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.


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


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, 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.)

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


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, November 12, 2008

Visual Storytelling - Part 2

I left off last time just before I got to image systems. This is one of my favorite elements of writing.

In film, every movie has a production designer – one artist (and these people are genius level, let me tell you) who is responsible, in consultation with the director and with the help of sometimes a whole army of production artists) for the entire look of the film – every color, costume, prop, set choice.

With a book, guess who’s the production designer? YOU are.

As it happens, Michael brought home the anniversary edition of the ALIEN series recently. I could go on all week about what a perfect movie the first ALIEN is structurally as well, but for today - it’s a perfect example of brilliant production design – the visual image systems are staggering.

Take a look at those sets (created by Swiss surrealist HR Giger). What do you see? Sexual imagery EVERYWHERE. Insect imagery – a classic for horror movies. Machine imagery. Anatomical imagery – the spaceships have very human-looking spines (vertebrae and all), intestinal-looking piping, vulvic doors. And the gorgeous perversity of the design is that the look of the film combines the sexual and the insectoid, the anatomical with the mechanical, throws in some reptilian, serpentine, sea-monsterish under-the-sea-effects – to create a hellish vision that is as much a character in the film as any of the character characters.

Oh, and did I mention the labyrinth imagery? Yes, once again, my great favorite – you’ve got a monster in a maze.

Those are very specific choices and combinations. The sexual imagery and water imagery opens us up on a subconscious level and makes us vulnerable to the horrors of insects, machines and death. It also gives us a clear visual picture of a future world in which machines and humans have evolved together into a new species. It’s unique, gorgeous, and powerfully effective.

Obviously TERMINATOR (the first) is a brilliant use of machine/insect imagery as well.

I know I’ve just about worked these examples to death, but nobody does image systems better than Thomas Harris. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and RED DRAGON are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In SILENCE, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember – her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale – Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have a twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

You have the insect imagery here as well, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In RED DRAGON Harris works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget – he’s trying to turn into a dragon.

Now, a lot of authors will just throw in random scary images. How boring and meaningless! What makes what Harris does so effective is that he has an intricate, but extremely specific and limited image system going in his books. And he combines fantastical visual and thematic imagery with very realistic and accurate police procedure.

I know, all of these examples are horror, sorry, it’s my thing - but look at THE WIZARD OF OZ (just the brilliant contrast of the black and white world of Kansas and the Technicolor world of Oz says volumes). Look at what Barbara Kingsolver does in PRODIGAL SUMMER, where images of fecundity and the, well, prodigiousness of nature overflow off the pages, revealing characters and conflicts and themes. Look at what Robert Towne/Roman Polanski do with water in CHINATOWN, and also - try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what image systems authors are working with in books and films that YOU love. Some readers/writers don’t care at all about visual image systems. That’s fine – whatever floats your boat. Me, with rare exceptions, I’ll toss a book within twenty pages if I don’t think the author knows what s/he’s doing visually.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words that convey what my story is about, to me. For THE HARROWING it was words like: Creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… pages and pages like that.

For THE PRICE – bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, Rumpelstiltskin, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). It’s another way of growing an image system. Also, it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with. (I’m going to be talking more about fairy tale and mythic imagery very soon.)

So help me out here with some non-horror examples (horror examples are just fine, too). What books to you have particularly striking visual and thematic image systems? What are some of your favorite images to work with?

----------------------------------------------------------------------------







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


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, November 10, 2008

Visual Storytelling - Part 1


I realize that I am driving some of you crazy by not just GETTING to more Elements of Act 2 and onward, but there are two more posts I feel are essential to cover right up front when we’re dealing with structure, so you can be thinking about them all along.

Plus, this is in my opinion the best part of writing.

So – Visual Storytelling.

When I was in that bliss period between handing in a new book and getting editorial notes (now sadly just a memory) I was able to read, and was picking up about ten books a day. I can do that because when I’m reading for pleasure, or clear the palate for my next book, I discard most books within ten pages, if that. Sometimes I give it 50 pages. Sometimes I make it halfway through and lose all interest. So that was pretty much the process over that blissful two weeks. (I only made it through about five whole books, most of them Mo Hayder, who is rearranging all the molecules in my body with her brilliant, horrific, tragic thrillers.)

But when a book really does me, I will read it over and over again. And recently I picked up a book that had me riveted from the very beginning – and it made me realize something actually pretty obvious about myself.

I am a visual whore.

Yes, and proud of it. Oh, sure, I could pretend to be all highbrow and quote Aristotle on “Spectacle” in The Poetics, but really, why sugarcoat it? Give me eye candy. Dazzle me with images. But make them mean something. Your story better give me your themes visually or you risk losing me, and fast. I want symbols, symbols, damn it!

And no, I haven’t segued into talking about movies, now. I’m talking about books.

I have to say, one thing all that screenwriting has been really good for is helping me develop a strong visual writing style. I love it when readers tell me – “I can see every scene you write.” But actually, visual storytelling is a lot more than just putting a movie into your readers’ heads as they’re reading your book. Visual storytelling actually presents themes that elevate a story and make it resonate in a reader’s consciousness – and subconscious - long after they close the book.

My obsession with visual storytelling started way before I started writing scripts. Production design is a crucial element of theater, too, and we had a brilliant head of design in the theater department at Berkeley, so I got spoiled early on with mindbending, thematic sets that gave a whole other dimensionality to the plays I saw in my formative years. A good production designer will make every single thing you look at on stage – color scheme, props, sets, costuming, shapes, textures – contribute to your deeper understanding of the play’s story, characters and themes.

That was a lesson that served me well when I started screenwriting. And then working as a screenwriter opened up whole new worlds of visual storytelling.

So what can we as authors learn from screenwriting about writing visually?

A lot.

Let’s start with establishing shots and master shots, setpiece scenes, and visual image systems.

ESTABLISHING SHOTS AND MASTER SHOTS

One thing I’ve noticed about beginning writers’ writing is that they almost always fail to set up a chapter visually. Actually a lot of published authors have this problem, too. I find this extremely annoying and frustrating. After all, human beings process the world visually before any other sense, so why wouldn’t we as authors want to instantly establish where we are and what we’re looking at and how that makes us feel right up front, in every chapter? If you don’t, your reader is going to be uncomfortable and disoriented until you finally give her some idea of where she is.

That’s why it’s useful to think in terms of establishing shots and master shots.

An establishing shot, in film – you guessed it - establishes the location. A shot of the Eiffel Tower lets us know we’re in Paris, a shot of the Sphinx tells us we’re in Egypt. An exterior shot of an office tower followed by people working inside an office lets us know we’re inside that building.

A master shot is an angle on a scene that shows all of the players of the scene in the specific location – like looking at a stage and seeing the entire set and all the actors on it. You get all the information about the scene in one shot.

But an establishing shot is more than just information about WHERE the action takes place. It can, and should, convey emotion, suspense, theme – any number of things about the action about to transpire or the character walking into the scene.

Every time I start a chapter or a scene, I think first about the establishing shot and the master shot. I look at the upcoming action from a long enough angle to see everything there is to see about the scene. Where am I and what am I looking at? I might not describe it outright for a paragraph or two but if I don’t, there’s a damn good reason that I didn’t start with it, and I don’t keep the reader waiting long to give them the visual. And when I do give the visual, I think about what it says thematically and emotionally about the scene. Is it a confined space because my heroine feels trapped? Then I make sure to convey that claustrophobic sense. Are the colors of everything muted and leached because of my hero’s depression? Is every tree on the street bursting with bloom and fragrance because my lovers have finally reunited? (Yeah, I’m being on the nose, but my feeling is – be over the top at first to make sure the emotion is there… you can always tone it down later.)

SETPIECE SCENES

This is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking.

There are multiple definitions of a setpiece – it can be a huge action scene like – well, anything in THE DARK KNIGHT - that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in a – well, a shower, for instance, in PSYCHO.

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

That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The helicopter chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The goofy galactic bar in STAR WARS. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The dungeon – I mean prison – in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. In fact you can look at RAIDERS and SILENCE and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in RAIDERS…)

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

A really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell – Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey – just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more – the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and RED DRAGON are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.

But this post is already long, so I think I’ll save my discussion on visual image systems for another even longer post, so we can focus on setpieces today.

What are some of your favorite setpieces or symbolic images, literary or filmic, recent or classic?

Oh, and the book I picked up during my reading binge that inspired this post?

Barbara Vine’s THE MINOTAUR… wonderfully creepy and psychologically perverse – you have a schizophrenic (maybe) brother, four strange sisters, an even stranger mother, and a young au pair on an isolated English estate – and in the middle of this house is a mysterious library built as a labyrinth.

You better believe I’m hooked.


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


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 07, 2008

Story Structure: Act Two, Part Two

Okay, back to story structure this week. Come on, you know you want to.

As we were talking about in our discussion of the Elements of Act Two, 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. The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film – a major 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). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.)

It’s also sometimes called the “Point of No Return”, in which the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action (this may have been the German dramaturg Freytag’s assertion – I’ll have to research it further).

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we discussed in Building Suspense. A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.

And the Midpoint will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

The Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene – it can be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal – all or any combination of the above. For example, in JAWS, the Midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence in which the city officials have refused to shut the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), he decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact Midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses - staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes much in the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax – it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.

Another very different kind of midpoint occurs in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: the “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have only three days before Buffalo Bill kills her. Clarice goes in at first to offer Lecter what she knows he desires most (because he has STATED his desire, clearly and early on) – a transfer to a Federal prison, away from Dr. Chilton and with a view. Clarice has a file with that offer from Senator Martin – she says – but in reality the offer is a total fake. We don’t know this at the time, but it has been cleverly PLANTED that it’s impossible to fool Lecter (Crawford sends Clarice in to the first interview without telling her what the real purpose is so that Lecter won’t be able to read her). But Clarice has learned and grown enough to fool Lecter – and there’s a great payoff when Lecter later acknowledges that fact.

The deal is not enough for Lecter, though – he demands that Clarice do exactly what her boss, Crawford, has warned her never to do: he wants her to swap personal information for clues – a classic deal with the devil game.

After Clarice confesses painful secrets, Lecter gives her the clue she’s been digging for – to search for Buffalo Bill through the sex reassignment clinics. And as is so often the case, there is a second climax within the midpoint – the film cuts to the killer in his basement, standing over the pit making a terrified Catherine put lotion on her skin – it’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes.

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in my latest book, THE UNSEEN, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold – what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty”. It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough. So now although they don’t actually have sex yet, there’s definitely sex in the air, and it’s very clear that that desire is driving her.

The Midpoint launches ESCALATING ACTION/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

In the second half of the second act the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, so it’s time for desperate measures.

These escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: the hero/ine very often starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive or downright immoral. When Catherine is kidnapped, Clarice is warned by her roommate that if she doesn’t study for and take her FBI exams, she’ll be kicked out of the program. Of course Clarice puts Catherine’s well-being above her own, but it’s a great way to back her into a corner and force hard choices. Often the hero/ine will lose support from key allies when s/he begins to cross the line.

Naturally the antagonist’s actions are escalating as well.

This third quarter also almost always contains a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. In THE WIZARD OF OZ it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass and all looks lost. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene - yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.

This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act, because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end.

Now, remember, in standard film structure, the second half of Act Two is two sequences long - two fifteen minute sequences, each with a beginning, middle and climax. A book will perhaps have three or four or five sequences in this 100 page section. But if you concentrate on escalating obsessive actions by the hero/ine and antagonist, and then an abject failure, out of which a new revelation and plan occurs, you pretty much have the whole section mapped out to the ACT TWO CLIMAX

As I’ve discussed before, the Act Two Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel) often answers the Central Question set up at the end of Act One, and often the answer is “No”. No, Lecter is not going to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine – Clarice is going to have to do it herself. No, Quint will not kill the shark; the shark kills him instead and Sheriff Brody is going to have to face the shark alone.

The second act climax will often be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is (as in THE FUGITIVE, when Dr. Richard Kimble realizes that his friend Chuck has set him up and that leads to the final confrontation and fight/chase. THE FUGITIVE has a nice, satisfying structure because at the same time that Kimble is realizing who his real enemy is, US Marshal Gerard (the Tommy Lee Jones character), who has been chasing Kimble for the entire film, also becomes convinced of Kimble’s true nature – that he’s innocent.

It’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or THE main enemy, and it also often happens that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick).

The second act climax is another place that you might start a ticking clock – such as in ALIEN, when Ripley sets the ship to blow up in ten minutes and has to evade the alien and get to the shuttle by then – as if being chased by an acid-bleeding monster weren’t stressful enough!

And the third act is basically the FINAL BATTLE and RESOLUTION. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly.

But we’ll talk about the third act and climax in a separate post.

What I’m really interested in today is hearing examples of great midpoints!


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


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, November 06, 2008

Yes we can... and we still have to

I'm racing through copyedits this week but couldn't be more elated, grateful, and relieved about this:

obama Pictures, Images and Photos

And couldn't be more sick and furious and disgusted about the passage of Prop. HATE in California. Bigotry is alive and well.

Back to copyedits - back to story structure by the weekend...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Creating Suspense

I know that technically I should be pushing on through the Elements of Act Two, but I decided I would backtrack this week and talk about some other story elements that you need to be building from the very beginning of your writing - and I mean from the outline.

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

What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

So, Creating Suspense.

Huge topic.

And I’m sure many others have done it better, but I’m not being satisfied with what I’m reading, so I’m blatantly using my post today partly to beg links to good articles (compile links, I mean...) and attempt to discuss what I myself know or suspect about creating suspense.

This is the first thing I tell people who ask me about suspense:

You have to study, analyze and teach yourself to write the kind of suspense YOU want to create.

Because there are all kinds of suspense. Many thrillers are based on action and adrenaline – the experience the author wants to create and the reader wants to experience is that roller-coaster feeling. I myself am not big on that kind of suspense. I love a good adrenaline rush in a book (in fact I pretty much require them, repeatedly). But pure action scenes pretty much bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over. What I’m looking for in a book is the sensual – okay, sexual – thrill of going into the unknown. How it feels to know that there’s something there in the dark with you that’s not necessarily rational, and not necessarily human. It’s a slower, more erotic kind of thrill – that you find in THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE SHINING. So although I can learn some techniques from spy thrillers or giant actioners, studying that kind of book for what I want to do is probably not going to get me where I want to go.

There’s also the classic mystery thrill of having to figure a puzzle out. There’s a great pleasure in using your mind to unlock a particularly well-crafted puzzle. I love to add that element to my stories, too, so that even though the characters are dealing with the unknown, there is still a logical way to figure the puzzle out.

So to create suspense, the first thing you have to identify is what KIND of suspense you want to create. Most stories use all three kinds of suspense I just talked about (and others - really I’m just scratching the surface), but there will be one particular kind that dominates.

A useful thing to do is to make yourself a master list of ten books and films that are not just in your own genre, but that all create the particular kind of suspense experience that you’re looking to create yourself. There are particular tricks that every author or screenwriter uses to create suspense, and looking at ten stories in a row will get you identifying those tricks. If you’re reading a particularly good book, you get so caught up in it that you don’t see the wheels and gears – and that’s good. So read it to the end… but then go back and reread to really look at the machinery of it.

What tricks am I talking about? Well, let’s see.

To my mind, the most basic and important suspense technique is ASK A CENTRAL QUESTION with your story.

Of course, every good story is inherently a suspense story, because every story is predicated on the storyteller creating the desire in the reader or audience to find out What Happens? And writing mysteries as we all do (mystery/thriller/suspense), our genre has a built-in suspense element by its very nature – the built-in question – “Who done it?” (Or in my case, as J.D. Rhoades says, “What done it?”)

So the very first place that a book creates suspense is on the meta-level: in the premise, that one line description of what the story is. That story line (flap copy, back jacket text) is what makes a reader pick up a book and say – “Yeah! I want to know what happens!”

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

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

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


Any one of the above can also be phrased as a question: Will Clarice get Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill before he kills Catherine? That’s what I mean when I say the central question of the story.

Now, there’s a whole hell of a lot of suspense in that story question - unlike in, say, the movie we saw last night: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Does anyone going into that movie think for one single solitary second that Cameron Diaz is not going to end up with Ashton Kuchner? No suspense in that premise at all (but the structure of the movie, as in most stories, was built on the obstacles that MIGHT keep these two apart, if it weren't, you know, a Hollywood love story).

But in a mystery, or thriller, or horror story, someone could die. Anyone could always die. Even the main character can die – at least in a standalone. And I would argue that third person narration in a mystery/thriller is always going to be more suspenseful than first person, because even if your first person narrator DOES die in a surprise twist at the end, the reader hasn’t worried about it for the entire book.

In that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS story set up, we know Catherine could die – in fact, any number of additional victims could die – because it’s a thriller and we’ve got a particularly monstrous killer holding her. Clarice could die, too – in fact, throughout the story, we are always at least subconsciously aware that Clarice is disquietingly similar to Buffalo Bill’s previous victims: she is young, white, Southern, from a struggling family.

All this is STAKES – a critical element of every story. What do we fear is going to happen?

A good story makes the stakes crystal clear – from the very beginning of the story. We know right up front in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that there’s a serial killer out there who will not stop killing young women until he is caught or killed. How do we know that? The characters say it, flat out, and not just once, and not just one character. Harris makes us perfectly, acutely aware of what the stakes are. The story ups the ante when a particular victim is kidnapped and we get to know her – we really don’t want THIS particular, feisty victim to die.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government agent who comes to hire Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant says that Hitler is after it, and Indy and his colleague, the archeological experts, tell us the legend that the army which has the Ark is invincible. That’s really, really bad. Huge stakes. And it is spelled out with crystal clarity, in dialogue, with accompanying visuals of ancient text – in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

It might even be the number one rule of suspense - You need to tell your reader what they’re supposed to be afraid of. Not just scene by scene – but in the entire story, overall. You need to let the reader know what the hero, or another character, is in for – or the whole world is in for – if the hero doesn’t do something about it.

And if that’s the number one rule, then the photo finish number two rule is – You have to make the reader CARE. Because if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they have no personal stake in the stakes.

No, I’m not going to go into all the techniques of creating a character that readers will care about – different post!

But here’s one technique that also goes to creating suspense: stack the odds against your protagonist. It’s just ingrained in us to love an underdog.

In SILENCE, the protagonist, Clarice is up against huge odds. She has many personal obstacles. She’s a woman in a man’s world, young, a mere trainee, she has big wounds from a troubled childhood. She also has many external opponents, like Dr. Chilton, the Senator and more minor characters within scenes – not to mention that Dr. Lecter is not exactly being cooperative – he’s got his own agenda, and he’s a master at playing it.

In RAIDERS, Indy is up against Hitler (through his minions). Indy is awfully heroic and expert and, well, hot – but he’s still the underdog in this particular fight.

A lot of suspense stories use children, women, or characters with a handicap to stack the odds against the hero. Okay, it sounds manipulative, but suspense IS manipulation. And just because a technique is manipulative doesn’t make it any less effective when it’s done well: Think of WAIT UNTIL DARK (blind protagonist) , REAR WINDOW (wheelchair-bound protagonist), THE SIXTH SENSE (I swear I went to that movie just to make sure that little boy made it out okay), THE SHINING.

Another suspense technique that can be built in on the premise level is the TICKING CLOCK. Building a clock into the story creates an overall sense of urgency. In SILENCE, we learn (very early) that Buffalo Bill holds his victims for three days before he kills them. So when Catherine is kidnapped, we know Clarice only has three days to save her. We know this because the characters say it. Beginning writers seem to be afraid to just say things straight out, but there’s no reason to be coy.

Harris does the same thing in RED DRAGON – that killer is on a moon cycle so the hero knows he has only a month to track this killer down before he kills another entire family. Again, we know that because the characters tell us so – repeatedly.

Harris is actually the master of the ticking clock – he has a particularly clever one in BLACK SUNDAY: a terrorist attack is being planned to take place at the Superbowl. Well, we all know it would take no less than the Apocalypse to get sponsors to cancel or postpone the Superbowl, so Harris has both locked his characters in to an inevitable event, and also created a clock – come hell or high water, it’s all going to come down on Superbowl Sunday.

Again, a ticking clock is manipulative, and you can make an argument that it’s a less effective technique these days because it’s been overused, but that just means you have to be more clever about it. Make it an organic clock, as in the examples above. In RED DRAGON, for example – having the killer be on a moon clock is very creepily effective, because not only is this a real characteristic of some serial killers, Harris has built a whole symbolic image system into this story – he uses animal imagery to depict this killer: describing him as a baby bat (with his cleft palate), emphasizing his biting, giving the character a desire to become a dragon. The moon clock is part of the image system, and the killer seems much more monstrous.


Now, all of the above are suspense techniques on the meta-level. Once you’ve created a story that has the elements of suspense built into the overall structure, you have to start working suspense on the scene level, moment-by-moment. And here’s where I find a lot of books really lacking in the kind of suspense I personally crave, which is about making me feel the physical and mental effects of wonder and terror. And that you have to do by working a scene over and over and over again. You need to direct it, act it, production design it, cast it, score it. What is scary in the physical environment, in the visual and in the symbolism of the space? How can you use sound to create chills? What is going through the character’s head that increases the danger of the experience? How do you use pace and rhythm of language to create the equivalent of a musical soundtrack (the prime purpose of which is to manipulate emotion in a viewer?)

You have to layer in all six senses – what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like – as well as what your characters sense are there, even though there’s no physical evidence for it. You have to create the effect of an adrenaline rush. I think a huge weakness of a lot of writers is that they either don’t understand - or they’re too lazy to convey - the effects of adrenaline on the body and mind. You know how in a good suspense or action scene the pace actually slows down, so that every detail stands out and every move takes ages to complete? Well, that writing technique is actually just duplicating the experience of an adrenaline rush – your heart is going so fast and your thoughts are coming so fast that everything around you seems slowed down. You react to things faster because your metabolism has sped up so you CAN react faster and possibly save yourself.

I’m realizing that this is going to have to be two posts – at least! - but here’s my last thought for this one. I think one of the best things a writer can do to learn how to write suspense is to take some acting classes. Learning to experience a story from INSIDE one of the characters – literally, inside that character’s body – will make you much more proficient at creating a physical, sensual experience for your readers.

So yes, if you have links to particularly good articles or sites on how to create suspense, please share!

Authors, what are your favorite suspense tips and techniques? Who did you study to learn the fine art of suspense? And readers, who are your favorite suspense authors, and do you have a favorite KIND of suspense?

(Next I'll talk about Visual Storytelling - also a story element that you need to be designing from the very beginning of the writing process.)


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


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