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.


Cool Stuff

Yep. Here I am again, in another jam of my own boiling. I got all excited, had a blizzard of creative activity… and I’m set fast in a berry-flavoured condiment.

I’ve got three elements compelling me through my current script:

  • its genre, one that I’ve always admired and enjoyed;
  • a core theme that’s reflected – I dare say embodied, even – by the protagonist;
  • and a hook that will drive the protagonist onward in their journey.

Now, I might think these elements alone are as cool as heck – I’m flashing on scenes to illuminate and entertain, set-pieces are tugging at my sleeve to be written now or be lost forever, I can see the trailer already – but there’s no story here. This rather glaring omission is quite clear in the thirty-odd pages of set-ups and teasers and clues that I’ve excitedly but rashly typed up.

Yes, it may have been fun to get this far but I do want this script to not only be readable, I want it to be a gripping/thrilling/enjoyable read, right? And if I can achieve those things, it gets the script that much closer to being made, right?

So I’ve started outlining the script from scratch. I don’t think I’ve wasted my time and energy on those thirty pages. Some pieces from those thirty pages will fit right into the outline. And there’s dialogue and stuff about the characters that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I’d just started with the dry work of outlining.

It was fun while it lasted but all good things come an end, and that’s okay. It sucks that the story won’t ‘write itself’. But it’s all part of the process for this particular script.

Onward ho.


The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Ultimatum is here. I’ve prepped by watching its predescessor and enjoying it the second – or third? – time around. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what John Rogers means by nested sequels.

Roger Ebert enjoyed it – and has received a flood of complaints about its visual style.

I was a bit concerned about the ‘herky-jerky hand-held’ camerawork until I remembered The Blair Witch Project. I remember complaints about it inducing nausea and vomiting. It didn’t stop me from being scared out of my wits. As I’ve told anyone who’s asked me whether to watch Blair Witch: if you can get over the shaky-cam, and the contrivance that the characters obsessively shot everything, it’ll scare the bejesus out of you.

I think (and hope) that what’ll save my brain and stomach from Bourne‘s visual jazz will be the story. If I’m pulled into it sufficiently, I shouldn’t notice the two-second average shot length. I’ll be too busy sitting on the edge of my seat going, Oh my g-, what th-, wait – don’t -, which’ll be just what I want.

(Fedora-tip to Amit for the heads-up.)


Needs Must and All That

Danny Stack‘s latest Story Vault about dramatic need, along with Jane Espenson‘s post on the need for story/character stakes, got me thinking.

My path to film analysis was as follows:

    • blind acceptance –

Okay. She has to go back into the house for the cat because she loves widdle Ferdie.

    • followed by a curious questioning –

But why would the previously right-thinking Bindy go back into the house she’s just escaped from? Shaka the left-handed half-blind machete surgeon IS STILL IN THERE!

    • until I realised that there was a correlation between the VCR counter and such out-of-character behaviour –

[With 0:62:25 elapsed and 0:28:42 remaining] Bindy has yet to run Shaka through the bandsaw, detonate the C4 in the basement, and have a topless clinch with Chad the newspaper boy*.

It was likely after a three-hour-long (subjective) ninety-minute film that I had my I could’ve done better’n that moment and, still in that bubble of complete and utter naivete, started plotting my ideal action film:

    • Draft one:

The Hero’s dog is killed. Vengeance is sought. A helpful dog joins our Hero as the Sidekick on his journey. The Baddies are vanquished. The Sidekick is adopted.

    • Hm. Draft three:

The Hero’s family is massacred. Vengeance is sought. A helpful Waif joins our Hero in his quest. The Waif is kidnapped by the Baddies but not killed. The Baddies are pulped. One. By. One. The Hero rescues the Waif and they kiss.

    • Meh. Draft fifteen:

The Hero’s family is threatened – there’s a close call involving the Baby. The Hero and his Plucky Family hit the road but the Baddies are always a step behind. The Hero’s Dog is revealed to be a mole. The Hero is conflicted but is interrupted by an extended Woo-drenched firefight, at the end of which the Hero sacrifices himself for his Plucky Family – but is saved by a last-minute, redemptive and fatal act by his Dog.

I learnt an important lesson during those rewrites**: if I don’t make the reader care it’s just another exciting-but-quickly-forgotten carnival ride (or an excruciatingly interminable cuppa with your parents’ friends).


* How do I know all this? Because these scenes are in the trailer I’ve seen a dozen times already and they haven’t happened yet (although in this instance I’m going to be short-changed by Chad and Bindy sharing a chaste kiss before an abrupt end-credit-roll).

** I also learnt that reusing elements from earlier, discarded drafts is Writing Smarter.


Telling Stories

(This one’s for Mr Power – we just ran out of time after that screening.)

Disclosure: I still haven’t read Robert McKee‘s Story (which I’ve requested from the local library). But I can heartily recommend William Goldman‘s Which Lie Did I Tell?, Alex Epstein‘s Crafty Screenwriting and Stephen King‘s On Writing.

Mr Epstein gets it in one: just tell a good story that keeps people interested.

Okay.  So all the good stories have been told already and there’s no pressure to be, like, truly creative. Therefore it’s not necessarily the story I’ll be worrying about – it’ll be how I’m going to make it interesting. My mission will be to grab the reader’s – and eventually, the audience’s – attention, take ’em for a ride and then afterwards, drop ’em back in their seat, exhilarated, excited and begging for more.

How do I do it then? I write the story how I’d like to see it done.

This springs partly from all the films I’ve watched and thought, I could’ve done better’n that! Fighting words – and extraordinarily naive ones, in hindsight. (Ah, those were the days – watching bucketloads of films and videos and television, taking it all in and un/sub-consciously figuring out what worked for me and what didn’t, and why.)

I believe I’ve seen enough films, videos and television, and read enough books, comics and stories, to know what stories worked.  I survived film school and have had people pay me to write to trust my own sense of story telling and sturcture. I may have foolishly uttered in a script meeting, “I don’t necessarily think and write in terms of protagonist and antagonist,” but I certainly made up for it by referencing enough films to show that I knew what I was talking about.

For me – and at this stage in my career – I still see the script as a story: ninety-plus pages to be read by someone. That script had better transport the reader into my world for each and all of those pages. And all the while, hidden in the text is a subliminal message: Wouldn’t this just make a freakin’ great movie?