Alien - Tension

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Summary of this month’s movie:

Here come the spoilers! A commercial space ship is returning to Earth with a seven-member crew in stasis. And of course, the one member who maybe wasn’t in stasis--Jones the cat. Detecting a transmission from a nearby moon, the ship's computer, Mother, wakes the crew. Per company policy requiring any potential distress signal be investigated, they land on the moon, sustaining damage from its atmosphere and rocky landscape in the process. The captain, Dallas, and two other crew members, Kane and Lambert, leave the ship to investigate. The remainder of the crew--Ripley (who’s the main character), Ash, Brett, and Parker--stay behind to make repairs. Ripley deciphers part of the transmission, determining it to be a warning, but cannot relay this information to those on the derelict ship because they lose communication.

The crew who left discover the signal originates from an abandoned alien ship and enter it.On the alien ship, Kane discovers a chamber containing hundreds of large, egg-like objects. When he touches one, a creature springs out, breaks through his helmet, and attaches itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert carry the unconscious Kane back to their ship. Ash, the science officer, attempts to remove the creature from Kane's face, but stops when he discovers that its blood is an extremely corrosive acid. It later detaches of its own accord and is found dead, and Kane wakes up and seems okay. The ship is partially repaired, and the crew continue their journey back to Earth. During a final crew meal before returning to stasis, Kane suddenly chokes and convulses. A small alien creature bursts from Kane's chest, killing him, and escapes into the ship.

The crew attempts to locate the creature with tracking devices and capture it with nets, electric prods, and flamethrowers.The alien kills the crew one by one. They discuss what to do, but they can’t really leave because their one shuttle isn’t big enough for all of them. So they try to flush out the alien and kill it. Ripley discovers Ash has been secretly ordered by the company to bring the alien back, with the crew considered expendable. She confronts him, and he tries to kill her. Parker intervenes and discovers Ash is an android. The remaining crew decide to self-destruct the ship and take their chances in the shuttle. However, Parker and Lambert are ambushed and killed by the creature while gathering life-support supplies. Ripley initiates the self-destruct sequence, gets Jones the cat, and barely escapes as the ship explodes.

We think everything is safe, but in a tense reversal, as Ripley prepares for stasis, she discovers the alien is aboard the shuttle. She flushes it out, opens an airlock, shoots it with a grappling hook, and finally fires the engines, blasting the alien into space. After recording the final log entry, she places Jones (the cat) and herself into stasis for the trip back to Earth.

Jeni: I don’t think I’ve ever seen this movie all the way through before. I have always struggled with techy science fiction, and I think I had a hard time getting through the beginning of this movie because there’s some necessary set up that still felt a little jargon heavy to me. But honestly that wasn’t as bad as I remember it being, so I’m not sure what made that difference for me this time, whether it’s a change in me or that watching to analyze is always a little different from watching for enjoyment. But I was really impressed, not just with the writing and acting but with how well the whole thing holds up too, since it’s 40-something years old at this point. The crew is diverse, especially for the 1970s, including one of the first trans characters to be seen in a big-budget film. The effects even hold up well for the most part. I think part of that is using them sparsely and keeping a lot of it in the dark or short flashes of light. I think I was most surprised because I had always thought of this movie--based on my limited viewing of it--as slow and kinda boring, but it really isn’t. And you know, I have to talk about the side character I was obsessed with. Any guesses who it is? It’s Jones the cat obviously. My office cat Phil says Jones is one of the most realistic performances he’s seen, like how Jones just watches the alien kill that dude and doesn’t even blink and then how he runs away from Ripley when she’s trying to save him and even hisses at her as she puts him into the stasis pod. chef kiss Phil is happy to see us finally taking feline performances into consideration and giving them their due and demands we only watch movies starring cats of Jonesy’s gravitas from now on. What did you think?

Carly: Phil is the reviewer we all need. I think we need to start a segment on his opinions. He really gets it. But yeah, Jones was my favorite character too. Obviously. I really like this movie. The first time I saw it was for a film class in college, so I’ve only watched it with that eye for analysis. And it doesn’t disappoint. It does feel a little slow in the beginning, but I love the feel of just being on the crew. When they are having a meal, it is so realistic. We’re not zoomed out, hearing one conversation at a time. It truly feels like a family dinner, with all the chaos that includes. And I couldn’t agree more. It really holds up well. The effects are still good, the acting is wonderful, and it is a pretty diverse cast. I read somewhere that the reason Ripley is such a good female character, especially for the times, is because she was originally written as a male. When they changed her to a female they didn’t change anything about the character, and that really shows. People point to it as a paragon of female leads in sci-fi movies, because she is written so well. But that’s why she was written so well. And I didn’t know that about the trans character! I love that. Anyway, so what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?

Jeni: Tension. Like I mentioned a minute ago, this movie is really very tense, despite being quieter in a lot of ways than we are used to seeing in science fiction movies. There aren’t a lot of explosions or mega fight scenes. Like I said, the special effects are fairly limited. The tension in this movie comes from the characters themselves and the situations they’re in. Movies do have a lot of sensory elements at their disposal that books don’t, and those are employed here to great effect. We’ve talked on the podcast before about the music in a film and the difference it can make in how the viewer perceived it. This score does a fabulous job of adding to the tension. I noticed at the end when Ripley finally gets into the stasis pod, the music changes completely from the way it is the rest of the film. I still was waiting for another alien hand to pop up or something, but the music was much lighter and more hopeful. Lighting is another element. This movie is very visually dark, and it definitely adds to that sense of not knowing what’s out there. But it’s really the story and the characters that create the tension in this film. Before we get much more into that, let’s talk about what makes for good tension in a story.

Carly: So what makes good tension? There are a few things we can look at with tension: playing with reader’s expectations, inciting event shifts, stakes, withheld information, plot twists, tropes, cliffhangers, and conflict. Let’s start with the inciting event. The inciting event, obviously, gets your story moving. It throws your characters into the plot. When the inciting event changes everything, you build tension. Your characters are thrown off balance, and that builds tension for the readers because something is happening, plot is coming. It all begins! This brings us to the two main sources of tension, and that is conflict and stakes. There’s a reason we focus on these items in queries, because they cause the most tension for readers, and tension is what keeps people reading. Conflict is the basis of all plots. Your characters enter a cycle of conflict, reactions, and consequences. I’ll get more into this later. But these two elements drive the tension that you create in readers. Next we get to playing with reader’s expectations, and that includes tropes, plot twists, cliffhangers, and withheld information. You can utilize all of these to build tension. When a reader expects one thing, and has it upended it creates tension because you’ve gotten rid of the safety net of expectations. Heading the plot in unexpected directions, leaving readers dangling with an unknown, upending a trope, or keeping information all lead to tension. You can create a ton of tension by utilizing the unknown. Information should be revealed to readers when it is most pivotal and most impactful. Think of the reveal of the android. Had it been revealed earlier, it would’ve lost the impact and tension. By revealing it at a crucial life or death moment, you give it importance and tension. Ash changes from an annoying coworker to one with cruel intent. You ramp up the tension and recolor the rest of the story with this new information. Now we know why he let them out of quarantine.

Jeni: Tension is one of those things that needs to be really pervasive in writing. What I mean is that you need tension on every level of a story. So, there needs to be tension at the big-picture level, at the scene level, and then on a sentence level. When we think of tension on a large scale, it’s really about the plot and pacing. Are you putting the characters into situations where they have to struggle, and then are you giving the reader the right balance of pushing that struggle harder and letting it ease off some? The right balance will vary by story, depending on a lot of factors, but it’s always one of those “I know it when I feel it” things. Something else to consider is the tone. You can use tone to heighten or diminish tension. Remember the tone is about how the narrator perceives what’s happening, how they feel about it, and how they interpret that for the reader. Then at a scene level, you have to dig in a little deeper. For a scene to have tension, there has to be conflict, but it’s also about how the characters react to the conflict. In a movie, this is often very visual, but the actors have to convey a lot of emotion through that. In writing, that means simulating that non-verbal communication. Mood comes into play a lot on a scene level as well. If you have created a very tense mood in a particular scene, that can be broken by having characters goofing off or suddenly making out. I remember thinking that about The Mummy 2, that the characters would just start randomly kissing and it really broke the tension for me. Like, hello, your kid is basically being stolen by supernatural entities, maybe wait until you are all safe?? On a sentence level, tension is all about word choice and how you put words together. Remember that words have not only definitions but connotations. So there’s a slight difference in meaning when we use “walk” versus “stroll,” and those slight differences really build up. We can use words intentionally to create subtext and micro-conflict that’s so subtle readers often don’t even realize it’s building. From there, keep in mind that shorter sentences and paragraphs keep the reader’s eye moving faster and heighten tension, and longer ones slow the tension down some. When you know these things, you can use them intentionally to impact the reader.

Carly: Tension and conflict go hand in hand. If you’re doing it right, conflict will create tension for your reader. So let’s start by getting into the what and why of conflict and tension. A successful plot is created through a cycle of conflict and response. The conflict is the world acting on your character, then you have your character reacting to the conflict and then the consequences are the world reacting to your character’s actions. And thus the cycle continues. That conflict is what leads to tension, how will the world respond to your character’s actions? How will your character respond to the world? When you add stakes on top of that, something that is at risk for your character, the tension ramps up. You need both for the plot to feel genuine and compelling. Risking something always adds tension to life. Think of it like gambling, the risk of losing the money and not knowing the outcome creates intense tension. Not that I’m condoning gambling. You can’t have tension with conflict, because conflict is the basis of all tension. That is a little recursive, but I think you get what I mean. Tension forms from not knowing, from the potential for things to get worse, from anxiety. You want your readers to be anxious for your characters and not being sure how it will work out for them. Even in a romance where you know there will be a happily ever after, there is still tension in discovering how your characters will reach that HEA and what they will have to give up to get there.

Jeni: So in this movie, we can see so much of this at work. From the opening scene, there’s a felt sense of isolation as the camera pans across this giant empty ship. When the characters wake up, we see some issues causing tension right away. Some of the characters have concerns about money, as this is a corporate ship. They don’t know right away that the computer woke them up early or why. They also aren’t really in control of the situation. They have to follow this company’s policies as part of their job. In a lot of ways, these are very much like things we all experience on a pretty regular basis. So, basically, this movie is like The Office in space. Can you imagine being trapped in space with all your annoying co-workers and all the little personality conflicts that come with that? People making all these decisions based on their own feelings, while others try to follow the rules? Yikes. Consider in every situation, who has the power here? How are they using that power? And how do the other characters feel about that? Then we have other everyday kinds of issues. Their technology fails them, many times. I think an argument could be made that capitalism is the real enemy of this movie. Not only does this company consider the crew expendable but they don’t even have enough shuttles for them all to escape the ship. Like, did they learn nothing from the Titanic?? And I think that final battle scene is really the culmination of all of this. We think Ripley is safe. She’s gotten away from the main ship with Jones the cat in all his glory. She’s so sure she’s going to be okay that she prepares for stasis by undressing and only wearing her teeny tiny space underwear. And then this is the time--when she’s at her most vulnerable--that we get the reversal and boom, suddenly she’s face to face with this space monster in a very small, even more confined space. Like I mentioned before, this was so tense for me that even after we see that she ejected the alien into space, I was still waiting for another jump scare haha

Carly: Exactly. I was too! So now we ask, how much tension does your story need? Tension should come in waves. You slowly build tension and then release it. You don’t want to be on a constant build without ever relieving that pressure. You constantly want to ride that up and down wave. So make sure you release that tension, reveal that information, give readers a resolution to a conflict, give your characters a moment to breathe before you start building it up again. Next, you want to consider age category and genre. Each genre will have different types of tension that is usually tied to the stakes. In horror, like in this movie, the main tension comes from whether or not the characters will survive. So we have “survival tension” which I’m not sure is a thing, but I’m dubbing it a thing. Obviously, the most important character, Jones, had to survive. But in a fantasy it is usually the world that is at stake and thus leads to the type of tension. In a romance it is the will they or won’t they or the “how will they” tension that can feed into sexual tension/romantic tension. The relationship is at stake, their happiness is at stake, and that leads to all sorts of fun romantic tension. This comes into play with age category as well because different ages have different emphasis on stakes. YA books tend to have freedom/independence at stake, which leads to tension around that. Whereas MG tends to have family at stake, which of course leads to familial or light-survival tension. When writing you want to figure out the main stake of the story, and then you can use that to figure out your type of tension and the ways in which you can play with it, with the ebb and flow.

Jeni: So if your tension is off, there are some common places to look first. In my experience, it’s a lot more common to have not enough tension than to have too much, although too much can happen too. This is what happens when there isn’t enough space between intense scenes so the reader almost starts to go numb to the heightened emotional state. We need time to process in between. But in terms of needing more tension, the biggest place to look is making sure every scene is pushing the main plot forward. This is ultimately where flashbacks, dream sequences, campfire scenes, and the like create problems in stories--they aren’t pushing the main plot forward so it slows everything down too much and doesn’t feel relevant. When backstory and exposition are woven in with the action of the main plot and we put subplot and character development in too, it becomes seamless so it’s all sort of happening together. The other place tension often feels off is in the balance of action and reaction. It’s honestly usually more of a problem in lower-tension scenes than it is in intense scenes. We tend to remember that we need to see the characters reacting to big things, but it’s easy to forget they also need to react to small things. Those smaller, less intense reactions are a great place to develop the character and get tension into every scene. Again, every element of a story really impacts tension so consider, for each scene and the story as a whole, how you’re using each to create the impact you want for the reader.

Our query this month is a young adult contemporary. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?

Carly: I was completely invested in this query at the start, but then it fizzled. We begin to focus on what the story will teach readers instead of focusing on the story itself. Fittingly for this month, we’re losing sight of the tension that comes with the conflict and stakes. We learn the why of the conflict, but not why it continues and what the character is at risk of losing (besides something that she should be rid of to begin with). I want more focus on who the character is and why the stakes are so important. Why is it a risk to follow through with the conflict?

Jeni: This query starts pretty strong for me but starts to lose me toward the end. The last sentence of the third paragraph has a distinct tonal shift for me that carries into the next paragraph. Here, I wanted to see you dig in a little deeper, and it feels like you pull back instead. So for that final paragraph of the summary, don’t shy away from going into the conflict more and how the stakes are raised. Remember that’s really what is going to hook someone--exposing the protagonist’s vulnerability and telling us not only what happens but why we should care.

Next month, we will be watching the Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings. We will also have another query or blurb critique. If you want your query featured on the podcast, you can find the details about how to do that on our website or Twitter page.
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