Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What is High Concept?

I’m going back through some of these articles and trying to fill out things that I’ve skipped or underdiscussed. (No, that’s not a real word.)

I talked a lot about premise, but rereading that post I realized I never did a dedicated post on the High Concept premise. So -


There seems to be eternal confusion on this subject. It’s sort of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. But today I will do what I can to define it.

If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is - AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it - that’s high concept.

Here’s another way of looking at it: the potential of the setup is obvious. A movie like MEET THE PARENTS instantly conjures all kinds of disaster scenarios, right? Because we’ve all (mostly) been in the situation before, and we know the extreme perils.

I would also add, not as an afterthought – with a high-concept premise, the moneymaking potential is obvious.

Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” - you’ve got a high-concept premise.

Screenwriter/producer Terry Rossio calls it “Mental Real Estate” – a topic or subject that is in a majority of people’s heads already, and his essay "Mental Real Estate" on is a must-read on the subject. (Then take some time - got a few years? - and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott).

Think about one of their movies – PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Who hasn’t been on that Disney ride? All the studio had to do to advertise it was slap that skull and crossbones on a one-sheet, and people were sold.

But okay, let’s break it down, specifically. What makes stories high concept? One or more of these things:

- They’re topical – they hit a nerve in society at the right time: FATAL ATTRACTION for AIDS, JURASSIC PARK for cloning, DISCLOSURE for sexual harassment (only reversing the sexes was utter bullshit.)

- They are about a subject that we all have in our heads already (THE PASSION, THE DA VINCI CODE, FOUR CHRISTMASES, JURASSIC PARK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)

- They exploit a primal fear (JAWS, JURASSIC PARK)

- They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, BLIND DATE. That movie out recently – FOUR CHRISTMASES – is about a young couple who have to spend a Christmas with each set of their divorced parents. Very universal!)

- They are controversial and/or sacrilegious enough to generate press (DA VINCI CODE, THE LAST TEMPTATION, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)

- They generate water-cooler talk (FATAL ATTRACTION, INDECENT PROPOSAL)

- They have a big twist (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE SIXTH SENSE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE). And not necessarily a twist at the end - the twist can be in the set up. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is about two people falling in love - when they've never met. RUTHLESS PEOPLE is about a group of kidnappers who kidnap a wealthy woman and threaten to kill her if her husband doesn't pay - which turns out to be her heinous husband's dream scenario. He WANTS her dead, and now the kidnappers are stuck with a bitch on wheels.

- They are about a famous person or event - or possible event: TITANIC, GALLIPOLI, APOLLO 13, ARMAGEDDON, ROSWELL.

- There's also just the "Cool!!!" factor. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK revolves around an artifact that supposedly has the supernatural power to will any army undefeatable. Well, what if Hitler got hold of it?

Let’s take a closer look at a few high-concept ideas:

JURASSIC PARK - A group of scientists and the children of an inventor tour a remote island where the inventor has cloned dinosaurs to create a Jurassic amusement park – then have to fight for their lives when the dinosaur containment system breaks down.

What kid has not had that obsession with dinosaurs? And who of us has not had the thought of how terrifying it would be to be face to face with one of those things – live? Throw in the very topical subject of cloning (they get dinosaur DNA from a prehistoric fly trapped in amber) and the promise of amusement-park thrills, and who ISN’T going to read that book and/or see that movie?

FATAL ATTRACTION – A happily married man has a one-night stand and then his family is stalked by the woman he hooked up with.

This film hit a huge number of people in the – uh, gut – because even people who have never had an affair have almost certainly thought about it. Also the film came out when AIDS was rampant, with no effective treatment in sight, and suddenly a one-night stand could literally be fatal. It’s easy to see the potential for some really frightening situations there, as the innocent family is terrorized, and of course we all like to see a good moral comeuppance.

INDECENT PROPOSAL - A young, broke couple on vacation in Vegas are offered a million dollars by a wealthy man for one night with the wife.

This is a great example of the “What would YOU do?” premise. It’s a question that generated all kinds of what the media calls “water cooler discussion”, and made it a must-see movie at the time. Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars? Would you let someone you love do it? Oh, boy, did people talk about it!

Are you starting to get the hang of it?

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating - I made my first "screenwriting" money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist I highly recommend you try the same exercise - make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept. You'll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas. You don’t have to sell out. I’m always telling exactly the stories I want to tell, about the people I want to write about. But there’s no reason not to think in more universal terms and be open to subject matter, locations, themes, topics, that might strike a chord in a bigger audience.

When THE PRICE was optioned by Sony the executives pitched it as “The devil is walking around the halls of a Boston hospital making deals with the patients and their families.” And there’s a “What would YOU do?” built in: “What would you give to save the life of a loved one?”

I’ve already gotten unsolicited TV interest for THE UNSEEN and we don’t even have galleys yet! But that book is based on the real-life – and world-famous - ESP experiments and poltergeist investigations conducted by Dr. J.B. Rhine at the Duke University parapsychology lab – and just the bare bones premise line is attracting producers, because that’s “mental real estate”.

The reality is, these days agents and editors and publishers are looking for books that have those unique, universal, high-concept premises, and the attendant potential for a TV or movie sale.

Open your mind to the possibility of high concept, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself.

So, any favorite examples of high concept for me, today?

- 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

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Villains, part 2: The Forces of Antagonism

Sorry, no posts for a week – lots of STUFF going on!

Okay, so I wanted to talk more about villains.


Last week I was trying to get you all to think specifically about the villains that have had a lasting impact on you, and list those characters so you can start to see the patterns and themes there. Gayle’s list of very female sociopaths was an exciting revelation, I think. When you’re able to identify these things in your work, and the work you aspire to do, it’s defining a personal theme that can become your brand as an author, and a major selling point for your books – not to mention that when you’re writing about something that really pushes your buttons (for whatever reason) your stories tend to come alive.

Villains have a lot to do with theme. In fact you could say that they are an entire half of a story’s theme. Again, I don’t want to disrupt anyone’s magical unconscious process of creating character, but I don’t think it hurts your process to think in meta-terms.

A story is very often a thematic argument between a hero/ine and an antagonist. (Remember Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis?). On a basic level, the hero/ine represents one vision of how to live, and the antagonist another. Very often the antagonist also presents a dark vision of what the hero/ine could become, or is on his way to becoming, and it’s through battle with the antagonist that the hero/ine is able to change.

(This might not be the kind of story you’re writing! That’s fine. That’s why I keep hammering the idea that you need to do your own analyses of films and books that you yourself respond to and see what’s really going on in the stories that particularly work for YOU.)

The original STAR WARS trilogy was certainly about a hero who was in grave danger of becoming his opponent – who has to overcome the opponent in himself.

But in THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy doesn’t have the slightest danger of becoming the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy is good, through and through. The meta question in that battle between the two is – can innocent good triumph over such an established, powerful, magical evil? It doesn’t seem possible at all, when you think of it (Dorothy even refers to herself as “Dorothy, the small and meek”). And yet this is one of the continual triumphs of human life – that good does triumph over evil, time and time again.

In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, it’s another head-on battle between inexperienced good and mythic evil. The theme that comes out of that book and film is ambivalent: yes, Clarice is able to kill Mr. Gumb and save Catherine – she wins that battle – but in the process a much greater evil is unleashed back into the world, as Lecter goes out to do his evil business. Myself, I particularly like this kind of ambivalent victory because I think it’s so true to life, and deliciously metaphorical at the same time.

There are other types of thematic battles that go on in stories – you’ve heard of all of these before: Man against Nature (JAWS, THE BIRDS), Man against Machine (THE TERMINATOR), Man against Monster (ALIEN), Man against The System (NETWORK, THE VERDICT), and if you see a lot of stories with one of those themes on your lists, you will probably want to take a look at the classics that have explored those themes.


In a lot of stories, too, the battle is going on on several different levels. There will be a particular antagonist that the hero/ine is fighting, but the real opponent is bigger. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Clarice is not just fighting Mr. Gumb – she’s fighting evil in a larger sense. In IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE George Bailey is not just fighting Mr. Potter but a whole way of life that is anti-community, that destroys community and individuality.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books are particularly good about portraying multiple levels of antagonism. L.A.P.D. detective Bosch may be pursuing a certain suspect, but there are always larger forces at work that create not just the particular crime that sets the case in motion but often a whole ripple of accompanying casualties. These forces can be a family dynamic in which everyone is to some extent guilty, the sins of the police department itself, racism, sometimes all of the above. And if that weren’t enough, Harry often is engaged in a painful internal struggle over whether with all his best efforts, he might be doing more harm than good. That is a LOT of conflict, there, and it says a lot about why the series is so beloved and enduring.

You can see a different example of forces of antagonism in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Indy is facing multiple antagonists, there: Belloq, Major Toht, Colonel Dietrich, as individual opponents, plus the Nazi army in general, and Hitler by implication. There’s also possibly the supernatural power of the Ark. So again, though less subtle as the forces of antagonism in the Connelly books, there is opposition that is not just one or a few individuals, but a larger force.

John Truby, in his story structure workshops and his excellent book: THE ANATOMY OF STORY, talks about creating a four-point opposition, and the Belloq/Toht/Dietrich/Hitler combination is a good example of how that works.


You will hear very often about how important it is to create a realistic psychology of a villain. I don’t disagree – nothing makes me toss a book faster than seeing a serial killer who is cleverly characterized with an artistic or poetic bent. Doesn’t happen in real life. Of course, a killer like Buffalo Bill doesn’t happen in real life, either, and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – in case you haven’t noticed – is one of my all time favorite books. So why does that book work for me when so many others just make me groan and throw things?

This is my theory, at least for the villains I love. The psychology is not as important as the theme. I don’t care how realistic a killer is as long as s/he makes metaphorical sense.

Thomas Harris’s Francis Dolarhyde, from RED DRAGON, is a masterpiece of archetypal imagery. There’s a lot of very well-researched police and criminal procedure in that book, but what really gets me about that character is how Harris has created a monster, both more and less than human, by blending the factual with the archetypal. Baby Francis is born with a cleft palate and is described as looking like a baby bat. He has a fetish for biting (true of many serial killers, but used very specifically here). He kills on a moon cycle (true of many serial killers as well), also bringing to mind supernatural monsters like the werewolf. He uses his Grandmother’s fake teeth (vampire). And he thinks he is turning into a dragon. He is also a large man and very pale. Not entirely realistic, these things, but they work for me because of the metaphor.

But too much detail can work against you. I mean, did you really want to know that Lecter was born an aristocrat and got turned into a cannibalistic killer because he saw his little sister eaten by German soldiers? TMI. Ruined the character. I just pretend to forget it.


I think it’s essential to be conscious not just of the detailed psychology, but the ESSENCE of the villain you’re creating. Take a page from the Lecter that I love, in SILENCE:

“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it, in itself, what is its nature...? ”

In THE PRICE, I knew I had to create a villain who knows that every human being has a price, and exactly what that price is. That essence of Salk drove the book.

In THE UNSEEN I had the challenge of creating a poltergeist – when no one has ever been able to definitively explain what a poltergeist is –the projected repressed emotions of an adolescent, a ghost, an extra-dimensional entity, a fraud. The solution that grew out of that conundrum was that a poltergeist is MANY things, and I was able to detail a confluence of events and people who brought the power of the poltergeist out in full force – in many subtle and unsubtle layers of attack.


Defining the nature of the antagonist will often help you define your other characters.

Going back to the dark mirror aspect of the antagonist and protagonist - when you’re aware of it, it can really help you to create a symbiotic and thematic relationship between the hero/ine and the antagonist. The antagonist can actually help you detail and deepen your hero/ine. In THE HARROWING, when I had hit upon a villain whose essence was anti-life, I made my heroine suicidal in the beginning. The villain is able to prey on her because her own life force is weak in the beginning – and it makes her character arc bigger to go from a broken soul who is ready to throw her life away, to a strong young woman who fights for her own life and those of her friends. Also, Robin and the antagonist are both isolated, discarded, broken, killingly envious and angry, just to name a few parallels. And the antagonist is able to play on her weaknesses because he understands them so intimately.

In THE PRICE I also wanted a very intimate relationship between my hero and the villain. My whole theory of the devil is that he has the enormous power he does because he understands people’s individual souls. So he knows your most secret desire and your most shameful weakness. That give him power, but also accounts for his seductiveness – no one will ever know you like the devil can. That omniscient nature of my villain made me have to understand the essence of each of the other characters in the story.

Another example – as I’ve said about JAWS, Sheriff Brody is designed as a man who is about the least likely person to face off with this shark: a city cop, newcomer to the island, born and raised in Manhattan, and afraid of the water. All the odds are stacked against him. Now, this works on that “everyone loves the underdog” level, but I would also suggest that the nature of the shark dictated the character of Sheriff Brody… there is a conscious design going on there. So be aware of the essential nature of your villain and it may help you detail your hero/ine – and other characters as well.

I can easily go on about all this for another post at least, but let me just end with two things. A villain is often essentially a shapeshifter, who plays multiple roles in a story: lover, mentor, ally. I strongly encourage everyone to read Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, based on Joseph Campbell’s much more intricate THE HERO’S JOURNEY. Vogler does a great job of defining the different story roles of various characters in classic mythic structure.

And Allison Brennan has a great post on villains here, which among many other essential points suggests that you be just as aware of the villain’s journey as the hero’s. A favorite story question of author/producer Stephen Cannell is “What’s the bad guy up to?” - and I agree with both Allison and Mr. Cannell. If you don’t know that at each point of your story, you’re probably not doing the story justice.

As with every character, it is vital to identify what your villain WANTS. That desire drives half of the story.

So, any examples of multiple forces of antagonism for me, or non-human antagonists?

Do you prefer your villains psychologically detailed or more mythic?

- 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

Friday, January 09, 2009

What makes a great villain?

I suppose you all who have been following along with these articles have noticed by now that I haven’t yet done a dedicated post on character – hero/ine, villain, supporting, or otherwise.

That’s probably because while I feel comfortable expounding on how to create and structure a story, I am not so clear about how to explain how to create character. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a very explicable process, for me. I think what I do is create a space for them – a situation, a theme, the beginnings of a story - and pray that the characters will show up to inhabit it. Which, thank God, they always do. And then from there they do most of the work.

In other words, it’s magic – or possibly my friend Dusty Rhoades is right, it’s mental illness - and I don’t know how to explain magic OR mental illness. Quite possibly I don’t WANT to know.

But I think – I’m pretty sure - most writers have characters in their heads from a very early age. Maybe ALL people do – because that’s what fantasy is, and we all daydream being other people, or superfantastic versions of ourselves. So in a way we’re all creating character all the time.

I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s AUDITION, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, and it will translate to writing.

All that being disclaimed, I want to start talking about character, and I’ll start today with great villains and how one might – MIGHT – go about creating them.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a villain will just come to you whole, right? I’ve dreamed a few. I love that, when your subconscious does the work for you.

Sometimes you have a real, heinous person in mind, either a criminal you’ve read about who sparks such an outrage in your soul that you have to create him on paper just to destroy him the way he needs to be destroyed. Sometimes it’s a heinous person you really know – in the novella I recently finished I took great pleasure in detailing all the banal viciousness of a producer I know and then bashing his brainless head in.

But other villains I’ve written have been more conscious creations, have grown out of the specific situation of a story. So, while allowing for the pure magic of it - it’s not purely magic, is it?

I’d like to suggest that you can develop a great villain – or any other character you create – through the same process that I’ve been advocating for creating the structure of your story.

Make a list.

Who or what are your top ten villains? And I don’t mean make a list for the ages, or for popular consumption – I mean FOR YOU. What is it about these particular characters that makes them so delicious, or terrifying, or both? What turns YOU on in a villain? What particular qualities are you responding to?

You don’t have to think too hard about it, either, when you’re listing. It might be more useful to do it fast and see what comes up, because that non-thinking list will be more relevant to your present project, or a brewing project. These lists are never written in stone, either – you can make a whole different list tomorrow.

Breaking it down, analyzing the specifics, is like doing scales on the piano, or doing dance technique exercises at the barre. It gives you the foundation and the strength and mental coordination for the magic of art to happen.

My favorite villains, off the top of my head.

Hannibal Lecter.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME.
Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
Tony Perkins in PSYCHO.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD.

Now, I can look at that list and already identify a lot of patterns going on. I like my villains sexy, perverted, bizarre, insane, diabolical, and preferably a combination of the above.

But now it’s time to go deeper. What is it about each of those villains that really works for me?

Rumpelstiltskin. The twisted dwarf is an archetype I particularly respond to. In Jungian psychology, the dwarf, or perverted little old man, is a strong recurring archetypal figure for women who have been sexually abused or have sexual trauma issues. I haven’t been, but with all my near-misses with predators, I can relate to that analysis. And studying Jungian and other world archetypes is great fodder for brainstorming interesting villains.

Dracula. The sex thing, obviously. Vampires are supposedly about addiction issues. I can relate to that, too. Marion Woodman has some hugely intriguing books about these archetypes.

Hannibal Lecter. The devil archetype, my absolute favorite. Thomas Harris created a monster for the ages by turning a serial killer into a mythic archetype (although for my money he should have stopped with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). But what really does me about Lecter is the magician/mentor aspect of him. Here’s this evil, psychotic genius – who sees something in Clarice that makes at least part of him want to mentor her, even protect her. More than that, he UNDERSTANDS her – better than any other living soul. That to me is the ultimate seductiveness of the devil – that he GETS you - right down to your very soul. There’s no greater intimacy – and that’s a lot of what I was exploring when I wrote THE PRICE.

Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME. Gorgeous, sensual, ruthless schemer, played by one of my favorite British actresses, Polly Walker. Her relationships with her son and daughter are completely perverted and I love it. I understand her, because living in such a patriarchal society would twist any intelligent woman, and I love seeing her WIN.

Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR - one of the most chilling portraits of a sociopathic child that I’ve ever seen. The final scene with the grandmother taking responsibility for her is particularly haunting. I love stories about evil children. I have to admit, I find small children frightening. They are ruthless, narcissistic and irrational; they operate according to some inexplicable set of rules that they are constantly making up as they go along. And they wield enormous power, totally out of proportion to their actual physical strength and stature. Is that not the definition of a villain?

Norman Bates in PSYCHO. The concept of multiple personality fascinates me even though it’s been done so badly so many times that I’m not sure I would ever attempt such a character myself. But you feel such poignant sympathy for Norman even as you fear “Mother” – it’s a terrible portrait of an imprisoned soul.

“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9. Is he a demon? A fragment of personality in a multiple personality patient which has assumed autonomy? It’s, well, mindblowing to try to wrap your brain around. And the slippery inexplicableness of evil is a theme that draws me again and again.

Bob Sugar in JERRY MAGUIRE - the blond, blandly sociopathic agent. Not hard to see why I respond to that! But I love Sugar as an example of an effective comedic villain. He’s pitch-perfect – there are hundreds just like him in Hollywood, soulless, narcissistic, casually malevolent. But he also makes a perfect foil for Jerry because he is a mirror image of Jerry – this is what Jerry is on his way to becoming before his attack of conscience in the opening scenes – Sugar is the thing we don’t want him to become. A villain’s story function is often to be the dark mirror of the protagonist, and Sugar is a stellar example.

Stringer Bell in THE WIRE. Oh, all right, that’s pure sex. No, also I love the reversal that Stringer is trying to get out of the drug lord business – that he’s taking business school classes, investing in real estate – and it’s the far greater sociopathy of the politicians and city developers that destroys him in the end. As with Atia, this is a man who has been forced toward villainy by the ruthless inequities of society.

Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD. Also pure sex – I’ve had a crush in Ian McShane forever. But there again, the devil archetype – a powerful, brilliant, sexual, violent man who has his own occasional staggering moments of morality and transcendence – the kind of man that draws women like moths to the flame. As with Lecter and Clarice, there’s a Beauty and the Beast undercurrent here - the monster that we just might be able to tame. I will never forgive creator David Milch for ending that series before Swearengen could have his way with Mrs. Garret – and she with him.

You see how that starts to work? I truly believe that taking the time to analyze what you love and respond to in a villain in the stories you love will get your subconscious working on crafting that perfect villain for YOUR story. So much of creativity is the DESIRE to get it right. Make your wishes specific, and the magic will start to happen.

Next post I’d like to talk more about villains and get into not just the story functions of single villains, but the idea of forces of antagonism, and non-human villains, since the opponent in a story can be multiple, animal, environmental, historical or societal, as well as just the classic single bad guy.

But for today – you don’t have to give me all ten, but who are some of the villains that really do it for you, and why?

- Alex

I’m going to be teaching an online workshop of these techniques we’ve been talking about, for the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, during the month of February, and it’s open to non-members for just $20 for the whole month-long class. Yes, I know, you’re getting it all for free, anyway, but if you’d like to sign up for a more private intensive with assignments and whip-cracking and everything, here’s the info and sign-up page. RWA and its local chapters does amazing things to promote and support authors and reading in general, so that very minimal fee goes to a good cause.



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, January 07, 2009

Why the Three Act Structure?

So what is this Three Act Structure, anyway, and why should you care?

I’ve been going over these posts and trying to fill in some gaps, and I realize that I seem to be assuming that people reading these articles would be coming to these posts with some sense of what the Three-Act Structure is.

Not necessarily true, of course, unless you go to the theater, which I’m sad to have to admit is not the case for most people these days.

So here’s a little – very short! - practical history, that I hope will really drive home the concept of Act Climaxes that we’ve been talking about.

Three Act dramatic structure comes from theater, which was around WAAAAAY before novels, film, and television; the golden age of Greek theater was, oh, 500-300 B.C., and in this period was developed the dramatic structure on which plays, novels, film and television are based.

Dramatists would be the first to point out that three-act structure is really the natural structure of a story, period, and has been employed since cavemen came back from the hunt and insisted on recounting their huge life-threatening adventures out there to the cavewomen (who naturally had great adventures of their own during the day, but were wise enough to understand even back in those cave days that there are some things men just don’t need to know).

It is often said that the essence of dramatic structure is: “Get the hero up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.”

That’s three acts right there. A little simplistic for my taste, but it does give a basic rhythm: Introduce a main character and a problem, intensify the problem, then solve it.

Another bare-bones structure summation that you hear a lot is: someone wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it (but eventually does.) Again, three parts: a heroine with a desire, opposition to the desire, and eventual triumph (or failure).

Well, that basic three-part rhythm of storytelling was set into a standard form by the ancient Greeks and is still largely the same today, not just in plays, but in all dramatic media.

Now, wait a minute, you may be saying. Shakespeare’s plays have FIVE acts.

Well, yes. But if you look at Elizabethan plays, their Acts I and II constitute what we’ve been talking about as Act 1, their Acts III and IV comprise our Act II, and Act 5 is Act 3 (shorter than the others, remember?).

Plays were THE form of storytelling for thousands of years, because most of the populace of any country couldn’t read, and there was no television yet. So, until the invention of the Gutenberg press (1436, and yes, there was moveable type in China century in 1041, but it didn’t have the world impact that the Gutenberg press did), which made the printed word available cheaply, plays were THE entertainment (music and sports are different media). The novel wasn’t even invented until – well, that’s up for debate, but anywhere from 1007 to 1740: you decide:

Candidates for the world's first novel in English
The Tale of Genji

So because they were the reigning form of dramatic entertainment for thousands of years, plays have had an indelible influence on ALL of the dramatic media. And what’s important to understand about the structure of plays is that they’re based on how long human beings can reasonably sit in one place without getting bored, restless, hungry, thirsty, and just numb in the posterior - and walking out on the show.


Same with movies. Admit it – anything over two hours and you’re going to start looking at your watch.

So plays built in the concept of intermissions, so that people could have breaks and go out and – uh - refresh themselves, and sponsors could hawk their wares and make money off the show. Commercials have history, too.

But the trick about intermissions is that once people are out in the lobby drinking and flirting and smoking and doing what they do on a Saturday night, their natural tendency is to want to keep drinking and flirting and all those things that drinking and flirting hopefully lead to.

So it was absolutely crucial for the playwright to end that first act and second act, before the intermission, with something so great that the audience would come right back into the theater when the lobby lights blink, and not just go carousing into the night.

And that’s how the cliffhanger was born. The “curtain scene”, or just “curtain”, had to be so explosive – such a startling revelation or reversal, such a dramatic shift in the power dynamics of the characters, that the audience would want to come back in to the theater after intermission to find out what happens.

And that curtain scene is alive and well today as act climaxes. In movies it’s not quite so evident because the film doesn’t actually stop for a break at the act climax, but that rhythm is definitely there. In network television, you do actually have a curtain and an intermission, called a “commercial”, and woe betide you if you want to work for television and don’t understand the concept of a cliffhanger before the act break, or “act out”. (I am not a TV writer, and this is not a TV writing article, and I’m being horribly simplistic, but the actual timing of these breaks varies according to where the commercials are set, and internet delivery of shows is going to change that drastically. For further information, is a great resource for aspiring TV writers.)

Now, when you’re reading a book, you can take your intermission any time, and you do. But as an author, you still have to lure your reader back to your book. My point here is – why not understand the concept of the curtain and possibly use the tricks that have kept audiences coming back into the theater, and back from commercial breaks, for thousands of years?

So I implore you – see a good play once in a while. No one does cliffhangers and reversals and revelations better than the great playwrights. Shakespeare, obviously, but any good playwright understands how to do this. For example, I find Lillian Hellman’s curtains just breathtaking – the whole power dynamics of a ruthless family can turn on a dime, and you can’t wait to get back into the theater to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

And that – is what we’re after, right?

Question for the day – can you give me examples of great curtains or cliffhangers – theatrical, filmic, or novelistic?


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 much more more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  E format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 14.99.

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


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

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Creating Suspense, Part 2

All right, holiday’s over, back to work.

Hmm. Maybe I’m a little surly because I’ve had to work all through the holidays, doing galley corrections on THE UNSEEN. But there is a silver lining underneath the tediousness – I’m being pleased – even surprised - with how well the suspense is working in that book, and it reminded me that I never did a follow-up on specific suspense techniques. So now I will.

Here’s the first, to refresh everyone’s memory: Creating Suspense

So this is my first overall recommendation:


After I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense.

Unlike the techniques I discussed in that first post on suspense, which are more structural in nature, you don’t have to get all of the following ones in to your first draft – in fact it’s probably more effective to use techniques like this after the structure of your story is solid. A lot of these tricks are REWRITING techniques to keep in mind for your suspense pass.


This is a huge overall suspense technique and there are many ways to achieve it.

Ask a question that you leave hanging. “But why does that mild mannered librarian have duct tape in the back of his car?” “But why won’t his stepmother let him go in that back room?” It will remain in the audience’s or reader’s mind and chafe. That sense of discomfort is a crucial element of suspense.

Another variation of this is: let a character, or many of them, lie. And then don’t have any other character call them on it. Let the reader notice the lie, let it bother them, and leave it hanging.

Use PLANTS – like showing that gun early on. Audiences and readers subliminally know that you wouldn’t be showing that gun if it wasn’t going to be used, so you set them up to expect violence.

Any twist or surprise will off-balance the reader/audience and keep them off balance. Set them up to expect one thing and give them something from left field.


A classic suspense trick is to use water or sex or a combination of the two to get the audience or reader to unconsciously relax so you can really dial them up with the attack that’s coming. We’ve all seen this a million times, so much so that it’s often now played for comedy when a character gets into the shower or bathtub in a horror movie. But again, if you do it with a little imagination, it does work for a reason. A great example is in the first ALIEN, where Harry Dean Stanton is off on his own, searching for the alien in the bowels of the ship, and stops under a broken water pipe to wash off his face. He takes his time (and so do the filmmakers) enjoying the water… we feel the heat of the steamy tunnel, and the cool of the water ourselves. It’s as hard to resist as a neck massage, and our defenses go down. Same with a sex scene. This is a big example of why sensory detail, and sensual detail, is so hugely important in creating suspense.


Within the course of your own book or film, you can literally train your reader or audience to be scared on command.

JAWS does a great thing in the first act that establishes the white-knuckling suspense that film is famous for. Spielberg kills off two people in rapid-fire succession – the girl in the opening scene, the little boy on the beach. Spielberg is quickly and efficiently training us, Pavlov-style, to expect bloody mayhem any time anyone goes near the water, and he does it so well that after those two deaths, the whole film can slow down considerably and become more about character and theme. No one dies again for more than a half hour, but we’re still on pins and needles the entire time in anticipation of the next attack.

The other classic Pavlovian technique in that film is John Williams’ now iconic score – Da dump Da dump Da dump…. Every time we hear it our own blood pressure skyrockets, because we know it signals the approach of the shark.

Note that Spielberg and Williams don’t cheat with that technique, either. When the two boys manage to scare the bejesus out of the entire swimming community with their plastic fin, there is NO shark music underneath the scene; it’s a subtle invitation to the audience to figure out the shark is a fake.

I saw another good example of that Pavlovian association recently and it is driving me crazy that I can’t remember what film it’s from. It was a low-budget J-horror, and it’s probably better for you that I don’t Google it and give you the name, because you definitely don’t want to waste your time, but it does use this technique effectively. It shows a female character with long dark hair from behind, and when she turns, her face is hideously disfigured, and we jump. Yeah, yeah, what a cliché, right? Not to mention a total ripoff of RINGU! But it works – so that every time we see a shot of this woman from behind, we freeze up in anxiety, thinking we’re going to get another view of her face.

If you set up a negative association: linking a certain shot, or location, or person, or situation, with a bad scare, then you can keep your reader/audience unbalanced by the mere suggestion of that situation or person - or shark.


One of the rules of comedy is: Always go for the joke. Well, likewise, one of the rules of suspense is: Always go for the scare.

How many times have we seen a bunch of birds fly up in a hero’s face, or a cat drop off a refrigerator (in TERMINATOR it was an iguana), freaking the heroine and audience out with a false scare? Well, while you do run the risk of cliché or outright stupidity, false scares are a staple of suspense for a reason, and if your story has gone too long without suspense, I suggest you try putting in a false scare – mainly for this reason: Very often brainstorming on a false scare will give you an idea for a real, organic, scare.


This is something I usually do in my dedicated suspense pass when I see a scene that’s just flat or too expositional. Say I have a character who needs to get some information out of a library, or from someone at an office, or in a hospital. I can have the character simply ask the appropriate personnel for help, but there’s not much suspense in that. How much better is it to have the character have to break in somewhere, or sneak in, to get that file or that book? Suddenly you have stakes, suspense, jeopardy – in a scene that could have been just flat exposition.

It’s a very simple trick, but hugely effective, and you’ll find that once you start brainstorming about why that particular file is locked up and what the danger is to the heroine if she’s caught while sneaking in to get it, the scene will come alive and possibly give a whole new layer of meaning to the story.

Again, go for the scare.


You’ve seen and probably used this yourself this a million times – a film cuts away to the killer coming back to the house when the hero is searching it. But always be looking for interesting variations on this technique. One of the most awful and heartbreaking examples I know is in PET SEMATERY, in the beautiful scene when the father and son are out flying a kite for the first time. At the end of the scene, in a simple sentence that you might miss if you’re a skimmer like I am – I’m paraphrasing because I couldn’t find the book this morning - “He had no idea that at that moment Gage had only two weeks to live.”


(Of course, I could do a whole post, and just might have to, on the structure of fate in that book. Every single thing about it leads inevitably to that horrific conclusion.)


The easiest way to make a reader feel unease is to let her or him in on the character’s unease. Let her imagine a shadowy stalker behind her (whether it’s there or not). Take your time to put your character through the physical sensations of fear, and let the reader experience the physical sensations of fear with her.


A variation on inner monologue, but very effective, when a character has a premonition of danger to come.

Again, PET SEMATERY has a great example of a premonition, when early in the book the father is carrying his son up the stairs and has a moment of sheer, unfocused, primal terror. (It’s also important in a book or film like that to warn the audience or reader that this is not going to end happily, otherwise they will feel ripped off when things go to such dark places in the end. PAN’S LABYRINTH did this well in the beginning, too… you’re prepared for the girl to die, even though you forget the beginning.)

Let’s face it, most of us do have moments like this once in a while, and premonitions are realistic in the context of a thriller because danger heightens ALL our senses and makes us more perceptive to clues around us. I very, very strongly recommend that every suspense and thriller writer read Gavin deBecker’s THE GIFT OF FEAR. It’s a non-fiction book by security consultant to the stars deBecker which provides fascinating accounts of ordinary people’s lifesaving perceptions. Unmissable, and not just for writers - it's essential self-defense stuff for all.


This may be as simple as asking a question that is set up but not answered, but you should strive to make every one of your chapters or scenes end with some sort of cliffhanger that makes that reader have to turn the page.

If you find your chapters are NOT ending with cliffhangers, then you may be breaking the chapter or scene at the wrong moment. Go back through it and see if there’s some other logical break that will create the suspense you’re looking for: break when the doorbell rings, but without revealing who’s behind the door, so that the reader will turn the page to find out who’s at the door. It really can be that simple.

Another way to amp up the urgency and make the reader want to turn the page is to have the character voice a question, either silently or aloud, that s/he really wants the answer to. If the character wants it, the reader or audience will likely want it, too.


– the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the Maltese Falcon, the file, the book – and state it often. If there’s not a specific object, have the character repeatedly ask the question that s/he wants the answer to. It may not be suspense, exactly, but it builds emotion by creating impatience and urgency and a desire in the audience to get the answer, and when the character finally finds the – whatever - the reader or audience will be just as excited as the character.

Suspense is emotional manipulation, so manipulating ANY emotion will increase the suspense of your story.

In fact, besides doing a suspense pass, I also find it hugely useful in the later stages of revision to do an EMOTIONAL PASS, in which I read a script or a manuscript putting myself into the frame of mind of the reader, and just thinking of what I want the reader/audience to be experiencing in every scene.

These are just a few specific techniques, and once you start looking for them, you’ll notice all kinds of great tricks. Why not start a section in your personal story structure workbook just for notes on suspense tricks?

And fair’s fair - share!

- 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.

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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.

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