Sunday, July 6, 2008

Plotting and Developing a Story: Cyclone Santa

In 2001, my then publisher, Barrie Publishing, produced an Australian fiction series. They were looking for stories with an Australian historical background for a second series. It was at this time I wrote Caught in a Cyclone, set at Christmas 1974 during Cyclone Tracy.

Before I could submit my manuscript, Barrie Publishing decided not to pursue a second series.

Years later, I submitted Caught in a Cyclone to Era Publications. The editors’ reactions surprised me. I thought it was a good story but I wasn’t expecting seasoned editors to become so enthusiastic and emotional over it. Caught in a Cyclone was accepted and published in 2007.

My partner, Rob, and I live in a residential three bedroom home with a large games room out the back. In the games room are a pool table and a dart board. We like to play pool every night to relax but also to discuss writing and our various projects. We often use this recreational time to brainstorm, plot and plan. One night, we discussed Cyclone Tracy and how we thought this subject would make a great feature film.

At first, we attempted to gain interest from the film industry in my book Caught in a Cyclone. The responses were all much the same - the book was too slight and too static to become a feature film of approximately 120 minutes. We spoke to Bernadette O’Mahony from the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and she gave us some valuable advice and ideas. We met with a local producer and script editor, who had also gave us a couple of suggestions.

The advice, suggestions and ideas were helpful and we were grateful for the assistance. But, if we wanted to gain interest in a feature film based on Cyclone Tracy, we needed a plot or plots for our screen story. We were rather daunted and overwhelmed with the prospect of coming up with the entire contents of a movie. Where, oh, where to start?

The games room. We headed straight to our sanctuary and, while we played pool, we discussed the obvious - what we knew so far. We wanted to make a family movie set during Cyclone Tracy. So what did we have? Okay, a family movie set during Cyclone Tracy would obviously have Cyclone Tracy, a family and Christmas.

When I wrote the book Caught in a Cyclone, the publisher wouldn't allow me to mention Christmas for fear of offending those people who do not celebrate Christmas. I'm sure we're all aware of the need or apparent need for political correctness. But I always believed that Christmas should be an element of any Cyclone Tracy story. So Christmas would feature in our movie.

After speaking to Bernadette O'Mahony, we knew that we needed several - at least three - child characters. Caught in a Cyclone was focused on one girl. That wasn't enough. Our family in Cyclone Santa would have a girl and a boy. Plus we would find a way to add another child who wasn't connected to the family.

We also knew that we needed more than one setting. There is only one setting in Caught in a Cyclone and the book had been called 'too static'. In many ways, having people read the book helped us find out what we couldn't do in a feature film. When you think about a cyclone, an obvious choice of setting - to us, anyway - seemed to be the hospital.

We decided that our family in the movie would be separated during the cyclone, to add drama and tension. An automatic response would be to have the father at work and therefore separated from his family at a time of impending disaster. But automatic responses can be cliche. We turned this idea on its head and put the mother at work. Why not make her a nurse at the hospital? That way, the father can be at home looking after the children. We made the father an electrician who wasn’t able to find work due to the holiday season, though the family needed his income. Clearly, work would not be an issue after the cyclone.

Once we’d placed the mother, Toni, at the hospital as a nurse, we were able to develop the story around the hospital. Okay, we have a family - two parents and two children, separated at the time of Cyclone Tracy. We also had two settings - the family home and the hospital. It still wasn't enough. Now what?

Enter Ben and Jam.

Ben is a contractor for PMG (Australia Post), who flies a Tiger Moth to outback communities to deliver the mail. He is based on a real person. We imagined him being an Aussie version of Scrooge and therefore having a major dislike of Christmas. We wanted to see him transform by the end of the film. Our character needed to go on a hero's journey. That is, to change and grow by the end of the story.

In Outback Australia, Ben is forced to help Jam, an Aboriginal boy with diabetes who is seriously ill and needs urgent medical assistance. Ben has to fly his Tiger Moth into Darwin during Cyclone Tracy to take Jam to hospital.

During my research into Cyclone Tracy, I read a story about a man who flew a light aircraft into Darwin airport before it was closed as a result of the cyclone. We were amazed that someone could fly through a cyclone and imagined the drama of doing so. We had to include this element in our story.

Now, we had Toni, a nurse at the hospital, and Ben flying to the hospital. We realized we could use the hospital as a focal point at the end of the movie. Let's say that one of the children was injured and the father, Joe, could take the children to the hospital.

Writers are always told to raise the stakes, up the ante, make things harder for the characters. Wasn't a cyclone enough? No, we decided. There had to be conflict between the characters that is resolved at the end of the film, at the hospital perhaps.

At this point, we realised that we needed to connect Ben and Jam to Toni, Joe and the children. Okay, but how?

Why not make Ben related to Toni or Joe? Still, where's the conflict? Family members can be in conflict and often are, for whatever reasons. Right, then Ben is in conflict with his family and it explains why he dislikes Christmas. Family and Christmas go together. What if Ben has some issues from his childhood with his father?

Enter Eric Ayers, Ben's and Toni's father. Now, Eric needs to be at the hospital so that he can be, initially, in conflict with Ben and, later, in reconciliation.

Why would Ben and Eric reconcile after all these years? Maybe because of the relationship Ben has with Jam. Having to save the boy, albiet reluctantly, could change Ben enough to facilitate the reconciliation.

We were on a roll! And it was thanks to our characters.

The whole story became about Ben being forced to save Jam and therefore reconciling with his family. We were excited! And the disappointment over my book Caught in a Cyclone being 'too slight' and 'too static' was long forgotten as we created a new family, new problems, new solutions, and an entirely new plot.

Jam has a special place in our hearts and minds, mainly because he will always remind us of playing pool together. When one of us hits a lucky shot and the ball, no skill involved, ends up in a pocket, Rob sings out, ‘Jam’. We were discussing possible names for our character. After Rob made a fluky shot, I looked at him and said, ‘What about Jam?’

We have a friend who works in Aboriginal Communities. Every time we saw him, he told us stories about indigenous people and their beliefs. We were able to draw on some of this information as we plotted Cyclone Santa.

The first thing we did, after brainstorming, was write a treatment – a 20 page synopsis or outline of the film. Our evening in the games room had given us enough information to complete the treatment.

Initially, we were overwhelmed at how to create a 120 minute feature film, especially when we knew we couldn't use my book. But we knew that we had to try. So we just did it.

We started with the characters and the event Cyclone Tracy. Developing the characters helped us come up with a large, 120 minute plot (or thereabouts). Once we knew more about them, we knew how our story was going to unfold. After all, the story is about the characters – it’s their journeys, their stories. In a way, we let the characters define their destinies, with a little help from us.

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