Monday, June 28, 2010

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 3)

Yes, more on these crucial interrelated plot elements. Whether you're writing a novel or a screenplay, this is the bulk of your second act, people, and I want you to get it.

BTW, I know commenting is out and retweeting is in (thanks to those who do!) but when you don’t comment, I don’t know if you’re actually getting what I’m trying to get across, and I really do think that this notion of PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION can be lifesaving when you’re plotting out – or struggling with – a story. So here are some more examples today JUST TO MAKE SURE.

Previous discussion here:

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

In the first act of Silence of the Lambs, Clarice gets an assignment, an “interesting errand” from her teacher at the FBI academy: she is to interview Hannibal Lecter, an imprisoned psychopath, for a new database of serial killers. But when she walks into the basement dungeon where Lecter is kept, he assumes that she is here to ask him about a new serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Lecter tosses her a clue to follow and Clarice follows up, and when she finds the severed, preserved head of an old patient of Lecter’s hidden in a storage unit, she realizes that Lecter knows Buffalo Bill. Lecter is pleased with her investigative skills and promises, “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice.”

At the same time, Bill kidnaps another victim, Catherine Martin. And from there, Clarice has a PLAN of her own: she is going to somehow get Lecter to divulge the identity of Buffalo Bill and save Catherine’s life. Her PLAN (and the CENTRAL ACTION of the story) is to persuade Lecter to give up Bill’s identity and location, even if it means doing what her FBI mentor has warned her not to do at any cost: divulge deeply personal information to this psychopathic genius. (Note how genre-specific that central action is: it’s going to require psychological manipulation and gamesmanship, and this is a keenly, excruciatingly psychological thriller.)

Another favorite PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION of mine is in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables.

Young FBI agent Eliot Ness is assigned to bring down mobster Al Capone. So far no one in law enforcement or government has been able to pin Capone to any of his heinous crimes; he keeps too much distance between himself and the actual killings, hijackings, extortions, etc. One of Ness’ Untouchable team, a FBI accountant, proposes that the team gather evidence and nail Capone on federal tax evasion. It’s not sexy, but the penalty is up to 25 years in prison. (As you might know, this PLAN is historically accurate: Al Capone was actually finally charged and imprisoned on the charge of tax evasion.)

So the PLAN and CENTRAL ACTION of the story becomes to locate one of Capone’s bookkeepers, take him into custody and force him to testify against Capone.

But of course, in a crime thriller, this has to be done with plenty of action sequences and shootouts, so Capone gets wind of the plan and moves the accountant to a secret location high in the mountains, so Ness and his team have to storm the hideout – much gunfire and chases on horseback ensue (and some clever persuasion by Sean Connery to get the bookkeeper to testify).

So as we approach the MIDPOINT, Ness’s team has the bookkeeper in custody, the trial is set, and Ness’s men are escorting the bookkeeper to court.

But the movie is only half over. So of course, as very often happens at the midpoint, the plan fails. In a suspenseful and emotional wrenching MIDPOINT CLIMAX, Ness’s accountant teammate, whom we have come to love, escorts the bookkeeper into the courthouse elevator to take him up to the courtroom. As the doors close, we see the police guard is actually one of Capone’s men.

Ness and his other teammate (a criminally hot Andy Garcia), realize that something’s wrong and race up (down?) the stairs to catch the elevator, but arrive to find a bloodbath – both accountants brutally murdered, and the word TOUCHABLE painted on the elevator in blood.

So the plan is totally foiled – they have no witness and no more case. It’s a great midpoint reversal, because we – and Ness himself – have no idea what the team is going to be able to do next (and also Ness is so emotionally devastated by the loss of his teammate that he begins to do reckless things.).

(In case you’re wondering, the new plan becomes for the Sean Connery character to find another Capone accountant, and it’s when Capone’s men are trying to hustle that second accountant out of town that the big chase/baby carriage scene in the train station goes down.)

It’s important to note that the central action of the story is not always driven by the protagonist. Usually, yes. But in The Matrix, it’s Neo’s mentor Morpheus who has the overall PLAN, which drives the central action, right up until the end of the second act. The plan is to recruit and train Neo, whom Morpheus believes is “The One” prophesied to destroy the Matrix. So that’s the action we see unfolding: Morpheus recruiting, deprogramming and training Neo, who is admittedly very cute, but essentially just following Morpheus’s orders for two thirds of the movie.

Does this weaken the structure of that film? Not at all. Morpheus drives the action until that crucial point when he is abducted by the agents, at which point Neo steps into his greatness and BECOMES “The One” by taking over the action and making a new plan, to rescue Morpheus by sacrificing himself.

It is a terrific way to show a huge character arc, Neo stepping into his destiny. And I would add that this is a common structural pattern for mythic journey stories - in Lord of the Rings, it's Gandalf who has the PLAN and drives the reluctant Frodo in the central story action.

Here’s another example. In the recent (and very funny) romantic comedy It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep’s character Jane is the protagonist, but she doesn’t drive the action or have any particular plan of her own. It’s her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), who seduces her and at the end of the first act, proposes, in a very persuasive speech, that they continue this affair as a perfect solution to both their love troubles – it will fulfill their sexual and intimacy needs without disrupting the rest of their lives.

Jane decides at that point to go along with Jake’s plan (saying, “I forgot what a good lawyer you are.”) In terms of action, she is essentially passive, letting the two men in her life court her (which results in bigger and bigger comic entanglements), but that makes for a more pronounced and satisfying character arc when she finally takes a stand and breaks off the affair with Jake for good, so she can finally move on with her life.

I would venture to guess that most of us know what it’s like to be swept up in a ripping good love entanglement, and can sympathize with Jane’s desire just to go with the passion of it without having to make any pesky practical decisions. It’s a perfectly fine – and natural – structure for a romantic comedy, as long as at that key juncture, the protagonist has the realization and balls – or ovaries – to take control of their own life again and make a stand for what they truly want.

I give you these last two examples – hopefully - to show how helpful it can be to study the specific structure of stories that are similar to your own. As you can see, the general writing rule that the protagonist drives the action may not apply to what you’re writing – and you might want to make a different choice that will better serve your own story. And that goes for ANY general writing rule.

So is this all making sense?


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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Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

I'm sorry I don't Tweet or whatever it is.
I do follow your blog and I take notes. Your method of instruction is easy for me to grasp and I am reading the back articles.
Thank you for taking the time to do this series.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mary, if you're taking notes, that's all I need to know!

Thanks for letting me know it's working for you.

Rachel Walsh said...

Alex, I don't often post, but I do always read and go away inspired.

Your last post set me to a whole re-think of the opening of the second draft of my book. Literally tossing out scenes, and re-ordering the rest, and for the better.

So thank you for all your story-writing insights; they're gold.

Josie Thames said...

I'm with Mary. I copy the blog post for the day, put it in my writing folder/bag, and then take notes. I find as I'm taking notes, ideas for my story will just pop up and I have to go write those down immediately so I don't lose them!

I love this series!

plastic.santa said...

We're always here for you! We're just glad you're back.

You know I read and used/enjoyed all of the previous series. And the word PLAN has taken on a whole new meaning for me. :)

One thing I'm taking away from this part of the book (It is a book, right?) is that MY plan isn't really the important one to be thinking about. It's the heroine's plan. And the antagonist's plan. And the love interest's plan. And the sidekick's plan. And how those plans NEVER line up or the story just stops.

At least that's what I'm taking away today.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rachel, now THAT'S what I love to hear. It' not an easy thing to keep inspiration going and do the pruning and re-ordering you need to do in rewrite after rewrite - it separates the pros from the wannabees. Good luck with your next draft!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Josie, I swear, I do exactly the same thing. When I'm stuck, I go back and start taking notes on the particular place and story elements I seem to be stuck on, and I ALWAYS get the ideas I need to push on.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Santa, that's a great way to put it - it's not about thinking in terms of OUR plan, the author's. You have to get into the characters' heads and see what their plans are.

I'm not thinking about these articles as a separate book, if that's what you're asking. The great thing about Kindle books is that when I have enough material to go in for a full rewrite, I can just do that and switch them out. Instant second, updated edition.

Karel Segers said...

I love the Untouchables example. It's one of the greatest movies of the 80's and a perfect film to learn structure.

One small detail:
"Capone gets wind of the plan and moves the accountant to a secret location high in the mountains"

They're actually at the Canadian border moving a liquor shipment across the border, not to hide the accountant. Ness has had a tip-off and intercepts them from a shack.

Sorry to be pedantic but it's one of my favorite movies...

I love your structure articles, Alex. They're among the very best we can find on the net!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Not pedantic at all, Karel, I was working from memory.

But - that begs the question - why would the accountant be in on that action?

Shizuka Otake said...

Love this -- as usual, I walk away with my brain churning.
But I have a strange, fundamental problem.
I'm having trouble finding the ten stories that are like my own. Not because my book is so amazingly original.
Maybe I need to condense down to the bones again. Know any great growing up and coming into your own after your parents die stories (where the heroine is actually not a child, but twenty plus)?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Shizuka, I think you may be having trouble finding structurally similar stories because you haven't really defined the central action of your story yet. What does your heroine DO to grow up and come into her own? Join Doctors Without Borders? Have a painful but revelatory affair with an older, married man? Take a job a teacher in the juvenile prison system?

What is the ACTION of your story?

Shizuka Otake said...

Alex, Sarah moves to Japan to start a photography career and has an affair with an influential older man. One who has a hidden connection with Sarah's father.

This structure stuff is so instructive; Yours was the first Kindle book I purchased.

laughingwolf said...

as always, more fodder for my brain to ponder... love it!

my wip: trying to turn an old screenplay into a novel [though registered with the writers guild of canada, not one nibble]

RhondaL said...

I love, love, LOVE your blog. (Okay. I gotta calm down. You'll find out why I'm so "energetic" in a moment.)

I learn so much from you here. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

I'm a little excited right now because I recently finished the first draft of my first novel after about six years of work.

I have two others that I couldn't complete biding their time on my hard drive. But this one, I managed to complete a full pass through.

And part of the reason why I was able to finally complete this one is thanks to all the structure material you've written about here. So, thank you.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Okay, Shizuka, now we’re getting somewhere. My next question is what KIND of story is it? Do you want to emphasize the action of your heroine uncovering the mystery of her father, or is it more about what she learns about herself and what she truly wants through this romantic mentor? (Every romance is a teaching experience, isn’t it?)

It will probably help to identify what you want your reader to experience. Is it the intellectual satisfaction of solving a mystery, with the thrill of possible jeopardy, or the passion of a forbidden love? Or the tentative, tenuous connections between disparate people? The ambiguous beauty of LOST IN TRANSLATION is a good example… of the last and that one is also good to look at if Japan itself is going to be a major character in your book.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Here's a post discussing the issue of determining what KIND of story you're writing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LW, sounds great - screenplays are fabulous outlines for novels! So much easier when the story's already there.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, that is FANTASTIC news! Most people never, ever get to the end of a first draft. Everything is a cakewalk from there, comparatively.

And the techniques you've learned here are every bit as good for structuring a rewrite.

Congratulations! Go celebrate.

Shizuka Otake said...

Alex, I think it's about the tenuous relationships the heroine has with everyone including her dead father, herself, and maybe even Japan.

Thanks for reminding me of Lost in Translation.
I'm going through Netflix to look for films with similar themes.

I hope you make it to New York to teach sometime!

RhondaL said...

Thank you, Alexandra. I realize that I only have one first first draft, so I've made a point of enjoying these moments. Thanks again. :)

Anyway, I intend to be more specific with the Plan when I begin revising. After all, IMO, the Plan seems to be the Goal in Scene & Sequel.

I do catch myself forgetting to state the Plan/Goal - let alone the Theme - and expect those important threads to be implied by the action.

So, I hafta watch that.

laughingwolf said...

thx... never attempted a novel before, but like the challenge :)

Largo Chimp said...

Alexandra, thank you for writing this series of articles. I've taken 18 pages of handwritten notes and your advice has been very helpful.

I finished my outline for Act 1 and am starting into the scary swamp of Act 2, but am now equipped with a plan.

Thank you for helping other writers, and please do continue.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Largo, I feel for you - staring down the barrel of that second act is always a - special - experience.

One day at a time.

Suzanne said...

Oh, well since you're wanting us to comment instead of just RT... I suppose I will comment, since I do love your posts!

I actually haven't read too many of your posts, but somehow along the way I missed that whole list of links to other posts on how to write a novel - so I'll probably be wandering through your blog over the next few days.

What I really like is the examples you give in conjunction to movies. Even though I've probably only seen 25% of the movies you mention, it's still incredibly helpful to hear the concepts in action, if that makes sense. You cover a lot of topics I have trouble fully understanding, so in the end I come out better for it, and generally with a better sense of what the hell I'm doing with my novel.

Now to retweet this!