Monday, March 29, 2010

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

All right, on to Act Two, finally. I would not object if this year got easier.

Act Two is summed up by the greats such as, like, you know, Aristotle - as “Rising Tension” or “Progressive Complications”. Or in the classic screenwriting formula: Act One is “Get the Hero Up a Tree”, and Act Two is “Throw Rocks at Him” (and for the impatient out there, I’ll reveal that Act Three is; “Get Him Down.”)

All true enough, but a tad vague for my taste.

So let’s get more specific.

The beginning of the second act of a book or film (30 minutes or thirty script pages into a film, 100 or so pages into a book) – can often be summed up as “Into the Special World” or “Crossing the Threshold”. Dorothy opening the door of her black and white house and stepping into Technicolor Oz is one of the most famous and graphic examples… Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole is another. The passageway to the special world might be particularly unique… like the wardrobe in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE; that between-the-numbers subway platform in the HARRY POTTER series; Alice again, going THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS; the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ; the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) in THE MATRIX; or the tesseract in A WRINKLE IN TIME.

This step might come in the first act, or somewhat later in the second act, but it’s generally the end or beginning of a sequence – think of ALIEN (the landing on the planet to investigate the alien ship), STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, going out on the ocean in that too-small boat in JAWS, flying down to Cartagena in ROMANCING THE STONE, flying to Rio in NOTORIOUS, stopping at the Bates Motel in PSYCHO. It’s often the beginning of an actual, physical journey in an action movie; in a ghost story it is entering the haunted house (or haunted anything). It’s a huge moment and deserves special weight.

There is often a character who serves the archetypal function of a “threshold guardian” or “guardian at the gate”, who gives the hero/ine trouble or a warning at this moment of entry – it’s a much-used but often powerfully effective suspense technique – always gets the pulse racing just a little faster, which is pretty much the point of suspense.

And I highly recommend Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY for brilliant in-depth discussions on archetypal characters such as the Herald, Mentor, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, and Fool.

Also very early in the second act the Hero/ine must formulate and state the PLAN. We know the hero/ine’s goal by now (or if we don’t, we need to hear it, specifically.). And now we need to know how the hero/ine intends to go about getting that goal. It needs to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. “Dorothy needs to get to the Emerald City to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz for help getting home”. “Clarice needs to bargain with Lecter to get him to tell her Buffalo Bill’s identity.”

It’s important to note that it’s human nature to expend the least amount of energy to get what we want. So the hero/ine’s plan will change, constantly – as the hero first takes the absolute minimal steps to achieve her or his goal, and that minimal effort inevitably fails. So then, often reluctantly, the hero/ine has to escalate the plan.

Also throughout the second act, the antagonist has his or her own goal, which is in direct conflict or competition with the hero/ine’s goal. We may actually see the forces of evil plotting their plots (John Grisham does this brilliantly in THE FIRM), or we may only see the effect of the antagonist’s plot in the continual thwarting of the hero/ine’s plans. Both techniques are effective.

This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

(I’m giving that its own line to make sure it sinks in.)

The hero/ine’s plans should almost always be stated (although something might be held back even from the reader/audience, as in THE MALTESE FALCON). The antagonist’s plans might be clearly stated or kept hidden – but the EFFECT of his/her/their plotting should be evident. It’s good storytelling if we, the reader or audience, are able to look back on the story at the end and understand how the hero/ine’s failures actually had to do with the antagonist’s scheming.

(This is so important to the overall structure of your story that I will post more on this concept of the clash of plans tomorrow.)

Another important storytelling and suspense technique is keeping the hero/ine and antagonist in close proximity. Think of it as a chess game – the players are in a very small, confined space, and always passing within inches of each other, whether or not they’re aware of it. They should cross paths often, even if it’s not until the end until the hero/ine and the audience understand that the antagonist has been there in the shadows all along. In movies like THE FUGITIVE, you can see Richard Kimble and U.S. Marshal Gerard passing each other by inches, sometimes. It’s a great suspense technique in itself (and oh, does Hollywood love this mano a mano stuff…)

Besides this continual clash of opposing plans, the hero/ine’s allies will be introduced in the second act, if they haven’t already been introduced in Act One.

In fact there is often an entire sequence called “Assembling the Team” which comes early in the second act. The hero has a task and needs a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies and caper movies very often have this step and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of ARMAGEDDON, THE STING, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (I mean the great TV series, of course), THE DIRTY DOZEN, STAR WARS – and again, THE WIZARD OF OZ. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form – or alternately, a bunch of unlikely losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic. I had fun with this in THE HARROWING - even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of a “Gathering the Team” sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding make for some great scenes – it’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique.

There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of KARATE KID, and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

There’s often a SERIES OF TESTS designed by the mentor (look at AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).

Another inevitable element of the training sequence is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS. For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the final battle. Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. Lovely moment of spiritual transcendence.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film DIRTY DANCING. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Patrick (who was, by the way, a genuinely lovely human being, and much missed) attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting.

Of course you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through the story… you can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff. A classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment – this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him – and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit - to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes – but that’s what makes it all so funny.

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs. It’s a delicious storytelling trick that filmmakers are particularly aware of and deft at… it’s all a big seductive game to play with your audience, and an audience eats it up.

Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle). Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, does this beautifully with the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. Penelope completely delivers on her introduction - I knew she was a shoo-in for an Oscar for that one.

The Training Sequence can also involve a “Gathering the Tools” or “Gadget” Sequence. The wild gadgets and makeup were a huge part of the appeal of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (original) and spoofed to hysterical success in GET SMART (original), and these days, CSI uses the same technique to massive popular effect.

In a love story or romantic comedy the Training Sequence or Tools Sequence is often a Shopping Sequence or a Workout Sequence. The heroine, with the help of a mentor or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the most important of tools – the right clothes and shoes and hair style. It’s worked since Cinderella – whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls.

And the fairy tale version of Gathering the Tools is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero or heroine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time.

I’d also like to point out that if you happen to have a both a Gathering the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole fourth of your story right there! Awesome! You’re halfway through already!

In an action story or a thriller or mystery – or even a fantasy like HARRY POTTER or THE WIZARD OF OZ - in Act Two there will be continual ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE by the antagonist and/or forces of opposition. These will often start subtly and then increase in severity and danger.

In a detective story, Act Two, Part Two often consists very specifically of INTERVIEWING WITNESSES, FOLLOWING CLUES and LINING UP THE SUSPECTS, very often interspersed with ACTION SEQUENCES and ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE. You will want to weave in RED HERRINGS and FALSE LEADS. And there’s another convention of the genre you’ll want to look at, which is THE DETECTIVE VOICING HIS/HER THEORY. Mysteries are by nature convoluted, because there are so many possible explanations for what’s going on, so don’t be afraid to have your detective just say what s/he’s thinking aloud. Your reader or audience will be grateful.

If this is the genre you’re writing in, you will definitely want to break down several classics to see how these elements and sequences are handled. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and CHINATOWN are great examples to analyze. (See my breakdown of CHINATOWN for a more specific discussion of these story elements).

Also in the second act (but maybe not until the second half of the second act) you may be setting a TIME CLOCK or TICKING CLOCK, which I’ll talk more about in an upcoming post on suspense techniques.

And you’ll also want to be continually working the dynamic of HOPE and FEAR – you want to be clear about what your audience/reader hopes for your character and fears for your character, as I talked about yesterday in Elements of Act One.

A screenwriting trick that I strongly encourage novelists to look at is the filmmakers’ habit of STATING the hope/fear/stakes, right out loud. Think of these moments from

JAWS: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (Well, yeah, they should have, shouldn’t they?)

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: “Do NOT tell him anything personal about yourself. Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” (And what does Clarice proceed to do?)

ALIEN: “It’s going to eat through the hull!” (When they first cut the alien off John Hurt and its blood sizzles straight through three layers of metal flooring. How do you kill a creature that bleeds acid without annihilating yourself in the process?)

The writers just had the characters say flat out what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Spell it out. It works.

This is getting into Act Two, Part 2, but I do want to say one more thing.

All of the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. This is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any story – a dramatic shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line), or the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.) And this will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story (more on setpieces to come), just to further drive its importance home.

So is this making sense? Can you give me any great examples of the story structure elements we’ve talked about here?

---------------


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

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?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards


------------------------------------------------

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!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Screenwriting Tricks Workshops and Kindle for Mac

For those who have been patiently (hah) waiting for Screenwriting Tricks For Authors to come out on Kindle for Mac, it’s now available (no Kindle required, just your own Mac).

More on Kindle for Mac.

------------------------------------------------
Also, I’m going to be teaching a couple of in-person workshops in April and May, on both coasts, since I’m nothing if not bicoastal.

April 9-11 I’m at the Black Diamond Romance Writers April Retreat in Santa Rosa, CA:

Sponsor: Black Diamond RWA

Location: A 4000+-sq.-ft. residence on 62 acres in Santa Rosa, CA

Fee: For Day-Trippers: Members: $60, Non-Members, $75; for Multi-Day Participants: Members: $80, Non-Members $100

Date: (For Day Trippers) Saturday, April 10, 2010, includes lunch, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

OR (Multi-day Participants ) April 9–11, 2010, includes meals, small group time with presenter, & overnight accommodations if available.

Presenter: Alexandra Sokoloff, Screenwriter & Author. Topic: Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

For more information:
http://www.rwanational.org/cs/chapter_conferences_and_events#conferences

------------------------------------------------

Then May 8 I’ll be in Jacksonville, Florida, for a

Full Day Master Class: Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists with Alexandra Sokoloff

Saturday May 8, 9AM – 4PM, Arlington Congregational Church‎
431 University Blvd North
Jacksonville, FL 32211

Advance registration is required for all attendees and there are a limited number of seats available, so early registration is strongly recommended.

For more information:
http://www.firstcoastromancewriters.com/workshops.htm

Hope to see/meet some of you there!

(Yes, yes, another blog post tomorrow. Life happens...)

- Alex


----------------------------------------------------------

How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

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?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

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


-----------------


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

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?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards


----------------------------------------------------------
------------------------------------------------

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!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming index cards

As any of you who are brainstorming Index Cards right now have found, this is not an orderly process. You will be coming up with scenes in no order whatsoever, all over the structure grid. Some that you will have no idea where to put. And so while I continue to work ahead through story structure in a relative order, I want to re-post the whole general Story Elements Checklist, so you have a whole overview of scenes and story elements you will be needing beyond whatever act we happen to be talking about at the time.

Act One is here
, and subsequent posts will detail the different elements of Act Two, Act Two, Part 2, and Act Three.



STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST FOR GENERATING INDEX CARDS



ACT ONE

* Opening image


* Meet the hero or heroine in the ordinary world

* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.


* Hero/ine's ghost or wound

* Hero/ine’s arc
-

* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure

* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)


* State the theme/what’s the story about?


* Allies


* Mentor
 (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).

* Love interest 
(probably)

* Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)


* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)


* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)


* Sequence One climax


* Central Question


* Act One climax

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
ACT TWO, PART ONE

* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)

* Threshold Guardian/Guardian at the Gate (possibly)

* Hero/ine’s Plan

* Antagonist’s Plan

* Training Sequence (possibly)

* Series of Tests
-
* Picking up new Allies

* Assembling the Team (possibly)

* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as coming from the antagonist)

* In a detective story, Questioning Witnesses, Lining Up and Eliminating Suspects, Following Clues.

THE MIDPOINT

* Completely changes the game

* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action

* Can be a huge revelation

* Can be a huge defeat

* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss

* Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
ACT TWO, PART TWO

* Recalibrating – after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.

* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive

* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)

* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)

* Reversals and Revelations/Twists.

* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (also known as: All Is Lost)

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a The Lover Makes A Stand scene

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is

* Answers the Central Question

------------------------------------------------------------------------



ACT THREE

The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1. Getting there (Storming the Castle)

2. The final battle itself


* Thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
-
* The protagonist’s character change
-
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

* Possibly ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire

* Possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s A Wonderful Life)

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

* Closing Image


Now, I'd also like to remind everyone that this is a basic, GENERAL list. There are story elements specific to whatever kind of story you're writing, and the best way to get familiar with what those are is to do the story breakdowns on three (at least) movies or books that are similar to the KIND of story you're writing.

Which we will talk about next.

- Alex


=====================================================

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

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Elements of Act One

All right, I know all you slackers are just loafing around waiting for the red carpet to start, so I'm posting so that somebody, including me, might actually get some valid work done today.

I am at EXACTLY this spot in my new book myself (thank you, God, that I finally have a new book...). So no one's alone out there, and no excuses.

So now we've talked about basic filmic structure as it might be applied to novels, and you have your structure grid, and a grasp on how you're going to use index cards to brainstorm and lay out your story.

I don't know about you, but when I start a project, I know much, much, much more about the first act than any of the rest of it. I can see the mountains in the distance, but at first, I know much more about the basic set up and characters. So it makes sense to start at the beginning, and fill out the Elements of Act One.

What actually goes into a first act?

The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.

When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

- Opening image

- Meet the hero or heroine

- Hero/ine’s inner and outer need
- Hero/ine's ghost or wound
- Hero/ine’s arc
- Inciting Incident/ Call to Adventure

- Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)

- State the theme/what’s the story about?

- Allies

- Mentor

- A mirror character (sometimes)
- Love interest

- Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)

- Central Question

- Sequence One climax

- Act One climax (or curtain, or culmination)
- Crossing the Threshold or Into the Special World (which we'll talk about later)


Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.

OPENING IMAGE:

Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax (which takes place in the grain silo – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say - on the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream.

(I'll talk more about this in posts on VISUAL STORYTELLING.)

MEETING THE HERO/INE

Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.

In fact, let’s just stop right there and talk about this crucial idea of INNER AND OUTER DESIRE.

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my multiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

One of the great examples of all time of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonst comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning.) The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up. Once you know that, you can work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.

INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.

In JAWS, it happens on the first few pages of the book, and the first few minutes of the movie: the shark swims into the quiet bay and eats a swimmer. That’s the event that forces the hero, Sheriff Brody, to take action. (In mysteries and thrillers the first death is often the inciting incident – it’s so common that writers refer to it as “the corpse hits the floor”. In the case of JAWS, the corpse hits the ocean floor.)

In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker finds the hologram of the captured Princess Leia pleading for help that she has hidden in the robot R2D2.

In CHINATOWN, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray walks into Jake Gittes’ office and hires him to prove her husband is cheating on her. (In a detective story, the inciting incident is often the case that lands in the detective’s lap, or again, “the corpse hits the floor”.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government guys come to Professor Indiana Jones and want to hire him to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant – before Hitler gets it.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice is called to FBI agent Crawford’s office, where he tells her he has “an interesting errand for her.”

In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation).

Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. They must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here – THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. Let's face it - we all tend to resist change and the unknown, right? So much easier to just see what's on TV tonight.

In CHINATOWN, for example, Jake initially tries to talk “Mrs. Mulwray” out of pursuing the case. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE there’s a whole sequence of Harry’s uncle trying to prevent Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwart’s school.


THE ANTAGONIST

The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post - see here and here. For the purposes of this post I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.

ALLIES

Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.

MENTOR

Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.

LOVE INTEREST

Again, optional, but it's rare not to have one! This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor.

HOPE/FEAR (STAKES)

Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. This is one of the most dynamic storytelling tricks you can employ in your writing, in fact, because it engages your reader or audience fully in the action of the story.

Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning

STATEMENT OF THEME:

A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they ARE doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.

FIRST ACT CLIMAX/CENTRAL QUESTION:

We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but that’s me.)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?


(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Obviously your ASSIGNMENT is to create index cards for the first act, all the while of course making index cards for other parts of your story as they occur to you.

And if you don't know what an element is yet, like the opening image, or the call to adventure, then I strongly suggest that you just write a card that says OPENING IMAGE. And one for CALL TO ADVENTURE, and pin it up there on your structure grid in approximately the right place. Our creative minds are so very eager to do this work for us that if you just acknowledge that you need a scene like that, your subconscious will jump right to work and figure one out for you. I swear. It is one of the great miracles of writing.

Next post I’ll move on to the elements of the second act.

So I’m interested in all questions and comments, of course, but I’m particularly looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict. Got any for me?

- 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.


=====================================================

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

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Monday, March 01, 2010

The Index Card Method and Structure Grid

All right, now you should have had enough time to watch at least one movie and note the sequences. Do you start to see how that works?

By all means, keep watching movies to identify the sequence breakdown (and I will TRY to get to THE MATRIX this week) but at the same time, let's move on to

THE INDEX CARD METHOD

This is the number one structuring tool of most screenwriters I know. I have no idea how I would write without it.

Get yourself a pack of index cards. You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method - experiment and find what works best for you.

Now, get a corkboard or a sheet of cardboard - or even butcher paper - big enough to lay out your index cards in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your story laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space. Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two: 1 at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Act Two: 2 at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

Then write a card saying Act One Climax and pin it at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the appropriate cards. These are scenes that you know you MUST have in your story, in those places - whether or not you know what they are right now.

And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either four long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).

Here is a photo of the grid on a white board - with sticky Post Its as index cards:









And my friend, the wonderful author Diane Chamberlain, has some great illustrative pictures of the grid on her blog. (Far neater than any grid I've ever done for myself!)

So you have your structure grid in front of you.

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60), so every scene goes on one card. This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your corkboard in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole story this way.

And this eight-sequence structure translates easily to novels. Now, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you may be doubling or tripling the scene count, but for me, the chapter count remains exactly the same: forty to sixty chapters to a book. And you might have an extra sequence or two per act, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. With a book you can have anything from 250 pages to 1000 (well, you can go that long only if you’re a mega-bestseller!), so the length of a sequence and the number of sequences is more variable. But an average book these days is between 300 and 400 pages, and since the recession, publishers are actually asking their authors to keep their books on the short side, to save production costs, so why not shoot for that to begin with?

I write books of about 300 - 350 pages (print pages), and I find my sequences are about 50 pages, getting shorter as I near the end. But I might also have three sequences of around 30 pages in an act that is 100 pages long. You have more leeway in a novel, but the structure remains pretty much the same.

In the next few posts we’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme (as early in the story as possible), call to adventure/inciting incident, introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body: human beings (with very few exceptions) have the exact same skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton; it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.

ASSIGNMENTS:

Make two blank structure grids, one for the movie you have chosen from your master list to analyze, and one for your WIP (Work In Progress). You can just do a structure grid on a piece of paper for the movie you’ve chosen to analyze, but also do a large corkboard or cardboard structure grid for your WIP. You can fill out one structure grid while you watch the movie you’ve chosen.

Get a pack of index cards or Post Its and write down all the scenes you know about your story, and where possible, pin them onto your WIP structure grid in approximately the place they will occur.


If you are already well into your first draft, then by all means, keep writing forward, too – I don’t want you to stop your momentum. Use whatever is useful about what I’m talking about here, but also keep moving.

And if you have a completed draft and are starting a revision, a structure grid is a perfect tool to help you identify weak spots and build on what you have for a rewrite. Put your story on cards and watch how quickly you start to rearrange things that aren’t working!

Now, let me be clear. When you’re brainstorming with your index cards and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. Always write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.

Ideally I will always be working on four piles of material, or tracks, at once:

1. The index cards I'm brainstorming and arranging on my structure grid.

2. A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to me as I'm outlining, and that I can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

3. An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that I'm compiling as I order my index cards on the structure grid.

4. A collage book of visual images that I'm pulling from magazines that give me the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of my story (we will talk about Visual Storytelling soon.)

In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that prep work.

At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. Because I come from theater, I think of my first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will finish a book or a script.

Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

But that’s my process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “panster” – not my favorite word, but common book jargon for a person who writes best by the seat of her pants. And if you’re a pantser, the methods I’ve been talking about have probably already made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here!

Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pantsers have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.

But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.

- Alex


=====================================================

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