Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

As we were talking about way back there in our last discussion of the Elements of Act Two, 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.

The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film – a major 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). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.)

It’s also sometimes called the “Point of No Return”, in which the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action (this may have been the German dramaturg Freytag’s assertion – I’ll have to research it further).

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we discussed in Building Suspense. A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.

And the Midpoint will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

The Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene – it can be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal – all or any combination of the above.

For example, in JAWS, the Midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence in which the city officials have refused to shut the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), he decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact Midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses - staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes much in the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax – it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.

(But okay, I also concede that in RAIDERS, the revelation that comes just before the map room scene, that Marion is still alive, is the first part of a two-part Midpoint sequence.)

Another very different kind of midpoint occurs in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: the “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have only three days before Buffalo Bill kills her. Clarice goes in at first to offer Lecter what she knows he desires most (because he has STATED his desire, clearly and early on) – a transfer to a Federal prison, away from Dr. Chilton and with a view. Clarice has a file with that offer from Senator Martin – she says – but in reality the offer is a total fake. We don’t know this at the time, but it has been cleverly PLANTED that it’s impossible to fool Lecter (Crawford sends Clarice in to the first interview without telling her what the real purpose is so that Lecter won’t be able to read her). But Clarice has learned and grown enough to fool Lecter – and there’s a great payoff when Lecter later acknowledges that fact.

The deal is not enough for Lecter, though – he demands that Clarice do exactly what her boss, Crawford, has warned her never to do: he wants her to swap personal information for clues – a classic deal with the devil game.

After Clarice confesses painful secrets, Lecter gives her the clue she’s been digging for – to search for Buffalo Bill through the sex reassignment clinics. And as is so often the case, there is a second climax within the midpoint – the film cuts to the killer in his basement, standing over the pit making a terrified Catherine put lotion on her skin – it’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes. (Each climax in SOTL is a one-two punch - screen the movie again and see what I mean!).

As I discussed in the last post, the Midpoint of THE UNTOUCHABLES is a great one because not only does the murder of the two accountants (Capone's and Ness's) completely annihilate Ness's PLAN), but the murder of Ness's teammate makes the stakes deeply personal.

I recently reread Harlan Coben's THE WOODS, which employs a great technique to craft an explosive Midpoint: the book has an A story and a B story (well, really, with Coben it's always about sixteen different threads of each plot intricately interwoven, but two main plots). In the B story, the protagonist is prosecuting two frat boys who raped a stripper at a frat party, and at the Midpoint is the main courtroom confrontation of that plot. The storyline continues, but now it becomes subordinate (and of course interconnected to) to the building A plot. This very emotional climaxing of the B plot at the midpoint is a terrifically effective structure technique that is great to have in your story structure toolbox.

It really pays to start constantly taking note of the Midpoints of films and books (I assume you're already taking note of Act Climaxes, right?) And if you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene (or sequence).

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in THE UNSEEN, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold – what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty”. It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough. So now, although they don’t actually have sex, there’s definitely sex in the air, and it’s very clear that that desire is driving her.

The Midpoint launches ESCALATING ACTION/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

In the second half of the second act the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, so it’s time for desperate measures.

These escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: the hero/ine very often starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive or downright immoral.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, when Catherine is kidnapped, Clarice is warned by her roommate that if she doesn’t study for and take her FBI exams, she’ll be kicked out of the program. Of course Clarice puts Catherine’s well-being above her own, but it’s a great way to back her into a corner and force hard choices. Often the hero/ine will lose support from key allies when s/he begins to cross the line.

The protagonist's desperation will often stem directly from the big FAILURE that often occurs at the Midpoint (Again, THE UNTOUCHABLES is a great example). If the PLAN has collapsed and the hero/ine and her team have to completely recalibrate, then they're already tired and discouraged and likely to make bigger and bigger mistakes.

And if there has been a 'Now it's PERSONAL' loss, then the hero/ine is in no emotional shape to be making these decisions to begin with. In JAWS - we all know Brody has no business being out on that boat (although of course he rises to the occasion). But that bastard shark went after his son, so of course, he's going to go.

This emotional desperation also can - and should - happen in a romantic comedy. In NOTTING HILL, at the Midpoint, Julia Roberts finally invites Hugh Grant up to her hotel room, but when he arrives, his greatest nightmare in the form of movie star Alec Baldwin is there - Julia has a boyfriend, and Hugh's forced to pretend to be a waiter and clear away the room service dishes. It's a crushing defeat (and remember, Hugh's GHOST/WOUND is that his ex wife left him for a man who "looks like Harrison Ford".)

This is a huge loss for Hugh - and we all know that we do crazy and irresponsible things when we've been recently wounded by love.

Naturally the antagonist’s actions are escalating in these Act II: 2 sequences as well, as attempt after attempt to get what s/he wants has failed, and when a villain gets desperate, well, things get ugly.

This third quarter also almost always contains a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. In THE WIZARD OF OZ it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass and all looks lost. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene - yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.

This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act - sometimes it IS the climax of the second act - because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end.

Now, remember, in standard film structure, the second half of Act Two is two sequences long - two fifteen- minute sequences, each with a beginning, middle and climax. A book will perhaps have three or four or five sequences in this 100-page section. But if you concentrate on escalating obsessive actions by the hero/ine and antagonist, and then an abject failure, out of which a new revelation and plan occurs, you pretty much have the whole section mapped out to the ACT TWO CLIMAX.

I've also noticed that Sequence Six, the section right before the Act Two Climax, tends to be the darkest and most tense of all the sequences (except for maybe the final battle.) It's as if you have to build to a really terrible failure, the hero/ine losing just about everything, before that final breakthrough revelation that will propel the hero/ine into the final battle.

And again, this is true in a comedy or romantic comedy. Although the hijinks might be more out-of-control than desperately dark, the loss of control and descent into chaos is very, very often a part of this sequence in a comedy (IT'S COMPLICATED is a good recent example of this rhythm, and any episode of FAWLTY TOWERS.)

As I’ve discussed before, the Act Two Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel) often answers the Central Question set up at the end of Act One, and often the answer is “No”. No, Lecter is not going to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine – Clarice is going to have to do it herself. No, Quint will not kill the shark; the shark kills him instead and Sheriff Brody is going to have to face the shark alone.

The second act climax will often be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is (as in THE FUGITIVE, when Dr. Richard Kimble realizes that his friend Chuck has set him up and that leads to the final confrontation and fight/chase. THE FUGITIVE has a nice, satisfying structure because at the same time that Kimble is realizing who his real enemy is, US Marshal Gerard (the Tommy Lee Jones character), who has been chasing Kimble for the entire film, also becomes convinced of Kimble’s true nature – that he’s innocent.

It’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or THE main enemy, and it also often happens that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick).

The second act climax is another place that you might start a ticking clock – such as in ALIEN, when Ripley sets the ship to blow up in ten minutes and has to evade the alien and get to the shuttle by then – as if being chased by an acid-bleeding monster weren’t stressful enough!

And 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.

But we’ll talk about the third act and climax in separate posts.

And I'm always interested in hearing examples of great midpoints!

- Alex

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Online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop:

I am teaching an online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop from July 15-30. These online workshops are a fantastic deal, just $20 for two weeks, and here's where you can get one-on-one feedback on these techniques as they apply to your own story. All genres welcome!

Register here.

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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.



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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.



Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT


If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE




Monday, June 28, 2010

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 3)

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

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

Previous discussion here:

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is this all making sense?


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


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.



Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT


If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE




Monday, June 21, 2010

What's the PLAN?

I don’t care what the plan is as long as we have one.

-- Kevin Bacon in Tremors



So today we're going to talk more about the PLAN, that crucial plot element that runs through your entire story. (Previous discussion here).

You always hear that “Drama is conflict”, but when you think about it – what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonist’s, PLANS.

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

When in JAWS, Sheriff Brody is confronted with the problem of a great white shark eating people in his backyard (ocean), his initial PLAN is to close the beach to swimmers. He throws together some handmade “Beaches Closed” signs and sticks them in the sand. Problem solved, right?

Yeah, right.

If that initial plan had actually worked, JAWS wouldn’t have made a hundred zillion dollars worldwide, not to mention cinematic history. The whole point of drama (including comedy) is that the hero/ine’s plan is constantly being thwarted: by the main antagonist, by any number of secondary and tertiary opponents, by the love interest, by the weather, or by the hero/ine him or herself (because you know we’re all our own worst enemies.).

So almost always, the initial plan fails. Or if it seems to succeed, it’s only to trick us for a moment before we realize how wretchedly the plan has failed. That weak initial effort is because it’s human nature to expend the least effort possible to get what we want, and only take greater and more desperate measures if we are forced to.

Now, in JAWS, the primary antagonist is the shark. The shark’s PLAN is to eat. Not just people, but whatever. (Interestingly, that plan seems to evolve…)

Brody’s initial plan of closing the beaches might actually have solved his problem with the shark, because without a steady supply of food, the beast probably would have moved on to another beach with a better food supply.

But Brody’s initial plan brings out a secondary antagonist: the town fathers, led by the mayor (and with a nice performance by co-screenwriter Carl Gottleib as the newspaper editor). They don’t want the beaches closed, because the summer months, particularly the fourth of July weekend, represent 70 percent of the town’s yearly income. So the town fathers obliquely threaten new sheriff Brody with the loss of his job if he closes the beaches, and Brody capitulates.

This proves disastrous and tragic, as the very next day (as Brody watches the water from the beach, as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack) another swimmer, a little boy, is killed by the shark, practicing its plan.

The town fathers hold a town meeting and decide on a new plan: they will close the beaches for 24 hours. Brody disagrees, but is overruled. Eccentric captain Quint offers his services to kill the shark – for 10 grand. The town fathers are unwilling to pay.

In response, Brody develops a new plan, one we see often in stories: he contacts an expert from afar, oceanographer Matt Hooper, a shark specialist, to come in and give expert advice.

Meanwhile a new antagonist, the mother of the slain little boy, announces a plan of her own: she offers a bounty for any fisherman who kills the shark who killed her son.

The bounty brings on a regatta of fishermen from up and down the eastern seaboard. One of these crews captures a tiger shark, which the mayor is quick to declare the killer shark. Case closed, problem solved, and the beaches can be reopened. Hooper is adamant that the shark is far too little to have caused the damage done to the first victim, and wants to cut the shark open. The mayor refuses, and is equally adamant that there is no more need for Hooper. We see that Brody secretly agrees with Hooper, but wants to believe that the nightmare is over. However, when the dead boy’s mother slaps Brody and accuses him of causing her son’s death (by not closing the beaches), Brody agrees to investigate further with Hooper, and they cut the shark open themselves to check for body parts. Of course, it’s the wrong shark.

Brody’s revised plan is to talk the Mayor into closing the beaches, but the Mayor refuses again, and goes on with his plan to reopen the beaches (and highly publicize the capture of the “killer” shark).

The beaches reopen for 4th of July and the town fathers’ failsafe plan is to post the Coast Guard out in the ocean to watch, just in case. While everyone is distracted by a false shark scare, the real shark glides into a supposedly secure cove where Brody’s own son is swimming, and kills a man and nearly kills Brody’s son. (And it’s so diabolical in timing that it almost seems the shark has a new plan of its own – to taunt Brody).

At that point the Mayor’s plan changes – he writes a check for Quint and gives it to Brody, to hire the captain to kill the shark. But that’s not enough for Brody, now. He needs to go out on the boat with Quint and Hooper himself, despite his fear of the water, to make sure this shark gets dead.

This happens at the story’s MIDPOINT, and it’s a radical revamp of Brody’s initial plan (which always included avoiding going in the water himself, at all cost). And it’s very often the case that at the midpoint of a story, the initial PLAN is completely shattered (a great example is in THE UNTOUCHABLES, which I’ve talked about here:

And yet, Brody is still not ultimately committed. For the next half of the second act, he allows first Quint and then Hooper to take the lead on the shark hunt. Quint’s plan is to shoot harpoons connected to floating barrels into the shark and force it to the surface, where they can harpoon it to death. But the shark proves far stronger than anyone expected, and keeps submerging, even with barrel after barrel attached to its hide.

And now a truly interesting thing happens. The shark, supposedly a dumb beast, starts to do crafty things like hide under the boat so the men think they’ve lost it. It seems to have a new, intelligent plan of its own. And when the men’s defenses are down, the shark suddenly batters into the ship and breaks a hole in the hull, causing the boat to take on alarming quantities of water, and making the men vulnerable to attack.

Brody’s plan at that point is to radio for help and get the hell off the boat. But in the midst of the chaos Quint suddenly turns into an opponent himself by smashing the radio – he intends to kill this shark.

Hooper takes over now and proposes a new plan: he wants to go down in a shark cage to fire a poison gun at the shark. But the shark attacks the cage, and then as the boat continues to sink, the shark leaps half onto the deck and eats Quint.

Brody is now on his own against the shark, and in one last, desperate Hail Mary plan (the most exciting kind in a climax), he shoves an oxygen tank into the shark’s jaws and then fires at the shark until the tank explodes, and the shark goes up in bloody bits. As almost always, it is only that last ditch plan, in which the hero/ine faces the antagonist completely on his or her own, that saves the day.

I hope this little exercise gives you an idea of how it can be really enlightening and useful to focus on and track just the plans of all the main characters in a story and how they clash and conflict - especially how they FAIL. Because every time a plan fails, it requires a recalibration and a new action, which builds tension, suspense, emotional commitment, and excitement.

If you find your own plot sagging, especially in that long middle section, try identifying and tracking the various plans of your characters. It might be just what you need to pull your story into new and much more exciting alignment.

And of course the question is: any favorite examples of plans for me, today?

(And Happy Solstice everyone... use the Force.)

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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.



Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT


If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE




Thursday, June 17, 2010

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

So, where was I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another example, from a classic movie:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Alex

------------------------------------------------------
Book Of Shadows
Now $6.99 on Kindle

Read the first two chapters

Order from your favorite independent bookstore

Order from Amazon



"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn't-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended."

- Lee Child

"Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones."

- Library Journal

"Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they've devoured the book."


- Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars



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

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

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- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

Thursday, June 10, 2010

So how long does it take....

I’m on tour for Book of Shadows, which means that I actually have had to to start talking to people coherently about the whole process of writing. And sure enough, just as I remembered that one of the questions I most often get at book signings and panels is, “How long does it take you to write a book?”

Well, my feeling is what’s always being asked is not how long it takes ME to write a book, but how long it would take the person asking to write a book. Which of course, I have no way of answering, unless it’s to cut to the chase and shout, “Save yourself! Don’t do it!” But that’s never the question, so I don’t say it.

What I usually answer instead is, “About nine months.” Which, from Chapter One to copyedits, I guess is true enough. But the real answer is almost always: “Decades.”

Because honestly, where do you even start? I’m quite convinced I’m a professional writer today because my mother made me write a page a day from the time I could actually hold a pencil. At first a page was a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then a real page, but it was writing. Every day. It was an incredibly valuable lesson, which taught me a fundamental truth about writing: it didn’t have to be good, it just had to get written. Now I make myself write however many pages every day. And now, like then, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to get written. Some days it’s good, some days it’s crap, but if you write every day, there are eventually enough good days to make a book.

Then there were all those years of theater, from writing and performing plays in my best friend’s garage, to school and community theater, to majoring in theater in college, to performing with an ensemble company after college. Acting, dancing, choreography, directing – that was all essential training for writing.

And then the reading. Again, like probably every writer on the planet, from the time I could hold a book. The constant, constant reading. Book after book – and film after film, too, and play after play – until the fundamentals of storytelling were permanently engraved in some template in my head.

Hey, you may be saying, that’s TRAINING. That wasn’t the question. How long does it take to WRITE A BOOK?

I still maintain, it takes decades. I think books emerge in layers. The process is a lot like a grain of sand slipping inside a clamshell that creates an irritation that causes the clam to secrete that substance, nacre, that covers the grain, one layer at a time, until eventually a pearl forms. (Actually it’s far more common that some parasite or organic substance, even tissue of the clam’s own body, is the irritant, which is an even better analogy if you ask me, ideas as parasites…)

So when did I start Book of Shadows? Well, technically in the fall of 2008, I guess. But really, the seed was planted long ago, when I was a child growing up in Berkeley. Which pretty much explains why I write supernatural at begin with, but that’s another post. Those of you who have visited this town know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag ending at the Berkeley campus, is a gauntlet of fortune tellers (as well as clothing and craft vendors).

Having daily exposure to Tarot readers and psychics and palm readers as one of my first memories has been influential to my writing in ways I never realized until I started seeing similarities in the two books I have coming out this year (the second, The Shifters, will be out in November) and discovered I could trace the visuals and some of those scenes back to those walks on Telegraph Ave.

Without mentioning an actual number, I can tell you, that’s a lot of years for a book to be in the making.

Over the years, that initial grain of sand picked up more and more layers. Book of Shadows is about a Boston homicide detective who reluctantly teams up with a beautiful, enigmatic practicing witch from Salem to solve what looks like a Satanic murder. Well, back in sixth grade, like a lot of sixth graders I got hooked on the Salem witch trials, and that fascination extended to an interest in the real-life modern practice of witchcraft, which if you live in California – Berkeley, San Francisco, L.A. –is thriving, and has nothing at all to do with the devil or black magic. Hanging out at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (more Tarot readers!), I became acquainted with a lot of practicing witches, and have been privileged to attend ceremonies. So basically I’ve been doing research for this book since before I was in high school.

And my early love of film noir, and the darkest thrillers of Hitchcock, especially Notorious, started a thirst in me for stories with dark romantic plots that pit the extremes of male and female behavior against each other; it's one of my personal themes. Book of Shadows is not my first story to pit a very psychic, very irrational woman against a very rational, very logic-driven man; I love the dynamics – and explosive sexual chemistry - of that polarity.

So to completely switch analogies on everyone, this book has been on the back burner, picking up ingredients for a long, long time.

Now, what pulls all those ideas and layers and ingredients into a storyline that takes precedence over all the other random storylines cooking on all those hundreds of back burners in my head (because that’s about how many there are, at any given time), is a little more mysterious. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe storylines leap into the forefront of your imagination mostly because your agent or editor or a producer or executive or director comes up with an opportunity for a paycheck or a gentle reminder that you need to be thinking of the next book or script if you ever want a paycheck again. I know that’s a powerful motivator for me.

But the reason a professional writer is able to perform relatively on demand like that is that we have all those stories cooking on all those back burners. All the time. For years and years, or decades and decades. And if a book takes nine months, or six months, or a year to write, that’s only because a whole lot of stuff about it has been cooking for a very, very, very long time.

A long time.

So writers, how long does it take YOU to write a book? Or your latest? How many stories do you figure you have on the back burner at any one time?

And readers, do you ever notice certain themes – or recurring scenes or visuals - in your favorite authors’ books that make you suspect that story seed was planted long ago?

- Alex


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


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.



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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.


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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Book of Shadows, out today!

I know, I've been off for a couple of weeks. That's because I have a new book, out today, and it's been just a little crazy.

My favorite book that I've written so far:

Book of Shadows

Homicide detective Adam Garrett is already a rising star in the Boston police department when he and his cynical partner, Carl Landauer, catch a horrifying case that could make their careers: the ritualistic murder of a wealthy college girl that appears to have Satanic elements.

The partners make a quick arrest when all evidence points to another student, a troubled musician in a Goth band who was either dating or stalking the murdered girl. But Garrett's case is turned upside down when beautiful, mysterious Tanith Cabarrus, a practicing witch from nearby Salem, walks into the homicide bureau and insists that the real perpetrator is still at large. Tanith claims to have had psychic visions that the killer has ritually sacrificed other teenagers in his attempts to summon a powerful, ancient demon.

All Garrett's beliefs about the nature of reality will be tested as he is forced to team up with a woman he is fiercely attracted to but cannot trust, in a race to uncover a psychotic killer before he strikes again.

Book Of Shadows
St. Martin's Press
Hardcover
June 8, 2010
ISBN 978-0-312-38471-5

Read the first two chapters

Order from your favorite independent bookstore

Order from Amazon

"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn't-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended."

- Lee Child

"Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones."

- Library Journal

"Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they've devoured the book."


- Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars

"As usual, Sokoloff does a good job keeping the reader guessing whether a supernatural agency is really at work."

- Publisher's Weekly

"Fast-paced with strong characterizations, fans will enjoy this superb thriller, as Adam and the audience wonder if The Unseen could be the killer."

- Genre Go Round