Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How do you know what's the right book?

I was talking with another author this week who's struggling with this question, and wanted to do a follow-up post to my first post on it - but when I looked for the post I realized I hadn't posted it here at all! So here we go - a good topic for the New Year, I think.

My question today is – “How do we choose what we write next?”

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.

As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. St. Martin’s isn’t going to pay me for my next book if I turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story. My agent wouldn’t be too thrilled about it, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.

You’re even more restricted if you are writing a series – a kind of restriction I haven’t wanted to take on, myself. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place. I'm sure it makes every decision easier in a way, because so many elements are already defined, but it also seems extremely limiting - so I'd be really interested in hearing series authors talk about how THEY decide on the next story they write.

Myself, I don’t let a lot of time go by between when I turn in a project and start the next one.

Part of this is mental illness. I know that. My SO sighs and shakes his head. Perhaps one of these days he’ll leave me over it; it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

And maybe I would be a better writer if I took more time to decide, actually. It’s an interesting question.

But I need to know what I’m working on. For me it’s better than Xanax. I'm not a very pleasant person when I'm floundering in the gaps between projects.

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time. Not only that, but if you're a professional writer, you're pretty much always going to be having to work on more than one book at a time. You're writing a minimum of one book while you're editing another and always doing promotion for a third.

So the book you choose to write is not just going to have to hold your attention for six to twelve months with its world and characters, but it's going to have to hold your attention while you're working just as hard on another or two or three other completely different projects at the same time. You're going to have to want to come back to that book after being on the road touring a completely different book and doing something that is both exhausting and almost antithetical to writing (promotion).

That's a lot to ask of a story.

So how does that decision process happen?

If you’ve been working at writing for a while you have a lot of stories swirling around in your head at any given moment, and even more in that story warehouse in the back of your mind – some much more baked than others. But I find it’s not necessarily the most complete idea that draws you.

Sometimes, maybe often, you need to do something different from what you’ve just done. THE HARROWING was about college students so I wanted to do something more adult. THE PRICE turned out to be maybe TOO adult – it was a very emotionally grueling book to write for me; I had to go to even darker places than usual, so instead of going on to write another book that I had completely outlined already, but was equally dark, I jumped in to a story that I only had the vaguest premise line for.

THE UNSEEN has turned out to be much more of a romp than my previous two books, insomuch as a supernatural thriller can be a romp. It’s lighter, more romantic, and more overtly sexual than the other two (that last really was because when I stayed in the haunted estate that I used for the haunted estate in the book, there was a distinctly sexual imprint on the house, and it influenced the story. I had nothing to do with it. Really.)

For my new book, I knew I wanted to do something around water, because bluntly, I want to spend more time at the ocean this year, and research is one of the job perks. You take them where you can.

But again, once I’d turned in THE UNSEEN, the ocean story that I had been working on for a while already was not the one that pulled at me. I wanted to do the beach desperately, but I wasn’t feeling excited about that story, and it finally occurred to me that it was about a character who was very isolated, and a lot of the book would be about what was going on in her head, and I was just balking at the idea of having to write that. I really wanted to do something structurally more like THE HARROWING, more of an ensemble piece, with a lot of dialogue and one-upmanship among the characters. And suddenly it hit me that I did have a story idea about a group of people that also had a lot to do with the beach and the water, which I won’t say much about because I just don’t talk about it at this early stage. But I started piecing that one together and it just started to fly – the kind of can’t-write-fast-enough-to-get-the-ideas-down writing that we all live for.

And that brings me sort of to my point.

The way I really know what to write is when the entire world around me is giving me clues. Like when I keep getting into random conversations with strangers that turn out to be exactly what my book is about. Like when I am on a plane writing a scene about rum, and I walk off the plane and the first thing I see on the causeway is a rum bar (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a rum bar). Like when I am having no luck Googling the specific information I need on rumrunning during Prohibition and that night the History Channel has an hour special on rumrunning during Prohibition. Like when I meet a person on the street or see someone on television and realize THAT’S one of my main characters that I had been struggling to define. Like I decide to set a story in the Bahamas and suddenly get two offers of pretty much free trips to the Bahamas. And no, I'm not kidding, that really happened, and you better believe I'm going.


In other words, it doesn’t feel like working – I’m in the flow. When you’re in the flow, your book comes alive around you and all you have to do is write it down. It's being in love - an altered state in which everything feels ecstatic and RIGHT.

And you can feel the whole shape of the book in your head – it’s almost like being able to pick the story up in your hands and heft it and say – “Yeah, everything’s there. I can do this one.”

That may not make any sense, but it’s a really palpable feeling for me, physical, visceral. And such a relief to finally get there, I can’t even tell you.

And luckily St. Martin's accepted the proposal right away, so there's another sign in the book's favor!

Now, I know a lot of people are saying, yeah, right, easy to say if you're a full-time writer. How very nice for you that you get to follow your heart and get paid for it. Well, yes, you better believe it... but -

Remember what I said earlier about stealing time for books? That it's just harder?

Well, I'm doing it myself right now, because I have two contracted books yet to fulfill this year, the Bahamas one I've been hinting about and a brand-new one that I have no idea about - I don't have a single idea about any element of the story yet... and yet there's another story that just won't let go of me and I didn't want to wait until the end of 2009 to write it so I'm essentially doing the same as I did when I was writing THE HARROWING at night while working full-time on a film assignment during the day. I steal time for the other book. I don't stop working when I'm finished with my Bahamas pages for the day. I say to myself - "Just one page on the other book. Just one. You can stop after a paragraph if you want to." But I almost never do stop at one paragraph. And that one page might turn into three or five, and those pages add up, and time passes as it inevitably does, and one day you look at your secret book file and you have 300 pages.

And THAT'S a first draft. It's a miracle - but it's not. It's one page at a time.

So that day job that you hate so much, that sucks up all that time that you could be writing? That day job is actually the Universe's way of preparing you for the job of professional writer, by teaching you how to juggle multiple projects and still get good writing done. Believe me, it's a LOT easier to learn to juggle multiple projects when at least one of them is NOT a book. Writing two books at a time takes a long time to learn. Better to learn to write ONE book while you're doing something else unrelated, than to try right away to master the grueling art of writing two unrelated books at a time, which will inevitably compete with each other. Very, very few beginning authors have the skill set to juggle two books at once. I'm not sure I do, yet, even after all those years of juggling multiple film projects.

Plus the day job pays you for showing up. Writers don't get paid for showing up - they get paid for FINISHING.

So how do you decide what to write?

And how do you handle the multiple project aspect of writing?

A very happy New Year's Eve to everyone - and I wish you all your heart's desires, in writing and in life.

- Alex

- Alex

Monday, December 29, 2008


So here we all are in that lost week between Christmas and New Year's - the week I think of as "The Crack" (no, nothing dirty or illegal,the term is from the Mary Poppins books actually, and bonus points for anyone who gets the allusion).

Do you all do New Year's Resolutions? I used to, but I don't remember having done them the last few years. If I didn't, I imagine it was because I was lost in the new author vortex. It's hard to take a breath and step back and look at the whole next year if all you can think of is the approaching deadline, or if you're on tour, or if you're waiting to hear back on a proposal.

This end-of-the-year isn't any less harried for me than the last few, but it feels like it is for some reason, and I think that reason might be that I have a better sense of the shape of next year than I have had the last two years.

Part of this is that after two or three, depending on when you want to start counting) years now as an author, I have a better idea of how long things take. Yeah, I have galleys to correct by the 6th (Grrrrr.... that's not what I call a Merry Christmas present....), but I've done them before and I know I'll get them done. Yes, the sudden arrival of the galleys threw a wrench into my resolve to get to the end of my second draft of the book I'm writing in my spare time by New Year's Eve, and I'm pissed about it, but I think I'm going to make it anyway, if I divide my day carefully.

So instead of doing a list of resolutions, I'm finding myself looking at the overall shape of my work year in 2009 - something I've never really done or even been able to do before. Being self-employed - and I have been for pretty much my whole adult life - makes your work life maybe a little too spontaneous and improvisational, but lo and behold, the business side next year really does structure itself out in amazingly clear way.

In the first quarter of 2009 I will finish this secret other book (shhh), and keep churning out the first draft of my Bahamas book (my fourth for St. Martin's.) Michael and I will go to the Bahamas for research - and vacation! - courtesy of my MIL, yay!!! When I finish the secret book I will continue working on the Bahamas book and start on the outline for my paranormal for Harlequin Nocturne.

I also have a novella in an anthology that we'll be taking out in the beginning of the new year.

I have conferences I am going to in the first quarter of 2009 but not too many, and they're easy travel, like the South Carolina Book Festival, and I'm being paid to go to all of them, at least expenses, so that's huge progress.

In the second quarter of 2009 we will start moving into our new (renovated) house, but it's not the same kind of stress as moving moving because we don't have to SWITCH houses, and there's no deadline involved - we just have to get ourselves gradually over to the other one, and it's walking distance. That will be a great burst of energy in the spring, to start in a beautiful new home. Michael just finished the back deck this last week which I know we're going to live on, so I'm looking forward to that new office...

THE UNSEEN comes out at the end of May, by which time I'll be finished with and have turned in both the outline for the paranormal and the Bahamas book, so I can put a good concentrated month or two into touring and conferences just as the season picks up. I'll be hitting some big ones: BEA, RWA National, Thrillerfest, the Horror Writers Association Stoker weekend, ALA.

I''ll also be teaching a lot of workshops on story structure and screenwriting techniques for authors at these cons, so I'll be growing that book on the side.

After that flurry of touring, end of Junish, we're into third quarter of 2009, and I will be ready to power through on the paranormal book, due in October, and also I'll start outlining my seventh novel. Yes, I said seventh. Astonishing!

And realistically I bet I will have started that one way before June.

Of course I'll be doing revisions on the Bahamas book throughout the summer, too.

It doesn't seem possible, but if I work just a few pages at a time throughout the year, I am pretty sure I will also have my story structure book done by fall, if not before. Also in the fall the UK versions of my books start coming out, so maybe by then a nice promotional trip to England or Australia will be in order - it's something to keep in mind.

And with all that laid out so nicely, I don't think I have to plan the fourth quarter of 2009 too extensively - whatever has happened during the first half of the year will shape the second half of it.

Looking at that 2009 overview, it's clear to me why I'm feeling less than frantic at the end of this year, even though of course the writers' life is always full of stressors, some self-created, some real.

Life is always a huge variable, but the shape of my work year is solid and I can look at it and both think - "Yeah, I can handle all that," and "Wow, what a fantastic life I have!" It's my perfect combination of factors - a strong structure with lots of fun variations and improvisations within it.

But within that grand plan, I guess I also have a few resolutions.

- Dance more.
- Meditate every day. Well, most days.
- Declutter. Everything.
- Swing classes with Michael so that we can go out dancing together.
- Start a collage book of decorating ideas for the new house.
- Keep in better touch with friends and spend a lot of time with family.

Not that many, but doable. I'm hoping to get more ideas from YOU all, because of course my questions for today are - Do you ever do a year plan or overview? If so, what's yours?

And/or - what are your resolutions?

Wishing everyone an awesome New Year's Eve and Year!

- Alex

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best Holiday Movies

Okay, I admit to some holiday blues here.


- Probably all the staggering amounts of food, for one thing – always makes me nervous and irritable.

- All the Christmas cards arriving in the mail and e mail, makiing me feel guilty and inadequate.

- The endless Christmas music. We went out to a dinner with the in-laws the other night -very nice, but a Christmas tape was blasting (who decreed that EVERY SINGLE SONG you hear during the month of December has to be a Christmas song?). I went in to the bathroom and a waitress came in without realizing that there was anyone else in the restroom, and "Winter Wonderland" started blasting over the speakers, even louder in the confines of the bathroom, and I heard her mutter, "Just shoot me now."

My sentiments exactly.

The fact is that I am JUST NOT a homebody, so any holiday that revolves around decorating, baking, shopping, and obligatory writing of greeting cards is bound to give me the hives. My friends know I love them. I hope. They know I love them enough not to cook for them, anyway.

I also got a really unpleasant surprise in the mail this week - my editor sent me the galleys of THE UNSEEN so that uninterrupted time I thought I was going to have at the end of the year to finish my current book is gone. More anxiety for the holidays. Thanks a lot, St; Martin's. Clearing your desk to dump it on mine is not my idea of holiday spirit.

I also hate the feeling of HAVING to participate in all this commercialism. It's become so forced and desperate. I heard Donovan's "I Don't Like Christmas Anymore (cause they push it on the TV and they push it in the stores...)" on the radio the other day and felt a savage pleasure in it.

And surely there’s more unnamed angst, deeply buried, requiring years of expensive therapy to unearth.

Truthfully, I grew up with not much religion. At all. My parents, both of the scientific mind (despite some pretty typical religious training for their generation) are two of the most agnostic people you are ever likely to meet. My siblings and I were not forced to any particular church as children; instead, our parents encouraged religious promiscuity – meaning, whatever friend’s house was the slumber party for the weekend, we’d end up at that friend’s house of worship in the morning, whatever that was. Or - not.

Little did our parents know how broadly we would apply that theory...

Well, never mind that.

I was really a lot better about Christmas when I had singing to do. When I was in middle school, through college and those undefined and fucked up but kinda great years after college, Christmas was all about choir rehearsals and holiday performances, the obligatory but ecstatic gang-bang Messiah, and all that endless caroling, including impromptu a cappella breakouts into song on San Francisco cable cars, magical!!! I didn’t have to THINK about Christmas – I just FELT it, in the music.

Nowadays, I don’t have any formal singing to do, I don’t have any children to create a Christmas myth for, and there’s just too damn much chocolate around, leering and beckoning. (“Everyone’s wearing sweaters this time of year anyway... no one’s going to notice...” Oh yeah, right.)

Luckily, the antidote is clear. The best thing about Christmas, besides champagne, is Christmas movies (and okay, what I really mean is HOLIDAY movies, but when I say Christmas I say it as a total pagan, so just back off).

Here are mine:


The ultimate escapist fantasy. Yes, let me make a living doing 12 live shows a year, simultaneously keeping two men at my beck and call, one who sings, one who dances. Where do I sign? Best line: “But I do love you, Jim. I love everybody.” Best song: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”. Best dance - Fred and the firecrackers. Best cat-fight moment: Marjorie Reynolds trying to look contented with Bing Crosby while Fred is dancing up a storm with Virginia Dale.


A non-escapist fantasy that puts you through the emotional wringer only to emerge the feel-good - that's, feel GOOD - film of all time.

Used to show it to my gang kids in prison school – it remains one of the all-time highlights of my life to see those kids start out whining that I was showing them a black and white film and then watch them fall under this movie’s spell. Oh man, did they GET it.


George Cukor directing a Donald Ogden Stewart & Sidney Buchman adaptation of a Philip Barry play starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Anything else you need to know?


See above, plus Jimmy Stewart, and the brilliant and under-known Ruth Hussey (“Oh, I just photograph well.”) and Virginia Weidler as the weirdest little sister on the planet (“I did it. I did it ALL.”) Not a holiday movie, per se, but if you’re looking for cheer...


Best Christmas musical soundtrack there is – one great song after another - only the whole thing makes me cry so hard I generally end up avoiding it.


BBC series written by and starring John Cleese and Connie Booth, with Cleese as the most incompetent innkeeper in the history of innkeeping. The entire series is genius, every single episode - not exactly holiday themed, either, but guaranteed healer of depression and all other ills. Be prepared to laugh until you're sick.


My brother turned the fam onto AB FAB and now it just wouldn’t be a holiday without Patsy and Eddy and Saffy. Sin is in, sweetie.


Okay, so I’m not technically a Christian or anything, but I can see God in those two shows.

Hah! I'm feeling better already!

So give. What movies mean Christmas, or the equivalent, to YOU?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jungle Red Interview

I am interviewed by the lovely and talented Hank Phillippi Ryan on Jungle Red Writers today - one of my favorite blogs (and sly film references...)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Overdoing it

Brenton Tomlinson raised an excellent point that I think I’ll address sooner rather than later. Like, now.

Is there a danger of overdoing this structure and analysis work?

Can you overwork your outline, or try to do just too damn much – try to force every one of these concepts in? Or spend so much time on outlining and reworking your structure that you never get to the actual writing?

Yes, of course you can. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is almost always a problem for creative people. You have to be fairly obsessed to succeed at anything, and obsession feeds on itself. There’s a point at which obsessive outlining, or obsessive anything, can become counterproductive. You have to know that tendency in yourself and stop yourself when you feel yourself becoming hung up.

The bottom line of all this method is just one thing: teach yourself how to write the kinds of stories that YOU love, that work for YOU, by analyzing the books and films that turn you on, and figuring out what those storytellers are doing to create the effects they do.

That’s really the main thing I’m trying to show you, here, and then I’m throwing in a lot of general structure information and technique that I’ve learned from theater and film and novel writing.

But I also hope that you’re not JUST outlining or JUST doing index cards, and I think I’d better reiterate this point - now, and in future posts. When you’re brainstorming on your story outline and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. ALWAYS write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.

Ideally you’re working on three or four piles of material, or tracks, at once.

- The index cards you’re brainstorming and arranging on your structure grid.

- - A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to you as you’re outlining, and that you can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

- - An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that you’re compiling as you order your index cards on the structure grid.

- - a collage book of visual images that you’re pulling from magazines that give you the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of your story.

In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that work.

At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. I was telling an interviewer this week that because I come from theater, I think of the first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will FINISH a book or a script.

Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

But that’s MY process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “panster” – you write best by the seat of your pants. In which case the methods I’ve been talking about have probably made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here! ;)

Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pansters have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.

But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.

I also thought I’d restate a completely different point about this story structure series. People who are finding these posts might wonder why I’m spending the bulk of my time analyzing films when I’m talking mostly to authors. Good question.

The thing is, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X ray of a story. You have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story and so it’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.

So it’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel.

And realistically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of those film techniques can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.

And one more thing. I’ve decided I want to illustrate these techniques by breaking down some films and books step-by-step, start to finish, pointing out how the filmmakers and authors are using particular techniques. So I’m taking suggestions of books and films to use. I’d especially like to collect some examples that were effective books AND films (like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and MYSTIC RIVER). Let me know, in comments or privately!

Questions of the day – are you a plotter or pantser? What are your process quirks?

- Alex


Previous articles on story structure:

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Elements of Act Three (cont.): Elevate Your Ending

Think about the endings of films and books that stay with you. What is that extra something they have that makes them stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of stories out there? That’s your mission, today, Jim, should you decide to accept it: Figure it out.

As a storyteller the best thing you can do for your own writing technique is to make that list and analyze why the endings that have the greatest impact on you have that impact. What is/are the storyteller/s doing to create that effect?

When you start to analyze stories you love, you will find that there are very specific techniques that filmmakers and novelists are using to create the effect that that story is having on you. That’s why it’s called “art”.

Now, you’re not going to be able to pull a meaningful ending out of a hat if the whole rest of your story has one-dimensional characters and no thematic relevance. But there are concrete ways you can broaden and deepen your own ending to have lasting impact or even lasting relevance. Today I’d like to look at some endings that have made that kind of impact on me, and I hope you’ll take the cue and analyze some of your favorite endings right back at me.

And I must say up front that this whole post is full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know the endings before you see or read some of these stories, you’ve been warned.

For me I think the number one technique to create a great ending is:


Easy to say, you say! Yeah, I know.

My favorite movie of this year so far, maybe of the last five years, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, does a beautiful and very simple thing in the third act that makes the movie much bigger in scope.

The story has set up that the “slumdog” (boy from the Mumbai slums) hero, Jamal, is on a quiz show that is the most popular show in all of India: “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. In several scenes the characters talk about the show briefly – that it represents the dream of every Indian: escape. As the story moves into the third act, Jamal has advanced on the show to a half-million rupee pot – larger than anyone has ever won on the show, and the film shows shots of crowds of people watching the show in the streets – the whole country has become involved in Jamal’s story. More than that – Jamal’s story has become the story of every Indian – of India herself. This is made very poignantly clear when Jamal and his handlers are fighting through the crowd to get to the studio for the final round and an old Indian woman grabs his arm and says “Do it for all of us. Win it all.”

This is one of those archetypal moments that has amazing impact because it is played perfectly. In this moment the woman is like a fairy godmother, or a deva spirit: in every culture elderly women and men are magically capable of bestowing blessings (and curses!). That’s a bit of luck that we trust, in that moment. The gods are on Jamal’s side. It also blatantly tells us that Jamal is doing this for all of India, for all the Indian people. You know how I keep saying that you should not be afraid to SPELL THINGS OUT? This is a terrific example of how spelling things out can make your theme universal.

So really very simply, the author, screenwriter and director have used some crowd shots, a few lines of dialogue about the popularity of the quiz show, and one very very short scene in the middle of a crowd to bring enormous thematic meaning to the third act. It would certainly not have the impact it does if the whole rest of the film weren’t as stellar as it is (have you seen it yet? Why not????) – but still, these are very calculated manipulative moments to create an effect – that works brilliantly.

There are many, many techniques at work here in that film’s ending:

--making your main character Everyman.
-- giving your main character a blessing from the gods in the form of a fairy tale figure
-- expanding the stage of the story – those crowd shots, seeing that people are watching the show all over the country.
-- spelling out the thematic point you are trying to make! (and this usually comes from a minor character, if you start to notice this.)

This film is also a particularly good example of using stakes and suspense in the third act. (At this point it would be good to reread the post on Creating Suspense, since all of those techniques are doubly applicable to third acts).

The stakes have become excruciating by this point in the story – not only is Jamal in an all-or nothing situation as far as the quiz show money is concerned, but he feels appearing on the quiz show is the only way to find his true love again. (But I still think the biggest stake is the need to win this one for the Indian people). And there’s the suspense of will he win or will he lose, and will his love escape her Mafioso sugardaddy (sorry, I was not a fan of this subplot). And the suspense of “Will she get to the phone in time…”

This movie is also a good example of bringing all the subplots to a climax at the same time to create an explosive ending: the quiz show, the brother deciding to be a good guy in the end, the escape of the lover…

The ending also uses a technique to create a real high of exhilaration: it ends with a musical number that lets you float out of the theater in sheer joy. I can’t exactly describe an equivalent to a rousing musical number that you can put on the page in a novel, but the point is, a good story will throw every trick in the book at the reader or audience to create an EMOTIONAL effect.


This is something you must set up from the beginning, as we discussed in Elements of Act One

And I will say up front – a huge character arc is NOT necessary for a great story. In SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Salim’s character doesn’t really change. He is innocent, joyful, irrepressible, relentless, and pure of heart in the beginning of the story, as a little boy, and he is essentially the same lovely person as a man. That’s why we love him. He is constant and true.

But most stories show a character who is in deep emotional trouble at the beginning of the story, and the entire story is about the hero/ine recognizing that s/he’s in trouble and having the courage to change: from coward to hero, from unloving to generous.

If you start to watch for this, you’ll see that generally the big character change hinges on the difference between the hero/ine’s INNER and OUTER DESIRE, as we talked about in Elements of Act One. Very, very often the hero/ine’s big character change is realizing her outer desire is not important at all, and might even be the thing that has been holding her back in life, and she gives that up to pursue her inner desire, or true need.

For me personally it’s a very satisfying thing to see a selfish character change throughout the course of the story until at the climax s/he performs a heroic and unselfish act. The great example of all time, of course, is CASABLANCA, in which Rick who “sticks his neck out for no one” takes a huge risk and gives up his own true love for the greater cause of winning the war. Same effect when mercenary loner Han Solo comes back to help Luke Skywalker in the final battle of STAR WARS.

Scrooge is another classic example – the events of the story take him believably from miser to great benefactor – who “kept Christmas in his heart every day.”

I’ve said it before, but I also thought it was a beautiful and believable character change when Zack Mayo in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – gives up his chance at being first in his class to help his classmate complete the obstacle course, thus turning into a real officer before our eyes.

This sense of big contrast and big change makes for a dramatic and emotionally satisfying ending.

Of course, you may not be writing a happy ending, and the dramatic change may be for the worse. That can be just as powerful. In the end of THE GODFATHER Michael Corleone ends up powerful, but damned – he has become his father – which even his own father didn’t want to happen. Michael goes from the least likely of the family to take over the business - to the anointed heir to his father’s kingdom. It’s a terrible tragedy from a moral point of view - and yet there’s a sense of inevitability about all of it that makes it perversely satisfying - because Michael is the smartest son, the fairy tale archetype of the youngest and weakest third brother, the one whom we identify with and want to succeed… it’s just that this particular success is doomed.

Another dark example: PAN’S LABYRINTH had one of the most powerful endings I’ve experienced in a long time. It is very dark – very true to the reality of this anti-war story. The heroine wins – she completes her tasks and saves her baby brother with an heroic act – but she sacrifices her own life to do it. In the last moments we see her in her fantasy world, being welcomed back as a princess by her dead mother and father, as king and queen, and see the underworld kingdom restored to glory by the spilling of her blood (rather than the spilling of her brother’s blood). But then we cut back to reality – and she’s dead, killed by her evil stepfather. The film delivers its anti-war message effectively precisely because the girl dies, which is realistic in context, but we also feel that the death did tip the balance of good and evil toward the good, in that moment. It’s a satisfying ending in its truth and beauty – much more so than a happy ending would be.


can be used very effectively to deepen the effect of your ending.

As I’ve said before, in great stories like THE WIZARD OF OZ, and PHILADELPHIA STORY, every subplot character has his or her own resolution, which gives those endings broader scope.

Think of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – one of the very few thrillers out there that creates a victim we truly care for and don’t want to die. In a very few strokes, Harris in the book, and Demme and Tally and actress Brooke Smith in the film, create a ballsy, feisty fighter who is engineering her own escape even at the bottom of a killing pit. In a two-second shot, a few sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up before she is kidnapped. Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus driving the killer into a bigger frenzy). It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a character in its own right. (Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you can cram into it). And of course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

And of course I’ve already gone into this, but the intricacy of detail about the killer’s lair, and the fairy tale resonance of this evil troll keeping a girl in a pit, give that third act a lot of its primal power.

I know, I know, a lot of dark examples. Okay, here’s a lighter one, one of the happiest and most satisfying endings in an adventure/comedy: BACK TO THE FUTURE. This is a great example of how careful PLANTS can pay off big when you pay them off in the end. In the beginning we see high school student Marty McFly in a life that, well, sucks. His family lives in a run-down house, his sweet but cowering father won’t stand up to the bully he works for, the parents’ marriage is faltering. Marty is transported back to the past by mistake, and is confronted with a fantastic twist on the classic time-travel dilemma: he is influencing his future (present) with every move he makes in the past – and not for the better. In fact, since his high-school age mother has fallen in love with him, he’s in danger of never existing at all, and must get his mother together with his father. Brilliant.

All Marty wants to do is get his parents back together and then get back to the future before he does too much damage. Mission accomplished, he returns… to find that every move he made in the past DID influence his future – and much for the better. The house he returns to is huge and gorgeous, his parents are hip and happy, and the bully works for his father. It’s a wonderfully exhilarating ending, surprising and delightful – and it works because every single moment was set up in the beginning.

This ending owes a lot to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GROUNDHOG DAY (which itself owes a lot to IAWL). All three are terrific examples of how you can use the external environment of the main character to illustrate character change and make your theme resonate in the third act and for years to come.

To give a completely different example – suppose you’re writing a farce. I would never dare, myself, but if I did, I would go straight to FAWLTY TOWERS to figure out how to do it (and if you haven’t seen this brilliant TV series of John Cleese’s, I envy you the treat you’re in for). Every story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from rigid control to total breakdown of order. It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of what his life should be and the reality that he creates for himself over and over again that will have you screaming with laughter.

Another very technical lesson to take from FAWLTY TOWERS – and from any screwball comedy – is speed in climax. Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end, to create that exhilaration of being out of control – which is the sensation I most love about a great comedy.

The TICKING CLOCK is often used to speed up the action, especially in thrillers – in ALIEN there’s a literal countdown over the intercom as Ripley races to get to the shuttle before the whole ship explodes. But I’ll warn again that the ticking clock is also dangerous to use because it has been done so badly so many times, especially in romantic comedies where the storytellers far too often impose an artificial clock (“I have to get to the airport before she leaves! Oh no….TRAFFIC! I must get out of the taxi and run!”). SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE unfortunately succumbed to that cliché and I swear it nearly ruined that otherwise perfect film for me.

So just like with all of these techniques I’m talking about – the first step is just to notice when an ending of a book or film really works for you. Enjoy it without thinking the first time… but then go back and figure out how and why it worked. Take things apart… and the act of analyzing will help you build a toolbox that you’ll start to use to powerful effect in your own writing.

Any examples for me today? Or is everyone caught up in holiday traffic? I mean, shopping?


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

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, December 10, 2008

Day Without a Gay

I know, I know, no story structure blogs for a whole week, now – but you don’t get one today or even an explanation, because today I’m calling in gay.

For those who haven’t heard, today is a Day Without A Gay – a nationwide protest over the anti-human rights, anti-civil rights, anti-gay ballot initiatives and movements in California, Arizona, Arkansas, and Florida. Gay and lesbian people and their allies are encouraged to “call in gay”, remove themselves from the workplace, not spend any money today, and rather donate time to human rights issues. The Day Without A Gay website has links to many worthy causes and information on how you can help.

I find it reprehensible and incomprehensible that I could pick up some serial killer off the street and marry him tomorrow because we are “a man and a woman” – while my gay friends who have been in loving, committed relationships for 10, 15, 20 years; who are raising beautiful, beloved children together; are denied that same basic human right. If these people who are trying to restrict marriage want to restrict marriage, why don’t they start by banning it for child molesters and abusers and batterers – people who SHOULDN’T be allowed to marry or get anywhere near children - instead of denying marriage to loving and productive citizens?

For me, marriage is meaningless unless it’s about love, and I won’t enter into that union until this contemptible restriction is lifted. It’s a civil rights issue and it’s a moral issue, but it’s a solvable issue. The legal and social barriers to mixed-race marriage finally fell, and this barrier will, too.

So please, do something for love today. Call in gay.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

THE PRICE - out in paperback today!

Yes, THE PRICE is out in paperback, and available in fine bookstores everywhere today, December 2.

I was also thrilled to learn today that the book has been nominated for a Black Quill award for Best Dark Genre Novel. Not a bad start to opening day!

I'll be doing signings and drop-ins this week in Virginia and North Carolina, and next week and the week after all over Southern California.

More tour information is here, and being added to daily.

Here's the trailer, from Shelia English and Mark Miller at Circle of Seven Productions, which does a really cool thing by three-dimensionalizing the book cover. (The trailer has also been nominated for a Black Quill for Best Dark Genre Trailer.)

And here's the scoop about the book, and you can read the first three chapters on my website, too.


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

Idealistic Boston District Attorney Will Sullivan has it all: a beautiful and beloved wife, Joanna; an adorable five-year old daughter, Sydney; and a real shot at winning the Massachusetts governor's race. But on the eve of Will's candidacy, Sydney is diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable tumor.

Now Will and Joanna are living in the eerie twilight world of Briarwood Hospital, waiting for Sydney to die, and both going slowly mad with grief.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Order online now

Find an independent bookstore near you!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Elements of Act Three - Part 1

So why is this so hard?

The third act so often falls apart or disappoints, don’t you think? We all seem to be somewhat afraid of it – that is, unless it’s all there in our heads to begin with and we can just – “speed we to our climax”, as Shakespeare said.

But even then, a third act is a lot of pressure. So maybe I’ll just make it easier on myself and say that this is going to be just the start of a SERIES of discussions on the third act. (There, I feel better already.)

(And as a reminder – the third act is generally the final twenty to thirty minutes in a film, or the last seventy to 100 pages in a four-hundred page novel. The final quarter. )

To study how to craft a great third act, you have to look specifically at the endings that work for YOU. (Back to “The List”. Have you made yours yet?).

But let me be entirely general for a second, and give you the bottom line:

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist.

Sometimes that’s all there is to it – one final battle between the protagonist and antagonist. In which case some good revelatory twists are probably required to break up all that fighting.

By the end of the second act, pretty much everything has been set up that we need to know – particularly WHO the antagonist is, which sometimes we haven’t known, or have been wrong about, until that is revealed at the second act climax. Of course, sometimes, or maybe often, there is one final reveal about the antagonist that is saved till the very end or nearly the end – as in THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and PSYCHO.

We also very often have gotten a sobering or terrifying glimpse of the ultimate nature of that antagonist – a great example of that kind of “nature of the opponent” scene is in CHINATOWN, in that scene in which Jake is slapping Evelyn around and he learns about her father.

There’s a location aspect to the third act – the final battle will often take place in a completely different setting than the rest of the film or novel. In fact half of the third act can be, and often is, just GETTING to the site of the final showdown. One of the most memorable examples of this in movie history is the “storming the castle” scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ, where, led by an escaped Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion scale the cliff, scope out the vast armies of the witch (“Yo Ee O”) and tussle with three stragglers to steal their uniforms and march in through the drawbridge of the castle with the rest of the army. A sequence like this, and the similar ones in STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, can have a lot of the elements we discussed about the first half of the first act: a plan, assembling the team, assembling tools and disguises, training or rehearsal.

And of course speed is often a factor – there’s a ticking clock, so our hero/ine has to race to get there in time to – save the innocent victim from the killer, save his or her kidnapped child from the kidnapper, stop the loved one from getting on that plane to Bermuda…


Most clichéd film ending EVER. Throw in the hero/ine getting stuck in a cab in Manhattan rush hour traffic and you really are risking audiences vomiting in the aisles, or readers, beside their chairs. It almost destroyed my pleasure in one of the best movies I’ve seen this year – totally took me out of what had been up until that moment a perfect film.

But when you think about it, the first two examples are equally clichéd. Sometimes there’s a fine line between clichéd and archetypal. You have to find how to elevate – or deepen – the clichéd to something archetypal.

For example, one of the most common third act structural patterns involves infiltrating the antagonist’s hideout, or castle, or lair, and confronting the antagonist on his or her own turf. Think of THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAR WARS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – the witch’s castle, the Imperial Starship, Buffalo Bill’s house.

Notice that this pattern naturally divides itself into two separate and self-contained sequences:

1. Getting in


2. The confrontation itself.

Also putting the final showdown on the villain’s turf means the villain has home-court advantage. The hero/ine has the extra burden of being a fish out of water on unfamiliar ground (mixing a metaphor to make it painfully clear).

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a perfect example of elevating the cliché into archetype. It takes place in the basement, as in PSYCHO, and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Therapists talk about “basement issues” – which are your worst fears and traumas from childhood – the stuff no one wants to look at, but which we have to look at, and clean out, to be whole.

But Thomas Harris, in the book, and the filmmakers, bringing it to life in the movie, create a basement that is so rich in horrific and revelatory and mythic (really fairy tale) imagery that we never feel that we’ve seen that scene before. In fact I see new resonances in the set design every time I watch that film… like Gumb having a wall of news clippings just exactly like the one in Crawford’s office. That’s a technique that Harris uses that can elevate the clichéd to the archetypal: LAYERING meaning.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET takes that clichéd spooky basement scene and gives it a whole new level, literally: the heroine is dreaming that she is following a sound down into the basement and then there’s a door that leads to ANOTHER basement under the basement. And if you think bad things happen in the basement, what’s going to happen in a sub-basement?

To switch genres completely for a moment, an archetypal final setting for a romantic comedy is an actual wedding. We’ve seen this scene so often you’d think there’s nothing new you can do with it. But of course a story about love and relationships is likely to end at a wedding.

So again, make your list and look at what great romantic comedies have done to elevate the cliché.

One of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, uses a classic technique to keep that wedding sequence sparkling: every single one of that large ensemble of characters has her or his own wickedly delightful resolution. Everyone has their moment to shine, and insanely precocious little sister Dinah pretty nearly steals the show (even from Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant!!) with her last line: “I did it. I did it ALL.”

(This is a good lesson for any ensemble story, no matter what genre – all the characters should constantly be competing for the spotlight, just in any good theater troupe. Make your characters divas and scene stealers and let them top each other.)

Now, you see a completely different kind of final battle in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. This is not the classic, “hero confronts villain on villain’s home turf” third act. In fact, Potter is nowhere around in the final confrontation, is he? There’s no showdown, even though we desperately want one.

But the point of that story is that George Bailey has been fighting Potter all along. There is no big glorious heroic showdown to be had, here – because it’s all the little grueling day to day, crazymaking battles that George has had with Potter all his life that have made the difference. And the genius of that film is that it shows in vivid and disturbing detail what would have happened if George had NOT had that whole lifetime of battles, against Potter and for the town. So in the end George makes the choice to live to fight another day, and is rewarded with the joy of seeing his town restored.

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

And so again – in case you haven’t gotten the message yet! – when you sit down to craft your own third act, try looking at the great third acts of movies and books that are similar to your own story, and see what those authors and filmmakers did to bring out the thematic depth AND emotional impact of their stories.

If there's anyone out there who's actually recovered from the holiday weekend - what are some of your favorite third acts? What makes it real for you - the location, the thematic elements, the battle itself?

More next time – and here’s more about What Makes a Great Climax?



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

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, November 28, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Forget Black Friday. Do something purely great for yourself and anyone you love, instead - go see this film.

You'll be knocked over - repeatedly - and then lifted to undreamed of heights - by the story, the filmmaking, the sheer magic of it.

But more than that, this is the most perfect example of perfect structure I've seen in a long, long time. The structure of this story is THE way to tell this story.

It's based on this novel, which I'll be reading immediately, and I want to talk about both the novel and the film as part of this structure series, but I don't want to spoil one moment of the experience of watching and reading by telling you anything more.

I will warn that the first 20 minutes or so are so harsh I wasn't sure I was going to be able to take it, but once you grasp where it's going, you completely commit to the ride.

Here the trailer, but I wouldn't even watch it - just GO.

Based on the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cover story

I got my UK book jacket art for THE HARROWING this week and had to share:

I LOVE this! I really think UK covers are so much grittier and visceral than American covers. I love the door, I love the edgy isolation of the kids, I love the formless (and not so formless) energies around the door. I even love the way the O's of my name line up the way they do at the top of the door - it looks somehow mystical in a way that really works with the story.

Getting cover art is one of the most nerve-wracking and most exciting stages of the whole novel thing. No matter what you've been thinking your cover will look like, it will be different and totally unexpected. This is my fifth set of cover art on THE HARROWING and I thought I would post all the covers so that I can look at them all at once sometimes, and so can anyone else who cares to can, too.

This was the first, original St. Martin's cover.

I loved this cover and got huge positive reaction to it. I think it's spooky and arty and poignant, all at once. And the girl looks just like I always thought the main character, Robin looked. But that art never made it onto the final book although a set of ARCs was printed with it, which will obviously be worth a fortune in the not-too-distant future.. ;)

But Barnes & Noble didn't like it, and so it was changed. Bet a lot of you didn't know that could happen, did you? Yes, it does.

So this was the official hardcover jacket:

Now that girl - was startling for me to see the first time, because she is a dead ringer for the character Lisa in the book. Yes, and a young Angelina Jolie, too.

I like some of this cover better - I think that shot of the school and the kids and the sense that something invisible is swooping up behind them is pretty great (and I love what my webmistress did with the cover images in the little flash trailer on my website. I think the school looks more like an American college than the first one, above, which is wonderfully Gothic. Men seem to like this cover better than the first one, too, in my unscientific gender-based polling on the subject. They say the girl looks like she needs rescuing.

I've also heard - from men - that the girl looks like me. That I don't see. (Does that mean I look like I need rescuing?)

This is the German version. Talk about Gothic! Very European.

And this is the French cover. If you're thinking it looks a lot younger than the others, you're right: LE CERCLE MEURTRIER is sold in France as a YA.

And then of course this is the U.S. paperback cover, which I think is a great haunted house look.

There's something wonderfully REAL about cover art. So much of a book is such an abstract process - and then suddenly you get rewarded with a concrete image that pulls everything together. It gives you a thrill that lasts for weeks.

I just got cover art for THE UNSEEN, too, and I'll post that one as soon as I get the word that it's final. It was NOTHING like I thought it was going to be, but I love it - I think it's as good as the one SMP's Adam Auerbach did for THE PRICE, which I think is perfect. I know I'm lucky - left to their own devices, St. Martin's really does fabulous covers.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fairy tale structure and your List

Grimms3 This week I got a truly excellent request: for a list of books that would illustrate some of these things I’ve been talking about. I'll have to start compiling it.

But this is why I really stress, and I should continue to stress, the importance of creating your OWN master list in your own genre, in that story notebook I talked about.

Anyone who’s developing a new story, or is even remotely thinking about it, who hasn't done this yet should do it RIGHT NOW: make a list of ten books and movies in the genre that you're writing in: books and films that you love, that you think are structured similarly to the story that you're telling, or even that are not in your genre but are your favorite books and movies of all time.

Because what works structurally for me is not necessarily going to do it for YOU.

For me, I am constantly looking at SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (book and movie), A WRINKLE IN TIME (book), THE WIZARD OF OZ (film), THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (book and ORIGINAL film), anything by Ira Levin, especially ROSEMARY'S BABY (book and film), THE EXORCIST (book and film), JAWS (film, but I need to go back and compare the book), PET SEMATERY (book, obviously), THE SHINING (book and film), IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

That's off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I'm about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now.

All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories. But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who's writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, are some of my favorite stories on the planet, and my master list for a different story might well have some of those stories on it).

You need to create YOUR list, and break those stories down to see why those stories have such an impact on you - because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn't going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different - even if they're very similar.

I will start using more examples of each thing I'm talking about. I'll go back at some point and revise these posts with more content, too. But in the meantime, I will keep begging for everyone’s examples so we can have a more eclectic and genre-inclusive discussion and so I can learn something, too.

I just taught a story structure workshop last week and it was as always fantastic to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives you such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling. Make your list. Think of the story you are writing right now and list ten books and films that are like it – without thinking about it too much. There will always be some complete surprises on there, and those stories are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer.

Bluebeardskey One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that my favorite stories of all are fairy tales and myths – which are often interchangeable, although Christopher Vogler and John Truby make good arguments that stories with mythic structure and stories with fairy tale structure have their own rules and formulas.

When I respond deeply to a movie or book, no matter how realistic and modern it seems on the surface, chances are it’s going to have a fairy tale structure.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON, THE EXORCIST, THE GODFATHER, A WRINKLE IN TIME, STAR WARS, THE TREATMENT (Mo Hayder) – every single one of them is a fairy tale. And fairy tales have their own structural rules that just work for me.

This week I finally saw PAN’S LABYRINTH (I know, I’m WAY late on that one, and Del Toro is one of my favorite directors. It’s wonderful, heartbreaking.)

That movie has a blatant fairy tale structure, and as in so many fairy tales, the heroine is told by her mentor and ally the faun that she must perform three tasks to save the underworld kingdom and reclaim her place as the princess of that world (and thus escape her horrifying reality in 1944 Spain.)

The three-task structure is SO useful and successful because it tells the audience exactly what they’re in for. Audiences (and readers – but especially audiences) need to know that things will come to an end eventually, otherwise they get restless and worried that they will never get out of that theater. I’m not kidding. And a reader, particularly a promiscuous reader like me, will bail on a book if it doesn’t seem to be escalating and progressing at a good clip. But with a three-task structure, the audience is, at least subconsciously, mentally ticking off each task as it is completed, and that gives a satisfying sense of progress toward a resolution. 2006_pans_labyrinth_wallpaper_002_2 Plus once you’ve set a three-task structure, you can then play with expectation, as Del Toro did in PAN’S LABYRINTH, and have the heroine FAIL at one of the tasks, say, the second task, and provide a great moment of defeat, a huge reversal and surprise, that in this case was completely emotionally wrenching because of the heroine’s very dire real-life situation.

Another classic fairy tale structure is the three-brother or three-sister structure. You know, as in The White Cat, or The Boy Who Had to Learn Fear, or Cinderella. In this structure there is one task that is the goal, and we watch all three siblings attempt it, but it’s always the youngest and ostensibly weakest sibling that gets it right.

Another Rule Of Three fairy tale structure deals with the three magical allies. THE WIZARD OF OZ has this – Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion; the animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY – fairy godmothers Flora, Fauna and Merriwether; A WRINKLE IN TIME – the “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs Which; and STAR WARS – R2D2, C3P0, Han Solo (Okay, there’s four, Chewbacca, but he’s so joined at the hip to Han that they’re really one entity.). Magical allies give gifts, and they provide substructure for stories by each having their moment or moments of aiding the hero/ine.

I must point out that you DO NOT have to be writing a fantasy to use any of these structural techniques. They all can work just as well in the most grittily realistic story. Just look at THE GODFATHER, the most classic modern example I know of the three-brother structure. There’s the old king, the Godfather; the two older brothers, Sonny, with his lethal temper, and Fredo, with his weak womanizing; and the youngest brother, Michael, who is the outsider in the family: college-educated, Americanized, kept apart from the family business, and thought of as the weakest. And throughout the story we see this unlikely younger brother ascend to his father’s throne (even though it’s about the last thing we want.)

You can see the three-brother structure working loosely in MYSTIC RIVER, with the three friends who are all cursed by a horrific childhood event that inextricably binds their fates together. Lehane even uses a fairy tale analogy in the tale: “The Boy Who Was Captured By Wolves,” and the fairy-tale resonances in that book and film contribute to its haunting power.

THE DEERHUNTER is another three-brother structure, that opens with another huge fairy tale story element: a curse. The whole first sequence is a wedding, complete with unwanted guest (the Green Beret who won't talk to the three friends about Vietnam), and at the height of the merrymaking the bride and groom drink from the same cup and spill wine on the bride’s gown, thus bringing on the curse for all three friends.

THE DEERHUNTER also utilizes another classic structure technique, also common in fairy tales: The Promise. In the first act, when the friends are on the mountain, hunting, on their last day before three of them are shipped off to Vietnam, Nick asks Michael to make sure that he doesn't leave him over in Vietnam. Even if he dies, he wants to return home. "Promise me, Mike," he says. "You gotta promise me you won't leave me over there."

You KNOW when you get a promise scene that the story is going to be about that friend keeping the promise. It's an anchor to the action of the story - one of those spell-it-out moments that lets an audience subconsciously relax, because they understand what the story is going to be about - and they know the WRITER knows what the story is about, too. That's a comfortable feeling. You have to let your audience/reader know that you know what your story is about.

So wrapping this all up, the point is, if you really look closely at stories on your list, you might just find a similar meta-structure at work that will help you shape your own story. Try it!

And please do give us all some examples today – your own master list, or books and films with fairy tale elements or structure.


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Monday, November 17, 2008

What makes a great climax?

(Come on, admit it, one of the great things about being writers is that we get paid for them.)

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I was watching “The Making of Jaws” the other night. I swear, DVD bonus features are the best thing that EVER happened for writers and film students. No one needs film school anymore – just watch the commentaries on DVDs. (That’s something you’re not going to be able to experience the same way when everything goes to Internet downloads– could be a big problem, there…)

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?


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