James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) shows us how it’s done
There are certain types of scene that are just naturally boring. There’s no immediate conflict, no one trying to manipulate the focal character, fill them full of lead, punch their lights out, or get to the finish line before them. In writer-speak, you might say the focal character’s line of action has no counter-action to challenge them.
Maybe what one character wants is exactly the same thing the opposing character wants. A great example of this kind of stock scene is the ‘mission briefing’. Think Police Commissioner Lee Van Cleef offering Snake Plissken a do-or-die deal in Escape From New York, the Feds visiting Indiana Jones on campus and sending him off on a quest for the Lost Ark, Lt. Gorman explaining the bug hunt to his crew in Aliens.
Let’s take Aliens as an example of how to approach a scene like this…
Gorman’s objective in this scene is to explain the mission while the marines’ objective is pretty much to just sit there and listen. Plotwise, there’s no conflict, no tension. Boooooring. Faced with a scene like this, most writers might glance at their deadline and get with the info-dumping.
Not Jim Cameron.
In this potentially tedious scene, Cameron focuses not so much on conveying the needs of the plot, but on the emotional tensions between his various characters. This allows him to convey his exposition invisibly, concealing all that dull instructional stuff (we need you to go here, do this, etc.) within exchanges of dialogue. It’s the characters and not the writer who are conveying the story. Cameron approaches this stock scene not as a checklist to race through, but an opportunity to give us insights into the characters with whom we’re about to embark on this adventure.
Remember, all the pyrotechnics in the world count for nothing, unless you care about the characters under fire.
We start off with a helpful establishing shot of the deployment bay of the Sulaco as Gorman (William Hope) strides in with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). (I love the way Hope turns away and smooths down his buzzcut before speaking, as if to psyche himself up.) We quickly see that Gorman – for all his spit-shine demeanor - isn’t quite as on the ball as he appears. He can’t even remember the names of his crew! (‘Hudson, sir. He’s Hicks.’) Straight away, we’re aware of a power dynamic here. The grunts don’t have the greatest respect for their Lieutenant, and the Lieutenant knows it.
We move on as Gorman styles it out by starting to explain the mission. (‘Still no word from the colonists… Yadda, yadda.) But Cameron’s marines are not attentive; they’re restless and bored. In other words, the writer has found an interesting counter-action. Gorman wants to explain the mission, but the grunts aren’t really listening. This emotional tension isn’t as spectacular a counter-action as coming under machinegun fire or wrestling Thanos, but it’s every bit as compelling. And compelling is what is needed to get through any scene.
Now Ripley steps in, struggling to relate the horrifying events of what happened to her aboard the Nostromo. She falters and gulps, clearly traumatized, reminding us just how much courage this woman must possess to have agreed to this mission in the first place. (Man, but Sigourney Weaver is brilliant throughout. And Cameron knows when to keep his camera tight on that wonderful face, making sure we see the emotions playing out under the surface of the main character.)
But still the grunts aren’t interested. (‘I just wanna know one thing… wheeeere they aaaare…’) Now we’re really cooking. Ripley’s objective is to get these swaggering jerks to take her seriously and that objective is now directly challenged by the marine’s boredom.
Stung by their dismissal, Ripley recovers for a moment, then unsheathes her inner steel. ‘Just one of those things managed to wipe out my entire crew in less than 24 hours. Do you understand?’
Well, that sure shut them up!
We’ve also gotten the first hint here that Ripley has got way more about her than fragile Lieutenant Gorman, as we’ll find out for sure later on… It’s called ‘foreshadowing’, kids.
But the scene’s not done yet. Ripley’s objective has been achieved, but the tension between Gorman and his crew remains unresolved. Hudson sticks up his hand with an impish grin. ‘What is it, private?’ (I’m pretty sure Gorman still doesn’t know the marine’s name!) Hudson’s sass-mouth receives a sharp interjection from Sergeant Apone (the late Al Matthews, wonderful in this movie). By now, the Lieutenant’s pissed and decides to show everyone who’s boss (‘I want DCS and tactical database assimilation by 08.30!’). Mic dropped, objective achieved, Gorman marches off, leaving the marines grumbling in his wake.
And what a memorable closer this scene gets… (‘Alright, sweethearts. You heard the man and you know the drill. Assholes and elbows. Hudson, c’mere! Come heeeeeere!’)
It’s a brilliant, brilliant scene, gold spun out of genre straw. And the viewer notices none of it, and THAT’s why it’s great writing.
Our sword-and-sorcery one-shot Black Beth and the Devils of Al-Kadesh was released in the U.S. back in July, following terrific reviews from here in the U.K. Featuring awesome art by DaNi, Andrea Bulgarelli and Vincenzo Riccardi, you can still grab a copy from Midtown Comics, Forbidden Planet UK, and the 2000 AD webstore.
Some amazing reviews just in. Thanks to everyone for your kind words and support!
"A tremendously entertaining story with fabulous characters, gleeful performances, and a sharp, twisty plot... a fantastic first audio release for Warhammer Crime." Read the full review at TRACK OF WORDS.
"Dredge Runners is utterly brilliant! A fantastic crime caper." Read the full review at THE ORKNEY NEWS.
"[A] great beginning to the new Warhammer Crime range." Read the full review at BOOKNEST.
"A perfect introduction to the seedier side of the Imperium of Man, and a cracking tale to boot." Read the full review at AT BOUNDARY'S EDGE.
With the 2020 Black Library Open Submission window opening for two weeks in October, Michael at the amazing Warhammer blog Track of Words asked if I had any useful tips for prospective writers.
I gabbled a response, which Mike was kind enough to give a blog all to itself.
I hope there are a few prospective writers out there who might find this useful...
WRITING FOR BLACK LIBRARY: ALEC WORLEY TALKS PITCHING WARHAMMER HORROR
Michael over at the amazing Black Library blog TRACK OF WORDS has just had me on for a rapid-fire interview about the forthcoming WARHAMMER CRIME audio DREDGE RUNNERS, which is available for pre-order as of Saturday 1st August.
Here's the pitch (to be read in the style of a 1940s noir trailer)...
He’s the fast-talking ratling sniper with an eye for the big score!
He’s the ogryn, the muscle, the hooligan with a heart of gold and a head full of dreams!
Abhuman soldiers turned THIEVES, surviving in a city where only GUTS will get you through!
When they land in the pocket of a savage crime lord, BAGGIT AND CLODDE are sent to spy on the cleanest Sanctioner in town.
Together they uncover a scam that threatens to shake the city to the core!
Now there’s innocent lives at stake, as well as a fortune that could finally buy the boys a ticket out of the gutter!
Baggit and Clodde must think fast and hustle hard, before death points a laspistol in their direction!
The fourth story in my Sister Adamanthea series is an audio drama! Following on from short stories Whispers, Repentia and Martyr's End, this new audio drama collects the three-parter released last December...
Sister Adamanthea, returned from repentance and revered by the faithful as a symbol of the Emperor's will, must cast her doubts aside when disaster strikes during a holy parade.
Hear a thrilling tale of a soul redeemed but riven with doubt, and delve into the murky politics of the Ecclesiarchy, and the many temptations that the Dark Imperium has to offer…
Sister Adamanthea is a Repentia redeemed, restored to her beloved Sororitas and hailed as a ‘living miracle’. But behind closed doors she is haunted by a sin she believes can never be forgiven. Paraded in front of the countless pilgrims of the garden-temple of Concordia, how can she speak of faith when her own is so uncertain? When an aeons-old conspiracy finally triggers, Adamanthea must prove herself the legend she is claimed to be, or risk the forces of Chaos pulling back the shroud of lies, and shattering the faith of an entire world.
Written by Alec Worley. Running time 75 minutes. Performed by Steve Conlin, Sean Connolly, Jonathan Keeble, Penelope Rawlins, Richard Reed, Genevieve Swallow and Claire Wyatt.
Available on Audible, the Black Library webstore and on the Black Library app.
My run of adapting animated TV show Star Wars: Resistance has sadly come to a close.
The fifth and final story, The High Tower - which I adapted with brilliant artist Cosmo White - appears in Star Wars: Fun & Action #1, the monthly magazine for younger readers from Panini Germany, published 18 March...
I've been quietly pottering away on Star Wars comics with Panini Germany for a couple of years now, from novel adaptations to original Star Wars Rebels stories. But I'm happy to see my short run of Rebels tales and all my Resistance adaptations to date currently running in English for the first in Australian kids' monthly K-Zone.
Meanwhile, the adaptation of Greg Rucka's younger readers novel Smuggler's Run, which I adapted with incredible German artist Ingo Romling back in 2018, is now being collected in trade by Panini...
This was my very first book, published 15 years ago by McFarland and now reprinted in paperback. This thing took me around two years to research. I wrote it in between night shifts splicing together ad reels for movie theatres. My models were the film books that had really expanded my mind in terms of what the genres of the fantastic can do (namely Paul Nicholls's Fantastic Cinema and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies).
Though Empires never reaches the impossibly high watermark of those books, it was still one of the very first to offer a serious critical survey of fantasy as a genre distinct from horror and science-fiction.
Remember, kids, this was written long before the internet and Stranger Things made Dungeons & Dragons cool. Back then, this sort of thing was the love that dare not speak its name!
A lot of water has passed under the bridge of fantasy cinema since the genre hit the mainstream, but I'm still really proud of this book and stand by pretty much everything it says - not sure I should have been quite so harsh about The Never-ending Story though...
The warlocks and ghosts of fantasy film haunt our popular culture, but the genre has too long been ignored by critics. This comprehensive critical survey of fantasy cinema demonstrates that the fantasy genre amounts to more than escapism. Through a meticulously researched analysis of more than a century of fantasy pictures—from the seminal work of Georges Méliès to Peter Jackson’s recent tours of Middle–earth—the work identifies narrative strategies and their recurring components and studies patterns of challenge and return, setting and character.
First addressing the difficult task of defining the genre, the work examines fantasy as a cultural force in both film and literature and explores its relation to science fiction, horror, and fairy tales. Fantasy’s development is traced from the first days of film, with emphasis on how the evolving genre reflected such events as economic depression and war. Also considered is fantasy’s expression of politics, as either the subject of satire or fuel for the fires of propaganda. Discussion ventures into the subgenres, from stories of invented lands inhabited by fantastic creatures to magical adventures set in the familiar world, and addresses clashes between fantasy and faith, such as the religious opposition to the Harry Potter phenomenon. From the money-making classics to little-known arthouse films, this richly illustrated work covers every aspect of fantasy film.
Available from McFarland Books, Amazon UK, Amazon US, Barnes and Noble, Book Depository, Blackwells and Waterstones.
If you're a fan of Black Library's Warhammer fiction and audio dramas, then I would urge you to follow the review blog Track of Words.
Run by reading-machine Michael Dodd, this comprehensive site is essential for anyone keen to keep track of Black Library's dizzying level of output.
How Mike manages to read all that he does is pretty unbelievable and his reviews are never less than literate, well-considered, and contextualised with a comprehensive knowledge of Warhammer lore.
Anyway, I was lucky enough for Mike to have me aboard for an interview about my audio drama Broken Saints, which had just been released as a three-parter for Black Library's December Advent event.
I ended up getting a bit carried away and gabbled about all sorts, from how I write to Sisters lore. Click here to read and make sure you sign up for the Track of Words newsletter.