Someone recently asked me what my vice was. At first the question took me off guard. I mean, I can’t very well tell the guy that I’m an alien overlord on the planet Chogoth and that under my cruel tyranny tens of millions of innocents have died. I tend to like to keep that kind of thing under wraps.
So I hemmed and hawed for a minute before I came up with this gem: “I like watching scathing reviews of bad movies on the internet.” Which has the added bonus of being true.
I’m not sure why I like watching people scream about how bad a movie is. I only know that for me it’s oddly compelling entertainment. But last week, I watched one review in particular that really made me mad.
In this review Matthew Buck AKA Film Brain was lambasting 2012, the disaster epic directed by the famously infamous Roland Emeric. Now if you haven’t seen this movie, trust me its dumb. It’s fun in its way, but it’s really really DUMB.
However I found myself taking issue with the reviewer over one particular point of criticism. He complained that a film about the destruction of the earth was too focussed on one particular family. Millions of people were dying like rats, but it only seemed to matter if this one family made it out okay.
At first this seems like a legitimate complaint. After all, we see buildings collapsing and cars falling from bridges and all manner of mass destruction, such that by the end of the movie it’s clear that billions are dead. In those kinds of circumstances who cares if one family made it out alive? But from a story perspective at least, I would argue that 2012 gets this one right.
Why? Because we don’t have the capacity to care as much about huge groups of people suffering and dying as we do for individuals. For any kind of disaster to have an impact on us we need to be close to it. The closer we are, the more it affects us.
For instance, several years back a huge tsunami crashed ashore on the rim of the Indian Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of people died. It was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. But I can tell you that the tornadoes that recently devastated an area of Alabama just a few miles from where I live impacted me emotionally more than the tsunami did. And if my own mother was to die in a car accident, that would affect me most of all.
Why? Because I have a personal connection to her. No, it doesn’t make strictly logical sense to care for one more than you care for thousands, but we aren’t strictly logical beings.
That’s why films like 2012 focus on families and individuals. Because those stories are the ones we care about. We connect to the world on a personal level. And the same is true with all stories. As writers we need to understand that.
All great stories are ultimately about individuals. And since we’re talking movies, I’ll tell you that my favourite example of this in recent memory is Inception. It’s a big budget action flick with mind bending twists and an eclectic cast of characters. But if you boil it all down its a story about one man trying to get home to his kids.
The fate of the world isn’t hanging in the balance. The earth is not being saved from destruction. But one of the reasons that Inception works is because it realizes that personal crisis matters more than global catastrophe.
That doesn’t mean that we writers can’t craft an epic story of global proportions, but we must always, always, always, remember that the personal story, the individual stakes, must matter more than the global stakes.
Give your readers a reason to connect with your protagonist as a person. Make them care about his struggle. Everything else will fall into place.