Entertaining Stories are Underrated

How many of you saw the ads for the movie Monster Trucks? With a budget over $125 million, this film grossed only $64 million domestically and is now known as a major box office bomb. Considering its 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its (admittedly) ridiculous premise, one might be tempted to think that this film – a story about a literal monster that drives around pretending to be a literal truck – would be a total waste of a good two hours of living. That’s certainly what I thought when I saw the ads. But, I was wrong.

There seems to be a stigma today against fiction that is purely entertaining. To be perfectly honest, I understand why: things should have meaning, right? We, as human beings, spend our lives searching for meaning. We want to think, to learn, to explore, and to grow both in our knowledge and in our understanding of ourselves and the world as a whole. As I touched on last week, literature has a great opportunity – and possibly even a great responsibility – to provide humanity with such opportunities for personal growth. But maybe the ‘fun stores’ have a role to play, too – a role that, I argue, is just as important.

I’m not alone in this thinking – Jordan Harvey explored similar themes in a recent video as she discusses a TV series with which she recently fell in love. There is something to be said about losing yourself in a book for a few days, a TV show for a few months, or a movie for a few hours – letting go of the stress and the pressures of everyday life to experience, even for a little while, the joy of an entertaining story. The human mind can be a complex and powerful thing, but dwell there too long in search of answers and you may linger with only questions. Entertaining stories give us the chance to relax, unwind, and put aside our struggles for a moment in order to recharge to face the next day – and the value of this, especially in a time where ‘dark and brooding’ is often equated with ‘deep and meaningful’, is often grossly underrated.

And so, I want to take a look at Monster Trucks and acknowledge it for what it is – a light hearted, well-crafted, wonderfully entertaining story – and offer my thoughts on how us writers can use its methods in our own works to create better stories overall, as both entertaining and the thoughtful craftsmen.

 

The Rotten Tomatoes review reads,

“Despite flashes of inspiration, the singularly high-concept Monster Trucks shows that it takes more than monsters and trucks to create a compelling feature film.”

Well, those are some seriously miss-placed expectations. High concept? I’m convinced this story started when a few guys got together for drinks and one said, “Dude, you know monster trucks? What if there was literally a monster inside of a truck!” and the other guy said, “Dude! You should totally write that!” And then, compelling? That’s a word each viewer has got to define for themselves – and if you’re not heading into this film saying, “Yeah, let’s see the monster drive the truck!” then maybe it won’t be compelling. A thought-provoking master piece this is not – and it was never trying to be.

To really explore this idea properly, I’m going to have to spoil this movie. If I’ve piqued your interest in it at all, I suggest going and watching it, then come back to finish this article. As I’ve stated, this is not a deep film – there’s really not a whole lot to spoil – but I believe your viewing experience will be best without any more enticement than “go see the cute monster drive the big truck.” (Did I forget to mention that the monster is really cute?)

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Ok, you’ve seen the movie (or aren’t interested)? Let’s do this.

On the surface, Monster Trucks is built on clichés.

“What?” you exclaim, your mouth hanging open in shock. “But I’ve read all of your amazing blog posts and I distinctly remember you saying that you’re allergic to clichés! What gives?”

Well, my dear reader, you’re right – I hate clichés. I almost didn’t watch this movie because I knew it would be cliché. But, the clichés work. Yeah, I said it – hear me out. The beginning of the movie introduces us to Trip: the brooding, loner outcast character with the divorced parents. He hates his step-dad and misses his biological father, doesn’t care about school, and spends his nights working at a junkyard where he’s trying to rebuild an old truck. We then meet Meredith, the goody-two-shoes, studious girl who’s paired up with Trip the loner as his tutor. Oh, and the villain? Yeah, he’s a greedy oil company guy. Super cliché, right? These are just the building blocks of the story, all things we learn through being shown them or through short bits of dialog between characters. We don’t dwell on it, we take it for what it is and it’s used to establish the premise for this story. The clichés are comfortable and welcoming, and mesh together well to draw us into the narrative.

What might impress me most about this movie is its ability to foreshadow. Once Trip has befriended Creech the monster (if you didn’t watch, he’s a tentacle squid thing that lives deep down in underground streams and eats oil) we see Creech watching a TV – which shows a monster truck jumping around on large, dirt ramps. You can bet some crazy monster truck stunts are coming, and while Creech never performs in an arena, we get our fair share of entertaining, hilarious, and even death-defying stunts. When the scientist is studying the other two monsters the oil company captured, he figures out that the monsters can communicate things they learn telepathically. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but Creech is the only monster that’s learned to drive a truck? Yeah, those other two join in the fun by the end. While this is a more simplistic example of foreshadowing, it is incredibly well done and establishes the stakes and potential of the story.

Equally impressive is this movie’s character development. Now, I don’t mean there’s a whole lot of it – that’s not the focus of this story. But, each of these characters that began as clichés get their own moment to shine as a unique individual. Trip turns out to be a smart guy, when his focus is applied to the right thing, and he begins to develop a relationship with Meredith, even though he really wanted nothing to do with her in the beginning. Now, that might sound cliché still if you didn’t watch it, but their relationship is actually really sweet. They come to connect as people, and the most they do throughout the whole film is hold hands – which is, in context, far more impactful than if they had had the ‘obligatory kiss scene’. Meredith comes to understand Trip as more than just a dumb delinquent – and realizes they are a whole lot alike.

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My favorite character moment, though, is between Trip and his step dad. From the beginning of the movie it’s established that Trip hates his step dad – although his step dad tries his best. And, the step dad loves his jeep Like, A LOT. Towards the middle of the movie, Trip learns the biological father he’s idolized for so long is actually a selfish jerk. Naturally, he’s heartbroken about this and, once alone, even cries. Towards the end of the move, Trip, Creech, and the gang are being chased by the bad guys. The step-dad is in pursuit. He sees Trip in danger, and his very first instinct is to wreck is precious jeep to keep the bad guys from getting his step son. It’s a beautiful moment that – without a word – shows how much he loves his step son. Trip says one sentence, “I’m sorry for all those mean things I said about you!” to which his step-dad replies “What?” in surprise – a funny moment, which also shows how Trip’s changed. And then there is a short clip in the end where we see Trip and his step-dad fixing his truck together. That’s it, there’s no long conversation, no big dramatic reunion scene. The character development is mixed seamlessly into the action of the plot and into the comedic moments. To dwell on it any longer would have made it unbearably cheesy, but the way it is works wonderfully – it’s “showing, not telling” how it’s meant to be done.

This film also knew how to properly handle the stakes of the narrative. In the final ‘battle scene’, there is a giant hole in the ground and the fight is to keep from falling in the hole – that’s the worst thing that could happen in the moment, and the thing you assume isn’t going to happen (because the worst rarely ever happens). Well, Trip and Creech end up falling in that hole. It’s just a masterfully crafted scene, keeping the stakes high and the viewer on the edge of their seat.

There’s more to this movie, but I’ve probably gone on for long enough, so I’ll just make one last observation. There was a big opportunity for Monster Trucks to push an environmental message. I honestly thought they were going to, with the villain being the cliché oil company guy. But they didn’t, they let the narrative take its natural course, breaching the topic of environmentalism only as far as the characters and the story needed it to be done. Monster Trucks did what Ready Player One could not: they properly balanced the need for message and entertainment.

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So, what does Monster Trucks have to teach us?

  • Show, don’t tell, meaningful character moments – and that makes them more meaningful.
  • Weave foreshadowing into the narrative to keep the reader interested and excited about what’s coming next.
  • Ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” and let it happen.
  • Don’t be afraid to use clichés if you can do something fun and unique with them.

And, most of all:

  • You don’t have to push a message to tell an entertaining story.

 

So, what do you think about Monster Trucks? What’s your thoughts on purely entertaining stories in general? Join the conversation in the comments below!

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