Friday, August 26, 2011

What “Cowboys and Aliens” Can Teach Us About Connecting to Readers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The hubby and I saw Cowboys and Aliens the other night. While it wasn’t a bad movie, it was one that was forgettable the moment the lights came back on. But it was a great example of a story that had everything going for it, but failed on a critical level.

The hubby called it a lack of spirit, a friend said it was emotionally vacant, for me, it was the all-important “why should I care?” factor.

Viewers never connected with the characters, so they never cared about what happened.

On paper, this movies does everything right.

Awesome High Concept Premise: What if aliens visited earth during the cowboy era?

Great Characters:
Protagonist: A man who wakes up alone in the desert, injured, no memory of who he is or how he got there, with an alien device clamped around his wrist and a photo of a beautiful woman he knows he has a connection to and a need to find.

Secondary protagonist: The local cattle baron with a bloody past who runs the town, whose son is taken during an alien raid.

Love interest: The beautiful woman with the mysterious past who knows more than she’ll telling, and wants revenge on the aliens for killing her family.

Comedic sidekick: The doc/saloon owner who’s a nice guy but gets no respect, whose wife was also taken during the alien raid.

Good guy sidekick: The good-hearted preacher who’s tough as nails.

Kid sidekick: The sweet yet innocent boy whose grandfather is taken during the alien raid.

Sad sidekick: The Native American employee/adopted son of the cattle baron who loves him like a father yet is always treated badly, whose “brother” is taken by aliens and whose “father” is risking his life to get him back.

High Stakes: Get their people back and stop the alien scout ship from leaving and reporting back, thus ensuring the destruction of the human race.

Great Setting: The American West

Great Antagonist: Aliens

It has it all. These pieces all scream “awesome,” yet the story falls flat. While I can tell you the names of all the actors who played those roles, I can’t remember many of the character names. Despite good performances, the characters had no souls. There also wasn’t a single quotable line or memorable scene.

It’s the perfect example of a premise novel.

It explores a cool situation, has cool parts to it, but there’s never a reason to really connect to or care about the characters or the problem. This is what agents mean when they say “the story and writing were good, but I just never connected to the characters.” It’s also where a lot of writers get stuck in the process. Good feedback from lots of sources, but something isn’t working and getting them that last step forward.

What Could Have Made it Better?
The thing that really saddens me about this movie is that there was so much they could have done with what they had. There were wonderful personal issues that could have made you care about these characters and make what they were doing matter so much more. Plotting tricks that could have escalated the stakes. Twists that could have surprised.

Playing more with the conflicts and back stories
The protagonist was a bad guy with a rough past who left it to run off with the woman he loved. He’s trying to find her and find out what happened to him. He ends up running into old associates of his, who aren’t happy about something he did to aid him in that running off. Here was a man who was trying to change his life for love, who could have been much more conflicted over his past and his present. But his past was there more so he had a resource to use to win, not something he had to overcome to win. Tossing in the new love interest could have added even more conflict and struggle, but it barely affected him at all. He was also a wanted man with a connection to the cattle baron, and they had to put their differences aside for this fight—too easily put aside I felt. So much there to work with and none of it affected any of his choices or how he accomplished his goals.

The secondary protagonist (the cattle baron) was even more underused. Here’s a not-so-nice guy, a war hero with a bloody past he isn’t proud of, and he runs the town because of his wealth and influence. His son is a wussy good-for-nothing rich kid brat who he always has to bail out of trouble. But the Native America servant he took in and raised is the kind of son he wished he had, even though he’s not very nice to him. The bad son is taken, the good son risked to save him. What a great triangle! But he never once debates if he’s lost too much already. He works with the protagonist without much thought, and even though he’s been the “leader” of his town, he steps aside no problem. He kinda takes the boy under his wing, but instead of showing his caring father side so we can see how he feels about his own son (and maybe have him start to realize how he feels about the Native American guy), it’s all plot points to be used later.

The sidekicks all had interesting conflicts of their own. Here the movie did delve a little deeper, as the preacher helped the doc learn to shoot and stand up for himself. But again, it felt more like it was there so the doc could shoot the right thing at the right time later in the movie. Yet the doc had a wife he dragged out to the west to run a saloon, who really didn’t want to be there (and Mexican to boot, another thing to add conflict during those times). The Native American servant had a son’s love for the cattle baron and would do anything to get one kind word from him, but you barely see him trying to be part of his life. The kid searches for a father figure, but yet again the only thing he learns is something that is going to come in handy in the movie’s climax.

All of these characters had issues that could have made every choice they had to make harder and mean more, but they were never explored or used to the story’s advantage.

Make better use of structure
The stakes in this were pretty much the same from the get go. Save their people and avoid the extinction of the human race. Because of that, there was never a sense of escalating stakes to grow the tension and suspense. Better structure could have helped here.

Inciting Event: It’s hard to say what the inciting event is here. Maybe it’s when the protagonist decides to go to the town where he’s recognized as the wanted man he is. Maybe it’s when the aliens attack. But there’s no clear moment when things change for the protagonist. (unless it’s when the aliens took him in the first place, before the movie opens) The protagonist starts the story on a path and his path never changes. It might have been more interesting if the protagonist had to make a choice between his past and his present to achieve something here. A conscious choice to go down this path, despite certain risks.

Act One Climax: The first “oh no, we have a problem” moment is when the aliens attack. A good act one ender in and of itself. We know they’re coming, we’re waiting for it and want to see it happen. It also “saves” the protagonist from a separate problem. Which is where I think the issues start. Had the story had a deeper plot or more conflict before this point, and this attack both helped and hindered the protagonist in some way, it would have made it all more meaningful. It’s a cliché, but even a “help us with this problem and we won’t turn you over to the cops” deal would have given the protagonist some conflict over what to do. But I never got the sense that the protagonist was trying to change anything about his situation. He was just sitting there waiting for something to come along and get him out of it. Like he knew he wouldn’t be in trouble for long.

Mid-Point Reversal: I didn’t see anything here. Nothing changed in the middle, no real surprises, no plot shift. There’s one reveal you could count as the MPR, but to me it felt more like a Second Act twist. But let’s say the reveal was the MPR. It still didn’t have a whole lot of punch to it. The only thing it affected was the fact that the good guys now had more information about what they were up against and a direction to go. So the MPR was more about “we need something so the characters can learn information they couldn’t otherwise learn here.” It wasn’t about a shock that changed anything. No stakes escalated, no conflicts were made harder, no choices had to be made that weren’t obvious or easy. Something unexpected and dire here would have made a nice addition to the story, especially if it was something that upped the personal stakes of the characters involved. Even the reveal itself didn’t affect how the characters felt about anything, and it really should have.

Second Act Climax: For me the reveal was here, because this was the moment where the protagonist had the teeniest “dark moment” and it looked like all was lost, but something is discovered that changes everything and they have no choice but to move on. It’s also the moment where the final battle plans are laid out and the march to the antagonist begins, which signifies the start of the Third Act. However, “we all die” is still what’s at stake for these folks if they lose. And there’s no personal inter-group conflicts at work. There’s no emotional conflicts either. This would have been a great spot for characters to have to make a really hard choice. To risk more than just their lives (which are at the same risk even if they turn back and wait it out). Personal sacrifice.

Climax (Third Act): Destroying the aliens. You know this is coming so it’s no surprise when it happens. There’s a personal sacrifice here, but it doesn’t mean anything because the character is never one you cared all that much about to begin with. Folks die, but again, you don’t feel a sense of loss because their deaths don’t matter to anyone in the movie. Personal choices would have helped here, as would the outcome of the personal risks or sacrifices the characters choose in the third act. Characters becoming what they spent the story growing into. You see that a little with the doc and the boy, but they were so expected they didn’t carry any emotional weight.

Wrap Up: Life goes on, lives are changed. Except for one small gesture from the cattle baron, I never got the sense that any of these characters changed from the start to the end of the film. The doc didn’t get to show he could stand up for himself in the town, the boy didn’t “become a man” for his grandfather, the wussy son didn’t really become less wussy. The protagonist just kinda…went on. I understand there’s only so much you can do in a movie, but an experience like this ought to change a person. I wanted to feel like someone gained more than just their lives here.

More relatable bad guys
Aliens are awesome antagonists, but these had no personality. The hubby joked it could have been cowboys vs tornadoes and you'd have had the same impact. The aliens themselves cared so little for the characters, it felt like any dangerous animal could have worked in their role. Toward the end you do see one alien with a personal grudge, and it would have been nice to see the more "human" and relatable side to them, even a little, to make them scarier. Even if all that was was a few more scenes where they weren't just mindless monsters killing every human in sight.

So what can you learn from this and apply to your own stories?
  1. No matter how good a story looks on paper, if the reader doesn’t care about the characters they won’t care about the story.
  2. Take advantage of every story-building or conflict-enhancing detail in your plot.
  3. Keep raising your stakes and making them more personal.
  4. Develop those inner conflicts and emotional issues.
  5. Use structure to your advantage. It’s a built-in guide on when things ought to happen.
  6. Let the characters grow and be affected by their experiences. 
  7. Have bad guys worth rooting against.
If you saw it, how did you feel about Cowboys and Aliens? Are there any movies/books/shows you feel fell flat in the same way? What would you have done to improve them?


  1. This is a FANTASTIC post. It came at the perfect time, because I'm struggling with this problem in my current WiP.

    Question: HOW can you convince the readers to care about your characters? How could the mc in Cowboys and Aliens been more sympathetic and relatable, do you think? Is it something he says? Does?

    Thanks again for the great post!

  2. This is a must read post. I've shared it with my critique group. Keep up the great work, Janice!

  3. So so true. Great advice.

    Haven't seen this movie but it sounds like I don't need to. ;)

  4. Love it. Haven't seen the movie, but great parallel with story-crafting.


  5. Yes! I'm so glad I wasn't the only one.

    I went with two guy friends. I thought the build up was great. Lots of interesting mysteries and questions, my mind racing to figure out how everything went together.

    The answers to those questions were a let down to me. They were exactly what you'd expect them to be, no surprises.

    What do the aliens want? What are they doing here? Those were the big questions to me. Oh, they want gold. Hmmm. Seemed like just throwing in a whatever. The writers didn't care what the aliens wanted.

    My two friends loved it. They couldn't understand why I felt let down.

  6. I agree with your assessment of this movie. I left it feeling like it didn't deliver on a cool premise. Plus, as you said, I didn't care about the characters. And I didn't totally believe they could have beaten the aliens, either. I love the way you broke it down.

  7. Pretty much agree with your assessment, though I enjoyed the movie despite its weaknesses.

    Keep in mind it's a comic book adaptation. I've never read the comic, but some of these faults seem to originate there--a few reviews complain of shallow characterization, action at the expense of character development, etc.

    I think the bulk of the failure came during the setup. The MC acts more like a drifter with a cool toy and some handy fighting skills than a hunted, haunted man. Yes, he constantly flashes back to his wife dying, but I didn't get the sense that this drove him. He had a very personal reason for wanting to defeat the aliens, but it didn't come across throughout the film.

    This is the problem with amnesiacs, though, and with few exceptions I find the amnesiac/memory-challenged MC makes a poor lynchpin for a story.

  8. Great article! I saw Cowboys & Aliens and felt let down early in the movie. Your observation that we remember the names of the actors but not their characters is pretty telling--and I hadn't considered it before reading it here. I also agree with the post that said the reason the aliens were here (gold) was pretty lame. This was a great critique of why the film didn't work, and why it should have.

  9. LOVE this post! I love how you broke everything down and showed how they could have done things differently.

  10. I love this post so much, I would marry it if I could. You've just helped me understand why I've had trouble connecting with some of the books I've read recently. I simply didn't care about the characters. I have two WIPs, so I really need to take this lesson to heart.

  11. I just saw this movie, and wanted to love it so bad. It had 3 of my favorite people in it! And aliens! But as you said, the movie fell flat.

    I didn't care about any of the characters and I absolutely hated the twist with Olivia Wilde's character. I turned to my husband and rolled my eyes in the theater, but I think he was distracted by her nakedness. Oh well.

    It also drove me crazy how at the end, no one even considered grabbing the alien's arm weapons and using them (even though they've seen Daniel Craig doing it all movie). Bah.

  12. I wholeheartedly agree! I actually just did a whole post on the ways Cowboys and Aliens failed in the "stakes" department, and you delve into so many of its other issues.

    One of my biggest issues with the film is that it takes itself so seriously for the first half and seemed to become a comedy for the second half. It could have been either with a little work, but it lacked focus.

    Still, I found it terribly entertaining--even as just an example of what not to do...

  13. I haven't seen the movie, but I'm really glad you took the time to analize it here. I appreciated the way you broke down the structure. I got to Mid-point reversal and went `oh! I forgot about those!' and did a quick mental check to make sure the piece I'm outlining had one. :)

  14. I'm just back from the theater. As the credits started to roll, my husband said to me, "It's like Firefly, only without the humor. Or the characterization." And I think he wasn't too far off.

    The key weakness is in the characters -- they're flat, and they never have to make hard choices, even though (as you have pointed out quite well) the potential for all sorts of great stuff was there. It was as if the writer(s?) set everything up and then didn't bother to follow through, knowing we would recognize the different tropes and expecting us to fill in the blanks.

    Your post helped me understand the damage done by the lack of reversals and reveals. If only they had been able to get into the mind of a cowboy and really get a handle on how he would interpret what was happening. Then, each new discovery would be bewildering and awe-inspiring and oh-my-god-now-what-are-we-going-to-do? But they didn't quite get there. Everyone understood things way too quickly. And people didn't seem to be afraid at all. Courage was a given.

    Thanks for this post. It's helping me turn an OK movie experience into a great learning opportunity.

  15. Thanks guys!

    Tamara, there are books on that topic, lol. But what it comes down to is finding something sympathetic and/or relatable about that character, and then giving them something to lose (or something to gain that matters to them). The MC could have been very compelling if they played up the "bad guy trying to change" angle more and showed how love had changed him, and he struggled with being the bad guy he was vs the good guy he wanted to be for her.

    Here are a few posts I've done on this:

    Elizabeth B, That drove me crazy too! I'd have grabbed one of those suckers so fast.

    Jess, oh cool! At least the movie was able to inspire so many helpful posts lol.

  16. Hehe, just saw this and thought you might enjoy.

  17. Elizabeth, LOL that's pretty funny. Thanks for the link!

  18. Hi Janice! I also felt let down with Cowboys and Aliens, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Thanks for the great article. I'm writing my first novel, I'm using a script structure for the plot, which made all the difference, and your comments on the movie's shortcomings are invaluable.

    A movie I wish I had never watched is District 9. It's meaninglessly violent and it doesn't have a satisfactory ending. When I first saw the aliens in C&A, which look much like those in D9, I was afraid it would be as gruesome. At least, it wasn't.

    Thanks for all the articles on writing. They have been very helpful. Best wishes!

  19. Ceridwen, funny you should say that. I did a post about District 9 as well. I didn't enjoy the movie as a movie, but I did enjoy some of the things they did with it by setting it in South Africa.

    Here's the post if you're curious:

    Good luck on your novel!

  20. Sounds like the problem here was that the writer had an awesome concept, but forgot to build off of it to make an actual story from it.

    The characters sound like stereotypes who never rise above the cookie-cutter personality they were made with. Shame. Sounds like it could have been an awesome movie.