Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spiders from Mars

Ah, October.

My favorite time of year. I love the wind. I love the leaves changing (even when it’s only about a half a percent of the trees in Southern California.). I love the lengthening shadows. I love the feeling of urgency and anticipation. Fall winds bring me great things, and this year is no exception (to put it mildly!).

I don’t love the sudden emergence of spiders, but aside from the year that we had an hysteria-inducing giant red spider invasion in LA due to El Nino, I have learned to deal with it, in my way. Um… most of the time. There is one particular spider which has made a gigantic nest (and I do mean nest, this thing is as big as a small bird) in between a window and a storm window in the living room. It rarely ever emerges into sight but when it does I am either mesmerized or paralyzed with terror – I haven’t been able to identify which. But it is behind glass, and so far I have not prevailed on the Alpha Male in my life to DO SOMETHING about it, because…

Well, to be honest, I’m not sure why. For one thing, I know he’d just kill it. Alpha Males are all about the direct approach. But it’s more than that. I leave it because it’s some kind of self-test, I think. Of nerves. Maybe it’s partly a research experiment - I’m taking note of my overwhelming emotions toward this creature to use them later in my writing.

But even more than that - this – thing - is just too big, and black (did I mention it was black? Black as tar. And it has the thickest legs I’ve ever seen on an arachnid – legs perfectly capable of kicking through a storm window…) for me not to think it’s some kind of cosmic sign, some vital life lesson to be learned.

(It really is walking the edge, though. I feel certain I would not survive a face-to-face encounter. If I ever suddenly disappear from this blog, now you’ll all know why. The glass broke.)

The point is, spiritually, I have something to learn from this spider.

But what?

There are certainly no end of spider myths in world mythology. It’s one of humankind's most enduring archetypes. You all probably remember (at least vaguely) the Greek story of Arachne, the weaver who challenged the goddess of weaving to a weaving duel.

So is it a lesson of vanity? I’m challenging the goddess? Or doomed to live forever in my own web (caught up in another book, or actually, at the moment, three, that’s just a sounding a little too familiar…)

Witches talk about all things being connected by the web of life, an analogy that has always seemed to me a little, well, sticky, but maybe it’s something I should pay more attention to.

Carl Jung's interpretation of a spider (he was speaking about spiders in dreams) is "a symbol of wholeness due to its circular shape.” “The spider and his web may be calling for an integration of the dream[er]'s personality leading to greater self-awareness and resulting in feelings of completeness”.

Spiders are also traditionally a symbol of feminine power – both constructive and destructive feminine power – the weaver of the world in India, the Spider Grandmother in Native American mythology, and of course the black widow as the ultimate expression of destructive femininity in our own culture.

I know some women who embrace the image… but I’ve never felt very comfortable with it. Frankly, I think I scare enough men already. But perhaps comfort is not the point. In fact, I’m assuming it’s not the point, because we’re talking about a SPIDER. Comfort has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

In Native American spirituality, a power animal, or Medicine animal, or Guardian Spirit, is one that has made itself known in dreams or visionquest at least four times, each time in a significant way.

Well, I haven’t had any dreams about the – you know – and I haven’t been on any visionquests lately, but I’d say I’ve seen the - it – at least four times, and every time is certainly significant if you count my elevated pulse.

So I think I’m going to take a deep breath and accept it as my power animal, for now, and see what I can learn from it.

That is, as long as the glass holds.

What about you all? Any unlikely guardian spirits, or interesting archetypes, visit you lately? Do you ever pursue them and see where they lead?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Women and Horror

(cross-posted on

There was an essay in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Book Review called “Shelley’s Daughters”, about contemporary women authors who are writing in the vein of psychological horror opened by such visionary authors as Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

And I’m in it.

Right there beside three other contemporary female authors whose powerful and disturbing work I love: Sarah Langan, Sara Gran, and Elizabeth Hand.

Wow. The New York Times. I mean, coming from Southern California, specifically from philistine Hollywood, I have to admit this is a little freaky. That’s, like, a real newspaper from a real city, read by actual grownups. It’s so big. And it has so many words. People routinely take a whole day out of their week just to read that paper.

So that’s the first slightly surreal thing about this.

But the other, really surreal thing is – those authors. Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson and the lesser-known Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote a short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper”, about a woman's descent into madness when confined to her room to rest from an "hysterical condition" by her physician husband, which was an absolutely pivotal shift in my consciousness as a woman and a writer at the time that I read it. I’m linking to it so that anyone who’s missed it has a chance to see what I’m talking about.


If I had to make a list of three authors who had done the most to influence and inspire what I write, and a bit how I live as a woman, that would arguably be it. The top three.

So to be considered in the same essay with them, in such a public forum, is a shockingly intimate thing.

And it means that I really am writing what I think I’m writing. That other people see it that way, too. Now, that might be sort of the point of all this writing to begin with, and I guess I’ve been becoming more aware of that from other reviews that I’ve gotten and from letters I get from readers and feedback I get in person at signings.

But I’ve never had it driven home in exactly this way before. That I am. Writing EXACTLY. What I think I’m writing.

Maybe other authors here don’t have the same genre identity problem going that I do. But look, it gets confusing. Depending on which bookstore or library you walk into, I’m shelved in horror (if there is even a horror section, which these days there usually isn’t), sometimes mystery/thriller, sometimes fiction and literature. I go to mystery, thriller, romance, horror, and even sci-fi/fantasy conferences, and have readers at each. Add to that the fact that as a screenwriter I would work on projects that could start out as adventure thrillers and end up as musicals, through that special process Hollywood calls “development”; and add to THAT my own personality disorder – I mean, chameleon nature - and the fact that my own publisher is careful not to call what I do “horror” – which by all accounts is a dead genre, at least for the time being…

Yes, I’d say I’m confused.

And it’s also frustrating because I know it’s hard for people to find my books. There’s no consistency. It’s worrisome - how many people just give up? I can’t tell you how often I’ve asked my agent if I should just write a straight thriller for the next book, and he always says, No, it’s going to take some time, but you’re doing something that nobody else is doing, and people will find you.

Well, reading that article made me realize that he has it right – that not many people at all are writing this kind of thing – and that’s why I got that shock of recognition seeing my name with Sarah Langan, Sara Gran and Elizabeth Hand, who ARE writing this kind of thing. What it is, is feminist horror. Or since the Right has somehow insidiously twisted “feminism” into as dirty a word as “politically correct” - even just feminine horror.

That’s what galvanized me about Shelley, Jackson and Gilman when I discovered them, growing up. Not just that they told ripping good scary stories, dripping with perverse sexuality and unnerving psychological insight, but that those stories were from an unmistakably and unrelentingly female point of view. About oppression and patriarchy and a kind of madness, but prophetic madness, that comes with always being the Other.


Let’s face it – women have a lot to say about horror. We live with violence on a much more intimate and everyday level than most men do. A walk out to the parking lot from the grocery store can on any given night turn into a nightmare from which some women will never fully recover.

I think security expert and author Gavin DeBecker got it exactly right when he said “A man’s greatest fear about a woman is that she’ll laugh at him. A woman’s greatest fear about a man is that he’ll kill her.”

Women know what it’s like to be prisoners in their own homes, what it’s like to be enslaved, to be stalked, to be prostituted, what it’s like to be ultimately powerless. And they know everything there is to know about rage, even when it’s so deeply buried they don’t know that’s what it is they’re feeling.

(When I start to think about it, the mystery to me is why more women AREN’T writing horror.)

Now, I’ve been writing for a long time, and I’ve known for a long time that that’s what I was exploring in my writing. And because I’ve worked in Hollywood and had to, you know, eat - I’ve learned how to couch that in entertainment, even write primarily about men, when the real story in the story is what’s happening with the women.

But we get caught up in all the chaotic day-to-day of being authors, especially fairly new authors, and we sometimes forget what it is we’re trying to say. We forget the mission statement.

And the mission might change, too, so subtly that we’re not aware of the change.

I know why some authors don’t read their reviews. I understand how it might be better to just write by your internal compass, and not worry about what gets said in print. And whoever said that if you’re going to read your reviews, you have to read them ALL as truth – the good and the bad – I think that person has it right. And I’ve read some whopping bad ones, and I have to – cringingly - admit the truth of them. (And there’s sometimes unexpected gold – I’ll always cherish the bad review that ended with: “I’ll buy her next book, but I’m not looking forward to it.”)

But now I understand a little better the value of outside criticism. Sometimes in all the day-to-day chaos, someone can suddenly remind you exactly who you are, and what you’ve been trying to do all along.

Authors, what would be your ideal list of three other authors to be compared with? Or who would be your three authors who influenced you the most as a writer? And/or – have you ever had a review that reminded you exactly what your mission was?

And readers, who would be the three authors who have influenced you the most as a person?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Guest blogging today

I am stretching myself too thin over the Internet today – guest blogging at Laura Benedict’s Notes From the Handbasket, and doing my regular Saturday spot at Murderati - with some great news, this morning.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Story Structure: Elements of Act Two

For those just finding these posts, here's what we've discussed so far:

Story Structure 101 - the Index Card Method

What's Your Premise?

Screenwriting - the Craft

Elements of Act One

Before we move on to Act Two, I want to start with Rob Gregory Browne’s excellent comment on character arc. He said:

----The one thing I would argue with -- and this always gets me into trouble -- is character arc.

Most stories take place over a few hours, days, or weeks. Unless you're writing a sweeping saga, the timeline is very short.
To have a character discover something about herself over such a short period of time -- at least to the point where it changes her, is, to my mind, a bit of a stretch.

Generally speaking, people don't change in a few days, no matter what they're confronted with. If something major happens, like a death in the family, a mugging, an accident -- people are certainly affected by it, but any change they go through would still take months or even years.

Yes, I know we're talking fiction, and fiction often has a kind of accelerated reality, but I think too many of us put too much emphasis on the idea that your hero has to change in some way.

Does James Bond change? Even in this last, best Bond, Bond went from being a ruthless killing machine to a slightly more ruthless -- and pissed off -- killing machine. Not much of a change.

Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch has changed, but it has taken several books -- and years -- for that arc, and it's still in progress.

Or look at Jack Reacher. To my mind, he is one of the greatest characters in fiction these days -- every writer wishes he'd created a Reacher, and readers love him. But change? Not much. In fact, we don't WANT him to change. Reacher remains the same solid, unflinching nomad throughout the story, and we know that in the end he's going to save the day, then walk off alone into the sunset.

Now, I'm not suggesting there's anything WRONG with a nice character arc, I just don't think it's a NECESSARY element of fiction.

My two cents, at least.

Well, first, I’d like to disagree that sweeping character change is not possible in a limited time frame. Compression is pretty much the essence of drama, and a great story will present a human being in a crisis, or crucible, that forces great change. That’s one of the main things we seek out in stories, especially standalones, in which you only have that one shot to say EVERYTHING you want to say.

Plus, you know, I’m a drama queen and I need things BIG.

But Rob is right that a lot of classic characters don’t have a huge range of change. So I’d like to restate what I’ve said before about


Series hero/ines are a different animal than standalone hero/ines. One theory of this is that readers who are devoted to a series character really want to see the same person, over and over again.

I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think a lot of classic series characters, especially series detectives – and of course James Bond and his sexier modern incarnation Jack Reacher do spring immediately to mind – are really examples of the “Mysterious Stranger” archetype, and Mysterious Stranger stories have their own story structure. Mary Poppins is the classic Mysterious Stranger; she pops in (get it?), fixes the family, and pops out, while remaining herself “Practically Perfect in Every Way”. SHANE is a great film with a Mysterious Stranger structure, although Shane is a much more wounded Stranger than Mary Poppins – he’s very imperfect, unable to change, and therefore unable to integrate into society in the end – but he does fix the town’s problem and the wound in the family that temporarily takes him in.

James Bond and Jack Reacher are also perfect characters in their ways (although, from a female POV, perfectly infuriating). Rob is right - we don’t want them to change. The trick to the Mysterious Stranger structure is that it’s the OTHER characters who have the big character arcs in the story (although in some Mysterious Stranger stories, the Stranger does have an arc as well. Emma Thompson had some fun with that – as the screenwriter and actress – in the recent film NANNY McPHEE, based on the books by Christianna Brand). And of course not all series detectives are perfect Mysterious Strangers, either – I myself am partial to the flawed ones, like Tess Gerritsen’s surly Jane Rizzoli.

This all goes to emphasize an important point: different genres have very different story structures, and you need to study and understand the classic tricks and expectations of your own genre. That’s why I so adamantly advocate creating your own story structure workbook, as I’ve talked about here:

All right, on to Act Two.

Act Two is summed up by the greats such as, like, you know, Aristotle - as “Rising Tension” or “Progressive Complications”. Or in the classic screenwriting formula: Act One is “Get the Hero Up a Tree”, and Act Two is “Throw Rocks at Him” (and for the impatient out there, I’ll reveal that Act Three is; “Get Him Down.”)

All true enough, but a tad vague for my taste.

So let’s get more specific.

The beginning of the second act of a book or film (30 minutes or thirty script pages into a film, 100 or so pages into a book) – can often be summed up as “Into the Special World” or “Crossing the Threshold”. Dorothy opening the door of her black and white house and stepping into Technicolor Oz one of the most famous and graphic examples… Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole is another. The passageway to the special world might be particularly unique… like the wardrobe in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE; that between-the-numbers subway platform in the HARRY POTTER series; Alice again, going THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS; the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ; the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) in THE MATRIX; or the tesseract in A WRINKLE IN TIME.

This step might come in the first act, or somewhat later in the second act, but it’s generally the end or beginning of a sequence – think of ALIEN (the landing on the planet to investigate the alien ship), STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, going out on the ocean in that too-small boat in JAWS, flying down to Cartagena in ROMANCING THE STONE, flying to Rio in NOTORIOUS, stopping at the Bates Motel in PSYCHO. It’s often the beginning of an actual, physical journey in an action movie; in a ghost story it is entering the haunted house (or haunted anything). It’s a huge moment and deserves special weight.

There is often a character who serves the archetypal function of a “threshold guardian” or “guardian at the gate”, who gives the hero/ine trouble or a warning at this moment of entry – it’s a much-used but often powerfully effective suspense technique – always gets the pulse racing just a little faster, which is pretty much the point of suspense.

And I highly recommend Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY for brilliant in-depth discussions on archetypal characters such as the Herald, Mentor, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, and Fool.

Also very early in the second act the Hero/ine must formulate and state the PLAN. We know the hero/ine’s goal by now (or if we don’t, we need to hear it, specifically.). And now we need to know how the hero/ine intends to go about getting that goal. It needs to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. “Dorothy needs to get to the Emerald City to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz for help getting home”. “Clarice needs to bargain with Lecter to get him to tell her Buffalo Bill’s identity.”

It’s important to note that it’s human nature to expend the least amount of energy to get what we want. So the hero/ine’s plan will change, constantly – as the hero first takes the absolute minimal steps to achieve her or his goal, and that minimal effort inevitably fails. So then, often reluctantly, the hero/ine has to escalate the plan.

Also throughout the second act, the antagonist has his or her own goal, which is in direct conflict or competition with the hero/ine’s goal. We may actually see the forces of evil plotting their plots (John Grisham does this brilliantly in THE FIRM), or we may only see the effect of the antagonist’s plot in the continual thwarting of the hero/ine’s plans. Both techniques are effective.

This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

(I’m giving that its own line to make sure it sinks in.)

The hero/ine’s plans should almost always be stated (although something might be held back even from the reader/audience, as in THE MALTESE FALCON). The antagonist’s plans might be clearly stated or kept hidden – but the EFFECT of his/her/their plotting should be evident. It’s good storytelling if we, the reader or audience, are able to look back on the story at the end and understand how the hero/ine’s failures actually had to do with the antagonist’s scheming.

Another important storytelling and suspense technique is keeping the hero/ine and antagonist in close proximity. Think of it as a chess game – the players are in a very small, confined space, and always passing within inches of each other, whether or not they’re aware of it. They should cross paths often, even if it’s not until the end until the hero/ine and the audience understand that the antagonist has been there in the shadows all along. In movies like THE FUGITIVE, you can see Richard Kimble and U.S. Marshal Gerard passing each other by inches, sometimes. It’s a great suspense technique in itself (and oh, does Hollywood love this mano a mano stuff…)

Besides this continual clash of opposing plans, the hero/ine’s allies will be introduced in the second act, if they haven’t already been introduced in Act One.

In fact there is often an entire sequence called “Assembling the Team” which comes early in the second act. The hero has a task and needs a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies and caper movies very often have this step and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of ARMAGEDDON, THE STING, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (I mean the great TV series, of course), THE DIRTY DOZEN, STAR WARS – and again, THE WIZARD OF OZ. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form – or alternately, a bunch of unlikely losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic. I had fun with this in THE HARROWING - even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of a “Gathering the Team” sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding make for some great scenes – it’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique.

There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of KARATE KID, and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

There’s often a SERIES OF TESTS designed by the mentor (look at AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).

Another inevitable element of the training sequence is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS. For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the final battle. Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. Lovely moment of spiritual transcendence.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film DIRTY DANCING. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Patrick attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting.

Of course you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through the story… you can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff. A classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment – this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him – and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit - to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes – but that’s what makes it all so funny.

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs. It’s a delicious storytelling trick that filmmakers are particularly aware of and deft at… it’s all a big seductive game to play with your audience, and an audience eats it up.

Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle). Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, does this beautifully with the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. Penelope completely delivers on her introduction and I think she’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for that one.

The Training Sequence can also involve a “Gathering the Tools” or “Gadget” Sequence. The wild gadgets and makeup were a huge part of the appeal of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (original) and spoofed to hysterical success in GET SMART (original), and these days, CSI uses the same technique to massive popular effect.

In a love story or romantic comedy the Training Sequence or Tools Sequence is often a Shopping Sequence or a Workout Sequence. The heroine, with the help of a mentor or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the most important of tools – the right clothes and shoes and hair style. It’s worked since Cinderella – whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls.

And the fairy tale version of Gathering the Tools is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero or heroine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time.

I’d also like to point out that if you happen to have a both a Gathering the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole fourth of your story right there! Awesome! You’re halfway through already!

In an action story or a thriller or mystery – or even a fantasy like HARRY POTTER or THE WIZARD OF OZ - in Act Two there will be continual ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE by the antagonist and/or forces of opposition. These will often start subtly and then increase in severity and danger.

In a detective story, Act Two, Part Two often consists very specifically of INTERVIEWING WITNESSES, FOLLOWING CLUES and LINING UP THE SUSPECTS, very often interspersed with ACTION SEQUENCES and ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE. You will want to weave in RED HERRINGS and FALSE LEADS. And there’s another convention of the genre you’ll want to look at, which is THE DETECTIVE VOICING HIS/HER THEORY. Mysteries are by nature convoluted, because there are so many possible explanations for what’s going on, so don’t be afraid to have your detective just say what s/he’s thinking aloud. Your reader or audience will be grateful.

If this is the genre you’re writing in, you will definitely want to break down several classics to see how these elements and sequences are handled. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and CHINATOWN are great examples to analyze. (See my breakdown of CHINATOWN for a more specific discussion of these story elements).

Also in the second act (but maybe not until the second half of the second act) you may be setting a TIME CLOCK or TICKING CLOCK, which I’ll talk more about in an upcoming post on suspense techniques.

And you’ll also want to be continually working the dynamic of HOPE and FEAR – you want to be clear about what your audience/reader hopes for your character and fears for your character, as I talked about in the Elements of Act One.

A screenwriting trick that I strongly encourage novelists to look at is the filmmakers’ habit of STATING the hope/fear/stakes, right out loud. Think of these moments from

JAWS: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (Well, yeah, they should have, shouldn’t they?)

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: “Do NOT tell him anything personal about yourself. Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” (And what does Clarice proceed to do?)

ALIEN: “It’s going to eat through the hull!” (When they first cut the alien off John Hurt and its blood sizzles straight through three layers of metal flooring. How do you kill a creature that bleeds acid without annihilating yourself in the process?)

The writers just had the characters say flat out what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Spell it out. It works.

Okay, this is long enough for one blog so we’ll continue next week, after I say one more thing.

All of the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. This is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any story – a huge shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line), or the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.) And this will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story (more on setpieces to come), just to further drive its importance home.

We’ll pick it up next week – Act Two, Part Two. Or maybe I should stop and talk about visual storytelling and creating suspense, first, since that all has to be working at the same time.

But in the meantime – is this making sense? Can you give me any great examples of the story structure elements we’ve talked about here?


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

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What works? (Notes on book marketing)

On the excellent book promotion Yahoo group Murder Must Advertise (which was a godsend to me when I was scrambling to figure out the publishing biz after the sale of my first book), Jeff Marks asked these questions of the month for those who attended Bouchercon:

1. What did you do to promote your book?

2. What do you think worked best?

Great questions to ask and ponder, but I find that it's hard to pinpoint what it is that works to market your books. I mean, it ALL works. And what works "best" at one conference might not work as well at the next con, so you're constantly shifting your strategies and amphases.

At B'Con I:

- Was on a well-attended panel on supernatural fiction.
- Did an outside signing at a local bookstore with other authors.
- Did a panel at Pratt Library.
- Dropped in to other local bookstores to sign stock and meet the managers.
- Left bookmarks and postcards on all the giveaway tables.
- Circulated in the book room and met or reconnected with all the booksellers.
- Met with my agent and editor
- Attended parties to network
- Stayed in the bar till all hours to network
- Hung out in the hospitality lounge to network
- Hung out in the halls to network
- Hung out in the bathroom to network
- Hung out on the deck to network
- Made a point of introducing myself to authors I love and admire and being simply a raving fangirl
- Blogged about all of it afterward here and at Murderati:

But most of all, I was just there, and having fun and being available to anyone who wanted to talk to me, which I suspect is the most effective marketing of all - and such a pleasure that it doesn't feel like work at all.

Luckily I love people and the social aspects of this business of promotion - it's a great balance to that neurotic solitude of writing.

Now, what worked best of all of that I've listed above? I don't have a clue. It's everything you do, all the time.

But there are realities we have to be aware of. A few months ago there was an excellent discussion at David Montgomery's Crime Fiction Dossier about promotion, which I want to link here for posterity (and my own easy reference!), and Lee Child weighed in with this:

Everything works. Literally everything. I don't think there is anything I have ever done that hasn't produced at least a couple of readers. Years later one fan told me she tried my books because I greeted someone politely at a conference, and she thought, he's a gentleman, I should try his books.

But Dusty is right because getting a couple of readers at a time is obviously at the cost-ineffective end of the scale.

So obviously the question is what makes the big impact?

And, problematically, the answers we hear tend to ignore the 800-lb gorilla in the room, which is that everything we talk about in blogs like these addresses only the tiny grains of sand scattered in front of the huge mountain - and the huge mountain is expensive, committed, unrelenting support from a major publisher ... specifically, penetration to every conceivable point of sale. Advertising and reviews are only the tip of the iceberg. The real effort (and cost and expertise) goes into making sure that your book is actually for sale everywhere. If your book is in the 20-slot rack at the airport or the drugstore, it will sell purely by the law of averages to one in 20 customers.

So, should authors without massive publisher support do nothing? No, because being proactive is a kind of "audition" for the moment when a publisher decides who exactly to back in a big way. There are always five or six contenders, and being a helpful, motivated person can tip the decision your way.

The whole discussion (and the links from it) is worth reading and absorbing.

And here are a couple of other articles I find particularly helpful -

- From David Montgomery on Buzz, Balls and Hype

- Putnam editor-in-chief Neil Nyren on Murderati


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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The First Act (Story Structure, cont.)

So, now that we’ve talked about the index card method of laying out your story, and basic filmic structure as it might be applied to novels, the natural next question is: what actually goes into a first act?

And if you’re just finding this post, you’ll also want to read this post: What’s Your Premise?

And this one: Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.

When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

- Opening image

- Meet the hero or heroine

- Hero/ine’s inner and outer need
- Hero/ine’s arc
- Inciting Incident/ Call to Adventure

- Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)

- State the theme/what’s the story about?

- Allies

- Mentor

- A mirror character (sometimes)
- Love interest

- Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)

- Central Question

- Sequence One climax

- Act One climax (or curtain, or culmination)

Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.


Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax (which takes place in the grain silo – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say - on the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream.

I will talk more about this in upcoming posts on VISUAL STORYTELLING.


Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.

In fact, let’s just stop right there and talk about this crucial idea of INNER AND OUTER DESIRE.

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my mutiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

One of the great examples of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonst comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning. The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up, and then work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.


This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.

In JAWS, it happens on the first few pages of the book, and the first few minutes of the movie: the shark swims into the quiet bay and eats a swimmer. That’s the event that forces the hero, Sheriff Brody, to take action. (In mysteries and thrillers the first death is often the inciting incident – it’s so common that writers refer to it as “the corpse hits the floor”. In the case of JAWS, the corpse hits the ocean floor.)

In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker finds the hologram of the captured Princess Leia pleading for help that she has hidden in the robot R2D2.

In CHINATOWN, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray walks into Jake Gittes’ office and hires him to prove her husband is cheating on her. (In a detective story, the inciting incident is often the case that lands in the detective’s lap, or again, “the corpse hits the floor”.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government guys come to Professor Indiana Jones and want to hire him to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant – before Hitler gets it.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice is called to FBI agent Crawford’s office, where he tells her he has “an interesting errand for her.”

In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation).

Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. They must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here – THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. In CHINATOWN, for example, Jake initially tries to talk “Mrs. Mulwray” out of pursuing the case. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE there’s a whole sequence of Harry’s uncle trying to prevent Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwart’s school.


The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post - see here and here. For the purposes of this post I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.


Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.


Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.


This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor.


Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we hope and fear for the main character. Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning


A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they ARE doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.


We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but that’s me.)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?

(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Next post I’ll move on to the elements of the second act.

So I’m interested in all questions and comments, of course, but I’m particularly looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict. Got any for me?

- Alex

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

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

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


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

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bouchercon Wrap-Up

Home now and fairly coherent after 12 hours of sleep last night. I don’t seem to be vibrating any more, anyway, which is probably a good sign.

I’ve never been to Baltimore and it’s a spectacular city – with a gorgeous port and an unexpectedly beautiful and funky downtown. It has that mix of resonant and bizarre centuries-old buildings and huge modern structures that I love so much about Boston, and is surprisingly hilly – not San Francisco, exactly, but a lot more elevation than I was expecting. Walking around you run across marble palaces, wedding cake marble bank buildings, wonderful Deco ornamentation, Gothic churches, and these wild cryptic Rosicrucian structures. There’s definitely a secret history going on that makes you rabid to find out more about the history. Of course I am forever a sucker for port towns.

It was a surprise to no one that the great and amazing Ruth and John Jordan and Judy Bobalik (all hail!) had found the perfect venue, but I just have to rave for a moment, because I don’t think I’ve ever had an easier time navigating a convention. The setup was a marvel of efficiency and logic – the entire convention corridor: panel rooms, book room, registration, green room, hospitality suite, signing room - was right off the hotel lobby, so you never had to leave the floor except to go down to the basement for the “Karaoke” events (which I never actually made it to.) The hospitality suite was a large and nicely dim bar right off from the lobby and the corridor (and stocked and staffed by Sisters in Crime (all hail!) which meant there was plenty of coffee, bottled water, fruit and yogurt as well as more sugary and salty snacks all day long). It was a refuge.

All the panel rooms were on the same floor. All of them. Can you even imagine the convenience? The overflow hotel (which is where I was) was a mere catwalk away from registration, and the deck between the hotels was a central congregating spot in the spectacularly sunny and breezy weather. And the hotel bar was just across from the library, large enough to accommodate the night crowd and no one really HAD to go off site, and there were actually enough waitstaff to go around.

I think the only complaint I heard was that the hotel was kept too warm. I wasn’t bothered by it but I run freezing and usually conventions are glacial on top of that. Outside was PERFECT weather, archetypally fall. My Virginia friends had totally lied to me when they told me it had turned cold, so I arrived with a suitcase full of coats and sweaters, but luckily also my Obama tank tops acquired on Melrose Ave. - sparkly enough to make it look like I made an effort while I was keeping cool, and they made me a lot of friends over the week.

(Can I just say that I love Baltimore men? Now I understand why THE WIRE had one of the sexiest, funniest, and just plain mouthwatering male casts I’ve seen on TV in ages: they were just casting for Baltimore type. If I were single… well, all right, let’s just not go there. Definitely a perk of the weekend, though.)

I was really grateful for the concentrated layout of the convention, because it was literally no effort to do anything, and since I was as we say in Berkeley “hormonally challenged” in a big way this week, and barely capable of remembering my own name, the ease was lifesaving.

By now I’ve got the convention thing down, which means I know you don’t really have to do anything at all, just drift randomly, or have a seat, and the world will roll in ecstasy at your feet, as Kafka would say. It is a bit overwhelming by now how many people I know and how much you can get done just by sitting still.

Thursday was a bit frenetic - not just because of the whole arrival deal, but also my first panel was early and I had an off-site signing that night, too. “Thank The Lord For the Nighttime” was a panel on using the supernatural in mystery fiction, and not only was it a pleasure to discuss my favorite topic with such great women (Cathy Pickens, Heather Graham, Wendy Roberts, Elena Santangelo) the audience was very engaged and engaging – there’s something about ghosts that brings out the best stories.

More drifting and rolling in ecstasy, this time also in the bar (lovely bartender that evening, I’ll take three of him) then I set off with Gary Phillips, Chris Chambers, Ken Wishnip, and Murderati regular RJ Mangahas for our DARKER MASK/POLITICS NOIR signing at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse. I just have to make a note that “It’s a couple blocks, let’s just walk” is the second biggest lie in the male lexicon. Well, okay, maybe the third biggest. Twelve blocks through Baltimore humidity – but a dazzling sunset – later, we arrived at this great, eclectic little basement shop and care – to find there was no air conditioning. Thank God for the tank tops, is all I can say. Don’t leave home without them. Our DARKER MASK editor Eric Raab superheroically came to my rescue with a cab on the way back.

My entire college life was flashing before my eyes that evening, from the tofu sandwiches on the menu to the Anarchy posters on the walls, to the group that showed up to protest the treatment of employees at the Sheraton (a long story that I still haven’t sorted out to my satisfaction, but it was interesting to look back at my own activism at that age as compared to now. I had a wonderful, passionate time then. I like being older a whole lot better.).

I could be writing all week so I’ll just bullet point the highlights (that is, I would if I could ever figure out how to DO bullet points).

- Getting to rave to Jason Starr about how much I loved THE FOLLOWER, a thriller with such a uniquely chilling voice and frightening portrayal of the detached narcissim of its young characters. that I find myself thinking of it and still getting disturbed, months later. And having him start to rave back about THE PRICE, which he’d just read, and then being able to have a conversation about voice and POV that got me thinking in all kinds of new directions about the new book. It’s really amazing to have bonded with someone over unspeakable Karaoke and an epic bike ride through Anchorage and then have this whole new level open up.

- Getting to hang with Heather Graham and Dennis Pozzessore in yet another genre environment, and having one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time with them, F. Paul Wilson, Blake Crouch, Kathy Love and Erin McCarthy in Little Italy - eating ambrosial sea bass and laughing so hard we even broke up our hilariously unflappable waiter.

- Walking down to the harbor with Heather and experiencing that amazing Barnes & Noble, five stories of shipping warehouse with rooms cut into the enormous pipes.

- Visiting Poe’s grave and having a slightly supernatural experience that was a dead ringer for a scene I’d just written in the witch book. Chills!

- The St. Martin’s party at the staggeringly opulent Tremont Grand Historic Venue. Molly Weston (“Meritorious Mysteries”), librarian Karen Kiley and I broke away to sneak through the rest of the building and it was one theme room after another – the Mirror Room, the Tuscan Room, the Gothic Room - marble corridors and bathrooms and columns – truly, palatial. Kind of great to be able to do the business I needed to do in a few casual conversations with my editor and agent in a setting like that. Having the glow of three pieces of extremely good career news, even though I don’t want to talk about them yet (soon!).

- The Murderati get-together, where we were able to meet “Rati regulars RJ Mangahas, Will Bereswil, BG Ritts, and the incomparably lovely Kaye Barley. Near hysterical breakdown over the concept of doing a column consisting solely of the words: “Joe Konrath, Angel or Demon? Discuss.” And then leaving it to the commenters. (Cooler heads – meaning Pari – prevailed).

- In just my second year of being published, having the heady experience of an actual line in the signing room. It was very concrete evidence that my books really are out there and people really are reading them. Miraculous!

- The decidedly British slant of the conference – dozens of authors from across the pond, which meant I was constantly surrounded by that accent. Fabulous. If you ever want a laugh, get a panel of men from different parts of the UK to say “Monkey in the cupboard”. I swear.

- Being introduced to the great and criminally charming John Connolly by the bookseller he’d killed off in BLACK ANGEL.

- Getting to see Ken Bruen again, finally! - and seeing him so happy with his new girlfriend, Lisa, who is just a joy – they simply glow together.

- Meeting Mo Hayder, my new favorite author in the universe, at Lee Child’s pub party and being able to tell her – even slightly coherently – what an impact her books have had on me.

- Doing a talk at the Pratt Library with Heather and having the city’s resident Poe expert come down to answer our questions about Poe’s final days – then being trapped in a van in the middle of marathon traffic and being entertained by the colorfully and articulately apopleptic rants of our driver.

- The privilege of Murderati being nominated for an Anthony for Best Mystery Blog.

Of course those are only a fraction of the wonderful moments, because that’s what conventions are. There were some sadnesses, too: I particularly missed JT Ellison and Cornelia Read, who were benched for illnesses. I truly regret having to miss the crypt tour with Kelli Stanley and Tana and Heather (but very much looking forward to the psych ward at Alcatraz that Kelli promised us). I do think we missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have the entire Bouchercon cast of thousands assemble in the street to sing a chorus of "Good Morning, Baltimore".

And you never get enough time with anyone, really – but the consolation is that we will do it again, several times a year, all the years of our lives.

I am so grateful for the privilege of my life and the work I do, which in circumstances like these, just never feels like work at all.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

That first short story

Since I will be doing a lot of promotion for THE DARKER MASK this week (see post below), including at Bouchercon, I thought I would do some posts on my DARKER MASK story, “The Edge of Seventeen”. Maybe I’ll even post an excerpt.

I got the idea for “The Edge of Seventeen” while I was on tour for my first novel, THE HARROWING.

THE DARKER MASK, is something I said yes to when I was a brand new author - even before THE HARROWING came out. I was caught up in Chris Chambers’ and Gary Phillips and Reed Farrel Coleman’s and Walter Mosley's (Walter Mosley!) enthusiasm, and the sheer honor of being asked - without really considering that I’d never written a short story in my life and I didn’t have the slightest clue how to go about it. It’s a whole different animal than scripts or plays or novels – baffling.

I’d actually called Chris in a panic the week before my HARROWING tour started, saying I just didn't think I could do it with my tour lasting until late in November. I WANTED to do it – I just didn’t think I physically COULD.

Well, so, a few weeks before the story would have to be turned in, if I were really going to do it, I was in Wilmington, NC for the Cape Fear Crime Festival, but due to some inexplicable scheduling glitch, I had a signing in Salisbury (Eastern NC) on Thursday, had to drive four hours to Wilmington that night so I could be up at 5 am for a 6 am TV interview, then had my first panel at Cape Fear – “What’s it like to be a New Author?”

Then I had to drive two and a half hours back to Fayetteville for a signing there. (Madness – but I got it all done. I THINK I’ve weaned myself of saying yes to anything that crazy. I truly hope so.)

I walked out of the Fayetteville signing (Books a Million) and it was pouring. Really, a gale. I had some insane thought of trying to get back to Wilmington anyway, because I had a 9:30 am reading – but as soon as I hit the freeway it was quite clear to me that I could actually die out there on the road (this state is so DARK…) You just don’t take your chances in a city everyone casually calls “Fatalburg.”

So I opted for the first hotel I saw and made it back to Wilmington in the morning.

That weird trip to Fayetteville was worth its weight in gold, though, because I met two really lovely bookstore clerks, Ashley and Bryan, and we had a rambling existential conversation about ghosts and psychic phenomena (Ashley is one hell of a psychic…) and the whole encounter reminded me of a seed of an idea that had I thought might just work as my story for THE DARKER MASK anthology.

That night I sent that idea I’d gotten from those clerks into whatever subconscious cooker exists – you know - down there - and hoped for the best.

Being a writer is ALL about hoping for the best.

And when I got in the car to drive the next morning a whole set of very dark songs started to play on the radio, starting with Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”. And suddenly there was the whole story I had felt prickling in the bookstore with the clerks. I knew I just HAD it. So I drove and talked it into my mini tape recorder.

After the festival, the next day, Halloween, I flew to LA for more touring and wrote 13 pages, start to finish, and blocked out the whole thing. I eventually doubled the page count, but it was all there on the plane that day - a whole story – my first ever – on Halloween. And definitely as dark and spooky as the day.

You just never know what you can do until you do it.

So how about you all? Ever tried one of these short story things?

- Alex

Monday, October 06, 2008

THE DARKER MASK, Heroes from the Shadows - out now!

Tired of superheroes who are all, well, white men? With the occasional stripper or cheerleader thrown in?

Fear not.

THE DARKER MASK, Heroes from the Shadows, is out now from Tor Books – an anthology of noir superhero stories with an illustration for each story in the style of the great old pulps.

I’m thrilled to have a story in it (my first short story ever!) and be in the company of such mystery and horror greats as Walter Mosley, Gar Haywood, Chris Chambers and Gary Phillips (co-editors), L. A. Banks, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Tananarive Due and Stephen Barnes, Mike Gonzales, Gar Anthony Haywood, Ann Nocenti, the late and much-missed Jerry Rodriguez, Reed Farrel Coleman, Doselle Young, Mat Johnson, Peter Spiegelman, Victor LaValle, and Wayne Wilson.

As you might guess from that lineup, these are not your standard hunky heroes in tights (and no clingy helpless female secretaries, either). THE DARKER MASK offers disenfranchised, marginalized characters who have to overcome personal and societal obstacles to grow into their extraordinary talents.

My story, "The Edge of Seventeen", is about an alienated high school girl who keeps dreaming of a horrifying disaster at her school, and becomes convinced that she may be able to alter that tragic future in her dreams.

You can read more about the book on Amazon.

But if you’re interested, as always, please order from your local independent bookstore!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Speculative Fiction panel in Raleigh today

If you're in the Raleigh area, I'm doing a speculative fiction panel at Cameron Village Library - besides fabulous authorsm there will be a whole host of Star Wars characters in costume.

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror Author Panel


Sat Oct 4 2pm – Sat Oct 4 4pm


Cameron Village Library, 1930 Clark Avenue, Raleigh NC 27605

Created By

Cameron Village Library


Internationally acclaimed writers David Drake and John Kessell join award winning novelists Alexandra Sokoloff and Richard Dansky for a panel discussion of their work in speculative fiction. If you’ve ever wanted to publish your own fiction, or if you’re simply a fan of their work, don’t miss this chance to mingle with some of the biggest names in the field.

For more information, please call 856-6701

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Lately I'm being asked to teach writing workshops. A lot. Although I've done a few 3 and 5 day workshops, and I've got a month-long online workshop coming up in February, a lot of them are basically me trying to teach screenwriting techniques to novelists in an hour.

I know, it’s crazy, right? – what can you possibly teach anyone about anything in an hour?

Well, I can’t teach screenwriting or anything else in an hour, but I’ve found I can teach people how to start to teach THEMSELVES screenwriting techniques in an hour. (And what I’m really teaching is story structure, and secretly I’m really teaching it to help novelists use screenwriting techniques to improve their own books, because as I’ve said about a million times, and explained here, if you’re not willing to commit to an actual career as a screen and/or TV writer, or have a source of independent financing for your movie, then it’s a waste of your time to write a script, except as a learning experience. Write a book instead.)

To teach yourself story structure, you start by making a list of 10 movies and books in the genre you’re writing in and/or that you feel are similar in structure to the story you want to write. From this list you are going to develop your own personalized story structure workbook.

Then – write out the PREMISE or LOGLINE for each story on your list – as I’ve already talked about here, and compare your own story premise to those of your master list. THE most important step of writing a book or a movie is to start with a solid, exciting, and I would say, commercial premise (because after all, we are making a living at this, aren’t we?)

Now we are going to step back and talk about basic filmic structure. Movies generally follow a three-act structure. That means that a 110-page script (and that’s 110 minutes of screen time – a script page is equal to one minute of film time) – is broken into an Act One of roughly 30 pages, an Act Two of roughly 60 pages, and an Act Three of roughly 20 pages, because as everyone knows, the climax of a story speeds up and condenses action. If you’re structuring a book, then you basically triple or quadruple the page count, depending on how long you tend to write.

Most everyone knows the Three Act structure. (But if you need a refresher, here's a brief history). But the real secret of writing a script is that most movies are a Three Act, eight-sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end. I swear.

Try this with your master list. Screen a film, watching the time clock on your DVD player. At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big set piece. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.

Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle and end of each sequence, approximately every 15 minutes Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes (you could also say that a movie is really FOUR acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Whichever works best for you.), Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

(In a book the proportions are the same - in a 400 page book, Act One is about 100 pages, Act Two is about 200 pages, and Act Three is a bit less than 100 pages, because of course the action is speeding up.)

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

Also be advised that in big, sprawling movies like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE WIZARD OF OZ, sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this 8-sequence format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical precision is kind of a lifesaver.

My advice is that you watch and analyze ALL TEN of your master list movies (and books) before you do anything else. Once you’ve watched a movie for basic overall structure, you should go back and watch it again and this time do a step outline, or scene outline – in which you write down the setting, action, conflict and revelation in each scene, as well as breaking the whole down into its three acts and eight sequences. After you’ve worked your way through at least three movies in this way to get this structure clearly in your head (although all ten is better) you’re probably ready to start working on your own story as well.

And the method I teach in my workshops is the tried and true index card method. (Pantsers will HATE this, but it warms the cockles of my plotter heart.)

You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method - experiment and find what works best for you.

Get yourself a corkboard or sheet of cardboard big enough to lay out your index cards in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your movie laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space. Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Act Two: 2 at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

Diane Chamberlain has great pictures of how it looks on her site.

Then write a card saying Act One Climax and pin it at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the appropriate cards. These are scenes that you know you MUST have in your story - whether or not you know what they are right now.

And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either 4 long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).

Now you have your structure grid in front of you.

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60) so every scene goes on one card. This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your corkboard in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole movie this way.

Now obviously, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you may be approximately tripling the scene count, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. I write novels of about 40 - 50 chapters each - an exact correlation to the number of scenes I would write in a movie, and I find my books break down into sequences of about 50 pages each: Act One is about 100 pages, Act Two is about 200 pages, and Act Three is a little less than 100 pages. I might have three sequences in Act One rather than two, but the proportions are still almost exactly the same.

Now, that’s about enough for this post, but in my next installment I’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme (as early in the story as possible), introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body – human beings (with very few exceptions) have the EXACT SAME skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton – it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll break down the elements of each act of a story.

And as always, feel free to ask questions!

- Alex


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