Writing Bad News

Once you know what it is you'll see Bad News events in almost every movie. But what makes it work in some movies more than others? Why are some boring and predictable while some put you on the edge of your seat?

Writing Bad News
Photo by Marc Szeglat / Unsplash

Lately I've been working on writing a feature script with the use of the bad-news tool at its core. It's a great tool, and I wanted to share a bit more about it as I work through the process myself.

What is Bad News?

Writers and filmmakers often write bad news events without even thinking about it or learning about it. I was the same. I would write a script and it would be full of "then this happens" and "then that happens" and the characters react to it. Like conflict in general, this is Bad News at it's most basic but, if you can elevate it, it can be one of the most useful tools in writing.

I'm sure you've seen movies or read stories where bad things just happen out of nowhere or they are boring or don't really effect the characters in a meaningful way. This is not want we want, and not what most audiences want.

Is it too simple?

It often happens that the writer doesn't know they are using the Bad News tool. They are writing about events happening without considering why. So yes, at its most basic, it is too simple, but if you can bring it around to being meaningful and impactful you can write some of the most compelling stories out there. Think of stories like Toy Story 3 or Saw: Obstacles get in the way, but they are more than obstacles, they are also in direct conflict with the character's goal in motivated ways and against the stakes.

Putting it into practice.

So, how I'm using it is in my latest horror-thriller feature set in Spain. One of the main characters is a father who must rescue his son from an evil force. Bad things happen to say the least, but I'm trying to stay keenly aware as I write that the bad events or roadblocks align with the character's goals and stakes.

For instance – and this is a simple example – the father is going to the location his son is being held. He is trying to barge in to physically rescue him. If he doesn't get there in time his son will be killed. But the door is barred shut from the inside by the person holding his son, no matter how hard he slams against the door it will not open.

It sounds simple, and it is, but often in movies the roadblocks don't feel organic. If suddenly he needs to have a magic key for this door it wouldn't make sense to the audience because this kind of magic wasn't set up in the world beforehand – or the door is being blocked by someone for some other reason unrelated to why he wants in there.

Let's say now he manages to break through the door. He pushes a cart that was at the top of the hill, it rolls down and smashes through the door. He runs inside, he has cleared the obstacle, now if we can escalate it or raise the stakes even better. As he runs in, a bear trap set in the floor snaps shut around his leg. He is now trapped and wounded in the doorway.

Moving forward.

What happens next? For this story I need to still work on it, but I hope that gives you a sense of what Bad News can be.  We keep going forward, throwing obstacles in the character's way until he either wins or is unable to overcome them and loses, and the more directly connected to the character's goal and stakes the better.