Friday, June 15, 2018

Sexual harassment at book festivals and conferences

Conference season is almost upon us, with Harrogate, Thrillerfest and Romance Writers of America National Conference next month, Bute Noir in August, Bloody Scotland and Bouchercon in September (please add other conferences!). You may be aware that there is a fierce debate going on in author circles and on festival boards over the need to have sexual harassment policies in place. 

The book world is a warm and intimate community, and it’s easy to feel safe at conferences because the vast majority of authors, readers, publishers, bloggers, etc. are genuinely wonderful people.

But there are a few predators who do routinely attend these conferences and who use their standing in the book world to harass and prey on vulnerable members of our community. 

Many festivals have no anti-harassment policy in place whatsoever, and no place for conference attendees to report predatory behavior. 

The boards are queasy about legal issues, obviously, but authors and readers are arguing that festival organizers also have a duty to provide as safe a space as possible to conference goers.

Several conferences have put anti-harassment policies in place: here are links if you’re interested in reading:

Authors and other book people who have been around for a while have another dilemma. We KNOW who some of these habitual predators are, and we can talk to each other and warn our friends, but unless a conference has an anti-harassment policy (including meaningful repercussions) and clear guidelines about who to report to, we have no way of reporting past predatory behavior and repeat offenders to anyone of authority who can or will do anything about it. The more we talk about it amongst ourselves, the more alarming it is that we are just about to launch into these festivities and there is still no way to warn first time attendees about the dangers that we know exist.

I’d like to ask for feedback and suggestions. Were you aware that there are known harassers and predators on the festival circuit? Were you aware that there is no policy in place against sexual harassment at many of the conferences and festivals, and no way of reporting these behaviors that result in consequences?

Authors, publishers and festival organizers know specifically about authors and publishers who are harassing people, touching aggressively/inappropriately, pressuring other attendees for sex, lying about marital status to rack up conquests, spreading STIs, aggressively hitting on younger attendees obviously too drunk to make consensual decisions (these are just a few of the behaviors that are well known).

Here is a partial list of specific situations I and female author friends have experienced at various crime conferences.

Each one of these was a different man – either an author or a publisher. Some of the behaviors have been reported about more than one man.

I’ve included nothing that I haven’t personally experienced, witnessed, or been told by the woman/women involved, and I haven’t included some of the more serious accusations I know of. And I’m going to phrase this as a question to men, because I think part of the problem here is that even the most woke of our male friends and colleagues have no idea what goes on, and are putting themselves through emotional contortions thinking, “Wait, have I done it?”  My answer to the good guys is NO, you haven’t done it – just check yourself against this list.

At a conference, have you ever….

-       Stayed late in the conference bar chatting up the youngest and drunkest woman in the place, to the point that other authors have had to intervene and escort her home safely?

-       Taken photos of a woman’s body parts without her knowing?

-       Stood outside the hotel window of a woman who just turned you down at the conference bar?

-       Stroked the leg of a woman you’ve just been introduced to, saying you like her tights?

-       Had a conversation with a woman without once lifting your eyes from her chest?

-       Followed a woman you were attracted to around a conference telling everyone “She’s so sexy” and trying to talk to her even when she is in the middle of a conversation with others, on the phone, or obviously otherwise engaged?

-       Shoved a woman up against a wall, held her there and kissed her without her consent?

-       As a publisher, told a female author who just won the Edgar that "women belong barefoot and pregnant"?

-       Comforted a friend going through a nasty divorce when she’s broken down sobbing at the bar - by walking her up to her room, then closing and chain-locking the door and trying to kiss her?

-       Draped yourself over a woman, just to be friendly?

-       Touched the arm of a woman you don’t know two dozen times during a group conversation about sexual harassment and rape?

-       Pursued and started relationships with three different women you met at a con without telling any of the others about the others – or informing any of them that you have a wife, a steady girlfriend on the side, and a serious STD?

I’m asking you all as members of this community – how would YOU want to be informed about these dangers? Do you have suggestions about how we can make our community and these occasions safer for everyone?

Thanks so much for your comments!

-       Alex

And on the subject of sexual abuse:

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A haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer. This time, the predators lose. 

If you buy the Kindle versions, you can also add RC Bray’s fantastic, award-winning narration for just $3.99, a great Audible bargain.


Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Hunger Games - story breakdown

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So today we’ll get into a breakdown of THE HUNGER GAMES (the movie) – SEQUENCE I, the SETUP, and work through the story elements up to that all-important PLAN.

If you’re not familiar with the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure of film writing, you’ll want to review this post, or better yet, buy the book: STEALING HOLLYWOOD, which has many, many examples of this structure and its story elements, and includes ten full story breakdowns.




The movie starts with a placard that briefly spells out the history of the Hunger Games, that in punishment for their rebellion against the Capital, every year the twelve districts of the country of Panem must draw a male and a female child tribute from each district to compete to the death in the Hunger Games. Only one tribute will survive.

Opening scrolls or placards give us the sense that this is an Important Story, maybe even epic. (Think of these opening scrolls from classic movies: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young at Heart, and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”) This placard also gives a sense that the story is history rather than fiction. And it’s the first of many tricks we’ll see the filmmakers use to set up the RULES OF THE STORY WORLD – it's really important to be clear about these in dystopian, SFF or paranormal stories.

Then we have the OPENING IMAGE: on a TV screen, two flamboyantly dressed men chat on a talk show, a surreally magnified stage, discussing the upcoming Hunger Games, and again detailing the RULES OF THE WORLD. This is our introduction to two key characters: The MC and the Gamekeeper, both secondary opponents.

In a small, dilapidated house, a young girl (Prim) awakes screaming from a dream. Her older sister Katniss races in to comfort her. This is a premonition, a classic suspense technique. Prim has dreamed that she was chosen as the tribute. Katniss soothes her by singing to her. (PLANT – this song will come back at a key moment to heighten the emotion of and Katniss’s rage over the death of her ally Rue). 

Katniss goes out hunting, and as she moves through the village (ORDINARY WORLD) we see images of poverty and hunger (influenced by classic Depression photos by Dorothea Lange). Katniss shows she’s a rule-breaker by going through a fence into a forbidden district, the forest. The image of Katniss in her huntress attire and bow and arrow in this forest setting is an echo of the Artemis archetype, the ancient Greek wilderness goddess of the hunt who defends women and children. (Linking a character to an archetype is one of the classic methods of creating a larger-than-life character. Also, in superhero/ine stories, the characters’ WEAPONS are a key character device and TALISMAN).

In the forest we see Katniss’s SPECIAL SKILLS: running, archery, tracking – she can and will kill for survival. It also shows how comfortable she is in the forest. Her gorgeous friend Gale appears and spoils her shot at a deer (INTRODUCTION OF LOVE INTEREST). As they talk and we see their deep affection and companionship,

this intimate moment is broken by a harsh sound and Katniss and Gale have to hide from a huge dirigible above. The dirigible above sets up a recurring theme of constantly being watched from above, and adds to the dystopian sense of an oppressive society. The dirigible brings a SECONDARY VILLAIN to the town: Effie Trinket, who represents the Capital (the Capital is a non-human ANTAGONIST – typical in dystopian stories, where society is the true villain).

Gale expresses a THEME of the story: “If we didn’t watch, they wouldn’t have a game.” (And also made me wish the whole rest of the movie was about him, alas...). This idea also is a SET UP for the solution in the FINAL BATTLE). He proposes that they could take off together, just leave and live in the woods (again emphasizing their survival SKILLS. Katniss says that Prim couldn’t survive, and if they were caught, “They’d cut out our tongues” – FEAR AND STAKES.) This scene also builds dread over the possibility that Gale will die: he has 42 tokens in the Reaping lottery, presumably because he has volunteered for more tokens in exchange for food for his family.

Back in the village, Katniss stops at a market to sell a squirrel. A woman at the market gives Katniss a mockingjay pin which becomes a TALISMAN: first, the kind woman gives the pin to Katniss (and by implication, to all the child sacrifices) like a witch or fairy godmother, then Katniss gives it to Prim to keep her safe, then it becomes metaphorically infused with Katniss’s love when she offers herself as a sacrifice for her sister, then Prim gives it back to her to keep her safe, and then later Katniss’s mentor/fairy godmother Cinna sews it into Katniss’s jacket, also infusing it with love.

At home while Prim and Katniss’s mother dresses Prim for the Reaping, we get hints of Katniss’s backstory: her mother’s breakdown when her father died in a mine explosion after which Katniss became the head of the family. (Layering in Katniss’s leadership and maternal skills: she will become the mother of the revolution). The filmmakers use this backstory as a subplot line, giving us parts of it throughout the story). Katniss gives Prim the mockingjay pin and promises her nothing bad will happen. In storytelling, a PROMISE is a commitment that must be honored.

10:11 Mothers all over the town prepare their children for The Reaping, dressing them in pale clothing – there is a haunting sense of preparing sacrificial lambs to the slaughter which actually made me weep, and I’m not a crier.

A whistle blows, like a scream, summoning the village to the Reaping.

The color scheme and the arrangements of the crowds throughout this scene are very reminiscent of photos from Nazi Germany: the ghettos, the concentration camps, the sense of evil and dread.

Gathering for the Reaping is the SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX, and it’s a stellar example of how to build to an effective climax. It’s a huge crowd scene in a SETPIECE arena, made epic by the visual tie in to a horrific historical event. The suspense of Prim’s premonition; our fear for Prim, Katniss and Gale; and the ritual preparations of the children for sacrifice create dread, and the huge STAKES have been clearly spelled out: being chosen in this lottery means almost certain death. Prim has a panic attack on the way in to the arena, increasing the dread. It’s a nice technological touch that the children’s identities are checked by pricking their fingers (also a fairytale image of doom – see Sleeping Beauty) to draw blood for DNA testing).

In the arena Effie struts around on stage, a magenta nightmare of banality, as the history of the Hunger Games is repeated and embellished in a film projected on huge TV screens (DETAILING THE RULES OF THE WORLD, and the THEMATIC VISUAL of combining/contrasting a backward, village society with futuristic technology). The uprising of the districts (12 districts against the 13th, the Capital) is an obvious reference to the revolution of the original thirteen colonies of America, again, grounding this created world in real-life history. The film is narrated by President Snow, a main villain/antagonist, who is the human embodiment of the dystopian society that is the true OPPONENT.

Effie draws names from a huge glass bowl, choosing Prim for the female tribute. Katniss is horrorstruck, then impulsively volunteers to go in her place. [16:01} As she stands on the stage in a daze, Effie asks for a round of applause. Instead, the children of the village lift their arms in a forbidden rebel salute - SETUP of Katniss as the leader of the revolution against the Capital, and also importantly setting up the sense that the desire and will to rebel is there in the people of the District. Katniss will be the match to light that fire.

Almost as an afterthought, Peeta is chosen from the boys as the male tribute. We get a brief FLASHBACK from Katniss’s point of view of Peeta throwing bread to pigs while Katniss shivers in the rain, an ambiguous beginning to a SUBPLOT thread of flashbacks of their backstory. We don’t know if Peeta is her enemy or her friend, but it doesn’t look friendly at this point.

In the very important tag to the sequence, Katniss is allowed just a few minutes under guard to say goodbye to her family and Gale. Katniss berates her mother: “You can’t check out this time. Not like you did when Dad died,” and says that Gale will feed them (LOVE PLOT). Prim tells her desperately, “Just try to win.” This is a clear, simple statement of the PLAN that drives the entire action of the story: Katniss must win the Hunger Games. Katniss promises Prim she’ll try. (Making this a PROMISE scene underscores the PLAN.) Gale starts to detail that PLAN and what will become the two main components of it just moments later, when he hugs Katniss goodbye and tells her, “Get a bow. Make one if you have to” and “They want a good show.” Katniss reminds him of the odds: 24 kids competing and only one comes out alive. Gale says, “It’s gonna be you.” 

This tag on the scene gives us a clear statement of what the audience should HOPE: that Katniss will win the Games.

ASSIGNMENT, if you're so inclined!
Take a minute to answer these questions about The Hunger Games, and then try asking yourself the same questions about your own story!

Who's the hero/ine?
What does s/he want?
Who is standing in her way?
What is her plan to get it?

What is her weakness?
What are her special skills?


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

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


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


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

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Junowrimo: What's the PLAN?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Who's doing Junowrimo?

I'm gearing up for teaching a workshop at the Romance Writers of America National Conference next month (details here), and I thought I could prep my workshop students for that by breaking down a very useful movie to look at for story structure: The Hunger Games.  And throw in some Junowrimo prompts as well.

Now, I know some of you have jumped into Jumowrimo with only the vaguest idea of your story, which is totally fine - as long as it works! But I'm reposting this discussion of PLAN in the hope that it will quickly focus what might be a very amorphous idea and save you endless rewriting (or giving up completely).

              Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

The PLAN. 

I've come to believe is the key to any second act, and really the whole key to story structure:

You always hear that “Drama is conflict,” but when you think about it – what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonists’, PLANS.

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE (usually triggered by the INCITING INCIDENT). She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

And the protagonist’s plan (and the corresponding plan of the antagonist’s) actually drives the entire action of the second act. Stating the plan tells us what the CENTRAL ACTION of the story will be. So it’s critical to set up the plan by the end of Act One, or at the very beginning of Act Two, at the latest.

Let’s look at some examples of how plans work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 At the end of the first sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark (which is arguably two sequences in itself, first the action sequence in the cave in South America, then the university sequence back in the US), Indy has just finished teaching his archeology class when his mentor, Marcus, comes to meet him with a couple of government agents who have a job for him (CALL TO ADVENTURE). The agents explain that Hitler has become obsessed with collecting occult artifacts from all over the world, and is currently trying to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to make any army in possession of it invincible in battle.

 So there’s the MACGUFFIN, the object that everyone wants, and the STAKES: if Hitler’s minions (THE ANTAGONISTS) get this Ark before Indy does, the Nazi army will be invincible.

And then Indy explains his PLAN to find the Ark: his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was an expert on the Ark and had an ancient Egyptian medallion on which was inscribed the instructions for using the medallion to find the hidden location of the Ark.

So after hearing the plan, we understand the entire OVERALL ACTION of the story: Indy is going to find Abner (his mentor) to get the medallion, then use the medallion to find the Ark before Hitler’s minions can get it.

And even though there are lots of twists along the way, that’s really it: the basic action of the story.

Generally, PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are really the same thing – the Central Action of the story is carrying out the specific Plan. And the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story can be generally stated as – “Will the Plan succeed?”

Again, the PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are almost always set up – and spelled out – by the end of the first act, although the specifics of the Plan may be spelled out right after the Act I Climax at the very beginning of Act II. 

Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can sit back and let you drive.

Try taking a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identifying the PLAN, CENTRAL STORY ACTION and CENTRAL QUESTION of them in a few sentences. Like this:

             - In Inception, the PLAN is for the team of dream burglars to go into a corporate heir’s dreams to plant the idea of breaking up his father’s corporation. (So the CENTRAL ACTION is going into the corporate heir’s dream and planting the idea, and the CENTRAL QUESTION is:  Will they succeed?)

             - In Sense and Sensibility, the PLAN is for Marianne and Elinor to secure the family’s fortune and their own happiness by marrying well. (How are they going to do that? By the period’s equivalent of dating – which is the CENTRAL ACTION. Yes, dating is a PLAN! The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will the sisters succeed in marrying well?)

             - In The Proposal, Margaret’s PLAN is to learn enough about Andrew over the four-day weekend with his family to pass the INS marriage test so she won’t be deported. (The CENTRAL ACTION is going to Alaska to meet Andrew’s family and pretending to be married while they learn enough about each other to pass the test. The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will they be able to successfully fake the marriage?

Now, try it with your own story!

             - What does the protagonist WANT?

             - How does s/he PLAN to do it?  

              - What and who is standing in her or his way?

For example, in my spooky thriller, Book of Shadows, here's the Act One set up: the protagonist, homicide detective Adam Garrett, is called on to investigate the murder of a college girl, which looks like a Satanic killing. Garrett and his partner make a quick arrest of a classmate of the girl's, a troubled Goth musician. But Garrett is not convinced of the boy's guilt, and when a practicing witch from nearby Salem insists the boy is innocent and there have been other murders, he is compelled to investigate further.

So Garrett’s PLAN and the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is to use the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing.  The CENTRAL QUESTION is: will they catch the killer before s/he kills again – and/or kills Garrett (if the witch turns out to be the killer)?

             - What does the protagonist WANT? To catch the killer before s/he kills again.

             - How does he PLAN to do it? By using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate further.

             - What’s standing in his way? His own department, the killer, and possibly the witch herself. And if the witch is right … possibly even a demon.

It’s important to note that the Plan and Central Action of the story are not always driven by the protagonist. Usually, yes. But in The Matrix, it’s Neo’s mentor Morpheus who has the overall PLAN, which drives the central action right up until the end of the second act. The Plan is to recruit and train Neo, whom Morpheus believes is “The One” prophesied to destroy the Matrix. So that’s the action we see unfolding: Morpheus recruiting, deprogramming and training Neo, who is admittedly very cute, but essentially just following Morpheus’s orders for two thirds of the movie.

Does this weaken the structure of that film? Not at all. Morpheus drives the action until that crucial point, the Act Two Climax, when he is abducted by the agents of the Matrix, at which point Neo steps into his greatness and becomes “The One” by taking over the action and making a new plan: to rescue Morpheus by sacrificing himself.

It is a terrific way to show a huge character arc: Neo stepping into his destiny. And I would add that this is a common structural pattern for mythic journey stories – in Lord of the Rings, it's Gandalf who has the PLAN and drives the reluctant Frodo in the central story action until Frodo finally takes over the action himself.

Here’s another example. In the very funny romantic comedy It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep’s character Jane is the protagonist, but she doesn’t drive the action or have any particular plan of her own. It’s her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), who seduces her and at the end of the first act, proposes (in an extremely persuasive speech) that they continue this affair as a perfect solution to both their love troubles – it will fulfill their sexual and intimacy needs without disrupting the rest of their lives.

Jane decides at that point to go along with Jake’s plan (saying, “I forgot what a good lawyer you are”). In terms of action, she is essentially passive, letting the two men in her life court her (which results in bigger and bigger comic entanglements), but that makes for a more pronounced and satisfying character arc when she finally takes a stand and breaks off the affair with Jake for good, so she can finally move on with her life.

I would venture to guess that most of us know what it’s like to be swept up in a ripping good love entanglement, and can sympathize with Jane’s desire just to go with the passion of it without having to make any pesky practical decisions. It’s a perfectly fine – and natural – structure for a romantic comedy, as long as at that key juncture, the protagonist has the realization and balls – or ovaries – to take control of her own life again and make a stand for what she truly wants.

I give you these last two examples – hopefully – to show how helpful it can be to study the specific structure of stories that are similar to your own. As you can see from the above, the general writing rule that the protagonist drives the action may not apply to what you’re writing – and you might want to make a different choice that will better serve your own story. And that goes for any general writing rule.


1. Have you identified the CENTRAL ACTION of your story? Do you know what the protagonist's and antagonist's PLANS are?  At what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of the protagonist’s PLAN?  Is it stated aloud? Can you make it clearer than it is?

2. What is Katniss's PLAN in The Hunger Games  - in one word? (Or two at most). 

Think about it, and we'll talk about it next post!



All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

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


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


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

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Book of Shadows FREE this week (Happy Beltane!)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

May 1 is the pagan holiday of Beltane, for fire, fertility and the abundance of spring. You all know how I love those witchy celebrations, so I've made my spooky thriller Book of Shadows free in the US this week! 

Grab it and add Audie and Voice Arts Award winner RC Bray's narration 

"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing "Is-it-isn't-it?"suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended." - Lee Child

"Fast-paced with strong characterizations, fans will enjoy this superb thriller, as Adam and the audience wonder if The Unseen could be the killer." - Publisher's Weekly

Book of Shadows is about a cynical Boston cop who reluctantly teams up with a mysterious Salem witch to solve what looks like a Satanic murder. 
It’s fascinating to me how when you write a book, everyone always assumes it’s about you. Few people get that sometimes, if not most times, when you write a book it’s about getting OUT of you. Just like reading is, right?

So naturally everyone who reads it assumes that I’m a witch (that’s with a "w"). Oh, the interviewers don’t come right out and say it, but you know that’s what they’re asking.

Well, I’m not. Really. Not really. No more than any woman is a witch.
But I can’t deny that writing Book of Shadows was a really excellent opportunity for me to indulge some of my witchier nature. I wanted to dive right in and explore some of those things that make some men – and a lot of women – uncomfortable with feminine power, and feminine energy, and feminine sexuality, and feminine deity.

I was working up to this book for quite a while. I’ve been around practicing witches most of my life. That’s what happens when you grow up in California, especially Berkeley. Actually the Berkeley part pretty much explains why I write anything supernatural to begin with, but that’s another post. Those of you who have visited Berkeley know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag that ends at the Berkeley campus, is a gauntlet of clothing and craft vendors, artists, and fortunetellers, forever fixed in the sixties. Well, look a little closer, and you’ll see just how many pagans, Wiccans, and witches there actually are.

I’ve walked that gauntlet thousands of times in my life. It does something to your psyche, I’m telling you.

There was also the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where I spent many summer days in my interestingly misspent youth. Renaissance Faires are teeming with witches (check out the Fortune Tellers’ Grove next time if you don’t believe me).

So even though I don’t actually practice, not in an organized covenish kind of way, I’ve been to a ceremony or two, and you could say I’ve been researching this book for quite some time. In fact, I think I’ve known I was going to write this book ever since I first saw a "Calling of The Corners," a Craft ceremony which is one of the ritual scenes I depict in "Book of Shadows." It’s one of the most extraordinary spiritual experiences I've ever had -- such elemental, feminine power.
And in everyday life, there some things that are just useful to know about the Craft.
I’m not much one for spells, I’m more of a meditator. But when I had to kick my evil tenants out of my rental house? A cleaning service was just not enough. You better believe that the second the locksmith was done changing the locks, I was down at the witch supply store, buying black and white candles (for protection and cleansing), and sage (smudge it for purification). I opened every window and swept the whole house widdershins (to the left, to dismiss) with a new broom dipped in salt and rosemary to dispel all lingering energy. Ritual works, and it doesn’t really matter what accoutrements you use; it’s really about the intention: in this case to cleanse, heal, and start over fresh.

Another concept of the Craft that I’ve always found particularly useful is Maiden, Mother, Crone. Those are the three aspects of the Goddess, and also the three phases of the moon, corresponding colors white, red and black. They represent the three cycles of a woman’s life – youth, womanhood and age – but women also pass through all three aspects every month when they’re menstruating, and knowing that has saved my life (and the lives of many of those around me) many a time.

The time right after your period is Maiden: you have a rush of estrogen, so you’re glowing, you’ve just dropped all that water weight, you have a ton of energy, and you’re – well, up for it. And men can sense it. Best time to snag a partner, although your choices might not be exactly the best in this phase of the cycle.

The Mother (also called Queen) phase of the month is around ovulation. You’re powerful, grounded, and can get a lot done, especially creatively, because of the pregnancy connotations. It’s a sexy time in a different way than Maiden, because there’s the extra knowledge 
that yes, you really can get pregnant right now.

The Crone phase is raging PMS and the "death" that a period often feels like. Wise people know to avoid you at this time unless they really want a faceful of truth, and I try not to schedule meetings, especially with men, when I’m in this phase. Best for me to be solitary and contemplative. And contain the damage.
But the things that come out of your mouth during this phase are the deep truth, even if they’re not pleasant, and if you remember to breathe, put the knife down, and pay attention to what you’re feeling and saying, you can learn a lot about your life and what you really need to be doing. Also your dreams will tend to be the most powerful, vivid, and significant in this phase. I know mine are.

I appreciate the earth/nature centeredness of the Craft. I like to be aware of whether the moon is waxing or waning, and focus on bringing things into my life during the waxing, and letting go of things (or people!) in the waning. And I like knowing that there is extra power and magic at the Solstices and Equinoxes; that knowledge makes me stop at least four times a year to consider what I really want to manifest in my life.

(Obviously I used all of that Moon knowledge and more in the Huntress Moon series, too…)

Let’s face it: I also like the clothes. With my hair, I’ll never be able to pull off the tailored look. I love lace and fishnets and velvet and sparkles and corsets and big jewelry. I love the candles and the scents and that every day has a color (today is white, if you’re wondering).
And there is another aspect of the Craft that has been truly important to me, spiritually. It’s about balance. I have never, ever bought the idea that God is male. It runs contrary to my entire experience of reality. I love you guys, really I do, but you’re only half the equation. I can’t see how an ultimate power could be anything but BOTH male and female. So the notion of a Goddess, in all Her forms, to me, completes the equation.

And a Supreme Being who likes velvet and fishnets? Even better.

So how about you? What’s your take on witches? Are you familiar with the way witchcraft is actually practiced, or is that whole world completely mysterious to you? Or do you do the odd spell or two yourself?

-- Alexandra Sokoloff

Book of Shadows

Homicide detective Adam Garrett is already a rising star in the Boston police department when he and his cynical partner, Carl Landauer, catch a horrifying case that could make their careers: the ritualistic murder of a wealthy college girl that appears to have Satanic elements.

The partners make a quick arrest when all evidence points to another student, a troubled musician in a Goth band who was either dating or stalking the murdered girl. But Garrett's case is turned upside down when beautiful, mysterious Tanith Cabarrus, a practicing witch from nearby Salem, walks into the homicide bureau and insists that the real perpetrator is still at large. Tanith claims to have had psychic visions that the killer has ritually sacrificed other teenagers in his attempts to summon a powerful, ancient demon.

All Garrett's beliefs about the nature of reality will be tested as he is forced to team up with a woman he is fiercely attracted to but cannot trust, in a race to uncover a psychotic killer before he strikes again.


"Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones." - Library Journal

"Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they've devoured the book." - Romantic Times Book Reviews

"Fast-paced with strong characterizations, fans will enjoy this superb thriller, as Adam and the audience wonder if The Unseen could be the killer." - Publisher's Weekly

"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn't-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended." - Lee Child