I’ve reached that marvelous age and comfort level with who I am that I no longer feel compelled to lie when people ask what my favorite movie is. I don’t name some Italian cult classic or Casablanca or something to make me sound smart and well-versed. I’m upfront and honest when I say my favorite movie is Road House, the 1989 bar-bouncer classic starring Patrick Swayze (RIP) Sam Elliot and Ben Gazzara (RIP).
Road House makes me happy whenever I watch it. Whenever I even think about it. It’s weird and it’s wild and it’s wonderful, it’s funny and exciting and never boring. While at Barrelhouse’s Writer Camp in August, I hosted a screening of this Patrick Swayze classic, and as I sat there, drinking red wine out of a Solo cup (thanks Tadd!) I realized that not only is Road House a perfect film to watch with a bunch of drunk writers (there was a LOT of hootin’ & hollerin’ whenever Sam Elliot came on screen) there are a lot of good writing lessons to learn from the film itself.
It’s The Kind of Place Where They Sweep The Eyeballs Off The Floor Every Night.
Road House commits to its setting harder than any other piece of art in the modern canon. Let me break it down for you: It’s 1988 and yet somehow, everyone has heard of Dalton (Swayze). No internet, it costs 10 cents a minute to make a long-distance call, and somehow, Dalton (and, to some extent, Elliot’s Wade Garrett) is renown as a bar bouncer. So legendary is he the bar owners from across the country to hire him to watch over their bars. I bet most of us can’t remember the name of the bouncer our favorite bar, let alone the bar next door, let alone the bouncer of a bar seven states away.
Jasper, meanwhile, has a JCPenny’s, a PhotoMat, a car dealership and no police. With all the eye-gouging, business-destroying antics of Brad Westley (Gazzara), the cops don’t even show up until the last scene, where they look at Westley’s bullet-riddled corpse and accept that there’s probably nothing suspicious about six people randomly standing over a dead body while Dalton is covered in blood. And at no time does the viewer think, “Hey, wait a second, this is less realistic than Lord of the Rings.” It’s because the film never gives you the wiggle room to pause and wonder why Westley’s goons are allowed to drive a monster truck through a car dealership while there are people inside. You go with it because the characters do.
Strive to make your settings as convincing as Jasper, even when they’re completely banana-pants insane. Fully commit to your setting and flesh it out so that no one questions it no matter how silly it gets. Live in it. Breathe in it. Calmly sweep the eyeballs off the floor and do some tai-chi. Immerse yourself fully in the lands you have created.
For $20, You Can Kiss ‘Em!
My favorite scene in Road House is when a bald man with an 80s-hot wife invites another man to kiss her tits for $20. “$10 a kiss!” he offers. The mark gropes her in ecstasy, but soon admits that he does not have the promised cash, and a fight breaks out, as he has despoiled the terms of their gentleman’s agreement.
These characters are never named. But they stand out because they are given lives completely separate of Dalton. In fact, when the fight breaks out, he stands there drinking coffee, seen only in a few quick shots over the madness. They’re never seen again, but as the audience, you’re wondering, is this something this man and his wife do as a grift, and how often? Does it help keep their marriage alive? She seems just as into it as he is.
Your side characters need lives. They need to breathe on their own, not just serve the main character. Write every side character as though they could be the main character in the next story, even if they only appear for a few lines. Make them vibrant. Make them stand out. And slip a $20 in their pocket, just in case.
I Used To Fuck Guys Like You In Prison
Road House is full of snappy, instantly-quotable dialogue. Not every line of your manuscript needs to wind up as a piece of our cultural lexicon, but every spoken line does need to incite forward motion of the plot, raise the tension or tell you something about the characters. Don’t merely put words in their mouth to forward the story along, write dialogue that matters to your characters, in their own unique voices. Make it count.
Pain Don’t Hurt.
Rejection only stings if you let it. It’s part of the writing process. When that “No thanks,” arrives in your inbox, be like Dalton getting stitches at the end of a bloody night. You can wince a little, but don’t let it ruin your day. You still have to get up and bounce. The people of Jasper need you. It’s nothing personal.
Editor's Note: For more Patrick Swayze Literary Information, visit our special web section The Swayze Question, where we've assembled all the responses to our standard interview closer, "What's your favorite Patrick Swayze Movie?"
Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow 2016) and has written for PANK, The Stoneslide Corrective, The Big Click, Vinyl Me Please, Paste, Barrelhouse and the anthologies Welcome Home, Mixed Up and Hanzai Japan. She attended the 2017 Barrelhouse Writer's Camp and really, really loves Road House.