Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Visual Storytelling: Setpiece Scenes

by Alexandra Sokoloff

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” 

Filmmakers take that “six great scenes” concept very literally. These setpiece scenes—so named because before the advent of location shooting, elaborate sets were built as backdrops to key scenes—are also often called the “trailer scenes” or the “money scenes” (as opposed to “money shots” – that’s a whole different post!). As incensed as I am personally about how trailers these days give every single bit of the movie away, I understand that this is essential movie advertising: those trailer scenes have to seduce the potential audience by giving a good sense of the experience the movie is promising to deliver.


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As a screenwriter, when I go in to pitch a movie or television show, I concentrate on the setpieces, because I know if I can make the producers/studio/director SEE those scenes, I’ll get the job. It’s essential moviemaking.


What does that have to do with you as an author? Well, when I moved from screenwriting to writing novels, I took that concept of setpiece scenes with me. I’m often told that my thrillers are extremely visual and cinematic; I’m pretty sure that the comment I get most often from readers is “I could see the whole story like a movie playing in my head.” I absolutely feel that my job as an author is to put a movie into my readers’ heads — and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard editors say that’s what they’re looking for, too.

I believe any author, at any professional level, will benefit from studying this filmmaking concept.

Authors tend to think that their craft is about words. But words really aren’t the point of storytelling at all – they’re only a tool to convey images, emotion, action.

Location is definitely part of the art of creating setpieces. My first thrillers are on the supernatural side, and the house in a haunted house story (or a haunted dorm story like my ghost story The Harrowing) is every bit as much a character as the living ones. I’ve gone so far as to go live for weeks in a haunted mansion to collect realistic detail for the haunted mansion I was depicting in my poltergeist thriller, The Unseen. Next week I’m heading out to Death Valley to do visual research for the 6th Huntress thriller.


But a really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just visually dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in The Silence of the Lambs. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels. And all these visuals were on Thomas Harris’s page before they were translated to film.


If you watch or rewatch the erotic thriller Sea Of Love, you’ll see how the storytellers work the sea images and the love images throughout the film. The film is often shot in blue tones and against backdrops of wide panes of glass, with moving shadows - all creating an undersea or aquarium effect, especially in the suspense scenes. The story explores themes of love, including obsessive love, and addiction – sex addiction and alcoholism. There are repeating visuals of bottles, glasses, drinking, nudity, erotic art, X-rated movie theaters, hookers. 


The Harry Potter books and films are so crammed full of visual imagery it would take a book to go into it all (there probably is one, in fact...) The books play with all the classic symbols of witches, wizards and magic: owls, cats, gnome, newts, feathers, wands, crystals, ghosts, shapeshifters, snakes, frogs, rats, brooms (I don’t really have to keep going, do I?).  Look at The Wizard of Oz (just the brilliant contrast of the black and white world of Kansas and the Technicolor world of Oz says volumes). Look at what Barbara Kingsolver does in Prodigal Summer, where images of fecundity and the, well, prodigiousness of nature overflow off the pages, revealing characters and conflicts and themes. Look at what Robert Towne does with water in Chinatown—and also, try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away. Take a look at Groundhog Day, which constantly provides groundhog images, images of stopped or handless clocks (and that malevolent clock radio!), an ice image of the eye of God, anthropomorphic weather.

In film, every movie has a production designer: one artist (and these people are genius level, let me tell you) who is responsible, in consultation with the director and with the help of sometimes a whole army of production artists, for the entire  look of the film - every color, costume, prop, set choice.

With a book, guess who's the production designer? 

I am. You are. The author is.


As a screenwriter, I was used to having producers tell me a scene had to be set someplace else because it would be too expensive to shoot.  But as an author I have the incredible advantage of an unlimited production budget. Whatever settings, crowds, mechanical devices, alien attacks or natural disasters I choose to depict, my only budget constraint is in my imagination. The most powerful directors in Hollywood would kill for a fraction of that power. Theoretically, they can’t even begin to compete.


So I approach setting as a production designer. My Thriller Award-nominated Huntress series (Huntress Moon, Blood Moon, Cold Moon, Bitter Moon, Hunger Moon) follows a haunted FBI agent’s interstate manhunt for what he believes may be a female serial killer. I get to show off the staggering beauty of my home state of California, and I have a lot of fun with locations. I get a lot of raves about a key scene that takes place in a butterfly colony in a eucalyptus grove.  Now, growing up in California as I have, I couldn’t very well set a thriller on the central California coast and not use the monarch grove, and the visuals are breathtaking - but the monarchs also make a great metaphor for my killer. In another key scene (in Blood Moon) the memorial gardens of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco add a ritual mysticism to the aftermath of a murder scene.  And using my beloved Haight Ashbury as a continuing setting in Blood Moon and Cold Moon gives those books the hint of magical forces that is a subtle part of the series.


So if you want to learn how to build a great setpiece, how do you start?

(My students know the answer to this one).

Make a list of setpieces that have stayed with you. What are key scenes from movies that resonate on a visual level? Make that list WITHOUT viewing the movies at first, and try to write down everything you remember about a few of those key scenes.

Now watch one of those scenes – repeatedly, and break it down. What’s going on in it, not just visually, but thematically and emotionally? What key story conflicts are happening, and how does the visual reflect that? What key story elements are present in the scene (you’ll find many setpiece scenes contain several key story elements at once).

And let me know - what are some great examples of memorable setpieces for you – in books or films?

- Alex





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


                                        STEALING HOLLYWOOD

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

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

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



Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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


Saturday, January 06, 2018

Huntress Moon sale, $1.99 - and let's get you writing this year!

To start your New Year off, I have a book sale and a writing series for you.


HUNTRESS MOON SALE

Book 1 of my Thriller Award-nominated Huntress Moon series is on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon US! (January 6 only). The series turns tropes of violence against women inside out: my haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer. Who kills men. All over the country. For years.

So if you're in the mood to see the predators LOSE, here’s your chance to get a great deal.

         Special Agent Matthew Roarke thought he knew what evil was. He was wrong.

   





Huntress Moon: Amazon US: $1.99    







Voice Arts Award for Best Audiobook Narration

Audiobook junkies might want to take the sale opportunity to pick up the ebook - then add the narration for as low as $1.99.

Huntress Moon and my amazing narrator, RC Bray, won a Voice Arts Award for Best Audiobook Narration, Crime & Thriller.

Bob is also the multi-award-winning narrator of the blockbuster audiobook of The Martian, and you can hear his stellar narration in all five of the Huntress books.


WRITING SERIES FOR THE NEW YEAR


 1. Five Minutes a Day For a Year Equals a Book

Yeah, yeah - every year everyone resolves to write a book. And most people never, ever will.

But there's a very simple trick to writing a book.

Just do it. 

Seriously. If you can write five minutes every day, you can write a book. There's more to it than that, of course - but no book will ever get written if you don't put that very simple habit into practice.

Read more here.


2. Nanowrimo Now What? 

Maybe you've written more than five minutes a day. Maybe you did Nanowrimo and now have 50,000 or more wonderful, messy words. But - now what?

Here are the Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting.


3. Practicing Craft: It's a Wonderful Life 

What if you could  get better as a writer every single time you sat down to watch a movie or TV show? Wouldn't that push your craft to the next level or two or seven?

A little prep work before every movie or show you watch will pay off hugely. Try it with this classic.


4. Setpieces and Key Story Elements

These are  two of the most important elements any writer can steal from the movies. I'll be talking through them at length this month.


                           Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


 



Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Writing five minutes a day for a year equals a book

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Happy New Year to all!

I did make a resolution to blog more this year, and I have some essential writing posts planned, focused around rewriting (because come on - anyone who needs basic structure can and really should just buy one of the workbooks). Those of you who did Nano might actually have a full rough draft by now, so this is definitely for you.

But before we launch into that, let's talk about something relevant to anyone who wants to write anything at any stage. And that's finding time to write - and DOING it.

Here's the plain fact.

You CAN write a novel (or a script, or a TV pilot....) in whatever time you have. Even if that’s only five minutes a day. If you have kids, if you have the day job from hell, if you are clinically depressed – whatever is going on in your life, if you have five minutes a day, as long as you write EVERY DAY, to the best of your ability, you can write a novel that way.

I just don't think that's said often enough.





 



If you're new to this blog, start here:                   

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I wrote my first novel, The Harrowing, by writing just five minutes per day.

My day job was screenwriting, at the time, and yes, it was a writing job, but it had turned into the day job from hell.

But fury is a wonderful motivator, and at the end of the day, every day, I was so pissed off at the producers I was working for that I would make myself write five minutes a day on the novel EVERY NIGHT, just out of spite.

Okay, the trick to this is – that if you write five minutes a day, you will write more than five minutes a day, sometimes a whole hell of a lot more than five minutes a day most days. But it’s the first five minutes that are the hardest.

Sometimes I was so tired that all I could manage was a sentence, but I would sit down at my desk and write that one sentence. But some days I’d tell myself all I needed to write was a sentence, and I’d end up writing three pages. I finished that book, and sold it to a major publisher, in less than a year.

It’s just like the first five minutes of exercise - something I learned a long time ago. As long as I can drag myself to class and endure that first five minutes of the workout, and I give myself permission to leave after five minutes if I want to, I will generally take the whole hour or hour and a half class, and usually end up loving it. (There are these wonderful things called endorphins, you see, and they kick in after a certain amount of exposure to pain...)

The trick to writing, and exercise, is – it is STARTING that is hard.

I have been writing professionally for . . . well, never mind how many years. But even after all those many years—every single day, I have to trick myself into writing. I will do anything – scrub toilets, clean the cat box, do my taxes, do my mother’s taxes – rather than sit down to write. It’s absurd. I mean, what’s so hard about writing, besides everything?

But I know this just like I know it about exercise. If you can just start, and commit to just that five minutes, those five minutes will turn into ten, and those ten minutes will turn into pages, and one page a day for a year is a book.

Think about it.

Or better yet, write for five minutes, right now.

Alexandra Sokoloff






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

                                        STEALING HOLLYWOOD

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

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

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


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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

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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Holiday Homework: It's a Wonderful Life


by Alexandra Sokoloff

Two days to Christmas. Yes, I know, it’s SO HARD to get any writing done this time of year. I’m not putting any pressure on you, I swear! 
But there is something that almost all of us do this time of year that we can actually turn into an almost miraculous, (as it were) two-and-a-half hour session on writing.
We sit down with the family (or with a bottle of champagne) and watch It’s a Wonderful Life. 

Anyone who’s read my books and blog knows that I’m all about using movies to learn the craft of writing – not just screenwriting, but very much novels, too. And like the other classic anti-totalitarian movie of the WWII era, The Wizard of Oz, this is much much more than a feel-good fantasy.

The story packs a staggering emotional and thematic impact on young and old (I used to show it to the incarcerated gang kids I taught in the Los Angeles County prison system, and it always bowled them over – they GOT it.

And there’s no better film to watch (and watch again, and again, and again) to internalize some of the most basic lessons of powerful storytelling. So this year, why not do a few minutes of prep before the movie and resolve to look out for how the filmmakers handle these KEY STORY ELEMENTS:

INNER AND OUTER DESIRE:
 
One of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist’s overall DESIRE and NEED in the story. You also hear this called “internal desire” 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 get the love interest into bed. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, almost always, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will know that s/he wants that outer desire, but will probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

So you, the writer, have to know your character’s inner and outer desires and how they conflict.  
It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the greatest filmic examples of inner and outer desire in conflict. 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 — on a microcosmic level, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

Every choice George 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 that we emphasize with. It’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.


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, in that scene in which 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.  

And by the way – this theme is overtly stated in our very first glimpse of the adult George:


INTRODUCTION OF THE MAIN CHARACTER:



“Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I want a big one.” 

And freeze frame on that hand span… a fabulous, funny, sexy introduction. (That big, huh? Mmm.) This intro goes on to tell us something about George Bailey’s outer DESIRE line: he wants to do big things, build big things, everything big. In fact, the story will be about how all the little things George does in his life will add up to something more than simply big, but truly enormous.

HOPE/FEAR and 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. Generally, what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. In It’s a Wonderful Life, 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, or even the end of the world. (This is also what is AT STAKE). In a comedy or romance, the stakes are more likely the loss of love.
 

THE ANTAGONIST

The person whom the protagonist is fighting is often a dark mirror of the protagonist; in many stories we see that it wouldn’t take much for the hero/ine to become the antagonist, metaphorically speaking. The hero/ine and the antagonist often want the same thing, whether it’s an actual object, like the lost Ark of the Covenant or the Maltese Falcon; or money; or a power, like control of a town in It’s A Wonderful Life) or control of a country (The Lion in Winter) or control of a family (Another Part of the Forest); or a person: a child (Kramer Vs. Kramer) or a lover (five billion romantic comedies). 

And sometimes the only thing that distinguishes the protagonist from the antagonist is what methods they’re willing to use to get what they want; the hero/ine, we hope, is moral about it (though the hero/ine crossing a moral line is almost an inevitable part of any story), and the antagonist is willing to lie, cheat, hurt, or kill for it.    

                                                                                                              
Of course Potter is a wonderfully evil villain, perfectly played as a huge human spider by the great Lionel Barrymore. The deal with the devil scene in which he almost – almost succeeds in getting George to sign his soul away is a masterpiece all on its own. But what’s particularly interesting about IAWL is that the battle is taking place on several different levels – in George’s massive internal conflict, the particular antagonist of Mr. Potter - but the real opponent is bigger. George is not just fighting Mr. Potter, but a whole way of life that is anti-community, that destroys community and individuality. It’s a Wonderful Life, like The Wizard of Oz, is an anti-totalitarian statement made in the midst of a massive battle against totalitarian forces of World War II.

And couldn’t we all use that, right now?



FINAL BATTLE:

This is not the classic “hero confronts villain on villain’s home turf” third act. In fact, Potter is nowhere around in the final confrontation, is he? There’s no showdown, even though we desperately want one. There’s not even a hint that Potter will be punished in any way for essentially stealing the Building and Loan money from Uncle Billy and then compelling the police to arrest George for the theft.

But the point is that George Bailey has been fighting Potter all along. 

There is no big glorious heroic showdown to be had, here, because it’s all the little grueling day-to-day, crazy-making battles that George has had with Potter all his life that have made the difference. And the genius of this film is that it shows in vivid and emotionally wrenching detail what would have happened if George had not had that whole lifetime of battles against Potter and for the town. Every single encounter George Bailey has had throughout the film is an example of a small, ordinary goodness, a right choice that George makes, that in the end, when we and he see the town as it would have been if he had never existed, lets us understand that it is those little things that make for true heroism. In the end, even faced with prison, George makes the choice to live to fight another day, and is rewarded with the joy of seeing his town restored.

This is the best example I know of, ever, of a final battle that is thematic — and yet the impact is emotional and visceral. It’s not an intellectual treatise; you live that ending along with George, but also come away with the sense of what true heroism is.

 

It’s A Wonderful Life is also a terrific example of emotional exhilaration in a climax. Once George Bailey has seen what would have happened to his little town if he had never been born, and he decides he wants to live and realizes he is alive again, the pleasures just keep coming and coming and coming. It is as much a relief for us as for George, to experience him running through town, seeing all his old friends and familiar places restored. And then to see the whole town gathering at his house to help him, one character after another appearing to lend money to pay off his debt, Violet deciding to stay in town, his old friend Sam wiring him a promise of as much money as he needs – the whole thing makes the audience glad to be alive, too. We feel, as George does, that the little things we do every day do count.

This is a great lesson, I think, that above all in an ending, the reader/audience has to CARE. A good ending has an emotional payoff, and it has to be proportionate to what the character and the reader/audience has experienced.

There’s so much more I could say (and have said!) about this film and all the story elements of it, but yes, time is short and shopping lists are long. At least now you have a chance to do some writing work while it looks like you’re playing – one of my favorite writerly tricks.

Happy Solstice, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Merry Christmas to all.
It’s been a brutal year, but it really is a wonderful life. Definitely worth fighting for.

-        - Alex


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

a All the information on this blog and more is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors 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 ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

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


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)









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


Friday, December 22, 2017

Happy Solstice!! What's YOUR writing intention?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

It’s Solstice, a powerful time to set intentions. Yes, I know you have Christmas shopping to do. Quite possibly some cooking, if that’s what you’re into. We could all do some cleaning. And almost undoubtedly there's family, which this year might be more fraught than usual.

(Also taxes. I hate to even bring it up, but that whole travesty wasn’t MY idea - and now we have to live with it. You may want to give this a quick read: Hacking the Tax Plan.)

But still. Even with all of the above - there’s a reason we traditionally write resolutions at this time of year. Sow some seeds that will blossom for you in 2018/ Take a minute, or an hour, to BE still, and answer the questions for yourself:  

What next? What do I want for the coming year? What does it look like for me?

And of course, I have some questions specifically for the writers.

Do you want to finish that book, the one from Nanowrimo or otherwise? Publish for the first time? Publish at a whole new, spectacular level? Get that movie or TV series made?

This is the time for ALL those shimmering wishes.

And to help nudge the writers along, I’m going to start some posts on rewriting. I have WHOLE BOOKS on writing, that you can conveniently order below. But here on the blog, since we’re into that Nanowrimo Now What time of year, let’s focus on the rewriting part.

Here’s a general list of my best advice on rewriting to start. You don’t have to read it now! You have shopping, and cooking, and family, and probably some tax scrambling to do.

But it’s Solstice, so I’m planting the idea in your heads - and wishing you a bright and bountiful harvest in the New Year.



                                            TOP TEN THINGS I KNOW ABOUT REWRITING


Now that we've had some time off from the frenzy of writing that was November, we need to get back to those drafts and - yike - see what we've got.

Remember, the most important thing is taking enough time off from that draft.  But now that you have taken the time off… how the hell do you proceed with the second draft?

Well, first you have to read the first draft. All the way through. Not necessarily in one sitting (if that’s even possible to begin with!).  I usually do this in chunks of 50 pages or 100 pages a day – anything else makes my brain sore.

(And yes, if you’ve been paying attention (The Three Act Structure and The Eight Sequence Structure), that would mean I’m either reading one sequence or two sequences a day).

I picked up a tip from some book or article a long time ago about reading for revisions, and I wish I could remember who said it to credit them, because it’s great advice. Grab yourself a colored pen or pencil (or all kinds of colors, glitter pens - go wild) and sit down with a stack of freshly printed pages (sorry, it’s ungreen, but I can’t do a first revision on a screen. I need a hard copy). Then read through and make brief notes where necessary, but DO NOT start rewriting, and PUT THE PEN DOWN as soon as you’ve made a note. You want to read the first time through for story, not for stupid details that will interrupt your experience of the story as a whole. You want to get the big picture – especially – you want to see if you actually have a book (or film, if that’s what you’re writing).

If your drafts are anything like mine, there will be large chunks of absolute shit. That’s pretty much my definition of what a first draft is. X them out on the spot if you have to, but resist the temptation to stop and rewrite. Well, if you REALLY are hot to write a scene, I guess, okay, but really, unless you are totally, fanatically inspired, it’s better just to make brief notes.

When you’ve finished reading there should - hopefully! - be the feeling that even though you probably still have massive amounts of work yet to do, there is a book there. (I love that feeling…)

Once I’ve read through the entire thing, I make notes about my impressions, and then usually I will do a re-card (see The Index Card Method). I will have made many scribbled notes on the draft to the effect of “This scene doesn’t work here!” In some of my first drafts, whole sections don’t work at all. This is my chance to find the right places for things. And, of course, throw stuff out.

I will go through the entire book again – going back and forth between my pages and the cards on my story grid - and see where the story elements fall. There is no script or book I’ve ever written that didn’t benefit from a careful overview once again identifying act breaks, sequence climaxes, and key story elements like: The Call to Adventure; Stating the Theme; identifying the Central Question; Central Action and Plan; Crossing the Threshold; Meeting the Mentor; the Dark Night of the Soul - once the first draft is actually finished. A lot of your outline may have changed, and you will be able to pull your story into line much more effectively if you check your structural elements again and continually be thinking of how you can make those key scenes more significant, more magical.

(For a quick refresher on Story Elements, skip down to #10 at the bottom of this post, and the links at the end for more in-depth discussion.)

Also, be very aware of what your sequences are. If a scene isn’t working, but you know you need to have it, it’s probably in the wrong sequence, and if you look at your story overall and at what each sequence is doing, you’ll probably be able to see immediately where stray scenes need to go. That’s why re-carding and re-sequencing is such a great thing to do when you start a revision.

Now, the next steps can be taken in whatever order is useful to you, but here again are the Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.


1. Cut, cut, cut.

When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will. It's okay if you bitch about it all the way to the trash file, too - I always do.

2. Find a great critique group.

This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

3. Do several passes.

Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

4. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

5. Know your Three Act Structure.

If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

6. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

7. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

8. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.

9. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a first draft unless you feel it’s very close to the final product, but when you’re further along, the best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

Some of you are already well aware that I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points, so here it is again, for those just finding this post.


STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST

ACT ONE

* Opening image
* Meet the hero or heroine
* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
* Hero/ine’s problem
* 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. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
* Love interest
* Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
* Sequence One climax
* Central Question
* Central Story Action
* Plan (Hero/ine's)
* Villain's Plan
* Act One climax

___________________________

ACT TWO


* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
* Threshold Guardian (maybe)
* Hero/ine’s Plan
* Antagonist’s Plan
* Training Sequence
* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies
* Assembling the Team
* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
* In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


THE MIDPOINT


* 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


______________________________
ACT TWO, PART TWO


* 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).
* Visit to the Goddess
* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
* Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

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


_______________________________

ACT THREE

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 allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
 * Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs 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.


- Alex


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                                        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.

 


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