Make It Compelling

After my last spleen-lancing post, I’ve had some imaginary emails and non-existent comments with valid questions like Who the [hell] do you think you are? and Why make do with the length you have?

To answer the first, I get paid to write, thank you. And although the polite and understated New Zealand way of explaining such a position would be to shuffle my shoes and bashfully say that I must be doing something right, the reality is that I’m good at what I do. I’m a professional. I deliver.

So there.

As for the second question, that was actually from some email or comment spam, so no response required.

I may have been a bit harsh with my accusations of lazy storytelling and a fear of audience confusion in my last post. It’s one thing to blame everything on the writer – and very easy: just trawl through a random sample of dissatisfied film reviews – but it’s another to ignore the fact of how fragile a feature film is. Anyone who’s made a film will tell you that everyone involved – every-bloody-one – has a hand in how it turns out. It’s a miracle they get made at all.

But back to the hapless writer and those ever-reliable chestnuts:
– the child/sidekick/damsel who don’t do as they’re told;
– the unnecessary lie; and
– egregiously dumb acts by characters.

I’ll be lazy and hereby categorise them as dumb things. Such dumb things can be avoided by providing a compelling reason so that the dumb thing becomes at least understandable.

Remember how the DAUGHTER got her MOTHER killed? What the hell was the kid doing outside the house? Well, what if…

Once MOTHER left to investigate the noises outside, we spend some time focussing on her DAUGHTER. All alone. So vulnerable.

There’s a LOUD NOISE from the back of the house: it’s the backdoor being busted down by a couple of mobile VENUS HUMANTRAPS! Their tendrils slither across the polished wooden floor, rushing towards the little girl until –



The hell with this.

– and she slips out the front door.

The same principle can be applied to the other situations. In the boy-meets-girl situation, what if…

BOY listens to his BEST MATE tell him that –


– women are stupid. We, as manly men, lie to them to save them face.

Whereupon Boy ignores his friend’s advice and is upfront with GIRL about MEAN BOSS’s request – and the challenge then is to bring about a different yet interesting obstacle to put in the way of Girl and Boy’s embryonic romance.

And finally, what if…

HOT DOG COP and OLD BULL COP admire the form of NAKED WOMAN for a couple of slo-mo seconds as she hoofs it down the street, shrieking all the while.


What’s she yelling about?


You weren’t listening either?



I was a bit –


Distracted? Yeah, me too.



I suppose we should call it in.



There was some blood on her.

(off Hot Dog)

Go on. I’ll call for backup while you run her down.

A mental image strikes Hot Dog:


I... suppose I should.


Knowing why the kid leaves the house won’t save her mother from being beheaded by some plant hybrid but at least no-one’s thinking of throttling the ill-disciplined sprog.

Having a realistic response to patently stupid advice may have generated some work down the line but at least viewers aren’t planning death-threats against the writer.

And replacing blind machismo with some droll humour doesn’t really work here, but at least police-procedural aficionados aren’t up in arms about blatant disregard of common-sensical law enforcement practice.

See? Provide a compelling reason for action – or inaction – and you make that moment yours.


Awful, Awful, Awful

It’s a four-hour flight to Melbourne and, despite the best efforts of the Purser, the in-flight entertainment wasn’t working so I took the opportunity to finish watching an action thriller Roger Ebert had awarded three stars to.
After about ten minutes, The Goddess, responding to my pained expression, asked, “If it’s so bad, why are you still watching it?”

“I think,” I said slowly, “that it’s good for me.”

Good for you? It’s making you grumpy.”

She had a point. Sure, I won’t get the two hours (two freaking hours!) back but I’ve been soundly reminded of what I don’t like to see in films, and why I intend to never ever use them in my writing.

1.  Kids who don’t listen

The following exhibit is a prime example of why I hate kids in films.



MOTHER and DAUGHTER peer vainly through the windows.


Mommy, I’m scared.


I’m scared too, honeykins.

She snatches up a CRICKET BAT.


You stay right here. Mommy’ll be right back.


The Mother creeps out onto the FRONT PORCH, cricket bat at port arms. A RUSTLE to her right beckons her over to an inconspicuous BUSH. She approaches it, hands gripping and re-gripping her bat. Ten yards. Five yards. Two yards. The bush rustles innocently.


What is it?



– and she turns to find her Daughter at her side.


I thought I told you –

The bush rustles – and transforms into a giant VENUS HUMANTRAP, its bulbous head SNAPPING FORWARD and neatly beheading the Mother. The Daughter is sprayed in arterial blood as her mother’s headless corpse drops beside her.


Mommy! ... Mommy?

What’d you freakin’ expect, kid? You were freakin’ asked to stay in the house! Why didn’t you bloody listen?!

2.  Stupid plot devices.

I’m all for devices to propel the story. Call me picky, but I’d like those devices to be, oh I dunno, naturalistic… characteristic… even logical.

I think Ebert refers to these as idiot plots – y’know,
–  BOY meets GIRL,
–  Boy asks Girl out on a first date,
–  Boy’s MEAN BOSS asks Boy to entertain a client’s HOT DAUGHTER on the same day of his first date with Girl or lose his job,
–  Boy asks his BEST MATE for advice,
–  Best Mate says If you’re honest with Girl about why you’re breaking your first date, she. Won’t. Understand,
–  Boy tells Girl that he’s got an old college friend in town that he has to entertain…


3.   Stupid characters

Stupid characters are the human equivalent of idiot plots.



In a tired and dented CRUISER, a HOT DOG COP and OLD BULL COP look at the WARRANT they have to serve.


This is just beneath me, old timer –

His whiney bitch-ass rant is cut short when the cops observe a STARK NAKED WOMAN run screaming from the apartment block.


(between shrieks)

He’s trying to kill me! Help me!

Hot Dog is out of the cruiser and heading straight for the APARTMENT ENTRANCE when his elder partner’s shouts make him pause:


Shouldn’t we wait for backup?

The slap of ceramic on reinforced plastic as Hot Dog draws his GLOCK PISTOL:


This is all the backup I need, old timer.

How will Hot Dog Cop appear in the next scene? Will he be –
A.   shot to death by assailant/s unknown;
B.   kidnapped then tortured to death at an unspecified location by assailant/s unknown;
C.   buried with full honours while his heavily pregnant FRESH-FACED WIFE weeps pathetically; or
D.   seduced by SORORITY SISTERS who’ve just sent out a new member (remember shrieking Stark Naked Woman?) on an initiation rite/run.


I feel better now. The bitter taste of that film has begun to fade, and I’ve unloaded onto you, dear reader, for which I’m always grateful.

I suspect however that the above three items are one and the same. Sorry. They reveal a couple of things though: lazy storytelling and a fear of incomprehension. In my next post, I’ll explain how these wonderful chestnuts can be made to work.