Monday, March 15, 2010

What KIND of story is it?

So I've heard from a lot of people that the Story Elements Checklist I posted this weekend is being very helpful. It is to me, too. I was feeling kind of sluggish this weekend, that - "I'm not sick but I could very easily topple that way" feeling, so even though I was brainstorming, I would say there wasn't so much storming going on as stirring.

BUT - every time I thought I was stuck on ideas, I just looked at my own checklist and thought, for example, "Well, huh, what IS her Dark Night of the Soul?" and more ideas would come.

But before we go on to Elements of Act Two, I really want to reiterate this for everyone.

While everything I talk about concerning general story structure is going to be useful for you, I want to pound it into your heads 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. Because different kinds of stories have different and very specific structural elements.

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 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 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?

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

And oh yes - if anyone can point me toward some great betrayal plots, I'd be most grateful!

- 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.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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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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Anonymous said...

On betrayal plot lines, one to consider looking at is THE VERDICT, by David Mamet and Sidney Lumet. The Charlotte Rampling character's betrayal of the hero, played by Paul Newman, is excruciatingly...authentic.

Rob Flumignan said...

Not sure, but I think I have a couple betrayal plots. PRESUMED INNOCENT and THE CRYING GAME. I'm new at the whole categorizing stories thing, so I could be way off. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, I love you guys! THE VERDICT is a great betrayal, great movie.

And PRESUMED INNOCENT - now THAT is a fantastic example of a betrayal so deep that our whole perception of reality changes with the revelation. Stellar.

Thank you.

I never thought of CRYING GAME as betrayal, but of course, it's a fantastic lie. But in a way, it's not. Dil is Dil. She's just waiting for Fergus to be able to see it.

And aren't we all doing that in love, after all?

Travis said...

The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) has elements of a betrayal story. A couple of good movies were made from the book: Point Blank with Lee Marvin and Payback with Mel Gibson. I think the Director's Cut of Payback hews a bit closer to the book.

Wolf Lahti said...

I love those articles/books that maintain that there are only 36 basic plots (or ten or twelve or whatever). I contend that there is only one: Some characters are introduced, they experience some conflict, the conflict is (or is not) resolved.

As you can imagine, using this template makes it really easy to analyze a story arc. [cough]

Mara said...

This is way out in left field, probably, but one of my favorite betrayal plots is "The Riddlemaster of Hed" an old fantasy novel by Patricia McKillip. Very long, three books, about Morgan, land ruler of a small kingdom.

The first ends with Morgan's friend and mentor, Deth, betraying him to his archenemy. The third ends with Morgan unmasking the High One, who has taken on several personalities including Deth. The High One tells him that all his suffering has training him to take on the position of heir to the High One, as landruler over all landrulers.

The realization in the end is that by betraying him, Deth put him in the situation he needed to become stronger, to learn from the one who held him prisoner, eventually overcoming him. It forced him to realize his own power


G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

The betrayal plot line that springs to mind for me is from one of my favourite films, Vertigo. I remember seeing that for the first time and being knocked for six by how expertly Elster pulls the wool over Scottie's (i.e. the audience's) eyes.


Rachel Walsh said...

Another excellent and oh so helpful post, Alex.

As far as betrayal plots go .... I'm reading Sarah Waters' FINGERSMITH at the moment, a fantastic book filled with layer upon layer upon layer of betrayal. I keep catching my breath as each new deception is revealed; absolutely NOTHING is as it seems. I highly recommend it!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Travis, I've actually never seen or read any of those, and I love Westlake. Great idea!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mara, I'm getting that series right away. That's really along the lines of what I'm trying to do here. Thanks!

And Greg, yeah - Vertigo is just the best, that way. Hitchcock makes the audience go through the same mental shattering that Scotty does. Devastating, and so rare to find.

Anonymous said...

Count of Monte Cristo is about betrayal. The book, I understand (I've never read it), is about the revenge, but the most recent movie is more about the betrayal, I think. There is also the story of the Biblical Joseph, betrayed by his brothers, and, of course, there is Jesus being betrayed by his friend Judas.

Maibaap said...

Two films, both Clooney's that have interesting elements of betrayal:

1. Up in the Air

You build the story all the way to show Ryan's (Clooney's) arc and then...not give him his 'love' in the end.

2. Michael Clayton

Clooney and Wilkinson friendship is tremendous, which reaches a major confrontation. Also, Clooney's brother had 'betrayed' him in a way, though...there's the redemption in the end.

plastic.santa said...

Hey, Alex.
Just FYI, Kindle for Mac is now up and running at Amazon. I just downloaded and installed it. And the first thing I got was the sample of Screenwriting Tips! Looks great.

Mary Aalgaard said...

Thank you again for sharing your knowledge and getting us to think. Mine is a journey of self-discovery like - Steel Magnolias, Mr. Holland's Opus, Stranger than Fiction.

I'll think on the betrayal theme.

Sylvia said...

(yes, I'm falling behind again)

I love your designations - some of them are way off what I would have said, but that's what makes it interesting.

I've been reading a lot of YA lately and trying to spot the "dramatic situation" being used. It's going to take some practice but it's intriguing to think of the stories this way.

What's a heroine in disguise plot though? Is that like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

Betrayal plot -- BETRAYAL (ha!) with Tom Berringer and Debra Winger.

Who betrays whom? And with whom do we eventually side? And do we betray anyone by making that choice?


Stephen D. Rogers said...

Um, that should have been BETRAYED.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sally, you're into the classics! ;) Thanks, yes, betrayal doesn't get deeper than your examples.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Maibaap, I still haven't seen Up in the Air (I know, but if you knew the year I've had...) but now I will. Michael Clayton, yeah, somehow I'd forgotten that one, but great betrayal story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Santa, thanks, I didn't know Mac for Kindle is functional now. Fabulous! Will announce.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, of course - ANOTHER movie I haven't seen. And I'm crazy about Debra Winger.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sylvia, for girl in disguise, or woman in disguise, I think immediately of Shakespeare: Twelfth Night and All's Well That Ends Well, where women go in disguise and ultimately win their loves.

Working Girl had somewhat of a heroine in disguise plot, and Maid To Order. I'll think of others.

Rachel J Stevens said...

Background question on The Price- did you spend any time in the tunnels in Boston? That is truly a great spot for scary! I spent many months wandering under NE Medical Center in the 80's and damn, it was seriously creepy.

Waiting for my copy of The Price to arrive, can't wait to dig in.

Gene said...

What about The Wizard of Oz - betrayal? The Wizard was found to be rather bumbling, after all, in the end - not at all as he was expected to be nor rumored to be. Of course, it wasn't The Wizard who said otherwise, but everyone else. So maybe Journey of Self-Discovery.

I wonder what our "Wizards" are?

Corey Cole said...

Great article! As for betrayal, I especially like stories in which the treachery is ambiguous - actually in the hero's best interest, or at least well-intentioned. Some books/films where betrayal is a major theme:

The Riddlemaster of Hed - Awesome series, must read. And a great betrayal theme about which I can say no more lest I spoil it.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Elsa and Walter Donovan

The Empire Strikes Back - Lando Calrissian.

The Golden Compass - Evil parents.

Wickerman - revolves around a trap and betrayal

Prof. Snape in Harry Potter is an interesting case. People still debate which side he was on. Rowling reportedly intended him to be a straight villain originally, but later gave him more depth and ambiguity.

Buffy and Angel had several such "might be betrayal" cases that certainly felt like treachery to the protagonists.

I haven't seen Mr. and Mrs. Smith... but the summary sounds like it has a betrayal theme in amongst the action.

True Lies is another one with a lot of turns.

Lori and I broke tradition in the first Hero's Quest (Quest for Glory) game, in that a seemingly-helpful character tries to trick you into your death. Before that time (1989), you could rely on in-game information regardless of the source. Since then, you have to be a bit more careful. :-)

Goldie said...

I'm not sure it counts, but Gormenghast comes to mind. However, the betrayer is the protagonist and you know from the beginning that he is just exploiting the people he befriends, so the betrayal isn't twisty. Chan-wook Park's revenge trilogy might fit. Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Mr. Vengeance.

While we're at it, I'm writing a story about a man who tries to fix people's lives but just ends up making their lives (and his own) much worse. Does anybody know a story like that, please?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Goldie, sounds like you're writing a "Mysterious Stranger" or "Traveling Angel" story - but with the twist that he's making people's lives worse instead of better. Jane Austen's Emma and the modern teen version, Clueless, are light examples of that kind of story - I don't know how dark you're going.

But other examples of Traveling Angel stories are the movie Shane, the Reacher books, Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rachel, I used Longwood Medical Center for The Price - I moved into the hotel that's connected to the hospital and spent a week wandering the passageways. Talk about the Twilight Zone! But all of Boston is like that for me.

Hope you enjoy The Price.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gene - hmm, interesting example. The Wizard was contributing to the illusion of his power - I'd say yes, that counts as betrayal!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Corey, great list of examples, thanks! And I totally agree that treachery is most interesting when it's ambiguous. Love those shadow characters.

Goldie said...

Alexandra Sokoloff, that actually makes perfect sense. I'll look into the Mysterious Stranger stories. Thank you very much!