Monday, July 17, 2017

Happy #JaneAusten200 : Sense and Sensibility breakdown

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, with much deserved celebrations of the author going on all over the world - in the UK she gets her own  bank note, which I can't wait to get my hands on!



So I thought I'd celebrate Austen with a breakdown of Sense and Sensibility, the 1995 Emma Thompson/Ang Lee adaptation, which is a gem of a movie to study for story structure no matter what genre or time period you're working with.

I'll post the first act breakdown here, but to get the full breakdown you need to be subscribed to my Story Structure Extras list.

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(Which will also get you access to my book-length - almost - breakdown of The Silence of the Lambs later this month!)




                                   Sense and Sensibility



Screenplay by Emma Thompson
From the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet
1995
Running time 136 minutes

Ah, now this is a love story: a classic book and a perfect adaptation. There’s real emotion, real chemistry, fun comedy, real hope and fear all the way through; the story puts us through the emotional wringer, plunging us to the depths and lifting us back up to the heights. Get out the Kleenex and let’s see what we can learn from this gem.

I am going to start with some general notes first — some things I suggest you look for as you’re watching this film — particularly in terms of THEME, HOPE, FEAR and STAKES.

Some writers who take my workshops and read my blog complain about the films I use for examples of story elements and structure. I’m particularly apt to use Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs — to the horror of some romance writers who wouldn’t be caught dead (sorry, I’ll stop now) reading those books. But I always try to get writers to understand that they can learn just as much from stories outside their own genre, because the elements of story — and suspense — are the same no matter how many bodies are or are not falling or how many creatures are or are not lurking in the basement.

Personally, I find serious horror in Sense and Sensibility (and any Austen book), and it’s not a horror of romance, either. I am, however, horrified at the Netflix description of the film as “Austen’s classic tale of 19th century etiquette.” This story is more about monsters in the basement than it is about etiquette.

Actually, it is about an evil much bigger than a monster in the basement, and if you ask me, the fact that that monster is lurking under the romance and comedy is what makes this story a masterpiece.

ACT ONE

Just wanted to note for the filmmakers among you that the credits sequence is just titles on black, with period music underneath. This is a technique often used with period films, I think used deliberately to slow the audience down and put them squarely in another time. Music is a pure time machine from — or to — the period it was written; it works on us in a way that no visual or dialogue ever could.

PROLOGUE

I would say that the first short sequence (4 min.) is a prologue — and a hugely important one.
The film opens at the deathbed of Mr. Dashwood, the father of our not-yet-seen heroines. Mr. Dashwood has called in John Dashwood, his son from a previous marriage, to whom Mr. Dashwood’s entire fortune and houses will pass under the law of primogeniture, which bars women from inheriting property and keeps both the patriarchy and the aristocracy intact by mandating that family fortunes pass undivided to the eldest son of a family, with only minimal livings carved out for any remaining male children.

Before he dies, Dashwood extracts a promise from John that he will take care of the present Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, who by this law of primogeniture are only allowed to inherit 500 pounds. (THE DEATHBED PROMISE, in this case, promptly broken.)

John’s original intention is to give the Dashwood women, his stepmother and stepsisters, an additional 3000 pounds so they can live comfortably on the interest, but in the course of a carriage ride up to Norland Park, where John and his wife will take over the Dashwood house, John’s harridan of a wife, Fanny, whittles weak-willed John’s gift down to nothing at all: “Twenty pounds here and there should be ample. What would four women need with more than 500 pounds?”

(Also in this carriage ride, John also voices the FEAR that Marianne will lose her bloom and end up a spinster like Elinor.)

This series of scenes is a beautiful — and outwardly funny — dramatization of greed in action, and Fanny makes a detestable villain. But more importantly, the scenes introduce the real villain of the story, and every Austen story: primogeniture, which kept the rich superrich, the poor practically or literally indentured as servants to the rich, and women enslaved to men, for centuries.

Stylistically, Jane Austen was writing comedies, but the stories are built on social outrage, and I believe it’s that canny blend that made and keeps these books classics.

So the death of Mr. Dashwood, and the Dashwood women’s subsequent disinheritance, is the INCITING INCIDENT. (4:30)

One more note as you’re watching this film: pay special attention to how the storytellers use weather to create mood and emotion, and also pay attention to the set decoration: the paintings on the walls behind the characters constantly comment — often hilariously — on the story and themes.

SEQUENCE ONE:

The whole next sequence is very filmic, played at first almost as a montage, with fast cuts between extremely short scenes. We are introduced to the extremely sympathetic Dashwood women: Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and 11-year old Margaret, as they are reduced to guests in their own house in the midst of their deep grief over the loss of their husband and father. While Fanny steamrolls through the house claiming everything in it as her own, the Dashwood women scramble to find other living arrangements on their tiny inheritance.

These are great character introductions to Elinor and Marianne, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The filmmakers deftly find comedy even in this tragic situation, eg. Elinor’s first line to Marianne as Marianne plays the world’s most doleful dirge on the pianoforte: “Would you play something else, dearest? Maman has been weeping all morning.”

I see this movie as having a dual protagonist, even though Elinor is clearly the more dominant one and the point of view character. But Austen, and Thompson in the adaptation, are using the sisters to demonstrate a theme: literally, sense and sensibility. At the beginning of the story the sisters are out of balance: Elinor is all sense and Marianne all sensibility (passion). By the end of the story (and partly through the crucible of love), they have each gained some of what the other has, to make both of them more fully realized women.

This is what you could call a “character cluster,” like the three-brother or three-sister structure you often see, especially in stories with a fairy tale structure like the Harry Potter books/films. If you’re thinking about writing a dual protagonist, this is an excellent example to study.

Note also the restatement of THEME when Margaret asks Elinor why John and Fanny are coming to take over Norwood when they already have a house of their own. Elinor tells Margaret, “Houses go from father to son. It's the law.” That extra emphasis on how this is the law makes it very clear what the problem is, and keeps this societal FORCE OF ANTAGONISM very present in the story.

Now, enter Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s intelligent but very reserved brother, Hugh Grant at his diffidently charming best. (The scenes become longer here.) Edward’s formal bow, and the Dashwood women’s polite curtseys in return, become a RUNNING GAG in the film (a running gag is a staple of comedy). Each time the action stops as Edward does his best at this bow, but there’s something always just a little off about the timing.

Marianne wants to hate him, especially because Fanny has kicked Margaret out of her own room to give her brother the best view in the house, but Edward has already noticed the offense and quietly moved himself to a guest room.

Edward instantly understands the pain of the Dashwoods’ circumstances, bonds with and draws out youngest daughter Margaret, and falls hard — albeit reservedly — for kindred soul Elinor. In a beautiful scene in the library, Edward and Elinor coax Margaret out from where she has been hiding under a table by pretending ignorance of the source of the Nile, and we see that Edward and Elinor are perfectly, beautifully matched: intelligent, witty, sensitive, kind, and off-the-wall. They are at their most charming when they’re together. This is a common and I think crucial scene in any romance or romantic subplot —THE DANCE — where we see that two people are perfect for each other. So much more meaningful than “meet cute”!

And this scene gives us our great HOPE for Elinor: that she has found the great love of her life and they will make a true, encompassing marriage. It’s also, I would say, her CALL TO ADVENTURE (separate from the INCITING INCIDENT) — meeting her true love.

But there’s more to this than love. In her circumstances, Elinor’s life and her family’s lives depend on her making a good marriage, because women are prohibited from earning an income. A happy marriage to a well-off man is the dream, the best possible outcome — but the stakes couldn’t be higher, and Elinor’s situation is more than tenuous; she has not the slightest power over her future except to marry. So this is the unstated but clear PLAN: to marry for love and secure the family’s future. (15 min.)

We see the couple’s feelings deepen when Edward catches Elinor crying as she listens to Marianne play their father’s favorite song on the piano. He gives her his handkerchief (which becomes what Joseph Campbell calls a TALISMAN: a significant object for a character, like Luke Skywalker’s light saber and Harry Potter’s — well, lots of things, but the cloak of invisibility, the Nimbus 2000, etc.).

The ANTAGONISTS, Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars (Fanny and Edward’s mother), immediately go about preventing this match. (Mrs. Ferrars is never physically present, only offstage, but very present in the form of the threat of disinheriting Edward if he makes an “unworthy marriage.”) (18 min.)

The Dashwood women receive an offer of a cottage in Devonshire for minimal rent from Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, Sir John, but Mrs. Dashwood has seen the “attachment” forming between Elinor and Edward and tells Marianne that they will put off the move. (Look at the painting of a man on the wall right behind Mrs. Dashwood as we see her thinking this over: it’s almost like a comic book bubble showing her thoughts. This is the PLAN — to give Elinor opportunity to engage with Edward, to make a happy marriage but also secure the family fortune.)

You could say that there is one long sequence here at Norwood (from 4:30 to 26 minutes), but you could also say it’s two sequences. This is where I would say it breaks, at 19 minutes.

SEQUENCE TWO

Edward and Elinor spend more time together and continue to fall in love; this is accomplished in an amazingly short amount of film time.

The horseback riding scene is especially interesting thematically: Elinor states plainly "We (women) have no choice of any occupation whatsoever. You will inherit your fortune, we cannot even earn ours." But we also see that Edward is constrained by the threat of complete disinheritance if he does not make a career and a marriage that his mother approves of. The scene also shows that these two can talk honestly of deep issues.

We also see another antagonist to the match: Marianne, who thinks that Edward is not passionate enough for Elinor, and that Elinor’s feelings are too tepid to be real love.

When Marianne asks Elinor how she feels about Edward, Elinor says that she greatly esteems him. Marianne chides her for being so dispassionate. (Settting up ELINOR’S CHARACTER ARC: Elinor is not completely honest about her feelings, which will get her into trouble down the road.)

In another scene, Marianne asks their mother: "Can he love her? To love is to burn, to be on fire." Marianne just comes right out and says what she believes (and DESIRES), and this sets up Marianne’s CHARACTER ARC. There’s also some FORESHADOWING and FEAR for Marianne here when her mother replies that Marianne’s passionate role models Juliet and Heloise made “rather bad ends.”

But despite her objections, Marianne says she will support her sister’s wishes with her whole heart.

Meanwhile evil Fanny actively works to thwart the relationship by telling Mrs. Dashwood that their mother has made it clear she will disinherit Edward should he marry beneath his station. (22 min)

It’s a devastating move because we are already so invested in Elinor and Edward’s love — and oh, do we hate Fanny. There are also two PLANTS here: that Edward will in fact be disinherited, and that he is too much of a gentleman ever to go back on a promise, which will become very significant later.

At dinner, Mrs. Dashwood announces they will leave immediately for her cousin's estate. (NEW PLAN.)

The next day Edward finds Elinor in the stable, saying goodbye to her horse, which the family cannot afford to keep. (Horses are a classic symbol of perverse sexuality, so this is a sly hint of Edward’s youthful romantic liaison that we will learn about — not here, but eventually.) Edward says that he must speak to Elinor, which we and Elinor think will be a marriage proposal. Instead Edward tells a rambling story of his early education under the tutelage of Mr. Pratt (PLANT), and before he can get to the point, Fanny races in telling him their mother needs him immediately back at the family home. Edward obeys Fanny (JUST SAY SOMETHING, STUPID!), and the Dashwoods move from their home to a cottage on the estate of Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, without a marriage proposal from Edward to Elinor. (26 min.)

CLIMAX SEQUENCE TWO

(As I said, you could call that all one long sequence.)

SEQUENCE THREE: (27 min. to 45 min.)

This sequence sets up Marianne’s story, as the first sequence, or two sequences, set up Elinor’s.

The Dashwoods arrive at Barton Cottage, their new, much smaller home (but I’d still take it any day!) with gorgeous shots of the Devonshire countryside. (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD and INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD.)

They are heartily welcomed by the crass, noisy, but warm-hearted Sir John and his mother-in-law, wealthy Mrs. Jennings, surrounded by their pack of dogs (dogs are a classic symbol of the id and instincts, here run rampant). These are ALLIES, and Mrs. Jennings is also the MENTOR/FAIRY GODMOTHER. There’s a great moment when Margaret says later that she likes Mrs. Jennings because “She talks about things. We never talk about things.” (And this reticence turns out to be a huge INTERNAL OPPOSITION.)

They settle into their new life: Elinor struggles to make ends meet for the family and secretly pines for Edward (though she tells her mother that it’s more sensible to be practical about the barriers to Edward marrying a woman without a dowry. Again, Elinor’s character WEAKNESS — she’s practical against the wishes of her own heart.)

Fiery Marianne catches the eye of Sir John’s good friend, the county’s most eligible bachelor, wealthy and cultured Colonel Brandon (a completely dreamy Alan Rickman). (Just a quick aside — look at the paintings of dogs behind Sir John and Mrs. Jennings in this scene as they tease Elinor.) Marianne scorns Brandon’s attentions, dismissing him as too old (he’s 35 in the book). Brandon is a perfect gentleman (and like Edward, very charming and attentive to young Margaret, a CLUE). Elinor likes him, but is not immediately won over. And Alan Rickman is great casting, here; he so often plays villains that there’s an ambiguity about his performance which keeps us in suspense about whether or not he’s a good man, and right for Marianne — after all, marrying for money often leads to tragedy.

Elinor asks Mrs. Jennings about Brandon and Mrs. Jennings tells Elinor that Brandon has a tragic past: as a youth he fell in love with his father's young ward, and the family broke up the lovers by sending Brandon away to the military and turning the girl out of the house. She was “passed from man to man” and when Brandon returned from the West Indies he searched for her and found her dying in a poorhouse.

This is our FEAR for Marianne, and it’s a big one. In Austen’s time “ruin” for women meant prostitution and the attendant poverty and syphilis – the worst possible life.

Mrs. Jennings’ unsubtle matchmaking turns Marianne away from Brandon. Instead she falls hard for the young, handsome and dashing Willoughby, whom she meets in a stormy romantic scene on a moor right out of Wuthering Heights (SETPIECE). Willoughby also seems very well-fixed financially (set to inherit an older relative’s nearby estate) and outspokenly shares Marianne’s passion for poetry and music. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret are instantly charmed; Marianne is openly adoring. Elinor, though, has doubts …

CLIMAX OF ACT ONE – (45 minutes into a 2-hour, 15-minute film)


There’s HOPE but also FEAR, here — I felt Willoughby was a bit over the top in a way that might backfire badly — might even lead to her “ruin.” Plus — this guy over Alan Rickman? I think not. Still, what I love about this casting and characterization is that he seems a good match for Marianne; it’s a legitimate romantic dilemma, and keeps us in SUSPENSE about which is the right man for her.

Be sure you're subscribed to my Story Structure Extras list to get the full breakdown!


- Alexandra Sokoloff

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Junowrimo - Camp NaNoWriMo

Junowrimo is DONE!! Just in time for Camp Nanowrimo to kick in. With not a second's break in between.

Gosh, that's kind of like... a writing career. How about that?  :)

So YAY!!! You survived! Or maybe I shouldn’t make any assumptions, there. 

If you didn't finish, which would be ENTIRELY NORMAL, because writing a book in a month is pretty crazy if not outright impossible, then you might think about using Camp Nanowrimo to spur you to the finish line.

Because if you haven't written all the way to “The End”, then you may have survived, but you’re not done. You must get through to The End, no matter how rough it is (rough meaning the process AND the pages…). If you did not get to The End, I would strongly urge that you NOT take a break, no matter how tired you are (well, maybe a day). You can slow down your schedule, set a lower per-day word or page count, but do not stop. Write every day, or every other day if that’s your schedule, but get the sucker done.

You may end up throwing away most of what you write, but it is a really, really, really bad idea not to get all the way through a story. That is how most books, scripts and probably most all other things in life worth doing are abandoned.

But let’s say you not only survived - you DID get all the way to “The End” and you now have a rough draft (maybe very, very, very rough draft) of about 50,000 words.

Well, celebrate! You showed up and have the pages to show for it.

Then definitely, take a break



As long a break as possible. You should keep to a writing schedule, start brainstorming the next project, maybe do some random collaging to see what images come up that might lead to something fantastic - but if you have a completed draft, then what you need right now is SPACE from it. You are going to need fresh eyes to do the read-through that is going to take you to the next level, and the only way for you to get those fresh eyes is to leave the story alone for a while.

I'll post later about rewriting. But not now.


For those of you who did finish, I am finally getting around to a full breakdown of The Silence of the Lambs.

I don't freaking care what genre you write in - this is MUST VIEWING for anyone who is serious about writing in any genre and any medium.

So this month, since I have just turned in a book and the pilot of the Huntress series is casting (already have the first yes that I have been hoping for!!!!!) I am occupying myself by breaking down what is one of my favorite movies/books, if not the favorite, of all time.

This film is a master class in so many things - just to name one - VISUAL and THEMATIC IMAGE SYSTEMS. Which is just what you people who have just finished a first draft should be thinking about, right about now.

The visual and thematic image systems in this classic are enough to make it worth studying.

But the book/film really is what Michael Connelly has called "a teaching book," so it may be just what you need to give you something to concentrate on while you take a break from your own masterpiece. That's what I'm hoping, anyway!

My analysis is already running 30 pages long and I'm not even finished yet. There are a lot of people selling a lot less - and I mean a LOT less - of a story breakdown on Amazon for 3.99 a pop. So I'm not posting it on the blog. If you want it, make sure you're subscribed to my free STORY STRUCTURE EXTRAS LIST.

                                Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


And if you're just looking for a great crime read -

Thomas & Mercer has put the entire Huntress series on sale so that readers can catch up with the series before Hunger Moon comes out. You can get any book you've missed for just $1.99.


Click here to shop.

This is a series that really needs to be read in order, just like a TV binge, so download the ones you need now.  :)

And enjoy your break!

- Alex



Saturday, July 01, 2017

Huntress series sale - all books $1.99 each!

Happy, happy Summer!! I'm very excited to announce that Book 5 of the Huntress/FBI Thrillers, Hunger Moon, is now available for pre-order. And Thomas & Mercer has put the entire series up for sale so that readers can catch up! You can get any book you've missed for just $1.99.  Click here to shop.



This is a series that really needs to be read in order, just like a TV binge, so download the ones you need now.  :)

And speaking of binging - the series is in development for TV. I've written the pilot and we're in casting, already with a major, super exciting YES.

Much more news on that to come. In the meantime, pick up whatever books you need here.

And if you're already caught up, scroll down for a sneak peak at Book 5, out October 24 in print, ebook and audio.

          




Special Agent Matthew Roarke and mass killer Cara Lindstrom return in Book 5 of the Huntress/FBI Thrillers.

College rapists better watch their backs…. 

Now available for pre-order, $3.99! 
                                                             Out October 24, 2017 
                                                                         in print, ebook and audio     
                          
In the new book, Roarke and his FBI team are forced to confront the new political reality when they are pressured to investigate a series of mysterious threats vowing death to college rapists... while deep in the Arizona wilderness, mass killer Cara Lindstrom is fighting a life-and-death battle of her own.

(If you're new to the series, please read in order, starting with Huntress Moon.)

I have to say the book has probably my favorite cover ever. Ray Lundgren also designed the new Stephen King Dark Tower/Gunslinger covers and he perfectly captured the post-apocalyptic feel of this new book.

As always, you're in for a road trip: the book takes Roarke and Cara (not
together!) to the canyons of Arizona; the wealthy coastal enclave of Santa Barbara; the gorgeous campus of my alma mater, UC Berkeley; the Santa Ynez wine country; and the surreal desert wasteland of the Salton Sea.



And speaking of surreal - there's the political... roller coaster. Imagine trying to write a realistic contemporary FBI series with all of the current madness going on. (Actually, imagine how hard it is to write ANYTHING with all of the current madness going on. My publishers had to ask me if they could move the book out a month because none of the authors who had deadlines before me had gotten their books in on time. Yeah. That bad.)

So no, I haven't backed off from writing about the unreality of it all. And you'll find out what's been happening with some of the other characters while Roarke was off in the desert in Bitter Moon. It's - complicated.

Best of all, some college rapists are going to learn that no matter what complicit judges say - they're not going to get away with it any more.






--------------------------------   SPOILERS -----------------------------------------


Special Agent Matthew Roarke is back from his desert sojurn to head an FBI task force with one mission: to rid society of its worst predators. 

But when the skeletal symbols of Santa Muerte, “Lady Death,” mysteriously appear at universities nationwide, threatening death to rapists, Roarke’s team is pressured to investigate. Then a frat boy goes missing in Santa Barbara, and Roarke knows a bloodbath is coming.

Avenging angel Cara Lindstrom is in hiding in the Arizona wilderness, still on her own ruthless quest - until an old enemy comes after both her and the FBI team, forcing her back into Roarke’s orbit. This time, the huntress has become the hunted . . .





           Out October 24, 2017 in print, ebook and audio:      
Pre-order here

___________________________________________________________

My producers and I are looking for reader feedback as we develop the Huntress Moon books as a TV series and make casting and other decisions.

Everyone who returns a questionnaire will be entered in an exclusive drawing to win a full set of signed books or audiobooks.

                                          Go to questionnaire

You can also discuss these questions, see other people’s answers, and keep up with news about the books and show on our new Facebook page

Like” the page to get an additional entry in the drawing!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Junowrimo: What Makes a Great Climax?

It's the last day of #Junowrimo! So let's talk about climaxes. Come on, admit it - one of the great things about being writers is that we get paid for them.



(If you're new to this blog, start here:  Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns)


And it's also summer - so let's talk about Jaws. 

I was watching “The Making of Jaws” the other night. I swear, the bonus commentaries and docs like these are the best thing that EVER happened for writers and film students.

Peter Benchley, the author and co-screenwriter, was talking about the ending of the film. He said that from the beginning of production Spielberg had been ragging on him about the ending – he said it was too much of a downer. For one thing, the visual wasn’t right – if you’ll recall the book, once Sheriff Brody has killed the shark (NOT by blowing it up), the creature spirals slowly down to the bottom of the sea.

Spielberg found that emotionally unsatisfying. He wanted something bigger, something exciting, something that would have audiences on their feet and cheering. He proposed the oxygen tank – that Brody would first shove a tank of compressed air into the shark’s mouth, and then fire at it until he hit the tank and the shark went up in a gigantic explosion. Benchley argued that it was completely absurd – no one would ever believe that could happen. Spielberg countered that he had taken the audience on the journey all this time – we were with the characters every step of the way. The audience would trust him if he did it right.

And it is a wildly implausible scene, but you go with it. That shark has just eaten Quint, whom we have implausibly come to love (through the male bonding and then that incredible revelation of his experience being one of the crew of the wrecked submarine that were eaten one by one by sharks). And when Brody, clinging to the mast of the almost entirely submerged boat – aims one last time and hits that shark, and it explodes in water, flesh and blood – it is an AMAZING catharsis.

Topped only by the sudden surfacing of the beloved Richard Dreyfuss character, who has, after all, survived. (in the book he died – but was far less of a good guy.) The effect is pure elation.

Spielberg paid that movie off with an emotional exhilaration rarely experienced in a story. Those characters EARNED that ending, and the audience did, too, for surviving the whole brutal experience with them. Brilliant filmmaker that he is, Spielberg understood that. The emotion had to be there, or he would have failed his audience.

This is a good lesson, I think: 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.



IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is another terrific example of emotional exhilaration in the end. 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 see 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, Violet deciding to stay in town, his old friend wiring him a promise of as much money as he needs – the whole thing makes the audience glad to be alive, too. They feel, as George does, that the little things you do every day DO count.

So underneath everything you’re struggling to pull together in an ending, remember to step back and identify what you want your reader or audience to FEEL.

Another important component in an ending is a sense of inevitability – that it was always going to come down to this. Sheriff Brody does everything he can possibly do to avoid being on the water with that shark. He’s afraid of the water, he’s a city-bred cop, he’s an outsider in the town – he’s the least likely person to be able to deal with this gigantic creature of the sea. He enlists not one but two vastly different “experts from afar”, the oceanographer Hooper and the crusty sea captain Quint, to handle it for him. But deep down we know from the start, almost BECAUSE of his fear and his unsuitability for the task, that in the final battle it will be Sheriff Brody, alone, mano a mano with that shark. And he kills it with his own particular skill set – he’s a cop, and one thing he knows is guns. It’s unlikely as hell, but we buy it, because in crisis we all resort to what we know.

And it’s always a huge emotional payoff when a reluctant hero steps up to the plate.

It may seem completely obvious to say so, but no matter how many allies accompany the hero/ine into the final battle, the ultimate confrontation is almost always between the hero/ine and the main antagonist, alone. By all means let the allies have their own personal battles and resolutions within battle – that can really build the suspense and excitement of a climactic sequence. But don’t take that final victory out of the hands of your hero/ine or the story will fall flat.

Also, there is very often a moment when the hero/ine will realize that s/he and the antagonist are mirror images of each other. And/or the antagonist may provide a revelation at the moment of confrontation that nearly destroys the hero/ine… yet ultimately makes him or her stronger. (Think “I am your father” in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)

The battle is also a chance to pay off all your setups and plants. Very often you will have set up a weakness for your hero/ine. That weakness that has caused him or her to fail repeatedly in previous tests, and in the battle he hero/ine’s great weakness will be tested.

PLACE is a hugely important element of an ending. Great stories usually, if not almost always, end in a location that has thematic and symbolic meaning. Here, once again, creating a visual and thematic image system for your story will serve you well, as will thinking in terms of SETPIECES (as we’ve talked about before)  Obviously the climax should be the biggest setpiece sequence of all. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice must go down into the labyrinth to battle the monster and save the captured princess. In JAWS, the Sheriff must confront the shark on his own and at sea (and on a sinking boat!). In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy confronts the witch in her own castle. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indy must infiltrate the Nazi bunker. In PSYCHO, the hero confronts Tony Perkins in his basement – with the corpse of “Mother” looking on. (Basements are a very popular setting for thriller climaxes… that labyrinth effect, and the fact that “basement issues” are our worst fears and weaknesses).

And yes, there’s a pattern, here - the hero/ine very often has to battle the villain/opponent on his/her own turf.

A great, emotionally effective technique within battle is to have the hero/ine lose the battle to win the war. AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN did this beautifully in the final obstacle course scene, where the arrogant trainee Zack Mayo, who has always been out only for himself, sacrifices his own chance to graduate first in his class to help a classmate over the wall and complete the course, thus overcoming his own flaw of selfishness and demonstrating himself to be true officer material.

Another technique to build a bigger, more satisfying climax is is to have the allies get THEIR desires, too – as in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

And a particularly effective emotional technique is to have the antagonist ma have a character change in the end of the story. KRAMER VS. KRAMER did this exceptionally well, with the mother seeing that her husband has become a great father and deciding to allow him custody of their son, even though the courts have granted custody to her. It’s a far greater win than if the father had simply beaten her. Everyone has changed for the better.

Because CHANGE may just be the most effective and emotionally satisfying ending of all. Nothing beats having both Rick and Captain Renault rise above their cynical and selfish instincts and go off together to fight for a greater good. So bringing it back to the beginning – one of the most important things you can design in setting up your protagonist is where s/he starts in the beginning, and how much s/he has changed in the end.

I bet you all can guess the question for today! What are your favorite endings of screen and page, and what makes them great?

-   Alexandra Sokoloff


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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.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
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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.


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