Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Romantic Times

I'm off to Columbus today for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention and – even though some of you have heard me sing RT’s praises before, I have to do it again.

RT is my secret favorite convention.

What you’ve probably heard about RT – if you’ve heard anything at all – is that it’s that it’s full of women dressed as vampires and fairies, and half-naked male cover models slinking around. Well, you would be right. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Really.

I think it’s important for people in the mystery, thriller and, yes, even horror genres, to hear this because Romantic Times is a convention that probably is not on the radar for other genre writers – but it should be.

I heard from almost the very beginning of my promotional efforts that I should go to RT because I write sexy and I write paranormal, and because romance readers simply Buy Books. In fact, they Buy Books voraciously, which I discovered when I was on my Harrowing book tour and I went to my first romance-centric workshop, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans, and sold more books to an audience that didn’t know me from Adam than I had sold at several other genre conventions combined.

But the thing that stunned me from the very first moment of my first Romantic Times convention was how incredibly professionally and logically organized RT is. It’s put on by the Romantic Times review magazine and it’s very adamantly a fan conference. Even though there are lots of aspiring authors there, and great programs for them (including a slew of top agents and editors taking pitches), this conference is also a goldmine for published authors because there are so many people there just to meet authors and buy books (well, okay, and attend the endless and amazingly fun parties, which I’ll get to…)

Let me make this perfectly clear. I never read romances as a kid, or any time after – I had less than zero interest, although looking back I can see there was some romance crossover in the Gothic thrillers I gobbled up in my endless quest for the supernatural. And it’s that crossoverness that definitely makes Romantic Times a more obvious bet for me than a balls-out horror writer, or hard crime writer, because paranormal is so huge right now – in romances AND mysteries, and though a lot of paranormal seems to be about warm and fuzzy werewolves and endless variations on quirky vampires, there’s also a significant segment of the paranormal readership that likes a good straight-up ghost story.

But romance readers are even more broad in their tastes than that.

I used to tell people that if you’re writing balls-out horror, RT is not the place for you. But Joe Konrath/Jack Kilborn was there last year with his book, AFRAID, and while I did not check his actual sales figures, it looked to me that he was doing pretty damn well. And having a hell of a good time, too. (That's Joe dancing with me at the Faery Ball, getting into the spirit of the thing with his wings).

I think we all, admit it, can be a little snotty about our own genre, and look down on writers who write and readers who read things that we wouldn’t necessarily read or write ourselves. But romance readers buy more books than any other single group of readers and they do not have the same prejudices. They love reading, they love authors, they love books. Period. Give me that reader any old time.

I am frankly staggered at how smart and eclectic this genre is about marketing and promotion – and craft. RT really works to recruit and organize mystery and thriller authors to present workshops and panels on those genres. The conference also features some unique ways of handling reader/author interaction. Apart from outside bookseller events, there is only one mass signing – that takes place in a HUGE convention room on Saturday, after all the authors have already done their panels. The book fair is heavily promoted to the community, on radio, TV and in print, and lots of readers turn up just for that. The authors are lined up alphabetically at long rows of tables, and the readers just walk up and down the aisles. There are drawings for dozens of author-donated gift baskets going on throughout the whole three hour signing, and video screens project book trailers through the whole event as well (I love having my book trailers playing in the book room and on the hotel TV during the convention. And yeah, you bet that sold books for me last year, and beyond that, it was putting my name and my book titles out there for the entire convention, so that even people who would never buy what I write are now aware of me as an author.).

Another cool feature of RT is “Club RT”. Throughout the convention, in the dealers’ room there are a couple dozen little cafĂ© tables set up and authors are scheduled for one hour slots where they just sit at these tables and anyone who wants to can come up and chat, get books signed, etc. If I were an aspiring author I would spend half my time at this conference just going around to chat with different authors in my genre. A truly unique and intimate opportunity for authors, aspiring authors, and fans.

Of course a feature of RT I really love and am thrilled to be able to participate in is Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater, an original musical review written by Heather and featuring the Slush Pile Players, a group of authors with with professional backgrounds in music and theater, and always featuring several of Heather’s charming and multitalented offspring. Last year the show was Blood Sucking Vampires; starring F. Paul Wilson as Van Helsing, leading a bevy of comic superheroes against Heather Graham’s evil but party-loving vampires from New Orleans. This year - well, I would tell you but Heather would kill me.

I also have to say, when women organize these things everything is just – prettier. The attention to detail is mindblowing. Promo Alley, where authors put out their postcards and bookmarks and giveaways, is a long aisle of covered tables on both sides, and instead of having people just throw their swag on the tables, all the giveaways have to be in displays or decorated baskets. Yes, that takes an extra hour of prep time, but oh man, is it worth it. You can actually SEE the promo stuff, and you get a feel for each author from the decorations of the boxes and baskets. Brilliant idea.

Ditto with the parties. RT has professional costumers/decorators who dress the ballrooms for the theme parties – such as Moulin Rouge, Midnight at the Oasis, Jungle Love, the Golden Age of Hollywood and of course, the Faery Ball. There is lighting. There are trees. There are enormous Moroccan pillows. There are stage backdrops. There are mirror balls and candles. There are screaming mechanical skulls. And the level of personal costuming rivaled the Renaissance Faire events and special effects masters’ parties I’ve been to in LA (I never even dreamed there were so many variations on fairies. Seriously…).

And these women DANCE. All night. I’m sorry, but you can only talk so much. You get out on the dance floor with a bunch of readers screaming “It’s Raining Men” and you have made friends for life.

And the point of the parties, is, of course, that they attract fans. Boy, do they.

If this is all sounding a little estrogen-heavy, you’re right. But remember – women buy books. And male authors are catching on to the gold mine of readers to be - mined - at RT and are coming over to the decadent side. Now that they’ve figured it out, I doubt Paul Wilson or Barry Eisler or Joe Konrath or Rob Gregory Browne will ever miss an RT again. I expect that more and more men (like Joe Finder and Brett Battles, this year) are going to be realizing what an advantage that Y chromosome gives them in a situation like this.

And well, okay, I admit it – all professionalism aside - after years of having to put up with only female strippers at Hollywood events, I like the turnabout of having half-naked beefcake at a convention.

Sue me.

- Alex

Monday, April 26, 2010

The scourge of screenwriting - free rewrites

(Well, one scourge, anyway...)

I'm quoting/linking this Variety article because this is an issue that anyone who is contemplating a career in screenwriting should be aware of. The prevalence of the one-step deal (read below) and the endless free rewrites that come with it is one of the main factors that drove me to write my first novel.

I realized I could write a whole book - (that I would own the copyright to, which is actually a whole other rant) in the time I was being coerced into doing draft after draft of free work on a screen project I knew very well would never get produced.

(And I did write The Harrowing, one page per night, while I worked on the so-called one-step draft that wouldn't die. Rage is a great motivator...)

I could see that the free rewrite thing was only going to get worse. And worse it got.

As everyone knows, I'm glad I made the switch to novels, and made it when I did, but it still burns me to read about this bullshit - standard Hollywood practice now.

Read on and feel the rage...

- Alex

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


Daily Variety - 4/24/10

Screenwriters dancing the one-step

Producers, studios get a pass on script rewrite fees


By DAVE MCNARY

Rewrite gigs are a gold mine for the top tier of scribes, but for many other writers, a twist on an old motto rings true: Will work for free.

For writers who have sold a script or landed an assignment, studios have gone from making deals that included a traditional first draft, two sets of revisions and a polish to what are called "one-step" deals. It's essentially payment for that first draft, with fees for additional work left to be determined.

In a landscape of waning producing deals and fewer pictures in the pipeline, writers say it's become especially difficult to insist on getting paid for rewrites -- even if they end up doing more than a dozen drafts. Their fear: not getting a next assignment.

"Jobs have become so few and far between that writers are willing to keep on writing until they've gotten it to the finish line," says one manager, who, like many, declined to be identified for fear of antagonizing studio execs. "When a writer really wants to be the writer on a project, they're willing to take a lot of abuse. One of mine did 70 different rewrites on a franchise film."

One veteran writer says it's commonly accepted that scibes do seven drafts but get paid for two or three.

Full article 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

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Thematic Image Systems

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Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Matrix - Act One Breakdown

Okay, talk about thematic image systems!

Genre-wise, The Matrix crosses Sci-fi with Action. But the KIND of story it is, is a King Arthur, Chosen One, or Messiah story, like Harry Potter (all of them) and Star Wars (the original, and original trilogy) and The Lord of the Rings.

While the question about Harry Potter is: “Is he good or is he bad?” - the big question about Neo in the Matrix is – “Is he or is he not The One?” The question is voiced in the first few lines of the movie: “Morpheus believes he is The One.” “Do you?... You don’t, do you?”

And in this one, religious and spiritual imagery abounds, from different traditions. It’s like an Easter egg hunt to find them all.

The Matrix, written and directed by Larry & Andy Wachowski

ACT ONE

SEQUENCE ONE: SET UP (17 min).

OPENING IMAGE – computer code. This of course is a reference to what The Matrix actually is: a virtual reality program. (And btw, it’s the intro to the MAIN ANTAGONIST – which is the enslaving Matrix). (FORCES OF ANTAGONISM).

We hear Trinity and Cypher talking; they are watching someone, and Cypher asks her the question, “Do you think he is The One?”

Trinity has a sudden suspicion the phone is tapped and hangs up. (We don’t know this right now, but this is a betrayal by the Judas figure Cypher, a secondary villain (FORCES OF ANTAGONISM).

(It may be a little early to say this, but what the hell. The name “Trinity” of course underlines the trinity that will form of Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity – the archetypal Father, Mother, Son (which later patriarchal religions defeminized, removing the Mother from the equation).

Cut to: outside a dark building, cops arrive for a bust, but are outranked by three bizarre AGENTS: Smith, Jones and Brown (FORCES OF ANTAGONISM). Agent Smith is one of the great screen villains, thanks to this triplet conceit, a fantastically robotic (and demented) performance by Hugo Weaving and some truly inspired costume choices – everything about these guys is a little off, from the spiral cords behind their ears to the impeccable but wrongly placed tie tacs. We get a sense of the power of this adversary when the street cop says disparagingly about Trinity, “I think my men can handle one little girl,” and Agent Smith replies - “Your men are already dead.”

His words are prophetic: we cut to the cops bursting in on Trinity, seated in a dark room at a computer - and see her kill all of them with superhuman martial arts moves. (We’ve see this all-knowing-villain technique of predicting action used with Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as well.)

Trinity is a strong, sexy woman, but what makes her instantly relatable is that she is frightened – when Morpheus calls her and says there are agents after her, we can see her fear. Later in the scene she talks to herself to force herself to keep moving. That brings a reality and emotion to the action scenes that is often missing in this genre.

Morpheus tells her she needs to focus and get to a phone at a certain location. (SET UP of phone as portal).

There is a SET PIECE chase: The agents chasing Trinity through the corridors and stairways of a the dark building, then over the rooftops, again with superhuman moves. The production design of this scene is thematic - it looks like the inside of a computer or machine, a visual image of the Matrix.

Trinity gets to the phone booth with the ringing phone and picks up just as the phone booth is hit by a garbage truck driven by Agent Smith. But Trinity has disappeared from the rubble. (Phone as PASSAGEWAY to the special world). The agents say she made it out but it doesn't matter because the informant is real. The target is Neo. (7 min)

Cut to Neo’s apartment. Neo is asleep in front of numerous computers running a search on computer terrorist Morpheus and The Matrix. (Important background info which is actually very easily missed; it should have been given a bit more time.) (This is a THEMATIC INTRO to main character – he’s asleep, and an underlying spiritual theme of the film – as is the point of all mystical traditions, the goal of earthly life is to wake up to reality – ie. enlightenment.).

This opening dialogue with Neo is so thematic it’s worth looking at the whole scene: I’ve bolded the thematic references. (I know, I did this in the previous post but I want it here, too, for future reference)

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

In Neo's apartment. He is asleep at his computer, with headphones on. On his computer screen, we see he is running a search on a man named Morpheus. Suddenly on his computer screen appear the words 'Wake up, Neo.' (CALL TO ADVENTURE) (THEME – he will be woken up to reality.)

He sits up, and stares at his computer screen.

Neo : What?

On the computer, now appears 'The Matrix has you...'

Neo : What the hell?

On the computer, now appears 'Follow the white rabbit...'

Neo : Follow the white rabbit?

He presses the 'esc' key repeatedly, no effect. the computer comes up with one last message : 'Knock knock, Neo.' There is a loud knock at his door, and he jumps. He stares at the door, and then back at his computer screen. it's now blank.

Neo : .....Who is it?

Choi : It's Choi.

Neo : Yeah...yeah...you're two hours late.

Choi : I know, it's her fault.

Choi gestures towards DuJour.

Neo : You got the money?

Choi : Two grand.

Neo :Hold on.

Neo goes into his apartment, shuts the door, and opens a book, Simulcra and Simulation. takes out a CD rom, and goes back to the door, handing the CD to Choi.

Choi : Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.

Neo :You get caught using that...

Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don't exist.

Neo : Right.

Choi : Something wrong, man? You look a little whiter than usual.

Neo : My computer....it..you ever have that feeling where you don't know if you're awake or still dreaming?

Choi : Mm, all the time. It's called Mescaline. It's the only way to fly. Hey, it sounds to me like you need to unplug, man.

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

The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. And escaping. And going down the rabbit hole.

Well, that above is maybe a four minute scene, and look how blatant the themes are. It spells out the entire story. And yet it works on the surface level as well, an audience isn’t stopping to think, "Oh, there’s a theme, and there’s a theme, and yet another theme."
(If there’s anything I learned from screenwriting it’s that you can JUST SAY IT. And it generally works better if you just do.)

The scene ends with Choi inviting Neo to come out with them to a club, and while Neo initially declines because he has to work the next day (SET UP), he sees DuJour has a white rabbit tattoo and he follows them to the club,

As Neo stands alone in a bondage club (he’s in bondage to the Matrix, right?) Trinity comes up to him and in a very hot scene leans in to speak the entire dialogue of the scene into his ear. She seems to know everything about him, great start to a love story. She says: “You’re looking for him (Morpheus)”, but really “It’s the question that drives you.” Neo knows the question: "What is the Matrix?" She tells him he's in danger, and they’re coming for him. (ALLY and LOVE INTEREST).

The club music segues into alarm – Neo wakes is in his own bed. (THEME: asleep or awake? What is reality?)

(12 min)

Cut to software company. Now we see Neo in his other persona as Thomas Anderson, an office drone. This is the very ORDINARY WORLD. He’s late for work and dressed down by his boss in the boss’s office – with noisy window washers outside the plate glass window (PLANT). More thematic dialogue from the boss - "You're not special" (THEME – is he or isn’t he?) . “It’s time to make a choice.”

Back at his cubicle Neo receives a FedEx package containing a cell phone, which rings. It's Morpheus. (And isn’t this every working man’s fantasy – being called out of cubicle world for a special mission?). Morpheus tells Neo the agents have come for him and, seeming all-seeing, gives him instructions on how to elude them. He instructs Neo to go out on the window washers’ scaffold. (PAYOFF of noisy window washers). Neo is clearly terrified (links him with Trinity, their vulnerability) , but obeys, crawling out on the precarious scaffold…

Then he doesn't take the final step to get on the girder which would allow him to escape - afraid of falling/taking the jump. The cell phone falls and Neo whispers, “I can’t do this.” (THEME, and introduces the character’s FEAR: He can’t do it. Which will become our FEAR: He’s not The One.).

So Neo fails the first TEST, setting up the question of: “Is he really The One?” (All right, just pretend it isn’t Keanu Reeves and go with it.)

On the ground floor, Trinity watches the Agents take Neo away. (17 min)

SEQUENCE TWO: (18 min.)

(Might as well call this sequence: The Invitation - Neo gets two of them, actually, one from Agent Smith, and then another diametrically opposed invite from Morpheus.)

Agents are questioning Neo in an interrogation room. They have a comically thick file on him. They know Neo's real name and hacker alias. Agent Smith tells him: "One of these lives doesn't have a future." But Agent Smith is willing to cut a deal – Neo’s freedom for his help catching Morpheus. Neo gives him the finger and demands his phone call. Agent Smith tells him, “What good is a phone call if you cannot speak?” Neo’s lips literally fuse together so he can’t talk; the agents hold him down and release a mechanical bug which crawls into him through his navel. (Rape image which will be repeated.).

(21 min)

Again, Neo wakes in his own bed, screaming. His mouth is normal. (What is real?) The phone rings – it’s Morpheus again, wanting to set up a meeting. Morpheus says that the agents have underestimated how important Neo is. But Morpheus has been looking for Neo his entire life: Neo is The One.

(Btw - "The One" is a very layered concept, here - "The One" is the literal translation of the old Biblical word for "God". It is the plural form of One - ie.
"Many in One" or "Us". In other words, the implication is that Neo is ALL of us, and his task in this journey is our task.)

Trinity, Apoc, and very androgynous Switch pick Neo up under a bridge and hold a gun on him. When Neo protests, Switch says it’s their way or the highway. When Neo starts to get out of the car, Trinity asks him to trust her, and he stays. (Note the waterfall off the underpass in this scene – a birth canal image which will be repeated. Bridges of course are symbols of transitions).

Trinity scans him in another quasi-rape moment, zaps the bug and pulls it out. It’s a real bug when she takes it out, but when she throws it out of the car, a mechanical device lands on the pavement. (REAL? NOT REAL?)

(24 min)

They take Neo to a crumbling, vacant, Gothic hotel. In a corridor outside a room, Trinity tells Neo to tell Morpheus the truth – “He knows more than you can possibly imagine.” (BUILD UP TO CHARACTER).

Neo meets the very charismatic Morpheus in a very Gothic, crumbling room. (MEETING THE MENTOR). They sit in two high backed chairs in front of a standing mirror to talk. Morpheus wears mirrored shades which reflect two Neos – a visual that will be repeated several times. Alice in Wonderland theme continues as Morpheus says, “You must feel like Alice…. Tumbling down the rabbit hole.” Morpheus goes on cryptically: "You want to know what The Matrix is. The Matrix is everywhere. You are a slave.” Then he offers Neo a choice of a red pill or a blue pill. If he takes the red pill, he will go back to his life and believe what he wants to believe. If he takes the blue one, he will see the truth. But, Morpheus warns, all he is promising is the truth. Neo takes the blue pill to continue. (Great, unique PASSAGEWAY INTO SPECIAL WORLD). Neo notices the mirror is cracked and reflects two of him. It looks very much like he is starting to trip, not that I would know anything about it. When he reaches to touch the glass, the mirror becomes liquid and envelops him, while Morpheus' group tries to trace him. (With a steampunk kind of machine powered by a battery).

Thematic – is this really happening or a drug-induced hallucination?

(28 min)

Neo wakes up naked and bald in a podlike tank of goo, connected to tubes. He unplugs himself and lifts the lid of the pod to look out on a vast, endless hive of pods, all with naked bald humans sleeping inside. (SETPIECE). (THEME/IMAGE SYSTEM - I might be stretching here, but there’s a lotuslike appearance to this whole pod system, the pods as flower petals, the lotus in muddy water. Another enlightenment image). A mechanical insectoid thing darts down and ejects NEO from the pod, dropping him into a watery canal. Neo sees a bright light descending and is hoisted up into Morpheus’s hovercraft.

This is an image like birth, and also like a reverse baptism – Morpheus of course being throughout a John the Baptist figure proclaiming the coming of the Messiah (the One).

In the hovercraft, Morpheus (wearing clothing somewhat like dirty sackcloth, a student pointed out) welcomes Neo to the real world. Neo passes out. (and a MONTAGE begins… ).

SEQUENCE TWO CLIMAX

Now, this is 31 minutes in and could arguably be called the ACT ONE CLIMAX. But when Neo wakes up in the life support tank and sees the pods of people, the real reality, it’s climactic, and we might understand that this is the real reality, but we still don’t really have a clue what that means and what the action of the story actually will be.

So I’m thinking that the next nine minutes, even thought it’s a separate sequence, is all part of a long Act One.

SEQUENCE THREE:

The MONTAGE continues.

MONTAGE – with a lot of Neo passing out between clips. (THEME: Awake/asleep again).

- As Neo is unconscious, Morpheus tells Trinity “We’ve found him. He’s the One.” Trinity doesn’t agree, but says, “I hope you’re right.” (THEME: Is he or isn’t he?)

- Neo wakes up and finds his muscles being stimulated by electrified acupuncture needles. He asks why his eyes hurt and Morpheus says he’s never used them.

Neo wakes up in a room of the ship, on a cot. He pulls an IV out of his arm. Morpheus comes in and begins to answer his questions. First tells him that it’s not 1999 but more like 2199, but no one knows for sure.

Morpheus takes him through the ship, introduces him to the rest of the crew (MEETING THE TEAM) – Apoc, Switch, Cypher, Tank, Dozer and Mouse. Morpheus asks Neo if he wants to know that the Matrix is – and when Neo nods, they strap him into a chair, plug a coaxial cable into the socket in his head, and Neo is suddenly inside a virtual reality program with Morpheus. Morpheus explains (with images on a TV to illustrate) that the Matrix is a virtual reality program that simulates the world that Neo has been living in. The real world was destroyed when humans gave birth to Artificial Intelligence and that living consciousness spawned an entire race of intelligent machines. There was a war between humans and machines which basically destroyed the planet. The machines had been dependent on solar power and to replace that energy source they have devised a system of extracting energy from humans – essentially using people as batteries, in pod systems like the one Neo woke up in. New humans are not born, but bred, and dead humans are liquefied to feed the living. (Shades of Terminator, Soylent Green…)

Morpheus sums up: “What is The Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.” Morpheus holds up a battery to Neo.

(THEMATIC: The Matrix is Maya – the veil of illusion).

Neo freaks out at all this, not wanting to believe – he wants to go back. He has a panic attack, throws up and passes out. (This will be important – sets up the desire to escape the truth of reality).

Neo wakes up in his room with Morpheus there. Neo asks, “I can’t go back, can I?” Morpheus says no and apologizes for the trauma – usually they would not have “freed a mind” that had reached a certain age. But then Morpheus tells Neo of the prophecy: When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth : 'As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.' After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return, and that his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people. That is why there are those of us who have spent our entire _lives_ searching the Matrix, looking for him. I did what I did because...I believe that search is over. “

Morpheus stands and tells Neo to get some sleep – he’ll need it for his training.

40 minutes – ACT ONE CLIMAX

Now we know everything we need to know about what this story is about. CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Neo prove himself to be The One who can face off with the agents and destroy the Matrix?

And Morpheus’s PLAN is – to train Neo so that he can take on that mantle and destroy the Matrix.

This extra sequence is a good reminder that story structure is not by any means inflexible – if your story needs another sequence in one of the acts, just do it! Remember the cardinal rule of storytelling: WHATEVER WORKS.

And if you’re building a world, in sci fi or fantasy or urban fantasy, you may well want to take an extra sequence to fully set up and explain your story world. The Matrix does this particularly well – it’s blatant exposition and back story, but with great virtual reality effects and shocking imagery, so it’s very clear without ever being boring.

Another interesting thing to note about the structure of the Matrix is that the mentor, Morpheus, drives the action for most of the movie. He’s the one with the PLAN, and calls the shots. Neo is merely a tool for most of the story – but that means that we are waiting for him to take control and step into the role of The One. A common pattern, and something to keep in mind when you’re writing a King Arthur and/or mentor story.

Okay, so go watch the movie to play along if you’re inspired – and let me know what visual and thematic imagery I’ve missed!

- Alex


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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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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thematic Image Systems

I seem to be stuck on the first half of the second act. I keep thinking of elements I want to discuss in depth before I move on to the second half story elements (like PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION...)

Well, but it's important. It's still a hazy theory, but just as the Act I has a specific purpose of SET UP, I am really thinking that Act II:1 has the specific character of defining what KIND of story you're telling.

And that means that it's a lot about THEME.

I’d just like to say up front that I’m not here to define theme, today...

Oh, is that cheating?

Well, okay, if you insist. Theme is what the story is about. On a deeper level than the plot details. The big meaning. Usually a moral meaning.

Hmm. See why I don’t want to define it?

Well, how about defining by example?

I’ve heard, often, “Huck Finn is about the inhumanity of racism.”

Uh... I don't know about you, but for me, that's too soft and vague.

Also have heard a lot that the theme of Romeo and Juliet is “Great love defies even death.” Except that – in the end, they’re dead, right? So how exactly is the love defying death? Risking death and losing, maybe. Inspiring people after death, maybe.

Okay, how about this? “A man is never truly alone who has friends” is a great statement of the theme of It’s A Wonderful Life. (And stated overtly in the end of that movie.)

The trouble is, I personally think it’s closer to the soul of that movie to say that it’s the little, ordinary actions we do every day that add up to true heroism.

So defining theme has always seemed like a slippery process to me. Different people can pull vastly different interpretations of the theme of a story from the same story. And even if you can cleverly distill the meaning of a story into one sentence… admit it, you’re not REALLY covering everything that the story is about, are you?

I think it’s more useful to think of theme as layers of meaning. To think of theme not as a sentence, but as a whole image system.

And that’s where it gets really fun to start working with theme – when it’s not just some pedantic sentence, but a whole world of interrelated meanings, that resonate on levels that you’re not even aware of, sometimes, but that stay with you and bring you back to certain stories over and over and over again.

(Think of some of the dreams you have - maybe – where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal).

There are all kinds of ways to work theme into a story. The most obvious is the PLOT. Every plot is also a statement of theme.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a great, great example of plot reflecting theme. George Bailey’s desire in the beginning of the film is to be a hero, to do big, important things. Throughout the story, that desire seems to be thwarted at every turn by the ordinariness of his life. And yet, every single encounter George Bailey has is an example of a small, ordinary goodness, a right choice that George makes, that in the end, when we and he see the town as it would have been if he had never existed, lets us understand that it IS those little things that make for true heroism.

Presumed Innocent is an interesting book for plot reflecting theme. I love how that book (and the very good film made of it) depicts the horrifying randomness of the legal system – that justice can turn on the assignment of a judge, on the outcome of a political race, on the loyalties of a witness – or on the very, very clever defendant himself. To me it’s a brilliant exploration of what justice really is, or isn’t, or can never be.

And here's a brilliant example of a plot twist conveying theme: with Lecter’s escape, The Silence of the Lambs drives home the point that we can win a battle with evil, but never the entire war.

DIALOGUE is another way to reflect theme.

I watched The Matrix this week (am FINALLY doing a breakdown on it which I will start posting in the next few days) and was very amused to note this blatantly thematic dialogue in Sequence 1. I’ve bolded all the thematic references:

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From The Matrix, written by Larry & Andy Wachowski

In Neo's apartment. He is asleep at his computer, with headphones on. On his computer screen, we see he is running a search on a man named Morpheus. Suddenly on his computer screen appear the words 'Wake up, Neo.' He sits up, and stares at his computer screen.

Neo : What?

On the computer, now appears 'The Matrix has you...'

Neo : What the hell?

On the computer, now appears 'Follow the white rabbit...'

Neo : Follow the white rabbit?

He presses the 'esc' key repeatedly, no effect. the computer comes up with one last message : 'Knock knock, Neo.' There is a loud knock at his door, and he jumps. He stares at the door, and then back at his computer screen. it's now blank.

Neo : .....Who is it?

Choi : It's Choi.

Neo : Yeah...yeah...you're two hours late.

Choi : I know, it's her fault.

Choi gestures towards DuJour.

Neo : You got the money?

Choi : Two grand.

Neo :Hold on.

Neo goes into his apartment, shuts the door, and opens a book, takes out a CD rom and goes back to the door, handing the CD to Choi.

Choi : Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.

Neo :You get caught using that...

Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don't exist.

Neo : Right.

Choi : Something wrong, man? You look a little whiter than usual.

Neo : My computer....it..you ever have that feeling where you don't know if you're awake or still dreaming?

Choi : Mm, all the time. It's called Mescaline. It's the only way

to fly. Hey, it sounds to me like you need to unplug, man.

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The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. And escaping. And going down the rabbit hole.

Well, that above is maybe a four minute scene, and look how blatant the themes are. It spells out the entire story. And yet it works on the surface level as well, an audience isn’t stopping to think, "Oh, there’s a theme, and there’s a theme, and yet another theme."

(If there’s anything I learned from screenwriting it’s that you can JUST SAY IT. And it generally works better if you just do.)

Another hugely effective and important way to convey theme is through VISUAL STORYTELLING. Whether you’re writing a book or a film, it’s useful to do specific passes through your story, thinking of yourself as a production designer whose specific function is to create the look of the story – AND – reflect the themes of the story in those visuals.

As I've said here before, no one does image systems better than Thomas Harris. The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales, choosing elements that create a deeper meaning for his plots, and achieves the sense of a mythic battle between good and evil. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember – her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale – Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have a twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

There’s a theme running through Silence of monstrousness. Before Harris got all Freudian with Lecter, to the detriment of the character, IMO, he presented this character as a living embodiment of evil – an aberration of nature, right down to the six fingers on his left hand. In fact, Harris virtually created the Serial Killer as Monster.

So to reflect this inhumanness (and also just creep us out) Harris works the animal imagery, especially insect imagery, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris also works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget – he’s trying to turn into a dragon.

LOCATION is another huge, huge factor in conveying theme. Places have specific meanings, or you the author can create a specific meaning for a place. I’ve said this before, but basements are used so often in horror stories because basements symbolize our subconscious, and all the fears and childhood damage that we hide from ourselves. Characters’ houses or apartments reflect themselves. The way you describe a city gives it a particular meaning – you can emphasize particular qualities that help you tell your story.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what thematic systems authors are working with in books and films that YOU love. As I am always saying – make yourself a list (ten is good) of books and films that have particularly effective image systems. Then reread and rewatch some of your favorites, paying close attention to how theme is conveyed, in plot, in dialogue, in visuals, in location.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words that convey what my story is about, to me. For The Harrowing it was words like: Creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… pages and pages like that.

For The Price – bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, Rumpelstiltskin, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose and dialogue so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). You can create a slideshow of images or a collage in Photoshop (just don't ask me how to do it.) It’s another way of growing an image system. Also, it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.

So of course my questions today are:

What are some books and films that to you have particularly striking thematic image systems? What are some of your favorite images to work with? What are some ways of conveying theme that I’ve left out?

- Alex


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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Plants and Payoffs

I’ve been taking a look at this second act thing, and you can tell me if you think I’m way off base, but it seems to me in some ways that the first half of the second act, II:1, is both the most variable act of any story, and the most specific to whatever genre the story is.

In a romantic comedy, besides throwing your hero and heroine together, and creating that chemistry that everyone is looking for in one of those stories, you’ll probably also be flitting around to your various subplots to develop those love stories.

In an action story, you’re very likely to have a training sequence and/or gathering the team sequence.

In a detective story, your detective or cop or amateur sleuth will be investigating, following clues, lining up suspects.

In a horror story - there will be increasing supernatural occurrences or attacks by a human or supernatural predator.

It’s a new theory of mine – you can keep an eye out in your own analyses and see what you think.

This is also an act that establishes a lot of Plants and Payoffs (as does Act 1), so we're going to talk about that, today.

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, Plant/Reveal, Setup/Payoff, and sometimes FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle).

On the most basic level, a plant is showing the gun in the first act if you’re going to use it in the third act. But plants can be much more than that, and serve many different story functions.

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. Of course it’s also a suspense builder in this case – the descent into the tomb is that much more scary because we’re feeling Indy’s revulsion.

Any film of Spielberg’s is going to be filled with plants and payoffs, so you can’t go wrong having a Spielberg marathon to get familiar with the technique. In E.T., E.T. heals the potted marigolds early on, and then we see the marigolds slowly dying as E.T. gets sick. Then in the “visit to death’ scene, when E.T. has died, the marigolds start to bloom again and we realize E.T. is alive in there. Of course the reading of “Clap if you believe in fairies” scene of Peter Pan is a plant for the resurrection of E.T., too.

In POLTERGEIST, the hideous clown and the twisted tree are set up as the children’s fears, which provide terrific scares when the house starts to come alive. The little funeral for the bird, and the desecration of that little grave that happens when the bulldozers start digging the pool, is a set up for the payoff that the developers put the housing development on top of a cemetery. It introduces a thematic concept and supernatural explanation without announcing that that’s what it’s doing.

In JAWS, when Sheriff Brody first gets on board the boat, he accidentally pulls a rope that makes the oxygen tanks tumble to the deck, and Quint and Hooper freak out because the tanks could have blown up the ship. It looks like just a moment showing how out of place Brody is on the boat, but actually it’s a set up for how he will kill the shark in the end. Again – the plant is cleverly hidden, so we virtually forget about it until that “Aha!” moment when Brody brilliantly decides to use the tank to try to kill the shark.
It’s that recognition, the fact that you understand what he’s up to, that makes the audience feel they’re IN on the action and not just watching.

Plants are often used to set up a weakness of the hero/ine that will be tested, usually in the final battle. In the training sequence of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, 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 – it’s not just a victory in battle, but a true character change as well.

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 Johnny 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. And on the way to that big payoff, there’s a kind of suspense every time they dance: “Will they get the lift this time?”

Plants and payoffs can be used to great effect to define a subplot. Think of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: In a two-second shot, a few sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up before she is kidnapped. Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus driving the killer into a bigger frenzy). It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a character in its own right. (Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you can cram into it). And of course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

Plants can be used on a very small level, to create suspense or comic effect: for example, in TERMINATOR, we see early on that Sarah Connor has a pet iguana that is always getting loose, and later that iguana provides a big scare at a crucial moment when it drops onto Bess Motta’s head in the kitchen at night.

Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, uses a number of plants in the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. The build up and plants work for both suspense and comic effect, and Penelope completely delivers on her introduction. I was sure she’d get at least an Oscar nomination for that one! I want to point out that this is a great way to create a larger-than-life character.

But plants can be used in a much bigger way to convey theme as well. In WITNESS, we see the Amish community working together to build a barn – their whole way of life is community. We’ve also seen their absolute commitment to non-violence. And we see both these themes and values in action at the powerful climax, when the whole community surrounds the bad guy, and without lifting a hand against him, keeps him subdued as he sinks into a silo of grain (and that grain has been set up as a symbol for the community in the opening image of the film).

A classic example of a more intricate plant/payoff is (are) the letters of transit in CASABLANCA (here serving a dual function as MacGuffin – the object that everyone wants). The thief Ugarto has stolen letters of transit signed by Charles DeGaulle which will allow two people safe passage out of Casablanca (let’s just overlook the hole, there, that the Nazis aren’t about to let anyone do anything they don’t want them to do… it works for the purposes of the movie). Ugarto is killed for the letters, but has stashed them with Rick for safekeeping. Those letters of transit are what Ilsa wants, to get her husband safely out of Casablanca, and Rick first toys with her about them, then wants to use them for himself and Ilsa, and finally uses them to get Ilsa and her husband out.

But CASABLANCA has an even more classic plant/payoff: the line “Round up the usual suspects,” a gambit Captain Renault uses in the climax to save the day.

The story goes that the screenwriters, the Epstein brothers, were banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out a believable way to get Rick off the hook for the murder of Nazi Colonel Strasser at the end, and then one day they were driving over Mulholland to a meeting and both turned to each other in the same moment and exclaimed, “Round up the usual suspects!!!!”

This story illustrates an important point – plants and payoffs are often painstakingly engineered, and deliberately woven into the plotline for maximum effect. Once you’ve written your first draft, you can start looking for what your subconscious has already set up and engineer the payoffs – or reverse engineer a set up to make a payoff play.

I want to take a look at the way a particular setup and payoff is used in the movie JERRY MAGUIRE, by the brilliant Cameron Crowe.

Sports agent Jerry has a crisis moment early in the movie that starts his journey toward wholeness: he visits a client in the hospital after he’s had his fourth concussion on the field (football, I think…), and the client’s young son confronts Jerry and says someone has to make his dad stop playing. Jerry blows him off with a platitude and the kid bursts into tears and tells him to fuck himself.

That incident makes Jerry realize he hates himself and his life and inspires him to write a mission statement about how agents should really be acting, which gets him fired and starts his journey.

Jerry is left with only one C list client, Rod, who decides to be loyal and stick with him. And early on Rod and his wife make the decision not to accept a terrible contract renewal so they can hold out for a real contract, which they are trusting Jerry to get for them. Jerry is worried and tells them that this is a huge risk to Rod, because if he gets injured there will be no insurance. So RISK OF INJURY is set up as a big FEAR for Jerry, Rod, his wife, and us, the audience.

We are reminded of this fear when Rod signs a football for a man in a wheelchair – it’s a visual representation of what could happen to him.

And then in the climactic game, what happens? Rod takes a huge hit and is knocked out – while he is still not under contract. It’s our greatest fear manifest, and plays for maximum emotional impact because it has been set up and spelled out so clearly, all along.

And the twist is, that injury and Rod’s recovery on the field, and his bonding with the stadium audience in that moment, is what gets him the contract he’s been looking for all along.

This is a great example of how plants can not only pay off for emotional effect, but can become an integral part of the structure of a story.

Again, plants and payoffs are often developed in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff.

So, please – any great examples for us?

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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

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1


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Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
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