Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nanowrimo Prep: the Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

by Alexandra Sokoloff


We're getting close, now - in a few days you're going to be putting all this prep to the side and jumping in to write.

I'll post prompts along the way for the month of November, and review the elements of all the Acts in order at about the time you'll be hitting them. But in the last few days, I'm going to give you two exercises to give you a road map for your month ahead.



THE INDEX CARD METHOD

This is the number one structuring tool of most screenwriters I know. I have no idea how I would write without it.

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.

Now, 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).

Then write a card saying Act One Climax and pin it 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 appropriate cards. 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 is a photo of the grid on a white board - with sticky Post Its as index cards:














And an example of index cards on a tri-fold 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.

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.

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.

ASSIGNMENTS:

     -- 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.

And - if you are getting something out of these posts and/or the workbooks, please take a moment to click through to my Amazon Author page and Like the page by clicking on the Like button at the top right of the screen. It's a very quick way to support this blog that costs nothing and makes a big difference.  

Thank you!  

Alex

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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.


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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bouchercon 2014: Experiencing Fear



One of my favorite mystery conferences is coming up: Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, this year taking place in Long Beach, California. I’m doing three panels, as well as playing a target in the surveillance training workshop (info here)!

But I’m especially excited to be moderating a panel on one of my favorite subjects:

Experiencing Fear: Dealing with Psychos, Stalkers, and Serial Killers



I suspect that pretty much every single darker writer of us has at some point gotten the question: “What’s a nice girl/boy like you doing writing stuff like THAT?” So I thought I’d ask my panelists, to give you a taste of the terror in store.


Maegan Beaumont: From a very young age, I’ve found myself intrigued by the darkness that can be found in others. While other little girls wanted to be ballerinas and take care of babies, I wanted to understand what it was that made people do the horrible things that they do. I’ve always had a love of psychology and I know where my own dark places are. Tapping into them has never been difficult for me and neither has finding my way back. I’m not sure what that says about me as a person and quite frankly, I’m not sure I want to.
Alison Gaylin:  Ever since I was a kid, telling "screen scratcher" stories at slumber parties, I've loved the feeling of looking under that rock - of experiencing my own worst fears by saying them out loud, within the controlled, safe  environment of fiction. I find that as I get older, though, my worst fears are markedly different. When I first started writing suspense, I was writing mainly about murderous psychopaths. But now, I find that the things that keep me up at night are more mundane and, well, possible... The idea that we never really know anyone, even those we love, even our own children. The idea that the kindest, most loving person can hold in her heart the darkest secrets. The idea that making one wrong turn in life can have the power to ruin everything .. While I still enjoy a good murderous psychopath story as much as the next person, that's the type of thing I find most frightening these days.


Alex Marwood:  Well, I think I've always got gut-wrenching pleasure from the dark stuff, right from
when I was a wee thing. I suspect it might be as basic as learning how to access endorphin rushes at an early age, but In a way my reasons for writing it are as simple as 'I enjoy it so I want to make some more'. I've always taken huge pleasure in nightmares, and they've often come in handy for plot solutions/ images that ultimately become disturbing on the page. But I don't think I'm working through anything personal so much as exploring the strangeness of human nature - the illogicalities and bad decision-making and self-justifications and response to events of chance that can occasionally add up to very bad things indeed.

On the subject of dreams, though, my father died in the summer, and my dreams - which are usually rich and wild with a mad narrative thread - stopped dead for several months, as did my writing. I assume it was just a symptom that I wasn't getting down to proper REM sleep, but it's been a weird time, waking up as tired as when I went to bed and with a deeply uncomfortable blankness where my imaginative brain used to be. The relief of finally waking up realising I'd had a nightmare was huge.


Alexandra Sokoloff:  As a woman I’ve always been compelled to write about these subjects. Let’s face it – women have a lot to say about fear, and violence, and horror. We live with all of those things on a much more intimate and everyday level than most men (men in non-warring countries) do. A walk out to the parking lot from the grocery store can on any given night turn into a nightmare from which some women will never fully recover. I think security expert and author Gavin DeBecker got it exactly right when he said “A man’s greatest fear about a woman is that she’ll laugh at him. A woman’s greatest fear about a man is that he’ll kill her.”

Women know what it’s like to be prisoners in their own homes, what it’s like to be enslaved, to be stalked, to be prostituted, what it’s like to be ultimately powerless. And they know everything there is to know about rage, even when it’s so deeply buried they don’t know that’s what it is they’re feeling. But the great, cathartic thing for me about good mysteries, thrillers, horror, suspense - is that you can work through those issues of good and evil. You can walk vicariously into those perilous situations and face your fears, and sometimes triumph.


Kate White: I read true crime stories from the time I was very young 
and have always been intrigued. 

It never seemed strange to me to be reading about serial killers or women who killed their own children. It was just part of trying to understand what it means to be human. Humans do the most inhuman things. 









William P. Wood: I'm not sure I had a choice after being a prosecutor for about five years. I ended up encountering things that people would do to others or themselves that were otherwise unimaginable. It turns out I don't have much of an imagination and for every novel, TV show, or nonfiction book I've written, the dark and darker incidents of those years pop up almost on their own, like George III in "David Copperfield". Sometimes the greatest terror or fear came out of crimes a lot less horrifying on the surface than murder or serial killing. People were devastated to the point of utter hopelessness by random acts of evil they got caught up in. When I came to write, these darker sides of human experience as reflected through the sometimes inadequate forms of trial and punishment that I knew very well, just naturally manifested themselves, like Marley's ghost.


I think you can see why I’m excited about getting deep into this subject with this group! For those of you who are attending Bouchercon (many of you, I hope…) the panel will be Saturday October 15,  4:30 PM-5:30 PM, in Regency B.


More information here:  Experiencing Fear.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Nanowrimo Prep: What's the PLAN?


by Alexandra Sokoloff

Today I want to review what I think it the key to any second act, and really the whole key to story structure: The PLAN.

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. 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.

I’m going to start, improbably, with the actioner 2012even though I thought it was a pretty terrible movie overall.

Now, I’m sure in a theater this movie delivered on its primary objective, which was a rollercoaster ride as only Hollywood special effects can provide. Whether we like it or not, there is obviously a massive worldwide audience for movies that are primarily about delivering pure sensation. Story isn’t important, nor, apparently, is basic logic. As long as people keep buying enough tickets to these movies to make them profitable, it’s the business of Hollywood to keep churning them out.

But in 2012, even in that rollercoaster ride of special effects and sensations, there was a clear central PLAN for an audience to hook into, a plan that drove the story. Without that plan, 2012 really would have been nothing but a chaos of special effects.

If you’ve seen this movie (and I know some of you have … ), there is a point in the first act where a truly over-the-top Woody Harrelson as an Art Bell-like conspiracy pirate radio commentator rants to protagonist John Cusack about having a map that shows the location of “spaceships” that the government is stocking to abandon planet when the prophesied end of the world commences.

 Although Cusack doesn’t believe it at the time, this is the PLANT (sort of camouflaged by the fact that Woody is a nutjob), that gives the audience the idea of what the PLAN OF ACTION will be: Cusack will have to go back for the map in the midst of all the cataclysm, then somehow get his family to these “spaceships” in order for all of them to survive the end of the world.

The PLAN is reiterated, in dialogue, when Cusack gets back to his family and tells his ex-wife basically exactly what I just said above: “We’re going to go back to the nutjob with the map so that we can get to those spaceships and get off the planet before it collapses.”

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens; it’s not only Cusack’s PLAN, but the central action of the story, that can be summed up as a CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Cusack be able to get his family to the spaceships before the world ends?

Or put another way, the CENTRAL STORY ACTION is John Cusack getting his family to the spaceships before the world ends.

(Note the ticking clock, there, as well. And as if the end of the world weren’t enough, the movie also starts a literal “Twenty-nine minutes to the end of the world!” ticking computer clock at, yes, 29 minutes before the end of the movie. I must point out here that ticking clocks are dangerous because of the huge cliché factor. We all need to study structure to know what not to do, as well.)

And all this happens about the end of Act I.  Remember that I said that it’s essential to have laid out the CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION by the end of Act I? But also at this point – or possibly just after the climax of Act I, in the very beginning of Act II – we need to know what the PLAN is. PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION are integrally related, and I keep looking for ways to talk about it because this is such an important concept to master.

A reader/audience really needs to know what the overall PLAN is, even if they only get it in a subconscious way. Otherwise they are left floundering, wondering where the hell all of this is going.

In 2012, even in the midst of all the buildings crumbling and crevasses opening and fires booming and planes crashing, we understand on some level what is going on:

             - What does the protagonist want? (OUTER DESIRE) To save his family.

             - How is he going to do it? (PLAN) By getting the map from the nutjob and getting his family to the secret spaceships (that aren’t really spaceships).

             - What’s standing in his way? (FORCES OF OPPOSITION) About a million natural disasters as the planet caves in, an evil politician who has put a billion dollar price tag on tickets for the spaceship, a Russian Mafioso who keeps being in the same place at the same time as Cusack, and sometimes ends up helping, and sometimes ends up hurting. (Was I the only one queased out by the way all the Russian characters were killed off, leaving only the most obnoxious kids on the planet?)

Here’s another example, from a much better movie:

 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.

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, 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 his or her 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: 

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?

And - 


If you are getting something out of these posts and/or the workbooks, please take a moment to click through to my Amazon Author page and Like the page by clicking on the Like button at the top right of the screen. It's a very quick way to support this blog that costs nothing and makes a big difference.  

Thank you!  

Alex


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My spooky thriller The Price is on sale for Halloween, just $1.99.



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Then a mysterious, charismatic hospital counselor named Salk takes special interest in Will and Joanna's plight… and when Sydney miraculously starts to improve, Will suspects that Joanna has made a terrible bargain to save the life of their dying child.

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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.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.









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.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloween sale: THE PRICE, 99c

I promised Halloween sales: my spooky thriller The Price is just 99 cents today and tomorrow.



What would you give to save your child? Your wife? Your soul?

Idealistic Boston District Attorney Will Sullivan has it all: a beautiful and beloved wife, Joanna; an adorable five-year old daughter, Sydney; and a real shot at winning the Massachusetts governor's race. But on the eve of Will's candidacy, Sydney is diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable tumor. Now Will and Joanna are living in the eerie twilight world of Briarwood Hospital, waiting for Sydney to die, and both going slowly mad with grief.

Then a mysterious, charismatic hospital counselor named Salk takes special interest in Will and Joanna's plight… and when Sydney miraculously starts to improve, Will suspects that Joanna has made a terrible bargain to save the life of their dying child.

99 cents, two days only.

Amazon US

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Here's The Price trailer, from Shelia English and Mark Miller at Circle of Seven Productions (The trailer won a Black Quill award for Best Dark Genre Trailer.)







"Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre."
- The New York Times Book Review

"A medical thriller of the highest order... a stunning, riveting journey into terror and suspense."
- Bestselling author Michael Palmer

"This heartbreakingly eerie page-turner paints a vivid picture of the struggle between reality and the unknown."
- Library Journal

"A psychological roller coaster that keeps the reader on edge with bone-chilling thrills throughout."
- Bestselling author Heather Graham

"Beyond stunning, it is harrowing in the real sense of true art."
- Bestselling author Ken Bruen

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nanowrimo Prep: Elements of Act I


by Alexandra Sokoloff

So now we've talked about basic filmic structure as it might be applied to novels, and you have your structure grid, and a grasp on how you're going to use index cards to brainstorm and lay out your story.

I don't know about you, but when I start a project, I know much, much, much more about the first act than any of the rest of it. I can see the mountains in the distance, but at first, I know much more about the basic set up and characters. So it makes sense to start at the beginning, and fill out the Elements of Act One.

What actually goes into a first act?

The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.

When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

- Opening image

- Meet the hero or heroine

- Hero/ine’s inner and outer need
- 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

- A mirror character (sometimes)
- Meet the Love interest (and please don't "Meet Cute")

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

- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

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

- Central Question
- Plan/Central Story Action (may not be introduced until early Act II)

- Sequence One climax

- Act One climax (or curtain, or culmination)
- Crossing the Threshold or Into the Special World (which we'll talk about later)


Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.

OPENING IMAGE:

Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax (which takes place in the grain silo – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say - on (or out of) the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream.

Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourself trying to concoct a great first line, how about giving some thought to what your opening scene LOOKS like? It takes a lot of the pressure off that first page anxiety - because you're focused on conveying a powerful image that will intrigue and entice the reader into the book. What do we see? How does it make us feel?

Try it!

(I'll talk more about this in posts on VISUAL STORYTELLING.)

MEETING THE HERO/INE

Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.

In fact, let’s just stop right there and talk about this crucial idea of

INNER AND OUTER DESIRE.

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my multiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

One of the great examples of all time of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonist comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

But even in a romantic comedy, where the inner and outer desire might not be so deep, there can be a lot of meaning and change. In Romancing The Stone, Joan Wilder's obvious plot-driven outer desire is to save her sister - she's a good person and she's already got an unselfish drive. But she's also got a personal outer desire: for a great love with the man of her dreams, the one she keeps writing about.

But her inner need is to become the self-realized woman she is capable of being: the intrepid, independent, and loving woman she writes about. Through the course of the movie we see her becoming that woman before our eyes, and we see her flawed real-life man fall in love with her because of that independence and adventurousness. She gets her man by finding herself.

CHARACTER ARC

Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (and this is important to think about from the very beginning of Act One, since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning.)

The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up. Once you know that, you can work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.

INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.

In JAWS, it happens on the first few pages of the book, and the first few minutes of the movie: the shark swims into the quiet bay and eats a swimmer. That’s the event that forces the hero, Sheriff Brody, to take action. (In mysteries and thrillers the first death is often the inciting incident – it’s so common that writers refer to it as “the corpse hits the floor”. In the case of JAWS, the corpse hits the ocean floor.)

In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker finds the hologram of the captured Princess Leia pleading for help that she has hidden in the robot R2D2.

In CHINATOWN, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray walks into Jake Gittes’ office and hires him to prove her husband is cheating on her. (In a detective story, the inciting incident is often the case that lands in the detective’s lap, or again, “the corpse hits the floor”.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government guys come to Professor Indiana Jones and want to hire him to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant – before Hitler gets it.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice is called to FBI agent Crawford’s office, where he tells her he has “an interesting errand for her.”

In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation).

Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. They must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here – THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. Let's face it - we all tend to resist change and the unknown, right? So much easier to just see what's on TV tonight.

In CHINATOWN, for example, Jake initially tries to talk “Mrs. Mulwray” out of pursuing the case. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE there’s a whole sequence of Harry’s uncle trying to prevent Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwart’s school.


THE ANTAGONIST

The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post - see here and here. For the purposes of this post I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.

ALLIES

Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.

MENTOR

Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.

LOVE INTEREST

Again, optional, but it's rare not to have one! This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, a mentor, or the actual villain.

Obviously, meeting the love of your life is an extremely significant moment and it should be treated as such in your script or book. Unfortunately this usually translates into appalling "meet cute" scenes in which - more times than I can freaking count - the hero spills coffee on the heroine, or vice-versa, ruining her or his new suit just before that big job interview, so the heroine has an excuse to hate the hero even though he offers to pay for the suit. Or vice-versa.

I'm not going to go into my whole rant about "meet cute" right now, I'm just bringing it up as an example hoping you will cringe as much as I do and vow to do better. A lot better. As always, I suggest you make a list of your favorite meetings of soon-to-be lovers, and see what great storytellers do with the moment - whether it be comic, erotic, or downright bizarre.

HOPE/FEAR (STAKES)

Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. This is one of the most dynamic storytelling tricks you can employ in your writing, in fact, because it engages your reader or audience fully in the action of the story.

Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning

STATEMENT OF THEME:

A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they ARE doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.

FIRST ACT CLIMAX/CENTRAL QUESTION:

We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo  be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but that’s me.)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?


(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Obviously your ASSIGNMENT is to create index cards for the first act, all the while of course making index cards for other parts of your story as they occur to you.

And if you don't know what an element is yet, like the opening image, or the call to adventure, then I strongly suggest that you just write a card that says OPENING IMAGE. And one for CALL TO ADVENTURE, and pin it up there on your structure grid in approximately the right place. Our creative minds are so very eager to do this work for us that if you just acknowledge that you need a scene like that, your subconscious will jump right to work and figure one out for you. I swear. It is one of the great miracles of writing.

       - Alex
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If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I do full story structure breakdowns of various movies in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.



Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT


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.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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