Welcome to another Friday Fiction Breakdown your place to learn from the storytelling greats and apply it to your own writing. Let’s get into it.
1979 saw the release of a cult classic that would make us all scared of the dark again. Director Ridley Scott teamed up with surrealist artist H. R. Giger to give the world its first look at an alien, unlike anything the silver screen had ever seen before. Alien was born and an entire franchise of content was launched. Up until this point in film history, most alien portrayals were either anthropomorphized creatures or animals from our own world with a few unique qualities such as size or coloring. H. R. Giger designed a whole new creature that set the tone for movie and book monsters to come.
Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, was a crew member on Nostromo, a commercial cargo ship traveling across the vast cosmos. She and the crew awoke from cryosleep to discover a signal coming from a small planetoid. They discovered an alien ship stranded on the planet. Despite Ripley’s warnings, some of the crew board the other ship. The exploration team encountered a facehugger that lept from an egg sack and latched onto one of the crew members, Kane. They break quarantine and bring their infected crew member onto Nostromo. Kane was placed into the medical bay where several tests were run by the medical staff.
Right after Kane and the facehugger were brought into the medical bay, the ship’s Science Officer, an android named Ash, began to remove the facehugger from Kane. He attempted to pry the creature off, but it wrapped its long tail tighter around the victim’s throat. Then Ash tried to cut off the legs. Another defense mechanism was acid for blood that burned through several decks of the ship. Later, the facehugger fell off Kane and he regained consciousness. The crew were gathered around the dinner table, celebrating Kane’s recovery when the chestburster, broke out of Kane’s chest and ran free across the ship. Nostromo’s crew stood in stunned horror from the inexplicable event.
The Audience Knew Nothing and Were as Scared as the Characters Because of It.
Here in lies the genius of the movie. The audience has as much information as the characters in the story. We were not greeted with an opening action scene of the alien craft landing on the planetoid nor were we given an origin story of how the aliens became a species. There was no scene of the aliens attacking another crew in a different part of the galaxy or at a different time. The audience knows nothing and we are as scared as the characters because of it. We learned as the crew learned.
The tension in the first quarter of the story was manageable, but still there. Only Kane was being affected by the facehugger and the two of them were locked away in the medical bay away from the rest of the crew. The plan was to put Kane into cryosleep until they got back to civilization. Now, chaos has broken loose because a previously unknown creature was wandering the ship.
The crew split up to find the creature, armed with minimal equipment. One by one, the crew was picked off by the xenomorph that has grown from smaller than a loaf of bread to larger than a human. Each time it killed someone the crew was forced to change tactics and, in turn, so did the alien. The crew (and audience) had to learn from their mistakes and upgrade their weapons. The alien’s defense transformed into molding with the ship for ultimate camouflage.
Only Give Your Reader as Much Information as They Need
Humans have a natural fear of what we don’t know or don’t understand. In any monster production, the moment the monster is revealed, a timer begins to count down until the monster is no longer scary. When you’re writing, make sure you only give your reader as much information as they need, but not too much to dispel the tension. This not only applies to horror or suspenseful writing; any story can benefit from not revealing the mystery that was set up in the beginning too early. The longer you can carry the tension throughout your story, the better. It’s what drives readers to turn the page. Keep them turning. Let’s see how the movie ended.
The conclusion of Alien climaxed when Ripley, the last remaining survivor, and Jonesy, the cat, escaped the alien and boarded a smaller vessel docked on the Nostromo. After the two were away, Ripley laid back in the pilot’s chair to relax from her ordeal. There is an excellent sequence of 30-seconds where Ripley is sitting in the chair and the alien is in the shot behind her; yet, neither her or the audience realized it was there until it started to move. After a final struggle, Ripley ejected the creature into space.
Alien Is the Ultimate Example of, “Show, don’t tell.”
Alien is the ultimate example of, “show, don’t tell.” There was no narrator explaining the evolution of the xenomorph or camera shots of the creature stocking crew members from the ventilation shafts. The audience saw the creature when the crew did, which was often too late for the character.
Use Prose to Show What Is Happening
When you are writing your story, make sure to use prose to show what is happening. Use action verbs and adjectives. Explain the look of horror or happiness on your characters’ faces. Subtle things like a character stuttering out of fear or excitement when they have not had an issue speaking before can show the reader much more about the situation than you were lead to believe. Trust that your reader is smart and will pick up on subtle hints. They will appreciate you and your work more for it.
Thank you for reading this installment of Friday Fiction Breakdown. Please like, share on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ if you liked it. You can follow me, Ryan A. Ross, on Twitter @ryanthebossross. Don’t forget to check out the Archives, lot’s of great stuff including the Daily Download and Wednesday Writer’s Workshop.
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Until next time.