Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ITW Thrlller Award nomination for "The Edge of Seventeen"

Lovely surprise yesterday - my story (my very FIRST short story!) "The Edge of Seventeen", from THE DARKER MASK anthology, was nominated for the ITW's Thriller award for Best Short Story.

I love that piece and am touched to have it recognized... besides which, how can I argue with being in the company of such brilliant, gorgeous and talented men as Ken Bruen, Jason Pinter, Tom Piccirilli, and John C. Boland?

Not to mention the book nominees and special awards honorees, wow...

I love my job!!



International Thriller Writers proudly announces its nominees for the 2009 Thriller Awards.

Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffrey Deaver
The Broken Window by Jeffrey Deaver
The Dark Tide by Andrew Gross
The Last Patriot by Brad Thor

Calumet City by Charlie Newton
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Criminal Paradise by Steven Thomas
Sacrifice by S. J. Bolton
The Killer’s Wife by Bill Floyd

Between the Dark and the Daylight (Ellery Queen Magazine) by Tom Piccirilli
Last Island South (Ellery Queen Magazine) by John C. Boland
The Edge of Seventeen (The Darker Mask) by Alexandra Sokoloff
The Point Guard (Killer Year Anthology) by Jason Pinter
Time of the Green (Killer Year Anthology) by Ken Bruen

The 2009 Silver Bullet Award for outstanding charitable contributions recipient is Brad Meltzer.

The 2009 ThrillerMaster, honoring an influential body of work, goes to David Morrell.

Recipients will be recognized and winners announced in New York at ThrillerFest 2009 which will take place at the Grand Hyatt, July 8-11. The banquet, where the awards will be presented, is Saturday July 11. For more information, registration and tickets, visit www.thrillerwriters.org.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Welcome Guest Blogger Jack Kilborn: Anatomy of a Horror Scene

It gives me great pleasure to welcome author Jack Kilborn today, with a preview and discussion of suspense techniques in his debut horror novel, AFRAID - by all accounts a hit even before it hits the shelves this week on March 31.

Jack Kilborn is actually the alter ego of the iniminable JA Konrath, the author of the Jack Daniels mystery series. I'm a big fan of Jack, a heroine like no other, and of Joe's funny, scary, vivid, surprisingly character-driven books.

In addition to being a terrific writer and motivational speaker, Joe hosts writes the indispensable blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. He's the best panel moderator on the planet, a generous supporter of fellow and sister authors, and a hell of a good time in -- I mean, at parties.

Welcome, Jack and Joe!


Anatomy of a Horror Scene

A guest post by Jack Kilborn

Thanks, Alex, for having me on your wonderful blog. The writing rules you post here are spot-on, and they're must-reads for writers. It's a bit intimidating, because today I'm going to attempt to explicate a section of my own writing.

This is from my technohorror novel, AFRAID, being released on March 31. I've annotated an early scene from the book with numbers that lead to footnotes at the bottom of the page. After reading the excerpt, you can check out the associated notes to learn why I did what I did, sort of like a DVD commentary.

The set-up is simple; a boy alone in his house at night...


Duncan Stauffer awoke to the sound of Woof barking. Woof was supposed to be a beagle, but Duncan had a lot of dog books and decided that Woof looked more like a basset hound. Woof was pudgy, with stubby legs and floppy ears and sad red eyes. It was funny because even though his eyes were sad, Woof played all the time. All the time. Duncan wondered how he could be so fat, since he ran around all day. (1)

Woof barked again, and Duncan sat up. The dog normally slept on Duncans bed, sprawled out on his back with his legs in the air. He only left to get a drink of water, let himself out through the doggy door to poop (Mom called it doing his dirty business), or greet Mom when she came home from the diner.

Duncan looked over at his SpongeBob digital clock next to the bed, but it wasnt on for some reason. Instead he checked his Dads watch, which he wore all the time since Mom had the links removed so it could fit.

The watch told him it was twelve forty-three.

Woof barked once more, a deep, loud bark that sounded exactly like his name, which was the reason Duncan named him Woof. But this wasnt the welcome home bark that Woof used when Mom came home. This was Woofs warning bark, the one he used for his fiercest enemies, like the squirrel who had a nest in the maple tree out front, or the Johnsons gray cat, who liked to hiss at Woof and scare him. (2)

Woof! Come here, boy!

Duncan waited. Normally, Woof came running when Duncan called, jumping on him and bathing his face with a tongue that was longer than Duncans foot.

But Woof didnt come.

Mom! Duncan called. You home?

No one answered. (3)

Duncan didnt mind being by himself while Mom worked late. He was ten years old, which was practically an adult. His mom used to insist that he have a babysitter, and the one she usually got was Mrs. Teller, who was all bent over because she was so old and sometimes she smelled like pee. Duncan liked her okay, but she made him go to bed early, and wouldnt let him watch his favorite shows on TV like South Park because they said bad words, and she always wanted to talk about her husband who died years ago.

Duncan didnt like to talk about death.

After a long session with Dr. Walker, the therapist convinced Mom that Duncan was mature enough to stay home alone, if thats what Duncan wanted. Which he did. Duncan knew what to do in the case of any emergency. Hed taken the Stranger Danger class in school. He had three planned escape routes if there was a fire. He knew not to let anyone in the house, and how to call 911, and to never cook on the stove or use the fireplace or take a bath while home alone. He thought Mom was being a little crazy about the bath thing, like Duncan would fall asleep in the tub and drown. But he listened to Mom anyway, and she trusted him, and for the three months hed been without a babysitter it had worked out fine. Duncan hadnt gotten scared once.

Until now. (4)

Woof! Duncan yelled again.

Woof didnt come.

It was possible his dog had gone outside, to do his dirty business. Or maybe he saw the Johnsons cat and went to chase him, even though the cat scared Woof a lot.

Or maybe something got him.

Duncan would never admit it to anyone, not even his best friend Jerry Halprin, but he sometimes believed monsters were real. He wasnt scared of monsters, exactly. He loved watching monster movies, and reading R.L. Stine books with monsters in them, but deep down he thought maybe monsters really did exist.

He didnt tell this to Dr. Walker, but when they had the car accident, and Mom thought Duncan was unconscious in the back seat, he wasnt really unconscious. He saw what happened to Dad, how bloody he was. For weeks afterwards, Duncan had horrible nightmares about monsters, biting and clawing and ripping up him and Mom, making them bleed and die. Since he got Woof, most of the nightmares had gone away.

But sitting in his bed, holding his breath and waiting for his dog to come, Duncan wondered if maybe a monster got Woof. (5)

Then he heard itthe jingle of metal tags from Woofs dog collar, just down the hallway.

Woof! he yelled, happily. He tucked his legs under his butt so when Woof hopped on the bed he wouldnt step on them, and waited in the dark for his dog to come.

But Woof didnt come.

Duncan listened hard, then called Woofs name again. He heard jingling, in the hall.

Come on, Woof, Duncan urged.

The jingling got a little closer, then stopped. What was wrong with that dog? (6)

Speak, Woof!

Woof, who didnt really need to be told to speak because he spoke all the time, still loved to follow that command because he usually got a treat afterward. But Woof stayed quiet. Duncan wondered if he was maybe hurt, which is why he stopped barking. (7)

Duncan reached over to the light switch on the wall behind him. He flipped it up. It didnt do anything. He tried flicking it up and down a few times, but his bedroom light didnt come on. The electricity must be out, Duncan thought. Or maybe a monster stole the light bulb. (8)

Woof! Duncan said it hard, the way Mom did when Woof did his dirty business on the kitchen floor.

Woofs collar jingled, and Duncan heard him pant. But the dog stayed in the hallway. Did Woof want him to come there for some reason? Or was he afraid of something in the bedroom?

Duncan peeled back the covers and climbed out of bed. The house was warm but he shivered anyway. Mom made him wear pajamas when she was home, but on the nights she worked Duncan liked to sleep in his underwear. He wished he had his pajamas on now. Being almost naked made him feel small and alone. (9)

The room was too dark to see, and Duncan walked by memory, heading for the doorway to the hall, hands out in front of him like a zombie to stop him from bumping into walls. After some groping he found the door and stopped before walking through.

Woofs collar jingled, only a few feet in front of him. The panting got louder.

Whats the matter, boy?

Duncan knelt down and held out his hands, waiting for the dog to approach. When Woof didnt, Duncan felt goosebumps break out all over. He knew something was wrong, really wrong. Maybe Mom was right about leaving him home all alone. Maybe something bad happened to Woof, and Duncan wouldnt be able to help him because he was just a kid. (10)

Duncan stood up and reached for the hall light switch, but it didnt go on. So he pressed the button on his Dads watch and the blue bezel light came on, which was bright enough for him to see the man standing in the hallway, jingling Woofs collar and panting. (11)


(1) This is our introduction to Duncan and his point of view. It begins with Duncan jarred from his sleep by his dog, Woof, who is key to the scene. Prior to this scene, the reader knows it is night time, and his mother isn't home.

(2) While thinking in Duncan's voice, I'm establing some things in rapid succession. Duncan's mom should be home, Woof normally doesn't bark, and Duncan doesn't have a father.

(3) The reader, aware of what is happening elsewhere in the book, knows Duncan is probably in trouble, but doesn't know what form the trouble is going to take.

(4) Backstory on Duncan, establishing he's a smart, responsible kid who had some sort of tragedy in his past. It also introduces Mrs. Teller, who comes into the book later. Duncan isn't scared yet, because he doesn't know what the reader knows.

(5) Now the reader knows the tragedy, and Duncan is starting to get scared.

(6) The jingling collar is a device that's familiar to Duncan, and puts him at easy. But the jingling soon becomes sinister, because Woof isn't coming.

(7) Woof isn't acting the way he should, and now Duncan expresses concern for his dog, rather than himself. Selflessness is a trait of heroes. But at the same time, the reader doesn't want Duncan to go look for his dog, knowing it isn't going to end well.

(8) More problems with common, everyday things people take for granted. Woof normally comes when he calls. Lights usually turn on. But things aren't normal, and Duncan is now becoming frightened.

(9) The hero has been called to action, and the reader hopefully wishes he would just get the hell out of there. More ont he jingling motif, now with panting as well.

(10) Duncan's fear reaches its peak, his anxieties replace his confidence, and he recognizes his true limitiations, even though earlier he beleived he could handle anything.

(11) Here's the shocker. It isn't his dog panting and jingling his collar. It's a strange man in his house.


Fear, like humor, is subjective, so this scene may not have scared you. But it was deliberately written to do so.

Duncan already has reader sympathy because we've met his mother, who is also in trouble. He's a child, he has a dog, and he seems like a good kid--all done on purpose to make him likeable. So we don't want to see anything bad happen to him.

The cadence of Duncan's interior monologue is specifically patterned after my son's, to make him sound like a child.

I begin the scene with him being woken up. Waking up is never pleasant. Being jarred awake by something out of the ordinary, with Mom not home, is starting in the middle of the action.

I used mundane things going wrong--both the sound cues of the dog collar and the clock and lights being out--to increase both Duncan's and the reader's anxiety. Both want to know where Woof is, why he was barking and now isn't, why he won't respond. Presenting this conflict without revelaing the answer right away makes the reader wonder what is going on, and keep reading to find out.

The backstory, which touches on the tragedy Duncan faced and his fight to grow past it, make the stakes even higher for the poor kid.

Then, when he finally goes to investigate, BAM! The reveal. And this reveal is the worst possible outcome for Duncan, having his dog gone and a weirdo toying with him.

Having someone break into your house to hurt or kill you is bad. Having someone tease you first is really bad.

It's even worse for the reader, because the previous scenes have featured a lot of death and mayhem. Even this early in the story (page 48) I've already killed off a sympathetic character, so all bets are off when it comes to my characters' safety.

At the end of the scene, I skip to another POV. AFRAID doesn't have chapters; it quickly bounces from one character in jeopardy to the next. The reason behind this is to not give the reader any chance to put the book down. Each scene ends on a cliffhanger, the stakes getting higher and higher.

Obviously, I can't accurately judge my own work, because I'm biased. I'll leave it up to the readers to decide if AFRAID is scary or not. If you'd like to hear what other people are saying, or read a much longer excerpt for free, please visit my website at www.JackKilborn.com.

Pleasant dreams...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Collecting Character

I’ve been procrastinating about making my list of personal favorite protagonists to analyze here. Actually, I’ve made it, but what came up was complicated in a way I wasn’t expecting and I haven’t had time to put in words what I learned when I did it.

The truth is, I’m still, STILL struggling with this question of “How do you create character?”

Now, you’d think that would be the easiest thing in the world for a writer to answer, right? As essential skills go, that’s about as basic as it gets. And here I’ve even been writing about it, lately. But the more I write about it, the more I realize I don’t think about it, I just do it.

But this is my theory for the day. I think all writers are always collecting characters as we go along. Not just characters of course, we’re collecting EVERYTHING. Bits and pieces of story. An interesting dynamic between people. A theme. A great character back story. A cool occupation. The look of someone’s eyes. A burning ambition. Hundreds of thousands of bits of flotsam and jetsam that we stick in the back of our minds like the shelves full of buttons and ribbons and fabrics and threads and beads in a costumer’s shop. Or like the prop warehouse that was in the vast basement under the theater at Berkeley – cages and cages and cages of (somewhat) categorized props – medieval, Renaissance, Greek, sci fi, fantasy.

To completely shift metaphors, I could also say that we take clippings of people, like you take clippings of plants, and grow them in a vast mental greenhouse until they’re fully formed or at least formed enough to plant somewhere where they will take root on their own.

The truth is I rarely start a story from a character – it’s usually more a situation, although the situation will usually dictate quite a bit about the characters involved. If I want to write a story about a haunting in an old Victorian college dorm, that dictates that the main characters are going to be college kids. College kids have to have majors and it’s more interesting to have contrasting characters so assigning contrasting majors is going to further define character. I think books without sex are pretty much useless (at least to me) so that means at least some of these characters are going to be what I consider sexy, and my odd and eclectic personal tastes in all that is going to give at least some of these people an edge. Also my personal theories about how a haunting happens is going to have a huge influence on the psychology of these characters, and so on, and so on. So, yes, I can sort of fake an explanation about how I build characters from scratch.

But I think what happens more often than not is that at a certain point in outlining a plot, some of these characters I have growing or cooking back there in the costume shop or green house or prop warehouse or whatever you want to call it just step forth and take their place in the situation. Not only that (to confuse the metaphors all to hell), I think I have some actual ACTORS back there in my mental wings who are able to play different parts. There are certain characters who keep showing up in my writing, maybe heavily disguised and people don’t even necessarily recognize that they’re the same character, but I know it’s the same entity. Actors.

So yes, there are techniques you can use – give a character a burning desire (in the story AND in each scene) and a terrible secret, give them an arc, give them good scenes to play, give them dialogue tics, use shadow forms of mental disorders to define them, use Greek and other archetypes to define them...

But the real secret for me is - always be collecting. The grossly obese, anal retentive project manager of the construction that’s currently making life in my neighborhood a misery, and his skinny hawk-nosed weaselly media relations sidekick – you better believe they’re going to end up villains in a piece, and die oh-so-violently.

The good and the bad - you have to invite those potential characters in and let them live and grow inside your head. Yes, it gets pretty crowded in there after a while... but it’s all worth it when that perfect character for a scene or the perfect villain or protagonist just walks out onto the page, fully formed.

So is this ringing any bells, or is that just totally me?

Have you collected anyone or anything interesting lately?

- Alex


I’m very pleased - or scared - to announce that tomorrow I will be hosting J.A. Konrath on the nine hundred and forty-ninth stop on his mind-boggling blog tour for his new horror novel, AFRAID, written under his pen name, Jack Kilborn. Joe, or Jack, depending on who shows up, will be breaking down a scene from AFRAID to analyze the suspense techniques he uses.

I can’t wait!


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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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Creating character - the protagonist

To continue this discussion on what makes a great protagonist, I am collecting some elements that go into a main character that some of you who have been reading faithfully will have heard before. But I think it’s important to have all of this in one place, to maintain some illusion of order, and there’s extra stuff in here, so bear with me!

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I have said before, and will reiterate now: while I am perfectly comfortable expounding about how to structure a story, I am not so comfortable explaining how to create character.

I think – I’m pretty positive, really - that 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.

And I think we all have our own processes for creating character, especially our main characters, who may very well be some version of ourselves… or who may arrive breaking down some door in your mind and demanding to be written about. Some people dream characters whole. All of that is fantastic. I would never in any way want to get in the way of whatever someone else’s process is - and the only real rule I think there is for writing is – Whatever works. And I mean, anything.

To be perfectly honest, creating character is 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 J.D. 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 do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best general advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s excellent AUDITION, which is about so much more than auditioning, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, even on a basic level, and it will translate to writing.

The fact is, if you’ve gotten so far as to be actually writing a book or script, chances are you have a main character already, either in mind, or very developed. So whatever that is, and however you got there, I don’t want to interfere with that!

But besides being a person who may already be more real to you than most of the people you know, a protagonist is also a function in a story. And knowing the classic components of a protagonist can help you focus your story, and also broaden and deepen the qualities you already know about your character. So let’s take a look at some of them.


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

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

So you, the writer, have to know your character’s inner and outer desires and how they conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


For any story you write, there are certain big arcs that most characters fall into. One is a hero/ine who starts the story in emotional trouble if not actual physical trouble (generally brought on the emotional problem!), who takes the journey of the story, is forced to confront her or his deficiencies, overcomes them, and triumphs - to win a goal that was probably not the goal s/he started out with, but is clearly what s/he really needed all along. (This is the most common character arc).

A second pattern is an innocent hero/ine who triumphs over evil and opposition and wins her/his goal through sheer goodness. (THE WIZARD OF OZ and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE are good examples). The heroine and hero in those stories don’t have huge character arcs (although both characters gain in personal strength); the lesson for us (the reader or audience) is a more general one of how virtue and passion and doing the right thing are rewarded (and hopefully we the reader or audience are inspired by the story to be virtuous ourselves.).

A third pattern, though, is a hero who fails or falls. THE GODFATHER shows the moral fall of Michael Corleone (even as he rises in societal stature). CHINATOWN shows the fall of Jake Gittes, despite his sincere and determined attempts to do the right thing. While Michael Corleone makes the choices he makes deliberately (although the pressure of family history weighs heavily); Jake is a pawn, up against the greater forces of a malevolent universe. The only thing Jake learns in CHINATOWN is that his best efforts are useless; he should have learned his lesson long ago that the only way to survive and not do damage is to do “as little as possible.”


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

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

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

This all goes to re-emphasize the underlying point of ALL of these blogs: different genres have very different story structures, and you need to study and understand the classic tricks and expectations of your own genre. That’s why I so adamantly advocate creating your own, personalized story structure workbook.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that if you think you might be writing a Mysterious Stranger story, then you should make a list of Mysterious Stranger stories and take a look at the patterns of those stories and what other storytellers have done with them. It will give you no end of interesting ideas for your own story.


A classic pattern of drama is that the hero/ine has a wound from the past – a traumatic event, a lost love, the death of a friend, alcoholism, the loss of faith, that continues to haunt her or him in the present, and which s/he will be forced to confront in living color in the course of the story – generally in the climax of the story. (As we discussed about CHINATOWN – Jake gets involved with a case that takes him metaphorically and physically right back into Chinatown.). Clarice Starling’s wound is her trauma over witnessing the slaughter of the spring lambs as an orphaned child – and being unable to save the lamb she tries to kidnap. In the climax of SILENCE, Clarice must fight a psychotic killer to save a young woman from being slaughtered.

This recreation and reliving of a past trauma is a staple of drama for a reason: a lot of psychologists would say that that's the human condition, the "repetition compulsion", Freud called it: we all unconsciously seek out people, events and situations that duplicate our core trauma (s), in the hope of eventually triumphing over the situation that so wounded us.

In many stories the wound or ghost is more akin to a family curse. Michael Corleone is unable to escape the long shadow of his family business, and his particularly powerful father.

I must caution you that it’s very easy to slip into clichés, where ghosts are concerned. The young father who has recently lost his wife and feels unable to find love, the cop whose partner was killed in front of him in the line of duty, the FBI agent whose brother or sister was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. Okay, I admit that one of the most excellent recent series I’ve read has a variation on that last ghost for the hero (In Mo Hayder’s BIRDMAN, and mindblowing sequel THE TREATMENT, the detective has a brother he believes was murdered by a child molester), but realistically, how many people really go into police work because they have family members who have been killed by serial killers? It seems like every other fictional detective I read these days has that backstory. I eventually suspended my disbelief for those two books because they’re so amazingly well-written, and Hayder eventually puts an incredible twist on that backstory, although not until the second book. But it’s a gamble when you decide to employ a cliché like that. They say all the great stories have already been told, but that one’s been told just a few too many times for my taste. I’m sure you can come up with a few pet peeve clichés of your own!


Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. There's a whole discussion on that here:
Character Introductions


The characters you surround your main character with will tell us a lot about your main character.

In real life our families, friends and significant others say volumes about who we are as people – through both the choices that we’ve made and the things that we had no choice about. It’s exactly the same in books and films: the characters who surround your hero/ine should be characters in their own right, but they also reflect a lot about your hero/ine. Let’s look at just a few examples:


The person whom the protagonist is fighting is often a dark mirror of the protagonist; in many stories we see that it wouldn’t take much for the hero/ine to become the antagonist, metaphorically speaking. In fact, Belloq says pretty much exactly that in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The hero/ine and the antagonist often want the same thing, whether it’s an actual object, like the lost Ark of the Covenant; or money; or a power, like control of a town (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) or a country (THE LION IN WINTER), or a family (ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST); or a person: a child (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), or a lover (five billion romantic comedies). And sometimes the only thing that distinguishes the protagonist from the antagonist is what methods they’re willing to use to get what they want; the hero/ine, we hope, is moral about it (though crossing the line is almost an inevitable part of any story), and the antagonist is willing to lie, cheat, hurt or kill for it.


The sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister – all of these can illuminate different sides of the protagonist (see the post just below this one for a specific discussion of how the employees of Jake Gittes’ detective agency dramatize the two conflicting sides of Jake himself).


The annoying – I mean, amazing - thing about a good mentor is that they know the protagonist better than the protagonist knows her or himself. From Glinda to Yoda to Hannibal Lecter, the mentor often represents the hero/ine’s higher power or superego, sometimes both, and always holds the key to the life lesson the hero/ine most needs to learn. And the great thing about a mentor character is that they’re allowed to be on the nose and say exactly what it is that the hero/ine needs and wants, and why they’re too screwed up to ever get it (unless of course they do exactly as the mentor tells them to).


This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor. The object of desire is very often the opposite of the hero/ine – and thus represents all the qualities that the hero/ine needs to become whole.


The first visuals we get of a character: where she is, what the weather is like, what she's wearing, what her relationship is to her surroundings, the general atmosphere - all serve to give us a picture of what's going on inside her head - are all great ways to introduce us to deep character. Just the place that she's in can be thematic.

I introduce Robin in THE HARROWING in a classroom with an unnervingly violent storm outside. She is surrounded by people but completely isolated, in her own head, and dressed all in black, and the phrases that jump out at her from the professor's lecture are ominous, even irrational. I think we get a good sense that this girl is in psychological trouble and should definitely not be left alone on campus to fend for herself, which is exactly what is about to happen.

I introduce Will in THE PRICE as alone in a freezing, silent chapel tucked away in a back corridor of a hospital. He's dressed in an expensive, power suit, but he is helpless and desperate and alone; trying to pray but completely unable to. But he also is carrying a live bunny rabbit in his suit, sneaking it into the hospital as a present for his daughter. I think - hope! all of those visuals combine to give us a layered sense of who this man is from the very beginning of the book, and make us want to find out more about him, and even maybe go on this difficult journey with him.

Now, in novels, I realize that we have more time to get to know a character than film gives us, and the knowledge we gain about a character is more cumulative. I think in novels the main character very often is a role that we take on ourselves, and we LIVE the character more than observe them. That's what having access to a character's internal thoughts does for us. (And I’ll go more into that next post).

And obviously if a book is in first person, those first few sentences from the character to the reader are especially crucial, because that’s the character TALKING to us. So character voice, in first person, is as important as the visual. But the visual is key, and here’s where that collage book I talked about here can really help you detail your main character.


I am not going to get into advice like writing out a 30-page biography on your character. If that’s what you do to create character, you’re probably already doing it. Personally I always do a timeline based on the character’s age so I can see what was going on in his or her society and world when s/he was at various stages of life - from wars to music. But one thing I’ve found invaluable to me in understanding and creating character is archetypes (read your Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler!), and I particularly respond to Greek archetypes. One of the most useful books I’ve ever read on character, and I mean ever, is Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen’s books GODDESSES IN EVERYWOMAN and GODS IN EVERYMAN – both fascinating analyses of how the Greek gods and goddesses are still alive and well in our own personalities. Start reading and you’ll see instantly how applicable these books are to creating character.

I also recommend the book SHADOW SYNDROMES, by John J. Ratey, which breaks down how personality disorders like schizophrenia, sadistic personality disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc., can manifest in ordinary personalities in a more subtle form. And of course Myers-Briggs tests are always helpful in honing in on character; other writers swear by the Enneagram and that old standard, astrology.

So I’d love to hear what you all have to say about how you create character. Does the main character come first for you, and then the story? What are your personal methods for expanding on and deepening character? Any favorite books on character, or that help you with creating character – whether they’re about writing or not?

- 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.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What Makes a Great Protagonist? (Case study: Jake Gittes)

(Yes, amazing, she’s actually doing a post on character!)

In the middle of this CHINATOWN story breakdown and analysis it has struck me that the character of Jake Gittes is a virtual textbook all on his own on techniques of creating a great character. So I wanted to do a dedicated post on all – well, some - of the character techniques that went into Jake Gittes that helped create a tragic and iconic detective for the ages.

First, they got Jack Nicholson to play Jake.

(Do that and your work is done, right?)

But that casting was no accident. Robert Towne wrote the part specifically for Jack Nicholson, who was NOT a star at the time, although he was rising. Towne used Nicholson’s voice, his mannerisms, his attitude, to develop a colorful, complicated fully-realized lead.

I’ve talked before about writing a character for a specific actor. And as authors, we can use this technique even more easily than screenwriters can - because we don’t have to go out and get the actor to play the part (and then compromise later with the ninth choice on our wish list). We can write any actor we please into any part we choose. So why not take advantage of that happy position of unlimited power?

Reread THE FIRM and tell me Grisham didn’t write that character for Tom Cruise (at the age he was when the book came out). Then look at Grisham’s THE PELICAN BRIEF – Darby IS Julia Roberts, right? This writing-for-actors technique works, not just to create bestselling novels, but also to help you nail your intended actors when the book is made into a movie. (In fact Nicholson not only signed on to play the role, according to Polanski himself, Nicholson was instrumental in getting Polanski to agree to direct. That’s what happens when a smart actor has a vested interest in getting a movie made).

So there’s one major technique right there – Write for a specific actor.

But what else went into the creation of Jake Gittes?

Now, when you’re writing a detective as your main character, whether that detective is a cop, a PI like Jake, or an amateur, a lot of your choices are already made for you. You know there’s going to be a mystery, or a murder, or another crime - or a combination of all three of those things, and that the detective’s outer desire is going to be to solve that crime or mystery (and usually also to avoid being killed by the person s/he is pursuing). The incredible advantage of having all those choices already built in to a character probably has a lot to do with why so many authors and screenwriters choose to write in this genre.

The downside is that detectives have been done so often that it can be hard to do anything unique with the character.

Robert Towne hits a lot of classic points with Jake. I’d like to take them one by one.

1. Jake is a hero with a GHOST, or WOUND:

He used to be a cop working in L.A.’s Chinatown, where nothing was as it seemed and where Jake’s best efforts to help a woman ended up with her getting hurt instead. Though we never learn the details of the incident, apparently it was bad enough that Jake quit the police force and now is wasting his talents on divorce work. And the case he is about to take on will take him metaphorically and physically right back into Chinatown. He will be forced to relive his haunted past.

(And that recreation and reliving of a past trauma is a staple of drama for a reason: a lot of psychologists would say that that's the human condition, the "repetition compulsion": we all unconsciously seek out people, events and situations that duplicate our core trauma (s), in the hope of eventually triumphing over the situation that so wounded us.)

2. CHINATOWN is a “Hero Falls” story.

When we meet him, Jake seems on the surface to be doing pretty well. Whatever happened in Chinatown, it doesn’t seem to consume him. His business is good, he’s making good money, he’s not a broken down alcoholic or basket case, he keeps a sense of humor about things. But there’s a good reason the filmmakers start Jake on a fairly even keel.

For any story you write, there are certain big arcs that most characters fall into. One is a hero/ine who starts the story in emotional trouble if not actual physical trouble (generally brought on the emotional problem!), who takes the journey of the story, is forced to confront her or his deficiencies, overcomes them, and triumphs - to win a goal that was probably not the goal s/he started out with, but is clearly what s/he really needed all along. (This is the most common character arc).

A second pattern is an innocent hero/ine who triumphs over evil and opposition and wins her/his goal through sheer goodness. (THE WIZARD OF OZ and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE are good examples). The heroine and hero in those stories don’t have huge character arcs (although both characters gain in personal strength); the lesson for us (the reader or audience) is a more general one of how virtue and passion and doing the right thing are rewarded (and hopefully we the reader or audience are inspired by the story to be virtuous ourselves.).

A third pattern, though, is a hero who fails or falls. THE GODFATHER shows the moral fall of Michael Corleone (even as he rises in societal stature). CHINATOWN shows the fall of Jake Gittes, despite his sincere and determined attempts to do the right thing. While Michael Corleone makes the choices he makes deliberately (although the pressure of family history weighs heavily); Jake is a pawn, up against the greater forces of a malevolent universe. The only thing Jake learns in CHINATOWN is that his best efforts are useless; he should have learned his lesson long ago that the only way to survive is to do “as little as possible.”

So CHINATOWN begins with a protagonist who we come to understand is wounded, but doing better, and the mystery that presents itself to him as the case seems to offer a chance for Jake’s complete redemption (and the chance of love). The uniqueness of CHINATOWN, of course, and the reason it would not be made as a film today, is that the case that Jake (unconsciously) and we (consciously) hoped would redeem him destroys him instead.

This was a bold choice of the filmmakers (and it was not Towne’s original intention; it was Polanski who pushed for the tragic ending), and sets the story far apart from most Hollywood offerings; one might say it out-noirs most noir as well.

But there are other, more subtle techniques going on here to define Jake.

There is a character who is the protagonist’s mirror

A lot of Jake’s BACKSTORY, GHOST, INNER and OUTER DESIRE are dramatized through the character of Lt. Escobar. Escobar is Jake’s mirror – the man he could have been, in the position Jake could have been in now, had he stayed on the police force instead of quitting to go into private investigations. Escobar got out of Chinatown without quitting the force, and rose from there. When Jake is with Escobar we see Jake’s regret about quitting, his longing to be doing real police work (inner desire). Escobar is a character serves as both an antagonist, sometimes (actually dramatizing Jake’s internal opposition) and an ally. It’s terrific storytelling that Jake’s backstory is dramatized, brought to life with this character from his past.

The character’s inner and outer desires are in conflict

On the surface, Jake wants to do his not very taxing work, make money, and live the good life – doing, as he later says, “as little as possible.” This seems to mean he wants it easy, but we will find that he adopted this philosophy when doing his best to help someone resulted in tragedy.

Jake’s inner desire becomes more and more clear as the story progresses. From the beginning of his investigation of Mulwray, we see that Jake is both a very good investigator and a very passionate detective – he loves doing the work of uncovering a mystery, and his interactions with Escobar make us realize that he loved and misses police work. But even more – and he says this aloud – he wants to help people. He says to Evelyn that he wants to help her husband; after her husband dies he wants to help Evelyn, and when he finds out about Katherine he wants to help both women. So his inner desire is to use his substantial detective skills to help people.

So two great techniques going on there:

- Give us a character with inner and outer desires in conflict and let us see the inner desire start to triumph, and

- Dramatize the hero/ine’s inner desire – and have him or her state it aloud.

There are two characters who represent the hero’s good and bad angels, or two contrasting sides of his personality.

We see two conflicting sides of Jake in the dialogue and in Nicholson’s performance – he can be smart, sophisticated and charming; but he’s also crass, earthy and inappropriate. He’ll make an astute observation (like telling Evelyn that in his “métier” he doesn’t come across people who say they’re relieved to find out their spouse is cheating unless they themselves are cheating…) and then he turns around and undercuts it with a crude remark (he tells her that she changed her mind “quicker than wind out of a duck’s ass”)

These two different and often conflicting sides of Jake’s personality are physically represented by Walsh and Duffy, Jake’s operatives. Walsh is the serious, perceptive operative, focused to the point of being nerdy, and emotionally insightful and compassionate (he knows when to shut up and listen, he is the one who tries to comfort Jake in the final moments of the movie). Duffy is big, loud, crassly charming, and focused on sex and money – another side of Jake’s personality.

This is an easy technique to use and massively effective in developing both character and overall theme: you can see it in operation in Star Wars (Luke is a combination of the intellect of Ben Kenobi and the derring-do of Han Solo), and Star Trek (James Kirk is constantly having to balance the emotional id advice of Bones McCoy and the cold, rational superego advice of Spock).

There is a character who is the protagonist’s doppelganger.

Part of the eerie power of CHINATOWN is the relationship between Jake Gittes and Hollis Mulwray: the man he is initially hired to follow and whom he never actually meets. But Jake doesn’t just follow in Mulwray’s footsteps while on the case; he actually takes the same journey that Mulwray does: both investigating the water scam that’s going on and trying to help Evelyn and her daughter/sister. And both men are equally doomed. It’s a mesmerizing and haunting technique that gives this film a mythic resonance, and makes Jake more than just an ordinary hero, but a tragic figure.

The storytellers give the protagonist clever “business”.

There are scenes throughout the film that are deliberately designed to show how clever Jake is as a detective – some of the most memorable bits in the movie. Jake places a watch under the tire of Mulwray’s car to record what time Mulwray leaves the water pipe. He takes business cards from Yelburton, the Deputy Chief of the Water Department, and uses the card later to gain access to a crime scene at the reservoir. He understands instantly that something is fishy about a drunk drowning in the bone-dry L.A. River bed. He delights in torturing Yelburton’s secretary with his whistling and humming and wandering around the office and relentless questions until she caves and lets him in to see Yelburton. He steals the page he needs from a map in the Hall of Records by borrowing a ruler from the snippy clerk and then laying the ruler across the page and coughing to cover the sound of the page tearing. These often comic scenes are endearing and also make us admire and empathize with Jake. It’s a good idea to start becoming aware of how actors and filmmakers and novelists build character through this kind of business, and then ask yourself what kinds of scenes you could give your own protagonist to let his or her personality shine through.

The character goes to extremes

Another character trait that makes Jake unique is that he will not give up, even to the point of absurdity. For half the movie he has an enormous bandage plastered on his nose because it was cut by one of the goons working for the Water Department. You rarely see a protagonist in a thriller or drama looking like such a buffoon, but valiantly continuing the case in spite of it all, and it certainly sets Jake apart from most heroes.

The character has archetypal or mythic resonance.

And of course it helps that Jake Gittes is deliberately based on one of the all-time classic protagonists of world literature. Not that he has a lot in common with Oedipus, really, but even the slight resonance with Oedipus’s tragic blindness to his own culpability, and the deliberate references to the very first detective story, goes a long way toward making Jake a haunting character.

In the climax, the protagonist must confront his greatest nightmare

This is a very important point: in the climax of CHINATOWN, Jake finds himself (actually deliberately drives himself) right back into the same situation that almost crushed in him in his past. The climax externalizes Jake's GHOST, or WOUND: he is in Chinatown again, a wonderful, seedy, ominous visual, and he's trying to save another woman, two of them this time, when the last time all his best efforts to save a woman in Chinatown resulted in her getting hurt (in some way that was awful enough that he quit the police force). The lesson here is - spend some quality time figuring out how to bring your hero/ine's greatest nightmare to life: in setting, set decoration, characters involved, actions taken. If you know your hero/ine's ghost and greatest fear, then you should be able to come up with a great setting that will be unique, resonant, and entirely specific to that protagonist (and often to the villain as well.)

So what I hope you get from this post is a glimpse of how breaking down what techniques go into creating a specific character can teach you some tricks to use for your own characters.

I bet you can guess my next suggestion and blog, too. Make a list of YOUR top ten hero/ines, some from films, some from books, like we did with villains, here: What Makes a Great Villain?, and let’s take a look at what turns you on in a protagonist.

- 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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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Your first draft is always going to suck

It’s an interesting thing about blogging – it’s made us able to get a glimpse of hundreds of people’s lives on a moment-by-moment basis. I don’t have a lot of time (well, more to the point, I have no time at all) to read other blogs; I can barely keep up with posting to Murderati and my own blog. But I do click through on people’s signature lines sometimes to see what they’re up to; it’s an extension of my natural writerly voyeurism.

And a certain pattern has emerged with the not-yet-published writers I spy on.

It goes something like this: “My current WIP is stalled, so I’ve been working on a short story.” “I’ve gotten nothing done on my WIP this week.” “I have reached the halfway point and have no idea where to go from here.” “I had a great idea for a new book this week and I’ve been wondering if I should just give up on my WIP and start on this far superior idea.”

Do you start to see what I’m seeing? People are getting about midway through a book, and then lose interest, or have no idea where to go from where they currently are, or realize that a different idea is superior to what they’re working on and panic that they’re wasting their time with the project they’re working on, and hysteria ensues.

So I wanted to take today’s blog to say this, because it really can’t be said often enough.

Your first draft always sucks.

I’ve been a professional writer for almost all of my adult life and I’ve never written anything that I didn’t hit the wall on, at one point or another. There is always a day, week, month, when I will lose all interest in the project I’m working on. I will realize it was insanity to think that I could ever write the fucking thing to begin with, or that anyone in their right mind would ever be interested in it, much less pay me for it. I will be sure that I would rather clean houses (not my own house, you understand, but other people’s) than ever have to look at the story again.

And that stage can last for a good long time. Even to the end of the book, and beyond, for months, in which I will torture my significant other for week after week with my daily rants about how I will never be able to make the thing make any sense at all and will simply have to give back the advance money.

And I am not the only one. Not by a long shot. It’s an occupational hazard that MOST of the people I know are writers, and I would say, based on anecdotal evidence, that this is by far the majority experience - even though there are a few people (or so they say) who revise as they’re going along and when they type “The End” they actually mean it. Hah. I have no idea what that could possibly feel like,

Even though you will inevitably end up writing on projects that SHOULD be abandoned, you cannot afford to abandon ANY project. You must finish what you start, no matter how you feel about it. If that project never goes anywhere, that’s tough, I feel your pain. But it happens to all of us. You do not know if you are going to be able to pull it off or not. The only way you will ever be able to pull it off is to get in the unwavering, completely non-negotiable habit of JUST DOING IT.

Your only hope is to keep going. Sit your ass down in the chair and keep cranking out your non-negotiable minimum number of daily pages, or words, in order, until you get to the end.

This is the way writing gets done.

Some of those pages will be decent, some of them will be unendurable. All of them will be fixable, even if fixing them means throwing them away. But you must get to the end, even if what you’re writing seems to make no sense of all.

You have to finish.

I’ve had a couple of weeks in which my page marker has not moved past the number 198 because I keep deleting. Nothing I write makes any sense. I don’t have enough characters, I’m not giving the characters I have enough time in these scenes, I have no conception of yacht terminology and am spending hours of my days researching only to find I’m more confused about how things work on a boat than when I started.

I have Hit. The. Wall.

Yeah, yeah, cue World’s Smallest Violin.

Because – so what?

It always happens. I’m not special.

At some point you will come to hate what you're writing. That's normal. That pretty much describes the process of writing. It never gets better. But you MUST get over this and FINISH. Get to the end, and everything gets better from there, I promise. You will learn how to write in layers, and not care so much that your first draft sucks. Everyone's first draft sucks. It's what you do from there that counts.

That is not to say you can't set aside a special notebook and take 15 minutes a day AFTER you've done your minimum pages on the main project, and brainstorm on that other one. I'm a big fan of multitasking.

But working on that project is your reward for keeping moving on your main project.

Finish what you start. It’s your only hope.

- 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

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Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Romancing the Stone - Act One Breakdown


Screenplay by Diane Thomas
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Produced by Michael Douglas

And now for something completely different!

RTS is a romantic comedy/adventure. There’s not a lot of theme going on here; what this film promises is romance and a fun ride. As you watch it, notice how masterfully the movie delivers on the promises of the genre and premise: a major delight of the movie is in seeing the transformation of Joan, the meek little romance author, into a strong, confident, adventurous woman. There are moments and scenes of romance and chemistry all the way through, and an action scene at least every sequence. It’s funny, it’s high energy, and perfectly cast with actors who know exactly what the audience is looking for and how to give it to them.

The movie opens with a story within a story: Joan is writing the climax of her latest romance novel, Angelina’s Revenge. She narrates in voice-over an archetypal Western bodice-ripper, with a bodice-ripped heroine with a well-placed knife killing the evil bastard who “Murdered my father, raped and murdered my sister, shot my dog and stole my Bible.” We are instantly engaged in the story because it opens on an action scene with obvious jeopardy; it sets the comic tone, and treats us to some beautiful Southwestern scenery. And it introduces us to Joan’s alter-ego – the sensual and intrepid Angelina, and her heart’s desire: the shadowy, hunky Jesse. A complete externalization of the HEROINE’S INNER DESIRE – she wants to be that woman and have that man.

[4 min.] As Jesse and Angelina ride off into the desert, we dissolve to Joan in her office, typing “The End” and sobbing her eyes out. Joan is, to put it bluntly, a mess. This is a fine character introduction and great example of how you can use a character’s environment to tell us all we need to know about the character, pretty much instantly: we see her book collages on the wall, her book posters and awards, the state of her apartment, the obsessive (and apparently ineffective) Post-It notes, the sad state of her refrigerator (a hard boiled egg, dozens of vitamin bottles, and cat food). Also, she’s still in her pajamas. Not that any of us would recognize this state of affairs. (all this is seen under the CREDITS. Nowadays no one has a credits sequence like this – the credits almost always go at the end of the movie.).

[5:22] We see her social life in a nutshell as she celebrates the completion of her book with her cat, Romeo. In a word, pathetic. And there’s another very obvious statement of her desire – she toasts to the book poster – the shadowy silhouette of “Jesse”, and actually says: “Whoever you are.”

7:43 Jeopardy – a shadowy man in sadistic-looking leather gloves (yes, they do look sadistic) – makes a call from a phone booth. The call wakes Joan up – the man says nothing. This is the first sight we get of the ANTAGONIST – Zola. He has a copy of one of Joan’s books with her author photo on the back, so we know he’s after Joan. This is also a recurring joke – the book with the author photo.

9:14 Joan rushes to her publisher appointment with her finished book. She is not a fashion plate – no makeup, bland clothes. She helps her elderly neighbor up the stairs, and the neighbor hands her a bulky envelope from Columbia, which Joan doesn’t open.

9:29 Out on the street Joan tries to catch a cab while being pestered by street vendors. She has trouble fending them off. (Important SET UP for her CHARACTER ARC – we’ll come back to this street and these guys in the end).

Meanwhile, the South American man with the ominous gloves is in the hall of Joan’s apartment building, breaking in to her apartment. The janitor catches him and Zola knifes him. So now we know the STAKES are going to be life and death – and the FEAR starts that Joan will be killed by this guy.

10: 24 Joan in the bar with her publisher. (ALLY). Thematic scene here with the publisher analyzing a line of guys at the bar – all losers or flawed in some major way. This is a typical scene you see in a romantic comedy – the ally’s sole goal in life seems to be to make the protagonist happy. This must be some kind of holdover from all those theatrical drawing room comedies when the ally and sounding board is the servant. In real life, it’s not very believable that anyone would be so focused on someone ELSE’s happiness, don’t you think? SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is another example of the ally, Rosie O’Donnell, going way out of her way to effect the protagonist’s happiness with no apparent desire for her own love life. It’s much better writing to give the ally a desire of her own.

In this scene though, that unreality is mitigated by the fact that the publisher is halfway cruising for herself as well and obviously enjoys gutting the hapless line of men.

We get an overt statement of the heroine’s DESIRE: “I know it sounds crazy but I know there’s someone out there for me.”

Now, in this story, unlike in the other two we’ve talked about so far, the inner desire and outer desire are not so far apart. Joan wants the love of her life and she gets him. But her inner need is to come out of her shell and start living her life fully, which is exactly what she does that GETS her that love of her life.

The scene serves as exposition: Joan’s sister Elaine is living in Columbia and her husband was recently horribly murdered. This is some deft writing and performance, here – it’s tough to play exposition like that as comic, but it works:

“Did they find the rest of her husband’s body yet?
“Just the one – piece.”

10:33 Nice dialogue cut to introduce Elaine, the sister. Joan says “Elaine always manages”, and we cut to a hotel by the beach in Cartagena, where Elaine is fleeing the hotel but is kidnapped – by a little boy. Again, the scene is played as comic, and it keeps the tone light that the kidnapper is a little kid – we don’t have to worry about anything too bad happening to Elaine, here. I for one am always grateful to filmmakers and authors who let me know up front that I’m not going to be subjected to rape or torture. (Thomas Harris does this very deftly in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).

This is the INCITING INCIDENT - an ACTION SEQUENCE that is also the sequence climax – a kidnapping, speeding car, cut to the kidnappers, and getting Elaine on the boat, all with the beautiful backdrop of the Cartagena port. It also sets up the location we will come back to for the climactic BATTLE – that stone fort (or whatever it is!) on the harbor.

15:00 Within this sequence we meet one set of antagonists – Elaine’s kidnappers, Ira and Ralph. They are classic comic characters – one tall and thin, one short and round (comedy loves contrasts like this). They are city boys from Queens who are fish out of water in this South American country. Ira is suave but crazy (that obsession with the gators – SET UP); Ralph is neurotic but actually the more sensible of the two – he knows this whole venture is ill-advised. Again, we don’t have to really worry about Elaine being held captive by these guys, which keeps the tone comic. We hear from a line from Ralph that the two have made a fortune from antiquities.

15:40 Joan comes back to her apartment and finds it ransacked. Suspense scene – because she should not be walking through that apartment – and classic FALSE SCARE – the can jumping down on her from above. Then another FALSE SCARE – the phone ringing right beside her. All total manipulation, but storytellers do it because it works.

It’s Elaine calling, in a classic and blatant CALL TO ADVENTURE: she’s been kidnapped and needs Joan to fly to Cartagena and bring the treasure map that her dead husband sent to Joan (in that envelope that she had with her, meaning Zola couldn’t find it in the apartment. The treasure map is the MACGUFFIN). Ira is holding a knife on Elaine and Elaine says “They’ll cut me, Joan… they’ll hurt me.”) STAKES: Joan’s sister will die like her husband if Joan doesn’t go to Cartagena to ransom her.

17: 36 Joan is packing and leaving her cat with her publisher. The publisher is trying to talk her out of going and makes a big point out of how hapless and hopeless Joan is in the real world (set up for character arc). She says, “You’re not up for this, Joan, and you know it.” (See what I mean about just saying it aloud?)

Zola follows her taxi.

19:20 INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD: Joan arrives in Cartagena. Big location scene and contrast – the crowded bus station. Joan doesn’t speak English and is whiter than white in the scene – fish out of water. Notice that she passes right by Ralph, who is looking for her, with a copy of a book and her author photo on the back. A big rule of drama is – “Keep the hero/ine and antagonist in proximity.”

Zola, in the guise of a businessman, directs Joan onto the wrong bus and follows her onto it. Ralph realizes too late that she’s taken off in the wrong direction.

21:20 Joan wakes up on the bus in middle of the Columbian mountains. It’s gorgeous – we are really in the SPECIAL WORLD now. Joan realizes she’s made a bad mistake and when she tries to talk to the bus driver he is not watching the road and runs into a Jeep parked by the side of the road. Hundreds of tropical birds are released from cages in the Jeep.

The other passengers pour out of the bus and start to walk. Zola tells Joan she should wait – another bus will be along. SUSPENSE and FEAR – and part of the suspense here is that we know more than the heroine. As soon as they are alone, Zola pulls a knife on Joan and demands her purse (where the treasure map is).

25:38 A man in silhouette appears at the top of a ridge (just like Jesse in Joan’s story) and starts shooting at Zola. GUN BATTLE – action sequence. The stranger runs Zola off. (INTRO TO LOVE INTEREST).

27:22 And to top off this action scene, Ralph has been following Joan in that little yellow car, and Zola now uses his police badge to commandeer the car and drive him out. (REVELATION – the bad guy is a cop). This is an extremely important element for a romantic comedy or comedy: the CONVERGENCE OF SUBPLOTS. All of these subplots are operating really right on top of each other and constantly complicating each other – as if they’re magnetized and constantly within each other’s magnetic fields.

(This is a prime example of what I’m talking about when I keep saying you need to break down ten films/books in the genre you’re writing in. This convergence of subplots is one of the games that a romantic comedy or comedy plays with its audience that you are not necessarily going to find playing out so blatantly in other genres, and you need to see how other storytellers handle this element of the genre.)

You could say that the gun battle is the climax of ACT ONE, and I wouldn’t really argue with you. But I think it’s only one of a couple of climaxes to the act, and the next scene really is still part of Act One, so I’ll include the next scene in this discussion.

As Ralph and Zola drive away, we are left with Joan and Jack at the bus.

Now, in Hollywood terms, Joan is the protagonist, and in a romantic comedy the main antagonist is always the love interest. But ROMANCING THE STONE is different from a Hollywood romantic comedy in that it’s an actual romance, and typically the male and female leads in a romance have pretty much equal weight, and the POV alternates between the female and male leads. (All the romance writers here feel free to jump on me if I’m wrong – believe me, I’m not an expert!). So we have both these things going on in this movie – the almost-equal male/female leads and the love interest as a major antagonist (but Zola has been set up as such a threat it’s hard to think of Jack as the MAIN antagonist).

Here we have a detailed set up of Jack Colton, his backstory and outer desire. He’s been in Columbia working on a scheme to sell exotic birds to get the money to buy his dream boat (the photo he rescues from the wreckage of his Jeep is an external representation of his drive and desire). We suspect he’s a good guy because he’s selling birds rather than drugs, which he says straight out was another option. And of course we know this is Joan’s prospective true love.

But at the moment, all Jack cares about is that he’s penniless and vehicle-less. Joan wheedles with him to take her to civilization and a phone, and offers to pay. This is a nice scene for CHARACTER GROWTH – Joan actually bargains with Jack and gets the price down – we’re proud of her! And we see a spark of CHEMISTRY as they haggle with each other – very nicely played, and an essential story line for a romance – the growth of attraction. Jack is attracted to Joan when she asserts herself. But not enough to carry her suitcase for her. 30:49

(This is another place you could call the climax of Act One. The CENTRAL QUESTION is very clearly set up: Will Jack get Joan safely back to Cartagena in time to ransom her sister (and before Zola kills her for the map?)

They start off in the pouring rain, Joan stumbling on her Italian pumps. And that mousy little beige outfit she’s wearing starts to undergo a transformation as the rain turns it into a clinging knockout of a dress.

Zola arrives at the local police station and starts gathering a team of men. Now, interestingly, and I would say this is unusual: there’s no TICKING CLOCK attached to the kidnap and ransom demand from the cousins; they seem to be on South American time. But there is a sense of urgency and a time clock associated with Zola – especially when we see him amassing troops, we know if he finds Joan he’ll kill her.

31:22 Jack gets annoyed at Joan’s dawdling with the suitcase and takes it from her – only to throw it over the cliff. The cliff edge crumbles and Joan takes a wild ride down the muddy slope – followed by Jack, who ends up with his face in her crotch. Another large spark of attraction for Jack, here, and what I would say is the real climax of Sequence Two and Act One, as Jack crows – “Welcome to Columbia, Joan Wilder!” 33:30

So I’ll throw that one open to discussion – what do YOU think is the Act Climax? The gun battle, which climaxes the action plot? The bargaining for Jack to take Joan to a phone, which starts them off on the road together? The mudslide ride?

The bottom line to me is – it doesn’t really matter. You can go crazy debating the exact moment, but of course in a romance you’re going for multiple climaxes, and that’s exactly what this movie pulls off so well.


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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