Nov 19, 2015

Watch & Learn: Ghostbusters

Our last lesson contained a lot of information, but not every movie has such a wide range of advice to give, or even needs to spread its advice out over so many topics. Sometimes the better lesson is to nail down a small number of story elements really well, and let them carry the story. When you have a strong core story and characters, the rest will become much easier.

For today's lesson, I'm taking you back to my childhood, and one of the classic movies of all time.

Who ya gonna call?

It's a simple movie, nothing too complex in terms of themes or issues. And it shies away from the grander existential moral quandary of imprisoning departed souls. But people love Ghostbusters. Most fans have a special place in their heart for this movie, and you want your own readers to regard your books in a similar way.

So strap on your proton pack. Class is in session.


We're going back to basics with this one. The single greatest achievement of this movie is how it gets the audience to root for the heroes. It's one of the first things you need to be able to do as an author; create characters the reader will want to see succeed. And yet it can be a challenge even for the best of us.

Here are the key elements to making sure your reader roots for your hero:

  • Lesson 1: The reader must relate to the hero
  • Lesson 2: Small victories are important, but the big problems can't be solved right away
  • Lesson 3: Escalate conflict
  • Lesson 4: Reward readers for their investment

The movie starts with Peter Venkman, Ray Stanz, and Egon Spengler working as faculty of Columbia University. From the get-go, these guys are not what you'd expect of doctors working in a university. Venkman is pretty much entirely built around trying to sleep with women, and while his creepiness stands out by today's standards, it's Ray's sheer glee and enthusiasm about his work that steals the first few scenes.

So many heroes are given dark and stern personalities that it's easy to grow tired of them. Even wisecracking characters like Harry Dresden are often burdened with an inherent darkness. Ray, on the other hand, is straight-up passionate about his work. He is so utterly enthused about investigating the paranormal, and Dan Aykroyd's delivery is so spot-on, that not only is he refreshing and likeable, but he pulls the viewer into the world. He plays all his lines straight and with sincerity, even though it would be easy to ham it up. So he helps the idea of ghosts and demons feel real. That's an important lesson. If our characters don't sound like they believe the world they inhabit, the reader won't feel a connection to them.

There are two more key elements which help draw us to our heroes. The first is that, for all their eagerness to investigate the supernatural, they're scared witless by it. The first ghost they encounter sends them running from the New York Public Library.

But in fairness...

Audiences like to feel that their heroes are vulnerable, and fear is a universal emotion; perfect for showing how the heroes are ordinary people.

But note how quickly the story turns this on its head. The team has been sent running, but in the next scene they're talking about how much they've learned and Egon proposes that it would be possible to catch ghosts. This is Lesson 2. The heroes have suffered a defeat yes, but they take a small victory from it. Even when your characters suffer setbacks, they should always be able to take something from it that strengthens them or moves the plot forward.

This is seen again when they return to the university, and are then dismissed by Dean Yeager for their poor conduct. This combines both Lessons 1 and 2, because everyone roots for underdogs being trodden on by an arrogant bully, and it leads to them deciding to go into business for themselves.

This is the face of pure douchebaggery

The movie progresses, showing the Ghostbusters revel in their success, and we cheer for them, thanks almost entirely to the scene with Dean Douchebag up there. Without that scene, we have no real reason to want to see the Ghostbusters' business succeed. They would just be a bunch of professors getting into hijinks without any real goals. Instead, we want them to triumph, because we've seen them get booted out, reduced to mortgaging Ray's family home (for the third time!), and even then, by the time they get their first proper job catching a ghost, they've spent the last of the business' money on dinner. They're broke, they've risked everything they have in a business venture which looks set to fail, and then boom! They're the talk of the nation.

So of course, the next challenge arises. Walter Peck, from the Environmental Protection Agency, arrives to stir things up. As one of the primary antagonists of the movie, it's important that he's not an easy challenge to tackle. Given how much the Ghostbusters have been hyped up for the audience by now, he needs to be firm and even zealous in his desire to take them down. But he needs a legitimate motivation. And in fairness, his initial requests are very understandable. It's just Venkman's attitude that pisses him off enough to later march into Ghostbusters HQ and shut down the containment unit.

Now, note what's been happening while the Ghostbusters have been working so much. Dana Barrett's apartment building has some weird stuff going on. There's mention of Zuul and Gozer. Egon is concerned about the rise in psychoactive energy in the city. And Winston gives his chilling remarks about how he believes the dead may be rising from the grave, signalling the end of the world.

These, along with Peck, are the problems you can't have your characters solve quickly. They're the ones that will build and build, part of Lesson 3. Even when the heroes succeed, the odds need to increase against them. They don't have to be aware of it, but the threat must scale with the heroes' competence, ideally at a rate that keeps final victory just out of reach.

All of these elements continue to build, with Dana and Louis becoming possessed, until Peck shuts down the containment unit. The blast rips through the firestation, sending hundreds of ghosts loose across the city.

Shit just got real...
And now our focus is taken completely away from the Ghostbusters. It's the first time, really, that only the evil forces dominate the screen, and it's incredible effective. With the creepy, sinister "Magic" playing, we get to see ghosts wreak havoc all over New York. It's only a couple of shots, and there aren't the same kind of "wham" shots you'd expect from a modern blockbuster, but it doesn't need that. You don't need to hit your readers with spectacle in order to evoke a sense of urgency. A few, well-written vignettes can have a far greater impact than rich descriptions of catastrophic scenes.

We're pretty much at the height of how bad we think things can get. And of course, when faced with a disaster no-one else understands, the city turns to the Ghostbusters. Convinced by the bizarre phenomena occurring throughout the city, and by their impassioned pleas, the Mayor lets the Ghostbusters go and has the police and National Guard escort them to Spook Central for the final showdown.

And... And I'm sorry, but there's no way any kid from the Eighties can honestly say this scene doesn't make them feel damn good:

This is it, right here. Lesson 4. It's very easy, when trying to establish that the heroes are the only ones who can save the day, to fall into Mary Sue territory. But because the movie has shown us all the times the Ghostbusters have screwed up and been beaten down, but they're still there to take on a Sumerian god with smiles on their faces, we believe absolutely that they're the ones who can do this. They're just four guys in jumpsuits who have no idea what they're actually doing, but the audience has totally bought in at this stage. We know they're going to save us all, and we love knowing it.

And you know what? They do it. Granted, they do it by summoning a hundred-foot marshmallow man and then risking their own lives by blasting at the fabric of the universe, but we want our heroes to face risks and danger.

This is just a sample, really, of the points in Ghostbusters that keep us rooting for the team. I could spend longer going into further examples, but I hope this has been time well spent for you.

Class dismissed.

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