Thursday, December 30, 2010

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors Workshop in January

If you want to jump start the New Year with a writing/structure intensive, I'm teaching a two-week online workshop in January.

I'll start roughly around January 1, but since some may be rougher than others this weekend (!), it will go a few days longer than two weeks. Just as useful for screenwriters.

Only $15!

Click for details and to register.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I haven’t done a movie breakdown for a long time, so here’s a great one I rediscovered recently – a perfect piece of storytelling, worth studying on all kinds of levels.

Here's a refresher on the Elements of Act One, for those who want to follow along - and the movie is available for instant viewing on Netflix, btw.

I am going to start with some general notes first – some things I suggest you look for as you’re watching this film – particularly in terms of THEME, HOPE, FEAR and STAKES.

As you’ve probably noticed, I often use examples of story elements and structure from Thomas Harris’s masterpieces Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs – to the, um, horror, of some romance writers who wouldn’t be caught dead (sorry, I’ll stop now) reading those books. But I always try to get writers to understand that they can learn just as much from stories outside their own genre, because the elements of story – and suspense – are the same no matter how many bodies are or are not falling or how many creatures are or are not lurking in the basement.

So for you darker types – don’t underestimate what you can gain by studying this film. There’s a lot to be learned about storytelling from classics in other genres.

I find serious horror in Sense And Sensibility - (and any Austen book), and it’s not a horror of romance, either. I am, however, horrified at the Netflix description of the film as “Austen’s classic tale of 19th century etiquette” – this story is more about monsters in the basement than it is about etiquette.

Actually, it is about an evil much bigger than a monster in the basement.


Screenplay by Emma Thompson
From the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Ang Lee


Just wanted to note for the filmmakers among you that the credits sequence is just titles on black, with period music underneath. This is a technique often used with period films, I think used deliberately to slow the audience down and put them squarely in another time. Music is a pure time machine from – or to - the period it was written, it works on us in a way that no visual or dialogue ever could.


I would say that the first short sequence (4 min.) is a prologue – and a hugely important one.

The film opens at the deathbed of Mr. Dashwood, the father of our not-yet-seen heroines. Mr. Dashwood has called in John, his son from a previous marriage, to whom Mr. Dashwood’s entire fortune and houses will pass under the law of primogeniture, which bars women from inheriting property and keeps both the patriarchy and the aristocracy intact by mandating that family fortunes pass undivided to the eldest son of a family, with only minimal livings carved out for any remaining male children.

If you need a refresher: Primogeniture

Before he dies, Dashwood extracts a promise from John that he will take care of the present Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, who by this law of primogeniture are only allowed to inherit 500 pounds.

John’s original intention is to give the Dashwood women an additional 3000 pounds so they can live comfortably on the interest, but in the course of a carriage ride up to Norland Park, where John and his wife will take over the Dashwood house, John’s harridan of a wife, Fanny, whittles weak-willed John’s gift down to nothing at all: “Twenty pounds here and there should be ample. What would four women need with more than 500 pounds?”

(John also voices the FEAR that Marianne will lose her bloom and end up a spinster like Elinor.)

This series of scenes is a beautiful – and outwardly funny - dramatization of greed in action, and Fanny makes a detestable villain. But more importantly, the scenes introduce the real villain of the story, and every Austen story: primogeniture – which kept the rich superrich, the poor practically or literally indentured as servants to the rich, and women enslaved to men, for centuries.

Stylistically, Jane Austen was writing comedies, but the stories are built on social outrage, and I believe it’s that canny blend that made and keeps these books classics.

One more note as you’re watching this film – pay special attention to how the storytellers use weather to create mood and emotion, and also pay attention to the set decoration: the paintings on the walls behind the character comment – often hilariously – on the story and themes.


The whole next sequence (4:30 to 26 minutes ) is extremely filmic, played at first almost as a montage, with fast cuts between extremely short scenes. We are introduced to the extremely sympathetic Dashwood women: Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and 11-year old Margaret, as they are reduced to guests in their own house – in the midst of their deep grief over the loss of their father and husband. While Fanny steamrolls through the house claiming everything in it as her own, the Dashwood women scramble to find other living arrangements on their tiny inheritance.

These are great character introductions to Elinor and Marianne, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, one all “Sense” and the other all Sensibility” – ie, passion. The filmmakers deftly find comedy even in this tragic situation, eg. Elinor’s first line to Marianne as Marianne plays the world’s most doleful dirge on the pianoforte: “Would you play something else, dearest? Maman has been weeping all morning.”

I see this movie as having a dual protagonist, even though Elinor is clearly the more dominant one and the point of view character. But Austen, and Thompson in the adaptation, are using the sisters to demonstrate a theme: literally, sense and sensibility. At the beginning of the story the sisters are out of balance – Elinor is all sense, and Marianne all sensibility (passion). By the end of the story (and partly through the crucible of love), they have each gained some of what the other has, to make both of them more fully realized women.

This is what you could call a “character cluster”, like the three-brother or three-sister structure you often see, especially in stories with a fairy tale structure like the Harry Potter books/films, and if you’re thinking about writing a dual protagonist, this is an excellent example to study.

Note also the restatement of THEME when Margaret asks Elinor why John and Fanny are coming to take over Norwood when they already have a house of their own. Elinor tells Margaret “Houses go from father to son. It's the law.” That extra emphasis on how this is the law makes it very clear what the problem is, and keeps this societal FORCE OF ANTAGONISM very present in the story.

Now, enter Edward Ferrars – Fanny’s intelligent but very reserved brother (Hugh Grant at his diffidently charming best). (The scenes become longer here.). Edward’s formal bow, and the Dashwood women’s polite curtseys in return, become a RUNNING GAG in the film (a running gag is a staple of comedy). Each time the action stops as Edward does his best at this bow, but there’s something always just a little off about the timing.

Marianne wants to hate him – especially because Fanny has kicked Margaret out of her own room to give her brother the best view in the house, but Edward has already noticed the offense and quietly moved himself to a guest room.

Edward instantly understands the pain of the Dashwoods’ circumstances, bonds with and draws out youngest daughter Margaret, and falls hard – albeit reservedly - for kindred soul Elinor. In a beautiful scene in the library, Edward and Elinor coax Margaret out from where she has been hiding under a table by pretending ignorance of the source of the Nile, and we see that Edward and Elinor are perfectly, beautifully matched: intelligent, witty, sensitive, kind, and off-the-wall. They are at their most charming when they’re together. This is a common and I think crucial scene in any romance or romantic subplot – you could call it THE DANCE – where we see that two people are perfect for each other. So much more meaningful than “meet cute”!

And this scene gives us our great HOPE for Elinor – that she has found the great love of her live and they will make a true, encompassing marriage. (Also the PLAN)

But there’s more to this than love. In her circumstances, Elinor’s life and her family’s lives depend on her making a good marriage, because women are prohibited from earning an income. So a happy marriage to a well-off man is the dream, the best possible outcome– but the stakes couldn’t be higher, and Elinor’s situation is more than tenuous – she has not the slightest power over the outcome.

15 min. We see their feelings deepen when Edward catches Elinor crying as she listens to Marianne play their favorite song on the piano. He gives her his handkerchief (which becomes what Joseph Campbell calls a TALISMAN – a significant object to a character, like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre and Harry Potter’s – well, lots of things, but the cloak of invisibility, the Nimbus 2000, etc.).

ANTAGONISTS Fanny and Edward’s mother (offstage, but very present in the form of threat of disinheriting Edward if he makes an “unworthy marriage”) immediately go about preventing this match.

18 min. The Dashwood women receive an offer of a cottage for minimal rent from Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, but Mrs. Dashwood has seen the “attachment” forming between Elinor and Edward and tells Marianne that they will put off the move.

Edward and Elinor spend more time together and continue to fall in love; this is accomplished in an amazingly short amount of film time.

The horseback riding scene is especially interesting thematically: Elinor states plainly "We (women) have no choice of any occupation whatsoever. You will inherit your fortune, we cannot even earn ours." But we also see that Edward is constrained by the threat of complete disinheritance if he does not make a career and a marriage that his mother approves of. The scene also shows that these two can talk honestly of deep issues.

We also see another antagonist to the match: Marianne, who thinks that Edward is not passionate enough for Elinor, and that Elinor’s feelings are obviously too tepid to be love.

When Marianne asks Elinor how she feels about Edward, Elinor says that she greatly esteems him. Marianne chides her for being so dispassionate. (ELINOR’S CHARACTER ARC: Elinor is not completely honest about her feelings, which will get her into trouble down the road.)

In another scene, Marianne asks their mother: "Can he love her? To love is to burn, to be on fire." Marianne just comes right out and says what she believes, and this sets up Marianne’s CHARACTER ARC: There’s also some foreshadowing and FEAR for Marianne there when her mother replies that Marianne’s passionate role models Juliet and Heloise made “rather bad ends.”

But despite her objections, Marianne will support her sister’s wishes with her whole heart.

Meanwhile evil Fanny actively works to thwart the relationship by telling Mrs. Dashwood that that their mother has made it clear she will disinherit Edward should he marry beneath his station. (22 min)

It’s a devastating move because we are already so invested in Elinor and Edward’s love – and we hate Fanny. There are also two PLANTS here – that Edward will in fact be disinherited and that he is too much of a gentleman to ever go back on a promise – which will become very significant later.

At dinner, Mrs. Dashwood announces they will leave immediately for her cousin's estate. (NEW PLAN)

The next day Edward finds Elinor in the stable, saying goodbye to her horse, which the family cannot afford to keep. Edward says that he must speak to Elinor, which we and Elinor think will be a marriage proposal. Instead Edward tells a rambling story of his early education under the tutelage of Mr. Pratt (PLANT), and before he can get to the point, Fanny races in telling him their mother needs him immediately back at the family home. Edward obeys Fanny and the Dashwoods move from their home to a cottage on the estate of Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, without a marriage proposal from Edward to Elinor.


(I’m willing to be convinced that Sequence One is actually two sequences, but where would you break it, and why?)

SEQUENCE TWO: (27 min. to 45 min.)

This sequence sets up Marianne’s story, as the first sequence set up Elinor’s.

The Dashwoods arrive at Barton Cottage, their new, much smaller home (but I’d still take it any day!) with gorgeous shots of the countryside. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD and INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD)

They are heartily welcomed by the crass, noisy, but warm-hearted Sir John and his mother-in-law, wealthy Mrs. Jennings. (ALLIES, and Mrs. Jennings is also the MENTOR). There’s a great moment when Margaret says later that she likes Mrs. Jennings because “She talks about things. We never talk about things.”

They settle into their new life: Elinor struggles to make ends meet for the family and secretly pines for Edward (though she tells her mother that it’s more sensible to be practical about the barriers to Edward marrying a woman without a dowry).

Fiery Marianne catches the eye of Sir John’s good friend, the county’s most eligible bachelor, wealthy and cultured Colonel Brandon (a completely dreamy Alan Rickman). Marianne scorns Brandon’s attentions, thinking him too old (he’s 35 in the book). Brandon is a perfect gentleman (and like Edward, very charming and attentive to young Margaret). Elinor likes him, but is not immediately won over. She asks Mrs. Jennings about Brandon and Mrs. Jennings tells Elinor that Brandon has a tragic past: He fell in love with his father's young ward; and the family broke up the lovers by sending Brandon away to the military and turning the girl out of the house. She was “passed from man to man” and when Brandon returned from the West Indies he searched for her and found her dying in a poorhouse.

This is our FEAR for Marianne – and it’s a big one. In Austen’s time “ruin” for women meant prostitution: poverty, syphilis – the worst possible life.

Mrs. Jennings’ unsubtle matchmaking serves to turn Marianne away from Brandon. Instead she falls hard for the young, handsome and dashing Willoughby, whom she meets in a stormy romantic scene on a moor right out of Wuthering Heights (SETPIECE). Willoughby also seems very well-fixed financially (set to inherit a nearby estate) and outspokenly shares Marianne’s passion for poetry and music. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret are instantly charmed; Marianne is openly adoring. Elinor, though, has doubts….

There’s hope but also fear here – I felt Willoughby was a bit over the top in a way that might backfire badly – might even lead to her “ruin”. Plus – this guy over Alan Rickman? I think not. Still, what I love about this casting and characterization is that he seems a good match for Marianne – it’s a legitimate romantic dilemma, and keeps us in SUSPENSE about which is the right man for her.

CLIMAX OF ACT ONE - (45 minutes into a 2 hour, 15 minute film)

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Essence of Character

I never know if you guys are keeping up with Murderati, but I so loved Stephen Jay Schwartz’s post on character from a few days ago I wanted to continue the discussion here, from a slightly different angle.

What I want to talk about is his description of Henry, the moving man. In just a few paragraphs – tiny black marks on paper, or bits on a screen – Steve put a REAL PERSON into our heads. An unforgettable person.

That’s great writing. But I don’t think you can break it down into the words he used and what order he used them in. It’s not a technical skill so much as – well, as another Steve says in On Writing – it’s telepathy. Stephen was struck to his core by a unique human being and so moved by the experience that he used his own being to communicate that profound encounter to us - whole - so that we could have that encounter with Henry, too…


How awesome is that?

That is the real magic of writing.

And that doesn’t have a lot to do with details, really. It has to do with ESSENCE.

Note what SJS DIDN’T put into his characterization of Henry. He didn’t say what he was wearing (didn’t need to - we’ve all seen how men dress to move furniture). He didn’t say if he was married, with or without children, gay, straight. He didn’t give us his long and involved back story, what kind of cereal he likes, what team he roots for, what side of the bed he sleeps on, what his astrological sign is. There weren’t even any descriptions of killer tattoos.

I’ve seen character bio forms that have writers list all of those things and more, and they always make me uneasy. It’s too much information. A character comes through not because of a mountain of detail, but because of those one or two unmissable things that define him or her – in this case, Henry’s infinite patience and presence in a frustrating, mundane situation (and the contrast of that personal serenity in the body of a bruiser.).

Steve’s portrayal of Henry doesn’t have much to do with the words he used, either, with technical skill. Oh, we need technical skill all right, but mainly so that we don’t get in our own way while we’re writing. We learn all those things, the words, the pace, the grammar rules and how to break them, iambic pentameter (yes, we all use it if we’re writing in English…) – but that’s just a pianist’s scales, or a dancer’s barre work. We do those things so that we have a finely tuned instrument that is always ready on a moment’s notice to communicate the pure ESSENCE of a character (or love scene, or fight, whatever we’re needing to communicate in our story.)

I think I’m going on about this because – well, of course it’s what I do, but also I’ve been thinking about the essence of character because I went on a Reacher binge recently and caught up on a few of the older books I hadn’t read yet. And then I wanted more, and I started up rereading the ones I’ve already read.

As I have confessed here before, I’m not much of a series reader. I realize that part of it is that I am generally doubtful and cynical that any one author can continue to build depth and complexity in the same characters for more than three or four books. And that’s if they’re really good and really lucky. With a series, I am always bracing myself for ennui to set in. Now, I think TV can do series brilliantly – but TV has the incredible advantage of having ACTORS along with a whole staff of writers looking after character development. And actors are fanatically devoted to exploring their particular character, exclusively. That specialization and focus can, in the best of circumstances, carry TV characters much farther than authors are usually capable of carrying them. That’s by no means a slight on writers, it’s an acknowledgment of the art, craft, magic and specialization of actors.

But Lee Child’s Reacher is an exception, and so is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and that has to do with unbelievably great plots, for sure, but I think it also has to do with character essence.

In any Reacher book you care to pick up, on the first few pages you are going to find this character who is almost always out on the open road, and preternaturally observant. Okay, sometimes you meet him right before a fight in which he is always outnumbered and always the last man standing, but the fight will be portrayed moment by moment so what we experience Reacher’s mental and psychological calculations at every second of the action. I don’t much think about what Reacher looks like – muscle seems to have very little to do with anything that happens. In fact, Reacher is huge, but is constantly dispatching bigger and stronger men because he’s fighting with his brain. It’s the Sherlockian powers of observation, whether in a fight or in the course of an investigation - that are compelling about the character.

There are a few other constant, essential things about Reacher that make him unique. He HATES a situation in which a big guy, whether an individual or corporation, is dominating or oppressing a weaker person or entity; he is driven to right that imbalance time and time again. He hates having any encumbrances – house, clothing, place, or even money. And he must have the companionship of an intelligent, unique woman to feel balanced and whole (he doesn’t say this, but it’s constantly played out).

Harry Bosch is another character I never get tired of. Harry was devised with a particular back story of being a tunnel rat in Vietnam, which – without being stated – gives a sense of why this man is damaged. And Harry is wounded, no doubt – while he is often heroic, you worry about him, wonder how he even gets through a day, sometimes. As an LAPD detective, Harry is constantly up against overwhelming forces – it’s not just about the case he’s working on, but the bureaucracy and sometimes malignance of the police department in general, or superiors in the department in particular. Sometimes the very family Harry is trying to help is working against him. Sometimes there’s a bigger, amorphous evil like racism. In fact, there’s always a sense of a greater evil that might finish Harry off for good. Harry is on some level aware of these larger forces and still he goes out there and does his job with a dogged determination that is both relentless and slightly – autistic, is the word that comes to mind.

Of course both Reacher and Harry are wounded knights, an archetype that has captured the popular imagination for hundreds of years, if not since the beginning of time.

Denise Mina’s prickly, scrappy Paddy Meehan is fascinating to me because of her in-your-face Scottishness. She’s a journalist too young to have any practical experience who ends up uncovering more than any of her male colleagues combined because of sheer cussedness. The lone woman up against a force of often hostile male colleagues has always done me (the brilliant BBC series Prime Suspect is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen) because it’s so true to my own experience. Paddy’s also like Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli, who startled me as a female lead because she is so desperately unhappy, so NOT a Cinderella. In the book which was Jane’s introduction, The Surgeon, Jane DOESN’T get the guy – she nearly gets killed instead. She gets no respect on the job because she’s a woman and she gets no respect from her Italian family because she’s a woman. And experiencing her pain and outsiderness made me a devoted fan.

Margaret Maron, to me, captures the essence of the South in her Deborah Knott books. Margaret’s own laser perception masked by that “Who - little ol’ me?” Southern slyness oozes through in Deborah.

Cornelia Read’s Madeline Dare is a fascinating character to me because she lives in – or at least has lived in – a world that is completely alien to my experience, and yet I completely relate to her razor-sharp smarts, wicked tongue, and feminism. SJS’s Hayden Glass being driven by this demon of addiction is compelling to me in essence. Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor’s essence to me is his wide-open heart and purity of soul.

Okay, you know what I want from you today. Who are YOUR favorite series characters and what is it about them – what is the essence - that draws you back, again and again?

- Alex

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Process For Writing

Just finished teaching another online class and I'm posting an outline of steps, with links, that I compiled for my class that suggests an orderly process of writing, so that it's here for anyone else who might be able to use it.

Hope everyone had a great holiday and a great Nano.

- Alex



1. First, before you start a project, even if you already have a great idea that you’re committed to, it really helps to allow yourself to do free-form brainstorming, to see what themes and characters are rolling around in your head that might just help you with the new project. And if you don’t have that great idea yet, this is the way to uncover it.

- First, You Need An Idea

2. Take a stab at writing the premise. You may not know what it is exactly, yet – that’s fine!

- What’s Your Premise?

3. See if you can identify what KIND of story it is. Again, you may not know this at early stages – don’t worry about it! Just ask the question of yourself, and keep alert for the answer.

- What KIND of Story Is It?

4. Make a Master List of movies and books in the genre of your new project, and that are structurally similar to your project (the same KIND or type of story).

- Analyzing Your Master List

5. Pick at least three of them that are MOST SIMILAR to your own story and watch them, doing a detailed story breakdown, identifying the key Story Elements, Acts, Sequences, Climaxes, etc. I really urge you to put some thought into which movies will be of the most use to your own story and not just do breakdowns for the sake of doing them – that’s fun, but it’s not the point.

- Three Act Structure Review

- The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

6. At the same time, start generating index cards for your own story. Write every scene that you know or imagine in the story on index cards and stick them on a structure grid if you have a vague idea where that scene goes. Write cards for the climaxes and story elements even if you don’t know specifically what they are, yet. Allow yourself to be inspired by the movies you’re watching – let the movies show you what scenes are missing in your own story.

- The Index Card Method and Structure Grid

- Story Elements Checklist for Generating Index Cards

7. Also do word lists of visual and thematic elements for your story to start building your image systems. Start a collage book or online clip file of images if that appeals to you.

- Thematic Image Systems

8. Work back and forth between the index cards and your growing on paper or in file outline of the story. Write whole scenes out when you are inspired. Flesh out the acts by reviewing the elements of each act:

- Elements of Act One

- Elements of Act Two, Part 1

- Elements of Act Two, Part 2

- Elements of Act Three

- What Makes A Great Climax?

- Elevate Your Ending

- Creating Character

9. As you continue to work the index cards, your sequences and act climaxes will become clearer to you. These will also probably change during the writing process – that’s fine! The goal of the cards and the initial outline is a road map to help your subconscious out when you’re doing that endless slog of a first draft.

10. As you find out more about your story, write the premise again, and make sure you have identified and understand the Plan and Central Story Action.

- Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

- What's the Plan?

- Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action, part 2

11. When you’re ready to start writing from the beginning then write. Set a writing schedule and stick to it – you can sacrifice one hour of TV or playing on Facebook a night. Professional authors are people who understand that TV and social networking are the biggest waste of writing time on the planet. Do you want to veg, or do you want to create? The choice is yours.

12. Keep moving forward – DO NOT go back and endlessly revise your first chapters. You may end up throwing them out anyway. Just move forward. If you’re stuck on a scene, write down vaguely what might happen in it or where it might happen as a place marker and move on to a scene you know better. The first draft can be just a sketch – the important thing is to get it all down, from beginning to end. Then you can start to layer in all the other stuff.

13. When you’re stuck - make a list.

- Stuck? Make A List.

14. Remember that the first draft is always going to suck.

- Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck

15. You can always watch movies and do breakdowns to inspire you and break you through a block.

16. When you reach THE END – celebrate! Most people never get anywhere near that far in their whole lives. Take several weeks off for perspective, no matter how much you want to jump back into it.

17. Then when your brain is clear, do a read through as suggested here to see what the story is that you wrote (as opposed to what you THOUGHT you were writing. Then start the rewriting process. Definitely do a re-carding of the whole story – it will have changed!

- Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting


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, October 27, 2010

Out today: The Shifters

My first paranormal, The Shifters (Book Two of The Keepers trilogy) comes out today from Harlequin Nocturne (and already spotted at Walmart!)

With The Shifters I’ve had the opportunity to write something in a completely different, though parallel, genre from what I usually write. My amazing friend, bestselling paranormal mystery/romance phenomenon Heather Graham, asked me to develop a paranormal trilogy with her and our sister dark suspense author Deborah LeBlanc, and together we spun a story spanning three interconnected books, set in our favorite city, New Orleans, about three extraordinary sisters who must fight to keep the peace between the fractious supernatural communities who live there under the radar.

Fair warning: The Shifters is spooky and suspenseful and colorful, but not necessarily as dark as what I usually write. In fact, there may even be that elusive happy ending (note man on cover!). If you’re looking for something bloodier, I hope you’ll check out my latest supernatural crime thriller, Book of Shadows.

But if you’ve been too scared to read my other books (and you know who you are...), I think you’ll love The Shifters.

ISBN-13: 978-0373618460


Caitlin, Fiona and Shauna MacDonald are Keepers, three sisters with extraordinary powers charged with keeping the peace between humans and the paranormal communities of vampires, werewolves and shapeshifters who live under the radar in New Orleans.

Caitlin keeps the shapeshifters, a race of beings whose power lets them take on the form and voice of anyone they choose. Even their fellow paranormals are distrustful of their abilities, and Caitlin knows better than to take any shifter at face value. Then shapeshifting bounty hunter Ryder Mallory blows into town, claiming to be on the trail of a group of malevolent entities called Walk-Ins, and suddenly a city already reeling in the wake of a string of serial murders is under siege once again. Caitlin and Ryder reluctantly team in a race to protect paranormals and humans alike from a supernatural massacre.

Excerpts of all three books at:


Buy The Shifters now.

Have you been thinking you should check out my books but are not a paranormal romance fan? My supernatural thrillers are available through your favorite independent bookstore, or click through to buy on Amazon: The Harrowing, The Price, The Unseen, Book of Shadows.

Not a thriller fan at all, but don't want to miss the opportunity to support this blog? Here's a link to my Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workbook.

Thanks for reading - and back to our regularly scheduled posts tomorrow.

- Alex

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Nanowrimo: Creating Character

All right, Nanos, here’s a list of posts on various aspects of creating character and character dynamics, in case that happens to be the issue. Since I’m teaching this character stuff live and in person this weekend, hopefully I’ll be able to add some new stuff tomorrow… and then back to structure elements. Hopefully.

So much writing, so little time…

Creating Character: The Protagonist

Rules of Character? Don’t Ask Me

What Makes a Great Protagonist? Case Study: Jake Gittes

What Makes a Great Villain?

Villains, Part 2 – The Forces of Antagonism

Character Introductions

Top Ten List – Favorite Mentors

Collecting Character

Thursday, October 21, 2010

November Online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors Workshop

I am teaching an online story structure workshop throughout the month of November, through RWA's PASIC.

These workshops are an outrageous deal: $20 for PASIC members, $30 for non-members.

Click here to register.

This is what PASIC has to say about it:

This is all done via email loop, and even though there are assignments, you can work at your own pace / time of day, etc.

Open to: ALL WRITERS, regardless of genre or level. You will work at your own pace with interaction with the instructor, appropriate for your level of expertise. The class uses yahoogroups as the meeting place, and you'll receive the lessons via email and will be able to interact with the instructor and class at your own pace for the month duration. All lessons and files will be available for you for download.

This is what I have to add:

It's your class - you can participate however you like. All assignments are completely optional. If you're doing Nanowrimo and you want to sign up just to ask questions when you get stuck, that's fine with me, and good for you for enlisting such cheap coaching. And if you want to just lurk, that's totally fine, too.

I will post a LOT of articles taking you through story structure in the order of steps that I've found most useful, with suggested assignments at the end of each, and you can pick and choose the assignments that will work for you, and post your work or not post it - whatever you want to do.

You can also just ask general questions on your own WIP, as long as you are so specific that I can understand what you're asking.

At the same time, I will tailor the class to the people who are doing the assignments and asking questions - so the most active participants in the class will be the ones who most greatly influence the discussions and the choice of movies, or maybe even books, that we break down together. I know there will be people in the class who have been following this blog, and/or who have read the workbook, and/or have taken an online class or workshop with me before, so please don't think you have to rehash assignments you've already done - you guys tell ME what you need, and we'll figure it out.

Deadline to Register: October 27, 2010

Click here to register.

Cost: $20 for PASIC members, $30 for non-members

Any questions - just ask in the comments here, or if you really must be private about it:

alex at alexandrasokoloff dot com

- Alex

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nanowrimo Prep: Elements of Act One

So now we've talked about basic filmic structure as it might be applied to novels, and you have your structure grid, and a grasp on how you're going to use index cards to brainstorm and lay out your story.

I don't know about you, but when I start a project, I know much, much, much more about the first act than any of the rest of it. I can see the mountains in the distance, but at first, I know much more about the basic set up and characters. So it makes sense to start at the beginning, and fill out the Elements of Act One.

What actually goes into a first act?

The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.

When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

- Opening image

- Meet the hero or heroine

- Hero/ine’s inner and outer need
- 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

- A mirror character (sometimes)
- Meet the Love interest (and please don't "Meet Cute")

- Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)

- Central Question
- Plan/Central Story Action (may not be introduced until early Act II)

- Sequence One climax

- Act One climax (or curtain, or culmination)
- Crossing the Threshold or Into the Special World (which we'll talk about later)

Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.


Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax (which takes place in the grain silo – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say - on the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream.

Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourself trying to concoct a great first line, how about giving some thought to what your opening scene LOOKS like? It takes a lot of the pressure off that first page anxiety - because you're focused on conveying a powerful image that will intrigue and entice the reader into the book. What do we see? How does it make us feel?

Try it!

(I'll talk more about this in posts on VISUAL STORYTELLING.)


Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.

In fact, let’s just stop right there and talk about this crucial idea of


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But even in a romantic comedy, where the inner and outer desire might not be so deep, there can be a lot of meaning and change. In Romancing The Stone, Joan Wilder's obvious plot-driven outer desire is to save her sister - she's a good person and she's already got an unselfish drive. But she's also got a personal outer desire: for a great love with the man of her dreams, the one she keeps writing about.

But her inner need is to become the self-realized woman she is capable of being: the intrepid, independent, and loving woman she writes about. Through the course of the movie we see her becoming that woman before our eyes, and we see her flawed real-life man fall in love with her because of that independence and adventurousness. She gets her man by finding herself.


Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (and this is important to think about from the very beginning of Act One, since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning.)

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

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


This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.

In JAWS, it happens on the first few pages of the book, and the first few minutes of the movie: the shark swims into the quiet bay and eats a swimmer. That’s the event that forces the hero, Sheriff Brody, to take action. (In mysteries and thrillers the first death is often the inciting incident – it’s so common that writers refer to it as “the corpse hits the floor”. In the case of JAWS, the corpse hits the ocean floor.)

In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker finds the hologram of the captured Princess Leia pleading for help that she has hidden in the robot R2D2.

In CHINATOWN, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray walks into Jake Gittes’ office and hires him to prove her husband is cheating on her. (In a detective story, the inciting incident is often the case that lands in the detective’s lap, or again, “the corpse hits the floor”.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government guys come to Professor Indiana Jones and want to hire him to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant – before Hitler gets it.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice is called to FBI agent Crawford’s office, where he tells her he has “an interesting errand for her.”

In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation).

Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. They must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here – THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. Let's face it - we all tend to resist change and the unknown, right? So much easier to just see what's on TV tonight.

In CHINATOWN, for example, Jake initially tries to talk “Mrs. Mulwray” out of pursuing the case. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE there’s a whole sequence of Harry’s uncle trying to prevent Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwart’s school.


The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post - see here and here. For the purposes of this post I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.


Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.


Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.


Again, optional, but it's rare not to have one! This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, a mentor, or the actual villain.

Obviously, meeting the love of your life is an extremely significant moment and it should be treated as such in your script or book. Unfortunately this usually translates into appalling "meet cute" scenes in which - more times than I can freaking count - the hero spills coffee on the heroine, or vice-versa, ruining her or his new suit just before that big job interview, so the heroine has an excuse to hate the hero even though he offers to pay for the suit. Or vice-versa.

I'm not going to go into my whole rant about "meet cute" right now, I'm just bringing it up as an example hoping you will cringe as much as I do and vow to do better. A lot better. As always, I suggest you make a list of your favorite meetings of soon-to-be lovers, and see what great storytellers do with the moment - whether it be comic, erotic, or downright bizarre.


Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. This is one of the most dynamic storytelling tricks you can employ in your writing, in fact, because it engages your reader or audience fully in the action of the story.

Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning


A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they ARE doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.


We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but that’s me.)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?

(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Obviously your ASSIGNMENT is to create index cards for the first act, all the while of course making index cards for other parts of your story as they occur to you.

And if you don't know what an element is yet, like the opening image, or the call to adventure, then I strongly suggest that you just write a card that says OPENING IMAGE. And one for CALL TO ADVENTURE, and pin it up there on your structure grid in approximately the right place. Our creative minds are so very eager to do this work for us that if you just acknowledge that you need a scene like that, your subconscious will jump right to work and figure one out for you. I swear. It is one of the great miracles of writing.

If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, check out these breakdowns of the first acts of several movies, identifying these steps:


CHINATOWN Act One Breakdown


Romancing the Stone

Next we'll move on to the elements of the second act.

So I’m interested in all questions and comments, of course, but I’m always looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict. Got any for me?

- Alex, just back from a most fabulous Bouchercon



What is the Three Act Structure and Why Should You Care?

The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Structure Grid

Story Elements Checklist for Brainstorming Index Cards


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nanowrimo Prep: Story Structure 101

Today: everything you need to know about story structure.

Well, not really. But since it's already mid-October, we'd better get down to this, so I'm giving you Nanos four posts in a row that cover general story structure so you can get to work outlining and/or carding This should keep you busy for a couple of days, anyway!

What is the Three Act Structure and Why Should You Care?

The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Structure Grid

Story Elements Checklist for Brainstorming Index Cards

- Alex

Monday, October 11, 2010

What is a Big Book?/The High Concept Premise

More Nanowrimo Prep

(Before you dive into this post I highly recommend reading What's Your Premise? - and of course do the exercises!)

A friend of mine did a workshop at the RWA National Conference a couple of months ago on the High Concept Premise. We ended up talking before the workshop about high concept in books and movies, and also about the even more elusive concept of the Big Book.

I was interested to hear that when she polled a number of editors to ask them how they would define a Big Book, while everyone said that the Big Book is the one that everyone is always looking for, no one could give her a specific answer about what exactly it is. Or even try. A Big Book is the one all the editors get excited about because they think they can make a ton of money with it. But what IS that?

I’m used to people being vague about what High Concept is. And yes, it’s an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing – the idea that is so good that it is painfully obvious, only no one else has thought of it until now.

And as my friend and I were talking, I realized that a Big Book is slightly different from a High Concept book. They are NOT necessarily interchangeable terms, which is going to make this blog post even more confusing.

But let’s start with High Concept. This is a Hollywood term. And very often, it IS what editors mean when they talk about a Big Book.

If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is - AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it - that’s high concept. (If you need a refresher on the premise line you can read more here: What's Your Premise?).

Here’s another way of looking at it: the potential of the setup is obvious. A movie like MEET THE PARENTS instantly conjures all kinds of disaster scenarios, right? Because we’ve all (mostly) been in the situation before, and we know the extreme perils.

I would also add, not as an afterthought – with a high-concept premise, the moneymaking potential is obvious.

I would also add, because MEET THE PARENTS is a good example of this, that you know what the movie is from the title alone. (In fact, many movie ideas are sold on the title alone. I had lunch with an A-list screenwriter friend recently who said that the title might be the most important selling point of any film pitch, these days.)

Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” - you’ve got a high-concept premise.

But okay, let’s break it down, specifically. What makes stories high concept? One or more of these things:

- They’re topical – they hit a nerve in society at the right time: FATAL ATTRACTION for AIDS, JURASSIC PARK for cloning, DISCLOSURE for sexual harassment (only reversing the sexes was utter bullshit.)

- They are about a subject that we all have in our heads already (THE PASSION, THE DA VINCI CODE, FOUR CHRISTMASES, JURASSIC PARK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)

- They exploit a primal fear (JAWS, JURASSIC PARK) or a spiritual fear (THE EXORCIST, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY).

- They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, THE HANGOVER, BLIND DATE, FOUR CHRISTMASES).

- They are controversial and/or sacrilegious enough to generate press (DA VINCI CODE, THE LAST TEMPTATION, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)

- They generate water-cooler talk (FATAL ATTRACTION, INDECENT PROPOSAL)

- They have a big twist (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE SIXTH SENSE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE, THE CRYING GAME). And not necessarily a twist at the end - the twist can be in the set up. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is about two people falling in love - when they've never met. RUTHLESS PEOPLE is about a group of kidnappers who kidnap a wealthy woman and threaten to kill her if her husband doesn't pay - which turns out to be her heinous husband's dream scenario. He WANTS her dead, and now the kidnappers are stuck with a bitch on wheels.

- They are about a famous person or event - or possible event: TITANIC, GALLIPOLI, APOLLO 13, ARMAGEDDON, ROSWELL, 2012, THE HISTORIAN, DA VINCI CODE.

- There's also just the "Cool!!!" factor. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK revolves around an artifact that supposedly has the supernatural power to will any army undefeatable. Well, what if Hitler got hold of it?

Let’s take a closer look at a few high-concept ideas:

JURASSIC PARK - A group of scientists and the children of an inventor tour a remote island where the inventor has cloned dinosaurs to create a Jurassic amusement park – then have to fight for their lives when the dinosaur containment system breaks down.

What kid has not had that obsession with dinosaurs? And who of us has not had the thought of how terrifying it would be to be face to face with one of those things – live? Throw in the very topical subject of cloning (they get dinosaur DNA from a prehistoric fly trapped in amber) and the promise of amusement-park thrills, and who ISN’T going to read that book and/or see that movie?

Plus, there's the potential for an amusement park ride. I'm not kidding. What made STAR WARS one of the biggest moneymaking franchises of all time? Action figures. Light sabers. Wookie costumes. Do you think for one single second that Hollywood is not thinking of these things all the time?

FATAL ATTRACTION – A happily married man has a one-night stand and then his family is stalked by the woman he hooked up with.

This film hit a huge number of people in the – uh, gut – because even people who have never had an affair have almost certainly thought about it. Also the film came out when AIDS was rampant, with no effective treatment in sight, and suddenly a one-night stand could literally be fatal. It’s easy to see the potential for some really frightening situations there, as the innocent family is terrorized, and of course we all like to see a good moral comeuppance.

INDECENT PROPOSAL - A young, broke couple on vacation in Vegas are offered a million dollars by a wealthy man for one night with the wife.

This is a great example of the “What would YOU do?” premise. It’s a question that generated all kinds of what the media calls “water cooler discussion”, and made it a must-see movie at the time. Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars? Would you let someone you love do it? Oh, boy, did people talk about it!

HARRY POTTER: A boarding school for wizards? You don't even have to say any more about it. Except that - what kid DOESN'T think that they're a crown prince/ss wizard or witch trapped in a Muggle family? (Also, see "amusement park ride" and "action figures". Cereal, candy, Halloween costumes... have you seen the EAT PRAY LOVE clothing line, wines, and storage containers at Cost Plus? I'm just saying...)

Are you starting to get the hang of it?

But with movies, the high concept premise has a couple of incredibly practical considerations. It suggests a built-in marketing campaign - and it is such a good idea that you could shoot it on a low budget and still have a movie that people would go see. That doesn’t mean anyone’s GOING to shoot it on a low budget, because we are after all talking about Hollywood. But you COULD shoot it on a low budget. It is the idea that is golden. (Think of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, OPEN WATER, the recent THE LAST EXORCISM – all low or ultra-low budget movies that made mints because the ideas were so compelling and the movies were well enough done to sustain the idea).

A Big Book, however, is almost the opposite. It’s Big. Epic. The HARRY POTTER series, THE HISTORIAN, THE PASSAGE, DA VINCI CODE, THE HUNGER GAMES – these all scream big budget. Huge setpiece scenes, international or otherworld locations, huge casts. They have been or all will be made into movies because they are bestsellers and also incredibly cinematic (not to mention in a few cases great books) but without that bestseller thing they are concepts that would give any studio head pause, because of the budget considerations. But in a book, we have no budget constraints. We can do the international scope and build a whole other world. And once that book has proven itself in the book world, Hollywood is more than glad to sweep it up for film or TV production.

So what can we do to start generating more high concept/Big Book ideas for ourselves?

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating - I made my first "screenwriting" money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist I highly recommend you try the same exercise - make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept, or Big Books. You'll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas. You don’t have to sell out. I’m always telling exactly the stories I want to tell, about the people I want to write about.

And a book DOES NOT have to be high concept or a big book to be a good book, a salable book, or a successful book. I don't want to freak anyone out!

But there’s no reason not to think in more universal terms and be open to subject matter, locations, themes, topics, that might strike a chord in a bigger audience.

And the reality is, these days agents and editors and publishers are looking for books that have those unique, universal, high-concept premises, and the attendant potential for a TV or movie sale.

Open your mind to the possibility of high concept, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself. You may even find that there's a high concept in your book idea that's struggling to come out.

So I’m really interested in talking more about this today. Which books do YOU consider Big Books? What about High Concept – books or movies?

Let’s throw out some examples and analyze what’s going on to make them such successful premises!

- Alex


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)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nanowrimo Prep: What KIND of story is it?

So for all you Nanos, the next few posts are really the critical ones.

Even if you are a confirmed pantser, I urge you to try the prep work involved in these posts. Just that much will guarantee you will have enough of a grasp on your story that you can go on from there and write whatever comes into your head from then on and still have a basic internal roadmap of where you're going.

- What's your PREMISE? (Click through whenever you want)
- What is a Big Book?/High Concept (Tomorrow)

And today:

What KIND of story is it?

When I teach story structure – especially when I have to teach it in a short workshop – I will of course hit the highlights of the Three-Act structure, and the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. But I also try to get across to students that the BEST thing that you can do to help yourself with story structure is to make a list of and compare in depth 5-10 (ten being best!) stories – films, novels, and plays – that are structurally similar to yours.

Because different kinds of stories have different and very specific structural elements. And the kind of story it is is not the same thing as the genre.

The late and much-missed Blake Snyder said that all film stories break down into just ten patterns that he outlined in his Save The Cat! books. Dramatist Georges Polti claimed there are Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and outlined those in his classic book.

I think those books on the subject are truly useful – as I say often, I think you should read everything. But I believe you also have to get much more specific than ten plots or even thirty-six. (I also think it’s plainly lazy to use someone else’s analysis of a story pattern instead of identifying your own. Relying on anyone else’s analysis, and that for sure includes mine, is not going to make you the writer you want to be.)

For example, in a workshop I taught recently, without giving details of anyone’s plots, there was a reluctant witness story, a wartime romance story, an ensemble mystery plot, a mentor plot, a heroine in disguise plot. And others. Each of those stories has a story pattern that you could force into one of ten general overall patterns – I guess – but they also have unique qualities that would get lost in such a generalization. And all of those stories could also be categorized in OTHER ways besides “reluctant witness” or “hero in disguise”.

Harry Potter, for example, is what you could call a King Arthur story – the Chosen One coming into his or her own (also see Star Wars, The Matrix…) but it is told as a traditional mystery, with clues and red herrings and the three kids playing detectives. It’s also got strong fairy tale elements. So if you’re writing a story that combines those three (and more) types of stories, looking at examples of ANY of those types of stories is going to help you structure and brainstorm your own story.

I am currently writing an outline of a Chosen One story, and am looking closely at the Harry Potter series and The Matrix. (I am also having to do the kind of world building that those two fantasies do so brilliantly.) But as always I have strong fairy tale elements in the story, and the structure is completely a mentor plot, so once again, Silence of the Lambs is high on my list, and I’m thinking I need to rewatch Dead Poets Society. It also is intricately involved with betrayal, so I am trying to find great examples of films and books with a major betrayal by the hero/ine’s loved one or trusted friend, which at some point turns the main character’s whole perception of reality around (I have not found much I’m satisfied with, either, so if you know of any… I have Vertigo, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fugitive, Marathon Man…)

If you find you’re writing a “reluctant witness” story, whether it’s a detective story, a sci-fi setting, a period piece, or a romance, it’s extremely useful to look at other stories you like that fall into that “reluctant witness” category – like Witness, North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Conspiracy Theory, Someone To Watch Over Me.

If you’re writing a mentor plot, you could take a look at Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, Karate Kid, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, An Officer and a Gentleman, Dirty Dancing - all stories in completely different genres with strong mentor plot lines, with vastly different mentor types.

A Mysterious Stranger story has a very specific plotline, too: a “fixer” character comes into the life of a main character, or characters, and turns it upside down – for the good, and the main character, not the Mysterious Stranger, is the one with the character arc (look at Mary Poppins, Shane, Nanny McPhee, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books).

A Cinderella story, well, where do you even start? Pretty Woman, Cinderella of course, Arthur, Rebecca, Suspicion, Maid to Order (I think that's the one I mean), Slumdog Millionaire.

A deal with the devil story – The Firm, Silence of the Lambs, Damn Yankees, The Little Mermaid, Rosemary’s Baby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Devil’s Advocate.

Inception might be a movie about dreams, but Christopher Nolan used the structure of a caper plot (or a reverse heist) to tell this story, and all the conventions of that genre are used and laid out very – conventionally. You’ll see the exact same structure and conventions in Armageddon, Ocean’s Eleven, Sneakers, Swordfish, The Hot Rock, and Topkapi.

And you might violently disagree with some of my examples, or have a completely different designation for what kind of story some of the above are…

But that is EXACTLY my point. You have to create YOUR OWN definitions of types of stories, and find your own examples to help you learn what works in those stories. All of writing is about creating your own rules and believing in them.

So this is what I’m trying to say today. Identifying genres is not enough. Identifying categories of stories is not enough. Knowing how general story structure works is not enough. What’s the kind of story YOU’RE writing – by your own definition? What are some great examples of that kind of story? What are the conventions - and great twists of that subgenre?

When you start to get specific about that, that’s when your writing starts to get truly interesting. And when you look at great examples of the type of story you’re writing, you’ll find yourself coming up with your own, specific story elements checklist, that goes much farther than a general story elements checklist ever could.

So to explore this further yourself:

- What kind of story ARE you writing?

- Make a list of other books and films that are that same kind of story.

- And for extra credit and extra brainstorming: Watch three of those films (easier and faster than reading and analyzing the books, but do the books if it will help) - and identify some of the common elements of that subgenre.

- Alex

Friday, October 08, 2010

Nanowrimo Prep: Analyzing Your Lists/What Is Genre

Now that you Nanos have your master lists of favorite books and films, and your brainstorming lists, it's time to analyze them. So here are two posts to help you do that.

Analyzing Your Master List

and longer and more in-depth:

What is Genre?

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to consider the kind of experience you want your reader, or audience to have when they read your book or see your film. In fact, I should probably blog next on exactly that.

- Alex

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

What is Theme?: Thematic Image Systems

I've got the Nanowrimos busy working on brainstorming lists (hopefully) and this dovetails nicely with Visual Storytelling, actually. Before we dive into how specific story elements are conveyed visually we need to talk generally about THEME.

I’d just like to say up front that I’m not here to define theme, today...

Oh, is that cheating?

Well, okay, if you insist. Theme is what the story is about. On a deeper level than the plot details. The big meaning. Usually a moral meaning.

Hmm. See why I don’t want to define it?

Well, how about defining by example?

I’ve heard, often, “Huck Finn is about the inhumanity of racism.”

Uh... I don't know about you, but for me, that's too soft and vague. You could write about five billion different stories on that.

Also have heard a lot that the theme of Romeo and Juliet is “Great love defies even death.” Except that – in the end, they’re dead, right? So how exactly is the love defying death? Risking death and losing, maybe. Inspiring people after death, maybe.

Okay, how about this? “A man is never truly alone who has friends” is a great statement of the theme of It’s A Wonderful Life. (And stated overtly in the end of that movie.)

The trouble is, I personally think it’s closer to the soul of that movie to say that it’s the little, ordinary actions we do every day that add up to true heroism.

So defining theme has always seemed like a slippery process to me. Different people can pull vastly different interpretations of the theme of a story from the same story. And even if you can cleverly distill the meaning of a story into one sentence… admit it, you’re not REALLY covering everything that the story is about, are you?

I think it’s more useful to think of theme as layers of meaning. To think of theme not as a sentence, but as a whole image system.

And that’s where it gets really fun to start working with theme – when it’s not just some pedantic sentence, but a whole world of interrelated meanings, that resonate on levels that you’re not even aware of, sometimes, but that stay with you and bring you back to certain stories over and over and over again.

(Think of some of the dreams you have - maybe – where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal. I had a dream last night, in fact, that had just about every possible act, object, setting and word variation on "counter").

There are all kinds of ways to work theme into a story. The most obvious is the PLOT. Every plot is also a statement of theme.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a great, great example of plot reflecting theme. George Bailey’s desire in the beginning of the film is to be a hero, to do big, important things. Throughout the story, that desire seems to be thwarted at every turn by the ordinariness of his life. And yet, every single encounter George Bailey has is an example of a small, ordinary goodness, a right choice that George makes, that in the end, when we and he see the town as it would have been if he had never existed, lets us understand that it IS those little things that make for true heroism.

Presumed Innocent is an interesting book for plot reflecting theme. I love how that book (and the very good film made of it) depicts the horrifying randomness of the legal system – that justice can turn on the assignment of a judge, on the outcome of a political race, on the loyalties of a witness – or on the very, very clever defendant himself. To me it’s a brilliant exploration of what justice really is, or isn’t, or can never be.

And here's a brilliant example of a plot twist conveying theme: with Lecter’s escape, The Silence of the Lambs drives home the point that we can win a battle with evil, but never the entire war.

DIALOGUE is another way to reflect theme.

I rewatched The Matrix a couple of times this year and was very amused to note this blatantly thematic dialogue in Sequence 1. I’ve bolded all the thematic references:


From The Matrix, written by Larry & Andy Wachowski

In Neo's apartment. He is asleep at his computer, with headphones on. On his computer screen, we see he is running a search on a man named Morpheus. Suddenly on his computer screen appear the words 'Wake up, Neo.' He sits up, and stares at his computer screen.

Neo : What?

On the computer, now appears 'The Matrix has you...'

Neo : What the hell?

On the computer, now appears 'Follow the white rabbit...'

Neo : Follow the white rabbit?

He presses the 'esc' key repeatedly, no effect. the computer comes up with one last message : 'Knock knock, Neo.' There is a loud knock at his door, and he jumps. He stares at the door, and then back at his computer screen. it's now blank.

Neo : .....Who is it?

Choi : It's Choi.

Neo :'re two hours late.

Choi : I know, it's her fault.

Choi gestures towards DuJour.

Neo : You got the money?

Choi : Two grand.

Neo :Hold on.

Neo goes into his apartment, shuts the door, and opens a book, takes out a CD rom and goes back to the door, handing the CD to Choi.

Choi : Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.

Neo :You get caught using that...

Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don't exist.

Neo : Right.

Choi : Something wrong, man? You look a little whiter than usual.

Neo : My ever have that feeling where you don't know if you're awake or still dreaming?

Choi : Mm, all the time. It's called Mescaline. It's the only way

to fly. Hey, it sounds to me like you need to unplug, man.


The Matrix is all about waking up (enlightenment), about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. And escaping. And going down the rabbit hole.

Well, that above is maybe a four minute scene, and look how blatant the themes are. It spells out the entire story. And yet it works on the surface level as well, an audience isn’t stopping to think, "Oh, there’s a theme, and there’s a theme, and yet another theme."

(If there’s anything I learned from screenwriting it’s that you can JUST SAY IT. And it generally works better if you just do.)

Another hugely effective and important way to convey theme is through VISUAL STORYTELLING. Whether you’re writing a book or a film, it’s useful to do specific passes through your story, thinking of yourself as a production designer whose specific function is to create the look of the story – AND – reflect the themes of the story in those visuals.

As I've said here before, no one does image systems better than Thomas Harris. The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales, choosing elements that create a deeper meaning for his plots, and achieves the sense of a mythic battle between good and evil. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember – her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale – Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have a twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

There’s a theme running through Silence of monstrousness. Before Harris got all Freudian with Lecter, to the detriment of the character, IMO, he presented this character as a living embodiment of evil – an aberration of nature, right down to the six fingers on his left hand. In fact, Harris virtually created the Serial Killer as Monster.

So to reflect this inhumanness (and also just creep us out) Harris works the animal imagery, especially insect imagery, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris also works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget – he’s trying to turn into a dragon.

LOCATION is another huge, huge factor in conveying theme. Places have specific meanings, or you the author can create a specific meaning for a place. I’ve said this before, but basements are used so often in horror stories because basements symbolize our subconscious, and all the fears and childhood damage that we hide from ourselves. Characters’ houses or apartments reflect themselves. The way you describe a city gives it a particular meaning – you can emphasize particular qualities that help you tell your story.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what thematic systems authors are working with in books and films that YOU love. As I am always saying – make yourself a list (ten is good) of books and films that have particularly effective image systems. Then reread and rewatch some of your favorites, paying close attention to how theme is conveyed, in plot, in dialogue, in visuals, in location.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words that convey what my story is about, to me. For The Harrowing it was words like: Creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… pages and pages like that.

For The Price – bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, Rumpelstiltskin, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose and dialogue so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). You can create a slideshow of images or a collage in Photoshop (just don't ask me how to do it.) It’s another way of growing an image system. Also, it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.

And maybe most importantly: Know what your PERSONAL themes are. And that means - yes - Make a list.

In fact the NANOWRIMO ASSIGNMENT for today is: Make a list of your personal THEMES - the ones you vibrate to in other people's stories, and the ones you keep coming back to in your own stories, over and over again.

And - What particular themes do you see working in your WIP?

I'd love to hear some examples of books and films that to you have particularly striking thematic image systems, and your own favorite images to work with.

And by the way - what are some ways of conveying theme that I’ve left out?

- Alex


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