive an injury it doesn't mean your body will always behave itself and shrug it off. If you got thrown through a wall, even one made of balsa wood, you would feel it and it would leave you shaken. This is why when this actually happens to a stunt person on set the camera cuts after they land. The reason being is that the stunt person has to get up and recover from being THROWN THROUGH A WALL. Even if you do that for a living it's not something you can tune out entirely.
Whenever a hero survives a massive fall or horrific injury by sheer force of will it doesn't make me impressed by their badassery...it makes me wonder if the big twist will be that they were a robot the whole time. You can have a hero accomplish great feats and for time you can edit through the scenes where they have to recover, but if you straight up ignore those necessary downbeats following a drubbing than you don't have a relatable character any more, you have a cartoon.
This tropes NEEDS TO DIE. It keeps ruining respected action franchises by causing our once vulnerable and interesting characters to become teflon crash test dummies just for the sake of upping the ante on action scenes. I just don't feel invested or excited or really anything when John McClain and his son falls through three floors of a building pursued by a flaming helicopter. I can get John jumping off a roof after tying a fire hose around his waist because compare the two scenes for a moment. In Die Hard 1 McClain's feet are bleeding, he misses the window for a moment and has to claw against the glass, even when he makes it through the window he's trying to reach he misjudges the heaviness of the firehose and is almost pulled to his doom.
In Die Hard 4 McClain's son pulls a piece of rebar out of his side and makes a joke about it. You can't have it both ways. If you hero is an invincible wizard I won't also buy him as a real person with concerns I can care about all that much.
3: The Harmless Kaboom
Explosions are cheap apparently, and in more ways than one. If you want 'action' to occur (in much the same way you might want to have something for lunch and you don't really care what) then more often than not something is going to explode in a fireball. Anything you care for. Cars. Buildings. Trees. Small countries. Everything goes boom.
And yet the boom is usually very very localized. An explosion by its nature is not supposed to be that controlled. In a studio environment of course you want to maintain safety on the set, but to represent accurately a destructive explosion set with the intent to damage something you need to simulate something other than a really bright flash.
Explosions cause things to fly apart, not just catch fire. They scatter myriad pieces of shrapnel through the air which can fly as much as miles away from the initial blast, and anything caught in the way is usually shredded. This is the point of something like a grenade or a bomb: to create not only the fire but also this kind of shrapnel effect. Something unintentionally explosive like a car is just as dangerous. If you explode an object composed of glass and metal and plastic you're going to fill the air with dangerous, jagged pieces of jetsam.
Why is it then movie grenades tend to cause fireballs that knock people around...and that's it? Why is it a hero can dive behind a couch and survive a shaped charge that destroys an apartment building? How come a hero can be walking unperturbed away from a massive explosion in slow motion and not instantaneously be perforated?
The answer, as always, is that heroes can't die but the trope like so many others commits the sin of conforming the universe around the heroes to this need rather than the heroes adjusting to the way the universe would rightfully work.
This might not always be a big deal if you are going for the self aware big dumb action blockbuster feel to things, but if any of your scenes require us to feel something at least I need something to grab hold of. I need a universe I can believe in, and I can't believe in anyone walking nonchalantly away from a wall of fire without being buffeted by a shockwave, singed by the heat, or turned into a pincushion by debris.
Bad guys have a unique disadvantage here, in fact they err on the other side of the issue. Set off a grenade in a group of minions which only produces a picturesque plume of flame but does no damage to the floor at all or all that much visible damage to the minions except a few burns and you will have killed all of them stone dead. I'm never sure how. Maybe the grenade has a builtin reservoir of shrapnel added to it or the shockwave killed them or the momentary fire (somehow) or the floor was more damaged than originally shown. But more than likely it's reducible to the writer just deciding that grenade plus bad guys equals death.
Compare this to heroes who are caught in direct grenade blasts and suffer nothing so bad as a few scratches and you have to wonder how these weapons are so tailored as to be death to faceless goons and to barely harm any of the main cast.
Grenades kill people, bombs too. A soldier tossing a grenade into a room that's the damaging kind is aiming to kill or maim any number of enemies as well as cause widespread damage. Sometimes grenades don't even produce fire at all, just lots of dust from the force of the detonation. An explosive device doesn't just singe people, it blows them apart and as terrible as that is it's a simple fact, which would explain why people who intend to kill other people use these devices in the first place.
So lets face it explosion fans. This trope needs to die because it's been so overplayed and is so meaningless that it's lost all impact. We don't even instinctually feel the heroes are in any danger from explosions given the amount of times they emerge from them unscathed or walk through their radius. I know it's cheap and exciting in a very base way to have the cool guy not look at the explosion behind them, but you just can't play it straight anymore and expect people to buy your production as anything more than a power fantasy at that point.
Either give your explosions the danger and devastation they might actually have or, again, don't put the hero in a situation where they have to pull rank and survive something they by rights really shouldn't.
And stop having them survive flipping cars! People die in traffic accidents less destructive than a full roll all the time, and some of these people even had airbags.
Inertia, when it involves tons of unyielding metal traveling at high velocities, is not your friend.
4: Lets Blow Up The World Because I Don't Know!
Crazed super villains are trying to blow up the world every day in real life.
Sorry, what I meant to say was 'Crazed super villains are NOT trying to blow up the world' because even if someone is crazy it doesn't mean they're stupid.
Blowing up the world has two major problems aside from all the moral issues involved.
One, you are living on the same planet you intend to destroy.
Two, people tend to get very mad if you blow up their stuff.
Blowing up the world doesn't usually mean literally blowing up the planet with a bomb, but it's near enough in most cases. The bad guy from Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol wants to nuke Russia...because. The bad guy in The Kingsman wants to drive everybody insane with cell phones and the bad guy in Goldeney wants to hold the world to ransom with a laser satellite, just like the bad guy in Dr. No before him. Everybody either wants to poison or drown or burn up or enslave the world as a whole with only a few deviations. Sometimes it can be a major city or a country, but bad guys like to think big.
For some reason.
Lets consider bad guys in history. I'm going to trot out the big guns first: Hitler.
Here was the quintessential super villain who wanted to take over the world...only he did it really, really slowly. A country here, an alliance there, a threat and appeasement over here. He built an infrastructure designed to handle an influx of land and conquered peoples. He kept updating his army and his plans for the most part. Although hardly admirable, Adolph wasn't a fool who declared one day he was going to carpet bomb The White House unless his demands were met. Hence Blitzkrieg or 'Lighting war'. He sent his armies where they weren't expected, struck hard and then moved in.
There's an appeal to the villain who puts all his eggs in one basket and there's the moral victory of a tyrant falling from power because of their own hubris, but it doesn't make it any less goofy for a supposed genius to make an enemy of the planet even if they think they have an ace up their sleeve. Kidnapping The President of the United States is a popular story idea but it's also incredibly stupid. Popular or no, every country on earth would be after your butt if you waltzed into Washington DC, shot up the place, than left with Obama in an rucksack. You would see the likes of international unity which the world has never seen before. Same goes for if The Queen was held captive or even someone like Tom Cruise got hijacked. Fame leads to recognition leads to grand scale gestures. A bunch of zealots tried to make a statement about America specifically by attacking the World Trade Center, and instead made an enemy of the world because of everyone they killed. America is actually the worst idea to attack anywhere. The country might not always be well loved, but it represents a wide swath of humanity in general.
You hit one of us the rest of us tend to hit back no matter where we came from.
Imagine the kind of backlash leveled at your island fortress if you declared that you were going to destroy every major city with your earthquake machine. You would be swarming with special forces from around the globe in record time.
So taking over the world is a stupid idea. Why do it? Isn't it more profitable to run an underground criminal organization, or even a legitimate company? The usual answer is 'they're crazy'. Why is Electro going to turn off the power to New York? Because he's crazy. Why is the bad guy in XXX going to blow up Prague? Because he's crazy.
Sometimes 'because they're a Nazi' can be exchanged for 'Crazy' a little too often in these things, but as I stated above being a Nazi didn't make you an idiot. In fact if you were a Nazi (a National Socialist) than your perspective would probably be infiltration and covert operations. The Nazi's aren't exactly in power anymore so openly declaring your idea of attacking the world is tantamount to suicide. Same goes for proclaiming yourself Emperor of the World or The New God or The Ruler of The City. Someone is bound to challenge you on that even if you think you can back up your claims.
This trope will never die as long as we have paint by number action movies, but I wish someone somewhere would ask: Why does my bad guy want to blow up the world?
If they're crazy congratulations you turned someone I'm supposed to root against into someone I actually feel sorry for. A crazy person isn't responsible for their actions so you've rendered the opposite number to our hero inert. He's no more interesting than if the hero was facing down a tornado or a volcano. They're just an instigating force.
The solution? Think small. The new James Bond movies I think did this pretty well. Every instance of bad guy plans is confined to a singular goal of vengeance or property or money. Each villain's aspirations begin and end with a relatively small scale operation to steal something, to kill someone, or to just prevent their organization from being discovered as they slowly make illicit money and gather influence and control. Nobody wants to blow up the world because that's stupid. Makes a lot more sense to hang out in your secret base making money by managing other groups of baddies who go out and do all the petty criminal work: what a mastermind probably should be doing anyway.
Or just, like Die Hard again, make the goal believable. Hans isn't trying to make a statement, he's trying to rob a vault! The Joker in The Dark Knight who IS trying to make a statement isn't going out of his way to take over the country or even 'rule' the city, he just likes to set up his games and watch his experiments play out. Even Raz Al Ghul who DOES want to destroy Gotham has an ideological reason for it and doesn't intend to draw attention to himself while he's going about his business.
When you doubt that your bad guy has a reason to blow up the world, just don't do it.
Be the first and start a fashion by giving your villain as much sense as your hero, maybe even more so.
HORROR TROPES THAT NEED TO DIE
1: The Villain is the Hero
Robert England, the actor who brought the iconic slasher killer Freddy Kreuger to life, once said in an interview he found the character 'despicable'.
Now how could that be? He's funny. He's got cool powers, has a lot of screentime time, and he's oftentimes facing off against imbecilic or unpleasant people as his victims, at least in later sequels. His back story of abuse and neglect almost makes his sympathetic.
He's also someone who raped and murdered children until he returned as a psychopathic ghost to kill MORE children just because its what he enjoys doing.
I don't care if you had a bad childhood or not: the moment you start hacking people to shreds with a weapon you are no longer deserving of my immediate sympathy.
All humankind is worthy in the eyes of God I believe, but if they have decided to live their life ending the lives of others for the sport of it or out of personal desire at least my patience is tested, and it's a whole new ballgame if they aren't even classifiable as human any more.
Robert realizes this and often describes being scared himself by the concept of Freddy; not understanding why so many have turned him into some kind of antihero. That was never the intention. The point of a horror production presumably is to horrify people. Freddy Kreuger was created to bring that about: a very bad person with terrible abilities that did horrible things. He's interesting in a perverse kind of way as anything is that shocks and offends us, but he was never intended to be sympathized with or at the very worst admired. He's funny, yes, but so is Heath Ledger's Joker who similarly was meant to represent a villain in the strictest sense. The Joker and Freddy are not insane, but they are evil. They hurt people, kill people, destroy things and all the while they see nothing wrong with their actions and maliciously enjoy the thrill of their deeds.
Argue moral semantics all you want: these people were intended to represent how NOT to live your life. They are the antithesis of the heroes we're supposed to follow and sympathize with to some extent even if we don't directly identify with them.
Why? Well because if we don't care they're only so much meat for the baddies to carve.
And when that happens we have in a sense become akin to the killers: craving the murders and relishing the violence.
That's not horror. That's no scary. That's just turning the genre into an action hybrid with (sometimes) more gore. If you can't tell the difference between a movie about an action hero and a movie about a serial killer something has gone very wrong genre wise and I'd argue morally as well.
The Engineer (Pinhead) from Hellraiser is not a hero. Jason Vorhees is not a hero. Michael Myers is not a hero. The Graboids from Tremors at not heroes and neither are the aliens from Independence Day. All of these may have tragic histories, understandable motivations, animal instincts, flashes of human-like thinking, and moments of humor even associated with them but they are NOT the heroes of their stories. They're the most memorable, like Darth Vader's legendary profile, but counter to even the words of George Lucas himself I do not believe that the Star Wars trilogy is the story of the villain. You're not supposed to sympathize with Darth Vader's acts of violence and torture. You're supposed hate these deeds and at most to pity him for being caught up in their midst. Even if the man has good in him, what he does is not.
People like to say 'the villain is the most interesting character'. That can be so but it's usually a failure on the writer's part, not something inherent to the idea of a villain. Ideally the hero and villain should be equally interesting: counterbalancing the sides they represent with divergent arcs. Luke Skywalker has a compelling story of rising in the ranks of The Rebellion and learning his Force heritage, making new and mature decisions as time goes on and setting and accomplishing his own goals. Darth is interesting as well for similar reasons, but Luke is not left in the dust just because he's a heroic person. If anything I'd say it's the temptation to the darkness that makes Luke MORE interesting than Vader. Darth has already fallen and his life is dictated by his corruptive state of enslavement, but Luke struggles to avoid falling into the same place.
Look at Aragorn versus Sauron. Sauron is actually pretty boring as bad guys go. He wants to take over...because, and he doesn't even get that much of a back story. In the course of three movies however we learn about Aragorn's parentage, his childhood, his relationships, his loyalties, his likes and dislikes (like music, hates orcs). Aragorn may be a 'goodie-two-shoes' in the morality department, but he has to constantly brush up against his heritage where his ancestor trusted in his own virtue so much he was turned and destroyed by evil magic...and the same weakness is in his bloodline. His isn't a free path of sunshine and roses just because he strives to be a decent guy. Even initially he prefers not to get involved in the battle at large at all because as a person he may be inspired to decency, but he'd greatly prefer living on his own terms, perhaps going home and hanging out with his girlfriend instead of fighting off an endless army to accomplish an impossible task.
The more interesting villain is a situation where the author despairs of morality and decides that the winner in their minds is the character who is the most superficially intriguing. This is the same way as saying a person's leg with a bloody gaping wound is more arresting to the eye than an ordinary leg is, but that's not to say the owner of the leg wouldn't prefer the boring old kind to the latter. Depravity intrigues, but it can also become banal. Anyone playing Grand Theft Auto can quickly tire of gunning down civilians because as much of a rush as it can be initially it collapses into mediocrity if that's the only thing being done, as anything can. Living on an alien planet would get pretty dull in a few years. Owning a unicorn would become second nature remarkably quickly, and so too would it become routine if all we ever saw was a bad guy being bad all the time. The argument is that a villain is unrestrained therefore he's more interesting, but that makes them LESS interesting to me. A villain can do whatever they care to so...what's left to aspire for? The movie Megamind presents a scene mostly for laughs but it asks an interesting question: what happens when a bad guy wins? They can rampage around and make a mess for awhile, but what now? Nothing to fight. Nothing to look forward to. Nothing to do. This is why the dichotomy of The Joker and The Batman is so lasting. The Joker represents this paradox: a villain out to destroy the hero, but he never really wants to because without a hero a villain isn't anything special.
So you can either have villain who doesn't believe they ARE a villain and set their goals accordingly (crazy I know) or you can just treat the bloody villain like a villain and not parade him like marketing material until the very threat of the poor fellow dissolves.
The cast and crew of Nightmare on Elm Street actually had a formal burial for Freddy Kreuger. It didn't work (they made a remake later on), but it was a nice effort to say emphatically 'Just let the jerk die please. We made lots of money off this guy and we're STILL sick of his ugly face.'
2: Suspense Equals Nothing Happening
The hero awakens in the creepy old house to a strange persistent noise. Lighting a candle or seizing their trusty flashlight they get out of bed, make their arduous way across the creaking floorboards, slowly push the door open, and then begin their seemingly endless trek down the darkened halls. Footstep after footstep muffled in the gloom. Spiderwebs toss in their wake. They flash their light source around at the strange old pictures on the wall. Lightning strikes in the distance. The sound persists. They continue on their slow tedious way, step by step, wincing at every noise they make, flashing their light source at the...
Nothing is happening.
We aren't learning anything about the hero except that maybe they're scared. We're seeing a lot of the location but unless it eventually plays into the plot all this is dead air. The point of this scene at bare bones minimum is that the hero either reaches the place where he hears the noise and finds out what it is, he decides not to investigate further, or the noise goes away. Aside from a very creative writer these are the three most likely possibilities. That or a sudden pointless jump scare to wake up the audience again.
All this kerfuffle of wandering the dark hallways is absolutely pointless. It doesn't build tension (at least for people who watch way too many movies like me) because it not only isn't leading anywhere it CAN'T lead anywhere. The noise most likely will have no relation to either the look of the house or to any other occurrence that happens to the hero in his journey to find the noise. We are well past the days where the audience could become immediately invested in a hero to the point that the tension would mount if they were in danger so unless you've established a damn good lead we actually care about and who has the possibility or being injured or killed in this scene than all this walking, all the buildup is a big fat dud.
Imagine the likely outcomes here. The hero is attacked by the killer or someone else who wants to hurt them. All well and good, but more actioney than a horror set pieces isn't it? You can have action in a horror movie sure but it has to come with tension and suspense, and that can only occur if the audience DOESN'T ALREADY KNOW WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN. If they do we just play the waiting game until the relevant stuff happens, and that feels like wasted space unless you have an absolutely gorgeous location or cinematographer...and even then if feels like you're just stalling for run time.
Suspense should unnerve. Everything should seem fine to the people we know are in danger. The trope above about people acting stupid with aliens attempts this but fails because it just makes the people involved look like idiots. For true suspense you need someone placed in danger the audience realizes exists but through no fault of their own they're drawn into. It's understandable that someone might investigate a noise if they didn't feel they were in immediate peril, or perhaps if they were expecting something, or maybe if they felt it might be of a benefit to them. Someone knocking on the door to a place you're living or staying at might get you to walk the length of a darkened hallway because you don't suspect there could be trouble between you and something as mundane as someone trying to get your attention. Even if there is danger you know there's someone else at least on the other side of the door so you instinctively feel safer.
If someone is knocking on your door and you're living alone in the woods and it's night and it's dark however I seriously doubt you would wander out of your room and slow approach the site of the sound. Innocent, not stupid, is the way a horror victim should be. Even if they're reprehensible people we shouldn't feel that being leaped at by monsters of madmen from the darkness is just punishment for being so incredible thick.
Also having nothing happen is not 'atmosphere'. Atmosphere implies a sense of place. Long scenes of nothing going on establishes nothing so much as a backdrop which will probably not even play that much into what's going on, beyond blatantly pointed out plot details (Gee the camera is looking at that axe on the wall for a long time, and it's all lit up too even though nothing around it is...)
To establish atmosphere the scenery should be organic to the story being told. Sounds and details are fantastic, but they need to imply a sense of place in the production beyond 'here's some shots of nothing happening. Be very afraid.'
Nothing is going to happen to these people while they're wandering around in the dank corridors or empty rooms. Why? I honestly don't know. For some reason EVERY SINGLE horror movie I can think of believes that every shock needs to be telegraphed. I wonder if the guy who just got separated from the group is going to die? The answer is always yes. I wonder if the monster is going to wait until the characters reach a more picturesque location before attacking and it will make a loud noise before it attacks? Yup.
The only instance I can think of when this got subverted was the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Very famously one of our established characters wanders into the creepy house, approaches a door...and in a few breathless moments a huge psycho with a meat tenderizer brains him and drags him away! It's our introduction to the killer and it doesn't come with a music sting or a build up that's that long. Just BAM killer.
And it works so well you wonder why so many other people feel intent to announce their monsters/killers with music or sounds or changes in lighting or ironic dialogue.
Why have so much dead space doing nothing if you're going to be so obvious when there are going to be the designated 'kill' sections of your supposed horror movie?
This trope needs to die. I want to go to a horror movie and jump out of my seat when the heroes are just moseying down a seemingly innocent street and the masked killer darts from an alley way, snatches one of them, and is just as quickly gone from sight.
THAT would actually make all subsequent scenes that much more suspenseful, because you proved you were willing to break the rules.
3: I Dunno, Spooky I Guess
Haunted houses are always dilapidated multi-story buildings with broken windows, baroque furniture, an attic filled with dusty wedding gowns with a full-length mirror, and a basement with shelves lined by jars filled with unidentifiable disgusting things.
Every derelict space ship has flickering lights, grimy walls, broken and dusty computer consoles, lots of air ducts, randomly splattered blood, and dangling hooks on chains from the ceiling to no discernible purpose.
Who made these rules?
Well other successful movies used these ideas and so they became ingrained in the public consciousness, but the problem is they also became tropes. Without a distinct effort people can't take tropes seriously: they're fine placeholders but you can't build a story on them and expect the audience to invest much interest. Without a twist or a spark or some kind of breaking of the mold you're left with something aping an existing usually superior classic and destined to be forgotten.
Also it's just not scary. The movie Mindhunters has an opening that is basically a case study of these cliches. We see a house with thick dust motes everywhere, a banquet table laid out with rotten food including a board's head with maggots in the eyes. We see creepy defaced mannequins, winding stairways with brass railings, a murder room with concrete walls, naked lights, and rows and rows of gleaming butcher cleavers.
Guess what? This turns out to be training simulation. I know. I was honestly blown away that something this stock and brainless turned out to literally be the stock, brainless attempt by the FBI to make a stand-in for a serial killer lair. Even the killer wears a mask and a stained apron. The introduction to this, at times, laughable horror/thriller movie still managed to torpedo the classic ideal of a 'scary' house and make it into a joke.
Because no one in their right mind would play any of these tropes straight laced and expect people to be shocked and amazed by the originality on display. We've seen horror movies before. This kind of stock imagery doesn't impress us anymore and means nothing.
Fast forward to The Women in Black. It takes place in a creepy old house with strange dolls and ancient moors with weird stunted crosses set up in them and graveyards covered in fog and rattling pipes and candles that inexplicably go out.
It's absolutely adorable. This movie didn't frighten me so much as charm me about how old fashioned not only the setting but the 'scares' were. Everything was so generically 'creepy' it came across as really campy. It's like someone on the creative team wrote down 'I dunno, spooky I guess' and the thought stood until the final product.
What's spooky? Dolls. People think old dolls are creepy since they stare lifelessly. Also got to have spiderwebs and dust. Indicates no one's lived there a long time. Set it in a wasteland so the heroes can't just call for help or leave too. And make the house all creaky so there's constantly a problem telling between the ghost noises and the noises the house makes. And lets through in distant echoing children's laughter for originality's sake. BRILLIANT!
Except it's not. Unless it directly ties into what you're weaving all this is about as spooky as hanging up a skeleton that's holding a sign reading 'BOO'. None of this is inherently spooky. Know how I know?
The movie John Carpenter's The Thing is incredibly unnerving...and it takes place in a research base in the Antarctic. It has the same sense of being lost in space and alone, but it's NOT set in a place that's inherently creepy. The freakiness seeps into it with the introduction of an unstable element. Suddenly a place designed not to be creepy but to be practical becomes a death trap.
The Shining certainly sets itself in a creepy place, but again the creepiness is implied by context. By itself The Overlook Hotel is probably a perfectly ordinary resort. What makes it ominous is the emptiness and the uncharacteristic winter season setting in around it.
Halloween is set in anytown USA in the suburbs. Nothing creepy about that inherently; the scares come from the introduction of something that warps the mundane into the fearful. Suddenly a laundry shed becomes a dead end and a bed room with the lights off becomes something too terrible to approach except on tiptoe.
Friday the Thirteenth did it again by making a humble forest camp a place of terror. Jaws made the peaceful ocean an inescapable expanse. Even Alien which admittedly did design the mining vessel to be strange in appearance slowly turned something almost believable as a working environment into a maze of tight tunnels and dark corners.
So yes please. Kill this trope and along with it please kill overexcited use of set design. It may look absolutely beautiful but that doesn't make it scary. Scary is the unknown, the unstable, the unexpected. Scary is not clean cut and controlled atmospheres designed to evoke fright clinically as if with the proper application of elements you could force someone to experience fear. It doesn't work, especially if not context is given beyond 'ooh, it's so spooky!' If those weird topiary figures don't play into the plot making them freaky looking is just pointless. If that ghost or killer or stalker isn't going to do anything don't just have it wandering around or peering at the characters who are actually doing something in the scene.
If your haunted house is less eventful that a spiffy clean hospital guess what?
The hospital is more horrifying. And it doesn't even have to be in the context of a horror movie, but I'd prefer if you're going to declare the genre as 'horror' you provide at least a little bit to justify that claim.
Horror can come from anywhere, so why limit the scope to the same cliche areas again and again?
And perhaps my number one most galling pet peeve...
4: Lightning Doesn't Work That Way
KRAK KABOOM! Flashing lights!
Lightning doesn't work that way.
Lightning is a discharge of electrical buildup in storm clouds which creates the thunder sound by splitting the air, much the same way you can make a sound flapping your arm really quickly. The displacement clashes together making the sound, and the distance determines when you hear the sound.
Lightning does not come after thunder, nor does lightning happen EXACTLY when thunder does. If you were to shine a powerful enough light at the moon it would take time to reach the surface because of how long the trip would take. Stars we see from billions of miles away are not actually exactly where we see them because we're only seeing the light they shed some time ago before the earth moved and their position changed relative to our own. Quite truthfully it's possible some of the more distant stars you see don't exist at all anymore, you're just now receiving their light.
Lightning tends to happen at a distance away unless it's literally falling right on your head. Than loud thunder would be the least of your worries.
I am SO SICK of horror movies, many of them trying to take themselves seriously, that simulate a thunderstorm with flashing lights and immediate sounds of stock thunder. We may have learned in kindergarten that you can't have lightning without thunder, but this actually isn't true. If it's distant enough you may be able to see thunder light up the sky briefly and then either hear nothing or the lowest possible mummer.
If you do hear loud thunder it means lightning is close but still not imminent. I've been in situations where lightning has struck nearby trees to my house and even THEN the thunder comes a little bit after the initial flash.
Light, as you may know, is faster than sound.
So even if you are going to take the lazy way out and have a klieg light blast the windows of your set a few flickering times followed by a stock boom, at least wait for a few seconds before the thunder or I'm really liable to get angry. The problem isn't just disrespect for logic, it's disrespect for suspense. Lightning and thunder is so compelling and even fearful because of the unruly nature of it. Lightning strikes without warning and moments afterwards there's a sound so loud it shakes the ground.
That's powerful stuff, and not to be taken as lightly as 'lightning is just drawing wavy lines on the screen and inserting the same crash of thunder you've heard in movies since the beginning of time.' Might as well toss in the same generic sound of whistling arctic wind into your scene...and they often do that too.
I like care in my productions. If you don't care enough to get the simplest effect possible right you either don't know any better or you were too lazy to bother with the most rudimentary research. Outside of a parody which is calling attention to how stupid this is I cannot take multiple strikes of consecutive lightning or thunder before the lightning flash or lightning on top of thunder the least bit seriously.
You can pay homage to the classic horror movies of old without making the same mistakes. Do you think if they had the tech we have now they would have made their movies in black and white and drawn on the film or used bats on strings? No. They were using the tools of the moment to do the best that they could. Nostalgia is a fine thing, but not when it puts on your blinkers.
And the first step to seeing things clearly is to get the bloody lightning right!
Just one movie. Just one. Please.
Anyway, thanks for listening to me ramble on and on for the benefit of people making way more money than me who have no reason to listen
If I didn't care about genres and tropes and such I won't spend so much time writing about them, but you always seem to hurt the ones you love. If you didn't love them you wouldn't care. And, unfortunately sometimes, I do about stories.