Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Deconstructing Deadly Illusions—What Not to Do With Your Manuscript

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: The smart writer learns from the mistakes of others. Bonnie Randall shares what went wrong with a story that made plenty of them, and how we can avoid those same mistakes.

Friends, because I’m a little salty these days, and because Netflix is a quadra-gajillion-earning empire (and therefore will not, in any way, suffer from this tiny hit piece), I decided to deconstruct one of their latest movies—a total stinkeroo called Deadly Illusions—in order to illustrate what not to do with your story.

So, if you’re prepared to hear a little snark, here we go:

1. Pick a Lane

This might sound hypocritical coming from a writer whose novels are a little bit o’ love, a smidgen of scary, and a dollop of mystery. Nonetheless, these elements, when afforded connective tissue, streamline into a central plot.

Or at least they’re supposed to.

Deadly Illusions, for those who saw it, was a mish-mash of soft-core erotica, noir thriller, psychological suspense, sexual awakening, and a mystery…all of which never quite wove together to create that all-important tapestry we call ‘story’.

That’s not to say there aren’t great stories to be told within any one of these genres, but honey—pick a lane. 

A central artery is critical to storytelling, otherwise you leave your readers wondering what genre they’re in—and a confused reader becomes a frustrated reader, and a frustrated reader abandons a story.

So Fix It: Decide on a genre and stay true to it. Introduce smatterings of other genres only if they serve to add richness and to push the narrative drive forward. Remember: every single sentence of your story exists to serve the plot. No exceptions.

(Here's more with The Problem With Cross-Genre Fiction)  

2. Don’t Play Fast and Loose with Suspension of Disbelief

How far can you push the envelope? Fantasy, of course, bends these lines in…well, in fantastical ways. Yet even the most trippy spec fic remains wise to crafting action and dialogue for characters in accordance with what most people would do.

As such, sorry Deadly Illusions, but most people would not:
  • take their brand new nanny (who they barely know and later admit are not sure is “of age”) bra shopping.
  • blithely waltz into the change room with said nanny and begin to put the bra on for her.
  • make creepy comments about brand-new nanny’s lovely breasts because, um—did I already say you barely know her? Did I mention that you’re not sure she’s of legal age? Also, to date, new nanny has never shot you a single signal indicating she wants your breast assessment, so maybe keep your comments—and your hands—to yourself.

The scene’s intention? Obviously soft-core eroticism. It’s execution, though? Pure WTF.

So Fix It: Is your character about to do something risqué? Challenge the behavior from every angle by asking—“Would most people in this situation do what my character is doing?” And, if not—“What would compel them to do it?” “What is compelling my character to do it?” Even better, ask—“What would give someone no choice but to do what I’m having my character do?”

(Here's more with Nope, Not Buying It: How Do We Maintain Believability in Our Writing?)    

3. Conflict Must Come with Purpose

Conflict for the sake of conflict is not just confusing—it’s tedious. While there is an expectation in fiction to craft ‘tension on every page’, as per bullet #1, the fact remains that every sentence, every quirk, every character, and definitely every conflict must move the plot forward.

Deadly Illusions was full of conflict that led absolutely nowhere—like the snarky exchange between the protag (ironically, a fiction novelist) and her editor at the beginning. Why? Then there was her resistance to a suggestion for her novel from another editor ¾ through (Also ‘Why?’ And, beyond that, how many editors come to this writer’s house?!). Then there was the visit to the nanny’s aunt who—inexplicably—has the most clichéd split personality ever. Again…WHY?

So Fix It: Conflict is the element that makes a story a story, yet just like every other faction in a book, it must tether into the plot, grow a character, or be present in order to reveal relevant information to the reader. Otherwise it merely eats up precious word count (or screen time) and lends nothing to your story.

(Here's more with Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)    

4. Characters Need to Have Some Wherewithal

Let’s say you hired a nanny. Would you not want to know her age? Want to see her creds/quals? How about a criminal record check / child protection check? Want to see those? Or would you take not even the agency’s word, but just the nanny’s word that this was all buttoned up without ever having a peek for yourself?

Now let’s say that same nanny was perfect to the point of maybe being synthetic: modest to a fault, a prim dresser, a book reader, impeccable manners and, an 18-25 year old in the year 2021, yet never so much as looks at her phone. If this nanny was yours, would you think you just won the lottery? Or would you maybe say “Hmmm…this is too good to be true?”

I’m banking on the latter.

So Fix It: The point here is this: when one of your characters meets a person or a place that is in no way normal, they should probably wonder why. They should likely be curious, have questions. Because if they don’t notice or care they will lose credibility—and maybe even affection—from your reader.

No one loves a dummy. Sad, but true.

(Here's more with Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?)    

5. Bombshells Shouldn’t Explode Out of Nowhere (or, we should at least know we’re in a land field)

Somewhere within the last ¼ of Deadly Illusions—when you can check the time and see there’s scant minutes left—the protag finally decides to be curious about her perfect nanny. It’s here when she discovers that the young woman was actually raised in a Turpin Family / House-of-Horrors scenario.


There was just something so deus ex machina about this that I tossed my hands in the air. A back-story like this is far too big of a deal to just drop in at the tail end of the movie as an ‘oh that’s why she is the way she is’ explanation for the character. It was the equivalent of a nuclear bomb dropping on your fictional town in the epilogue of your book, leaving you with maybe five paragraphs to cover all the fall-out.

So again, like the stew of genres constructing this mess, this reveal was just one more thing in a kitchen sink of entirely too many things that all tried to tell what could have been a super-sexy noir thriller had it been streamlined, pared down, and edited ruthlessly.

So Fix It: Pacing/ timing / placement is crucial! Oh, and if you’re going to rip off sensationalistic real-life events, then give those events the credence of being the crux of your story because <drumroll> that’s why they made headlines in the first place!

(Here's more with Three Things “The Intern” Can Teach Us About Keeping Our Story Promise)  


I don’t know about you, but I think this entire hodge-podge would have done well to beg the assistance of one of the protag’s many (how many did she need?!) editors who regularly dropped in on her at home. Maybe they could have mended this mess.

And, on that note—chime in! Did you watch Deadly Illusions? What did you think? Am I just hard-hearted or did I maybe miss even more stuff that you want to slag on?

Drop a line below and let’s analyze!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. You are dead on with your review of Deadly Illusions I gave up on it about half way through.

    1. It is profoundly stinky! But good lessons there!

  2. I love your sense of humour! Great article.

  3. Thank you for the information it is very helpful.