Sunday, October 04, 2009

Analyzing Your Master List


Now that you’ve got your list, and a brand-new notebook to keep it in, let’s take a look at what you’ve come up with.

For myself, I am constantly looking at:

Silence of the Lambs (book and movie)
A Wrinkle in Time (book)
The Wizard of Oz (film)
The Haunting of Hill House (book and original film)
Anything by Ira Levin, especially Rosemary’s Baby (book and film), and
The Stepford Wives
The Exorcist (book and film)
Jaws (film, and it’s interesting to compare the book)
Pet Sematery (book, obviously!)
The Shining (book and film)
It’s A Wonderful Life

That's off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I'm about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now. On another day my list could just as easily include Hamlet, The Fountainhead, Apocalypse Now, The Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, Philadelphia Story, and Holiday Inn.

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

• It’s heavily weighted toward thrillers, fantasy, horror, and the supernatural. In fact, even the two more realistic stories on the list, Jaws and Silence of the Lambs, are so mythic and archetypal that they might as well be supernatural – they both have such overwhelming forces of nature and evil working in them.

• It’s a very dark list, but it includes two films and a book that are some of the happiest endings in film and literary history. I read and watch stories about the battle between good and evil… but if you’ll notice, except for the Ira Levin books, I do believe in good triumphing.

• The stories are evenly split between male protagonists and female protagonists, but except for Jaws, really, women are strong and crucial characters in all of them.
And guess what? All of the above is exactly what I write.

A lot of the stories on your own list will probably be in one particular genre: thriller, horror, mystery, romance, paranormal, historical, science fiction, fantasy, women’s fiction, YA (Young Adult, which has all its own subgenres). And odds are that genre is what you write.

(If you’re not clear on what your genre is, I suggest you take your master list to the library or your local independent bookstore and ask your librarian or bookseller what genre those books and films fall into. These people are a writer’s best friends; please use them, and be grateful!)

But there will also always be a few stories on your list that have nothing to do with your dominant genre, some complete surprises, and those wild cards are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

Every time I teach a story structure class it’s always fantastic for me to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives me such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling.
You need to create your list, and break those stories down to see why they have such an impact on you - because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn't going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different - even if they're very similar.

There’s another thing that my list says about me. I would say that every single story on that list is a fairy tale, and the fairy tale structure is one I use over and over in my own writing. But instead of launching into fairy tale structure (and confusing everyone completely!), I want to give that discussion its own chapter later, after we talk about basic structure.

And the first thing you need to understand about structure is the concept of PREMISE.

So we'll be going into that shortly.

In the meantime, anyone want to share about their own list?


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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Karen P said...

No list yet - but a big THANK YOU for the presentation yesterday at Cameron Library. I printed out your blogs this morning - 40 pages, wow - and will spend the next few days looking at my WIP in a new way, using index cards and Act structure and imagining a killer premise! Thanks, Alex!

Greg James said...

My list runs as follows off the top of my head:

1) Dagon by Lovecraft
2) The Masque of the Red Death by Poe
3) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
4) Jacob's Ladder
5) The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
6) The Red Tower by Thomas Ligotti
7) Session 9
8) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Wilde
9) The Monk of Horror/a Conclave of Corpses by an anonymous author
10) John Carpenter's The Thing
11) Eraserhead
12) The Veiled Woman by Anais Nin
13) Se7en
14) Old Boy
15) A Tale of Two Sisters
16) I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

plastic.santa said...

OK, I'll play.


Silence of the Lambs (book and movie)
Carrie (book, but the movie is pretty good too)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (book)
The Princess Bride (book and movie)
Dead Until Dark
The Maltese Falcon (book and movie)
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (book)
Alice in Wonderland (I always think of the Disney movie, but the book has a lot to recommend it)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They
Down There (Shoot The Piano Player)

So, they're all cinematic (even the books). Packed with memorable characters. Characters seem to be primary here, over plot a lot of them time. But some strong plotting too. Pretty dark and noirish. Not a lot of police procedurals on this list :)

Exceptions: Princess Bride; Dead Until Dark; Lion, Witch, Wardrobe

I think those are the "epic, archetypal" side of the equation. Fairy tales; exotic locals; vampires, werewolves, and psychics, oh my. (Which reminds me that Wizard of Oz probably should be on the list too)

I'd be interested in others' opinions too.

plastic santa

laughingwolf said...

i echo much of your list, but would add:

alien; casablanca; duel [tv]; most of jim henson's productions; joseph campbell books; hemingway books; jurassic park; lovecraft stories; poe books; gaia; paranormal; a lot of horror/fantasy; and more i can't think of off the top of my head

Bio said...

Love this exercise! My list:

Ten movies or books that I wish I’d written:
1. Lawrence of Arabia
2. Wuthering Heights
3. Harry Potter
4. His Dark Materials
5. Tess of the D’Urbevilles
6. Animal Farm
7. Hamlet
8. Pride and Prejudice
9. Faust
10. I Capture The Castle
11. Ballet Shoes
12. The Da Vinci Code
13. Brideshead Revisited
14. The Scarlet Pimpernel
15. Scaramouche
16. The Three Musketeers
17. Bedknobs and Broomsticks
18. Shakespeare in Love

Sonja Foust said...

My master list for my top 10 ever:

1. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
2. Return of the Jedi
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
4. Romancing the Stone
5. Christmas Vacation
6. A Christmas Story
7. Bruce Almighty
8. The Holiday
9. Signs
10. The Mummy

Almost all of these are adventures, and if you'd asked me 3 months ago (before I took your class for the first time at HCRW and made my list), I would NEVER have said that adventure was my genre, but it's what I love. Even the movies in this list that aren't adventures have an adventure feel to them. Christmas Vacation is an adventure through a family holiday (which, if any of you have a family like mine, you know is TOTALLY an adventure), and the others are just EPIC.

There's also a lot of comedy in there, which I sort of knew sneaked into a lot of my stuff, but I'm thinking it's less of a sneak and more a part of the way I think now.

Working on a list for my Nano novel now. See if you can guess what I'm going to write. ;)

The Time Machine
Kate & Leopold
The Time Traveler's Wife (book- I haven't seen the movie.)
The Little Mermaid
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Lora Croft: Tomb Raider

Thanks for the fun exercise and the great class on Saturday!

Wendy Wagner; said...

All ten of my favorite books/movies in my genre (fantasy/horror) have female protagonists! And most are YA and/or feature children. Creepy.

Jake Nantz said...

Oooh, I'm game. Here's my list, such as it is, in no particular order:

1) Aliens
2) The Usual Suspects
3) Gone, Baby, Gone (book moreso than movie, but both are good in their own right)
4) Red Dragon (book and movie)
5) The Terminator
6) The Fugitive
7) Seven (get it?!)
8) Quantum of Solace (Daniel Craig kicks ass as Bond)
9) Raiders of the Lost Ark
10) All three 'Bourne' Films
11) Any Elvis Cole/Joe Pike book ever written
12) Fletch (book and movie, though very different)
13) Memento
14) Primal Fear
15) Rounders
16) Pulp Fiction
17) Lethal Weapon 1 & 2
18) The Shawshank Redemption
19) Star Wars, Episode IV
20) Die Hard
21) Gladiator
22) Desperado
23) Chinatown
24) First Blood
25) The Bone Collector (book and movie)
26) 1984 (okay, so a little political subtext might creep into my writing)
27) The Three Musketeers (Disney film version)
28) Dead Poets' Society
29) The Matrix Trilogy

I've got several books that would also go on this list (The Deceived-Battles, The Watchman-Crais, The Black Echo-Connelly, The Enemy-Child, A Drink Before the War-Lehane, Airframe-Crichton, The Twelfth Card-Deaver, One Shot-Child, The Gunslinger-King), but it seemed like the prevailing winds were aiming toward film.

I'm actually a little surprised by this list. Alex, this is the first time I've just gone through and made any kind of overall master, instead of really trying to focus on the current book, and I figured there would be a little more action there. Yeah, a lot of those are action flicks, but I really didn't think I'd find so many of the slower-paced whodunnit type. I guess I should put Chinatown up there, too. I notice a lot of the 'buddy movie' thing going on, which fits considering I really have two protagonists as partners. Love this exercise!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Karen, I had a great time at the workshop. I know you'll find all kinds of new levels to your WIP now.

Glad to see you here!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, my, Greg - you have SO many of my favs on your list! Session 9 and Tale of Two Sisters are two of my favorite movies of the last ten years - and I just spent an ungodly amount of time recently recounting Eraserhead scene by scene with an editor friend.

That one separates the sheep from the goats, for sure! ;)

witchhunt said...

This list thing is cool. But how can I pick just ten?
I'll try.

1) Josie and Jack- Kelly Braffet
2) White Oleander- Janet Fitch
3) Wild Nights (French film - Les Nuits Fauves)
4) When Will There Be Good News - Kate Atkinson
5) Let the Northern Lights Erase Her Name - Vendela Vida
6) How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
7) What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt
8) Exposure - Kathryn Harrison
9) Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
10) Last Night (film)

I'm not sure what this means; some common these are loss, difficult love (familial and romantic), secrets.

Alex, I love your website so much! I've learned so much about structure.

witchhunt said...

This list thing is cool. But how can I pick just ten?
I'll try.

1) Josie and Jack- Kelly Braffet
2) White Oleander- Janet Fitch
3) Wild Nights (French film - Les Nuits Fauves)
4) When Will There Be Good News - Kate Atkinson
5) Let the Northern Lights Erase Her Name - Vendela Vida
6) How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
7) What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt
8) Exposure - Kathryn Harrison
9) Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
10) Last Night (film)

I'm not sure what this means; some common these are loss, difficult love (familial and romantic), secrets.

Alex, I love your website so much! I've learned so much about structure.

plastic.santa said...

OK, so today on Facebook a friend asked that everyone list their top 5 movies. So I did. None of those are the ones I listed here.
What does that say about me?

Gene said...

Okay here goes - my list changes, but these always make frequent appearances:


The Verdict
Intimate Stories
Nobody's Fool (Paul Newman)
Legally Blonde
The Man in the Moon
The Fugitive
Little Children
The Bourne Trilogy
My Girl
The Wizard of Oz
Almost Famous
J.T. (hard to find) :-)


The Catcher in the Rye
A Separate Peace
The Sun Also Rises
The Girl with the Pearl Earring
The Phantom Tollbooth
Ham on Rye
Sherlock Holmes Series
Journey Into Fear
84 Charring Cross Road
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Collected Stories of William Trevor

I always remember the characters, first, then plot. Someone once said about writing (can't remember who, and I can't locate the author) Paraphrasing: "First, I want to break your heart. Then I want to heal it." Anyone know who said that? :-) Anyway, I think that's true of many of these books and films.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sorry I'm being slow in responding, you guys - I'm on the road (VERY on the road) and don't have a lot of time to check in for the next few days.

Plastic Santa, that's a great list and analysis. Why do you say "not a lot of police procedurals"? Is your WIP a police procedural?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, LW, we have the same tastes.

I really should do a breakdown of DUEL one of these days - no better structure for an essentially one-man show!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lia, a very different kind of list! Epic, sweeping, mythic, fantastical are the first words that come to mind.

Now I'm really curious about your WIP!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

And Sonja - lots of adventure there!

Are you writing a Christmas WIP, by any chance?

Holiday movies are a whole subgenre unto themselves - worth talking about sometime. (Note to self...)

plastic.santa said...

It's not that the WIP is a police procedural, it's just that in the mystery/crime genre, that's what I seem to encounter the most and end up reading. And it's all that's on TV.

There actually are two WIPs at the moment that I'm trying to decide between (early stages). If this pre-wrimo exercise doesn't come up with something entirely different. :)

Greg James said...

Thanks for the feedback, Alex. I'm pleased to hear my selection gets a thumbs-up :-)

I forgot to do the analysis bit so here I go. I'd say a lot of my favourites tend to involve narratives that could be termed 'inner' and that dreams & nightmares also attract me. A few that didn't make the list being Phantasm and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Also, stories that involve identity loss, madness, the fragility of the subjective world we each live in.

And I like stories that tend to wrap up with either ambiguous or fatalistic conclusions such as The Thing.

As a fan and writer of horror, one of the things I enjoy about the genre is when it leaves you with questions and shakes you up. Session 9 certainly did that to me the first time I saw it. I was with friends and you could have heard a pin drop after the closing credits were done on that one.

On top of that mouthful, I'd guess my wildcard in the list is 'I, The Jury'. That's in there because it's a lean, mean novel and it has that superb closing line - 'It was easy.'

Hits you right between the eyes.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Witchhunt, I actually have not read a lot of the books on your list, but from the ones I have read I suspect what you're writing is literary fiction.

As for theme, though, I think you would benefit from doing a list of your personal themes.

Which means I guess I have to write a blog post on personal themes.

So much to cover, so little time...

But I'll think on that one.