Aliens is, quite simply, awesome. It’s one of those movies that works if you’re 15 or you’re 35. It’s got action. It’s got mystery. It’s got emotion. And it’s in the running for best sequel ever. When I give notes, there’s no movie I reference more than this one. I’ve been known to bring up Aliens while consulting on a romantic comedy. That’s how rich it is in screenwriting advice. Now I could sit here and whine that “Studios just don’t make summer movies like this anymore.” But the truth is, they’ve never made these kinds of summer movies consistently – movies with depth, movies with thought, movies where the story takes precedence over the effects. But when they do, it’s probably the best moviegoing experience you can have. So, keeping that in mind, here are ten screenwriting lessons you can learn from one of the best summer movies of all time.
KILL YOUR BABIES
Listening in on the director’s commentary of Aliens, you find out that Aliens was originally 30 minutes longer, as it included an extra early sequence of the LV-426 colonists being attacked by the aliens. Under the gun to deliver a 2 hour and 10 minute film, Cameron reluctantly cut the sequence at the last second, and wow did it make a difference. Without it, there was more build-up to the aliens, more suspense, more anticipation. We were practically bursting with every peek around a corner, every blip of the radar. Now Cameron only figured this out AFTER he shot the unnecessary footage, but let this be a lesson to all of us screenwriters. Sometimes you gotta get rid of the things you love in order to make the story better. Always ask yourself, “Is this scene/sequence really necessary to tell the story?” You might be surprised by the answer.
NOT EVERY FILM NEEDS A LOVE STORY
There’s a temptation to insert a love story into every movie you write, especially big popcorn movies, since the studios are trying to draw from every “quadrant” possible and therefore need a female love interest to bring in the female demographic. But there are certain stories where no matter what you do, it won’t fit. And if you’ve written one of those stories, don’t try to force it, because we’ll be able to tell. I thought Cameron handled this issue perfectly in Aliens. He knew a love story in this setting wasn’t going to fly, so instead he created “love story light,” between Ripley and Hicks, where we see them flirting, where we can tell that in another situation, they might have worked. But it never goes any further than that because tonally, and story-wise, he knew we wouldn’t have accepted it.
ALWAYS MAKE THINGS WORSE FOR YOUR CHARACTERS
As I’ve stated here many times before, one of the most potent tools a screenwriter possesses is the ability to make things worse for their characters. In action movies, that usually means escalating danger whenever possible. Aliens has one of the most memorable examples of this, when our characters are moving towards the central hub of the station, looking for the colonists, and Ripley realizes that, because they’re sitting on a nuclear reactor, they can’t fire their guns. The Captain informs his Lieutenant that he needs to collect all of the soldiers’ ammo (followed by one of the greatest movie lines ever “What are we supposed to use? Harsh language?”), and now, with our marines moving towards the nest of one of the most dangerous species in the universe, they must take them on WITHOUT FIREPOWER. Always make things worse for your characters!
USE YOUR MID-POINT TO CHANGE THE GAME
Something needs to happen at your midpoint that shifts the dynamic of the story, preferably making things worse for your characters. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of your second half feeling a lot like your first half, and that’s going to lead to boredom for the reader. In Aliens, their objective, once they realize what they’re up against, is to get up to the main ship and nuke the base. The mid-point, then, is when their pick-up ship crashes, leaving them stranded on the planet. Note how this forces them to reevaluate their plan, creating a second half that’s structurally different from the first one (the first half is about going in and kicking ass, the second half is about getting out and staying alive).
GET YOUR HERO OUT THERE DOING SHIT – KEEP THEM ACTIVE
Cameron had a tough task ahead of him when he wrote this script. Ripley, his hero, is on the bottom of the ranking totem pole. How, then, do you believably prop her up to become the de facto Captain of the mission? The answer lies inside one of the most important rules in screenwriting: You need to look for any opportunity to keep your hero active. Remember, THIS IS YOUR HERO. They need to be driving the story whenever possible. Cameron does this in subtle ways at first. While watching the marines secure the base, Ripley grabs a headset and makes them check out an acid hole. She then voices her frustration when she doesn’t believe the base to be secured. Then, of course, comes the key moment, when the Captain has a meltdown and she takes control of the tank-car and saves the soldiers herself. The important thing to remember is: Always look for ways to keep your hero active. If they’re in the backseat for too long, we’ll forget about them.
MOVE YOUR STORY ALONG
Beginning writers make this mistake constantly. They add numerous scenes between key plot points that don’t move the story forward. Bad move. You have to move from plot point to plot point quickly. Take a look at the first act here. We get the early boardroom scene where Ripley is informed that colonists have moved onto LV-426. In the very next scene, Burke and the Captain come to Ripley’s quarters to inform her that they’ve lost contact with LV-426. You don’t need 3 scenes of fluff between those two scenes. Just keep the story moving. Get your character(s) to where they need to be (in this case – to LV-426).
THE MORE UNLIKELY THE ACTION, THE MORE CONVINCING THE MOTIVATION MUST BE
You always have to have a reason – a motivation – for your character’s actions. If a character is super happy and loves life, it’s not going to make sense to an audience if they step in front of a bus and kill themselves. You need to motivate their actions. In addition to this, the more unlikely the action, the more convincing the motivation needs to be. So here, Burke wants Ripley to come with them to LV-426 as an advisor. Answer me this. Why the hell would Ripley put herself in jeopardy AGAIN after everything that just happened to her – what with the death of her entire crew, her almost biting it, and barely escaping a concentrated acid filled monster? The motivation here has to be pretty strong. Well, because the military holds Ripley responsible for their destroyed ship, she’s basically been relegated to peasant status for the rest of her life. Burke promises to get her job back as officer if she comes and helps them. That’s a motivation we can buy.
STRONG FATAL FLAW – RARE FOR A SUMMER MOVIE
What I loved about Aliens was that Cameron gave Ripley a fatal flaw. Usually, you don’t see this in a big summer action movie. Producers see it as too much effort for not enough payoff. But giving the main character of your action film an arc – and I’m not talking a cheap arc like alcoholism – is exactly what’s made movies like Aliens stand the test of time while all those other summer movies have faded away. So what is Ripley’s flaw? Trust. Or lack of it. Ripley doesn’t trust Burke. She doesn’t trust this mission. She doesn’t trust the marines. And she especially doesn’t trust Bishop, which is where the key sequences in this character arc play out. In the end, Ripley overcomes her flaw by trusting Bishop to come back and get them. This is why the moment when she and Newt make it to the top of the base is so powerful. For a moment, she was right. Bishop left them there. She never should’ve trusted him. Of course the ship appears at the last second and her arc is complete. She was, indeed, right to leave her trust in someone.
SEQUENCE DOMINATED MOVIE
One way to keep your movie moving is to break it down into sequences. Each sequence should act as a mini-movie. That means there should be a goal for each specific sequence. In the end, the characters either achieve their goal or fail at it, and we then move on to the next sequence. Let’s look at how Aliens does this. Once they’re on LV-426, the goal is to go in and figure out what the fuck is going on (new sequence). Once they find the colony empty, their goal shifts to finding out where the colonists are (new sequence). After that ends with them getting attacked by aliens, their goal becomes get off this rock and nuke the colony (new sequence). Once that fails, their goal becomes secure all passageways so the aliens can’t get to them (new sequence). Once that’s taken care of, the goal is to find a way back up to the ship (new sequence). Because there’s always a goal in place, the story is always moving. Our characters are always DOING SOMETHING (staying ACTIVE). The sequence approach is by no means a requirement, but I’ve found it to be pretty invaluable for action movies.
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS (SHOW DON’T TELL!)
Aliens has one of the best climax fights in the history of cinema (“Get away from her you BITCH.”) And the reason it works so well? Because it was set up earlier, when Ripley shows the marines she’s capable of operating a loader (“Where do you want it?” she asks). Ahh, but I have a little surprise for you. Go pop Aliens in and fast-forward it to the early scene where Burke first comes to recruit Ripley. THIS is actually the first moment where the final fight is set up. “I heard you’re working the cargo docks,” Burke offers, smugly. “Running forklifts and loaders and that sort of thing?” It’s a quick line and I bring it up for an important reason. I bet none of you caught that line. Even if you’ve watched the film five or six times. That line probably slipped right by you. And the significance of it slipping by you is the point of this tip. You should always SHOW instead of TELL. When we SEE Ripley on that loader, it resonates. When we hear it in a line, it “slips right by us.” Had we never physically seen Riply on that loader, and Cameron had depended instead on Burke’s quick line of dialogue? There’s no way that final battle plays as well as it does. Always show. Never tell.
AND THERE YOU HAVE IT
I actually had 15 more tips, but contrary to popular belief, I do have a life, so those will have to wait for another day. I do have a question for all Aliens nerds out there though. How do they pull off the Loader special effects? I know in some cases it’s stop motion. And in other cases, Cameron says there’s a really strong person behind the loader, moving it. But there are certain shots when you can see the loader from the side that aren’t stop motion and nobody’s behind it. So how the hell does it still look so real? I mean, these are 1986 special effects we’re talking about here! Tune in next week where I give you 10 tips on what NOT to do via the disaster that was Alien 3.
These are 10 tips from the movie “Aliens.” To get 490 more tips from movies as varied as “Star Wars,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!