This week I have been watching a lot of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 with my husband Tee Morris. He was very surprised I had never actually watched this show before, but I explained to him it never made it to New Zealand. We didn’t get everything after all. Now after a massively successful Kickstarter campaign, it is available on Netflix, as we decided to dive in.
If you’ve never watched MST3K, it is a cute show where a host and a bunch of robot puppets watch, and make hilarious commentary on a variety of bad movies. It’s kind of like spending an evening with your witty friends, where you don’t care so much about watching the movie. It’s OK, they are so bad the riffing is the best part.
So I mostly avoided watching bad movies when I was growing up…though I did accidentally view a few (I’m looking at you Dungeons and Dragons—I’ll never forgive you for what you did.)
So while watching MST3K I had my eyes opened to the truly bad movies out there. Manos: The Hands of Fate was a particular horror. Seriously it is consistantly on the top worst movies of all time lists and for good reason. Poor Torgo, he was supposed to be a satyr but the only clue was his strange metal rigging under his pants. Also the word satyr was never even mentioned. It was certainly not apparent…even with these dodgy eyebrows.
However after I had recovered from watching a bunch of these, I began to realize that bad movies do have something to offer to writers. Sometimes you need to see what not to do to, to point you in the right direction.
To illustrate this, I’m going to use the 1956 weird west classic The Beast of Hollow of Hollow Mountain that I had the dubious pleasure of watching last night. It has a stampede, a dodgy love interest, terrible racist stereotypes, and eventually…an allosaurus. But about that last part
Get to it
If your show is called the Beast of the Hollow Mountain, then don’t wait until the last twenty minutes before showing that the title wasn’t just a joke. Honestly, you have a beast, but you spend 3/4ths of this movie only the boring stuff. Viewers and readers will only get restless if you don’t get to the point. While watching I couldn’t help complaining ‘where’s that damn beast already?’ I just wanted it to show up and stamp the crap out of everyone. I had to wait a long…long…long time…
Yes there is something called building tension, but there is also the point where you will start losing readers. Honestly if I hadn’t been watching this hot mess in the structure of MST3K I would have bailed out ten minutes in. Don’t let that happen to your readers. You don’t have to show everything straight away, but give them a little something so that you know that you’re not just stringing them along. If there is a beast, then prove that to them!
Characters are more than one thing
When creating characters, make them more than just one or two motivations and character traits. Jimmy in The Beast of Hollow Mountain wanted to build his cattle ranch and be successful, and…ahhhhh…yeah that was pretty much it. Still he did better than every other character in the movie. His love interest Sarita wanted to…well she didn’t have any goal for herself. Even the villain seemed only there to try and foil Jimmy. They were as empty as a cracked open egg.
So please for your readers sake, make your characters complex. The ones in The Beast of Hollow Mountain were so flat, I was rooting for the beast to just eat them all.
Falling back on sloppy stereotype—just don’t
Pancho was painful to watch. The stereotype of a drunken foolish Mexican father was cringeworthy, so for the sake of all that is holy, don’t do it. He was supposed to be funny, but I don’t know what sort of moron would find that amusing. Probably some racist from the 1950s I suppose.
Instead do something the audience doesn’t expect, expand their minds by showing some of the variety of humans in race, gender, sexuality. Break stereotypes instead of perpetuating them.
His young son Panchito managed to overcome his terrible name, and had probably the most real character in the whole movie. As MST3K said ‘Panchito is a real baller’)
Plot holes…OMG the plot holes
The Beast of Hollow Mountain must have been a first draft. It had to be. The plot holes were ridiculous. I mean there is suspension of disbelief, and then there is so much of a stretch the whole concept breaks.
The idea that an Allosaurus could live in a swamp, and no one see him for years. Too much. The fact that said dinosaur could exist in this swamp, and not know how to navigate it without being sucked to his death. Far too much.
Connect the dots, and make it reasonable. I would have happily believed the beast had just escaped from the zoo rather than it had been living there for years.
Write your first draft, but for goodness sake don’t stop there. Go back, look it over, and be critical. No one in this movie was being critical.
Don’t be a damn lazy writer.
There was a part of the movie where rancher Jimmy, found one of his herd had become trapped in the swamp’s deadly quicksand and died. Rather than the obvious conclusion, it had wandered in there, Jimmy said ‘well it was obviously shoved in there by Rios’. The writer wanted to set up bad blood between our ‘hero’ and Rios, but was so lazy didn’t even give Jimmy reason to think that.
Thus the character looks like an idiot and the writer looks lazy. Seriously don’t make your characters look like chumps. No one is going to root for a chump.
Poor Jimmy had a chance to do some real detective work, and instead he looked like an utter numbnut.
It’s OK to have a character make mistakes, they are human after all, but don’t make them so stupid that the readers are hoping for the beast to come swallow them up.