I watched After Earth last night. Yes, on purpose. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. Actually, to be perfectly honest, it’s an excellent hate watch if you’re the kind of person who likes belligerently yelling at their TV screen. Fair warning though, you probably want to arm yourself with alcohol (or the brain-altering chemical of your choice) to numb the pain before attempting a viewing of your own. All that said, there are some valuable lessons for writers to glean from After Earth – namely: how not to structure a story.
After Earth opens with a spacecraft crash in progress. It’s a big, dramatic scene where two characters we know nothing about are in mortal danger. The craft explodes then we see what appears to be the lone survivor waking up on a planet. At which point the movie immediately shifts to a montage, overlaid with a narrative voice over giving us an info dump about the history of the world. Which is followed by a flashback designed to make us care about the characters we just saw crash. Which is followed by a flashback within a flashback designed to… You know what? I don’t care anymore.
This opening is a classic example of a trap many writers fall into, especially those just starting out in learning their craft. They write a wonderful, flashy opening to grab the reader, and then they bring the story to a grinding halt. They step back and explain their world, who their characters are, how they got there, and why the reader should care. A killer hook is a fine thing, but it cannot stand alone. Catching the reader’s attention is just the first step; you have to give them a reason to keep reading once their attention is yours.
Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a flashback here and there to deepen the reader’s interest in your characters, but flashbacks shouldn’t be the entire scaffolding your character is built upon. Contrast the opening of After Earth with the first episode of Lost. There’s still a big, dramatic plane crash, an action-filled hook to grab the viewers attention. The episode is still rife with flashbacks as well, but – and this is the important part- they’re interspersed with the present action. The characters in the present time are still taking action. They are trying to survive on the island where they’ve crashed. They’re looking for water and shelter. They’re having conflicts with each other, engaging in power struggles, forging new relationships, and growing as characters. In short, the story is moving forward.
In After Earth, the story does not move forward for a good twenty minutes, maybe longer. The characters are only interesting (and I use that term loosely, because they are not) in the present day because of their back story. Take away the flashback scenes, and we know nothing about the characters. Which begs the question – why should we care about them? Again, there is nothing wrong with flashbacks to deepen characters, but they should grow and change and reveal pieces of themselves in the present day action as well. If you, as a writer, don’t care about the story in the present, why should the reader care? If the present day story isn’t interesting to you, why are you writing it? Maybe there’s a different story you need to tell. The story of the life-changing event that brought your characters to their situation today, and then… The End. Fade to black with your character’s worldview shaken. Leave them knowing nothing will ever be the same. And leave it to the reader to imagine the next chapter, leave them hungry for more, their mind full of where the story could go from there.