What Cowboys & Aliens teaches about writing

Okay, so Cowboys & Aliens was actually good. I expected it to be barely watchable. I mean, aliens in a western? It’s ridiculous.

Except it’s not really about Aliens. Or cowboys. It’s about people. Individuals. People changing. People becoming better, living up to the greatness within them. It just happens to take place in the West and Aliens just happen to be a catalyst.

Okay, that’s oversimplifying it a bit. You can’t ever take a story fully out of its context. But the heart of the story, what makes it good, is that it’s about people.

The characters were also fantastic.

Things to learn from Cowboys & Aliens to apply to my writing:

  • CHARACTERS: Great stories are not about the setting or the events. They’re about people. This is why Clueless (aka, Jane Austen’s Emma in a high school setting) is a great story, whereas any other high school story is usually lame.
  • CHARACTERS: There were a lot of characters here, but they were all different. Too often in movies–and the few westerns I’ve seen tend to follow this–there is one, maybe two characters. Everyone else is just a facet of the same character. Or is obviously created by the same writer. But everyone here felt different. Felt real.I need to watch the movie again to get details on how to do this well. It’s more than just surface differences. Perhaps it’s that everyone started in different places, but they all ended the same.
  • CHARACTERS: How did the storytellers help us not confuse the characters? With so many individuals, even if they have different personalities, it’s easy to mix them up. I even forgot that Ella had a name for most of the movie–because after her introduction, it wasn’t used at all until the end. But I knew she was different than the other woman. And I knew the preacher was a different person than the grandpa, even though they look similar enough.
  • BEGINNING: In the introduction, quickly establish the situation and show the audience where their loyalties and sympathies should be. In the beginning of this movie, we saw very quickly that the three men approaching Jake were bad guys–the scalps and the flies were sure indicators–so what happened next was justified and didn’t make Jake seem like the bad guy.
  • FOCUS: Many stories were told, many people changed in this movie, but we never lost focus on the central character: Jake.
  • AUDIENCE: You don’t need to beat the audience over the head. We could see the relationship between Jake and the girl developing, even though there was never a single scene devoted to illustrating this. Must watch again for more details on how to do this.
  • TITLE: Maybe a title is more about marketing than I thought. From a descriptive standpoint, Cowboys & Aliens is a horrible title. First thing I thought of was the scene from Bolt where the pigeon is pitching an episode idea to Bolt: “Aliens. Audiences love aliens.”
    But I can see where the title got people in the theaters who otherwise wouldn’t have gone for either a western or a deeper story like this one.
  • STRUCTURE: The classic 5-paragraph essay format is at work here, albeit in a slightly different form. The preacher provided the thesis statement, each character’s story was like the central paragraphs of an essay, and there was a nice ending tying it all together. I noticed Avengers did this also.
  • CLOSURE: Robert McKee is justified. In his book, Story (a screenwriting book I’ve been using to learn about writing novels), he says you must give the audience a chance to dry their eyes and leave the theater with dignity. The final scene in the movie was unnecessary, plot-wise, but necessary to give the audience a chance to take a breath and leave with dignity. It gave us closure and satisfaction.
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