Monday, September 27, 2010

Vistual Storytelling, Part 1

We've been talking about rewriting, and really I should have stopped to cover this aspect of writing quite a while ago, but no matter where you are in your writing process, it's never too late to be building and deepening your visual image systems.

So let's take some time to talk about Visual Storytelling.

As part of my enforced break after finishing the latest draft of my current novel (the darkest YA in the history of the genre, I'm afraid...) I have been doing some promiscuous reading.

I've been picking up about ten books a day. I can do that because when I’m reading for pleasure, or to clear the palate for my next book, I discard most books within ten pages, if that. Sometimes I give it 50 pages. Sometimes I make it halfway through and lose all interest. So that's been pretty much the process over the last week.

There have been a few books recently that have grabbed my attention enough that I finished them, and they all have something significant in common. They are visual extravaganzas. Not only are the locations startling, spectacular and intricately detailed, but the imagery is thematic, poetic, and sometimes downright bizarre.

Over my years of reading and writing, I've realized something actually pretty obvious about myself.

I am a visual whore.

Yes, and proud of it. Oh, sure, I could pretend to be all highbrow and quote Aristotle on “Spectacle” in The Poetics, but really, why sugarcoat it? Give me eye candy. Dazzle me with images. But make them mean something. Your story better give me your themes visually or you risk losing me, and fast. I want symbols, symbols, damn it!

And no, I haven’t segued into talking about movies, now. I’m talking about books.

I have to say, one thing all that screenwriting has been really good for is helping me develop a strong visual writing style. I love it when readers tell me – “I can see every scene you write.” But actually, visual storytelling is a lot more than just putting a movie into your readers’ heads as they’re reading your book. Visual storytelling actually presents themes that elevate a story and make it resonate in a reader’s consciousness – and subconscious - long after they close the book.

My obsession with visual storytelling started way before I started writing scripts. Production design is a crucial element of theater, too, and we had a brilliant head of design in the theater department at Berkeley, so I got spoiled early on with mindbending, thematic sets that gave a whole other dimensionality to the plays I saw in my formative years. A good production designer will make every single thing you look at on stage – color scheme, props, sets, costuming, shapes, textures – contribute to your deeper understanding of the play’s story, characters and themes.

That was a lesson that served me well when I started screenwriting. And then working as a screenwriter opened up whole new worlds of visual storytelling.

So what can we as authors learn from screenwriting about writing visually?

A lot.

Let’s start with establishing shots and master shots, setpiece scenes, and visual image systems.

ESTABLISHING SHOTS AND MASTER SHOTS

One thing I’ve noticed about beginning writers’ writing is that they almost always fail to set up a chapter visually. Actually a lot of published authors have this problem, too. I find this extremely annoying and frustrating. After all, human beings process the world visually before any other sense, so why wouldn’t we as authors want to instantly establish where we are and what we’re looking at and how that makes us feel right up front, in every chapter? If you don’t, your reader is going to be uncomfortable and disoriented until you finally give her some idea of where she is.

That’s why it’s useful to think in terms of establishing shots and master shots.

An establishing shot, in film – you guessed it - establishes the location. A shot of the Eiffel Tower lets us know we’re in Paris, a shot of the Sphinx tells us we’re in Egypt. An exterior shot of an office tower followed by people working inside an office lets us know we’re inside that building.

A master shot is an angle on a scene that shows all of the players of the scene in the specific location – like looking at a stage and seeing the entire set and all the actors on it. You get all the information about the scene in one shot.

But an establishing shot is more than just information about WHERE the action takes place. It can, and should, convey emotion, suspense, theme – any number of things about the action about to transpire or the character walking into the scene.

Every time I start a chapter or a scene, I think first about the establishing shot and the master shot. I look at the upcoming action from a long enough angle to see everything there is to see about the scene. Where am I and what am I looking at? I might not describe it outright for a paragraph or two but if I don’t, there’s a damn good reason that I didn’t start with it, and I don’t keep the reader waiting long to give them the visual. And when I do give the visual, I think about what it says thematically and emotionally about the scene. Is it a confined space because my heroine feels trapped? Then I make sure to convey that claustrophobic sense. Are the colors of everything muted and leached because of my hero’s depression? Is every tree on the street bursting with bloom and fragrance because my lovers have finally reunited? (Yeah, I’m being simplistic and on the nose, but my feeling is – be over the top at first to make sure the emotion is there… you can always tone it down later.)

SETPIECE SCENES

This is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking.

There are multiple definitions of a setpiece – it can be a huge action scene like – well, anything in THE DARK KNIGHT - that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in a – well, a shower, for instance, in PSYCHO.

If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes - and/or the crucial obligatory story elements like the Inciting Incident or Crossing the Threshold scenes. They are tentpoles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.

That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The helicopter chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The goofy galactic bar in STAR WARS. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Folding up Paris, and the zero-gravity hallway scene in INCEPTION (just to name two). The dungeon – I mean prison – in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. In fact you can look at RAIDERS and SILENCE and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in RAIDERS…)

Those are actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces because one is so big and action-oriented (RAIDERS) and one is so small, confined and psychological (SILENCE), yet both are stunning examples of visual storytelling.

A really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell – Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey – just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more – the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and RED DRAGON are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.

Okay, we'll go on to Visual and Thematic Image systems in another post, because I really want you all to get this concept of setpieces, and start thinking about how you can improve on your own.

- So what are some of your favorite setpieces or symbolic images, literary or filmic, recent or classic? Maybe it's time to make another of those Top Ten Lists.

- And how are you doing with this setpiece concept in your own writing? Are your act and sequence climaxes visually arresting and thematic? Have you considered how you can use the locations and visual images to expand the meaning and impact of your key scenes (Inciting Incident, Into The Special World, the "All Is Lost" moment, the Final Battle)?

This is a great rewrite pass to do, don't you think?

Oh, and the visually dazzling books I picked up - and finished - during my reading binge? Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE, Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, and Melissa Marr's RADIANT SHADOWS.

- Alex

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

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

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

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

More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

Rewriting: Stuck? Make a List

The Offer S/he Can't Refuse

Top Ten List - Favorite Mentors


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

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Top Ten List - Favorite Mentors

I recently read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the oh-so-it YA series - and for good reason. Talk about a high concept premise! Actually we’ll talk about that some other time.

But just one of the many, many things this book does well is develop a unique and memorable mentor character, and I thought I’d do a post about that often crucial character archetype - so-called for the original mentor, Mentor, in the Odyssey. Of course that Mentor had a little more than human wisdom, as it was really the goddess Athena taking Mentor’s form who guided Odysseus and his son Telemachus at critical junctions in the story. This is good dramatic history to know, as we often see the same god/desslike wisdom and nearly supernatural - or overtly supernatural - power in more modern versions of the mentor.

Okay, so I’m also doing this post as one more example of the usefulness of making a personal Top Ten list to solve a particular story or character problem or hone the particular story you want to tell.

In fact, why not just stop right here and try it – just take a minute to brainstorm ten great - or at least memorable - mentor characters. That is, great according to YOU. Oh, all right, you can do five now, and get down to some juicier ones later. You can even throw in some not so classic ones, for contrast.

My off-the-top-of-my-head list:

Hannibal Lecter (but you all knew that!)
Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid
Glinda the Good
Morpheus the Bad
Yoda
Obi Wan Kenobi
Their granddaddy – Merlin
Mary Poppins
The Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth
Johnny in Dirty Dancing
My new favorite, Haymitch in Hunger Games

And that’s already more than ten, but I’ll also throw in Baba Yaga, that most feared witch of Russian folktales, a pre-Lecter villainess who often served up great wisdom to her protégés… if she didn’t eat them first.

And yes, yes, I know, Mr. Miyagi in the ORIGINAL Karate Kid.

It’s an interesting thing to look at mentors in terms of what they bring to the story structurally, as well as just as individual characters. Of course everyone on my list is quirky, outrageous or frankly off the charts (except Johnny, but it’s that dance thing…). And yes, a couple of my choices reflect that I am partial to the hot mentor type. But I also love some of them for how they enhance the stories structurally. (Hopefully what I’m talking about will become more clear as I go on…)

In The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a past (distant past) winner of the games who is supposed to guide the two sacrifices from his province to victory in the Games (think Survivor meets The Lottery meets Lord of the Flies). We meet Haymitch as he falls off a stage, stumbling drunk. In fact, he vomits all over himself on national TV. He has a reputation as a complete buffoon. Not a great omen for his protégés, right? But doesn’t that up the suspense incredibly? How are Our Heroes Katniss and Peeta supposed to survive the Games with only this loser to rely on?

But – SPOILERS –


Katniss and Peeta do their damndest to get the most information they can out of Haymitch, and the relationship begins to develop, first as Haymitch realizes he might have a couple of survivors on his hands, and then with Katniss learning at key points that she can actually rely on Haymitch’s sponsorship and guidance – they develop an almost psychic bond, and Katniss comes to understand through her own growing success in the games exactly what would have turned Haymitch into an alcoholic: she can see herself going down exactly the same road if she survives/wins. In the end, Haymitch is the first one she runs to embrace, showing how deep the relationship has become.

(Unfortunately I can't see this coming as such a surprise in the movie version with the rumored - or is that desired? - casting of Alan Rickman. The minute we see Alan Rickman we know there's more to a character than meet the eye. I will never in my life argue the casting of Alan Rickman in anything, but it really would be a big tipoff, there.)

The Harry Potter series is a wonderful example of how can give your story a fairy tale mysticism and resonance by creating three mentors (also sometimes called supernatural allies) in the pattern of the three witches or three fairy godmothers - one of the world’s most powerful and enduring archetypes. In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid are fantastically unique characters on their own, but as a trinity, they are mythic. Of course, the classic A Wrinkle In Time (novel) does the same with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which - direct descendants of the three Fates, Moerae, Norns – all themselves derivative of the Triple Goddess.

And speaking of fairy godmothers… helpful as she is in a pinch, Glinda is less a mentor to Dorothy than an anima figure, a personification of the pure strength and goodness of Dorothy’s feminine Self. For all Billie Burke’s campiness, it’s still one of the most powerfully transcendent images of the feminine ever put on film. And please - give me a mentor who bestows ruby slippers!

Yoda, of course, and Ben Kenobi, also bring depth to the mentor roles by their utter contrast in characters and similarity in strength and spiritual power. And of course the feisty Zen charm of Yoda, the utter surprise of this tiny indomitable creature when he harrumphed his way onto the world stage, earned him a place on the Top Ten Mentors Of All Time list.

Both of these are direct descendents of Merlin, as are Dumbledore and Gandalf. I especially love T.H. White’s depiction of that classic wizard/mentor in The Once and Future King.

Hannibal Lecter, as I’ve discussed here before, is a delicious (sorry) take on the mentor character – a cannibalistic sociopath who turns out to be a damn fine teacher.

Besides being a delight for the pure badass sexual charge of Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, The Matrix is a great film to look at for a structure you often find in a mentor story: the mentor drives the action for a good long time, and when the protégé, in this case Neo, finally takes over the story to save his own mentor, we feel that action as a huge and exhilarating character growth.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Faun is a unique take on a mentor not just for that amazing creature created by the filmmakers, but also because we really don’t know if the young heroine should be trusting this bizarre and erratic being who is her guide into the underworld. This unease creates a lot of suspense and dread in this very emotional film.

While not as fantastical as the others on my list, Johnny from Dirty Dancing is a memorable mentor because he really is a great teacher, from a dancer’s perspective, and personally I particularly like the mentor/lover combination, the forbidden quality of that dynamic. That kind of story generally has a bittersweet end, and Dirty Dancing delivers the poignancy. Back to Merlin, again – I love his own backstory (or front story, as he lives life backward…) with Nimue, a protégé/lover/destroyer to him.

Mary Poppins is also a Mysterious Stranger character – the mentor who pops in to fix a situation (in this case a family), and pops out again. Everybody’s ideal of a teacher, who literally opens magical doors. As much as I love the druggie movie, the PL Travers books are must-reads for the sheer prickliness of Mary P. – Julie Andrews she is not, but the adventures are all the more fantastical and bizarre.

Now, remember – not all stories have mentors, it’s not a requirement of a great story. I should also note that often instead of a mentor you will see another classic character: The Expert From Afar. Both Hooper and Quint in Jaws fall into this category, in my opinion (as well as being Sheriff Brody’s chief Allies). They’re great characters, but they don’t take on the deeply personal and often spiritual dimension of teacher that a true mentor character tends to have.

The Expert From Afar, done badly, can take a turn into “Morris The Explainer” – a character (to compound the cliché, this is often a professor) who appears in one scene to take an exposition dump (okay, REALLY sorry, but if you think of it that way it might discourage you from ever doing it…) and promptly disappears into oblivion.

I really should do a list of bad examples for contrast, but maybe you all can just take care of that for me in the comments (she says hopefully…)

And there’s another character that shows up sometimes that I guess I’ll call the Oracle, or Sibyl – like the Oracle in the Matrix, or the little Indian woman who tells Jamal to “Win it for India” before the last round of the game in Slumdog Millionaire, or the three witches with their fateful prophecies in Macbeth. This is not to my mind the same as a mentor, who takes on the protégé as a much longer commitment (although I think the Oracle comes back to do something more like that in the Matrix sequels, but I wouldn’t swear to it…). But it’s a variation that can have a lot of dramatic power, done well.

So how about it? Share your list, and why you love your favorites. Or tell us about one of your own mentor characters, and how they came to be.

- Alex

And Happy Equinox, everyone! Use the Force...


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

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

More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

Rewriting: Stuck? Make a List

The Offer S/he Can't Refuse

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

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Offer S/he Can't Refuse

Okay, more examples to drive this “Make a List” concept home.

I saw Inception not too long ago and rewatched Die Hard this week. (Love that sweaty wifebeater look that Sly and Bruce made iconic, but wattage-wise neither of them holds a candle to Alan Rickman oozing his way around Fox Towers.)

And then I also rewatched Dreamscape. With a lot of wattage from a very young Dennis Quaid.

And I also – well, I wouldn’t call it reading, but I navigated my way around The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – the book.

Seeing those three action/suspense films and looking at the book all in proximity made me take note of an element that often comes in the first or usually second sequence, about the same time as the Inciting Incident, or Call To Adventure: “The Offer S/he Can’t Refuse.”

This would be a proposition – or often a threat - that “locks the hero/ine into the story” as they like to say in Hollywood.

In the first act of a story, as Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, translating him, have pointed out, we often encounter a Reluctant Hero/ine – not all that keen to go on the adventure of the story – and somewhere in the first act there will be a “Hero/ine Refuses the Call” scene.

So if the Hero/ine has Refused The Call, the villain, or mentor, or the person who hires or recruits her or him must make an Offer S/he Can’t Refuse.

Okay, so what was it for Inception? What was the offer Saito made Leo that made him take the job? It is completely obvious and on the nose, not to mention typical, so I’m not even going to tell you – I expect anyone who’s seen the movie to be able to answer instantly.

I don’t expect all of you to have seen Dreamscape recently, so I’ll tell you that one: Dennis Quaid initially Refuses The Call To Adventure offered by his old mentor, Max Von Sydow: to participate in the dream research experiment. But Dennis has been living off gambling earnings for the last few years and Max threatens him with a 5-year IRS audit unless he joins the research team. Cut to Dennis fuming in a lab chair with electrodes strapped to his head.

Those of you who have read Dragon Tattoo should be able to answer this one as well… unless of course you were skimming as liberally as I was, in which case you might have missed it. But I don’t know if this element was in the movie, so I’ll just tell you.

In the book, Blomkvist does initially refuse Henrick Vanger’s job offer/Call To Adventure (to write a history of the Vanger family and solve the murder of Harriet Vanger along the way), but then Vanger not only offers Blomkvist 5 million kroner, but virtually guarantees that Blomkvist can avoid prison and clear his name by promising him damning information about the industrialist who has sued him (IF Blomkvist does the job.) It’s a clear “Offer He Can’t Refuse”.

Now, there’s not always an Offer S/he Can’t Refuse – and you might get the idea from all of these examples in a row that it’s a somewhat tricky thing to do - because it can just seem corny or over the top. But even if there is not an OSCR – there will definitely be a Statement Of the Stakes (or a visual representation of the stakes that speaks louder than words, but it’s always best to spell these things out.).

In Die Hard – there’s not an Offer He Can’t Refuse, but the Stakes are made very clear - Bruce is going to do whatever it takes to save his wife from the terrorists. (This is staple of action movies – it’s the hero’s family in jeopardy. I think that’s cheap, not to mention a low form of morality on the Kohlberg scale (every writer should know the Kohlberg Stages Of Moral Development, btw) - but then I’m not an action story fan, either.

The family in jeopardy as the stakes is not always just cheap emotion, though - it can make a fascinating moral story, as we see in The Godfather. Michael is locked into the story when his father, Don Corleone, is nearly killed by a rival family and the family – and the family empire - is in jeopardy. The twist and terrible irony is – Michael is the least likely member of the family to risk himself to save his father and the family business, but he’s the one who steps up to the plate with a brilliant ruthlessness that proves him to be every bit his father’s son - “Famiglia” through and through.

So if you’re feeling like – or getting comments that – there’s not enough reason for your hero/ine to be involved in the actions of your story, take a look at some of your favorite films/books and see how those storytellers locked their hero/ines into the action. There will definitely be stakes – but there might also be an “Offer They Can’t Refuse.”

And my real point here is, this is just ONE example of how looking at a series of films and books in your genre all in a row will almost inevitably help you get unstuck on your own story problems.

You know the question of the day – any examples of Offers S/he Can’t Refuse for me? How about interesting Statements of Stakes? Can you identify exactly how your hero/ine is locked into your story? Is it believable, or could that element maybe use some work?

- Alex

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

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

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

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

More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

Rewriting: Stuck? Make a List” concept home.

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

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

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rewriting: Stuck? Make a list.

I am pretty sure there is no story problem that cannot be solved by stopping the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth, breathing a bit, and then sitting calmly down to make a list of examples of the way great storytellers (YOUR favorite storytellers) have dealt with the particular problem that you are tearing your hair out and grinding your teeth over.

I am talking about specific, personalized, Top Ten lists.

Can’t figure out a great opening? List your Top Ten favorite or most striking opening images.

Your villain isn’t villainous enough? Make a Top Ten Villains list, and take some time to really break down why those bad boys, or girls, turn YOU on. (More here….)

Your story isn’t hot enough? Have some real fun and list your top ten steamiest sex scenes – and/or best kisses. (Warning: try to have some loved one close at hand for later… better yet, make a night of it – rent the movies and... analyze... those particular scenes together. Don’t you just love research?)

Not enough suspense? List your top ten most thrilling suspense scenes (and this would be a great list for you to do anyway, because we'll be delving further into suspense this week.)

Top Ten Character Introductions (see here). Top Ten Climaxes (story climaxes, I mean now). Top Ten Heroes and Heroines. Top Ten Inciting Incidents/Calls to Adventure. Top Ten Crossing the Threshold/Into the Special World scenes. Top Ten Image Systems (more posts on this coming.)

Are you starting to get how incredibly useful - and fun – this can be?

Make the lists. You’ll be unstuck and on to a whole new level of writing before you know it.

- Alex

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

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

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

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

More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

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

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

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

Here’s another rewriting pass that you can do. We’ve talked about re-carding after you finish a draft and are about to start rewriting - sometimes it’s amazing how much your initial outline has changed. Re-carding will help you get a grasp on the story you’ve actually told (as opposed to the one you thought you were telling).

For example, the reveals that came out in the writing process might not be what you were expecting at all. Even the villain may have changed – I hear from authors all the time about that happening. Sometimes we hide that stuff from ourselves so that we can write from the protagonist’s perspective of innocence, and figure it out and be just as surprised as they are as they go along.

Well, paying close attention to your sequences – as they are really playing out, now - is another great way to get a grasp on the story that you’ve actually told, and also a fantastic trick of pacing.

I’ve never tried to explain this before, but I think the only way to get it is to actually do it. Read through the first sequence of your book (or script) and look at the beginning, middle and end of just that sequence. What is being set up in the sequence? Why are we drawn into it? What is the climax: what startling/interesting/appalling thing happens in it, what do we learn, that makes it imperative that we follow this story? Does it build to a climax? Is the climax genre-specific – an action scene in an action story, a spooky or scary scene in a horror story, a sexy scene in a romance, a puzzle in a mystery? How does whatever happens propel the action into the second sequence and make it vital that the protagonist make the next move?

Then work through the book doing that with every sequence. (I know, I know, I should just shut up already. But I swear, once you get over the cursing and throwing things, this REALLY WORKS).

I sometimes don’t get to this sequence pass until my fourth or fifth pass through (“pass through” is a much gentler term than “draft”, don’t you think? Less intimidating.). But it is always a sign that I’m on the home stretch. A sequence pass is a sure way to identify the places that just aren’t working yet. If you’re in the middle of reading a sequence and you suddenly find that you want to do anything but finish reading it – like, for example, clean the bathroom or do your taxes – then you know that sequence has a problem. And looking at the problem just in terms of what the SEQUENCE is doing, and how that sequence has to set up the next sequence, rather than in context of the whole book, will almost always give you the answer of what’s going wrong.

If nothing else, I really encourage you to look at the sequences just in terms of the sequence climaxes. This is an astonishing way to improve the pacing and suspense of a book or script (and I mean suspense in ANY genre – the “What happens next?” factor). You will often find that the real climax of a sequence is happening in the middle of a chapter, and a little rearranging (like ending the chapter on that climax) will give that scene a punch that was just lacking, before. The break of starting a new chapter will give the reader that breath to consider all the implications of what just happened.

Also always remember to consider the emotional impact that that new revelation has on your protagonist (and other characters). Once they’ve absorbed the shock of what they just learned, what are they going to have to do next? It's pretty embarrassing, really, how often I find that I have written blithely on without stopping to consider how a revelation would impact my protagonist, emotionally. Defining and bringing out those emotions not only makes the story deeper, it can lead to actions that make much more sense for the protagonist to be taking next.

Also, steal the screenwriting trick of a BIG SET CHANGE or BIG LOCATION CHANGE between sequences. You don't literally have to change locations, always, but thinking about the beginning of the next sequence as a set change or a location change and then writing it that way will propel your reader or audience into the next sequence, making them feel like the story has moved to a whole new level. How can you visually and thematically show this change? (Look at what Harry Potter and Raiders of the Lost Ark do with changing locations - even time, place, weather, season - to move into a new sequence...)

And of course, always remind yourself what genre you’re working in and ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to make that climax more comedic, more suspenseful, more spine-tingling, more romantic - so you’re always delivering on the promise of your genre.

I know this is abstract, but is it making any sense at all?

- 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

More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

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