Saturday, January 30, 2010

Amazon and Macmillan at war?

News you don't want to wake up to on a snowy day. Or any other day. Yes, I am a Macmillan author, as are many, many of my friends, and yes, our books are no longer available on Amazon.

Amazon Pulls Macmillan Books Over E Book Price Disagreement

Amazon Pulls Macmillan Books Over Pricing Rift

Publishers' Weekly Special Report

Um - can't we all just get along?

(Screenwriting Tricks For Authors is still up for sale, as it's not a Macmillan book. I find this surreal.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rules of Character? Don't Ask Me.

I have been fretting this week about questions and comments I’ve gotten, publicly and privately, which I guess go along with the territory of teaching and blogging and writing a workbook about writing as if I really know anything at all about what I’m talking about.

(But I have to say there have been a few questions that I should never have gotten at all - it’s mystifying. For the record, if you have a grammar question, DO NOT write to an author to get the answer. That is not our job, you will have burned a valuable opportunity to ask something actually worth asking, and it will make us crazier than we already are, and you don’t want to do that.)

All these questions, aside from the grammar ones, have made me want to say this again, and repeat it often:

While in this blog, and in the Screenwriting Tricks workbook, I lay out a formula for film structure that is widely used in Hollywood, the MAIN POINT of what I suggest here is that you study the specific structures of movies and books in your genre and that specifically appeal to you, so that you can discover the specific tricks that great storytellers use to create the stories you love.

And whatever it is you think they’re doing, you might try doing it yourself.

That is the bottom line of every single thing I have ever written here.

It’s the same with creating character.

As much as I get asked to teach, I never teach workshops on character. Not solely on character, anyway. I just don’t. It’s not that I couldn’t figure out something to say. It’s just that - as I’ve said before - I think writers live with characters in our heads on a daily and nightly basis. I could be totally wrong, but I suspect people don’t become writers if they don’t have characters living in their heads. We don’t live with structure quite so intimately, and therefore it seems more teachable.

And honestly, I very, very rarely hear anyone say anything about creating character that makes me think – WOW, that’s it, I get it now.

I see workshop instructors at conferences handing out character charts, breaking down movies or stories I know pretty well myself, and will occasionally swipe one of those charts to see what the secret might be, and am sometimes absolutely horrified at what I see.

Case in point… people love to break down The Wizard of Oz. God knows I understand that. I’ve used tons of examples from Wizard myself, here. We all KNOW Wizard, so it makes sense to reference it. But The Wizard of Oz is such a special case. It is an iconic movie for reasons that I wouldn’t possibly want to have to explain – it’s like explaining sunlight, or – a rainbow. You can break it down into its elements, but that will never give you the experience. There was a special magic looking over that movie through all its harrowing changes of writers, directors, actors, etc. - and let's not forget that it was based on a classic SERIES of books - and, oh, yeah - it's a friggin' MUSICAL. And all that terrifying mess somehow combined to make a classic. It is not something anyone could ever duplicate.

It’s confusing even to break the movie conveniently into sequences, because it is a musical, and musical numbers were cut and rearranged (and rightly so!) which would have made the timing of the sequence structure make more conventional sense. Just as an example - the studio wanted “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” cut because it made the first Kansas sequence too long, but the movie gods apparently intervened, the song remained, completely screwing with the sequence timing, and film students have been arguing about the Act One break ever since.

So when I see the characters of a movie like The Wizard of Oz dissected on a chart, I am wary and skeptical. I am hard–pressed to believe that you ever even come close to developing a story as rich and enduring as The Wizard of Oz based on the two-dimensional layout of a chart.

Just consider what The Wizard of Oz would have looked like had Shirley Temple (often named as the top choice for the role) been cast instead of Judy Garland, as Dorothy.

The casting of Judy Garland, and her lush, just blossoming, completely vulnerable sexuality, TOTALLY changed the dynamic of the character and every single interaction she had with the other characters in the movie. It changed the meaning of the journey. A young woman’s dream, or fantasy, or metaphorical journey – whatever you want to call that adventure to Oz – is completely different from a child’s. Teenagers yearn for significantly different things than children do.

When I was a preteen I became firmly convinced that the whole Wizard of Oz journey was Dorothy's dream letting her explore which one of the three farmhands she wanted to marry - as a young woman reaching marriageable age, those would be her obvious choices in such a farm town. In Oz, Hunk/the Scarecrow is the first one she meets, and over and over and over again the Scarecrow steps forward as the problem solver and her biggest defender. (She also dances with him in a musical number that was cut from the final film – The Jitterbug, and as any dancer or choreographer knows, when two characters dance in a musical, that means they've just had sex.). When she leaves Oz, she tells the Scarecrow she'll miss him most of all, and when she wakes up in bed, he kneels by the bed and she touches his face. She's chosen.

I would tell people this occasionally in college and they'd laugh - but years later I read much more about the elaborate history of the film and learned that the final scene of an earlier script really had concluded with Hunk going off to agricultural school and winning a promise from her to write to him – implying a romance that would continue (and marriage once “The Scarecrow” had his real-life diploma).

What I’m saying is, there was a structure built in to the script, as well as the magic of casting, that resonates in a way that is not capturable on a character chart.

Okay, I might be the only person who’s ever watched the Wizard of Oz and gotten that out of it. Quite possibly. But my analysis of the subtext is meaningful to me, just as my analysis of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet is, and my strong personal opinions on the movies I watch and the books I read, however obscure they may seem to other people, have been invaluable to my growth as a writer.

Plus, I have more to say about what makes Dorothy a great character.

Another level of my take on Dorothy - and I know I'm not alone in this one - is that she is going through an inner journey to internalize the qualities of braininess, heart, and courage - and her higher self, Glinda - so that as she grows into a woman, she will be able to use those qualities against enemies like Miss Gulch instead of running away as she does at the beginning of the movie.

And another big change that happens with Dorothy is that we see her in situation after situation go from a scared little girl who needs protecting to a woman who will step forward and protect her friends. It's a big character arc for a teenager, growing up like that.

I guess what I'm saying is that a LOT goes into creating a character, and even if some writer or teacher or workshop leader breaks it down brilliantly for you, it’s even more important to figure out what YOU think is going on with that character.

And I’m also saying - and this is very true of the Wizard of Oz film in particular - sometimes it is absolutely impossible to track how something was written. There were so many writers, directors, artists, producers who worked on this one - somehow certainly the movie gods were watching over it to create the alchemy that makes it the classic it is.

Some things are quantifiable, but some simply aren’t. And please don’t be satisfied with anyone else’s quantification.

You are the writer. Ultimately, it’s you and the page. You are God, baby. Make your own rules.

- Alex


Related posts:

What Makes a Great Protagonist? Case Study: Jake Gittes

What Makes a Great Villain?

Creating Character – The Protagonist

Collecting Character

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors - now available on Kindle and for PC!

Saturday, January 09, 2010

What KIND of story is it?

I’ve been teaching an online class since Jan. 1 and as always am finding it completely inspiring for ME – I love hearing other writers talk about their stories and characters and writing processes.

The discussion so far has also completely reinforced my belief that the best thing that you can do to help yourself with story structure is to look at and compare in depth 5-10 (ten being best!) stories – films, novels, and plays - that are structurally similar to yours.

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 the class that I’m teaching now, without giving details of anyone’s plots, there is 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.

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 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 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.

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 I guess that’s what I wanted to say today. Identifying genres is not enough. Identifying categories of stories is not enough. What’s the kind of story YOU’RE writing – by your own definition?

When you start to get specific about that, that’s when your writing starts to get truly interesting.

So what kind of story ARE you writing? Let's hear some, and brainstorm some great examples.

Happy New Year, everyone!


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors - now available for Kindle

New Year's Resolutions:

- Lose 10 pounds
- Be a better person
- Write that novel

Yes, just in time for the New Year - the workbook of Screenwriting Tricks For Authors is now available for Kindle (and if you have a PC, you don't need a Kindle - you can buy and download Kindle books for PC, now, and a Mac version should be available shortly. Information on Kindle for PC here.).

So those of you who have been diligently printing out these blogs, and frantically e mailing me for the ones you can't find, can have the whole deal, in coherent order, with assignments in every chapter, movie breakdowns, and links to all kinds of author and screenwriter resources.

Buy it now - $9.99

Happy New Year to all!

- Alex