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.

Alex


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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:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rewriting: The Genre Pass (Cont.)

All right, that was a lot on suspense (see last two posts (Suspense Pass 1, Suspense Pass 2) - but that’s my thing. I’m sure you regular readers have already gotten this message, but I’ll say it again anyway: If you are writing a book or script in a different genre, any genre, you need to be equally scrupulous about delivering the promise of that genre to your readers/audience: comedy in a comedy, action in an actioner or action thriller, romance and sex in a romance, romance and sex and comedy in a romantic comedy, romance and sex and comedy and action in a romantic comedy/adventure (see ROMANCING THE STONE for an excellent example of delivering all the promises of those genres in one seamless gem of a movie).

Of course, for my money, your first step is always to make a master list – ten movies and books in the genre you’re writing that you can look at to see how the master storytellers deliver the promise in the genre.

A great exercise is to go through a movie or book minute by minute, or page by page, and literally count the genre scenes. List each one and how many minutes, seconds or pages there are between each genre scene or moment. At the end of this exercise you should be able to say with confidence, for example, in GROUNDHOG DAY, there is a laugh-out loud moment every 4 minutes (or however many minutes it is) Seriously. This is a great way to internalize the rhythm of a particular genre.

I must confess, I personally believe that if you’re not a comedian right here, right now, you’re never going to be a comedian. BUT – if you are not a born comedian but are writing a romantic comedy, and you know need to get more laughs in, this a great way to do that. Other genres are, I believe, more forgiving than comedy and easier to learn how to do.

Another good method is to lay out your story on index cards or Post Its again, and this time use a particular color of card or Post It to signify a comedy (action, sex, suspense) scene. If when you step back and survey your story board and you see a long sequence of scenes with none of that color, that’s a good indication that you need to work that sequence and those scenes to layer in genre elements.

The other thing that is essential to look at is how the act and sequence climaxes in a good movie or book are almost always genre scenes. In a love story, these turning points are emotional or sexual. In an action story, they are action scenes, with the essential revelations occurring within the action (Think of the climax of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – Darth Vader didn’t reveal Luke’s parenthood to him while they were washing dishes, now, did he?). Even if you don’t quite pull off every single act climax and sequence climax as a rip-roaring genre scene, it’s not a bad idea to shoot for that, because then at the very least you will know that you have eight scenes that deliver on your genre promise, and that’s a really solid foundation for a successful story. And when you get yourself to think specifically in terms of genre scenes, your mind will be automatically looking for other places to insert genre moments.

While we’re on Act Climaxes, I just wanted to mention the concept of multiple climaxes (in storytelling; hopefully we’re all experts at the other). Some people make themselves crazy looking for the exact scene that is the Act Climax. Well, if it’s not obvious, then chances are you’ve got multiple climaxes, or what I like to call a “rolling climax”. ROMANCING THE STONE’s Act I climax is a perfect example of several different scenes that fulfill the genre promises of comedy, action, romance and sex, which all work togther to make up the act break – take a look at the discussion here:

And here are some posts to help you with identifying Act Climaxes:

- Identifying Act Climaxes

- Raiders of the Lost Ark - Act Climaxes

The good news here is that – you don’t have to get all of this into your first draft! These are rewriting tricks. Write out the bones of your scenes and the story, first, and then start to layer in these genre elements. Take a look at where you might combine two completely different scenes so that you get a big revelation or plot twist inside of a comic or fight scene, or in the middle of sex.

This is the fun part of writing – everything after the first draft is icing. So enjoy!

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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:

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Nanowrimo Now What? The Suspense Pass, Part 2



So today we'll continue our discussion of the DEDICATED SUSPENSE PASS:

To recap, after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense. It’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense. (And the same holds true for comedy, romance, sex, and action - whatever genre you're working in, it's a great idea to do a dedicated genre pass).

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

KEEP THE READER OR AUDIENCE OFF-BALANCE.

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

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

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

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

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

LOWER THE READER’S/AUDIENCE’S DEFENSES

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

USE THE PAVLOV EFFECT

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

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

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

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

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

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

USE FALSE SCARES

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

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

LAYER JEOPARDY INTO A SCENE

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

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

Again, go for the scare.

LET THE READER/AUDIENCE IN ON SOMETHING THE MAIN CHARACTER DOESN’T KNOW.

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

Devastating.

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

USE INNER MONOLOGUE –

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

USE PREMONITIONS.

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

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

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

END EACH CHAPTER WITH A CLIFFHANGER

This may be as simple as asking a question that is set up but not answered, but you should strive to make every one of your chapters or scenes end with some sort of cliffhanger that makes that reader have to turn the page. And I'm not necessarily talking about huge, life-threatening situations - you most likely don't want to be doing that at the end of every chapter unless you're writing something completely over the top. What I'm talking about is something that will make your readers want to turn the page.

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

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

STATE WHAT THE CHARACTER IS LOOKING FOR

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

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

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

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

And fair’s fair - share!

- Alex





Previous articles on story structure:

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

Nanowrimo Now What? The Suspense Pass

So last week I talked about doing a specific, dedicated pass through your manuscript to emphasize your key genre elements, and this week I'm going to talk about my favorite genre pass.

Creating Suspense.

Huge topic.

This is the first thing I tell people who ask me about suspense:

You have to study, analyze and teach yourself to write the kind of suspense YOU want to create.

Because there are all kinds of suspense. Many thrillers are based on action and adrenaline – the experience the author wants to create and the reader wants to experience is that roller-coaster feeling. I myself am not big on that kind of suspense. I love a good adrenaline rush in a book (in fact I pretty much require them, repeatedly). But pure action scenes pretty much bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over. What I’m looking for in a book is the sensual – okay, sexual – thrill of going into the unknown. How it feels to know that there’s something there in the dark with you that’s not necessarily rational, and not necessarily human. It’s a slower, more erotic kind of thrill – that you find in THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE SHINING. So although I can learn some techniques from spy thrillers or giant actioners, studying that kind of book for what I want to do is probably not going to get me where I want to go.

There’s also the classic mystery thrill of having to figure a puzzle out. There’s a great pleasure in using your mind to unlock a particularly well-crafted puzzle. I love to add that element to my stories, too, so that even though the characters are dealing with the unknown, there is still a logical way to figure the puzzle out.

So to create suspense, the first thing you have to identify is what KIND of suspense you want to create. Most stories use all three kinds of suspense I just talked about (and others - really I’m just scratching the surface), but there will be one particular kind that dominates.

And anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know what I'm going to suggest next.

MAKE A LIST.

Sit down and make yourself a master list of ten books and films that are not just in your own genre, but that all create the particular kind of suspense experience that you’re looking to create yourself. There are particular tricks that every author or screenwriter uses to create suspense, and looking at ten stories in a row will get you identifying those tricks. If you’re reading a particularly good book, you get so caught up in it that you don’t see the wheels and gears – and that’s good. So read it to the end… but then go back and reread to really look at the machinery of it.

And now make a list of ten specific SCENES that really do it for you.

And now - take a look especially at the Act and Sequence Climaxes of each of these stories (or at least your favorite three!). I am willing to be that in a good movie or book, every act climax and sequence climax delivers on the specific genre promise of the film or book.

In a story like NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the sequence and act climaxes are action sequences. In stories like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS OR RED DRAGON, the climaxes are both suspenseful and horrific.

But if you actually look harder at what great stories do at their climaxes, you'll see some very complex things going on as they deliver on their genre promises.

For example, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS does double climaxes at each Act break, including the Midpoint. First there is a specifically psychological suspense scene between Clarice and Lecter. These are intense, confined scenes that are all about dialogue and psychological gameplaying, because SILENCE is a psychological thriller.

But it's also a horror movie, and right after each climax between Lecter and Clarice, the film cuts to Mr. Gumb and his own horrific game plan. It's a unique structural technique that delivers on BOTH kinds of suspense, and has the added brilliance of making Lecter look omniscient, because whatever he predicts Mr. Gumb (Buffalo Bill) is doing, that's what we see him doing in the next scene.

That is a great example of a storytelling trick that you can pick up by doing your homework and really breaking down the movies and books that work for you.

So what are some other tricks? Well, let’s see.

To my mind, the most basic and important suspense technique is ASK A CENTRAL QUESTION with your story.

Of course, every good story is inherently a suspense story, because every story is predicated on the storyteller creating the desire in the reader or audience to find out What Happens? And for those of us who write mystery/thriller/suspense, our genre has a built-in suspense element by its very nature – the built-in question – “Who done it?” (Or in my case, as J.D. Rhoades says, “What done it?”)

So the very first place that a book creates suspense is on the meta-level: in the premise, that one line description of what the story is. That story line (flap copy, back jacket text) is what makes a reader pick up a book and say – “Yeah! I want to know what happens!”

- When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

- A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

- A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.


Any one of the above can also be phrased as a question: Will Clarice get Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill before he kills Catherine? That’s what I mean when I say the central question of the story.

Now, there’s a whole hell of a lot of suspense in that story question - unlike in, say, the movie we saw last night: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Does anyone going into that movie think for one single solitary second that Cameron Diaz is not going to end up with Ashton Kuchner? No suspense in that premise at all (but the structure of the movie, as in most stories, was built on the obstacles that MIGHT keep these two apart, if it weren't, you know, a Hollywood love story).

But in a mystery, or thriller, or horror story, someone could die. Anyone could always die. Even the main character can die – at least in a standalone. And I would argue that third person narration in a mystery/thriller is always going to be more suspenseful than first person, because even if your first person narrator DOES die in a surprise twist at the end, the reader hasn’t worried about it for the entire book.

In that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS story set up, we know Catherine could die – in fact, any number of additional victims could die – because it’s a thriller and we’ve got a particularly monstrous killer holding her. Clarice could die, too – in fact, throughout the story, we are always at least subconsciously aware that Clarice is disquietingly similar to Buffalo Bill’s previous victims: she is young, white, Southern, from a struggling family.

All this is STAKES – a critical element of every story. What do we fear is going to happen?

A good story makes the stakes crystal clear – from the very beginning of the story. We know right up front in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that there’s a serial killer out there who will not stop killing young women until he is caught or killed. How do we know that? The characters say it, flat out, and not just once, and not just one character. Harris makes us perfectly, acutely aware of what the stakes are. The story ups the ante when a particular victim is kidnapped and we get to know her – we really don’t want THIS particular, feisty victim to die.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government agent who comes to hire Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant says that Hitler is after it, and Indy and his colleague, the archeological experts, tell us the legend that the army which has the Ark is invincible. That’s really, really bad. Huge stakes. And it is spelled out with crystal clarity, in dialogue, with accompanying visuals of ancient text – in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

It might even be the number one rule of suspense - You need to tell your reader what they’re supposed to be afraid of. Not just scene by scene – but in the entire story, overall. You need to let the reader know what the hero, or another character, is in for – or the whole world is in for – if the hero doesn’t do something about it.

And if that’s the number one rule, then the photo finish number two rule is – You have to make the reader CARE. Because if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they have no personal stake in the stakes.

No, I’m not going to go into all the techniques of creating a character that readers will care about – different post!

But here’s one technique that also goes to creating suspense: stack the odds against your protagonist. It’s just ingrained in us to love an underdog.

In SILENCE, the protagonist, Clarice is up against huge odds. She has many personal obstacles. She’s a woman in a man’s world, young, a mere trainee, she has big wounds from a troubled childhood. She also has many external opponents, like Dr. Chilton, the Senator and more minor characters within scenes – not to mention that Dr. Lecter is not exactly being cooperative – he’s got his own agenda, and he’s a master at playing it.

In RAIDERS, Indy is up against Hitler (through his minions). Indy is awfully heroic and expert and, well, hot – but he’s still the underdog in this particular fight.

A lot of suspense stories use children, women, or characters with a handicap to stack the odds against the hero. Okay, it sounds manipulative, but suspense IS manipulation. And just because a technique is manipulative doesn’t make it any less effective when it’s done well: Think of WAIT UNTIL DARK (blind protagonist) , REAR WINDOW (wheelchair-bound protagonist), THE SIXTH SENSE (I swear I went to that movie just to make sure that little boy made it out okay), THE SHINING.

Another suspense technique that can be built in on the premise level is the TICKING CLOCK. Building a clock into the story creates an overall sense of urgency. In SILENCE, we learn (very early) that Buffalo Bill holds his victims for three days before he kills them. So when Catherine is kidnapped, we know Clarice only has three days to save her. We know this because the characters say it. Beginning writers seem to be afraid to just say things straight out, but there’s no reason to be coy.

Harris does the same thing in RED DRAGON – that killer is on a moon cycle so the hero knows he has only a month to track this killer down before he kills another entire family. Again, we know that because the characters tell us so – repeatedly.

Harris is actually the master of the ticking clock – he has a particularly clever one in BLACK SUNDAY: a terrorist attack is being planned to take place at the Superbowl. Well, we all know it would take no less than the Apocalypse to get sponsors to cancel or postpone the Superbowl, so Harris has both locked his characters in to an inevitable event, and also created a clock – come hell or high water, it’s all going to come down on Superbowl Sunday.

Again, a ticking clock is manipulative, and you can make an argument that it’s a less effective technique these days because it’s been overused, but that just means you have to be more clever about it. Make it an organic clock, as in the examples above. In RED DRAGON, for example – having the killer be on a moon clock is very creepily effective, because not only is this a real characteristic of some serial killers, Harris has built a whole symbolic image system into this story – he uses animal imagery to depict this killer: describing him as a baby bat (with his cleft palate), emphasizing his biting, giving the character a desire to become a dragon. The moon clock is part of the image system, and the killer seems much more monstrous.


Now, all of the above are suspense techniques on the meta-level. Once you’ve created a story that has the elements of suspense built into the overall structure, you have to start working suspense on the scene level, moment-by-moment. And here’s where I find a lot of books really lacking in the kind of suspense I personally crave, which is about making me feel the physical and mental effects of wonder and terror. And that you have to do by working a scene over and over and over again. You need to direct it, act it, production design it, cast it, score it. What is scary in the physical environment, in the visual and in the symbolism of the space? How can you use sound to create chills? What is going through the character’s head that increases the danger of the experience? How do you use pace and rhythm of language to create the equivalent of a musical soundtrack (the prime purpose of which is to manipulate emotion in a viewer?)

You have to layer in all six senses – what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like – as well as what your characters sense are there, even though there’s no physical evidence for it. You have to create the effect of an adrenaline rush. I think a huge weakness of a lot of writers is that they either don’t understand - or they’re too lazy to convey - the effects of adrenaline on the body and mind. You know how in a good suspense or action scene the pace actually slows down, so that every detail stands out and every move takes ages to complete? Well, that writing technique is actually just duplicating the experience of an adrenaline rush – your heart is going so fast and your thoughts are coming so fast that everything around you seems slowed down. You react to things faster because your metabolism has sped up so you CAN react faster and possibly save yourself.

I'll go on and discuss some more specific techniques in the next post, but here’s my last thought for this one. I think one of the best things a writer can do to learn how to write suspense is to take some acting classes. Learning to experience a story from INSIDE one of the characters – literally, inside that character’s body – will make you much more proficient at creating a physical, sensual experience for your readers.

So yes, if you have links to particularly good articles or sites on how to create suspense, please share!

Authors, what are your favorite suspense tips and techniques? Who did you study to learn the fine art of suspense? And readers, who are your favorite suspense authors, and do you have a favorite KIND of suspense?


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More articles on story structure


What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method


Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Fairy Tale Structure and the List



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Monday, December 07, 2009

Nanowrimo Now What? - Rewriting

Okay now, remember, if you just finished your draft on Nov. 30, taking time off from it before you jump into revisions is far more important than anything else I’m going to say here today.

But once you have taken the time off… how the hell do you proceed with the second draft?

Well, first you have to read it. All the way through. Not necessarily in one sitting (if that’s even possible to begin with!); I usually do this in chunks of 50 pages or 100 pages a day – anything else makes my brain sore.

(And yes, if you’ve been following the posts on The Three Act Structure and The Eight Sequence Structure, that would mean I’m either reading one sequence or two sequences a day).

I picked up a tip from some book or article a long time ago about reading for revisions, and I wish I could remember who said it, because it’s great advice. Grab yourself a colored pen or pencil (or all kinds of colors, go wild) and sit down with a stack of freshly printed pages (sorry, it’s ungreen, but I can’t do a first revision on a screen. I need a hard copy). Then read through and make brief notes where necessary, but DO NOT start rewriting, and PUT THE PEN DOWN as soon as you’ve made a note. You want to read the first time through for story, not for stupid details that will interrupt your experience of the story as a whole. You want to get the big picture – especially – you want to see if you actually have a book (or film, if that’s what you’re writing).

If you are like me, there will be large chunks of absolute shit. That’s pretty much my definition of what a first draft is. X them out on the spot if you have to, but resist the temptation to stop and rewrite. Well, if you REALLY are hot to write a scene, I guess, okay, but really, unless you are totally, fanatically inspired, it’s better just to make brief notes.

When you’ve finished reading there should - hopefully! - be the feeling that even though you probably still have massive amounts of work yet to do, there is a book there. (I love that feeling…)

Once I’ve read through the entire thing, I make notes about my impressions, and then usually I will do a re-card (see The Index Card Method). I will have made many scribbled notes on the draft to the effect of “This scene doesn’t work here!” In some of my first drafts, whole sections don’t work at all. This is my chance to find the right places for things. And, of course, throw stuff out.

I will go through the entire book again – going back and forth between my pages and the cards on my story grid - and see where the story elements fall. There is no script or book I’ve ever written that didn’t benefit from a careful overview once again identifying act breaks, sequence climaxes, and key story elements like: The Call to Adventure; Stating the Theme; identifying the Central Question; Central Action and Plan; Crossing the Threshold; Meeting the Mentor; the Dark Night of the Soul - once the first draft is actually finished. A lot of your outline may have changed, and you will be able to pull your story into line much more effectively if you check your structural elements again and continually be thinking of how you can make those key scenes more significant, more magical.

(For a quick refresher on Story Elements, skip down to #10 at the bottom of this post, and the links at the end for more in-depth discussion.)

Also, be very aware of what your sequences are. If a scene isn’t working, but you know you need to have it, it’s probably in the wrong sequence, and if you look at your story overall and at what each sequence is doing, you’ll probably be able to see immediately where stray scenes need to go. That’s why re-carding and re-sequencing is such a great thing to do when you start a revision.

Now, the next steps can be taken in whatever order is useful to you, but here again are the Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.


1. Cut, cut, cut.

When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will. It's okay if you bitch about it all the way to the trash file, too - I always do.

2. Find a great critique group.

This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

3. Do several passes.

Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

4. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

5. Know your Three Act Structure.

If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

6. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

7. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

8. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.

9. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a first draft unless you feel it’s very close to the final product, but when you’re further along, the best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

Some of you are already well aware that I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points, so here it is again, for those just finding this post.


STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST

ACT ONE

* Opening image
* Meet the hero or heroine
* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
* Hero/ine’s problem
* Hero/ine’s ghost or wound
* Hero/ine’s arc
* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
* State the theme/what’s the story about?
* Allies
* Mentor (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
* Love interest
* Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
* Sequence One climax
* Central Question
* Central Story Action
* Plan (Hero/ine's)
* Villain's Plan
* Act One climax

___________________________

ACT TWO


* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
* Threshold Guardian (maybe)
* Hero/ine’s Plan
* Antagonist’s Plan
* Training Sequence
* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies
* Assembling the Team
* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
* In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


THE MIDPOINT


* Completely changes the game
* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
* Can be a huge revelation
* Can be a huge defeat
* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
* Can be sex at 60 — the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


______________________________
ACT TWO, PART TWO


* Recalibrating — after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.
* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive
* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)
* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).
* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
* Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is
* Answers the Central Question


_______________________________

ACT THREE

The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence — the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:


1. Getting there (storming the castle)
2. The final battle itself

* Thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
* The protagonist’s character change
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)
* Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
* Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you've been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

If these story elements are new to you, you’ll want to read:


Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three

Elements of Act Three: Elevate Your Ending

Elements of Act Three: What Makes a Great Climax?

Act Climaxes and Turning Points

Part 1:

Part 2:

In the next week or so I'll be posting more about how to do different kinds of passes for particular effect.

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I have succumbed and put the Screenwriting Tricks workbook up for Nook and on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Nanowrimo - What Now?

Okay, so you survived! Or maybe I shouldn’t make any assumptions, there.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say you survived and now have a rough draft (maybe very, very, very rough draft) of about 50,000 words.

What next?

Well, first of all, did you write to “The End”? Because if not, then you may have survived, but you’re not done. You must get through to The End, no matter how rough it is (rough meaning the process AND the pages…). If you did not get to The End, I would strongly urge that you NOT take a break, no matter how tired you are (well, maybe a day). You can slow down your schedule, set a lower per-day word or page count, but do not stop. Write every day, or every other day if that’s your schedule, but get the sucker done.

You may end up throwing away most of what you write, but it is a really, really, really bad idea not to get all the way through a story. That is how most books, scripts and probably most all other things in life worth doing are abandoned.

Conversely, if you DID get all the way to “The End”, then definitely, take a break. As long a break as possible. You should keep to a writing schedule, start brainstorming the next project, maybe do some random collaging to see what images come up that might lead to something fantastic - but if you have a completed draft, then what you need right now is SPACE from it. You are going to need fresh eyes to do the read-through that is going to take you to the next level, and the only way for you to get those fresh eyes is to leave the story alone for a while.

I am tempted to jump write in and post the blog I am thinking about on a process for reading and revising, but I will resist, at least for today, so that you really absorb what I’m saying.

1. Keep going if you’re not done –

OR -

2. Take a good long break if you have a whole first draft, and start thinking about another project.


And in the meantime, I’d love to hear how you all who were Nanoing did.

(Myself, I decided not to do the 50,000 words last month, because I was still in the outlining stage of my Nocturne book, part of The Keepers trilogy that comes out in Fall 2010, and I just knew I’d write a better book if I spent all the time I needed outlining. So I now have a 35-page outline, including some whole scenes, and now that I’m writing, seven pages a day on that one is a piece of cake, and much more fun.). It’s looking like I’ll have a first draft by New Year’s Eve, no problem! and I’m still having time to get a few pages a day in on my YA.).

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Win three signed hardcovers!

Dark Scribe Magazine is running a contest and giving away signed hardcovers of The Harrowing, The Price, and The Unseen. Enter here.

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The Unseen has been nominated for a Black Quill award for Dark Genre Novel of the Year! I'm thrilled to be in this company:

* Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan (Harper)
* Castaways by Brian Keene (Leisure Books)
* Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Shaye Areheart Books)
* Drood by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown and Company)
* The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Hardcover)
* The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff (St. Martin's Press)


Full list of nominees, here.