New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 4: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)


Today: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Did You Hear About The Morgans? features a couple from New York who are separating. Out one evening to discuss their divorce, they witness a crime and are forced to go to a safe house, in a tiny town hundreds of miles away from the city.

This sounds like a great concept –danger, soul-searching, an unsophisticated town to put the New Yorkers back in touch with what really matters.

Writing sin 1: story delivers on expectations only superficially and not deeply

Did You Hear About The Morgans? delivers on none of the promises, except in the most mechanical way. There are a number of mishaps and small-town oddities, but they seem to operate only to set up superficial and unsatisfying pratfalls later.

There are nominal attempts to get the Morgans involved in the community – Mrs Morgan, who is a real estate agent, helps the doctor to sell his house, and Mr Morgan, a lawyer, helps an ornery old grump to write a will. None of these have payoffs later, or are particularly funny, or – most important – challenge the characters at any personal level. They seem to have been put in only to show that the Morgans had jobs, and to make the community like them. But in a story like this we want the change to be the other way round – the main characters have to grow to like the community and thus have discovered some new values.

Taking the Morgans out of New York didn’t force them to act in new ways, so there was nothing gained by doing it. All it seems to mean to them is that they miss their lattes, vegetarian restaurants and the internet. This story is partly a fish out of water scenario – and should be more than simply a way to force characters to spend time together. The setting should be instrumental in the characters’ change.

Writing sin 2: wooden characters

This is the central problem. The main characters are wooden. They never discover anything about themselves. It’s a story about a reconciled relationship, but we never see how the two Morgans relate to each other now, what they were like at the start, what had gone bad and how it changed.

There are hints at fertility problems and conflict about starting a family, but these look as if they have been flung in in a desperate attempt to press emotional hot keys, rather than being thought through.

The characters also don’t live up to the professions the writers gave them. Mrs Morgan ran a company so famous that she was on the cover of a glossy magazine. Mr was a high-powered lawyer. They should have had some corresponding personality traits, such as tenacity, ruthlessness and ingenuity. When people like that are in conflict with each other, particularly emotional conflict, they should become ugly. It looked like nobody wanted to risk making the Morgans a bit nasty. This misses the point of a story like this. If they don’t bring nasty traits out in each other at the start, they have no way to mellow at the end.

Writing sin 3: changing the story direction without putting enough work into the new elements This is just a guess, but it looks to me as though Did You Hear About The Morgans? started life as a thriller. Probably a lot of that material was taken out, but the thriller elements that remain (including how the hitman tracks them) are the best honed and have obviously had multiple drafts.

Also, the supporting cast are far better realised than the main characters. Although they have less screen time, each of them gives us a sense of a real person with aims, hobbies and troubles – conspicuously lacking in the main characters.

It looks like the film was rewritten in a hurry, but nobody paid any attention to working through the main characters properly.


Tomorrow: Sherlock Holmes

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  1. #1 by Tony McFadden on January 2, 2011 - 2:09 pm

    agree 100% on all points.

    But my wife made me watch it…

    • #2 by rozmorris on January 2, 2011 - 8:33 pm

      LOL! My husband made me watch it. But we had such a good time moaning about it afterwards.

  2. #3 by Sarah Peppel on January 2, 2011 - 2:14 pm

    I love getting these in my email inbox! Great insights into how to make a story be what it should be. In 2011, I am challenging myself to write the novel growing in my head {starting tomorrow – January 3rd} and I love hearing what works and what doesn’t! I will have to get your book next!

    • #4 by rozmorris on January 2, 2011 - 8:34 pm

      Hi Sarah – so pleased you’re enjoying my holiday rants. Best of luck with your novel – an excellent new year resolution.

  3. #5 by DazyDayWriter on January 2, 2011 - 9:35 pm

    Hi Roz, agree agree agree! The movie had potential, but a things went astray as you have so aptly pointed out. Alas, we all await a really good movie — any suggestions?

    Hope your new year is rewarding … I’m plotting my agenda for writing projects, but feel torn in a few different directions. Need the writing gods to give me a nudge … 🙂

    • #6 by rozmorris on January 2, 2011 - 11:33 pm

      Hi Daisy – happy new year! Two movies I wholeheartedly enjoyed – Knight and Day, starring Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, and Ghost Town, starring Ricky Gervaise. Brilliant storytelling to entertain and inspire. Best of luck with your agenda – don’t forget to share it on your blog.

  4. #7 by Amanda Hoving on January 4, 2011 - 11:57 pm

    I have to admit that I didn’t see this one, but I agree with all the points you made…especially regarding wooden characters. Sometimes, even when the plot isn’t that great, fabulously written characters can save the day. Wooden characters just sink the ship faster.

    • #8 by rozmorris on January 5, 2011 - 1:39 pm

      Great point, Amanda. And I’ve rarely seen such a high-profile movie get it so wrong.
      (Until I hit ‘post comment’ – then no doubt I will think of many more…)

  5. #9 by Jonathan Moore on January 5, 2011 - 2:33 pm

    Hi Roz,

    I remember reading a one liner in Total Film years ago, where they run through pitches that have been given the greenlight in Hollywood: A couple on a blind date witness a murder and end up stuck in the witness protection programme together.

    I liked the idea at the time, and I guess this is what happened to it. Sounds like they tried to merge that idea with Doc Hollywood or Funny Farm (Chevy Chase), both of which get the irascible characters right.

    • #10 by rozmorris on January 5, 2011 - 2:37 pm

      Aha, a blind date! Yes, that would have been good. Mind you, this would have been too – if they’d done the characters properly.

      Good sleuthing, Jonathan!

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