So I watched GODZILLA this week, but don’t worry, there’s no spoilers here because you know the story already: there’s some characters. Something happens and a monster comes, OMG what do they do now? Run. Scream. Hide. Then FIIIIIIGHT! And then run and scream and fight again. And oh no, it looks like all is lost – but OH WAIT! Hero does *something* - yay, we’re saved. The End. If you don’t believe me, then check out one of B2W’s most-hit articles, Monster Munch: All About Creature Features.
It’s really easy as writers to say, “story is everything,” but we only need to look at huge CGI blockbusters like GODZILLA to realise that’s not always what audiences sign up for. And that’s not because they’re dumb, either. And sure, we can say why not have BOTH: big, epic arenas, scary monsters AND a story and great characterisation? **Why Not** indeed … But fact is Hollywood has been churning out these things for some time now: whether they add a great story and characters to big monsters fighting and/or chasing and eating humans, it doesn’t really make any difference to Box Office revenue. In short, people like what they like and that’s spectacle and awe – and on that front, GODZILLA delivers, whether you thought it was a weak story or not (hey you still watched it, right? Here's some Godzilla - thoughts, reactions & pics I've collected in this last week).
Creature Features are never going to go away and I get a LOT of them at Bang2write, both from private clients and production companies. Some of them are excellent; some of them are in the middle and some of them are just plain drek. Interestingly however, I noticed a long time ago the ones that DON’T work on the page have many things in common, whether they’re about gigantic Godzilla-style monsters; gargantuan robots; acid-dripping extraterrestrials; satanic demons or something else. Here’s a rundown of things to consider then in trying to get your own creature feature on the page and in front of Industry Pros:
1) Hook Us. The obvious, yet I can literally count the great Creature Feature hooks I’ve seen in the past ten years on ONE HAND. Seriously. I cannot stress the importance of a great hook enough in all screenwriting, but in Creature Features it’s a “make or break” thing at pitch or submission level because it’s one of the first things someone will ask: “Okay, it’s a monster, but how is it different to X?” If you don’t know, no one else knows either. Ipso Fatso, as Bart Simpson would say. MORE:4 Reasons Concept Counts, plus What Is A Genre Busting Screenplay?
2) Be Original. Creature Features are, if you pardon the pun, very simple beasts: there is a monster and it causes a problem for the human characters, usually in the sense it is life threatening *for some reason.* We’re not reinventing the wheel here. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve basically read a rehash of existing movie concepts: GODZILLA is a favourite obviously, but so is the ALIEN franchise (particularly ALIENS) and THE THING. Now, that’s not to say you can’t have giant dinosaur-type beasts stomping skyscrapers; or marines attacking a creatures’ lair; or an Arctic Base coming under attack. But if you’re going to mine incredibly famous movies for inspiration? You REALLY need to bring something new to the table because you’re starting on the back foot. Do not go through the motions of an existing plot or rewrite iconic characters with new names. This is not **the way** to getting your script noticed, trust me. Instead, watch as many Creature Features as you can, especially those *like* your screenplay. See what they do that is the same and crucially, what they do that is different – take notes! And never, ever copy what you’ve seen, always differentiate. If we consider BATTLE LOS ANGELES (2011), it might have been produced, but it felt pretty flat, especially character-wise, because it basically recycled elements from a variety of other movies and stitched them together into a Creature Feature pastiche: Soldier about to retire? Check. End of the world on his watch? Check. The rest of his team thinks he’s responsible for killing one of their number? Check. And so on. You want industry pros to notice YOUR unique writer’s voice and to feel ONLY YOU can tell this story. You MUST innovate, never imitate – either on purpose or by accident. So know your niche inside out! MORE:7 Steps To Road Test Your Concept
3) Set Your Own "Rules." So Creature Features might be simple on plot level, but you CAN be as complicated as you like regarding the creature’s backstory/how it works as long as an audience can follow. If we consider GODZILLA again, he is a terrestrial beast that lives under the sea, something else utilised in PACIFIC RIM with the Kaiju, meaning man has to fight them in giant robots called Jaegars. Great! Why not? The Transformers are giant robots, but they’re extra terrastial and “alive” - how? Who cares! In franchises like ALIEN and PREDATOR, the beasts’ physiology might come from the insect world, but also matriarchal and tribal societies respectively. So, it’s not a question of just sticking a monster in there and letting it kick ass; there has to be some kind of narrative logic to it. If we consider the bizarre SKYLINE (2010), I was left feeling the writers/makers wanted to have their cake and eat it by including a gigantic beast AND a horrible blood sucking machine monster-thing because they thought it would LOOK cool … but what alien invasion would use THAT strategy? And to what end? If you wanted to take over the universe, wouldn’t it be simpler to enslave everybody, rather than eat them or put their brains in machinery at random? I didn’t feel I knew *why* the aliens were doing what they were doing. MORE:Creature Features: Know Your Enemy
4) … But DON'T get hung up on those "rules." Lots of writers tie themselves up in knots in their spec screenplays trying to explain WHY the monsters are there. Fact is, though many movies DO explain the monster/s (weird science gone wrong is a favourite, a la JURASSIC PARK (1994) and DEEP BLUE SEA, 2000), just as many DON’T. That’s right! Godzilla just appears, as do Kaiju in PACIFIC RIM (which was a spec, by the way); the gigantic worms in TREMORS (1989); and just about every alien invasion movie, EVER aliens attack, because "they want Earth’s natural resources"!! We didn’t see or hear them before because … Well, maybe we did and it was classified?! (As demonstrated by INDEPENDENCE DAY - 1994). Again: who cares. They’re here now and that’s the main thing: don’t get hung up on stuff that ends up simply existing to “fill the gaps” for the audience. MORE:11 Expositional Clichés That Will Kill Your Story, plus 5 Reasons Screenwriters Should Watch PACIFIC RIM
5) Give us unusual characters - and make them earn their keep! Creature Features lend themselves particularly well to group scenarios in which people get picked off one by one in a contained area, made popular by ALIEN – but it’s important to remember that was a whopping thirty five years ago and it’s beginning to feel pretty stale. What’s more, the kickass hottie might be fun, but she’s feeling a bit dated; as is the macho white saviour. That’s not to say you can’t include these characters, but why not TWIST them a bit? And why not add other characters we wouldn’t necessarily see in a Creature Feature, normally – or have things happen to them we WOULDN’T expect? One reason ALIENS is so enduring is because it was one of the first Creature Features to include a child and a Mom Warrior character. That was 1986 and a plethora of children have appeared in monster films since, yet they nearly always survive … Interestingly, only one Hollywood movie comes to mind in which children die directly from the monster and that’s PITCH BLACK (2000) … The adolescents are even killed ON CAMERA. That was fourteen years ago. What’s more, Creature Features have a strong history of characterisation conventions you can really have fun with: the Expendable Hero is nearly always male, for example, so it was great to see Betty sacrifice herself for the children in the bus set piece in RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007). What's more, in the best Creature Features, characters have problems OTHER than the beast: in the Alien franchise Ripley was always up against a Company Jobsworth wanting the creature for the bioweapons division; in PITCH BLACK, Fry and friends weren't always sure their salvation Riddick would necessarily save them. MORE:4 Tips To Write An Unusual Character, plus 6 Stock Characters Writers Need To Retire NOW
Concluding, Creature Features might be simple in plot, but they are typically hard to execute (pardon another pun) because spec screenplay writers do not tread enough new ground. The industry does not want stories that have already been told. It’s all very well saying, “Oh, X movie was just like Y though” – that’s not actually your concern when you don’t know how the concept started out, or what went into its development. Concentrate on your own story and making it the best it can be.
It all comes down to this: Producers and filmmakers would far rather do their OWN idea for a Creature Feature than yours. So how is YOUR spec Creature Feature screenplay going to persuade them? By knocking it out of the park via the five points I list here, that’s how. Get going! Good luck …
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