Plotting And Developing A
By Robyn Opie Parnell
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
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
wasnt 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
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 OMahony from the Australian
Childrens 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
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
wasnt able to find work due to the holiday
season, though the family needed his income.
Clearly, work would not be an issue after the
Once wed 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
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
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,
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
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
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
its their journeys, their stories. In a
way, we let the characters define their
destinies, with a little help from us.