Tuesday, November 13, 2018

New book! - Hollywood vs. the Author


I’m psyched to announce that I have an essay in Hollywood vs. the Author, out today.

Hollywood vs. the Author

It’s (almost) every author’s dream to sell their book or series to Hollywood. But most know very little about the actual process, despite the vague and slightly terrifying rumors—which authors tend to ignore as exaggerations, too completely absurd to be real.

Hah.

My friend Stephen Jay Schwartz, former Director of Development for Wolfgang Peterson, has assembled a great list of authors who have sold books to Hollywood, authors who have worked as screenwriters, showrunners, TV producers, and authors who have written movie tie-ins.

My own essay, A Woman Wouldn’t Do That, recounts some of the surreal experiences I had in development hell during my ten years as a working screenwriter—before I snapped and wrote my first novel. I compare the two jobs – screenwriting vs. writing books— and talk about how I came full circle, back to Hollywood, once I had written a successful novel series that was a natural for the fantastic new age of television we’re in. 

The Huntress Moon series
There’s a lot to learn here, from Michael Connelly’s harrowing experience with fine print (and how he triumphed over it, by betting on himself with Bosch), to Larry Block’s hilarious recount of the vagaries of casting, to Tess Gerritsen’s heartbreaking and timely reminder that a bad judge makes bad judgments—that we all have to live with.

Between us all, we cover the good, the bad, the horrific, and the flat-out unbelievable.

And the audiobook, out December 5, is really a treat - it's read by all of the authors, ourselves!

So if selling your book to Hollywood is your dream, you owe it to yourself to check out these valuable lessons before you sign on that dotted line.

Stephen Jay Schwartz, editor, with essays by Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly, Gregg Hurwitz, Andrew Kaplan, Tess Gerritsen, Diana Gould, Lee Goldberg, James Brown, Alexandra Sokoloff, Ron Roberge, T. Jefferson Parker, Alan Jacobson, Max Allan Collins, Peter James, Naomi Hirahara, and Joshua Corin – plus an interview with Jonathan Kellerman.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Nanowrimo: Act Two, Part 1 questions and prompts

ACT TWO, PART ONE

by Alexandra Sokoloff, from STEALING HOLLYWOOD: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

(Elements of Act I checklist is here).


In a 2-hour movie Act II, Part 1 starts at about 30 minutes, and ends at about 60 minutes.

In a 400-page book Act II, Part 1 starts at about p. 100 and climaxes at about p. 200.

Act II, Part 1 is the most variable section of the four sections of a story. I have noticed it also tends to be the most genre-specific. It doesn’t have the very clear, generic essential elements that Act I and Act III do – except in the case of Mysteries and certain kinds of team action films, which generally have a more standard structure in this section.






IF THE FILM IS A MYSTERY, this section will almost always have these elements:

-QUESTIONING WITNESSES
-LINING UP AND ELIMINATING SUSPECTS
-FOLLOWING CLUES
-RED HERRINGS AND FALSE TRAILS
-THE DETECTIVE VOICING HER/HIS THEORY

IF THE FILM IS A TEAM ACTION STORY, A WAR STORY, A HEIST OR CAPER MOVIE (like OCEAN’S 11, THE SEVEN SAMURI, THE DIRTY DOZEN, ARMAGGEDON and INCEPTION) then this section will usually have these elements:

- GATHERING THE TEAM
- TRAINING SEQUENCE
- GATHERING THE TOOLS
- BONDING BETWEEN TEAM MEMBERS
- SETTING UP TEAM MEMBERS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES that will be tested in battle later.

There may also be

- A MACGUFFIN
- A TICKING CLOCK

But if the story is not a mystery or a team action story, the first half of Act 2 will often have some of the above elements, and ALL stories will generally have these next elements in Act II, part 1 (not in any particular order):

- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD - ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD

(This scene may already have happened in Act One, but it often happens right at the end of Act One or right at the beginning of Act Two.) How do the storytellers make this moment important? Is there a special PASSAGEWAY between the worlds?

- THRESHOLD GUARDIAN (maybe)

There is very often a character who tries to prevent the hero/ine from entering the SPECIAL WORLD, or who gives them a warning about danger.

- HERO/INE’S PLAN

- What is the hero/ine’s PLAN to get what s/he wants?

The plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the hero/ine start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail.

- THE ANTAGONIST’S PLAN

Same as for the hero/ine: the plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the villain start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail. Even if the villain is being kept secret, we will see the effects of the villain's plan on the hero/ine.

- ATTACKS AND COUNTERATTACKS

How do we see the antagonist attacking the hero/ine?

Whether or not the hero/ine realizes who is attacking her or him, the antagonist (s) will be nearby and constantly attacking the hero/ine. How does the hero/ine fight back?

- SERIES OF TESTS

How do we see the hero/ine being tested?

In a mentor story, the mentor will often be designing these tests, and there may be a training sequence or training scenes as well. Sometimes (as in THE GODFATHER) no one is really designing the tests, but the hero/ine keeps running up against obstacles to what they want and they have to overcome those obstacles, and with each win they become stronger.

- OFTEN THE HERO/INE IS WINNING

The hero/ine usually wins a lot in Act II:1 (and then starts to lose throughout Act II:2), but that’s not necessarily true. In JAWS, Sheriff Brody doesn’t get a win until the big defeat of the Midpoint, when he is finally able to force the mayor to sign a check and hire Quint to kill the shark.

- BONDING WITH ALLIES – LOVE SCENES

This is one of the great pleasures of any story – seeing the hero/ine make lifelong friends or fall in love. Besides the more obvious romantic scenes, the love scenes can be between a boy and his dragon, as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON; or between teammates, as in JAWS; or a man and his father or a woman and her mother (some of the most successful movies, like THE GODFATHER, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS show these dynamics). What are the scenes that make us feel the glow of love or joy of friendship?

Or in darker stories, instead of bonding scenes, the storytellers may show the hero/ine pulling away from people and becoming more and more alienated, as in THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER, THE SHINING, CASINO.

In a love story, there is always a specific scene that you might call THE DANCE, where we see for the first time that the two lovers are perfect for each other (this is often some witty exchange of dialogue when the two seem to be finishing each other’s sentences, or maybe they end up forced to sing karaoke together and bring down the house…). You see this Dance scene in buddy comedies and buddy action movies as well.

- GENRE SCENES (action, horror, suspense, sex, emotion, adventure, violence)

Act II, part 1 is the section of a story that will really deliver on THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE.

What is the EXPERIENCE that you hope and expect to get from this story? – is it the glow and sexiness of falling in love, or the adrenaline rush of supernatural horror, or the intellectual pleasure of solving a mystery, or the vicarious triumph of kicking the ass of a hated enemy in hand-to-hand combat?

Here are some examples:

- In THE GODFATHER, we get the EXPERIENCE of Michael gaining in power as he steps into the family business. There’s a vicarious thrill in seeing him win these battles.

- In JAWS, we EXPERIENCE the terror of what it’s like to be in a small beach town under attack by a monster of the sea.

- In HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, we get the EXPERIENCE and wonder of discovering all these cool and endearing qualities about dragons, including and especially the EXPERIENCE of flying. We also get to EXPERIENCE outcast and loser Hiccup suddenly winning big in the training ring.

- In HARRY POTTER (1), we get the EXPERIENCE of going to a school for wizards and learning and practicing magic (including flying).

(I want to note that for those of you working with horror stories, it’s very important to identify WHAT IS THE HORROR, exactly? What are we so scared of, in this story? How do the storytellers give us the experience of that horror?)

Ask yourself what EXPERIENCE you want your audience or reader to have in your own story, then look for the scenes that deliver on that promise in Act II, part 1. Well, do they? If not, how can you enhance that experience?

And another big but important generalization I can make about Act II, part 1, is that this is often where the specific structure of the KIND of story you’re writing (or viewing) kicks in. For more on identifying KINDS of stories, see What Kind Of Story Is It?

Act II part 1 builds to the MIDPOINT CLIMAX – which in movies is usually a big SETPIECE scene, where the filmmakers really show off their expertise with a special effects sequence (as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and HARRY POTTER, 1), or a big action scene (JAWS), or in breathtaking psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. Whatever the Midpoint is, it is most likely going to be specific to the promise of the genre.


THE MIDPOINT –

- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Is a point of no return
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a huge win
- Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
- Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


=====================================================

All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 15.99.


                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $15.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE






Thursday, November 08, 2018

Nanowrimo: Act I questions and prompts

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Now that the U.S. has stepped back from the brink of hell and restored checks and balances to the country, I can breathe - and return to Nanowrimo prompts.

Here are some questions and prompts to think about to help you finish off Act One (the first 100 pages or so of a 400 page book), and launch into Act Two.


                         Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE:  



- OPENING IMAGE/OPENING SCENE

Describe the OPENING IMAGE and/or opening scene of the story.

What mood, tone and genre does it set up? What kinds of experiences does it hint at or promise? (Look at colors, music, pace, visuals, location, dialogue, symbols, etc.).

Does the opening image or scene mirror the closing image or scene? (It’s not mandatory, but it’s a useful technique, often used.). How are the two different?

* What’s the MOOD, TONE, GENRE (s) the story sets up from the beginning? How does it do that?


* THE ORDINARY WORLD/THE SPECIAL WORLD

What does the ordinary world look and feel like? How does it differ in look and atmosphere from THE SPECIAL WORLD? How might the ordinary world reflect the inner life of the hero/ine?


* MEET THE HERO OR HEROINE

How do we know this is the main character? Why do we like him or her? Why do we relate to him or her? What is the moment that we start rooting for this person? Why do we care?


• HERO/INE’S INNER AND OUTER DESIRE

What does the Hero/ine say s/he wants? Or what do we sense that s/he wants, even if s/he doesn't say it or seem to be aware of it? How does what s/he thinks s/he wants turn out to be wrong?


• HERO/INE’S PROBLEM

(This is usually an immediate external problem, not an overall need. In some stories this is more apparent than others.)


* HERO/INE’S GHOST OR WOUND

What is haunting them from the past?


• HERO/INE’S CHARACTER ARC

Look at the beginning and the end to see how much the hero/ine changes in the course of the story. How do the storytellers depict that change?


• INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

(This can be the same scene or separated into two different scenes.)

How do the storytellers make this moment or sequence significant?


* REFUSAL OF THE CALL

Is the hero/ine reluctant to take on this task or adventure? How do we see that reluctance?


• MEET THE ANTAGONIST (and/or introduce a Mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end).

How do we know this is the antagonist? Does this person or people want the same thing as the hero/ine, or is this person preventing the hero/ine from getting what s/he wants?


* OTHER FORCES OF OPPOSITION

Who and what else is standing in the hero/ine’s way?


• THEME/ WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?

There are usually multiple themes working in any story, and usually they will be stated aloud.


• INTRODUCE ALLIES

How is each ally introduced?


* INTRODUCE MENTOR (may or may not have one)

What are the qualities of this mentor? How is this person a good teacher (or a bad teacher) for the hero?


• INTRODUCE LOVE INTEREST (may or may not have one).

What makes us know from the beginning that this person is The One?


* ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD/CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

What is the Special World? How is it different from the ordinary world? How can you make entering this world a significant moment?

This scene is often at a sequence climax or the Act One Climax. Sometimes there are a whole series of thresholds to be crossed.


* THRESHOLD GUARDIAN

Is there someone standing on the threshold preventing the hero/ine from entering, or someone issuing a warning?


• SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX

In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 15 minutes in. How do the filmmakers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this sequence is over and Sequence 2 is starting?

(Each sequence in a book will have some sort of climax, as well, although the sequences are not as uniform in length and number as they tend to be in films. Look for a revelation, a location change, a big event, a setpiece.).


• HOPE/FEAR and STAKES

(Such a big topic you just have to wait for the dedicated post.)


* PLAN

What does the hero/ine say they want to do, or what do we understand they intend to do? The plan usually starts small, with a minimum effort, and gradually we see the plan changing.

• CENTRAL QUESTION, CENTRAL STORY ACTION

Does a character state this aloud? When do we realize that this is the main question of the story?


* ACT ONE CLIMAX:

In a 400-page book, about 100 pages in.

How do the storytellers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this act is over and Act II is starting?

You will also possibly see these elements (these can also be in Act Two or may not be present):


***** ASSEMBLING THE TEAM


***** GATHERING THE TOOLS –


***** TRAINING SEQUENCE


And also possibly:

***** MACGUFFIN (not present in all stories but if there is one it will USUALLY be revealed in the first act).

*****TICKING CLOCK (may not have one or the other and may be revealed later in the story)


* And always - look for and IDENTIFY SETPIECES.



=====================================================

All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 15.99.


                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $15.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


---------------------

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:






Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Nanowrimo: Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Happy Nanowrimo!  Here's a road map (or cheat sheet!) for you, incorporating various elements of the Eight Sequence Structure, the Hero/ine's Journey, and other structure paths. 

I'll be posting questions and prompts throughout the month for Wrimos.

But also I have something to say to writers who aren't doing Nano this year:

Good for you!

The most important thing is to work in a way that is effective and right for you. You may not be ready to launch head first into 50,000 straight words of writing. So work on your outline. Work on revising the draft you have. Brainstorm your best possible idea (which is really key to everything that comes later). Whatever it is, DO IT. Commit to write for five minutes a day, every day. It's amazing how that five minutes turns into an hour, or three. And a year later,  or less, you suddenly have a book.

Next month's posts are for you, too.

Good luck, everyone!

- Alex

Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

Act One: Key Story Elements

Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet:


ACT I

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.

S/he has:

-- a Ghost or Wound

-- a strong Desire

-- Special Skills

And an Opponent, or several, which is standing in the way of her getting what s/he wants, and possibly wants exactly the same thing that s/he wants.

S/he gets a Call to Adventure: a phone call, an invitation, a look from a stranger, that invites her to change her life.

That impulse may be blocked by a

-- Threshold Guardian

-- And/or the Opponent

-- And/or s/he is herself reluctant to take the journey.

But she overcomes whatever opposition,

-- Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

-- Formulates a specific PLAN to get what s/he wants

-- And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.

ACT II:1

The Hero/ine goes after what s/he wants, following the PLAN.

The Opponent blocks and attacks, following his or her own PLAN to get what s/he wants.

The Hero/ine may now:

-- Gather a Team

-- Train for battle (in a love story this can be shopping or dating)

-- Investigate the situation

-- Pass numerous Tests

All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

No matter what genre, we experience scenes that deliver on the Promise of the Premise: magic, flying, sex, mystery, horror, thrills, action.

We also enjoy the Hero/ine’s Bonding with Allies or Falling in Love.

And usually in this Act the Hero/ine is Winning.

Then at the Midpoint, there is a big Reversal, Revelation, Loss, or Win that is a Game-Changer.


ACT II:2

The Hero/ine must Recover and Recalibrate from the game-changer of the Midpoint

And formulate a New Plan.

Neither the Hero/ine nor the Antagonist has gotten what they want, and everyone is tired and pissed.

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies.

And the Hero/ine, or if not the Hero/ine at least we, are getting the idea (if we didn’t have it before) that the Hero/ine might be WRONG about what s/he wants.

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

And get Darker and Darker (even if it’s funny)

Until everything crashes in a Black Moment, or All is Lost Moment, or Visit to Death.

And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the Hero/ine

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.


ACT III

The Hero/ine makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement).

The Team (if there is one) Attacks the Opponent on his or her own turf, and all their

-                       -- Skills are Tested.

-- Subplots are Resolved

-- and Secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

Then the Hero/ine goes in alone for the final battle with the Antagonist, and in some way faces her Greatest Nightmare. Her Character Arc, everything s/he’s learned in the story, helps her win it.

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

And we see the New Way of Life that s/he will live.


---------------------------------


If this works to make the process a little easier for you, great! It may be more useful to look at it later, during your rewrites.

And if not, no problem — forget it! I'm just always looking to try to explain things in different ways, because I know for myself, sometimes it just doesn't sink in until I hear it for the tenth or ten thousandth time.



=====================================================

All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 15.99.


                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $15.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


---------------------

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

                Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

--------------------

In the mood for some female vigilante justice? My HUNTRESS series is ON SALE for $1.99 US.

A haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer. This time, the predators lose. 

 
Click here to shop.


--> -->

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Nanowrimo Prep and a battle cry for the midterms on St. Crispian's Day

Today is St. Crispian's Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. I thought I would post a couple of clips of one of my favorite Shakespearean monologues, to mark the day and as an example of a perfect SETPIECE SCENE, our next Nanowrimo Prep topic. We will go into Setpieces in depth next week.

But today I'm posting to reaffirm my personal commitment to writing politically despite some pretty vicious trolling, and to give us all hope and that extra bit of courage going into the midterms.

Here's a history of the battle of this day, fought with an at-the-time revolutionary new weapon, that changed the course of history. The small British force had every expectation of being decimated by the mass of French troops, five times the size of the British army. 

In Henry V, Shakespeare envisions the battle speech that gave the army the spirit to go in to almost certain death, taking the very Shakespearean view that it is the human spirit that wins battles, rather than any physical weapon.

These two scenes are absolute masterpieces of political writing, and of cinema - and I've written about this monologue as a perfect example of one of the key story element of a war story: The Going Into Battle Rallying Speech.

The films show auteurs at their best: both actors also adapted and directed.

Here's Olivier as King Harry:



And Kenneth Branagh's version, which never fails to make me cry (I'm not a crier).



We're at an equally dire moment in history. A growing authoritarian threat, pipe bombs, an angry mob.

But this time, women are fighting, too.

She that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse them at the name of Crispian.
She that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast her neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will she strip her sleeve and show her scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'

From this day to the ending of the world,
We in it shall be remember'd;

Keep fighting.

- Alex



=====================================================

All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.


                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $13.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


---------------------

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

                Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

--------------------

In the mood for some female vigilante justice? My HUNTRESS series is ON SALE for $1.99 US.

A haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer. This time, the predators lose. 

 
Click here to shop.











Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Nanowrimo: Three essential questions about your story

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So you've been working on your index cards to build your story (see HERE). Or maybe not! Either way, here are three questions that will help crystallize what you're writing.

     What does your protagonist WANT?

     What is her PLAN to get it?

     Who and what is standing in her way?  (FORCES OF OPPOSITION)

You'd be surprised how many people come to my workshops (some with half-completed books!) who can't answer those essential questions.

So let's talk about PLAN. In most cases, understanding your hero/ine's plan will quickly focus what might be a very amorphous idea and save you endless rewriting (or giving up completely). PLAN really is the key to the drive of your story.

              Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns



You always hear that “Drama is conflict,” but when you think about it – what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonists’, PLANS.

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE (usually triggered by the INCITING INCIDENT). She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

And the protagonist’s plan (and the corresponding plan of the antagonist’s) actually drives the entire action of the second act. Stating the plan tells us what the CENTRAL ACTION of the story will be. So it’s critical to set up the plan by the end of Act One, or at the very beginning of Act Two, at the latest.

Let’s look at some examples of how plans work.

 At the end of the first sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark (which is arguably two sequences in itself, first the action sequence in the cave in South America, then the university sequence back in the US), Indy has just finished teaching his archeology class when his mentor, Marcus, comes to meet him with a couple of government agents who have a job for him (CALL TO ADVENTURE). The agents explain that Hitler has become obsessed with collecting occult artifacts from all over the world, and is currently trying to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to make any army in possession of it invincible in battle.

So there’s the MACGUFFIN, the object that everyone wants, and the STAKES: if Hitler’s minions (THE ANTAGONISTS) get this Ark before Indy does, the Nazi army will be invincible (STAKES).

And then Indy explains his PLAN to find the Ark: his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was an expert on the Ark and had an ancient Egyptian medallion on which was inscribed the instructions for using the medallion to find the hidden location of the Ark.

So after hearing the plan, we understand the entire OVERALL ACTION of the story:

Indy is going to find Abner (his mentor) to get the medallion, then use the medallion to find the Ark before Hitler’s minions can get it.

And even though there are lots of twists along the way (the first being that Abner is dead!), that’s really it: the basic action of the story.

Generally, PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are really the same thing – the Central Action of the story is carrying out the specific Plan. And the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story can be generally stated as – “Will the Plan succeed?”

Again, the PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are almost always set up – and spelled out – by the end of the first act, although the specifics of the Plan may be spelled out right after the Act I Climax at the very beginning of Act II. 

Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can sit back and let you drive.

Try taking a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identifying the PLAN, CENTRAL STORY ACTION and CENTRAL QUESTION of them in a few sentences. Like this:

             - In Inception, the PLAN is for the team of dream burglars to go into a corporate heir’s dreams to plant the idea of breaking up his father’s corporation. (So the CENTRAL ACTION is going into the corporate heir’s dream and planting the idea, and the CENTRAL QUESTION is:  Will they succeed?)


             - In Sense and Sensibility, the PLAN is for Marianne and Elinor to secure the family’s fortune and their own happiness by marrying well. (How are they going to do that? By the period’s equivalent of dating – which is the CENTRAL ACTION. Yes, dating is a PLAN! The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will the sisters succeed in marrying well?)


             - In The Proposal, Margaret’s PLAN is to learn enough about Andrew over the four-day weekend with his family to pass the INS marriage test so she won’t be deported. (The CENTRAL ACTION is going to Alaska to meet Andrew’s family and pretending to be married while they learn enough about each other to pass the test. The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will they be able to successfully fake the marriage?


Now, try it with your own story!

             - What does the protagonist WANT?

             - How does s/he PLAN to do it?  

             - What and who is standing in her or his way?


For example, in my spooky thriller, Book of Shadows, here's the Act One set up: the protagonist, homicide detective Adam Garrett, is called on to investigate the murder of a college girl, which looks like a Satanic killing. Garrett and his partner make a quick arrest of a classmate of the girl's, a troubled Goth musician. But Garrett is not convinced of the boy's guilt, and when a practicing witch from nearby Salem insists the boy is innocent and there have been other murders, he is compelled to investigate further.

So Garrett’s PLAN and the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is to use the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing.  The CENTRAL QUESTION is: will they catch the killer before s/he kills again – and/or kills Garrett (if the witch turns out to be the killer)?

             - What does the protagonist WANT? To catch the killer before s/he kills again.

             - How does he PLAN to do it? By using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate further.

             - What’s standing in his way? His own department, the killer, and possibly the witch herself. And if the witch is right … possibly even a demon.

It’s important to note that the Plan and Central Action of the story are not always driven by the protagonist. Usually, yes. But in The Matrix, it’s Neo’s mentor Morpheus who has the overall PLAN, which drives the central action right up until the end of the second act. The Plan is to recruit and train Neo, whom Morpheus believes is “The One” prophesied to destroy the Matrix. So that’s the action we see unfolding: Morpheus recruiting, deprogramming and training Neo, who is admittedly very cute, but essentially just following Morpheus’s orders for two thirds of the movie.

Does this weaken the structure of that film? Not at all. Morpheus drives the action until that crucial point, the Act Two Climax, when he is abducted by the agents of the Matrix, at which point Neo steps into his greatness and becomes “The One” by taking over the action and making a new plan: to rescue Morpheus by sacrificing himself.

It is a terrific way to show a huge character arc: Neo stepping into his destiny. And I would add that this is a common structural pattern for mythic journey stories – in Lord of the Rings, it's Gandalf who has the PLAN and drives the reluctant Frodo in the central story action until Frodo finally takes over the action himself.

Here’s another example. In the very funny romantic comedy It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep’s character Jane is the protagonist, but she doesn’t drive the action or have any particular plan of her own. It’s her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), who seduces her and at the end of the first act, proposes (in an extremely persuasive speech) that they continue this affair as a perfect solution to both their love troubles – it will fulfill their sexual and intimacy needs without disrupting the rest of their lives.

Jane decides at that point to go along with Jake’s plan (saying, “I forgot what a good lawyer you are”). In terms of action, she is essentially passive, letting the two men in her life court her (which results in bigger and bigger comic entanglements), but that makes for a more pronounced and satisfying character arc when she finally takes a stand and breaks off the affair with Jake for good, so she can finally move on with her life.

I would venture to guess that most of us know what it’s like to be swept up in a ripping good love entanglement, and can sympathize with Jane’s desire just to go with the passion of it without having to make any pesky practical decisions. It’s a perfectly fine – and natural – structure for a romantic comedy, as long as at that key juncture, the protagonist has the realization and balls – or ovaries – to take control of her own life again and make a stand for what she truly wants.

I give you these last two examples – hopefully – to show how helpful it can be to study the specific structure of stories that are similar to your own. As you can see from the above, the general writing rule that the protagonist drives the action may not apply to what you’re writing – and you might want to make a different choice that will better serve your own story. And that goes for any general writing rule.

 QUESTIONS: 

1. Have you identified the CENTRAL ACTION of your story? Do you know what the protagonist's and antagonist's PLANS are?  At what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of the protagonist’s PLAN?  Is it stated aloud? Can you make it clearer than it is?

2. What is Katniss's PLAN in The Hunger Games  - in one word? (Or two at most). 

Think about it, and we'll talk about it next post!

Alex


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