Just as a reminder, you can now support the podcast on Patreon, where you can read the queries we critique plus get lots of other bonus content. It’s easy to find, just go to patreon.com/storychatradio.
Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! A chemical leak at a biotech plant creates zombies. Fund manager Seok-woo is a cynical workaholic and divorced father. His young daughter Su-an wants to spend her birthday with her mom in Busan. Overcome with guilt, he decides to take her via an early train. Other passengers include a working-class man and his pregnant wife, a selfish COO, a high school baseball team, and a homeless stowaway, among others.
As the train departs, an infected woman runs aboard and attacks an attendant, and many people are quickly turned into zombies. The survivors notice the zombies only attack if they can see them or hear them but can’t open the doors. They learn from news reports that this is rapidly spreading across the country. The train stops at a station supposedly secured by the army, and the passengers disembark into a vacant station but find the soldiers are all zombies. Several passengers make it back safely but are separated into two groups, one in the front car and the other in the back.
The captain learns Busan is a safe zone and takes the train in that direction. The group in the rear car make their way to the front by fending off the zombies. When they finally reach the front car, the other survivors believe the group is infected and block the door. The dad-to-be gets bitten and stays behind so the others can break through. The other passengers force Seok-woo's group into a closed vestibule to keep them separated. The zombies get into the car and kill the other survivors, though the COO manages to escape into a restroom.
An out-of-control train causes them to derail, trapping Seok-woo, Su-an, the pregnant woman, and the homeless man under the derailed train car. The captain starts another train, and the COO escapes the restroom, pushing other survivors–including the captain–into the zombies to make his getaway. Under the derailed train, the homeless man sacrifices himself so the others can escape. They board the moving train and discover the infected COO. Seok-woo struggles with him and is bitten before he can throw the zombie off the train. Seok-woo says his farewells to Su-an and throws himself off the train. The pregnant woman and Su-an, the only survivors, stop at a blocked train tunnel just before Busan and walk through the tunnel, where soldiers rush over and help them to safety.
Jeni, what’d you think about the movie?
Jeni: This is so not my kind of movie haha. But I liked it, even though I really didn’t expect to. I don’t mind horror movies, but I typically like a slower pace. And ghosts. Having said that, this movie was so freaking intense. I watched it on a Tuesday night after dinner and had a hard time getting to sleep hours later because I was still so wound up. It’s not that it’s especially scary. But it is really gory (which doesn’t really bother me), and the pacing is just nonstop, super intense. I think one of the things that makes this stand out from other horror/action films for me is the character development for Seok-woo. There was a clear theme here about capitalism, a lot like Parasite really. Seok-woo is really the main character, and we see that he’s pretty young and torn between his career and his family. The movie provides several foils for him, almost like a cartoon angel and devil on his shoulder. The working class dad-to-be and the homeless man are very much the angels, sacrificing themselves for others, while the COO is clearly the devil, literally pushing other people into zombies so he can get away. As Seok-woo interacts with these other characters, he sees for himself that his priority is really his daughter, and we see how he solidifies that by sacrificing himself at the end to save her. I did struggle with the depiction of women in this movie though. They were all pretty stereotypical and didn’t really contribute much to the plot, aside from motivation for the men. What did you think?
Carly: Agreed. I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be commentary or not, but the stereotype of all the women being either children, pregnant, or old women felt very on the nose with those old cliches. I did enjoy the movie though. It was fast-paced gore, and I don’t mind gore so much. Ghosts and a slower pace sounds awful to me, so vetoing that right now Jeni. I really liked Seok-woo and his arc. It’s interesting to see growth during a zombie apocalypse. But I was very much like “umm what now?” for his daughter. She is clearly not going to be okay after this, and I feel like the movie implied that her mother was dead as well. Basically, I enjoyed it but felt like it focused so much on the male gaze that the female characters became stereotypes and plot devices without real thought put into them. So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: So, one really essential element in this story is setting. It would be really hard to tell this same story in another setting. In horror, a sense of isolation can really help build the tension and keep the audience hooked. And this movie definitely does that sense of isolation well. I think it’s a really interesting case as well because you don’t really think of public transportation as being isolating. In fact, it’s usually portrayed as the opposite, sort of the crush of people, everyone in close quarters. But this story really relies on that feeling of isolation, even among other people. So, the train both takes the passengers away from the area where they were attacked AND isolates them from the rest of the world. In some ways, that’s a good thing. Being isolated means the zombies “out there” can’t get them. But they also can’t get to their families, friends, colleagues, and communities. It creates this odd balance of safety and fear that feels dissonant. Similarly, as the story progresses, the passengers act less and less as a group or a team and more as individuals, which means each of the characters followed in the story becomes increasingly isolated from the group. I also noticed that sense of isolation even when they stop at the stations and there’s a larger, more open space. That space is there that they don’t have on the train, but it’s so eerie to see this area that would normally be teeming with people now completely empty. Just that emptiness feels really crushing on its own. And having this as a modern story means that the passengers are getting live updates via the television and their phones about how this zombie apocalypse is growing all over the country, and again, it really adds to the tension and sense of urgency. That just wouldn’t be the same if it were set in say, the 70s, where the news cycle wasn’t so immediate and constant. So, yeah, the movie definitely does setting really well and is a great example of how setting can impact the overall story.
Carly: So what are the elements of setting? We all think we know exactly what setting is, it is the stage that the story takes place on. But when looked at as the creator of the setting, you’ll quickly realize that there is even more to consider than you thought. The obvious element of setting is the place, where is your story taking … place? But you also need to consider what time your story is set in. Setting it 200 years ago is vastly different than today. Next you want to consider the culture of the setting. Does your story take place in a certain part of the world with a specific culture? What sub-cultures within that location does your story touch? Culture permeates all the way down to how you interact with your friends, family, co-workers. Your office has a work culture, your favorite hobby has a social culture, etc. This culture becomes a setting for your story. So ask yourself how these different elements feed into your story and the setting. While setting is an overarching element in a story, when you narrow in on the small stuff, you’ll find that it will also change from scene to scene. Basically, think of setting as a tree map, at the bottom (or is it top? I always forget), you have the time and overall location for your entire story. Then from there you have the different cultures your characters interact with. But then you need to break it down scene by scene. Where is the most effective place for each scene to take place? How do the different cultures at work in your story affect the scene? So in this movie, as Jeni said, takes place mostly on a single train. People begin the story giving each other space because that is what you do with strangers on a train, that traveling culture, so to speak. But as the story progresses and the zombies overtake the train, we feel the characters being forced into smaller and smaller settings. At one point four characters are stuck in a tiny, train bathroom. The setting literally gets smaller to reflect their sense of isolation and how limited they are as the zombies increase. And then we have the large open spaces that should feel freeing, but instead enforce a different kind of isolation. Yes they have all this room, so it becomes super apparent that they are all alone. These different settings affect the viewer in different ways. It evokes different emotions and reactions from the viewer that you want to enact on your readers. Setting is a super powerful tool to emphasize emotions and feelings in your reader.
Jeni: Ideally, setting should provide both limitations and unique opportunities for your characters. And that means all your characters--protagonist, antagonist, and secondary. So, for example, the characters in this movie had choices because of the modern time period and because of the location in South Korea. In my hometown, there isn’t really any public transportation. So getting on a high speed train to escape from zombies wouldn’t be an option. The characters use their cell phones to communicate with each other and with people who aren’t on the train. Consider how that might be different if the setting had no cell signal, which is a common trope that this story more or less avoided really. So yeah basically I spent this whole movie thinking about the differences of the city folk and us country people. Haha So in your writing, make sure you’re considering the positives, negatives, and neutrals given to your characters because of the setting. But the best stories go deeper than just thinking about time and locations. They also consider the culture of the society where the story takes place and how that culture treats people like each character. So, for example, I mentioned the theme about capitalism, which is like hitting the viewer over the head with it really. It’s definitely not subtle at all. At one point, the dad-to-be calls Seok-woo a bloodsucker because he’s a fund manager, and it creates this divide between them, since the other guy is in the working class. And Seok-woo’s career does give him advantages and contacts the others don’t have, which he tries to use to secure safety for himself and his daughter. These are elements of the culture that a story set in another time or another location might not afford him. In your writing, think about the multiple identities of each character, like gender, race, class, religion, etc. In fantasy and science fiction, that can also go into different kinds of extra abilities and so on. For each of those identities, there will be advantages, disadvantages, and some neutral elements provided to that particular group. How do those impact how your character thinks about themselves and their place in the world? How do they affect the choices the characters believe they have? How does it affect the resources they have access to? How does it make the characters feel about other characters and groups? Keep going down that path and brainstorming all the ways setting impacts the characters, and it will create this link between your characters and your story that means that story couldn’t be set somewhere else and still happen the way it does.
Carly: Exactly, setting should impact plot in very strong ways. What are the limitations and advantages of your setting and how can it further create conflict? One of the main setting limitations in this movie are the doors between each train car. Each car is a small world unto itself. The characters must pass through each new world and come up against different challenges. There is one door in and one door out of each train car, and each car is filled with different conflicts. This movie is actually a really perfect example of how setting should impact plot, good job picking the topic Jeni! The more I’m talking the more I’m like “ooo and this is a good example!” Anyway, I’m going to use the scenes where the three men are trying to save their families and reach the train car that is safe. Each scene (for the most part) takes place in a new train car. As the characters enter a new car they survey the different antagonists and problems that they have to face. They have to figure out what kind of conflict they are up against and how they can overcome it. So one train car is fairly empty, while another is full of their former-friends-turned-zombies. Each car presents a slightly different setting that then informs on the conflicts the characters must face. Each car presents different limitations that force the characters to think creatively and tackle each challenge differently. If all the cars were the same, if the setting never changed, then each problem would be solved in the same way, we’d lose interest. So you want your setting to be dynamic and to have it impact your plot in a meaningful way. And remember, for the most part, plot and conflict are the same thing. I know we say this a lot, and it is more nuanced than that, but just remember that conflict and plot are practically synonyms.
Jeni: One big issue I see frequently with setting, and I’m sure you do too, Carly, is setting either being described too much or not enough. There’s this Goldilocks sweet spot that’s “just right,” and until you learn how to see it on your own, it can feel really elusive. Part of what I really liked about the setting in this movie is how minimalist a lot of the physical locations are. The train itself is a commuter train so it’s not especially fancy. The train stations are also modern and pretty sparsely decorated. But what that means is that the eye is really drawn to what’s happening in the background, and the filmmakers really use that to their advantage. I’m thinking of when they pull into the one train station and see all the people running from zombies and zombies getting people, to the absolute horror of the people on the train. There’s this moment as they first pull up where the passengers on the train are still sort of in a scene, and it takes them a couple seconds to recognize what’s going on outside. But because of the positioning, the viewer gets to recognize it before they do, which of course adds to the horror. What I think is so brilliant about using this movie to think about how to describe your settings is that it doesn’t focus a lot on the things the viewer will find commonplace and instead puts the emphasis on the things unique to this story, like the zombies and the big empty train station. We talk a lot on here about thinking about what your reader will be bringing to the story and using that knowledge to play with their expectations. This is another area where it’s helpful to consider what your reader is bringing to the story. So, for example, your reader will likely have a pretty good idea of what a train station looks like, even if they’re a country bumpkin like me, because of other media. So you don’t need to go into a lot of detail describing that. Ask what your reader will and won’t know, based on sort of the collective consciousness of pop culture. Then use that as a foundation to build on. The other element of this is using the characters actions to work in setting descriptions. I often call this breadcrumbs, where you add small amounts of description throughout a scene for the reader to pick up and create the larger picture of what the setting is like. So, for example, as a character walks through a scene, don’t just describe what they see. Show them glance at something over the shoulder of a character they’re talking to. Describe the sound the floor or ground makes as they walk over it. Those kinds of small details are the perfect breadcrumbs to build that bigger picture.
Carly: Okay so how do you decide on settings? I’m going to go back to my tree map analogy here. You want to start big. What country, world even, and time does your story take place in? If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, this could be a completely different world from our own. Once you figure out the world, you’ll then figure out the country, city, etc. Where in the world do we start? At the same time, figure out the time period. What cultures are present in those locations and times? Then we get into the scene settings. Does a scene take place in one location? What building? What room? What is in that room that would affect the plot? How can the set dressing impact your characters and the conflict? And then ask yourself what the setting reflects in your characters. The obvious one is when we are in your character’s bedroom. What does their room say about them? But even when your character is in a completely random location, how they react and interact with the setting tells readers a lot about who they are. I think we talked about this before, but if your character walks into a room and notices certain titles on a bookshelf, that will tell us that the character is a book nerd, or possibly judgmental, or maybe that they had a bad experience once when they were literally sucked into the book and they fought with the hero. I’m getting off topic. So back to the tree map, once you figure out the big-picture setting you can then work down to the scene by scene settings. This will include not only the rooms and objects in that room, but also the different culture, privileges, and limitations of all these places. Do you need certain object present in a scene? Can you show who your character is through the setting? Can you push readers into the body of the main character by imposing societal limitations on them? Basically, setting influences and interacts with every element of your story, so you need to choose setting with intention. It is easy to fall into the trap of “this place is cool so it takes place here” and not think about the repercussions of that setting on the characters and conflict, as well as the meaning behind that setting. So choose wisely and with intent.
Jeni: Something else to consider with setting is how you are using it to enhance the mood, tone, tension, conflict, and emotions of the characters. This is often something authors do unintentionally anyway, but when you do it with intention, it can make such a difference for a story. Horror is really great at this, using darkness and gloom to make it harder to see so that the characters and the viewer can’t see what’s coming. In this movie, the fact that the train is moving adds tremendously to the tension, and that wouldn’t be possible in a lot of settings. It also gives them this built-in way to move from one location to another and also a reason to slow down and speed up as they move into different stations. Those are natural ways to play with the tension. It’s really almost too on-the-nose too, but the scene Carly described a minute ago with all the characters moving through the train–an emotionally dark moment for them in this scene is when they get into the car that’s most populated with zombies, and that’s also when we get the visual darkness of going into a tunnel. So it creates this nice little parallel. When you’re deciding where a scene should take place, consider what’s appropriate for the emotional content of the scene as well. Romantic scenes are also a great example of this. There’s often soft lighting, a location that affords some amount of privacy, etc. These are sort of extreme examples to make a point, but you can do this in any scene. Think about what different sensory experiences of a particular location will bring to that scene, and how those elements will naturally impact your characters. Then use that to your advantage to really take the emotions of any scene to the next level.
Our query this month is an adult dark fantasy. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?
Carly: This story sounds really interesting to me. I love the main plot and the multiple genres it is pulling from, but it could use more personality? That’s not the exact word I’m going for. Maybe theme or setting? Basically, it all feels a little too generic in the beginning. We aren’t getting a sense of who your character is and why we should care about her. She’s thrown into a mystery, but what is at stake for her on a personal, intimate level? We’re missing a lot of internal tension and conflict which is what draws people in to a query. We cover the plot okay, but by the end when the stakes are laid bare, we don’t have the emotional connection to care. So up the emotional connection to the character by digging into the internal conflict and who your character is. And pepper in some fun setting elements that will show what makes this story so special.
Jeni: There are a few elements here that definitely pique my interest. It’s historical and there’s a large mystery element, with a female sleuth. But the finer details feel kind of vague. I’m not 100% sure what actually happens in this story, other than the mystery itself. And the author mentions some real-life historical events in the final paragraph, but it isn’t clear to me what the connection is to the plot as described in the query. I definitely think one part of the problem is that the sentences are all pretty long and have similar structures. Even in a query letter, you want varied sentence length and structure to create variety and keep the reader engaged. And don’t be afraid to give more details. This is something I see a lot, where the author wants to create a sense of mystery around the story by having this strong hook so they leave out important details. Write this down: Details in a query don’t spoil anything. They get us more excited for the unique elements of your story. Depending on the story and how much of a twist it has, you can sometimes give details as far in as just before the climax without spoiling too much.