Once in a while, a story comes along that blows me away. It might be a novel, a movie, a game, or a TV show, but how it’s written or structured illustrates an aspect of storytelling that expands my writer’s mind.
The film, Mama, by Andrés and Barbara Muschietti is one such story.
If you haven’t seen it, the basic premise is this: Two young girls abandoned in the woods are rescued by a tormented spirit who decides to raise them as her own. When the girls are found five years later, things get…complicated.
Although classified as horror, this film is really more physiological suspense in the “peek through your fingers while on the edge of your seat” way. It will utterly creep you out, but also make you laugh so hard you can’t breathe. And it makes you care—deeply.
This is why it’s a brilliant film, so let’s dig in a little more. Minor spoilers if you haven’t seen it, but I’ll do my best not to give anything away since I encourage everyone to go right out and rent this.
What’s so good about Mama:
1. An antagonist you sympathize with, even though everything says you probably shouldn’t
Mama is a tortured spirit, but she saves small children (one and three years old) and cares for them when they would have otherwise died. But she also has that homicidal side that’s not especially kid-friendly. You know all this, see how bad she can truly be, but you still wish they could all just live happily ever after. You care about Mama’s goal, even when she’s freaking you out by her creepiness.
Why it’s so brilliant: Let’s face it, the writers made me care about a murderous spirit. I wanted her to get what she wanted. When she did bad things, I literally cried out, “Mama, why?” and wanted her to just get along with everyone.
Lesson learned: Antagonists with relatable goals can make readers care more deeply about what’s going on in the story.
(Here’s more on creating relatable antagonists)
2. Masterful pacing and manipulation of tension
By the end of this movie, you’ll feel like you ran a marathon. It puts you through the emotional wringer, but you enjoy every nervous step, because you never know what the payoff for the build up will be. Sometimes it’s a scare, but just as often it’s something funny or flat out adorable.
Scenes creep by when we need to feel every step, but they rush when the intent is to make us gasp. And sometimes, one comes immediately after the other, so before long, the slower scenes are almost more tense than the ones that take your breath away. You know something’s about to happen and have no idea what it will be or how it will make you feel.
Why it’s so brilliant: Every scene is created to evoke emotion from the viewer, and the writers/director vary that emotion. The result is a wonderful rise and fall of feelings and anticipation that draw you in and holds you there.
Lesson learned: Tension isn’t a ramp, it’s a series of waves, and how we manipulate those waves creates our tension. Variety in both types of tension, and the speed of our pacing can create much richer stories.
(Here’s more on creating tension)
3. Never knowing what to expect, because it defies expectations
This is one aspect that added to the tension, but it deserves its own mention. Unpredictability is often difficult because there are only so many logical things that can happen in a scene. With Mama, you were never sure where the story was going to go, because Mama had such a strong and compelling story arc herself. She could win, because you cared about what happened to her.
Why it’s so brilliant: It played off viewer expectations in a masterful way. You think “evil spirit,” but Mama defies that by her love for these children. She acts in ways you don’t expect spirits to act, and the children she’s saved treat her as Mama, and not an evil spirit. Those relationships change everything.
Mix in the varied emotions, and you’re laughing at things that are scary, gasping at things that are sweet, and crawling out of your skin and things that are completely normal. It turns what you know and how you feel upside down.
Lesson learned: Look for the unexpected in your stories and don’t fall back on clichés or stereotypes, or even classic tropes. The more you surprise your readers, the more you draw them into the story because they’ll be dying to know what happens next—and be unable to guess.
(Here’s more on unpredictability and plot twists)
4. Incredibly well-rounded conflict not based on good vs evil or bad vs good
This is where so much of the genius of the movie springs from. The conflicts are real, human, and based in complex (yet simple) emotions. Who can’t understand the love and devotion of a mother for her children? Who can’t understand the loyalty those children would feel for their mother? But that becomes something much more complicated when you add in the spirit aspect and an uncle who also loves his nieces and wants them to be safe and happy. And then there’s his girlfriend who never wanted to be a mom, but is now struggling with two extremely weird and damaged kids. Every character has a conflict that’s both relatable and understandable, but no one is “evil.” Not even Mama.
Why it’s so brilliant: No one is trying to be evil in this “horror” film. The conflicts come from a slew of characters who all want what’s best for these two little girls, and all want to do the right thing.
Lesson learned: Sometimes the best conflicts come from people trying to help, not hurt. We tend to think of conflict in terms of “what’s preventing the protagonist from getting what she wants,” but that can be another helpful soul as easily as a hurtful one.
(Here's more on understanding conflict)
5. Layered characters who feel like real people
Every character in this movie could have easily turned into a cliché, but they didn’t, because they were real and layered people. The girlfriend is a perfect example. Her boyfriend (the girl’s uncle) has been searching for his nieces for five years, and she fully supports that even as he’s going broke (where many stories would have made this a source of conflict between them with arguing and antagonism). When he finds the girls, and they’re feral, she sticks by and keeps supporting him. It’s clear this isn’t what she signed up for, but it’s the right thing to do because she loves him, and these girls need help and support.
This character could have become the whiny, bitchy girlfriend, but instead became a rich person struggling to do the right thing under extraordinary circumstances.
Why it’s so brilliant: There’s actually no “bad guy” in this film. Everyone has an agenda, but they all have the best interests of the children at heart.
Lesson learned: You can develop well-crafted stories by creating real people with layered, complex emotions and desires. One-dimensional characters will act one dimensionally, and thus become predictable. But rich, layered characters bring more options and interest to the story.
(Here’s more on crafting rich characters)
6. And ending that’s perfect for the story, even if it’s not the ending viewers probably wanted
With a story like Mama, happily ever after would have felt wrong, but so would something dark and depressing. You want so many different things for these characters by the end of the movie, it’s hard to know what a “win” would be. The writers handled it perfectly. You want to cry (and might, I did a little), but you know in your heart that it had to go that way.
Why it’s so brilliant: It doesn’t end the way you want it to, but that’s okay. It has the right ending for the story arcs presented. It’s a rare story that can not give viewers/readers what they want and still satisfy them.
Lesson learned: What’s right for the characters can also be right for the readers if you’ve set it up correctly. A strong resolution to a well-crafted story arc can be a much more satisfying ending than forcing things to end “right” or “happy” if there’s no basis for it.
(Here’s more on writing the right ending)
If you’re looking for examples on how to create rich, emotional, unpredictable stories, then watch and study Mama. Watch it the first time for the pure enjoyment of it, then watch it again and take notes. It’s like its own mini-master class on tension and storytelling.
Have you seen Mama? What did you think?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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