Thursday, June 17, 2010

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

So, where was I?

Sorry, really dropped out there for a while. Book due, new book out, family illness, major life changes, you name it, all kinds of things. Haven’t even had time for a movie.

But I did get to watch a couple last week and that got me back in the mood, or mode.

Someone was blogging about my blog recently and there was a scathing comment (from a Brit, naturally, no one can scathe like the Brits, I love you guys…) about how it’s this kind of methodology that’s responsible for the terminal mediocrity of movies and books these days.

I would have said it was the committee method of story development, serial rewriting, and the corporatization of Hollywood that causes the mediocrity of movies. And that there are plenty of good books out there (far, far more than I personally have time to read in a lifetime), precisely because they’re each written by a single author with a single vision. But maybe that’s just me.

I think people scathe story structure methodology for lots of different reasons.

1 - They haven’t written enough to get it yet, and not getting it is scary, so they reject the idea that there is such a thing as story structure so they don’t have to deal with learning it.

2 - They’re intuitive writers and can’t explain their own process so they assume they don’t have one. But anyone who has seen as many movies and read as many books as you have to see and read to become a professional writer to begin with has dramatic structure ingrained in them, whether they know it or admit it or not. That includes all of you reading right now, by the way.

3 - They don’t get that anyone teaching structure is really just saying, “Hey, you could try this, it’s worked for a whole hell of a lot of really gifted people in the past.” For me, ANYTHING that makes this insane process easier is a godsend.

4 - Some people really do charge exorbitant fees to teach this kind of thing, and some people are really mad about it. I’d like to point out, though, that the structure gurus who do teach also have written books; it’s not that you can’t get the same information for the perfectly reasonable cost of a book. And that’s a whole hell of a lot cheaper than, say, film school. The way you learn how to write is to write, which costs time – and your soul - not money. And there are infinite low-cost resources out there to help you do that; it’s not meant as a personal affront. Use them, or don’t, it’s completely your own choice.

There are other reasons people scathe structure methods, but you get the point. This is just my regular disclaimer that you don’t HAVE to apply any of what I’m taling about to write well (although anyone who writes is already doing a lot of it). As I’ve said a million times before, the only rule of writing is – WHATEVER WORKS.

All that being said, I’d like to get back to the Elements of Act One and focus today, and tomorrow, on a central aspect of a story setup: the PLAN.

One of the movies I ended up watching last week was 2012 (hey, I said I was behind.).

Now, I’m sure in a theater this movie delivered on its primary objective, which was a rollercoaster ride as only Hollywood special effects can provide. I’m not going to be critical (except to say I was shocked and disturbed at some of the overt cruelty that went on in what was supposedly a family movie), because whether we like it or not, there is obviously a MASSIVE worldwide audience for movies that are primarily about delivering pure sensation. Story isn’t important, nor, apparently, is basic logic. As long as people keep buying enough tickets to these movies to make them profitable, it’s the business of Hollywood to keep churning them out.

But even in this rollercoaster ride of special effects and sensations, there was a clear central PLAN for an audience to hook into, a plan that drove the story. Without that plan, 2012 really would have been nothing but a chaos of special effects.

PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION are integrally related, and I keep looking for ways to talk about it because this is such an important concept to get.

If you’ve seen this movie (and I know some of you have…), there is a point in the first act where a truly over-the-top Woody Harrelson as an Art Bell-like conspiracy pirate radio commentator rants to protagonist John Cusack about having a map that shows the location of “spaceships” that the government is stocking to abandon planet when the prophesied end of the world commences.

Although Cusack doesn’t believe it at the time, this is the PLANT (sort of camouflaged by the fact that Woody is a nutjob), that gives the audience the idea of what the PLAN OF ACTION will be: Cusack will have to go back for the map in the midst of all the cataclysm, then somehow get his family to these “spaceships” in order for all of them to survive the end of the world.

The PLAN is reiterated, in dialogue, when Cusack gets back to his family and tells his wife basically exactly what I just said above.

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens – it’s not only Cusack’s PLAN, but the central action of the story, that can be summed up as a CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Cusack be able to get his family to the spaceships before the world ends? Or put another way, the CENTRAL STORY ACTION: John Cusack must get his family to the spaceships before the world ends.

Note the ticking clock, there, as well. As if the end of the world weren’t enough, the movie also starts a literal “Twenty-nine minutes to the end of the world!” ticking computer clock at, yes, 29 minutes before the end of the movie.

(Remember, I’ve said ticking clocks are dangerous because of the huge cliché factor. We all need to study structure to know what NOT to do, as well. Did I talk about the clock in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, yet? Great example of how to turn a cliche into a legitimate urgency.)

A reader/audience really needs to know what the overall PLAN is, even if they only get in a subconscious way. Otherwise they are left floundering, wondering where the hell all of this is going.

In 2012, even in the midst of all the buildings crumbling and crevasses opening and fires booming and planes crashing, we understand on some level what is going on:

- What does the protagonist want? (OUTER DESIRE) To save his family.

- How is he going to do it? (PLAN) By getting the map from the nutjob and getting his family to the secret spaceships (that aren’t really spaceships).

- What’s standing in his way? (FORCES OF OPPOSITION) About a billion natural disasters as the planet caves in, an evil politician who has put a billion dollar pricetag on tickets for the spaceship, a Russian Mafioso who keeps being in the same place at the same time as Cusack, and sometimes ends up helping, and sometimes ends up hurting. (Was I the only one queased out by the way all the Russian characters were killed off, leaving only the most obnoxious kids on the planet?)

Here’s another example, from a classic movie:

At the end of the first sequence of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (which is arguably two sequences in itself, first the action sequence in the cave in South America, then the university sequence back in the US), Indy has just taught his archeology class when his mentor, Marcus, comes to meet him with a couple of government agents who have a job for him (CALL TO ADVENTURE). The agents explain that Hitler has become obsessed with collecting occult artifacts from all over the world, and is currently trying to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to make any army in possession of it invincible in battle.

So there’s the MACGUFFIN – the object that everyone wants, and the STAKES – if Hitler’s minions (THE ANTAGONISTS) get this Ark before Indy does, the Nazi army will be invincible.

And then Indy explains his PLAN to find the Ark - his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was an expert on the Ark and had an ancient Egyptian medallion on which was inscribed the instructions for using the medallion to find the hidden location of the Ark.

So when Indy packs his bags for Nepal, we understand the entire OVERALL ACTION of the story: Indy is going to find Abner (his mentor) to get the medallion, then use the medallion to find the Ark before Hitler’s minions can get it.

And even though there are lots of twists along the way, that’s really it: the basic action of the story.

The PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION – or CENTRAL ACTION, if it helps to call it that instead, is almost always set up – and spelled out - by the end of the first act. Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can relax and let you drive.

So here's a craft exercise, if you want to play along. For practice take a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identify the CENTRAL ACTION - describe it in a few sentences. Then try it with your own story.

For example, in my new book, BOOK OF SHADOWS, here's the set up: the protagonist, homicide detective Adam Garrett, is called on to investigate a murder of a college girl which looks like a Satanic killing. Garrett and his partner make a quick arrest of a classmate of the girl's, a troubled Goth musician. But Garrett is not convinced of the boy's guilt, and when a practicing witch from nearby Salem insists the boy is innocent and there have been other murders, he is compelled to investigate further.

So the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is Garrett using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing.

If you're working on a story now, at what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of where the story is going? If you can't identify that, is it maybe a good idea to layer that in so the reader will have an idea where the story is going?

I’ll post more about PLAN tomorrow, or maybe this weekend, but try it. Take a favorite movie or book and break down the CENTRAL ACTION. Then try it with your own story.

And for extra credit – give us some examples of movies or books that didn’t seem to have any central action or plan at all. Those negative examples are sometimes the best way to learn!

- 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 14.99.

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Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

So I'm reading this book, one of "the ten" for the new project. It's a very successful book by a brand name.

About halfway through, the protag realizes the antag has him boxed and there seems to be no way out. The protag has the goal of getting out and makes a plan to achieve that goal.

The author never shares the plan with us, only that the protag has a plan because he has that goal.

While I can understand several reasons the author may have done this, I've come to disagree with the choice.

If I don't know what the protag is doing and why, I don't know the importance of any particular move. I don't know if it's important, and if it is, how important.

A benefit to this for the author is that the whatever the protag does could be important. But that only takes the author so far. After a while, I just stop caring what the protag does because I never know if the action is critical to his success.

Another benefit to this approach is that the protag can appear mysterious. What's he got up his sleeve? But now I'm a passive observer rather than a participant.

While not telling us the plan adds another question and perhaps boosts suspense in the short term, it marginalizes the reader, or so it feels to me.

Which is a good thing to know because I'd written a scene where the protag develops a plan that isn't shared with the reader, and now I'll be revisiting that scene.

Thanks for prompting me to think on this.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, you are always so good about analyzing what's happening in a story. I'm glad you had a breakthrough moment on that. It does make all the difference in the world to pay attention to how other storytellers have dealt with a problem, so you know how you can best approach the same problem, and why.