Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

Okay, I don't want to freak anyone out here, but what we're going to talk about in the next few posts is the key to everything else that comes after. But when you've got it, baby, you've got it for life. So take a breath, and let's talk about


Hopefully, with the last post, we now have somewhat of a grasp on the Three Act Structure. We will have lots of examples in the next few posts, too.

But the real secret of film writing and filmmaking, that we are going to steal for our novel writing, is that most movies are written in a Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 12-15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.

I swear.

The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten minutes of film (movies were also shorter, proportionately). The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished. Early screenwriters (who by the way, were mostly playwrights, well-schooled in the three-act structure) incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing individual sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel, and modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm. (As movies got longer, sequences got slightly longer proportionately). I'm not sure exactly how to explain this adherence, honestly, except that, as you will see IF you do your homework - it WORKS.

And the eight-sequence structure actually translates beautifully to novel structuring, although you might end up with a few more sequences in the end. So I want to get you familiar with the eight-sequence structure in film first, and we’ll go on to talk about the application to novels.

If you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you'll want to check out my sample breakdowns (links at end of this post, and full breakdowns are included in the workbook) and watch several, or all, of those movies, following along with my notes, before you try to analyze a movie on your own. But if you want to jump right in with your own breakdowns and analyses, this is how it works:

ASSIGNMENT: Take a film from your master list, preferably the one that is most similar in structure to your own WIP, and screen it, watching the time clock on your DVD player. At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big SET PIECE. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.)

Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle, and end of each sequence, approximately every 15 minutes. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes, Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

NOTE: You can also, and probably should, say that a movie is really four acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Hollywood continues to use "Three Acts". Whichever works best for you!

So how do you recognize a sequence?

It's generally a series of related scenes, tied together by location and/or time and/or action and/or the overall intent of the hero/ine.

In many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action, based on the new information. A good exercise is to title each sequence as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall picture of the progression of action.

But the biggest clue to an Act or Sequence climax is a SETPIECE SCENE: there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws. And Casablanca, too.).

Or, let's not forget - it can be a sex scene. In fact for my money ANY sex scene in a book or film should be approached as a setpiece.

The setpiece is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking, one of the most valuable for novelists, and possibly the most crucial for screenwriters.

There are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in - a shower, for instance, in Psycho.

If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes. They are tentpoles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.

That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The crop-dusting plane chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in North By Northwest. The goofy galactic bar in Star Wars. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz. The dungeon – I mean prison – in Silence of the Lambs. In fact you can look Raiders and Silence and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in Raiders…)

Those are actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces, because one is so big and action-oriented (Raiders) and one is so small, confined and psychological (Silence), yet both are stunning examples of visual storytelling.

A really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in Silence of the Lambs. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both Silence of the Lambs and Thomas Harris's Red Dragon are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books, which made them slam dunks as movies.

So here's another ASSIGNMENT for you: Bring me setpieces. What are some great ones? Check your watch. Are they act or sequence climaxes?

Another note about sequences: be advised that in big, sprawling movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this eight-sequence format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical precision is kind of a lifesaver.

Now, I could talk about this for just about ever, but me talking is not going to get you anywhere. You need to DO this. Watch the movies yourself. Do the breakdowns yourself. Identify setpieces yourself. Ask as many questions as you want here, but DO it - it's the only way you're really going to learn this.

My advice is that you watch and analyze all ten of your master list movies (and books). But not all at once - screening one will get you far, three will lock it in, the rest will open new worlds in your writing.

And every time you see a movie now, for the rest of your life, look for the sequence breaks and act climaxes, and setpieces. At first you will embarrass yourself in theaters, shouting out things like "Hot damn!" Or "Holy !@#$!!!"as you experience a climax. Uh... an Act Climax. But eventually, it will be as natural to you as breathing, and you will find yourself incorporating this rhythm into your storytelling without even having to think about it. You may even be doing it already.

So go, go, watch some movies. It's WORK. (Don't you love this job?) And please, report your findings back here.

- Alex


And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.


All the information on this blog and much more more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  E format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 14.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

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You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Three-Act Structure review and assignments

Okay, I’m sure by now some of you are champing at the bit wanting me to move off this idea stage. Yeah, well, those would be those of you who already HAVE an idea. But all right. If you are very sure that this is the book or script that you’re supposed to write, then let’s move on to how you go about writing it.

You should be armed now with:

- A master list of books and movies that are similar to your own idea/story. In your genre, and hopefully some that are structurally similar, too, but we’ll get to that.

- A great premise line that you have tried out on other people and you’ve seen their eyes light up. Meaning other people besides you will want to read this book or see this movie when you’ve finished it.

- A definite idea of your genre (and if it’s cross-genre, what genres you’re crossing)

- You have written out, specifically, what you want your reader or audience to FEEL and experience while they’re reading.

- You have a good idea of what themes you’re working with (and this can change during the course of the writing, you always discover new things about what you’re saying, but you should have a vague idea going in.)

And I’m not sure that I said this already, at least not recently, but I hope you have gotten yourself a great notebook and all the requisite colored dividers to put all these notes in. I mean, a GREAT notebook, meaning a trip to the art store or Office Max, where you have put some real thought into what colors and designs make you happy. As writers we need to be stimulating our senses all the time; it develops a deeper, more visceral writing style. Also you have to take your pleasure where you can get it. I particularly like sparkly colored pens for underlining and making notes.

So if you have your lists made, and your toys collected, it’s time to step back and talk about basic dramatic structure.

And more fun is coming: we get to watch some movies. And it’s work! Don’t you love this job?

What we’re going to do in the coming weeks, hopefully, is permanently burn the idea of the Three Act Structure, and after that, the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure, into your heads. So that for the rest of your lives, every time you see a movie or read a book, you will be automatically identifying the act breaks, sequence climaxes, and other essential story elements. You will become a walking repository of story structure. And this will translate into terrific books and scripts.

So first, I’d like you to pick three movies from your master list that you think are going to be useful to your own story. Those you’ll be seeing on your own and making your own notes, but I’m also taking suggestions of movies that I could break down here as examples for everyone.

And now, I want to review the Three Act Structure and why it exists to begin with.

(People who have been reading this blog for a while have already read the following, but that just means that you’ll have some great examples for those just joining us, right?)

Movies and novels generally follow a three-act structure. That means that a 110-page script (and that’s 110 minutes of screen time – a script page is equal to one minute of film time) – is broken into an Act One of roughly 30 pages, an Act Two of roughly 60 pages, and an Act Three of roughly 20 pages, because as everyone knows, the climax of a story speeds up and condenses action. If you’re structuring a book, then you basically triple or quadruple the page count, depending on how long you tend to write. So in a 400 page book, Act One is roughly 100 pages, Act Two, 200 pages, and Act Three, a little less than 100 pages.

Anyone who is familiar with theater will know this, but many beginning writers don't realize that the three-act structure is the classic structural format for fiction and screen and TV, as well, and the shape of your own three acts is one of the most important things you can know about your story before you actually start to write it.

So here’s a little – very short! - practical history of how the three-act structure developed, so you can start watching for that structural rhythm in the books you read and the films you watch and in your own stories.

Three Act dramatic structure comes from theater, which was around WAAAAAY before novels, film, and television; the golden age of Greek theater was, oh, 500-300 B.C., and in this period was developed the dramatic structure on which plays, novels, film and television are based.

Dramatists would be the first to point out that three-act structure is really the natural structure of a story, period, and has been employed since cavemen came back from the hunt and insisted on recounting their huge life-threatening adventures out there to the cavewomen (who naturally had great adventures of their own during the day, but were wise enough to understand even back in those cave days that there are some things men just don’t need to know).

It is often said that the essence of dramatic structure is: “Get the hero up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.”

That’s three acts right there. A little simplistic for my taste, but it does give a basic rhythm: Introduce a main character and a problem, intensify the problem, then solve it.

Another bare-bones structure summation that you hear a lot is: Someone wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it (but eventually does.) Again, three parts: a heroine with a desire, opposition to the desire, and eventual triumph (or failure).

Well, that basic three-part rhythm of storytelling was set into a standard form by the ancient Greeks and is still largely the same today, not just in plays, but in all dramatic media.

Now, wait a minute, you may be saying. Shakespeare’s plays have FIVE acts.

Well, yes. But if you look at Elizabethan plays, their Acts I and II constitute what we’ve been talking about as Act 1, their Acts III and IV comprise our Act II, and Act 5 is Act 3 (shorter than the others, remember?).

Plays were THE form of storytelling for thousands of years, because most of the populace of any country couldn’t read, and there was no television yet. So, until the invention of the Gutenberg press (1436, and yes, there was moveable type in China century in 1041, but it didn’t have the world impact that the Gutenberg press did), which made the printed word available cheaply, plays were THE entertainment (music and sports are different media). The novel wasn’t even invented until – well, that’s up for debate, but anywhere from 1007 to 1740: you decide:

Candidates for the world's first novel in English

The Tale of Genji

So because they were the reigning form of dramatic entertainment for thousands of years, plays have had an indelible influence on ALL of the dramatic media. And what’s important to understand about the structure of plays is that they’re based on how long human beings can reasonably sit in one place without getting bored, restless, hungry, thirsty, and just numb in the posterior - and walking out on the show.


Same with movies. Admit it – anything over two hours and you’re going to start looking at your watch.

So plays built in the concept of intermissions, so that people could have breaks and go out and – uh - refresh themselves, and sponsors could hawk their wares and make money off the show. Commercials have history, too.

But the trick about intermissions is that once people are out in the lobby drinking and flirting and smoking and doing what they do on a Saturday night, their natural tendency is to want to keep drinking and flirting and all those things that drinking and flirting hopefully lead to.

So it was absolutely crucial for the playwright to end that first act and second act, before the intermission, with something so great that the audience would come right back into the theater when the lobby lights blink, and not just go carousing into the night.

And that’s how the cliffhanger was born. The “curtain scene”, or just “curtain”, had to be so explosive – such a startling revelation or reversal, such a dramatic shift in the power dynamics of the characters, that the audience would want to come back in to the theater after intermission to find out what happens.

And that curtain scene is alive and well today as ACT CLIMAXES. In movies it’s not quite so evident because the film doesn’t actually stop for a break at the act climax, but that rhythm is definitely there. In network television, you do actually have a curtain and an intermission, called a “commercial”, and woe betide you if you want to work for television and don’t understand the concept of a cliffhanger before the act break, or “act out”. (I am not a TV writer, and this is not a TV writing article, and I’m being horribly simplistic, but the actual timing of these breaks varies according to where the commercials are set, and internet delivery of shows is going to change that drastically. For further information, is a great resource for aspiring TV writers.)

Now, when you’re reading a book, you can take your intermission any time, and you do. But as an author, you still have to lure your reader back to your book. My point here is – why not understand the concept of the curtain and possibly use the tricks that have kept audiences coming back into the theater, and back from commercial breaks, for thousands of years?

So I implore you – see a good play once in a while. No one does cliffhangers and reversals and revelations better than the great playwrights. Shakespeare, obviously, but any good playwright understands how to do this. For example, I find Lillian Hellman’s curtains just breathtaking – the whole power dynamics of a ruthless family can turn on a dime, and you can’t wait to get back into the theater to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

And that – is what we’re after, right?

So when you're mapping out your own story, it's important to know - at least roughly - what your three acts are and what the climaxes of those acts are. Those are the tentpoles of your story (and by the way, Syd Field called these "plot points". It's all the same thing.)

In my next post I'll talk more about Act Climaxes and how to identify them in movies and books.

Question for the day – can you give me examples of great curtains or cliffhangers – theatrical, filmic, or novelistic?

And of course - what do you think your own Act Climaxes (act breaks, plot points, curtain scenes, revelations, cliffhangers) are? Do you know them?

And remember, I’m taking suggestions of movies for discussion examples.

- Alex


If you want to see the Three-Act Structure in action, check out the full breakdowns of five films in Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and ten films in Writing Love.

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, February 15, 2010

The Dream Journal

Speaking of where we get ideas...

In the workshops I teach, I always tell writers that if they’re not writing down their dreams, they’re working WAY too hard.

The Price, which has made me quite a nice sum of money in book sales and film options, came from a recurring dream. Parts of The Unseen were from a dream. Several scripts I’ve sold came directly from dreams.

And I'm not talking about just initial story ideas. Your dreams can help you all the way along as you write your WIP.

Our subconscious minds are tireless, and so eager to do that work that we ourselves would postpone until Doomsday if we could.

DON’T do all that work yourself. You don’t have to. Let your subconscious and unconscious minds in on the process. There really are story elves, and those are they. Them? Uh, whatever.

If you don’t generally remember your dreams, then you’ll have to work at this a little to coax the dreams out. Keep a dream journal (another trip to the bookstore! Yay!) and pen beside your bed every night (this tells your dreaming mind that you’re serious about remembering.) Or use a tape recorder if that’s better for you.

As soon as you wake up – in the morning, or in the middle of the night, whenever – stay still and relaxed in your bed and try to remember your dream before you get up or think about anything else at all. Try not to move.

At first you may remember just the vaguest details. The color red. There was snow. Your wife was in it – maybe. A woman, anyway. WHATEVER you can even barely remember, write it down. Even just the feeling you wake up with in the morning. You have to court your dreams at first, but if you demonstrate a commitment to remembering, your dreams will become more and more vivid (until it can be exhausting to try to write them all down, but we can deal with that when we come to it.).

One dreamwork trick I find useful is that if you can’t remember a dream at first, slowly and gently roll over into the position you were sleeping in before you woke up (if you’ve moved). This sounds crazy, but if you do this, the dream may drop right back into your head and you can write down all the details.

A classic dreamwork technique is to focus on a particular question, for example, a story problem, while you’re drifting off to sleep. You may well get the answer in your dreams.

And once you get started, don't forget to review the dreams you've written down. You will always find surprises, recurring themes, characters. I was doing this this weekend, rereading dreams, and was startled to see this very intense little girl keep popping up. Wow, there she is again. Hmm. What am I supposed to do with that, I wonder?

There are many, many great books on dreamwork out there if you want to investigate further. Dreams are enlightening for much more than your creative work - as Jung said:

The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctuary of the soul, which opens into the primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was a conscious ego, and will be soul far beyond what conscious ego could ever reach.

Have you ever dreamed a story? A character? A setting?

- Alex


How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

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.


Amazon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What is high concept?

We talked about premise in the last couple of posts, but while you're working on your premise, there's something else you want to be considering:


This is one of the biggest lessons an author can take from Hollywood, and one of the most critical things for a screenwriter to understand.

But there seems to be eternal confusion on this subject. It’s sort of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. Today I will do what I can to define it.

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.

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.

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.

Screenwriter/producer Terry Rossio calls it “Mental Real Estate” – a topic or subject that is in a majority of people’s heads already, and his essay "Mental Real Estate" on is a must-read on the subject. (Then take some time - got a few years? - and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott).

Think about one of their movies – PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Who hasn’t been on that Disney ride? All the studio had to do to advertise it was slap that skull and crossbones on a one-sheet, and people were sold.

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.)

A variation on topical is the - let's call it "cultural phenomenon." Maybe "cultural metaphor". For the moment, zombies are a cultural phenomenon (and I wish someone would explain that one to me. Information overload has turned us all brainless and undead - or made us long to be, maybe?) and anyone who had a zombie story to sell in the last two years has benefited from that cultural wave.

- 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) and/or a spiritual fear (THE EXORCIST).

- They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, BLIND DATE. That movie out last year – FOUR CHRISTMASES – is about a young couple who have to spend a Christmas with each set of their divorced parents. Very universal!)

- 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.

- 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?

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!

Are you starting to get the hang of it?

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. 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. 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.

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.

So, any favorite examples of high concept for me, today?

And for the dedicated - and those still looking for that next project idea - here are three suggestions:

- Make a list of ten movies and books with high concept premises (that I haven’t already discussed here!). Try to define what about them makes them high concept for you.

- Make a commitment to come up with at least three premises a week. (You can start by mining those brainstorming lists you've already made). Try them out on your friends and family. Which ones make their eyes light up? Why aren’t you writing those stories?

- Look at your own premise line. Is there a way to tie it into a subject or theme, or holiday or setting, that will make it more universal and appealing?

- Alex

Related articles:

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)


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.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Price, now out in the U.K.!

I'm excited to announce that THE PRICE has just been released in the UK from Little, Brown, with this great cover...

... an edgy variation on the U.S. cover, designed by St. Martin's Adam Auerbach:


What would you give to save your child? Your wife? Your soul?

Idealistic Boston District Attorney Will Sullivan has it all: a beautiful and beloved wife, Joanna; an adorable five-year old daughter, Sydney; and a real shot at winning the Massachusetts governor's race. But on the eve of Will's candidacy, Sydney is diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable tumor.

Now Will and Joanna are living in the eerie twilight world of Briarwood Hospital, waiting for Sydney to die, and both going slowly mad with grief.

Then a mysterious, charismatic hospital counselor named Salk takes special interest in Will and Joanna's plight… and when Sydney miraculously starts to improve, Will suspects that Joanna has made a terrible bargain to save the life of their dying child.


All right, this post isn’t all BSP – I have some relevant things to say.

Since we’re going to be talking about high concept – next post - I thought I’d use The Price as an example to illustrate what we’ve been and will be talking about.

The Price is a variation on one of my favorite personal themes – the deal with the devil. This would be one of the recurring themes I recognized early on in my own half-baked ideas and in the films and books on my master lists, when I started doing these brainstorming lists we've been talking about.

I believe that as authors we only have a few themes that we’re working on, or working out, over and over again, and the deal with the devil is probably on the top of my list. Part of that obviously comes from working in Hollywood for so long!

But Satanic characters just do me: Al Swearingen in DEADWOOD, Stringer Bell in THE WIRE, Hannibal Lecter, Al Pacino in DEVIL’S ADVOCATE… who could resist these guys? And that’s the point of the devil, isn’t it? Someone who makes you an offer you can’t refuse, usually in a package you can’t refuse?

And I particularly like to put a man, a woman, and a Satanic character into a triangle situation. Oldest story in the book – well, in the Bible, anyway. Because… I can kind of see Eve’s point of view. The devil’s promising her the wisdom of the ages… Adam is as happily oblivious as the rest of his sex… you’ve got to admit, that’s some powerful temptation, there.

But the core concept that so compels me is the idea of what you’re willing to do for what you want, the choices you make, good or bad. We give up one thing to get another – all the time. And who here hasn’t whispered a little prayer that possibly is not meant for God to hear… about what we would really do for what we want?

I've always thought that just as God is supposed to, the devil knows you - knows the depths of your soul - knows the things that you want that you would never breathe a word about to another human being. So that's the tension that draws me again and again to Satanic characters: the idea of an overwhelmingly erotic and all-knowing figure who knows you to your core - knows you well enough to offer you your most secret desire - at a premium price.

So obviously this was a story concept that I could sink my teeth into.

But here’s an interesting thing about this story, since there was a question about money, on the last post. It’s made me more money, a lot more money, so far than any of the rest of my books, and I think that’s because of the premise. The Price is an example of high concept.

Here's my premise sentence for The Price:

In the eerie twilight world of Briarwood Hospital, an idealistic Boston District Attorney begins to suspect that his wife has made a terrible bargain with a mysterious counselor to save the life of their dying child.

But you could also pitch it with this key concept:

The devil is walking around the halls of a Boston hospital, making deals with desperate patients and their families.

What has grabbed editors, producers, and executives about this concept is that it contains a strong “What would YOU do?” question. What would YOU give to save the life of a loved one? Or your own life?

Because we all say, of course, that we’d give anything. But what does anything mean? Specifically? What is the exact price of your soul?

That’s the kind of question that gets readers and audiences thinking – and talking.

We’ll discuss other high concept hooks tomorrow – (or the next day, if I don’t get enough writing done today…)

In the meantime, keep making your own premise lists!

- Alex


Here's the trailer, from Shelia English and Mark Miller at Circle of Seven Productions, which does a really cool thing by three-dimensionalizing the book cover. (The trailer won a Black Quill award for Best Dark Genre Trailer.)

"Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre."
- The New York Times Book Review

"A medical thriller of the highest order... a stunning, riveting journey into terror and suspense."
- Bestselling author Michael Palmer

"This heartbreakingly eerie page-turner paints a vivid picture of the struggle between reality and the unknown."
- Library Journal

"A psychological roller coaster that keeps the reader on edge with bone-chilling thrills throughout."
- Bestselling author Heather Graham

"Beyond stunning, it is harrowing in the real sense of true art."
- Bestselling author Ken Bruen

Order The Price online now.

Find a U.S. independent bookstore

Or order the U.S. edition online if you prefer...

You can read the first three chapters on my website, too.

Monday, February 08, 2010

What's your premise?

I have been trying to figure out what topic to cover next, as we analyze these pages and pages of brainstormed ideas. And I think I'd like to skip ahead for a second, not much ahead, and cover the topic of PREMISE (again), because what we really need to start looking for in all the brainstorming you did is actual STORY LINES. And it's possible that the best way to recognize stories in your own ideas (that is, STORIES, as opposed to IDEAS) - is to do some practice on PREMISE.

One of the most frustrating (and sometimes amusing, in a morbid kind of way) things for me as an author and teacher is how difficult it can be sometimes to get a writer's story out of them.

It should be simple, right - to answer the question: “What’s your book about?”

But writers who are used to being in the thick of writing sometimes have only the vaguest idea of the big picture.

So the conversation often goes like this:

Me: "What's your book about?"

Aspiring author: “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences – there’s just so much going on in it.”

Worse - these conversations often happen at conferences where aspiring writers are being equally vague if they happen to be lucky enough to get into a conversation with an agent or editor.

The time to know what your book is about is before you start it, and you damn well better know what it’s about by the time it’s finished and people, like agents and editors are asking you what it’s about.

You will learn a lot more about what your book or film is about as you're writing it. But you need to know what you think it's about before you start that draft.

And here’s another tip – when people ask you what your book is about, the answer is not “War” or “Love” or “Betrayal”, even though your book might be about one or all of those things. Those words don’t distinguish YOUR book from any of the millions of books about those things.

When people ask you what your book is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the premise?” In other words, “What’s the story line in one easily understandable sentence?”

That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch” – it all means the same thing.

That sentence really should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre. And – it should make whoever hears it want to read the book. Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say – “Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”

Writing a premise sentence is a bit of an art, but it’s a critical art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights. You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian, and the Sisters in Crime books in print catalogue editor, and that Amazon KDP screen asks you for a one-sentence book description, or jacket copy, or ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstores (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have about one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.

And even before all that, the premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.

So what are some examples of premise lines?

Name these books/films:

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

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

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

Notice how all of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out. Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.

Here’s my premise for THE HARROWING:

Five troubled college students left alone on their isolated campus over the long Thanksgiving break confront their own demons and a mysterious presence – that may or may not be real.

I wrote that sentence to quickly convey all the elements I want to get across about this book.

Who’s the story about? Five college kids, and “alone” and “troubled” characterize them in a couple of words. Not only are they alone and troubled, they have personal demons. What’s the setting? An isolated college campus, and it’s Thanksgiving - fall, going on winter. Bleak, spooky. Plus – if it’s Thanksgiving, why are they on campus instead of home with their families?

Who’s the antagonist? A mysterious presence. What’s the conflict? It’s inner and outer – it will be the kids against themselves, and also against this mysterious presence. What are the stakes? Well, not so clear, but there’s a sense of danger involved with any mysterious presence.

And there are a lot of clues to the genre – sounds like something supernatural’s going on, but there’s also a sense that it’s psychological – because the kids are troubled and this presence may or may not be real. There's a sense of danger, possibly on several levels.

And you can see how that premise sentence inspired one of the major planks of the selling campaign for that book (and any book) - the cover design, one of my favorites. (The UK edition, from Little Brown, the US edition, on Amazon.)

The best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Take that list of ten books and films I made you do here, that are in the same genre as your book or script - preferably successful - or that you wish you had written! Now for each story on that list, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

If you need a lot of examples all at once, pick up a copy of the TV Guide, or click through the descriptions of movies on your TiVo. Those aren’t necessarily the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

So there are three exercises I'd like to suggest for you to try.

1) Take your master list of ten books and films and write a premise sentence for each. Share a few here if you care to - it will help other people and that's good karma!

2) Write your OWN premise, for your WIP or potential project.

And 3) harder, but really, really worth it - look at your mass (or mess) of brainstormed ideas and see if you can pull and/or create ten (oh, all right, five) complete premises out of that list.

Or do three this week, three next week, three the next...

And that third option is something I'm saying TO MAKE MYSELF DO IT, too, so no whining about how I've completely gone off the deep end. I have, of course - but I also think the story ideas that would come out of really taking that last exercise seriously would raise anyone's writing to the next level. And perhaps yield something exciting and HIGH CONCEPT, which we will be talking about this week, too.

But if you're not familiar with writing premise lines, the most important exercise for you right now is 1) - write the premise sentences for your own master list. It's like doing piano scales. Repetition is the mother of skill.

- Alex


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.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

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You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Oh, all right. What is genre?

So now you’ve brainstormed on story ideas and elements, hopefully for pages and pages and pages – this is an exercise that can easily and productively take a whole week or more. In fact, the longer you give yourself to do it, the deeper you are likely to go. In a great way.

I hope you included half-baked ideas and just random things that turn you on. Creatively speaking. Like for me – shapeshifters (both literal and metaphorical), witches, therapists, museums, stairwells, guitarists, love triangles, altered states, New Orleans, Boston, London, champagne, John Cleese, Pre-Raphaelites, cats, labyrinths, minotaurs…. (multiply by ten thousand and you get the drift.)

The idea of this exercise, actually, is to dump EVERYTHING that has ever appealed to you into a notebook.

But what to do with this chaos of intrigues and desires, now?

Where even to start?

Well, I have been putting this post off for – as long as I’ve been writing this blog, actually. Genre could and should be a whole semester’s film class or novel class all on its own. At least. But alas, Debbie’s comment on the last post has made it inescapable. So all right.

What is genre?

I am NOT in any way going to set myself up as an expert.

But come on, people. You KNOW this. I am only speaking about what you know already. We can’t live in the modern world and not know what genre is. Basically, what kind of story is it?

When you and your loved one go out to the movies, what do you go to? Do you have to coax him into THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, with the promise that okay, you’ll go see THE HANGOVER next weekend? Or are you both happily looking to be scared out of your wits by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY? Or wrung out emotionally and socially outraged by PRECIOUS? Or thrilled and amused by IRON MAN? Or mutually mindblown by AVATAR?

You get the difference between all of those genres, I know you do.

As usual, Wikipedia is a good place to start for an overview, although I have to say woefully inadequate on the mystery subgenre front; maybe someone can do some editing, there.

(Don’t forget to make a donation – it’s the right thing to do.).

So now that you have a sense of this, here’s a pop quiz. And I’ll stick to well-known movies, or books with movie adaptations.

I’ll make it even easier and remind you of some possible answers, NOT all-inclusive:

Horror, action, action-adventure, western, comedy, romantic comedy, musical, melodrama., detective mystery, teen comedy, sci-fi, action-adventure-comedy, psychological thriller, caper, Gothic romance, J-horror, romantic comedy/adventure, screwball comedy, satire.

SO -

What genre is DIE HARD?














And now, possibly a little more difficult. What genre is














And yes, let’s talk about the ones you have trouble classifying. But that wasn’t so hard, was it? See, you know what genre is. It's the section of the video store that you go to to get the kind of movie you want to see that night.

Okay, now take a look at your own list of books and movies. What’s your dominant genre, there? Maybe you could even break your list down into percentages of different genres. If you’re a cross-genre writer at heart, like I am, your list might be confusing and eclectic. That’s okay. We’ll figure it out.

Try looking at that Wikipedia list and and write down every genre listed under in film and literature that you think applies to the story you're writing.

Now, ask yourself – do you write in the genre that you most enjoy watching and reading? If not, and you’re not published or produced yet, is that something you might consider trying?

But I want you to get genre on more than an intellectual level. So for now I’m not even going to get into the idea of genre conventions (although that would be a good post for later). Because more than anything else, maybe, genre is an EXPERIENCE that you promise your reader or audience. Genre gives them an expectation of what they are going to FEEL. And not just an expectation, but a PROMISE. If your book or film is advertised as an action story, you better have made sure that you deliver on the action, repeatedly and successfully, or you’re going to lose that reader. If people aren’t laughing throughout your comedy, at regular intervals, no one’s going to spread that all-important word-of-mouth that’s going to get other people to buy the book or line up at the ticket counter.

And so the big question I want you to be thinking about it – What DO I want my reader/audience to feel?

The way to start to discover that is to be aware of what YOU are looking to feel in a story.

Let’s go deeper into the film/book list. Here’s part of mine, no particular order.

Rosemary’s Baby
Silence of the Lambs
Alice in Wonderland
The Haunting of Hill House (book and film)
The Shining (book and film)
Room with a View (film)
Withnail and I
A Wrinkle in Time
The Witching Hour
Pet Sematery
Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead
The Fountainhead
Atlas Shrugged
Rebecca (book and film)
Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None
It (the book)
Bringing Up Baby
The Thin Man
The Little Foxes
The Children’s Hour
Pride and Prejudice
Bridget Jones’ Diary (book and film)
The Wire
Mad Men
I, Claudius
Fawlty Towers
Philadelphia Story
It’s A Wonderful Life
Groundhog Day
The Breakfast Club
The Stand (book)
Carrie (book and film)

I included my favorite TV, and I could go into musicals, too, but I’ll spare you. Well, except I have to mention Sweeny Todd. And Phantom of the Opera. And Chicago. And…

And on the myth and fairy tale front:

Ariadne (Theseus and the Minotaur)
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
Eros and Psyche
Beauty and the Beast (all three of those last are the same story, essentially).
The Handless Maiden
The Yellow Dwarf
1001 Nights
Sleeping Beauty

Now, that’s a BIG list, of all-time favorites that I see/read over and over and over again, and it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, but I want to keep this manageable. And on the surface, it seems to have a lot of disparate genres there. But there are underlying commonalities that are very specific to my own taste (and I’m the only one who can truly say what those are, just as you are the only one who can say what your emotional preferences are).

What do I see about that list?

Dark dark dark dark dark…. Except for the romantic comedies and swoony Room With A View.

Lots of horror, but more psychological than gory. Lots of psychological thrillers. Some adventure fantasy and fantasy fantasy. The Stoppard is about trippy extra-dimensional occurrences, plus he’s a genius. Actually that goes for Shakespeare, too, extra-dimensionally. Lots of psychology - the Lillian Hellman plays are dramas, but very dark ones that explore ordinary and completely chilling human evil. I especially like human evil so big it seems almost supernatural (as in Silence of the Lambs and Rebecca). Withnail and I is a flat-out drug movie, and has the British comedy of chaos I so love in Fawlty Towers. Lots of sex, or at least, the sex is part of what I love about a lot of those choices. (The Wire and Deadwood, for example…). Lots of Cary Grant. Oh, right, that would be sex.

What are some of the themes and subthemes of these stories? (For me, personally, I mean, and not trying to be too analytical about it – just spew:)

Good vs. evil (and good usually triumphing, ambiguously). Inability to distinguish the supernatural from reality. Inter-dimensionality. Erotic tension. Loss of control (and that absolutely includes the comedies on there – Fawlty Towers, Bringing Up Baby, Withnail and I, are complete rollercoaster rides of hysteria.) What is reality? Man Must Not Meddle. The deal with the devil. What it means to be a hero or heroine. Unlikely heroes and heroines. Coming to terms (or not) with one’s extraordinary gifts. Disparate people uniting to accomplish something as a team. A man and a woman who don’t trust each other having to work together, discovering they are divinely matched.

And even more importantly, what FEELING am I looking for when I read and watch these stories? What EXPERIENCE am I looking for? Again, this may be the most important indicator of what genre you’re writing in.

I like a lot of sensation in my stories. That is, I want a story to make me experience a lot of sensation. And not easy, light, fun sensations either, for the most part. Fear, thrills, doubt, sex, urgency, loss of control, violent surprise. I love the overwhelming feeling of having something huge, possibly supernatural, going on around me (in the form of the characters I’m projecting myself onto). Something evil, even, but so powerful and mesmerizing I have to explore it, understand it. And that can be a situation, as in Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining, or a person, as in The Children’s Hour. I want a sense of cosmic wonder. I want a sense that good does conquer evil, that good people can make a difference, but without sugar coating. I like a lot of game playing, matching wits (Philadelphia Story, Thin Man, Silence of the Lambs).

So, what I write is psychological horror, or supernatural thriller, or supernatural mystery, or psychological thrillers with an extra-dimensional twist. And while that sometimes makes my books frustratingly hard to categorize (in libraries, for example…) it also has branded me in a way that has been useful to me as an author. We’ll talk more about branding later.

But now it’s your turn – tell me. What are you trying to make your reader or audience FEEL? Horror? Thrills? The glow of romance? The adrenaline and exhilaration of adventure?

- 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!

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Monday, February 01, 2010

How to write a novel - from start to finish.

I got a great – if slightly overwhelming – question this weekend about writing process. I’m sure a lot of you will be able to relate to Stuart Hughes' honesty. As I look to my next project (that would be after the two I’m currently finishing) I feel exactly the same way:

"What process do you follow (from initial idea, to final draft) when writing a novel?

If I’m honest, writing 80,000 – 120,000 words that connect together and keep the reader interested seems like a mammoth slog right now. Any advice you can give me, to make the exciting prospect seem less daunting, would be gratefully appreciated."

Well, isn’t that the ten million dollar question? (And don't you just love a British accent?)

And yet, the idea of trying to answer that as a fairly coherent, step-by-step process is an interesting challenge that I might actually be up for, especially because I’ve written about a lot of it before, it’s just a question of putting answers in a different kind of order and filling in some gaps.

And it’s still technically a New Year, not a bad time to do some massive, constructive organization of this blog.

(It also helps to know that I already have written my definitive answer, here☺

                   Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

So let’s do it. From getting an idea, to picking the right idea, to getting a publishing deal. In order, in detail, and together. I need it just as much as anyone, right now.

And we'll start at the very beginning, with generating that perfect idea - because this is a part of the writing process that people rarely spend enough time on, and is CRUCIAL if you want to develop a riveting book, even more crucial if you have any hope of being paid to write. You are going to spend TWO YEARS of your life, minimum, on this book (and that's truly a minimum). Don't you think you better be sure this is the right book to write before you start?

And, oh yeah - the same process is going to apply to scripts, too, and I'll make sure to differentiate when it's important.


First, you need an idea.

When people ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?”, authors tend to clam up or worse, get sarcastic - because the only real answer to that is, “Where DON’T I get ideas?” or even more to the point, “How do I turn these ideas OFF?”

The thing is, “Where do you get your ideas?” is not the real question these people are asking. The real question is “How do you go from an idea to a coherent story line that holds up – and holds a reader’s interest - for 400 pages of a book?”

Or more concisely: “How do you come up with your PREMISES?”

Look, we all have story ideas all the time. Even non-writers, and non-aspiring writers – I truly mean, EVERYONE, has story ideas all the time. Those story ideas are called daydreams, or fantasies, or often “Porn starring me and Edward Cullen, or me and Stringer Bell,” (or maybe both. Wrap your mind around that one for a second…)

But you see what I mean.

We all create stories in our own heads all the time, minimal as some of our plot lines may be.

So I bet you have dozens of ideas, hundreds. A better question is “What’s a good story idea?”

I see two essential ingredients:

a) What idea gets you excited enough to spend a year (or most likely more) of your life completely immersed in it –


b) Gets other people excited enough about it to buy it and read it and even maybe possibly make it into a movie or TV series with an amusement park ride spinoff and a Guess clothing line based on the story?

a) is good if you just want to write for yourself.

But b) is essential if you want to be a professional writer.

As many of you know, I’m all about learning by making lists. Because let’s face it – we have to trick ourselves into writing, every single day, and what could be simpler and more non-threatening than making a list? Anything to avoid the actual rest of it!

So here are two lists to do to get those ideas flowing, and then we can start to narrow it all down to the best one.

List # 1: Make a list of all your story ideas.

Yes, you read that right. ALL of them.

This is a great exercise because it gets your subconscious churning and invites it to choose what it truly wants to be working on. Your subconscious knows WAY more than you do about writing. None of us can do the kind of deep work that writing is all on our own. And with a little help from the Universe you could find yourself writing the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Also this exercise gives you an overall idea of what your THEMES are as a writer (and very likely the themes you have as a person). I absolutely believe that writers only have about six or seven themes that they’re dealing with over and over and over again. It’s my experience that your writing improves exponentially when you become more aware of the themes that you’re working with.

You may be amazed, looking over this list that you’ve generated, how much overlap there is in theme (and in central characters, hero/ines and villains, and dynamics between characters, and tone of endings).

You may even find that two of your story ideas, or a premise line plus a character from a totally different premise line, might combine to form a bigger, more exciting idea.

But in any case, you should have a much better idea at the end of the exercise of what turns you on as a writer, and what would sustain you emotionally over the long process of writing a novel.

Then just let that percolate for a while. Give yourself a little time for the right idea to take hold of you. You’ll know what that feels like – it’s a little like falling in love. (We’ll go more into this in the next few days.)

List # 2: The Master List

The other list I always encourage my students to do is a list of your ten favorite movies and books in the genre that you’re writing, or if you don’t have a premise yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written.

It’s good to compare and contrast your idea list with this IDEAL list.

This list of ten (or more, if you want – ten is just a minimum!) – is going to be enormously helpful to you in structuring and outlining your own novel.

Now, the novelists who have just found this blog recently may be wondering why I’m asking you to list movies as well as books. Good question.

The thing is, for the purposes of structural analysis, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X-ray of a story. In film you have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story. It’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.

It’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel, which makes looking at films that are similar to your own novel story a great way to jump start your novel outline.

And just practically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of classic and blockbuster films and the film techniques that got them that status can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.

And even beyond that – studying movies is fun, and fun is something writers just don’t let themselves have enough of. If you train yourself to view movies looking for for some of these structural elements I’m going to be talking about, then every time you go to the movies or watch something on television, you’re actually honing your craft (even on a date or while spending quality time with your loved ones!), and after a while you won’t even notice you’re doing it.

When the work is play, you’ve got the best of all possible worlds.

So go make your lists, and I will, too, and let’s talk about some of your results this week.

- Alex


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.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here: