Wednesday 1 November 2023

Sorcerer: Lessons For Writers


I watched Sorcerer yesterday. I'd never heard of the movie, but I read a commentary suggesting that this was an overlooked masterpiece. It was released the same month as Star Wars, back in 1977, and pushed to the sidelines by George Lucas's blockbuster and quickly forgotten.

Roy Scheider was in it. He was the star of Jaws two years prior. I liked Jaws, so I watched Sorcerer. What follows is a writer's view of a movie. It contains my opinions on what makes a story work, with insights into structure, characterization and even marketing.

It also contains spoilers.

First off, I'd just like to say how awesome the movie poster is. That image is taken directly from a scene in the movie. More on that later. But it's a beautiful image.

The movie is about four men from different backgrounds who are stuck in poverty in a small village in Colombia. The four men need money to get out, so they volunteer to transport a load of unstable dynamite through jungle and rough terrain to a mine where the explosives are needed.

Not that compelling a premise, to be honest, but there have been many movies about average characters from comfortable backgrounds who are forced to work together to survive in some harsh wilderness setting. From that era I can remember The Flight of The Phoenix and Deliverance. These kinds of movies work best when highlighting the interactions and conflicts between the characters and how they cope with being tested by their environment. Get that right and you've got a good story.

Sorcerer doesn't get it right. Here's why.


Amateur writers love prologues. Professional writers discourage their use. Why? Because prologues are hard to get right and often unnecessary.

Why use a prologue? Well, some stories start slow and take a while to build, so a prologue can be inserted with, say, an action scene, to spice things up prior to the actual story. That way they serve as teasers, promising readers, or an audience, that things will get exciting later on if they stick with it.

The question to be asked is: why not make the story more interesting from the get-go and hook the reader with that instead? You don't need a prologue then.

A prologue that exists simply to provide backstory is the kiss of death. Readers will just skim past that.

What does this have to do with the movie Sorcerer? Well, Sorcerer has four prologues.

Yes, you read that right. The first three prologues are not even in English. This caused moviegoers to walk out of theaters, thinking they'd accidentally walked into a foreign movie without subtitles.

Very avant-garde.

The film makers had to display a disclaimer in theaters to clarify the confusion. When you have to explain something to an audience that isn't readily obvious with mere viewing, you know you've done something wrong.

The prologues take up the first twenty minutes of the movie.

How essential are they? Not very. They exist to explain why the four characters are in Colombia to begin with. You don't need prologues for that. A skilled writer or director can extract that information from the characters themselves. Bring it out in dialogue and let the actors act. Removing the prologues would allow for more screen time to actually explore this and develop the characters better.

Characters, what characters?

For this kind of story, the interaction between actors is key, and for that you need complex and fully fleshed out characters.

Sorcerer gives you question marks instead.

First, we have the Assassin. He shoots a man. Why? We have no idea. He flies to Colombia, stopping by in the village where the story takes place. He's only in transit, but he decides to stay instead. Why? No idea. When the call comes for volunteers to drive the trucks, he puts his hand up. Why? No idea.

There could be some compelling reason for why he does these things, but we never find out what they are. He dies and takes his secrets with him. He didn't need to be in the movie.

Then we have the Terrorist. A radical young Arab who plants a bomb in Jerusalem. His friends are killed by Israeli security forces while he alone escapes. Why did he choose to go to Colombia when he had a dozen Muslim countries to hide himself in? No idea. He works at the mine. He volunteers to drive one of the trucks. Why? No idea. Later, he gets to use his unique knowledge of explosives to clear an obstacle that prevents the trucks from reaching the mine. That's his one contribution. He has a potential humanizing moment when one of the other characters talks about a wife in Paris. Does this make the terrorist wonder about his own relatives back home? The friends he lost? The innocents he killed with his bombs? We'll never know because he dies abruptly the following minute.

So how do the other characters feel about having a terrorist in their midst? They don't know and we don't know, because the characters barely talk to each other the entire movie. Almost no conversations. The characters just don't matter to each other. And they won't matter to you either.

The Frenchman is the only person we ever understand. In his prologue we see him with his wife. They share moments in their rich life. Their relationship is strong. But he's a businessman and his business is in trouble. A prosecutor is on his case for something illegal that happened regarding finances, and the Frenchman is forced to leave the country. In Colombia we see him working as an engineer at the mine and fixing truck engines. Does he have a background in engineering? No idea. Maybe sipping champagne in Paris gave him that insight. He remains the most likable character. He never killed anyone that we know of. He could be the main character of the group. The leader. Alas, he dies abruptly and that's the end of him.

The Gangster is the main character. He's played by Roy Scheider, the only recognizable name on the billing. His gang raids a stash in New Jersey that belongs to a more powerful gang. The gangster has to flee the country to avoid the hitmen. He lives in the Colombian village next to the mine. What does he do for a living there? No idea. We never see him work.

The arrival of the assassin could have been interesting. Maybe he was a hitman sent to kill the gangster. That would have been worth exploring, and added something to the story. Or something to keep us guessing with.

Nope. It's never used. Another opportunity missed.

The director described Roy Scheider as an 'everyman' type of character. He was also described as that in Jaws. What that really means is that Scheider is a bland actor. He's supposed to be a hard-bitten gangster, but he's no De Niro and he doesn't really convince. His leadership is not pivotal to the success of the mission, he doesn't show any special skills that make him indispensable, and he remains gruff and unlikable.

At the end of the movie, when the gangster receives his reward from the mining company, two obvious American hitmen step out of a taxi and walk into the bar where the gangster is. It looks like the Mafia found him after all, and there's no happy ending.

That's a neat twist. Unfortunately, we don't really get enough from the character to care about him, so his end doesn't matter. The movie ends with a shrug.

The bones

The problem with the movie's plot is that it's a skeleton with no flesh on it. This is what a first draft looks like. Great potential, but in need of more to fill in the gaps and strengthen the story.

It's weak and watered down. Conflicts between the characters? Wasted. Motivations? Not explored. Development? Doesn't happen. Exploration of the local situation? Only hinted at.

The entire movie is a teaser trailer for a movie that never got made.

The details

It's not a lazy movie. There really is attention to detail. Like the scene in Jerusalem. And the angry revolt near the mine. Setting the valve clearances on an engine while it's running (how many writers would know that?). The nitroglycerin leaking from the dynamite. The ingenious method used to improvise a trigger for the explosives. There's a ton of details such as these that imply serious research.

And the crossing of the rope bridge with the vehicles is easily the most amazing scene in the movie. It may be worth the price of admission alone.

But details and scenes of suspense don't make a great story. They are what you hang the story off. On their own they are just the framework. But where's the story?

The characters are the story. They always are. Nobody, for instance, creates a story about rocks. Not unless they make the rocks talk. In which case, they are no longer rocks.

What's with the title?

Titles are important. They are the first thing you market. The Shawshank Redemption was a box-office flop. It grew via word-of-mouth to become a much-loved classic. But it was a box-office flop. Because nobody could tell from the title what it was about.

A title should give you some information about what you are going to get.

My first ever novel was titled Even The Dead Dance To Live. Cool sounding title, right? Can you guess what kind of novel it was? What genre? Whom the intended audience was? I'll give you a moment to figure it out.

Got it yet? That's right, it was a science fiction space opera. Did you get it?

No. Who would? It was a terrible title. Cool doesn't mean good, not in this game.

So the movie is called Sorcerer. Have you read anything in my review so far to indicate why it was called that? No. The director/producer called the movie that because one of the trucks in the story bears that name. Is it obvious in the movie? No. Is it referenced within the movie? No. Is that particular truck - the one in the poster actually - pivotal to the plot or a character in its own right? No. The truck doesn't make it to the end of the movie. Nor does the star of the movie even drive it. He drives the other truck.

It's an arbitrary name that makes no sense. The movie was based on the book called The Wages Of Fear. That's a better title. But they chose Sorcerer. Like The Shawshank Redemption, the movie was D.O.A.


The movie bombed in 1977 and lost a ton of money. Many people weren't aware of its existence. Most people forgot about it. Nowadays, critics are trying to revive its reputation. It was misunderstood. It was experimental. The audience were too stupid to appreciate it. The movie was shot in a French New Wave style similar to The Battle of Algiers.

When I watched it I too was reminded of The Battle of Algiers. But The Battle of Algiers was a dramatization of actual events, with many key players, none of whom can be stars, because that's real life. Sorcerer was fiction, much smaller in scale and ambition. The nouveau style didn't suit it, and made it look silly instead.

The director defended the movie, claiming it was a metaphor. He referenced a single line by the Frenchman's wife as justifying the entire plot. It doesn't, because it was easily forgotten, and he hadn't added enough elements to truly frame the metaphor. Simply saying it afterwards doesn't make it so.

He said he wanted to make a movie without melodrama, sentiment or heroes to root for. He succeeded and produced something bland, pointless and not worth getting out of bed for.

Critics like to laud experimental flops as being brave and therefore deserving of praise merely for existing. In this case they forget that Sorcerer was beaten by another experimental movie. That movie was Star Wars. It's hard to understand these days the risks that George Lucas took with that movie. Sci-fi movies were meant to be B-movies at that time. No one was supposed to take them seriously. George Lucas took his B-movie seriously. He was also lucky that he had a wife who was an excellent editor. She at least had the basic elements that she could work with.

It's unlikely she would have been able to save Sorcerer.

Lessons for writers

Sorcerer was a movie. Movies aren't books. But stories are stories and lessons can still be learned. Especially when it comes to trying to sell those stories.

Look at the image in the movie poster. Now look at the title. Do they fit with each other?

Titles and book covers draw attention and lead a reader to the description. Together, these things create expectations. Will those expectations be met once the reader begins reading the story? If not, how willing are you to test a reader's patience?

How necessary for a story is a scene? If it's not really that necessary, consider scrapping it. The same goes for characters. Either make them more necessary or get rid of them. You can always give their lines or actions to another character instead.

Love a character or hate a character. Just don't make them indifferent. Characters need weight. Flimsy and weightless characters float away, never to be remembered again. Leading characters need more weight.

Don't get caught up in research at the expense of the story. Cool details are secondary, not primary.

Breaking accepted story rules takes skill. Following accepted rules is easier. Check your ambitions. Experimental stories or techniques crash and burn with only the slightest of mistakes. Standard stories are more resilient. Understand what you're doing.

Everyone makes mistakes. Just don't blame your readers.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Updates and Housekeeping

 The Operator has been out for about a month now, and while it hasn't broken any records, it's doing better than I expected considering this is my debut in the Thriller genre. I've been busy with deliveries at work as orders ramp up for the Christmas season, but I've been sketching out and outlining the next book in the series, with a couple of scenes being drafted already. Matt Beach's next adventure will be more of a spy thriller, and will thus be a little more complicated and subtle. Up to a point. But I'm tossing ideas around and setting things up ready to begin writing properly in January. In the meantime I still need to figure out a few more ideas for the plot.

Before that happens, however, I need to get the paperback of The Operator out. Fortunately I've booked a week off next month to sort out the formatting and the cover for the size I need, then I'll order a proof copy. If it is to my liking, then I'll publish the paperback on Amazon by late November of early December.

The eagle-eyed among you will notice that my Science Fiction Space books have been removed from my Amazon catalog. Shakespeare's Requiem wasn't doing so well - nobody was reading it - so I've retired it to focus on expanding my Thriller catalog. Hell's Gate, which wasn't doing so badly, has been suspended from publication while I figure out what to do with it. It was Book 1 of a series, but Book 2 fell apart in the making. Unfortunately, the way Hell's Gate ended made it clear there would be a follow-on. I may change the ending to make it more a stand-alone book and republish it. I'd like to continue the series, but I'm focused on Matt Beach for the moment, and will be for a couple of years I think, so it may be a while before I produce a sequel to Hell's Gate. Or it may not happen. It's hard to tell.

October felt like a long month. Let's see how November pans out. And no, I'm not thinking of Christmas yet. That still feels far off, even though people are saying it's just around the corner. It's not.

And I've just realized that I'm writing this on Halloween, which is fairly significant across the pond. It's growing in significance here in the UK too. But I don't give a crap about it, and never did. It wasn't part of my childhood. If it was part of yours, I'd like to hear it.

Monday 4 September 2023

The Operator


I'm pleased to announce that my new novel, The Operator, is now out on pre-order at Amazon. It goes live on September 8th, 2023.

Former Navy SEAL Matt Beach runs a bar in the Bahamas. He’s living the life. Then a stranger comes into his bar and offers to recruit him for some shady purpose, saying he was sent by an old buddy of Matt’s. When that same buddy winds up dead, south of the border, Matt sets out to find out why.

Pursued by mysterious assailants and stonewalled by corrupt officials, Matt’s investigation takes him from the swamps of Florida to the jungles of Guatemala. What he uncovers gets more sinister the deeper he goes.

As the danger grows and the stakes rise, Matt will need to use all his skills just to survive.

99c on pre-order, $2.99 once it goes live.

Wednesday 28 June 2023

Rogue Timetable


There's a new hero in town, and his name's Matt Beach. Coming to a book near you.


Remember when I said I'd be writing when I can, sometimes in the van during work breaks? I did that. And the results were ... not quite what I hoped.

I finished the first draft in March this year, and I hoped that the draft could be polished into a final book, ready for release by Easter. Yeah, no. Turns out the first draft was pretty bad, and needed more than just polishing. It needed a complete rewrite.

So that's what I've been doing, and I'm about 75% of the way through it. It's a lot tighter and more professional now, but these things take time. It's looking more like a summer release now. Maybe even fall.

What can you expect from this offering? Well, it's definitely a thriller. You can call it a spy or action thriller. Or action mystery. I'm up in the air about that, as I am about the title. But it is an old-school thriller, set in modern times. Inspired by the likes of Alistair Maclean, Len Deighton, Martin Cruz Smith and Jack Carr, to name just a few. It will follow the adventures of an ex-Navy SEAL investigating the death of a friend, and will journey from the swamps of Florida to the jungles of Guatemala.

Fast paced? Action packed? Very much so. It will also be the beginning of a series. Possibly a long one. I think this character can carry it. I'm already sketching ideas for the sequel.

I'll post again when I have a definite release date.