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 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


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


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Nanowrimo Prep: The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

by Alexandra Sokoloff

What I'm going to talk about in the next few posts is the key to the story structuring technique I write about and that everyone's always asking me to teach.  Those of you new to this blog are going to have to do a little catch up and review the concept of the Three Act Structure (in fact, everyone should go back and review.)

But the real secret of film writing and filmmaking, that we are going to steal for our novel writing, is that most movies are written in a Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 12-15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.

I swear.

The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten to fifteen minutes of film (movies were also shorter, proportionately). The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished. Early screenwriters (who by the way, were mostly playwrights, well-schooled in the three-act structure) incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing individual sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel, and modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm. (As movies got longer, sequences got slightly longer proportionately).


You can read older film scripts and see the sequence designations typed into the script: Sequence One, Sequence Two, Sequence Three, etc.

Obviously these days we have digital projection and no one is up in that projection booth scrambling to change reels, but modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm. Because what storytelling form came along mid-twentieth century that really locked that cliffhanger rhythm into place?

Right! Television! Network TV writers always end a sequence on a cliffhanger before the station cuts away to a commercial break. It’s just too easy to change channels, otherwise

And the eight-sequence structure actually translates beautifully to novel structuring, although we have much more flexibility with a novel and you might end up with a few more sequences in a book. So I want to get you familiar with the eight-sequence structure in film first, and we’ll go on to talk about the application to novels.

If you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you'll want to check out my sample breakdowns (full breakdowns are included in the workbooks) and watch several, or all, of those movies, following along with my notes, before you try to analyze a movie on your own. But if you want to jump right in with your own breakdowns and analyses, this is how it works:

        ASSIGNMENT: Take a film from the master list, the Top Ten list you've made, preferably the one that is most similar in structure to your own WIP, and screen it, watching the time clock on your DVD player (or your watch, or phone.). At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big SETPIECE. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.)

Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle, and end of each sequence, approximately every 15 minutes. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes, Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

NOTE: You can also, and probably should, say that a movie is really four acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Hollywood continues to use "Three Acts". Whichever works best for you!

So how do you recognize a sequence?

It's generally a series of related scenes, tied together by location and/or time and/or action and/or the overall intent of the hero/ine.

In many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action, based on the new information. A good exercise is to title each sequence as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall picture of the progression of action.

But the biggest clue to an Act or Sequence climax is a SETPIECE SCENE: there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws. And Casablanca, too.).

Or, let's not forget - it can be a sex scene. In fact for my money ANY sex scene in a book or film should be approached as a setpiece.

The setpiece is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking, one of the most valuable for novelists, and possibly the most crucial for screenwriters.

There are multiple definitions of a setpiece (or set piece; the words are used interchangeably).  It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in - a shower, for instance, in Psycho.

If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes. They are tentpoles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.

That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The crop-dusting plane chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in North By Northwest. The goofy galactic bar in Star Wars. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz. The dungeon – I mean prison – in Silence of the Lambs. In fact you can look Raiders and Silence and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in Raiders…)

Those are actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces, because one is so big and action-oriented (Raiders) and one is so small, confined and psychological (Silence), yet both are stunning examples of visual storytelling.

A really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in 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.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both Silence of the Lambs and Thomas Harris's Red Dragon are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books, which made them slam dunks as movies.

So here's another ASSIGNMENT for you: Bring me setpieces. What are some great ones? Check your watch. Are they act or sequence climaxes?

Another note about sequences: be advised that in big, sprawling movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this eight-sequence format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical precision is kind of a lifesaver.

Now, I could talk about this for just about ever, but me talking is not going to get you anywhere. You need to DO this. Watch the movies yourself. Do the breakdowns yourself. Identify setpieces yourself. Ask as many questions as you want here, but DO it - it's the only way you're really going to learn this.

My advice is that you watch and analyze all ten of your master list movies (and books). But not all at once - screening one will get you far, three will lock it in, the rest will open new worlds in your writing.

And every time you see a movie now, for the rest of your life, look for the sequence breaks and act climaxes, and setpieces. At first you will embarrass yourself in theaters, shouting out things like "Hot damn!" Or "Holy !@#$!!!"as you experience a climax. An Act Climax. But eventually, it will be as natural to you as breathing, and you will find yourself incorporating this rhythm into your storytelling without even having to think about it. You may even be doing it already.

So go, go, watch some movies. It's WORK (don't you love this job?) And please, report your findings back here.

And I may regret saying this, but I'll take suggestions of movies for me to break down here. I may not have the time this month, but no harm in asking!

Alex

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


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

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

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

 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

Friday, October 03, 2014

Nanowrimo Prep: What's your PREMISE?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So hopefully you took the last exercise seriously and are now armed with a Top Ten list and a hundred pages (just kidding) of all your story ideas, and woke up this morning with THE book that you want to write for NaNoWriMo. If not, keep working! It'll come.

If you have honed in on one, it's time to write your premise line.

I know, you'd rather stick needles in your eyes.  Me, too. But no one ever has to read your lame early attempts, you get that, right? This exercise is for YOU to get comfortable with the story you're about to tell. It's your GPS for the story, one of the most important steps in starting a book. And it's absolutely appalling to me how many people write books without ever having settled on the premise.

So let's talk about how to do that.

I am always finding myself in this same conversation with aspiring authors.

Me: “So what’s your book about?”

Aspiring Author:
 “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences– there’s just so much going on in it.”

Why would I ever want to look at a book if the author doesn't even know the storyline?

The time to know what your book is about is before you start it, and you for sure better know what it’s about by the time it’s finished and people, like, oh, you know - agents and editors, are asking you what it’s about.

And here’s another tip – when people ask you what your book is about, the answer is not “War” or “Love” or “Betrayal”, even though your book might be about one or all of those things. Those words don’t distinguish YOUR book from any of the millions of books about those things.

When people ask you what your book is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the premise?” In other words, “What’s the story line in one easily understandable sentence?”

That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch” – it all means the same thing.

That sentence really should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre. And – it should make whoever hears it want to read the book. Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say – “Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”

Writing a premise sentence is a bit of an art, but it’s a critical art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights. You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian, or the Kindle Direct Publishing upload screen asks you for a one-sentence book description, or jacket copy, or ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstores (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have about one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.

And even before all that, the premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.

So what are some examples of premise lines?

Name these books/films:

• When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

• A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

• A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Notice how all of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out. Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.

And okay, they're some pretty bloody examples, as usual for me. So let’s try some love premises:

• A commitment-phobic Englishman falls in love with a beautiful, elusive American during a year in which all the people around him seem to be marrying and finding their mates at a round-robin of four weddings – and a funeral.

• A lonely widower and a lonely journalist who live on opposite sides of the country fall in love with each other without ever having met.

• A man and a woman debate the theory that a man and a woman can never really be friends, over a period of years in which they become best friends, then fall in love.

Note that I have not described any of those stories as “THIS BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE meets THAT BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE.”

This is a very common mistake that authors make. There is no faster way to make an agent’s or editor’s or producer’s or director’s eyes glaze over than to pitch your book as “It’s When Harry Met Sally meets  Jaws!!!!”

Remember that this “method” of pitching was immortalized in The Player, a movie that is a satire of Hollywood. The famous pitch: “It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!!!” was a joke, and be warned: that method of pitching is a big turnoff to a lot of producers and editors.


However, some editors like to hear books pitched that way. I think it’s risky, and would strongly suggest that if you’re inclined toward that method, you also create a logline that is detailed and specific. It will be much more of a touchstone for your plot.

The Kirkus review of The Harrowing included the line: “Poltergeist meets The Breakfast Club”, and you better believe my publisher jumped on that and put it on the cover of the paperback. This is a literal description of my book, and I bless Kirkus every day for saying it.

But when you sit down to write your book, you need a premise that is detailed and specific.

Here’s my premise for The Harrowing.

Five troubled college students left alone on their isolated campus over the long Thanksgiving break confront their own demons and a mysterious presence – that may or may not be real.


I wrote that sentence to quickly convey all the elements I want to get across about this book.

Who’s the story about? Five college kids, and “alone” and “troubled” characterize them in a couple of words. Not only are they alone and troubled, they have personal demons. What’s the setting? An isolated college campus, and it’s Thanksgiving - fall, going on winter. Bleak, spooky. Plus – if it’s Thanksgiving, why are they on campus instead of home with their families?

Who’s the antagonist? A mysterious presence. What’s the conflict? It’s inner and outer – it will be the kids against themselves, and also against this mysterious presence. What are the stakes? Well, not so clear, but there’s a sense of danger involved with any mysterious presence.

And there are a lot of clues to the genre – sounds like something supernatural’s going on, but there’s also a sense that it’s psychological – because the kids are troubled and this presence may or may not be real. There's a sense of danger, possibly on several levels.

Here’s my premise line for my thriller, Book of Shadows

An ambitious Boston homicide detective and an enigmatic practicing witch from Salem reluctantly team in a race to catch a Satanic killer that the witch believes is trying to summon a real demon.

Who’s the story about? A homicide detective and a modern witch. The descriptives “ambitious” and “enigmatic” characterize them in a couple of words – and their professions set up an obvious contrast and potential for an “opposites attract” story.

What’s the setting? Boston and Salem – again, opposites.

Who’s the antagonist? A Satanic killer – any way you look at it, that’s not good. What’s the conflict? It’s both interpersonal and external: it will be the cop and the witch against each other, and the two of them against the killer. What are the stakes? Life and death, and something possibly supernatural as well, if there really is a demon involved.

And there are clues to the genre: there may be something supernatural going on, but that’s only what she believes, so there’s a mystery there: not just who the killer is, but what the killer is. There's a sense of danger, too, possibly on several levels.

The best way to learn how to write a good premise line is to practice. I encourage you to take the master list of films and books you’ve made and for each story, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

If you need a lot of examples all at once, pick up a copy of the TV Guide, or click through the descriptions of movies on your TiVo or DVR. Those aren’t usually the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

But the very best thing you can do is to spend some time writing out the premises for your master list. Not only is it great practice for crafting premise lines, but it will give you a terrific sense of the elements that you want to see in a story, and quite possibly a good sense of the story patterns that you most enjoy.

> ASSIGNMENT: Write out premise lines for each story on your master list, and for your own Work In Progress (WIP).


No putting this off - you're going to need this premise to move forward. It can be a lot easier to start by bashing out several sentences, a whole paragraph, and then start distilling it down, that's fine (in fact I encourage you to start a premise/synopsis file and keep adding descriptions of your story in different lengths to that file - believe me, you'll need all of them later!)

And remember, your premise sentence may change as you actually write the book and discover what your story is really about. This is just for you to start with what you THINK it's about. Don't sweat it.

 But do it.

Alex


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

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

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

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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.


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