Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

I realize I left out a very important possible pass in the Rewriting post: the Subplot Pass.

You can improve any book or script by doing a pass through of each subplot: the love plot, the villain’s plot, the rival’s plot, the main ally’s subplot (oh MAN, do I wish more films would do an ally subplot pass…). Meaning, just take the scenes with that particular character and see how that plot builds and climaxes and arcs just on its own. There is no way that you won’t find more layers to a character, interesting plants and payoffs, great dialogue even, by looking just at that one subplot in isolation.

Try thinking like an actor: it’s a cliché, but part of the craft of acting as well, that every minor actor thinks of their character as the star of the show. This is a useful mindset when you’re doing character passes. Of course, you don’t want to do that for EVERY character – that convenience store clerk who has one line, even if it’s a colorful line, should be treated as the scenery he is.

But when I’m talking about subplot passes I don’t just mean character subplots.

In the YA I’m getting close to finishing, I have a LOT of dream sequences; it’s a main line of the book. So I’ve been doing a dream sequence pass – actually, I’ve been doing several - to make sure that I’m building what I want to build in that line of the story. When you look at just those scenes in isolation from the rest of the book, you will find connections and resonances that you can’t see when you’re reading the ms as a whole. Plus it doesn’t seem as overwhelming as rereading the entire book yet again.

Take one of your subplots and try it. You might put all the scenes in that subplot line in a separate Word file, and work it that way. It’s actually fun.

And while I’m filling in the gaps in the rewriting post – I might as well mention that when you’re doing that first read-through you will probably – most likely - find that you have not written the story you thought you were writing. Not just because it’s not as brilliant and dazzling as the idea of a story you had in your head (no finished product ever is, really) – but because you’ve actually written something else.

So part of rewriting is letting go of what you THOUGHT you were writing - and trying to see instead what you actually wrote, and how you can make the story that actually IS the best, the most involving, the most multidimensional experience that it can be. This also takes some acting on your part: you must look at the story as if you have never heard it before, and listen to what it is really telling you.

Make sense?

This idea probably should be a post all on its own, but that’s all I have time for today – I have subplot passes to do.

How about the rest of you? Is there a subplot or a subplot character in your story that could use some work?

- Alex

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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

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

Elements of Act III, part 2: Elevate Your Ending

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)

Rewriting

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


I have succumbed and put the Screenwriting Tricks workbook up for Nook and on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rewriting

We are now going to tackle the vast subject of rewriting.

And before I even start, please remember that taking time off from your first draft before you jump into revisions is far more important than anything else I’m going to say here today. One week is the bare minimum, two is better, three is even better. (This is advice I have to force myself to take, but it ALWAYS pays off).

But once you have taken the time off… how the hell do you proceed with the second draft?

Well, first you have to read it. All the way through. Not necessarily in one sitting (if that’s even possible to begin with!); I usually do this in chunks of 50 pages or 100 pages a day – anything else makes my brain sore.

(And yes, if you’ve been following the posts on The Three Act Structure and The Eight Sequence Structure, that would mean I’m either reading one sequence or two sequences a day).

I picked up a tip from some book or article a long time ago about reading for revisions, and I wish I could remember who said it to credit them, because it’s great advice. Grab yourself a colored pen or pencil (or all kinds of colors, go wild) and sit down with a stack of freshly printed pages (sorry, it’s ungreen, but I can’t do a first revision on a screen. I need a hard copy). Then read through and make brief notes where necessary, but DO NOT start rewriting, and PUT THE PEN DOWN as soon as you’ve made a note. You want to read the first time through for story, not for stupid details that will interrupt your experience of the story as a whole. You want to get the big picture – especially – you want to see if you actually have a book (or film, if that’s what you’re writing).

If you are like me, there will be large chunks of absolute shit. That’s pretty much my definition of what a first draft is. X them out on the spot if you have to, but resist the temptation to stop and rewrite. Well, if you REALLY are hot to write a scene, I guess, okay, but really, unless you are totally, fanatically inspired, it’s better just to make brief notes.

When you’ve finished reading there should - hopefully! - be the feeling that even though you probably still have massive amounts of work yet to do, there is a book there. (I love that feeling…)

Once I’ve read through the entire thing, I make notes about my impressions, and then usually I will do a re-card:

The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid


I will have made many scribbled notes on the draft to the effect of “This scene doesn’t work here!” In some of my first drafts, whole sections don’t work at all. This is my chance to find the right places for things. And, of course, throw stuff out.

I will go through the entire book again – going back and forth between my pages and the cards on my story grid - and see where the story elements fall. There is no script or book I’ve ever written that didn’t benefit from a careful overview once again identifying act breaks, sequence climaxes, and key story elements like: The Call to Adventure; Stating the Theme; identifying the Central Question; Central Action and Plan; Crossing the Threshold; Meeting the Mentor; the Dark Night of the Soul - once the first draft is actually finished. A lot of your outline may have changed, and you will be able to pull your story into line much more effectively if you check your structural elements again and continually be thinking of how you can make those key scenes more significant, more magical.

(For a quick refresher on Story Elements, skip down to #10 at the bottom of this post, and the links at the end for more in-depth discussion.)

Also, be very aware of what your sequences are. If a scene isn’t working, but you know you need to have it, it’s probably in the wrong sequence, and if you look at your story overall and at what each sequence is doing, you’ll probably be able to see immediately where stray scenes need to go. That’s why re-carding and re-sequencing is such a great thing to do when you start a revision.

Now, the next steps can be taken in whatever order is useful to you, but here again are the Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.


1. Cut, cut, cut.

When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will. It's okay if you bitch about it all the way to the trash file, too - I always do.

2. Find a great critique group.

This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

3. Do several passes.

Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

4. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

5. Know your Three-Act Structure.

If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

6. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

7. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

8. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.

9. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a first draft unless you feel it’s very close to the final product, but when you’re further along, the best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

Some of you are already well aware that I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points, so here it is again, for those just finding this post.


STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST

ACT ONE

* Opening image
* Meet the hero or heroine
* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
* Hero/ine’s problem
* Hero/ine’s ghost or wound
* Hero/ine’s arc
* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
* State the theme/what’s the story about?
* Allies
* Mentor (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
* Love interest
* Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
* Sequence One climax
* Central Question
* Central Story Action
* Plan (Hero/ine's)
* Villain's Plan
* Act One climax

___________________________

ACT TWO


* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
* Threshold Guardian (maybe)
* Hero/ine’s Plan
* Antagonist’s Plan
* Training Sequence
* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies
* Assembling the Team
* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
* In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


THE MIDPOINT


* Completely changes the game
* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
* Can be a huge revelation
* Can be a huge defeat
* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
* Can be sex at 60 — the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


______________________________
ACT TWO, PART TWO


* Recalibrating — after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.
* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive
* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)
* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).
* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
* Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

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


_______________________________

ACT THREE

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

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


1. Getting there (storming the castle)
2. The final battle itself

* Thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
* The protagonist’s character change
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)
* Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
* Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you've been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).

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

If these story elements are new to you, you’ll want to read:


Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three

Elements of Act Three: Elevate Your Ending

Elements of Act Three: What Makes a Great Climax?

Act Climaxes and Turning Points

Part 1:

Part 2:

During the next week I'll be posting more about how to do different kinds of passes for particular effect.

And I'd love for people to share their own rewriting tricks!

- Alex

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

I have succumbed and put the Screenwriting Tricks workbook up for Nook and on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Elements of Act Three, part 3: Elevate Your Ending

Today we backtrack to finish off Act Three.

Think about the endings of films and books that stay with you. What is that extra something they have that makes them stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of stories out there? That’s your mission, today, Jim, should you decide to accept it: Figure it out.

As a storyteller the best thing you can do for your own writing technique is to make that list and analyze why the endings that have the greatest impact on you have that impact. What is/are the storyteller/s doing to create that effect?

When you start to analyze stories you love, you will find that there are very specific techniques that filmmakers and novelists are using to create the effect that that story is having on you. That’s why it’s called “art”.

Now, you’re not going to be able to pull a meaningful ending out of a hat if the whole rest of your story has one-dimensional characters and no thematic relevance. But there are concrete ways you can broaden and deepen your own ending to have lasting impact or even lasting relevance. Today I’d like to look at some endings that have made that kind of impact on me, and I hope you’ll take the cue and analyze some of your favorite endings right back at me.

And I must say up front that this whole post is full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know the endings before you see or read some of these stories, you’ve been warned.

For me I think the number one technique to create a great ending is:

MAKE IT UNIVERSAL.

Easy to say, you say! Yeah, I know.

My favorite movie maybe of the last five years, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, does a beautiful and very simple thing in the third act that makes the movie much bigger in scope.

The story has set up that the “slumdog” (boy from the Mumbai slums) hero, Jamal, is on a quiz show that is the most popular show in all of India: “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. In several scenes the characters talk about the show briefly – that it represents the dream of every Indian: escape. As the story moves into the third act, Jamal has advanced on the show to a half-million rupee pot – larger than anyone has ever won on the show, and the film shows shots of crowds of people watching the show in the streets – the whole country has become involved in Jamal’s story. More than that – Jamal’s story has become the story of every Indian – of India herself. This is made very poignantly clear when Jamal and his handlers are fighting through the crowd to get to the studio for the final round and an old Indian woman grabs his arm and says “Do it for all of us. Win it all.”

This is one of those archetypal moments that has amazing impact because it is played perfectly. In this moment the woman is like a fairy godmother, or a deva spirit: in every culture elderly women and men are magically capable of bestowing blessings (and curses!). That’s a bit of luck that we trust, in that moment. The gods are on Jamal’s side. It also blatantly tells us that Jamal is doing this for all of India, for all the Indian people. You know how I keep saying that you should not be afraid to SPELL THINGS OUT? This is a terrific example of how spelling things out can make your theme universal.

So really very simply, the author, screenwriter and director have used some crowd shots, a few lines of dialogue about the popularity of the quiz show, and one very very short scene in the middle of a crowd to bring enormous thematic meaning to the third act. It would certainly not have the impact it does if the whole rest of the film weren’t as stellar as it is – but still, these are very calculated manipulative moments to create an effect – that works brilliantly.

There are many, many techniques at work here in that film’s ending:

--making your main character Everyman.
-- giving your main character a blessing from the gods in the form of a fairy tale figure
-- expanding the stage of the story – those crowd shots, seeing that people are watching the show all over the country.
-- spelling out the thematic point you are trying to make! (and this usually comes from a minor character, if you start to notice this.)

This film is also a particularly good example of using stakes and suspense in the third act. (I guess I should post on suspense again, too, because all those techniques are doubly applicable to third acts).

The stakes have become excruciating by this point in the story – not only is Jamal in an all-or nothing situation as far as the quiz show money is concerned, but he feels appearing on the quiz show is the only way to find his true love again. (But I still think the biggest stake is the need to win this one for the Indian people). And there’s the suspense of will he win or will he lose, and will his love escape her Mafioso sugardaddy (sorry, I was not a fan of this subplot). And the suspense of “Will she get to the phone in time…”

This movie is also a good example of bringing all the subplots to a climax at the same time to create an explosive ending: the quiz show, the brother deciding to be a good guy in the end, the escape of the lover…

The ending also uses a technique to create a real high of exhilaration: it ends with a musical number that lets you float out of the theater in sheer joy. I can’t exactly describe an equivalent to a rousing musical number that you can put on the page in a novel, but the point is, a good story will throw every trick in the book at the reader or audience to create an EMOTIONAL effect.


- GIVE YOUR HERO/INE A BIG CHARACTER ARC

This is something you must set up from the beginning, as we discussed in Elements of Act One

And I will say up front – a huge character arc is NOT necessary for a great story. In SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Jamal’s character doesn’t really change. He is innocent, joyful, irrepressible, relentless, and pure of heart in the beginning of the story, as a little boy, and he is essentially the same lovely person as a man. That’s why we love him. He is constant and true.

But most stories show a character who is in deep emotional trouble at the beginning of the story, and the entire story is about the hero/ine recognizing that s/he’s in trouble and having the courage to change: from coward to hero, from unloving to generous.

If you start to watch for this, you’ll see that generally the big character change hinges on the difference between the hero/ine’s INNER and OUTER DESIRE, as we talked about in Elements of Act One. Very, very often the hero/ine’s big character change is realizing her outer desire is not important at all, and might even be the thing that has been holding her back in life, and she gives that up to pursue her inner desire, or true need.

For me personally it’s a very satisfying thing to see a selfish character change throughout the course of the story until at the climax s/he performs a heroic and unselfish act. The great example of all time, of course, is CASABLANCA, in which Rick who “sticks his neck out for no one” takes a huge risk and gives up his own true love for the greater cause of winning the war. Same effect when mercenary loner Han Solo comes back to help Luke Skywalker in the final battle of STAR WARS.

Scrooge is another classic example – the events of the story take him believably from miser to great benefactor – who “kept Christmas in his heart every day.”

I’ve said it before, but I also thought it was a beautiful and believable character change when Zack Mayo in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – gives up his chance at being first in his class to help his classmate complete the obstacle course, thus turning into a real officer before our eyes.

This sense of big contrast and big change makes for a dramatic and emotionally satisfying ending.

Of course, you may not be writing a happy ending, and the dramatic change may be for the worse. That can be just as affecting. In the end of THE GODFATHER Michael Corleone ends up powerful, but damned – he has become his father – which even his own father didn’t want to happen. Michael goes from the least likely of the family to take over the business - to the anointed heir to his father’s kingdom. It’s a terrible tragedy from a moral point of view - and yet there’s a sense of inevitability about all of it that makes it perversely satisfying - because Michael is the smartest son, the fairy tale archetype of the youngest and weakest third brother, the one whom we identify with and want to succeed… it’s just that this particular success is doomed.

Another dark example: PAN’S LABYRINTH had one of the most powerful endings I’ve experienced in a long time. It is very dark – very true to the reality of this anti-war story. The heroine wins – she completes her tasks and saves her baby brother with an heroic act – but she sacrifices her own life to do it. In the last moments we see her in her fantasy world, being welcomed back as a princess by her dead mother and father, as king and queen, and see the underworld kingdom restored to glory by the spilling of her blood (rather than the spilling of her brother’s blood). But then we cut back to reality – and she’s dead, killed by her evil stepfather. The film delivers its anti-war message effectively precisely because the girl dies, which is realistic in context, but we also feel that the death did tip the balance of good and evil toward the good, in that moment. It’s a satisfying ending in its truth and beauty – much more so than a happy ending would be.


- SUBPLOTS

can be used very effectively to deepen the effect of your ending.

As I’ve said before, in great stories like THE WIZARD OF OZ, and PHILADELPHIA STORY, every subplot character has his or her own resolution, which gives those endings broader scope.

Think of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – one of the few thrillers out there that creates a victim we truly care for and don’t want to die. In a very few strokes, Harris in the book, and Demme and Tally and actress Brooke Smith in the film, create a ballsy, feisty fighter who is engineering her own escape even at the bottom of a killing pit. 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.

And of course I’ve already gone into this, but the intricacy of detail about the killer’s lair, and the fairy tale resonance of this evil troll keeping a girl in a pit, give that third act a lot of its primal power.

I know, I know, a lot of dark examples. Okay, here’s a lighter one, one of the happiest and most satisfying endings in an adventure/comedy: BACK TO THE FUTURE. This is a great example of how careful PLANTS can pay off big when you pay them off in the end. In the beginning we see high school student Marty McFly in a life that, well, sucks. His family lives in a run-down house, his sweet but cowering father won’t stand up to the bully he works for, the parents’ marriage is faltering. Marty is transported back to the past by mistake, and is confronted with a fantastic twist on the classic time-travel dilemma: he is influencing his future (present) with every move he makes in the past – and not for the better. In fact, since his high-school age mother has fallen in love with him, he’s in danger of never existing at all, and must get his mother together with his father. Brilliant.

All Marty wants to do is get his parents back together and then get back to the future before he does too much damage. Mission accomplished, he returns… to find that every move he made in the past DID influence his future – and much for the better. The house he returns to is huge and gorgeous, his parents are hip and happy, and the bully works for his father. It’s a wonderfully exhilarating ending, surprising and delightful – and it works because every single moment was set up in the beginning.

This ending owes a lot to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GROUNDHOG DAY (which itself owes a lot to IAWL). All three are terrific examples of how you can use the external environment of the main character to illustrate character change and make your theme resonate in the third act and for years to come.

To give a completely different example – suppose you’re writing a farce. I would never dare, myself, but if I did, I would go straight to FAWLTY TOWERS to figure out how to do it (and if you haven’t seen this brilliant TV series of John Cleese’s, I envy you the treat you’re in for). Every story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from rigid control to total breakdown of order. It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of what his life should be and the reality that he creates for himself over and over again that will have you screaming with laughter.

Another very technical lesson to take from FAWLTY TOWERS – and from any screwball comedy – is speed in climax. Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end, to create that exhilaration of being out of control – which is the sensation I most love about a great comedy.

The TICKING CLOCK is often used to speed up the action, especially in thrillers – in ALIEN there’s a literal countdown over the intercom as Ripley races to get to the shuttle before the whole ship explodes. But I’ll warn again that the ticking clock is also dangerous to use because it has been done so badly so many times, especially in romantic comedies where the storytellers far too often impose an artificial clock (“I have to get to the airport before she leaves! Oh no….TRAFFIC! I must get out of the taxi and run!”). SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE unfortunately succumbed to that cliché and I swear it nearly ruined that otherwise perfect film for me.

So just like with all of these techniques I’m talking about – the first step is just to notice when an ending of a book or film really works for you. Enjoy it without thinking the first time… but then go back and figure out how and why it worked. Take things apart… and the act of analyzing will help you build a toolbox that you’ll start to use to powerful effect in your own writing.

Any examples for us today?

Or - anyone want to talk about the emotional effect of INCEPTION?

- Alex

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

I have succumbed and put the Screenwriting Tricks workbook up for Nook and on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)
----------------------------------------------------

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

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Events this week in Raleigh/Durham

If you’re in the Raleigh/Durham area I’m speaking tonight, Tuesday 8/17, on Screenwriting Tricks For Authors and signing Book of Shadows at the Cary Barnes & Noble.

,,, and tomorrow at the Eva Perry Library in Apex: 7 p.m. (8-18)

I’m also the featured author today at the Barnes & Noble Mystery Book Club, online.

Tomorrow I'll post the last installment of Elements of Act Three, which I somehow left out. Hope everyone's great!

- Alex

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I'm cheating on my book

So now that we've worked the elements of each act all the way to the end of our story (theoretically...), we're going to go on to rewriting.

But, well... there's a little problem I've been having, and it's time I confessed.

I seem to be writing three books at once.

How did that happen? I’m supposed to know better than that, aren’t I? Wouldn’t I scathe a student up one side and down the other for not focusing on one project until it was done?

Well, I’m not exactly a student, though – and as a screenwriter I juggled multiple scripts at various stages of development all the time, I had to, it’s just the job.

But books are different. They’re so much bigger. Can you really compare the two?

I think I know how this happened, actually.

First, I’m in transition. The Universe in its wisdom has decided to revamp every single aspect of my life in a major, bone-shattering way, and it’s been – special. So it’s not all that surprising that all that upheaval from all directions would start to reflect itself in my writing life.

Second, I just turned in two projects, one right after the other, my paranormal that comes out this fall and a book I wrote with three fabulous other female authors, four interconnected novellas that make up an – apocalyptic – story of its own.

And everything always looks different, disorienting, when you are finished, truly finished, with the immense task that writing a book is.

So it’s not so very surprising that I’m not entirely sure which of the three projects I was toying with - before I had to power down and finish these last two – I want to go back to, now. I don’t even know who I am, anymore – how the hell am I supposed to know what I want to write?

Now, some of this is just rhetorical. I KNOW which book I have to finish first. That would be the one that’s almost finished, duh. It’s unfortunate that I had to leave off on that one at the very worst possible time to leave a book – 3/4s of the way through a first draft, that Slough of Despond where you realize that you never had the slightest bit of talent to begin with, that in fact elves wrote your last four books, along with everything else you’ve ever written, and you might as well go do that other thing that you can’t do because no writer is really equipped to work at anything else, but you better figure something out fast, because your writing career is officially over.

I’m sure none of you has the slightest idea what I’m talking about.

But yes, that’s where I was, and that’s what I had to face when I picked that book up again. Sheer, unadulterated panic ensues.

Now, as I tell my students, as writers we have to push through that section, it is not optional, because it’s exactly the emotional and physical predicament that our CHARACTERS are experiencing at that point of the story… when there is no possible solution to anything in front of them, or us, and we have to have that experience together to get to the final battle. The process is cleverly, sadistically designed that way as part of the magic of storytelling.

And the truth is, I have hit this wall in every single script I’ve ever written, and all six novels, now, and I have always, every single time, gotten through it. That’s a pretty damn good track record.

But it still feels like dying, every single time.

And there are particular elements about this particular book that are making me more nervous even than usual. First, I’m adapting my own short story as a novel. So the gremlins are whispering: This is a short story. What ever made you think it could be a full length novel? You’re stuck because THERE IS NO MORE TO WRITE. Fool.

Also, it’s my first YA. And it’s way too dark to be a YA. Oh, I know, everyone says there’s no such thing as too dark for a YA anymore, but trust me, there is a limit, and I am it.

So that’s Book One. I had 170 pages when I stopped. Clearly need to finish that one first, but - see above.

Book Two is a huge departure for me. Agent loves story. Brilliant group of author friends love story. It’s something I’ve been thinking of for years but finally figured out how to actually do it. Okay, it’s a bit of a departure, urban fantasy, I guess is what I have to call it, and suspenseful, but not so dark as usual, but I was wanting to write something not so dark. Started it back before I had to finish the last two projects and got 85 pages pretty fast. Went to NY for BEA and researched locations, fabulous trip, lots of ideas, should be able to jump right in, no problem, right?

Except that this is the first thing ever that I’m writing in first person. What in hell made me want to do that? I don’t even READ first person. Add to that, it keeps feeling like it should be first person present tense. Aaaaah!! I am completely paralyzed. Go back and rewrite it in third? Push forward but switch to third? Push forward and try first person present tense? I’m not paralyzed, I’m comatose.

So, enter Book Three. Book Three was an idea I was toying with at the same time I was thinking about doing Book Two. More along my usual – very adult, very dark, half crime thriller, half supernatural, or maybe the characters are just crazy… there is an emotional core to it that intrigued me, characters that felt already real, but Book Two felt like a Bigger Idea.

Only once I came up for air from the two just-finished projects, I couldn’t get Book Three out of my head.

And you know how it is about that book you left behind, especially when you are struggling with your current project. I KNOW you know. I have a friend who calls it “the bright and shinys”, but let’s be blunt. It’s the ultimate forbidden fruit. You know you should be committed to your relationship, and you are, really you are… but….

So I was just toying with it, really, a little harmless brainstorming on the side, and suddenly, WHAM!!! That whole book is in my head. Can’t stop thinking about it. And Book of Shadows is out and I’m getting the reviews and the letters and realizing – oh my God, I really am writing a very specific thing and these people who are reading it are expecting that very specific thing – why on earth, when I’m just starting to hit my stride with my particular brand, would I want to suddenly jump track?

My readers would LOVE Book Three, it has everything that they say they read me for.

And it’s in third person. Unless I make it first person. Which I might.

So that’s where I am. Utter chaos. Confusion. When I know – I KNOW – that the only possible way to maintain a career as an author, or any kind of writer, is to FINISH WHAT YOU START.

Well, but this last week, the smoke is starting to clear. I think. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I have been writing five pages a day on Book One. Mind you, the book went off on a tangent that when I reread it might belong to a different universe entirely, but it was so fascinating I just had to go with it. And I was able to remember, barely remember, but remember, that THE FIRST DRAFT IS ALWAYS GOING TO SUCK. It doesn’t have to make any sense. Whole sequences can be thrown out. My only job at this point is to get to The End. Once I reach that happy place known as the Second Draft, I know I can make it happen. I always do.

And you know what? I think I needed to have the release of that illicit brainstorming on Book Three to break through my paralysis on Book One. The utter absurdity of juggling three books took the pressure off all of them. Maybe even Book One got jealous and stopped playing so hard to get when it felt like it was losing my attention. Yes, that sounds completely insane, but can YOU explain how writing works? I thought not.

So now I think I have a plan. Five pages a day on Book One until The End, no excuses, and after that’s done I can do whatever I want on either of the other two for the rest of the writing day. I can live with that.

And the moral of the story? Well, it just goes to prove my number one and only rule of writing.

WHATEVER WORKS.

Really. Whatever gets it written, is gold.

So here's the question. Have you ever cheated on one of your books? How'd that work for you? Humiliating disaster, or creative breakthrough? Can you have multiple projects going, or are you a True Blue?

- Alex

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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

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)

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