Plotting and Developing a Story: Cyclone Santa
By Robyn Opie
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 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. And that’s how my book Caught in a Cyclone became the basis of a feature film, now titled Cyclone Santa.
We knew that the book had to be developed and expanded to become a feature film of approximately 120 minutes. We’d already spoken to Bernadette O’Mahony from the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and she’d given us some valuable advice and ideas. We’d met with a local producer and script editor, who had also given us a couple of suggestions.
Advice, suggestions and ideas were helpful. But we still 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?
Our location was obvious. We headed straight to our sanctuary – the games room. While we played pool, we discussed what we had. My book. That was it. So we had no choice but to start from there.
After speaking to Bernadette, we’d decided to increase the size of the family that, in the book, is at the centre of the drama. We added a young son, Mikey. Our family now consisted of two parents, a daughter and a son.
In the book, the family are home together when they get caught in Cyclone Tracy and experience the worst night of their lives. We decided that the best way to add drama and expand the story was to separate the family – the adults. The obvious choice was to put the father at work and keep the mother at home with the children. So we did the opposite.
Next, we had to think of reasons why the parents would be separated by distance at the time of a cyclone. It seemed unlikely, unless one of them was forced to work. Therefore the mother was at work and the father was at home. We loved the idea of going against the stereotype of the father being at work and the mother at home. But why would a mother be forced to work on Christmas Eve?
There seemed one obvious answer and that answer suited the drama of a cyclone perfectly. We decided that the mother would be a nurse at the Darwin hospital. For fun, we made the father an electrician who wasn’t able to find work due to the holidays, 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 a second story line. We knew now how the two storylines would meet at the end of the screenplay. Again, it seemed an obvious choice – the Darwin hospital.
Enter Ben, Jam and Violet.
Ben is a contractor for Australian Royal Mail, who flies a tiger moth to outback communities to deliver the post. He is based on a real person.
In Outback Australia, Ben is approached by Jam, an Aboriginal boy in need of help. His grandmother, Violet, is seriously ill and needs urgent medical assistance. The point of this second story line was to force Ben to fly his tiger moth into Darwin during Cyclone Tracy.
During my research on 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.
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 the 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 the two stories, 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 expand my book Caught in a Cyclone into a 120 minute feature film. 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 two intertwining plots. Once we knew more about them, we knew how our stories were 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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