Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What's YOUR structure?

I’ve gotten some e mail this week from readers of this blog requesting that I blog on specific topics. While I am always happy to take suggestions, some of these e mails have made me think that I am somehow not getting the main message across here, and while the writer side of me is saying, “Never mind, just get your own pages done today,” the teacher side of me is flipping out.

Leaving aside the fact that I write for a living and am writing two books of my own right now, yes, over Christmas, and if I don’t write, I don’t eat… I am not writing these articles to spoon feed anyone the mysteries and magic of writing, structure, plotting, or anything else, either. Helpful as any reading on the subject is going to be – and I always recommend reading EVERYTHING – there’s no magic pill that you can take to internalize story structure.

I know the elements of drama because I’ve spent years of my life breaking down movies and books and plays and seeing what great writers do, and comparing and contrasting, and wrestling with those same elements in my own stories.

I may be breaking things down for you here, but me breaking things down does not count as you learning it. It may help you learn to do it for yourself, but it does not work like doing it for yourself. Do we see the difference, here? You can’t read about how to write and learn how to write. YOU HAVE TO WRITE.

You have to do the breakdowns. You have to list the elements of your own genre, or cross-genre.

Have you done ten story breakdowns of books and movies in your genre yet? Have you done three? One?

If not, why not?

It’s all very well to read my articles and other people’s writing on the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure. It’s even better to be watching and analyzing movies to learn that structure.

But what is really going to make you a writer is to develop your own, personalized story structure and genre methods. And the whole bottom line of this blog (and the workbook I will finally have available starting next week) is that you create your own, personalized story structure and genre manual, using books and films that are specific to the story and genre you’re working on, and more importantly, that have had the maximum emotional and intellectual effect on you.

In order to write stories like the ones that move you, you need to look at the specific stories that affect you and figure out what those authors and filmmakers are doing to get the effect they do. So what I keep prodding you to do in these articles is - make a lot of lists: lists of your favorite movies, lists of your favorite hero/ines, lists of your favorite endings, lists of the most suspenseful stories you have ever seen or read.

Every genre has its own structural patterns and its own tricks – screenwriter Ryan Rowe says it perfectly: “Every genre has its own game that it’s playing with the audience.”

For example – with a mystery, the game is “Whodunit?” You are going to toy with a reader or audience’s expectations and lead them down all kinds of false paths with red herrings so that they are constantly in the shoes of the hero/ine, trying to figure the puzzle out.

But with a romantic comedy or classic romance, there’s no mystery involved. 99.99% of the time the hero and heroine are going to end up together. The game in that genre is often to show, through the hero and heroine, how we are almost always our own worst enemies in love, and how we throw up all kinds of obstacles to keep ourselves from getting what we want.

Once you start looking at the games that genres play, you will also start to understand the games that you most love, and that you want to play with your readers and audience.

But me listing the elements of a particular genre for you means nothing. I’m not an academic, I’m a writer. I know the elements of suspense because I’ve broken them down so I can make my own writing work on the level it’s supposed to work. You have to learn how to make your own genre work for you. You have to create your own, personal list of genre rules. And they may not work for anyone but you, and the stories you want to tell. That's fine. The more personal, the better.

My personal favorite game is – “Is it supernatural or is it psychological?” I love to walk the line between the real and unreal, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. That’s why my master list for any book or script I write will almost always include The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both classic books (and films) that walk the line between the supernatural and the psychological.

But what works for me structurally is not necessarily going to do it for you, and I actually would hope it wouldn't work for you. Because every story has its own, unique structure.

I am working with a student, or mentee, right now from a workshop I recently taught who is a fantastic, natural writer. She is writing an extremely difficult, psychological horror story. Chapter after chapter is brilliant, gut-wrenching – but she has not yet come up with a structure that will organize this tale, which covers a good thirty years of the protagonist’s life. So I am pressing her to watch a whole lot of movies that use a particular structure of a framing tale, and break down how the framing tale segues between and makes sense of the episodes from different parts of the main characters’ lives. The movies I have suggested she watch are not in her genre at all, but they will show her a fairly simple organizing principle for what seems right now a chaos of scenes and flashbacks and general randomness. Watching and writing down the progression of just three movies with a particular overall structure can give you a roadmap to discover the perfect organizing principle for your own story.

If you actually take the time to study and analyze the books and films that have had the greatest impact on you, personally, or that are structurally similar to the story you’re writing, or both, that’s when you really start to master your craft. Making the lists and analyzing those stories will help you brainstorm your own, unique versions of scenes and meta-structures that work in the stories on your master list; it will help you figure out how your particular story will work. And doing this analysis will embed story structure in your head so that constructing a story becomes a fun and natural process for you.

So, at the beginning of the New Year, I want to urge you to go back to the beginning.

Make your master list.

List ten books and films that are similar to your own story in structure and/or genre. (at least five books and three movies if you’re writing a book, at least five movies if you’re writing a script.)

Or – if you’re trying to decide on the right project for you to work on, then make a list of ten books and films that you wish you had written.

Then choose three of them and make a commitment to watch or read, and break down, those stories over the next few weeks.

And then I’d really love it if you tell ME what you’ve learned about your genre.

Happy Solstice, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year and happy writing.



I will be teaching an online Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop through the Yellow Rose Romance Writers, Jan. 1 through Jan. 18.

These online workshops are a fantastic deal, just $25 for two weeks, and here's where you can get one-on-one feedback on these techniques as they apply to your own story. All genres welcome!

Go here to register:


Stephen D. Rogers said...


I was wondering if you could just write my book for me, and then I'll put my name on it if you don't have time for that. :)

Earlier this month, I broke down A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which has some similarities to my current project. The big surprise for me was realizing that the loner "man with no name" (who actually had a name) had three (count 'em three) allies.

I laughed when I saw the title of this post since I'd divided my book into three acts of NINE sequences, and then just today made a note next to Act II, Scene 5 that said, "Cut to make Alex happy?"


LeSan said...

I'm not going to ask you to write my book...yet. I would however like to know what movies you had your mentee watch. It sounds like just the sort of thing I need to study myself. My story is memoir though and I really don't enjoy watching or reading something so close to home and therefore I am at a complete loss here.
Crossing my fingers and hoping you can point me in a direction.
Maybe in the spirit of Christmas? ;-)

December said...

I love reading your blog, you're so generous with the tips and thoughts.
I'm writing romance, romcom (er - trying to, that is.)
One movie I enjoyed that broke the mold a bit, while staying true to the formula was Definitely, Maybe.
Ryan Reynolds is always a tasty snack to watch, but it put him out of his beefcake role, and cast him as a dad. It had all the typical plot twists, but it made you see it through fresh eyes.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Thank you Alexandra. I appreciate all the time and effort you put into this blog. It's up to us to catch the ball and run with it :)

Has your student read The Lovely Bones yet? It very smoothly goes through a good 20 years over the lives of her family and other characters in the story through the eyes of Susie, the ghost. I can't wait to see the movie!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

"Cut to make Alex happy?"


No, I know you're kidding. But it all did give me pause...

Sometimes you just have to rant.

Glad to hear you're working hard, Stephen! Hope you're having a great holiday, too.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Le San, I mentioned ORDINARY PEOPLE, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, NUTS, possibly BETRAYAL (I haven't seen it, though, which I really should...) and something else that is slipping my mind. Hoping to come up with more. This is actually a structure I'd like to break down for myself.

What movies are you thinking of for your project?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi December - thanks!

I haven't seen Definitely, Maybe, but need to expand my rom com repertoire, so thanks for the suggestion.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Trace, LOVELY BONES is a great suggestion for her, actually. Thanks a million!

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,

I was wondering if you could tell me what your Screenwriting Tricks for Authors seminar is like (the one offered through Yellow Rose RWA).

I read the description, but I was wondering about the format. Is it a series of postings that students read? Do we have to be available at specific times? Do we submit our own work for your feedback?

Thanks, and I love your blog!

Wendy Wagner; said...

You always make me want to dig in and get to work! Back in my "pantsing" days, I just tried to cheat around structure, but now I do my homework. Thanks, Professor!

(PS: Workbook? Am enticed!)

LeSan said...

Alexandra this is no doubt the longest comment I have ever left. I'll apologise up front for that.

I am so grateful for your response. I realized after I posted that it was my first comment and I didn’t even introduce myself. I have been reading your blog for only a short time but I have found it to be incredibly helpful. You have me reading your blog intensively and my mind is spilling over as though I were cramming for finals. Thank you!

As for my project, I am at the very beginning and trying to figure out how to tell it. I do not have any movies in mind at all and that is why I was curious about your suggestions. I found I could not answer your question to me but it did make me think of characters in films that make up my characters.

I posted below the first thing that came to my mind when I tried to answer your question. It’s a start anyway and I can’t thank you enough for helping with that.

Who’s the main character? Maybe Alice in Wonderland, Danny in the Shining, Joan of Arc and Ripley in Alien. Main antagonist is a cross between Kathy Bates in Misery, Jack Nicholson in the Shining and a healthy dose of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. Throw in some pedophilia, black market baby sales, hypnosis and multiple personality disorders then shake it all up with the Godfather and Goodfellows and that might get it started.

Not only do those elements fit the primary characters those stories do as well. Aren't you glad you asked. LOL

laughingwolf said...

brilliant, again...

merry christmas to you and yours, alex....

lyonessheart said...


Ok I am working on all of your suggestions. Your blog is also helping me. I am going to concetrate during the holiday on my story structure.

Happy Holidays to you. You are the best.

I won't ask you to write my book either, although... that's a thought.

Sharon :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anonymous, these online classes are done through a Yahoo group list. So it's private within the group. I'll be having people submit their premises and a description of their story, and of course a master list of ten books and films they think are similar to what they're writing, and we'll go through all the elements of the three-act structure together, hopefully using examples that most everyone on the list have agreed on s everyone will get the greatest benefit from the stories we talk about.

I do give specific individual feedback on the list so that the whole group gets the discussion, just like in a classroom.

No one's obligated to post anything or do it in a certain time frame, and a lot of people just sign up to lurk (which is what makes it doable, actually - I'd never be able to handle it if everyone were fully participating!)

Hope that helps.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ooh, Le San - sounds dark and creepy.

And you know enough about it to give really good amalgams of your main characters.

Why don't you take one of those movies or books that you think plays out most like the story you're starting to feel in your own head, and do an intensive story breakdown - identifying all the acts, sequences, and story elements from that cheat sheet I've posted?

And when you have that, or while you're breaking down the movie, see how many of the corresponding elements of your own story you can list?

The thing about watching a few movies in a row and really looking for the story elements is that it will give you unique ideas for your own plot points.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Winnie, cheating does have its place in writing. ;) But doing homework when you know it will help is the way to go.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Merry Christmas to you, LW!

Hope next year will be the best yet.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Saving Grace, I can't wait to see what you come up with.

It's a great book and worth every second of that claw through the concrete mountain.

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

I couldn't agree more with what you've posted here. Your blog is great as a guide but it can't be more than that as the ultimate learning process is in the doing.

Speaking from my own experience, it's the twelve straight hours of revising and editing that have helped me in identifying my structures and literary voice. There's no fast track to that point, unfortunately.

I'd say what I've learned about my approach, in broad strokes, is that my protagonists tend to be beta males or alpha females and my structure usually tends to take the form of the spiral as identified by Truby.

As I write horror, my story structure tends towards being a downward spiral with a fatalistic or ambiguous climax, usually with themes of madness, nightmares and body horror along the way.

All the best for the holidays, Alex. Here's to 2010 being the year we all get our rocket-packs and the martian spiders invade :-)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, I couldn't agree more - there's no fast track. It really sucks.

If you can explain Truby's spiral, I will love you until the end of time. Truby's the man, as far as I'm concerned, but I always skip that chapter in despair.

All the best to you, too. But PLEASE, no spiders. Yike.

Sylvia said...

I write, I read, I write, I read and every time I think "oh, I've never noticed that before" as I hit on a new passage that deals with some aspect that I've been writing about. Never mind the hundreds of books I've read before that have done the exact same thing - I can't see it until I am there.

But I understand the temptation to understand it *all* first and then sit down to write (quickly, easily, without doubt).

I think it can be disconcerting to read about structure and not be able to apply it when you are in the process, so you stop and wait for it all to make sense. And stopping is the wrong thing to do, because you can't *really* recognise the detail - the twists and how they apply - until you are in that position and saying OH RIGHT, I have a choice here.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

What excellent comments, Sylvia, thank you! I couldn't agree more - especially with this: "Never mind the hundreds of books I've read before that have done the exact same thing - I can't see it until I am there."

Omg, is that true. Every time I reread a good structure book I understand more about what I and other writers are doing. It's great.

LeSan said...

Thank you so much for your help! This is exactly what I needed and it has my project blessedly moving along. I have my wall of sticky notes with index card headings. I am researching films as you suggested and I am beginning to see the pieces take shape.

Your blog has been so helpful to me. You have given me the clear simple tools I needed to begin making orderly sense of my story. Thank you Alexandra, for a gift that will keep on giving long after the tinsel is gone. :-)

Carl Rauscher said...

Where were you when I started my novel! I guess I could have saved myself two year's worth of endless struggling if I had just taken the time to read your blog.

Damage done, water under the bridge, and all that. I am happy to say what a big help your posts were in helping me tighten the structure of my writing. The progression through my story is noticeably better and I can hardly wait to compare MY structure with my genre favorites to see if there are holes left to fill.

Thank you for opening up your process for the rest of us to see and count me as another fan.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gayle Carline said...

Alex, I must share the sudden weirdness in my writing life that occurred this week (and then I've really got to shower, but that's TMI, huh?):

My first book, Freezer Burn, is out now, and I used an outline to write it. It's a fun and light mystery - I'd call it a "romp", but in looking at the structure, it doesn't exactly have the 3-act tempo. At the time, I was caught up in clues and danger and moving my heroine from one predicament to the next and solving the mystery, etc.

Cut to the second book, which I am writing now. I made my outline and was following it, when I suddenly got bored with a scene and wrote something unexpected (I hit Peri over the head with a golf club; she didn't see it coming and neither did I). At that moment, I went completely off-script and ratcheted up the stakes. As I figured out what will semi-resolve her current problem without making it go away, I looked at my word count and thought, "Oh. My. God. This is the first act."

Suddenly, and without the outline, I know how to lay out the next two acts. I just have to figure out a few teensy logistics.

I know I read your blog all the time, but I must have absorbed it organically or something.

Thanks! I think I'm really gonna like writing this book!

wonderactivist said...

Alex, the biggest breakthrough for me this week has been visualizing my book as collision - several forces bumpng into each other nd ricochets, etc which end up making - and eventually solving - this mystery. I started with setting and the people who populate this setting; but I realize that each of my main characters represents one of the primary forces at work in this setting - with an extra mirror or two thrown in.

Maybe this sounds too odd, but it's working for me. They're quirky individuals, but each is also a force.

Thanks for the most helpful blog!

Lucie Smoker

Carol J. Garvin said...

I generally lurk a lot, but have benefited so much from your postings that I wanted to say so.

What brought me out today is your comment about writers having to write to discover the application of what they're learning. I'm always amazed at how many would-be writers seem to spend all their time reading how-to books, articles and blogs looking for that magic pill at the expense of actually doing any writing. Like learning any skill, the most effective method is following instructions while applying them in a hands-on situation.

Thanks for the time and effort you put into providing all this useful information.

laughingwolf said...

may 2010 bring you your heart's desire, alex :)

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wow, I go on the road and suddenly everyone's delurking.

I guess I wasn't the only one looking for something to do in that weird week between Christmas and New Year's.

I'm on the road but will get back to comments in the next few days.

Happy New Year to everyone!