Overcoming The Monster

Man in a Halloween maskIf there is one thing that film audiences love, it is rooting for someone or the little guy in a battle against a monster. Thanks to the magic of the movies, the monster can take the shape of many different things. In the case of Jaws, the monster was obvious; it was a massive shark with a huge taste for human blood, killing and destruction.

In Home Alone, Kevin may not have been up against an actual monster, he was pitted against two hapless criminals, but to a small boy, his opponent was as big and nasty a monster as you could hope to find. It is clear that Home Alone and Jaws are two massively different films that probably don’t have a lot in common but both films feature a monster that has to be overcome.

One of the most important things in a monster film is to signify how brutal or scary or dangerous the monster can be. In Jaws, this is simple, the shark kills people. In Home Alone, it is two robbers who are having a lot of success breaking into people’s houses and stealing all of their belongings. You also need a premise or situation where the monster can do a lot of damage. In Jaws, it is the holiday celebrations that promise to draw a huge number of people to the beach. With the authority figures determined to keep news about the shark attacks quiet so as not to hamper the tourist crowd, there is a real risk of lots of people being injured or killed, and there will be people who are culpable for this.

Monsters don’t have to be physical monsters
In Home Alone, the threat of the monster is present because so many people go travelling for the holiday season, allowing thieves and robbers the opportunity to break into homes undetected. When you add in the additional premise that Kevin is left home alone due to his chaotic family forgetting all about him, there is double danger. The robbers may be able to break into the home and steal belongings but they may decide to put Kevin in danger as well. While both of these settings are decidedly different, they are quite scary.

With this in mind, and bearing that there will be twists and turns along the way, the battle to overcome the monster begins in earnest in both films. In Jaws, there is the natural wastage of people in the film before, at the very last minute when all hope looks to be lost, the hero of the day ensures that the monster is killed and their reign of terror is no more.

In Home Alone, there are some points of danger and while there are times when the hero is winning, there inevitably comes a point when all hope looks to be lost. There is a slight twist in Home Alone with the fact that the main character, the supposed hero, is actually saved by someone else. There is also the neat touch that the actual hero is someone who is considered to be an outcast at the start of the movie. When it comes to making winners out of losers and heroes from zeroes, you cannot beat a film where a monster has to be defeated.

The differences between these two films are stark but at the heart of both films lies a similar storyline and the need to overcome a massive and at times dogged opponent. There is not one single definition of monster and the differences between these films indicate how well a monster story can be constructed. People like to see good triumph over evil, especially when the evil element seems so big and nasty that a victory seems unlikely. This has been a huge plot style since David squared up to Goliath and it will be a massive plot style for many years to come.

The villains in our Murder Mystery plots are sometimes portrayed as monsters, for example Herbie Ravioli in Little House Of Horrors. He’s a mafia hitman and the challenge for the actor in this role is to overcome that and to try to portray a more redeemable character. This makes him a very interesting character to play.

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The Plot Of The Film Memento

Long before Christopher Nolan was a mere bat-glimpse in the Dark Knight’s eye. Years before he went charging forward towards Director superstardom, he made a film that was completely backwards. Literally. As the new millennium dawned, Christopher Nolan adapted his brother’s short story Memento Mori. Shortening the title to simply Memento, the basic plot seems fairly routine. Wife is murdered, husband tries to find who did it. This simplified outline belies the fact that it was a murder mystery like no other.

The film opens with Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, killing the man he believes perpetrated his wife’s murder. Showing this at the beginning is a strong statement of intent for any murder mystery film, but it’s the only way Memento could have opened. You see the whole film is presented in reverse, or at least half of it is. Confused yet? Don’t be.

If losing his wife wasn’t bad enough, Leonard has other issues. In an attempt to protect his wife during the initial attack, he suffered a head injury. Coming round afterwards he finds that not only has he killed one of the two attackers, but has also developed anterograde amnesia. This psychological disorder impairs his ability to create new memories. He remembers everything before the attack, but struggles to recall new information. More than a small inconvenience when you need to piece together a murder! Crucially the police don’t believe there was a second attacker leaving Leonard to undertake his own personal man hunt. Undeterred by their lack of support and inability to remember new things, Leonard has a novel way of tracking his investigation. Before he forgets any new information he has learned, not only does he take Polaroid photographs and make notes but, for the really important clues, he gets them tattooed them on his body. A permanent reminder of his very personal mission. This way, every day, he can wake up and revisit where he is in his enquiry.

Memento has two threads running throughout. Black and white flashback sequences tell Leonard’s story as an Insurance Investigator prior to his injury and these run chronologically giving context to the story. The other modern day scenes are in colour and tell Leonard’s narrative as he tries to piece together clues to find the killer he believes is still out there. After the threads converge at the start of the movie, they split into their respective timelines to give us an insight into his life, his struggles and his motives. This is more than director trickery. We get to see the world the way Leonard does, in disjointed, confusing imagery.

Leonard isn’t alone in his search. He is aided, if that’s the right word, by Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy and Carrie-Anne Moss’ Natalie. The question becomes whether Leonard can trust them or the information they give him. Are they manipulating him or genuinely trying to help? Will he remember in time to take stock? Little by little, Leonard begins to piece together the mystery away from its shocking beginning to an even more amazing end.

Memento was a huge critical success upon its release, if not a massive box office triumph. Many large studios were put off by its unusual structure and passed on the opportunity to distribute it. Eventually a small, independent company called Newmarket took the brave step and released it. Despite winning numerous awards, the film didn’t reach the huge audience it deserved until it was released on video and DVD. It has subsequently been released a number of times, also now on blu-ray, with an ever growing list of special features. In some regions the disc even has a hidden option to watch the entire film in chronological order but, trust me, backwards is the only way to go.

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Murder Mystery Clues

An old fashioned typewriter

Creating the clues is one of the most interesting parts of putting together a Murder Mystery. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a master at creating clever clues for his Sherlock Holmes series of books. Holmes was renowned for his powers of observation and in A Case Of Identity he deduces that a lady is right handed by noting that the forefinger of the glove on her right hand is stained with ink from a pen. In the same story Holmes remarks that a typewriter is as unique as an individual’s handwriting because once it has been used some letters are more worn than others, and some wear more on one side than others. This makes their print unique. In fact type writer forensics has been used in real cases, for example the case of Levy -v- Rust in New Jersey as long ago as 1893 when a judge took into account the evidence of a typewriting expert.

In the sort of murder mysteries that are run over dinner most of the clues are paper based. Put together they form a sort of jigsaw which tells a story. There are tools online for creating receipts, bank statements and other documents. Fodey is particularly useful for generating realistic looking newspaper snippets. These can be used to create a background for the suspects, so they might indicate that someone is prone to violence or make a link between two suspects which adds to the case. It’s important, when creating the clues, to keep a note of how they interact and any dates and values which may need to be changed for future events.

One strategy is to create three clues for each suspect. The balance of the clues is very important, so make sure that the real murderer doesn’t have everything pointing at them. The removal of one clue in a well established script can completely change the way the audience perceives the story, just as the addition of a clue can tip the balance. It’s a fascinating area and, once you are really comfortable with a show, it can be interesting to add or remove clues and make small adjustments. However, avoid changing too much in one go. One change at a time will enable you to monitor the effect that it has on the show.

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Journey And Return

When it comes to creating a great plot for a film that people will love and associate with, there is nothing like having a journey as the central theme to a plot. After all, we all make journeys in life, so we understand the concept and can equate it with our own lives. However, the use of a journey helps to provide so many different backdrops, people, situations and styles for a film. If you are looking to create a stylish film that has many talking points and which presents new elements to the audience, going on a journey is a tremendous way to do so.

Of course, when people talk about going on a journey, they do not always mean physically travelling. Many people use this sort of language to describe a way of finding out more about themselves or being placed through a number of difficult or emotional elements that helps them to grow as a person. A person can go on a “journey” without even leaving their home or their couch. This is where the physical act of going on a journey in a film chimes so well with the idea of going on a spiritual or enlightening journey of the mind. You will find that many films utilise the idea of going on an actual journey to provide a character with many opportunities to learn about themselves. When the physical journey is paired with a return to a person’s home or local area, the change of difference in them can be better presented.

The Wizard of Oz is a classic journey and return story

This is a common theme for many popular films and one of the most popular uses of this style of plot comes with The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, in the film as opposed to the book, attempts to run away after feeling that she wasn’t loved or supported by her family and friends but is convinced to return home. Upon doing so, a tornado comes and Dorothy is knocked out and when she awakes, she embarks on her trip to Oz where she befriends a scarecrow, a lion and a tin man. These three characters, plus Dorothy, are all looking for something in their life, and they are persuaded that they can obtain what they are looking for by going on a journey or quest.

This leads to a number of scary or difficult situations where the group are challenged. Along the way, all of the members of the group utilise skills or act in a way that indicates that they already have what they are looking for. This is emphasised at the end when the all-powerful Oz states that there is no need for the tin man to look for a heart, for the lion to look for courage or for the scarecrow to look for a brain because they already possess these things in abundance. He presents them with artefacts to show others that they have these attributes but, in reality, the journey provided the proof that the characters had what they were looking for all the time. When Dorothy returns home (wakes up) in Kansas, she realises that her friends and family love her and care for her but, of course, she understood the importance of home thanks to her journey in Oz.

Another famous journey and return story is Around The World In 80 Days. While the reason for the journey is to win a bet, there is no doubt that Phileas Fogg becomes a more rounded person for his endeavours and actually finds love on his way around the world as well. Given that Fogg starts off as a lonely character with not a lot of interests, the challenge and excitement of the journey provides him with a new found vigour for life. All great films of this nature guarantee that even though a character ends up in the same place where they started, they are very different characters because of the journey they undertook.

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Escape plots

It is fair to say that at one point or another, most people have indulged in a touch of escapism. When our own lives become a touch dreary or mundane, it is only natural that films and scriptwriters will try to whisk people away into a different world where people can lead a more exciting time. This is understandable but it is just one way in which plots try and deal with escape. Another way comes with people trying to escape from danger and this is a very common theme for plots as well.

With the advancement of technology and the ability to create even more special effects, catastrophe movies have become very popular. Whether people have been trying to escape from typhoons, earthquakes, floods or any other form of natural disaster, film makers have brought the sense of escape very much to life. With more people worried about the impact of climate change and what this will mean to weather conditions, there is a natural audience for this sort of movie. These movies work on the fact that there is a natural fear of these events occurring in our lifetime but there are also the good old fashioned elements of escaping and a hero emerging to lead people to safety.

The 1970s set the agenda for escape films

No matter how hard the latest batch of escape movies work, they will not beat the 1970s when it comes to a fantastic escape film. This was the era that redefined the rules on the escape plot and film and there was a choice to make. If you loved escape films, you were absolutely spoiled by the appearance of The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure. One featured a tall building which was on fire from which people had to escape. The other featured a ship that was sinking and people had to escape. Both were big budget films, both had a stellar cast of stars, both were massive films of their time. However, they both shared a very simple plot based around people having to work together in order to secure their safety.

It was inevitable that some people would have to die in these films. This was to emphasise the fact that there was real danger to the people and that the characters you know and love were at serious risk. One of the most important elements of a good escape story is to make sure that the danger is well stated. The best way of doing this is ensuring people die, implying as it does that the same fate may befall other characters.

An escape plot needs to have twists and turns

There also needs to be a number of twists and turns. Salvation should seem within easy reach at various points throughout the quest only for the obvious path to be blocked or the easy option to be denied. It wouldn’t make for a lengthy or exciting film if the first route was the successful route, but there is also a need to wear people down and make them feel frustrated at their efforts. For an escape plot to be really strong, the escapees need to be pushed to their limit. Salvation  must seem to be all but impossible.

In this sense, an escapee needs to come to terms with their own life. You’ll often find that someone escaping has previously lost track of the important things in life. With a good escape plot, you’ll commonly hear a key character, central to the escape plan, talking about how they’ll do things differently if they make it out alive. In this aspect, you can consider an escape plot as having similarities to a journey. Not only are people escaping from a very serious threat, they are escaping to a new them that will enable them to look at life differently or more positively. Physical salvation will lead to rebirth and moral salvation.

Whether the risk was fire, as in The Towering Inferno, or water, as in The Poseidon Adventure, the everyday nature of the risks brought people into the story. The danger was not through something out of the blue or the ordinary, it was from something that could befall most people. This creates empathy and a realisation of the jeopardy that we all face in every day life.

Escape is one of the major plots in the stories that we tell, particularly on the big screen. The characters in the story may go through hell and back before coming out the other side and, in a small way, the viewer will share this journey.

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Comedy plots

Although you may think that the main point of a comedy film is to make you laugh, it can’t all be jokes, anecdotes or comic interludes. A film needs to have peaks and troughs and even comedies need to have elements where there is a build and a release and, of course, if you are going to watch something that runs for 90 minutes or more, it should be enough to gain your interest.

This is why a good comedy needs to be more than just funny. It has to have a plot and this is where comedy writers can benefit from understanding the basics of a good plot. In order to show how you can take a simple plot and then use it as a platform to develop a great comic film, think about the following plot ideas:

• A misfit (or misfits) down on their luck
• A lucky break and things take a turn for the better
• A love issue / emotional aspect running alongside
• Have an enemy or opponent
• When things are looking up, give the character a real low point that looks to lose them everything
• Let the character save the day

These six ideas are quite simple and are backbones of many films, including comedies and broader genres. In Ghostbusters, for example, you initially have three men who are out of a job and struggling to find a purpose for their skills and expertise. In another great comedy, Mrs Doubtfire, you have a man who has lost his wife and kids through a divorce and custody hearings.

The lucky break in Ghostbusters comes with the team getting hired to examine a hotel whereas in Mrs Doubtfire, it is with Daniel obtaining the role as the nanny. The love interest in Ghostbusters is Sigourney Weaver and she gets used by Zuul and in Mrs Doubtfire, the emotional attachment of a man and his kids runs through the story. There is still fondness between man and wife but it is the father and children aspect that really drives it.
People want Ghostbusters to fail and major enemies are summoned from other realms. In Mrs Doubtfire, there is a new love interest for the mum and the local authorities don’t believe that Daniel is a suitable dad.

In both films, things are going well for both characters when a twist occurs. The Ghostbusters (now up to 4 members) are thrown in jail and Daniel/Mrs Doubtfire has to be in the same place in both guises, which inevitably causes confusion and his secret being found out and this leads to him losing all custody of his kids. Both films see the main characters at their lowest point but this is where they rise like heroes to save the day and come out on top.

You have two very different comedy films, opting for different styles of humour, but the solid plot behind both films provides the perfect setting for the comedy moments that arise. Whether it is the wisecracks from Bill Murray or the slapstick humour from Robin Williams, these comedies are very different but both achieve massive laughs while taking the audience on a journey.

While great acting, fantastic dialogue, effects and many funny moments are crucial in the success of these comedies, the plots provide a strong part of the success. It is unlikely that people can associate with people who hunt ghosts for a living or with a man who becomes a cross-dressed to see his children but the basic plot points are familiar to most people. The fact that adversity can be overcome in such a funny and natural manner means that these films were always likely to be such a smash hit.

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The Agatha Christie Legacy

Agatha Christie is one of the most popular crime novelists of all time and the popularity of the murder mystery genre owes much to her legacy. She is well known for more than 60 detective novels which depict the investigations of Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, as well as Tommy and Tuppence.

Agatha Christie was born into an upper middle class family and she served in a hospital during World War I.  At first, as so many authors find, she found it hard to get her work noticed but her first book was published in 1920  by Bodley Head. This was the Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is also the first time that we meet Hercule Poirot.

The Guinness Book of Records states that Agatha Christie is the best selling novelist of all time, having sold 4 billion copies of her books so far. Many of her books have been adapted for radio, video games, comics and television. More than 30 films have been made based on her characters.

Between 1926 and 1928 Agatha Christie didn’t publish any books due to problems in her personal life, including a divorce. Thankfully from 1930 onwards she again became prolific. Although she is well known for her novels, Agatha Christie also had a wide interest in archeology and she visited various excavation sites all over the world uncovering ancient relics. Many of her books contain archeological references because of this interest. She traveled extensively and, again, the plots and stories in her books reflect this.

Agatha Christie is surpassed in sales only by the Bible and William Shakespeare, which is an astonishing achievement. Our own Murder Mystery Events contain many references to her work, it’s almost impossible to work in this genre without that happening.

Find out more about our Murder Mysteries here

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