Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nanowrimo Prep: Story Elements for Brainstorming Index Cards

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Now we've covered the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure and you've seen how you can lay those sequences out on a story structure grid, and how to use index cards for brainstorming your plot.

So on to what we REALLY need: a cheat sheet for brainstorming.

Below is a general Story Elements Checklist, so you have a whole overview of scenes and story elements that appear in each act, of pretty much any story,  to help you flesh out your story to the end.

In the next ten days, you can put together an outline of your own story very quickly by using the list below and the Index Cards and Structure Grid. You can also print out this list as a general roadmap as you're writing next month.

When you start out brainstorming index cards, you can make cards for all of the elements below, even if you have no idea what those scenes might look like, because with only one or two exceptions (which I've noted below), these are scenes and elements that are going to appear in your story no matter what genre you're writing in.  

Even better - they're almost certainly going to appear in the Act in which I've listed them below.  There are exceptions, of course, but those are rare. 

It's okay if there are holes, right now! Write in what you know.  I'm a big believer that just asking the question will get your subconscious working on the perfect answer. Write out the card in the most general sense today, and you may well wake up with the perfect scene tomorrow morning.

Once you've got the cards in rough place on your structure grid, then  try putting your story in order in a simple outline.

You don't have to follow the outline exactly, or at all! But while you're writing next month, you'll have it as a roadmap to pull out and remind you where your story is going, when you inevitably get lost in the pure creativity of a first draft.

We'll talk about these elements in depth in the next couple of weeks.




* Opening image

* Meet the hero or heroine in the ordinary world

* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.

* Hero/ine's ghost or wound

* Hero/ine’s arc

* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure

* 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)

* State the theme/what’s the story about?

* Allies

* Mentor
 (possibly. You may not have one or s/he may be revealed later in the story).

* Love interest 

* Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)

* Sequence One climax

* Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

* Act One climax


* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)

* Threshold Guardian/Guardian at the Gate (possibly)

* Hero/ine’s Plan

* Antagonist’s Plan

* Training Sequence (possibly)

* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies

* Assembling the Team (possibly)

* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as coming from the antagonist)

* In a detective story, Questioning Witnesses, Lining Up and Eliminating Suspects, Following Clues.

*Bonding with Allies


* Completely changes the game

* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action

* Can be a huge revelation

* Can be a huge defeat

* 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


* Recalibrating – after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.

* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive

* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)

* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)

* Reversals and Revelations/Twists.

* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (also known as: All Is Lost)

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a The Lover Makes A Stand scene


* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is

* Answers the Central Question



The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1. Getting there (Storming the Castle)

2. The final battle itself

* Thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare

* The protagonist’s character change

* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

* Possibly ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire

* Possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s A Wonderful Life)

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

* Closing Image


Now, I'd also like to remind everyone that this is a basic, GENERAL list. There are story elements specific to whatever kind of story you're writing, and the best way to get familiar with what those are is to do the story breakdowns on three (at least) movies or books that are similar to the KIND of story you're writing.

I strongly recommend that you watch at least one, or much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

                                           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 print, all countries 


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)


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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Nanowrimo Prep: The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid


by Alexandra Sokoloff

It's just half a month to Nanowrimo. Are you REALLY ready to write?

If you're not 100% sure what your story is (and who ever is?), here's a fun brainstorming method that I absolutely guarantee will get you closer to understanding the story you want to write.

It's number one structuring tool of most screenwriters I know. I have no idea how I would write without it.

Get a corkboard or a sheet of cardboard - or even butcher paper - big enough to lay out your index cards in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your story laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space.  I find the tri-fold boards that kids use for science projects just perfect in size and they come pre-folded in exactly three acts of the right size!  Just a few dollars at any Office Max or Staples.

Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two: 1 at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Act Two: 2 at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

Now write Act One Climax at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the grid. These are scenes that you know you MUST have in your story, in those places - whether or not you know what they are right now.

And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either four long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).

Here's what it looks like on a trifold board:

So you have your structure grid in front of you.

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

Get yourself a pack of index cards. You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method - experiment and find what works best for you.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60),  every scene goes on one card. Now, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you may be doubling or tripling the scene count, but for me, the chapter count remains exactly the same: forty to sixty chapters to a book.

So count yourself out 40-60 index cards. That's your book! You can actually hold it in your hand. Pretty cool, right?

This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your story, one scene per card (just one or two lines describing each scene - it can be as simple as - "Hero and heroine meet"  or - "Meet the antagonist".)  You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your board in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole story this way.

And this eight-sequence structure translates easily to novels. And you might have an extra sequence or two per act, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. With a book you can have anything from 250 pages to 1000 (well, you can go that long only if you’re a mega-bestseller!), so the length of a sequence and the number of sequences is more variable. But an average book these days is between 300 and 400 pages, and since the recession, publishers are actually asking their authors to keep their books on the short side, to save production costs, so why not shoot for that to begin with?

I write books of about 350-400 pages (print pages), and I find my sequences are about 50 pages, getting shorter as I near the end. But I might also have three sequences of around 30 pages in an act that is 100 pages long. You have more leeway in a novel, but the structure remains pretty much the same.

In the next few posts we’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – key scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme,  call to adventure/inciting incident, introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body: human beings (with very few exceptions) have the exact same skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton; it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.


-- Make two blank structure grids, one for the movie you have chosen from your master list to analyze, and one for your WIP (Work In Progress). You can just do a structure grid on a piece of paper for the movie you’ve chosen to analyze, but also do a large corkboard or cardboard structure grid for your WIP. You can fill out one structure grid while you watch the movie you’ve chosen.

-- Get a pack of index cards or Post Its and write down all the scenes you know about your story, and where possible, pin them onto your WIP structure grid in approximately the place they will occur.

If you are already well into your first draft, then by all means, keep writing forward, too – I don’t want you to stop your momentum. Use whatever is useful about what I’m talking about here, but also keep moving.

And if you have a completed draft and are starting a revision, a structure grid is a perfect tool to help you identify weak spots and build on what you have for a rewrite. Put your story on cards and watch how quickly you start to rearrange things that aren’t working!

Now, let me be clear. When you’re brainstorming with your index cards and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. Always write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.

Ideally I will always be working on four piles of material, or tracks, at once:

  1. The index cards I'm brainstorming and arranging on my structure grid.

  2. A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to me as I'm outlining, and that I can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

  3. An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that I'm compiling as I order my index cards on the structure grid.

  4. A collage book of visual images that I'm pulling from magazines that give me the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of my story (we will talk about Visual Storytelling soon.)

In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that prep work.

At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. Because I come from theater, I think of my first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will finish a book or a script.

Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

But that’s my process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “pantser” – not my favorite word, but common book jargon for a person who writes best by the seat of her pants. And if you’re a pantser, the methods I’ve been talking about have probably already made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here!

Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pantsers have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.

But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.

Next up - a list of essential story elements that will help you brainstorm your index cards.



All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in the workbooks.:

                                           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 print, all countries 


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)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

BITTER MOON giveaway!

Goodreads is giving away 100 copies of my newest book, #4 in the Thriller Award-nominated Huntress series! BITTER MOON is available for preorder, on sale Nov. 1. Click here to enter the giveaway, 

But – you really need to read the Huntress series from the beginning, and as it happens, Amazon Prime members can get Book 1, HUNTRESS MOON for free this month. Click here to order.

Also for bloggers and reviewers - BITTER MOON is now up for download on Netgalley. Let me know if you'd like a direct link/invitation.

The Huntress/FBI Thrillers:

Special Agent Matthew Roarke is on the trail of that most rare of killers – a female serial. His hunt for her will take him across four states and will force him to question everything he knows about evil and justice.

BITTER MOON:  A haunted FBI agent and a ruthless killer track evil across decades in the next thrilling Huntress/FBI novel. A sixteen-year-old cold case offers Roarke a glimpse into the Huntress's past…and a chance to catch a savage predator.

Pre-order now for Nov. 1 delivery, $3.99

Friday, October 07, 2016

NANOWRIMO PREP: The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

Okay, now, this is the one - the most important thing I can tell you about film story structure that will help you for the rest of your writing life - no matter what form you're writing in.

There is a rhythm to dramatic storytelling, just as there’s a rhythm to every other pleasurable experience in life, and the technical requirements of film and television have codified this rhythm into a structure so specific that you actually already know what I’m about to say in this post, even if you’ve never heard it said this way before or consciously thought about it. And what’s more, your reader or audience knows this rhythm, too, and unconsciously EXPECTS it. Which means if you’re not delivering this rhythm, your reader or audience is going to start worrying that something’s not right, and you have a real chance of losing them.

You don’t want to do that!

Early playwrights (and I’m talking really early, starting thousands of years ago in the Golden Age of Greece) were forced to develop the three-act structure of dramatic writing because of intermissions (or intervals). Think about it. If you’re going to let your audience out for a break a third of the way through your play, you need to make sure you get them back into the theater to see the rest of the play, right? After all, there are so many other things a person could be doing on a Saturday night….

So the three acts of theater are based on the idea of building each act to a CLIMAX: a cliffhanger scene that spins the action of the play in such an interesting direction that the audience is going to want to hurry back into the theater at the warning chime to see WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. Many plays break at the middle, so the Midpoint Climax is equally important.

This climactic rhythm was in operation for literally thousands of years before film and television came along and the need for story climaxes became even more, um, urgent. Not just because life was faster paced in the 20th century, but again, because of the technical requirements of film and television.

In a two-hour movie, you have not three climaxes, but seven, because film is based on an eight-sequence structure.

The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about 10-15 minutes of film. The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished, so early screenwriters incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel and built to a cliffhanger climax, so that in that short break that the projectionist was scrambling to get the new reel on, the audience was in breathless anticipation of “What happens next?” – instead of getting pissed off that the movie just stopped right in the middle of a crucial scene. (If you get hold of scripts for older movies, pre-1950’s, you can find SEQUENCE 1, SEQUENCE 2, etc, as headings at the start of each new sequence.)

Modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm, because that rhythm was locked in by television – with its even more rigid technical requirements of having to break every fifteen minutes for a commercial. Which meant writers had to build to a climax every 15 minutes, to get audiences to tune back in to their show after the commercial instead of changing the channel.

So what does this mean to you, the novelist or screenwriter?

It means that you need to be aware that your reader or audience is going to expect a climax every 15 minutes in a movie – which translates to every 50 pages or so in a book. Books have more variation in length, obviously, so you can adjust proportionately, but for a 400-page book, you’re looking at climaxing every 50 pages, with the bigger climaxes coming around p. 100 (Act I Climax) p. 200 (Midpoint Climax), p. 300 (Act II Climax), and somewhere close to the end. Also be aware that for a shorter movie or book, you may have only six sequences.

If you put that structure on a grid, it looks like this:Structure_gridLooking at that grid, you can see that what I started out in this article calling the three-act structure has evolved into something that is actually a four-act structure: four segments of approximately equal length (30 minutes or 100 pages), with Act II containing two segments (60 minutes or 200 pages, total).

That’s because Act II is about conflict and complications. While plays tend to have a longer Act I, because Act I is about setting up character and relationships, the middle acts of films have become longer so that the movies can show off what film does best: action and conflict. And books have picked up on that rhythm and evolved along with movies and television, so that books also tend to have a long, two-part Act II as well.

You don’t have to be exact about this (unless you’re writing for television, in which case you better be acutely aware of when you have to hit that climax!). But you do need to realize that if you’re not building to some kind of climax in approximately that rhythm, your reader or audience is going to start getting impatient, and you risk losing them.

Once you understand this basic structure, you can see how useful it is to think of each sequence of your story building to a climax. Your biggest scenes will tend to be these climaxes, and if you can fit those scenes onto the grid, then you already have a really solid set of tentpoles that you can build your story around.

So here’s the challenge: Start watching movies and television shows specifically looking for the climaxes. Take a film from your Master List (you did make that, didn't you?) Screen it and use the clock on your phone or the counter on your DVD player to check where these climaxes are coming. It won’t take long at all for you to be able to identify climactic scenes.

Your next task is to figure out what makes them climactic!

I can give you a few hints. The most important thing is that the action of your story ASKS A QUESTION that the audience wants to know the answer to. But climaxes also tend to be SETPIECE scenes (think of the trailer scenes from movies, the big scenes that everyone talks about after the movie).

And what goes into a great setpiece scene?

Well, that’s another post, isn’t it?

- Alex

If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of The Matrix, The Wizard of Oz,  Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the StoneSense and Sensibility, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, and The Mist - and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Stealing Hollywood.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook, $3.99    

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


I also recommend that you sign up for my Story Structure mailing list to receive movie breakdowns, story structure articles, and other bonus materials.

(This mailing list is NOT the same as the RSS feed of the blog - you must opt in to this list to receive the extras mailings.)

Sign up to receive free Story Structure Extras!

* indicates required
Email Format 

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

NANOWRIMO PREP: What KIND of story is it?

So, do you have your Master List of movies, yet?

I think that the best thing that you can do to help yourself with story structure is to look at and compare in depth 5-10 (ten being best!) stories – films, novels, and plays - that are similar in kind (or structural pattern) to yours. Because different kinds of stories have different and very specific structural arcs, and those structures have their own unique and essential elements which are incredibly useful to be aware of so you can use them for yourself.

The KIND of story a story is does not always have anything to do with genre. Let me use a couple of  movie examples to illustrate this.

- What genre would you call Inception? Something like a sci-fi thriller, right? It’s futuristic, it uses dream technology, it has thriller elements and action… but what really drives Inception is that it’s a caper story (you could also say a heist, or reverse heist), like The Sting, Ocean’s 11, Armageddon, The Hot Rock, and Topkapi. The structure of Inception is a professional dream burglar gathering a team of professionals to pull off a big job, then training for and executing that job. That’s the action of the story. And that’s what made Inception stand out: it crosses a caper story with a sci-fi thriller.

- The Hangover (the brilliant first one, I mean) is a guy comedy. But the structure of the story is a traditional mystery: the groom has gone missing during a wild blackout night of a bachelor party, and his friends have to follow the clues to piece together what happened that night and get the groom back (before the wedding!). The action of the story is unraveling that mystery. So if you’re writing a story like The Hangover, you want to be looking at how mysteries are put together just as much as you want to be learning from comedies.

- Leap Year is a romantic comedy, but the structure of the story is a road trip: the action of the story is a journey across Ireland. And if you’re writing a road trip story you can learn a lot from taking a look at road trip stories in all genres: Planes, Trains and Automobiles, It Happened One Night, Thelma and Louise, even Natural Born Killers.

So while it’s important to know the general, Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure (which we'll be reviewing next), and it’s important to know the patterns of the particular genre you’re writing in, it’s sometimes even more useful to identify the KIND of story you’re writing within that genre.

Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can look at examples of that particular story pattern and get a sense of the structural elements and tricks common to that story pattern – the key scenes a reader wants and expects to see in these stories. A Mistaken Identity story, for example, will almost always have threat of discovery, a confidante who knows the score, numerous tests of the hero/ine’s story, scenes of trapping the hero/ine into the role, scenes of the role starting to backfire, and of course, a big unmasking scene, usually at the climax of Act III. Identifying these expected scenes and taking a look at how other storytellers have handled them is a great way of brainstorming unique and fun scenes of your own (See Tootsie, While You Were Sleeping, Roman Holiday).

So what are these story types?

The late and much-missed Blake Snyder said that all film stories break down into just ten patterns that he outlined in his Save The Cat! books. Dramatist Georges Polti claimed there are Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and outlined those in his classic book.

I think those books on the subject are truly useful; as I say often, I think you should read everything. But I believe you also have to get much more specific than ten plots or even thirty-six.

(I also think it’s plainly lazy to use someone else’s analysis of a story pattern instead of identifying your own. Relying on anyone else’s analysis, and that for sure includes mine, is not going to make you the writer you want to be.)

Personally, I think there are hundreds of story types and kinds.

For example, in a workshop I taught recently, there was a reluctant witness story, a wartime romance story, an ensemble mystery plot, a mentor plot, a heroine in disguise plot, a high school sleuth story. And others.

Each of those stories has a story pattern that you could force into one of ten general overall patterns – I guess – but they also have unique qualities that would get completely lost in such a generalization. And all of those stories could also be categorized in other ways besides “reluctant witness” or “hero in disguise”.

Harry Potter is what you could call a King Arthur story – the Chosen One coming into his or her own (also see Star Wars, The Matrix…) but it is told as a traditional mystery, with clues and red herrings and the three kids playing detectives (high school sleuth). It’s also got strong fairy tale elements. So if you’re writing a story that combines those three (and more) types of stories, looking at examples of any of those types of stories is going to help you brainstorm and structure your own story.

If you find you’re writing a “reluctant witness” story, whether it’s a detective story, a sci-fi setting, a period piece, or a romance, it’s extremely useful to look at other stories you like that fall into that “reluctant witness” category – like Witness, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Conspiracy Theory, Someone To Watch Over Me, Collateral.

If you’re writing a mentor plot, you could take a look at The Princess Diaries, Silence of the Lambs, Searching For Bobby Fischer, An Officer And A Gentleman, Dirty Dancing - all stories in completely different genres with strong mentor plot lines, with vastly different mentor types.

A Mysterious Stranger or Traveling Angel story has a very specific plotline, too: a “fixer” character comes into the life of a main character, or characters, and turns it upside down – for the good. And the main character, not the Mysterious Stranger, is the one with the character arc (look at Mary Poppins, Shane, Nanny McPhee, and Lee Child's Jack Reacher books).

A Cinderella story, well, where do you even start? Pretty Woman, Cinderella of course, Arthur, Rebecca, Suspicion, Maid in Manhattan, Slumdog Millionaire, Notting Hill.

A deal with the devil story: The Firm, Silence of the Lambs, Damn Yankees, The Little Mermaid, Rosemary’s Baby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Devil’s Advocate.

And you might violently disagree with some of my examples, or have a completely different designation for what kind of story some of the above are…

But that is exactly my point. You have to create your own definitions of types of stories, and find your own examples to help you learn what works in those stories. All of writing is about creating your own rules and believing in them.

So this is what I'm trying to say. Identifying genres is not enough. Identifying categories of stories is not enough. Knowing how general story structure works is not enough. What’s the kind of story you’re writing – by your own definition?

When you start to get specific about that, that’s when your writing starts to get truly interesting.

And when you look at great examples of the type of story you're writing, you'll find yourself coming up with your own, specific story elements checklist, that goes much farther than a general story elements checklist ever could.

Here are just a few dozen examples to get you started brainstorming types of stories

Caper/Heist/Con (Inception, Topkapi, Ocean’s 11, Armageddon)

Mythic Journey or Hero’s Journey (The Wizard of Oz, Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars)

Mentor story (Karate Kid, Good Will Hunting, Dirty Dancing, Silence Of The Lambs, An Officer And A Gentleman, The King’s Speech)

Mystery (too many to list!)

Cinderella story (Notting Hill, Slumdog Millionaire, Pretty Woman, Titanic)

The Soul Journey (Eat Pray Love, The Razor’s Edge, Lost Horizon)

MacGuffin story (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Maltese Falcon, Romancing The Stone)

Mistaken Identity or False Identity (Tootsie, While You Were Sleeping, Sommersby, Beloved, Roman Holiday, You’ve Got Mail)

The Wrong Man (Hitchcock loved to do this type of thriller, with an innocent falsely accused, or set up: The Wrong Man, North By Northwest)

Forbidden Love (Lost In Translation, Butterfield 8, Casablanca, Sea Of Love, Someone To Watch Over Me, Water For Elephants, Roman Holiday)

Mysterious Stranger or Traveling Angel (Mary Poppins, Shane, the Reacher books, Mrs. Doubtfire, Nanny McPhee)

Three Brothers (The Godfather, The Deerhunter, Mystic River)

Reluctant Witness (Witness, Conspiracy Theory, Someone To Watch Over Me)

Wartime Romance (Casablanca, From Here To Eternity, Gone With The Wind)

High School Sleuth (Brick, Twilight, Harry Potter stories)

Trapped (Die Hard, The Poseidon Adventure)

The Wrong Brother - or Wrong Sister (While You Were Sleeping, Holiday)

Road Trip (Leap Year; Natural Born Killers; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; It Happened One Night; Thelma and Louise.)

Fairy Tale (there are dozens of sub-genres here, including Cinderella, the Animal Groom, The Three Brothers, The Journey To Find The Lost Loved One, etc.)

Epic (Gone With the Wind, Gladiator)

Monster in the house (Alien, The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, The Haunting)

The Roommate From Hell (or best friend from hell, first date from hell, neighbor from hell: Fatal Attraction, Morningside Heights, Single White Female, The Roommate)

Rashomon (Rashomon)

Redemption (Groundhog Day, Jaws)

Hero Falls (Chinatown, The Godfather, The Shining)

Alternate Reality (It’s A Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, Back To The Future)
A variation of this is “The Road Not Taken” story (Sliding Doors, Family Man)

Chase/On The Run (The Fugitive, Thelma And Louise, Natural Born Killers)

Lovers Handcuffed Together (Leap Year, What Happens In Vegas, The Proposal)

Enemies Handcuffed Together (The Defiant Ones)

Gaslight (Gaslight, So Evil My Love, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death)

Alien Attack (Signs, The Day The World Ended, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers)

Slasher (or - Ten Little Indians, which was the play and film that started off that genre)

Changeling Child (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Orphan)

Man Against Nature (Jaws, Twister)

Fish Out Of Water (The Proposal, New In Town)

Ensemble Mystery Plot (Murder On The Orient Express, The Last of Laura)

Ensemble Romance (Four Weddings And A Funeral)

Impostor (While You Were Sleeping, Tootsie)

The Therapeutic Journey (Good Will Hunting, The Sixth Sense, The King’s Speech)

Unreliable Narrator (The Usual Suspects, Fallen, The Sixth Sense)

A Man’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do (Jaws, High Noon)

Descent Into Madness (Apocalypse Now, The Shining, Black Swan, Sunset Boulevard)

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface! Are you starting to get the idea? Have you even already thought of a few of your own that I haven’t listed?

Create your own names for them – just like I did above. There’s no right or wrong, here. And the story types you notice are the ones you’re likely to be attracted to in your own writing.

So - what kind of story are you writing? And do you have other examples of the kinds of stories I've listed above, or other kinds of stories to add to the list?


And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of The Matrix, The Wizard of Oz,  Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, Sense and Sensibility, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, and The Mist - and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Stealing Hollywood.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook, $3.99    

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


I also recommend that you sign up for my Story Structure mailing list to receive movie breakdowns, story structure articles, and other bonus materials.

(This mailing list is NOT the same as the RSS feed of the blog - you must opt in to this list to receive the extras mailings.)

Sign up to receive free Story Structure Extras!

* indicates required
Email Format 

Saturday, October 01, 2016

October is Nanowrimo PREP month!!

by Alexandra Sokoloff

It's October first, and you know what that means....

It's Nanowrimo PREP month!

I always do a brainstorming and story structure review series in October, and continue throughout November with prompts and encouragement, based on my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and workshops.

Because if you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall roadmap, before November 1? 

- There is a separate page on this blog where I'll collect the Nanowrimo posts in order as we work our way through Nanowrimo Prep in October. (There's a tab on the nav bar at the top of the blog that says Nanowrimo - Junowrimo!)

- And for those who want to skip ahead, I've also put up a Table of Contents page (the tab says Story Structure) and linked some of the major posts in a useful order.

- And if this way of looking at story appeals to you, the writing workbooks based on this blog and my workshops: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available here:


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook, $3.99    

This new book 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.

The print book is  a nice big 8 x 10 workbook, so well laid out! And it even lies flat for easy highlighting and scribbling in margins. 

There’s also a companion ebook that you can buy separately – or can get for just $1.99 as a Kindle Matchbook if you buy the print workbook. 

And if you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories, and more full story breakdowns.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


I also recommend that you sign up for my Story Structure mailing list to receive movie breakdowns, story structure articles, and other bonus materials.

(This mailing list is NOT the same as the RSS feed of the blog - you must opt in to this list to receive the extras mailings.)

Sign up to receive free Story Structure Extras!

* indicates required
Email Format 

- And finally, I'm always up for suggestions - what would YOU like me to cover in this Nano prep month?


                                                  THE MASTER LIST

So let's get this party started with The Master List.

The first thing I always have my workshop students do is make a Master List of their favorite movies in the genre they're writing in.

And you guys who have done this master list before, remember, it helps to do a new one every time you sit down with a new project, and brainstorm a list of movies and books that are structurally similar to your new project.

It’s very simple: in order to write stories like the ones that move you, you need to look at the specific stories that affect you and figure out what those authors and filmmakers are doing to get the effect they do. 

Every genre has its own structural patterns and its own tricks — screenwriter Ryan Rowe says it perfectly: “Every genre has its own game that it’s playing with the audience.” 

For example: with a mystery, the game is “Whodunit?” You are going to toy with a reader or audience’s expectations and lead them down all kinds of false paths with red herrings so that they are constantly in the shoes of the hero/ine, trying to figure the puzzle out.

But with a romantic comedy or classic romance, there’s no mystery involved. 99.99% of the time the hero and heroine are going to end up together. The game in that genre is often to show, through the hero and heroine, how we are almost always our own worst enemies in love, and how we throw up all kinds of obstacles in our own paths to keep ourselves from getting what we want. 

So if you’re writing a story like It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s not going to help you much to study Apocalypse Now. A story that ends with a fallen hero/ine is not going to have the same story shape as one that ends with a transcended hero/ine (although if both kinds of films end up on your list of favorite stories, you might find one is the other in reverse. That’s why you need to make your own lists!)

Once you start looking at the games that genres play, you will also start to understand the games that you most love, and that you want to play with your readers and audience. 

I’m primarily a thriller writer, and my personal favorite game is: “Is it supernatural or is it psychological?” I love to walk the line between the real and unreal, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. That’s why my master list for any book or script I write will almost always include The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both classic books (and films) that walk the line between the supernatural and the psychological.
But what works for me structurally is not necessarily going to do it for you. 

If you take the time to study and analyze the books and films that have had the greatest impact on you, personally, or that are structurally similar to the story you’re writing, or both, that’s when you really start to master your craft. Making the lists and analyzing those stories will help you brainstorm your own, unique versions of scenes and mega-structures that work in the stories on your master list; it will help you figure out how your particular story will work. And doing this analysis will embed story structure in your head so that constructing a story becomes a fun and natural process for you.

Another great benefit of making the master list is that it helps you “brand” yourself as an author. Agents, editors, publishing houses, publicists, sales reps, bookstores, reviewers, media interviewers, librarians, and most importantly, your readers — all of these people want to be able to categorize you and your books. You need to be able to tell all of these people exactly what it is you write, what it’s similar to, and why it’s also unique. That’s part of your job as a professional author. 
So the first order of business is to make your master list. 

And I encourage you to splurge on a nice big beautiful notebook to work in. We writers live so much in our heads it’s important to give ourselves toys and rewards to make the work feel less like work, and also to cut down on the drinking.

ASSIGNMENT: Go to an office or stationery store or shop on line and find yourself a wonderful notebook to work in.

ASSIGNMENT: List ten books and films that are similar to your own story in structure and/or genre (at least five books and three movies if you’re writing a book, at least five movies if you’re writing a script.).

Or – if you’re trying to decide on the right project for you to work on, then make a list of ten books and films that you wish you had written!


Now that you’ve got your list, and a brand-new notebook to keep it in, let’s take a look at what you’ve come up with.

For myself, I am constantly looking at:

Silence of the Lambs (book and film)
A Wrinkle in Time (book) 
The Wizard of Oz (film) 
The Haunting of Hill House (book and original film) 
Anything by Ira Levin, especially Rosemary’s Baby (book and film), and The Stepford Wives
The Exorcist (book and film)
Jaws (film, and it’s interesting to compare the book)
Pet Sematery (book, obviously!)
The Shining (book and film) 
It’s A Wonderful Life

That's off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I'm about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now. On another day my list could just as easily include Hamlet, The Fountainhead, Apocalypse Now, The Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, Philadelphia Story, and Holiday Inn.

All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories. But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who's writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare are some of my favorite stories on the planet, and my master list for a different story might well have some of those stories on it).

Okay, what does that list say about me? 

• It’s heavily weighted toward thrillers, fantasy, horror, and the supernatural. In fact, even the two more realistic stories on the list, Jaws and Silence of the Lambs, are so mythic and archetypal that they might as well be supernatural – they both have such overwhelming forces of nature and evil working in them. 

• It’s a very dark list, but it includes two films and a book that are some of the happiest endings in film and literary history. I read and watch stories about the battle between good and evil… but if you’ll notice, except for the Ira Levin books, I do believe in good triumphing. 

• The stories are evenly split between male protagonists and female protagonists, but except for Jaws, really, women are strong and crucial characters in all of them.

And guess what? All of the above is exactly what I write.

A lot of the stories on your own list will probably be in one particular genre: thriller, horror, mystery, romance, paranormal, historical, science fiction, fantasy, women’s fiction, YA (Young Adult, which is really more of an umbrella for all genres). And odds are that genre is what you write.

(If you’re not clear on what your genre is, I suggest you take your master list to the library or your local independent bookstore and ask your librarian or bookseller what genre those books and films fall into. These people are a writer’s best friends; please use them, and be grateful!) 

But there will also always be a few stories on your list that have nothing to do with your dominant genre, some complete surprises, and those wild cards are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

Every time I teach a story structure class it’s always fantastic for me to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives me such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling.

You need to create your list, and break those stories down to see why they have such an impact on you - because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn't going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different - even if they're very similar. 

So try it:

ASSIGNMENT: Analyze your master list of stories. What does the list say about the stories, themes and characters that most appeal to you?