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.
SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS WORKSHOP
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: