Making Our Stories More Original.

I have protested that Australian films are often atrocious from a story point of view. And have, at times, received venomous looks for breaking ranks with the local tribal myth that these films are artistically ‘special’, or have some ‘unique voice’.

by Steven Fernandez
It’s about time we admit that local screenwriters need to lift their game. But how?

Today I will focus on one solution: Making our stories more original.

Your typical Australian feature story runs like this: A monosyllabic underachiever, with no real intention of bettering himself, stumbles through various mediocre challenges, meets, then loses, a girl (who is not much deeper than he is), muddles some more, then finally ends up either little improved, or not improved at all.

Throw in lavish amounts of “G’day mate” dialogue, and shoot some wide shots of pretty desertscapes, and you have a “film” that apparently rates government funding. Although it will be one that will never be compelling, and won’t make a profit.

It will be one that will never be compelling,
and won’t make a profit.

Tower of Babel

To make stories more original can be as simple as … Now, wait for it … Breaking just one of these conventions!

Simple example: If you really must have a monosyllabic sheep-shearer as your primary character, then at least give him one trait that breaks from the oh-so-boring bushman mould we have seen for decades. Such as? Well, maybe he paints on a canvas on occasion … In between shearing sheep and sinking schooners of beer.

give him one trait that breaks
from the oh-so-boring bushman mould

But why would such a ‘manly’ man do something so girlie? Good Question! And it is precisely in answering this question that you can begin to make your story rise above the typical level.

Thrilling Wonder Stories (1943 Feb)Pushing aside the unimaginative answer (i.e. he’s actually gay), his motive could be along the lines of painting being his personal way of connecting with a kid girl who has died years ago. A girl that could be either his sister when he was a boy, or a daughter who died more recently.

The sister or daughter, we may suppose, used to paint silly things with child-like abandon when she was alive. So he paints to try to reconnect with her joyful and effervescent nature. This solution will work particularly well if his present-day manner is laconic, stern, humourless, and so on. (It also provides a nice basis for the character’s transformational arc: Namely, his need to reconnect with his more playful side in order to start enjoying life again.)

What a difference just one break with convention makes! Suddenly we have teleported this sheep-shearer character away from hackneyed stereotype!

What a difference just one break with convention makes!

Suddenly this otherwise trite man demonstrates some level of emotional depth. And, in doing that much, we have a character that will surprise the viewers. Especially if we present the character as straight stereotype first, followed by a quick painting scene (with no explanation), followed by a slow unfolding of his reason for painting.

But even more important than his surprise factor will be the fact that, by demonstrating some emotional depth, he will be a man that the viewer can slowly grow to care about. He may well remain racist, sexist, and politically incorrect till the very end. But the fact that he still feels for his lost sister or daughter will be the all-important empathy link that will hook your viewers and entrance them to want to see him rise above his inner wounds.

By demonstrating some emotional depth,
he will be a man that the viewer
can slowly grow to care about.

While we all have seen the standard transformation of a hard-shelled man into ‘softie’, there’s something different about this painting shearer concept … Perhaps because he never was a hundred percent ‘hard’ to begin with.

Harry Potter and the Winter Nights

Another Australian story convention we could do well to ditch is our lack of conviction in positive endings. Typically the central character either doesn’t improve, or only improves a little bit. A lost soul teenager, for example, might stop taking hard drugs at the end, but he will rarely evolve beyond a meagre or uncertain existence.

Typically the central character either doesn’t improve,
or only improves a little bit.

For those who may protest that we Australians do this because we are more gritty and realistic than Americans are, I have one thing to say: A positive ending does not mean a Disney ending!

Planet Stories (1951 Nov)The key thing about endings is that they must offer hope. But that is not the same thing as saying that everyone must live happily ever after. The central hero may well die, for example, as long as his death paves the way for the betterment of others (e.g. I Am Legend).

Similarly, the central character may elect to stop pursuing the one heartfelt goal that has been driving him all along in the film … And this sacrifice may hurt him deeply … So long as this choice improves the life of one he loves (e.g. The Butterfly Effect).

The key thing about endings
is that they must offer hope.

A positive ending, therefore, does not deny the possibility of heavy and serious drama. It does not even deny the possibility of a tragic ending, in fact.

Jack and JillFor example, a terminally ill young woman may well die coughing up blood. But we can still be deeply moved by her irrepressible spirit and her valiant efforts to try to beat her condition. She may not “win” in the end, but we will not fail to admire her bravery when we walk out of the cinema.

How many Australian films truly manage that much?

In summary, Australian screenwriters can begin to lift their game by breaking at least one of several yawnsomely overdone cinema conventions.

Such convention-breaking will suddenly make Australian films much more original. And therefore more interesting.

And, in fact, more commercially viable as well.

-Steven Fernandez

Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.

photo credits: Doeki, pixeljonesperpetualplum, Thiru Murugan

6 thoughts on “Making Our Stories More Original.”

  1. Very well written article. It is a shame the writers who are getting their films made in Australia will probably turn their noses up in derision and say “what does he know? i’m the one who gets my scripts made!” – well guess what, “Porky’s” also go made, and so did a whole bunch of other trashy films! So to writers out there, who think they know better, I say listen to Steven and apply some of it.

    “My writing is good, but it ain’t great yet. I must keep trying to improve.” – keep repeating that to yourself and keep writing. And never say “F*%k! My script is so brilliant. It is the best thing anyone has ever written!” – no script is that good.

    oh well a producer can always dream…back to the LA script market then…..

  2. Nice article. As a newbie screenwriter myself, I think we should be MORE like Hollywood, and not try to be so indie all the time. That’s what got us into our current malaise.

    People are hard wired to enjoy stories structured in a certain way. We always have been. It doesn’t have to mean all stories look & feel the same, but we neglect this commonality to our own detriment IMHO.

  3. Yes, I would tend to agree with you Steven, there is something that local film makers are failing in their execution. I would go even further in your critical assessment, that local film makers fail (at their own peril) to understand subtext, Fiona Shaw recently expressed this at BBC Radio 3, “It’s not in the words!”,

    Locally produced films are still episodic (Animal Kingdom, Lou, My Beautiful Kate, Tomorrow when the war began, etc), they miss all the important beats for that genre and therefore they ignore their audience. They fail to find that which makes the scene dramatic, yelling and swearing is not dramatic, it’s melodrama. And most importantly there is rarely any moral argument at the spine of the story, scratch beneath the surface and you find … nothing.

    And yes, don’t say this at film festivals or film nights, people want to like these films and thus will defend them.

    @Ed Love, we don’t need to be like Hollywood, but like you mentioned, acknowledge that film is an establish art form, you tinker with the form, advance it, like the Coen brothers, but don’t ignore it.

    • Thanks for your comment Peter. (Thanks to David Di Muro and Ed Love too, by the way.)

      Peter, on your point about local film stories lacking a moral argument, I will actually be addressing this point specifically on my next article (due to be posted in the next few weeks I believe). In particular, I will be arguing that the fact that local screenwriters are too insecure (or too relativistic) to write stories that make a moral stand is another reason why local films are consistently uncompelling. Stay tuned for more on that!

      In addition, what you say about defensiveness and denial during film festivals and film premiers is so true in my experience. Though, in my opinion, there is a screaming need to do a radical paradigm shift in the culture of such events. Nothing good is going to come out of making a crummy film ‘untouchable’ from serious criticisim. Unchallenged crummy films only leads to the making of yet more crummy films, as far as I’m concerned.

      Again, thanks to all for your comments.

  4. Though its true they’re all given a friendly push on their release, I thought that in general Australian features have actually been bagged, stomped on, dragged through the mud and roundly pilloried for the qualities you describe for many years now – and there was a marked shying away from the ‘dumbf— finally gets a clue” template into low-budget-viable genres like schlock or crime or whathaveyou. And more recently things are changing again as producer driven SA funding models are turning up bigger budget cast driven pieces for which we’ve yet to see a conventional style established.

    Another thing that troubles me about your article is your example scenario feels uncomfortably like “Back of Beyond”;)

    Nevertheless I concur we should continue to flagellate our lazy scriptors – much cheaper than waiting for the box office to do it to them.


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