Tag Archives: Screenwriting

A dingo took the story

DESERT CHAMELEON Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in 'A Cry in the Dark' (Photograph by Vivian Zink).
‘DINGO BABY’ Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (Photos by Vivian Zink).

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.

MIKL CURDLER Meryl Streep's portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.
NUT CRACKER Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.

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.

WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.
WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains portrayed by Neill and Streep pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.

The Verdict

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.

WRITE REGARDLESSThat 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!

The desecration of story

WE'RE WATCHING but we're sick of waiting. Smaug's eye from The Desolation of Smaug.
WE’RE WATCHING but we’re sick of waiting. Smaug’s eye from The Desolation of Smaug.

MASTER storytellers don’t come along very often. You’d think by now we’d have learnt to respect their work.

Mess with the canon of any of these literary icons, and you’ll spark a reaction of such magnitude that it could, in at least one case, cause a war. You see them at the top of the ‘Most Popular Books of All Time’ lists – Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, the various authors of The Bible, Homer, Agatha Christie, and, usually scoring two spots for his seminal fantasy titles – John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973).

Yet all of these writers’ works have been the subject of translations, adaptations, mash-ups, and spurious references in Doctor Who. It seems there is no end to re-imagining plots that have already proven themselves popular with readers.

The latest on our screens is Peter Jackson’s production of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the 1937 children’s fantasy which spawned one of the most beloved literary cycles of the 20th century – The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).

Like countless others, I devoured these works in my childhood, so it was strange when I found myself dragging my feet to see The Desolation of Smaug at the cinema.

But that wonderful shot of Smaug, unfurling his great wings, the hapless Lake Town in his sights far below, was every inch the Tolkien moment I was seeking.

Yet before we could ride the crest of the roller coaster, the credits rolled, and, with news that we’d have to wait until Boxing Day a year hence for the third instalment, I heaved a sigh of annoyance.

This was not storytelling. This was commercially delayed gratification.

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies will never escape the criticism of taking a simple childrens’ tale and padding it into a three-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

We cannot blame Tolkien, of course, but it is worth noting that he created many of his early stories for his children. Imagine what the kids would have thought had Dad told the tale in three episodes, a year between each: they would have lost interest, thought their father a very mean and boring man for withholding, and revolted!

SCRIPT SPOILERS Gandalf and Radgast in search of Sauron.
SCRIPT SPOILERS Gandalf and Radagast in search of Sauron.

About half way through The Desolation of Smaug, with Gandalf off tomb raiding, my sister, not a Tolkien reader, turned to me and asked whether the disembodied shadow of Sauron was actually ‘in’ Smaug the dragon?

It was a good question, considering Gandalf and Radagast were looking for something that Bilbo already seemed to have found.

Tolkien knew how to construct a plot, and he took his time doing it. Not for him the publishing schedule of Harry Potter.

There was a very good reason why Sauron does not appear in The Hobbit: because when Tolkien wrote that childrens’ book, he was unaware how far his mythology would evolve in its sequel.

Tolkien’s collected letters reveal that at the behest of his publishers, the rise of Sauron (known as ‘The Necromancer’ in The Hobbit) was only published in an interesting appendix in The Return of the King.

Writing to a reader of The Lord of the Rings in 1964, Tolkien revealed how he connected the two books with the One Ring.

“The magic ring was the one obvious thing in The Hobbit that could be connected with my mythology. To be the burden of a large story it had to be of supreme importance. I then linked it with the (originally) quite casual reference to the Necromancer [in The Hobbit], end of Chapter. vii and Ch. xix, whose function was hardly more than to provide a reason for Gandalf going away and leaving Bilbo and the Dwarves to fend for themselves, which was necessary for the tale.”

Mythology, which runs through the works of all the writers mentioned, is the archetypal source for all tale-telling. Twist mythological rules, and everything from The Odyssey to Pride and Prejudice is at risk of being deemed, well, boring.

When Jackson and his writing team were coerced by the distributors into three Hobbit films, they needed to pad-out Tolkien’s mythology with endless sequences of Legolas slaying orcs; extensions of famous scenes, such as the dwarves’ escape from the Elven King in barrels down a river; and Gandalf the Grey sniffing his way around graves and towers with Elrond and Galadriel in search of Sauron.

DRAGON VISION Tolkien's own depiction of Bilbo's comversation with Smaug.
DRAGON VISION Tolkien’s own depiction of Bilbo’s comversation with Smaug.

I can accept Legolas, a character who never appeared in The Hobbit, and I can even buy his love interest Tauriel, a totally new creation re-addressing Tolkien’s inherent plot-misogyny, because Jackson and his writers are doing what Shakespeare did with great stories: shaking them around to find stronger, fresher ideas to engage new audiences.

But two master villains – Sauron and Smaug – in the same story is akin to having Moses and Jesus in the same telling of Exodus, or Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio. It’s too crowded to pack a real punch.

ONE RING TWO STORIES Tolkien's One Ring as it appeared in Peter Jackson's films.
ONE RING, TWO STORIES Tolkien’s One Ring as it appeared in Peter Jackson’s films.

Audiences who watch the six-movie Lord of the Rings cycle consecutively will be denied the great tension which Tolkien builds up in The Fellowship of the Ring.

They’ll miss a storyteller’s masterstroke, the linkage of Bilbo’s journey with Frodo’s through the secretion of Middle Earth’s most powerful implement, that plot device of “supreme importance” – in a place no one, not even Gandalf, ever thought to look.

To know the power and significance of the ring above being a handy trick for a hobbit engaged as a burglar, and to know the extent of Bilbo’s real enemy long before he does, is a terrible case of spoilers.

Money people don’t trust writers. They never have, and they probably never will, which is one reason why none of the Lord of the Rings movies ranks anywhere near the top of the Favourite Movies of All Time list, whereas Tolkien’s books rank second only to the stories we rely on to explain our own world’s creation.


Messing with Middle Earth might not spark a war, but it’s testament to the power of Tolkien’s writing that audiences will pay to see the butchering of his work at the hands of New Line Cinema and Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Great stories come in threes

THREE'S A CROWD The climactic scene of Thelma & Louise (Production stills: Roland Neveu).
THREE’S A CROWD The climactic scene of Thelma & Louise (Production stills: Roland Neveu).

THE three-act structure is essential to the toolkit for that great misunderstood 20th century phenomenon: the Screenwriter.

Truncated to suit a 90- 120-minute session at a cineplex, the three-act storyline is undoubtedly the one most people are most accustomed to, so it’s probably in a writer’s interests to know how it works.

The good news is that it’s simpler in one way, because there is less to it. The bad news is that it’s reportedly much harder to get right, but we’ll look at why.

Act One

Broadly, this act must encompass an exposition (explaining who is who, particularly the relationship between the protagonist, or ‘hero’, and the antagonist, or ‘villain’), remembering that with screenwriting, dialogue must work effectively alongside onscreen action. Film is a visual and aural medium, so screenwriters must write what the viewer will see and hear.

This act generally also contains a point of no return, which propels the characters forward on their journey. Here’s where the 3-act structure differs from the five-act structure more commonly employed in novels, where the point of no return is generally in the second half of the story.

TURNING POINT Things escalate quickly in Thelma & Louise.
TURNING POINT Things escalate quickly in Thelma & Louise.

You can see where this difference arose – producers sitting in screening rooms, shouting: “Get to the point faster!”. Think Louise (played by Susan Sarandon) gunning down the rapist in the car park in Callie Kouri’s screenplay for Thelma and Louise, around 15 minutes into the movie.

Act Two

This act is the longest in the three-act structure, akin to the rising action of the five-act structure, where the protagonist struggles to rise above the point of no return, but often digs their way deeper into challenges set up by the antagonist.

Around the halfway point, or ‘midpoint’, something significant happens to the protagonist, which might be so sudden as to change the course of the story. In Thelma and Louise, this occurs with the appearance of Louise’s boyfriend, who might just convince her to give herself up, especially when he asks her to marry him. The protagonist’s response to the midpoint decides what happens for the rest of the story.

WHERE TO FROM HERE? One of the finest movie examples of a surprise ending.
WHERE TO FROM HERE? One of the finest screen examples of a surprise ending.

Act Three

Purportedly the hardest-fought scenes of every successful Hollywood screenplay, and the most difficult for writers to get right, this act contains the climax of the storyline, at a point significantly later than the five-act structure, where the tension comes to a head.

In Thelma and Louise, the climax is the most visually and emotionally dramatic scene of the movie, and the one where the protagonists commit their first willful crime – blowing up the truck driven by a hapless and offensive driver who has bothered them along their journey. Previously, they had committed crimes out of self defence or need. The climactic truck explosion signals their graduation into true outlaws.

No movie executive wants much time between the climax and the end of the film – everything has been said, seen and felt, and so the storyline must wrap up pronto. True criminals by then, Thelma and Louise drive to a speedy conclusion which could never be defined as a denouement, but rather a surprise ending.

The Verdict

Screenwriter Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for her first screenplay, got it so right that the studio: “Didn’t come in and re-shoot four times” (Susan Sarandon, in a 1991 interview).

Khouri set this up with a coincidental moment, when Louise waits for Thelma to rob another gas station, and sees an old woman sitting at a window, a bundle of contained compromise and regret. In that fleeting moment, the writer foreshadows her ending without the need for a single word of dialogue. Another reading of the dramatic structure might place this moment as the climax.

Thelma and Louise works in three acts, and it works in five, depending on how deeply you want to analyse it. The three-act structure is, to me, just nifty shorthand for non-writers (e.g. producers) to define the ‘big moments’ they feel all scripts need.

WRITE REGARDLESSIf a writer can craft a five-act storyline, which hits these ‘big moments’ of the three-act structure, they’ll probably have an excellent script.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!