Can a real-life story be plotted into a dramatic arc?
THE hardest form of plotting is the real-life story. Remember when James Cameron made you forget the Titanic was going to sink? Like or love his movie, Cameron’s masterstroke of ‘real-life’ storytelling created a new benchmark, but his love story also bent the ‘real life rule’ quite a bit by using fictitious characters within a real-life story.
The reason real life is the hardest form of fiction should be obvious – life does not slot easily into a three- or five-act dramatic arc. Producers and publishers don’t like real life – it’s never fast or entertaining enough to put bums on seats, it’s way too random, and it usually needs a bit of tweaking.
Even reality television only feels real – it’s been fictionalised ever since the quiz show hit the small screen.
One of the finest examples of a real-life dramatic arc is Fred Schepisi and Robert Caswell’s adaptation of John Bryson’s long-form work of journalism, Evil Angels, the story of the Chamberlain ‘dingo baby’ case, otherwise known as A Cry in the Dark.
Let’s put the plot through its paces… beware, there are spoilers (yeah I know, you know how the story ends… or do you?).
Exposition – “A dingo’s got the baby”
The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.
Lindy and Michael Chamberlain (the protagonists) are at their Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa for the christening of their daughter, Azaria, when passing truckers gossip about Adventists over their radios, and the family portrait is showered by their dust, revealing the Australian public’s (the antagonists) wariness of anyone they don’t understand. Michael (Sam Neill) and Lindy (Meryl Streep) leave for a holiday to Uluru (Ayers Rock), and settle in for a barbecue dinner. Lindy puts Azaria to sleep in their tent, and after she returns to the barbecue, another camper, Sally Lowe, hears the baby cry. When Lindy goes to check, she sees a dingo emerge from the tent, finds Azaria missing, and shouts the now infamous line.
Rising Action – “A lie goes around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”
The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.
The Chamberlains wake to news that Azaria’s body has not been found. The media soon picks-up on the disappearance and stories spread across the Australian public’s TV screens, with an edge of eeriness and mystery. The Chamberlains return home to rebuild their lives, but the media continues its push for information, and Lindy attempts to tell her story, but it backfires as the media disseminates rumours about the family. The Australian public starts its own dialogue about the case, mainly convinced of Lindy’s guilt and the dingo’s innocence. An inquest, which clears the Chamberlains of all guilt in Azaria’s death, seems to resolve the case.
Climax – “A face that could crack walnuts”
The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.
Disgruntled Northern Territory police consult forensic experts, who find enough evidence to re-open the case. The Chamberlain’s home is raided and items taken for testing. Witnesses are simultaneously interviewed. The media breaks the story and the Australian public devours the new information with hysteria, focussed on perceptions of Lindy’s demeanour. Lindy is heavily pregnant as the ‘trial of the century’ begins in Darwin. The jury, representatives of the Australian public, ultimately ignores eyewitness accounts in favour of forensic evidence and finds Lindy Chamberlain guilty of murder and her husband Michael an accessory. Lindy is sentenced to life imprisonment. The Australian public celebrates.
Falling Action – “I will not have another dinner party ruined by those people”
The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.
Lindy is separated from her family in prison, where she gives birth to a daughter whom she is quickly forced to hand over to Michael, and she disappears from the Australian public’s consciousness while the Chamberlain’s legal team begins the long process of appealing her sentence. Despite the Australian public’s deeply-held conviction that she is guilty, cracks start to appear in the wall of opposition to Lindy. When the unexpected death of a tourist at Uluru leads to the chance discovery of Azaria’s matinee jacket (evidence the prosecutors used to paint Lindy as a liar), Lindy’s is swiftly released from prison after three years. She returns home, a stranger to her new daughter Khalia.
Dénouement – “How important innocence is to innocent people”
The dénouement (‘to untie’) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.
At their church, the Chamberlains are welcomed by a cheering crowd of Adventists, and Lindy speaks about the family’s patience and endurance while the truth about Azaria’s disappearance was eventually revealed. During the applause, Khalia comes to her mother’s side, and the family group which was ripped apart is restored, albeit changed. Outside, a media pack launches itself at the Chamberlains, suggesting that their journey to exoneration is far from over, and Michael underlines the importance of the concept do innocence to innocent people.
The screenwriters’ decision to portray the entire Australian public as the antagonist was not only genius, it was based on the truth of the Chamberlain’s story, and helped rank the movie amongst the American Film Institute’s best courtroom dramas.
The dramatic arc of A Cry in the Dark hits all the right moments, the most subtle of which is the antagonist’s (the public’s) slow realisation that an error of judgement has been made. In the end, they are defeated by the evidence.
But this win for Lindy Chamberlain cannot be defined as a comedy. This is another reason why producers often avoid real-life stories: they’re hard to define and therefore hard to sell.
In 1988, when this film was released, twenty-four years were yet to pass before the true antagonist of the Chamberlain’s story – the dingo who took Azaria – was acknowledged by the Northern Territory legal system. Before this factual milestone was reached, which acknowledged the reason no body was ever found (Azaria having been consumed by dingoes), the screenwriters of A Cry in the Dark acknowledged that the dingo took not only the baby, but also her story.
That the filmmakers found a way to capture this true tale long before it was over makes A Cry in the Dark one of the best lessons in real-life storytelling.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
An extract from Write, Regardless!