Summary of this month’s movie:
When Otis Haywood Sr. is killed by a falling coin, presumed to have fallen out of an airplane, his adult children OJ and Em inherit his business, training and handling horses for film and TV. They struggle to keep it afloat and sell some of the horses to a nearby Western theme park. One night, the Haywoods' electricity fluctuates, and their horses react violently. They discover a flying saucer has been taking their horses and then spitting out the inorganic matter, a piece of which caused their father's death.
Seeing an opportunity to save the ranch, the Haywoods decide to film the UFO in hopes of selling the video footage. They don't get clear footage, but when they notice a nearby cloud that never moves, they realize the UFO is using the cloud as camouflage. Not long after, the UFO devours an entire audience at the Western park, and OJ deduces that the UFO is not a spaceship but an organism that eats anything that looks directly at it. He thinks they can use horse-training methods to lead the UFO and get the footage of it without being killed. The Haywoods hire a famous cinematographer for assistance, who brings a hand-cranked film camera that won’t be affected by the electricity fluctuations. The group lures the creature out and gets the footage, but the cinematographer is eaten, along with his camera.
The creature unfurls into a jellyfish-like form. OJ draws it away from Em, allowing her to rush to the Western park, where she untethers a giant balloon mascot. The creature attempts to feed on the balloon while Em uses a wishing well attraction's analog camera to get their photographic evidence. The balloon pops, seemingly killing the creature. With the picture as proof of the creature's existence and reporters arriving nearby, Em sees an unharmed OJ on horseback outside of the park. Jeni, what’d you think about the movie?
Jeni: I’m starting to think I will always love anything Jordan Peele makes. You know how we are always talking about understanding what your audience will expect? He is such a master of that. He really draws on the whole history of movies in such a brilliant way. Like, I see Steven Spielberg influences here, M. Night Shyamalan, Orson Welles, but Jordan Peele takes those and makes them into something new that really feels like modern society and not a cliche idea of what it might be. He’s a master of understanding the impact of tropes, I guess is what I’m saying. I really enjoyed his sparing use of a score as well, and I had read that some people struggled with OJ as a character, finding him difficult to connect with, but I actually felt he was such a classic stoic character and that the actor did an amazing job pulling it off. Perfect for the sort of modern cowboy, ya know? And also, I’m adding learning to ride a motorcycle to my list of necessary life skills, just in case I’m ever in a situation where needing that information might save my life. Oh, and I absolutely love that the aliens are so inhuman. I can’t think of another alien movie that has done that as well (again–tropes!) and I think it really adds to the overall mystery and tension of the story. I did struggle with some of the worldbuilding. I found some of the characters’ deductions to kind of come out of nowhere, despite showing little flashbacks to how they arrived at that conclusion. The leaps in logic were a little much to me and didn’t always completely connect. But I often find that the case in horror movies and am willing to overlook it for what is otherwise a very enjoyable story. Okay, so what did you think?
Carly: I really really liked it. Not as much as I liked Get Out, but still it was great. I actually really connected with OJ, I thought he was great and good at showing that he wasn’t just stoic, he was uncomfortable and nervous. He had a lot of depth to him that I thought was brilliantly and subtly done. I also am kind of obsessed with the design of the alien. And I love the idea of it being an animal, with less upper level thinking than we expect aliens to have. I’m also obsessed with their plan for the big showdown at the end. It was really fun and clever. All that being said, I was a little confused as to why they were so determined to do what they did. And I wanted more of a conclusion I guess? Like the whole point was to get great footage. And they got the shot from the well, but that was all we saw. Did the cinematographer get the amazing shots? Did the alien spit out the film? Like, the whole impetus was this motivation. And I know their lives are more important, but like, did they make it on Oprah?
So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Motif. This is a word that always makes me feel super fancy when I talk about it in writing. So, a motif is pretty simple, but it’s related to a lot of other things so it can get confusing. But it struck me that this movie has several motifs and that some of them really work with each other and with themes and other story elements. The biggest motif, I think, is the cowboy/Western movie. In a lot of ways, that kind of ties everything else together, I think. The main characters live on a ranch with these incredible desert vistas that feel very isolated and lonely, which incidentally also makes a fabulous backdrop for a horror. I think OJ has big cowboy energy too. Like, he’s all stoic and lives by the code his daddy taught him. Then the Western theme park nearby has a more playful, if commercial, look at that motif, with cartoon cowboys and sequined costumes. And of course, the main characters train horses, which gives us Western vibes. It also contributes to the other big motif, which is animals. There’s a lot of focus on the horses, especially the one named Lucky, but also all the flashbacks to the chimpanzee actor who played Gordy in the sitcom Jupe was in as a kid. There’s also a motif with eyes, and I think that also includes cameras as an avatar for eyes.
Carly: Okay so what is a motif? Is it just symbolism? Is it a theme? What it is is confusing. Symbolism is about an aspect that stands for something else. Theme is about the message and general vibe of a story, but motif is what ties the two together. The big thing that separates a motif from a lot of other terms, is that it repeats. It is honestly pretty simple, but somehow it remains elusive and confusing to a lot of people, myself included. A symbol can be a one-off thing, while a motif is repeated. It takes a symbol and repeats it throughout the work. And through its repetition, it expresses the theme of the story. This movie is all about taming beasts, and the motif of eye contact reflects and expresses that theme. Honestly, the whole Gordy flashback is a way to fully show that motif. Motifs are often symbols that appear at key moments throughout the story. Whenever the beast attacks, it is because of eye contact. We get long shots focused on the eyes of a character or even the beast. When Gordy is done attacking and sees Jupe, the camera focuses in on their eyes and them gazing at each other for a long time. So basically, to repeat myself, motifs are symbols that repeat and point to a theme within the story. Is that clear? I don’t think it is, but there we go.
Jeni: Okay so how do motifs work in writing? Most stories don’t have motifs quite as overt as this movie does, which is why I thought it’s a great example for this. Let’s look at the animal motif in this movie. The theme is about the dangers of exploitation for entertainment. We see this in the flashbacks with Gordy, showing how he was pushed too far past his threshold. We see it with Lucky where he’s on set and kicks at people who don’t listen to the safety rules OJ gave them. The movie even uses the names of the horses to create sections of the story almost like chapters. I think what makes this really successful is that it takes what feels like disparate storylines and brings them together thematically. When I first started watching, I was like, what does any of this have to do with the chimpanzee?? But then all of these elements tie into the realization that the alien is not a ship but an animal, an organic creature, and that they could try to treat it like they treat horses they’re training. The really brilliant aspect is that the movie doesn’t have a neat way to tie all this up moralistically–the main characters still get their photograph, still make a spectacle of this animal, still exploit it for their own benefit. Now, to bring all of this back to the animal motif. There are plenty of ways the filmmakers could have expressed this theme. They could’ve shown a celebrity having a breakdown instead. They could have had the alien transform earlier or had the characters observe some other behavior that would show its animal characteristics. But this animal motif allows them to tie together other elements. It creates a link between the Hollywood TV and film industry, the aliens, and the Western park. And it ties the characters together in ways they don’t even fully see but the audience gets to.
Carly: How do you identify a motif? Umm you just look for it. But seriously, one of the best ways to identify a motif is to start with the theme. What is this movie trying to tell you, and once you know that you can ask yourself how is it showing you this theme. Often it is about paying attention to small details and noticing repeated moments or devices. What does a piece of literature or a movie continually come back to? This one focuses a lot on animals, eyes, and even balloons and kites. The problem is that it needs to be something that adds up to greater than the sum of its parts. A motif takes the repeated imagery and makes it into something more. You aren’t just seeing a lot of eyes in this movie because the characters have eyes, there’s a meaning behind this focus. There are a lot of shoes in this movie too, but that’s because people wear shoes. All the shoes combined are equal to the sum of their parts, whereas the eyes add up to more. If that makes sense? I’m getting into math imagery and that’s not my strong suit. There aren’t just animals in this movie because they are important to the action, they are there to show you something. So anyway, I find it easiest to work backwards with motifs. Start with “what am I learning or feeling” and then figure out why. The other way is to look for common symbols or any sort of repeated imagery. Whatever works best for your brain is the way to do it basically.
Jeni: One thing I want to point out is that, unlike a lot of elements we’ve discussed, a strong intentional motif isn’t necessary to every story. Like, you have to have characters of some sort, something has to happen. As a side note, listeners, this is not a challenge. You don’t have to prove to anyone that a story can be written without characters or a plot. Anyway, your story doesn’t have to have a motif at all, and if it does, it can be–and and usually–is much more subtle. Some classic examples from other movies are the red balloon in IT or the Terminator saying “I’ll be back.” Even the score in Star Wars creates a motif. That repeated element is what adds layers of significance. That is really the heart of the motif. So, how do you know if your story would benefit from a stronger motif? I think a lot of it has to do with how much you want to emphasize the theme of your story. Because a motif expresses the theme and supports it, it’s going to bring more attention to the theme and make it a bigger focus for your reader. I also want to mention that, while a motif does have to support the theme, it doesn’t have to ONLY support the theme. It can enhance the mood or tone. It can act as foreshadowing. In other words, a motif can have multiple functions within the story. Which, as you know, I am a big fan of having single elements that do multiple jobs in a story.
Carly: So how do you decide on a motif and include one in your story? You want to start with existing elements. What is your story about? Not just, “it is about a guy on a horse farm being attacked by an alien,” but more of “it is about the exploitation of animals and the danger inherent in the wild. Once you know the theme or message of your story, you can go back in and see what points to that theme. What already exists in your story that you can include in other major moments? In theory, and if it were a book, the author of Nope could have written about not looking the beast in the eyes. They could then have gone back in and put in references to eyes at key moments. Like including eyes on all the wacky waving arm flailing tube men. Adding in the mirror where Lucky looks into his own eyes and then kicks out. Maybe originally someone got into his personal space or was too loud. But by using the mirror where he makes eye contact with himself, you have an eye causing a major plot point. Look at your big moments and see if there is a natural way to incorporate your motif. But make sure you do it in varying and subtle ways. If you have a fire motif you don’t want a house burning down every time there is a major plot point. You can have candles flickering in the background casting shadows on someone’s face. Or the characters can go to a bonfire beach party or whatever it is that youths do nowadays. Find different ways to explore and hint at your motif. Nope isn’t just a bunch of shots of eye contact, it puts eyes in different places, on non-living things, in mirrors, in pictures, in the use of cameras, etc. And eyes are a great way to show exploitation as well as bestial dominance. They aren’t an overly obvious way to express those themes, but they still do it.
Jeni: I feel like we have to talk about how not to do motifs too. I think the biggest pitfall when it comes to motif is artificially imposing one that doesn’t really work for the story. Maybe because it deals with symbolism, it can feel gratuitous or even derivative when a motif isn’t handled well. It’s really important to make sure your motif focuses on something that already exists in the story for other reasons. So, let’s take the eye motif I mentioned before. There’s the literal looking at the alien and then the concept of the “eyes of the world.” These already exist in the story, so adding to it with the cartoon eyes of the sky dancers (which I did not know is what you call those inflatable wavy thingies until they said it in this movie) and then the inflatable mascot makes sense within the context of the rest of the story. It doesn’t feel like it’s an afterthought someone slapped on to try to make a point. You can also risk taking a motif too far and pulling readers out of the story. You never want to get to the point where the reader is like, we get it. Just stop with the symbols already. And then there’s also the potential for falling into stereotypes and cliches. For example, if a theme is about good and evil and there’s a black-and-white motif, that can come across as very stereotypical, even cliche. And if you’re not careful, it can even cross the line into negative representation.
Our query this month is YA horror. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?
Carly: To start with, I’m a big fan of how this author used comps. They picked specific elements of the various stories and showed how they combine to create something new. They show what elements this story has without just saying “readers who liked X will like this.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but I appreciate the specificity, it really sets the expectations well. For the most part, I love this query. My main notes are to tighten up the introduction to the character. I want to get to the main conflict of the story and how the MC will deal with it a bit quicker. Jeni, what’d you think?
Jeni: I love so much about this query. This is exactly what I’m always telling writers to do–take a familiar trope (aka playing the record backwards has a secret message) and give it new life. This feels like something I sort of already know but also a fun, modern take on it. We also have the “be careful what you wish for” vibe going on, but again, it’s in the context of this … motif! Yes! We have a motif! Literally my only complaint here is that I think the phrasing “tattoo that wants her dead” feels a little vague and that there may be a way to play with this and the next sentence. But that’s really me getting very picky. Basically, I really really wanna read this book, like, yesterday.