Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Key Story Elements: Love and Gladiators

Those of you who have been reading my books and this blog for a while know that I am always, always harping on – I mean stressing – the usefulness of working with a master list, a top ten (or more) list of your favorite movies and books in the genre that you’re writing,

In fact, the bottom line of the blog, the STFA books, and the workshops is just that: Take ten movies and books that you love in the genre(s) you’re writing in and break down what those storytellers are doing to create the experience of those stories.

The story structure elements I’ve broken down here and here are applicable to any genre.

But there are other story elements that are just as important that are specific to whatever genre or genres you’re writing in, and also elements that are specific to the KIND of story you’re writing.

I really had that driven home for me as I was writing Writing Love (Screenwriting Tricks II), because I did exactly that: to write the book I made a master list of ten love stories (in this case not always my favorites, because I wanted to have a broad range of romantic stories) and broke them down in depth to find the key story elements specific to that umbrella genre. And oh, man, did it turn the lights on for me.

Just a few of the elements I found that are used over and over that I never really noticed before: Handcuff the Couple Together, Fate (or the Weather) Intervenes, Mistaken Identity or False Identity, Getting to Know You, The Couple Forced to Share a Room (or Bed), The Bet, The Magical Day (Year, Place, Hour), The Dance, Why Them?, Falling in Love with the Family, Oops Wrong Brother (or Wrong Sister), Ghosts of Girlfriends/Boyfriends Past, The Kiss, The Awful Truth....

I could go on and on. Well, actually I do, in the book - that’s sort of the point.

But after writing that book I am finding that I am much more attuned to key story elements - not just in romantic comedy or romantic suspence, but in any genre I happen to be looking at.

I have been rewatching Gladiator so I can eventually do a story breakdown of it (I know, I know, some of you just got really excited but I have a book due this month, so I’m not promising anything anytime soon. I don’t even have time to write THIS blog.).

Gladiator does all manner of things excellently, and it’s really brilliant in that first battle sequence – watch and see how well it does a number of things that are specific to and EXPECTED by the audience of a war story.

- First of all, it starts with an epic and spectacular battle SETPIECE, which gives you all the glory (for those who call it that) and gruesomeness of war. It tells the audience: Oh yeah, you’re going to get what you want out of this puppy, just sit back and let us deliver. SPECTACLE is one of the key elements of an epic is and you need it in a majority of your setpieces.

- The sequence focuses on the internal life of the hero first, with that odd and lyrical and bittersweet vision (the OPENING IMAGE) that Maximus has right up front. We know absolutely this is the hero and that there’s more to him than being a warrior. CREATING A MYSTERY ABOUT YOUR PROTAGONIST from the beginning pulls your audience or reader into the story.

- The sequence has a RALLYING SPEECH by Maximus to his men. This is a huge tradition of war stories - look at Shakespeare’s Henry V, the St. Crispin Day speech for one of the most famous and emulated examples.

Here's the Kenneth Branagh version.

The rallying speech is almost an obligatory element in a war story (although the deliberate absence of one could be a powerful statement, too). But it’s also an element that you can steal and use to great effect in different genres, a con story or a heist story or a detective story.

- It has a BATTLE CRY as well, a variation on a tag line: “At my signal, unleash hell.” And a troop motto that also serves as a tag line: “Strength and honor.”

- It has a clear BATTLE PLAN. It’s often most effective to spell the plan out before the troops go into battle, so we know what we’re looking at, but in the hands of a master director like Ridley Scott the battle plan is clear in the action (even for someone like me who has to watch a scene like this from under my chair)”. First, Maximus’s forces use flaming arrows and machines to attack from a distance and kill a great number of the barbarians horribly, right at the beginning. Then the troops move slowly forward in a single unit, protecting themselves from enemy arrows in the front and top by using their huge shields as a wall. And then once a great number of the enemy have been slain or maimed and they are closer, they finish the greatly reduced numbers of them off in hand-to-hand combat.

A clear BATTLE PLAN is a must for every fight sequence in a war story, but is incredibly useful in other genres too, from comedy (THE HANGOVER – figure out fron the clues in that trashed room what happened last night and where the groom is) to romantic comedy (MEAN GIRLS – the strategy against the Plastics) to capers (INCEPTION: think of how many times they spelled out that plan, with scale models to demonstrate).

- We are also emotionally manipulated into CARING ABOUT THE OUTCOME of the battle in several ways, but particularly the use of the dog in the battle, which makes the action excruciating (we are much more apt to care about an animal than a person) and also linking Maximus with the dog defines qualities of Maximus’s character (he is loyal and true), and makes us care more about Maxiums surviving the battle, by associating him emotionally with the dog.

These are just a handful of the war story story elements that just that one sequence in this film does well (and I’ll go into more when I get around to the full breakdown).

Well, what I’m suggesting is that if you’re writing a war story or a war epic, that you make a list of ten of those stories and watch or read them in a row, looking for those common and pivotal elements that are specific and expected in that genre. I can do this for you until the end of time and it will never be as effective as you doing it for yourself.

And that holds for any genre of story that you’re writing.

By the way, I’m just making up a lot of those names for those elements, and I’m encouraging you to do the same. It’s more fun and personal that way, and it will define elements you particularly love and hate. Or love to hate. Make yourself a glossary for your structure notebook, and keep adding examples to it as you see them. I’m not kidding, it really works.

You can start right now, in fact. What are some specific genre elements you’ve noticed – in any genre?

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

Friday, August 12, 2011

Zener cards, ESP, parapsychology, and THE UNSEEN

Out now in the UK: The Unseen

Some of you asked to hear more about my research for The Unseen. You know when people ask you how long it takes you to write a book? Well, I think this book is a particularly great example of how long it REALLY takes to write a book.

The Unseen is a book that has been percolating for a long, long, LONG time.

Since my childhood, really.

I’m sure a good number of you recognize these:

The Zener ESP cards.

I don’t know about you, but just the sight of those images gives me a thrill. Maybe I mean, chill… because it’s all about the unknown. Do we have that sixth sense, the freaking power of extra-sensory perception, or do we not?

Well, parapsychologist Dr. J.B. Rhine said we do. All of us. And in the late 1920’s, on through the 1960’s, he used the brand-new science of statistics to prove it, in controlled laboratory experiments that made him a household name.

I have no idea how I first came to hear about this, but then again, I grew up in California, specifically, Berkeley - and astrology and Tarot and meditation and anything groovy and psychic was just part of everyday life.

And it was very, very early that I first heard of Dr. Rhine and the ESP tests. In fact, my sister the artist made a set of her own Zener cards when we were in just fourth or fifth grade. I swear, it was in the air.

Here’s the principle: take a pack of twenty-five Zener cards, five sets of five simple symbols: a circle, a square, a cross, a star, and two wavy lines, like water. Two subjects sit on opposite sides of a black screen, unable to see each other, and one subject, the Sender, takes the pack of ESP cards and looks at each card, one at a time, while the Receiver sorts another set of cards into appropriate boxes, depending on what card s/he thinks the Sender is holding and communicating.

Pure chance is twenty percent, or five cards right out of a deck. Because if you have five cards, chance dictates that you would guess right 20 percent of the time.

So anyone who scores significantly more than 20 percent is demonstrating some ESP ability. (The Rhine lab generally used 5 sets of cards for each test run).

You can try it online at any number of places, including here.

And seriously, don’t we all – or haven’t we all at some point – think we have some of that? It’s kind of seductive, isn’t it?

Now, what Dr. Rhine was doing with these Zener cards was truly revolutionary. By the 1920’s the whole world, pretty much, was obsessed with the occult and spiritualism, especially the idea of life after death and the concept of being able to connect with dead loved ones on whatever plane they were now inhabiting.

There were many factors that contributed to this obsession, but two in particular:

1. Darwin’s publication of THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, in 1859, which began a worldwide anxiety about whether there was any afterlife at all… and a fanatic desire to prove there was… especially among some scientists, interestingly enough.


2. The Great War, or as we know it now, WWI, in which so many people died so quickly that traumatized relatives were desperate to contact their lost – children, to be blunt - infants, as in “infantry”, underage cannon fodder – and have some hope that they were not lost for eternity.

The Great War really kicked spiritualism into high gear.

This was the age of “mediums”, most of whom were total frauds, con artists who used parlor magician tricks to dupe grieving relatives into believing their lost loved ones were coming back to give them messages – for a hefty price.

Well, (after a brief stint in botany and an abrupt switch to psychology) Dr. J.B. Rhine began his career debunking fraudulent mediums. His commitment to the truth won him a reputation for scientific integrity and a position at the newly established parapsychology lab at Duke University in North Carolina, the first ever in the U.S., where Rhine and his mentor, William McDougall, embarked on a decades-long quest to use the brand-new science of statistics and probability to test the occurrence of psychic phenomena such as ESP and psychokinesis (the movement of objects with the mind).

Using Zener cards and automated dice-throwing machines, Rhine tested thousands of students under laboratory conditions, and by applying the science of statistics to the results, came to believe that ESP actually does occur.

Rhine’s wife and colleague, Dr. Louisa Rhine, conducted her own parallel study, in which she gathered thousands of accounts from all over the world of psychic occurrences and followed up with interviews, from which she isolated several extremely common recurring patterns of psychic experiences, such as:

Crisis apparitions: in which a loved one appears to another loved one at a moment of extreme trauma or death.

Precognitive dreams
: dreaming a future event.

Visitations in dreams: a dead loved one coming to a loved one in her or his sleep to impart some crucial bit of information.

Sympathetic pain: in which a loved one feels pain in a limb or elsewhere in the body when another loved one is injured in that place (often this is birth pains that a female relative will experience when a daughter or other female relative goes into labor).

The Rhines’ daughter, psychologist Sally Rhine Feather, has written a fascinating book on the above called THE GIFT, which was extremely helpful in my research for The Unseen.

Now, most people who read about the paranormal and parapsychology, even casually, are aware of Dr. Rhine and his ESP research. But most people are not as aware that researchers in the Duke lab also did field investigations of poltergeists, starting in the late 50’s and early sixties.


I don’t know about you, but that just rocks my world. What ARE they? Are they the projected repressed sex energy of frustrated adolescents? Are they ghosts? Are they some other kind of extra-dimensional entity? Is it all just a fraud, a fad, perpetrated by people who wanted media attention before the advent of reality TV?

So I’ve always wanted to so something, sometime, about the whole Rhine/Duke/ESP/poltergeist thing.

And then a few years ago a friend of mine handed me a column torn out of the newspaper about a lecture on the Duke campus called: “Secrets of the Rhine Parapsychology Lab” and said, “You should go to that.” Because he knows I like that kind of thing, but he had no idea that I’ve been obsessed with Rhine since I was – seven, eight, whatever.

And I did go to the lecture, and I was stupefied to learn that after the parapsychology lab officially closed in 1965, when Dr. Rhine reached the mandatory age of retirement, seven hundred boxes of original research files were sealed and shut up in the basement of the graduate library, and had only just been opened to the public again.

Is that a story or what?

All those questions that instantly spring to mind. Why did the lab close, really? (Well, in truth, Dr. Rhine retired. But what if…) Why were the files sealed? Was someone trying to hide something? And most importantly - What the HELL is in those boxes? SEVEN HUNDRED boxes?

And that's when I knew I had a story.

But it all started with a childhood obsession and years of random research on the subject that suddenly caught fire with some specific field research and one choice factoid.

So the lesson here, I think, is –

Forage widely. If a lecture at a library or university sounds intriguing, take a chance and go. You might get a whole book handed to you. And just always be adding to those open files in your head of potential projects. Read voraciously on the subjects that interest you. All this random research does eventually achieve critical mass, and suddenly you have a book.

We are so lucky as writers that our JOB is to pursue the things we’re passionate about. Take advantage and enjoy the hell out of it.

So for those of you who find the above intriguing, and/or who like your mysteries with a touch of the real-life uncanny, you can get The Unseen here:

- Amazon UK

- Amazon US

- Read an excerpt

And if you have no money at all, don’t despair, because first, you’re not alone, as I think we’re all painfully aware these days…

And second, we all still have the great gift of our public libraries. Click through this link right now and reserve The Unseen from your local library. (enter your zip to find all the libraries near you.) If they don’t have it yet, please please please - request it. Libraries have suffered cutbacks just like the rest of the known universe, but before the crash, the formula was that a library would buy a new hardcover for every five patrons who requested the book. So that is some truly powerful support you can give to your favorite authors: request a book, and that’s one-fifth of a hardcover sale, at no cost to you. Believe me, it really, really helps. (In fact, why not check out books by ten of your favorite authors every time you go to the library? I do, every single time. And I’m at the library A LOT.)

And now it’s your turn: have you ever experienced a crisis apparition, a precognitive dream or visitation, or sympathetic pains? Or do you know anyone who has? Do you believe these things happen?

Or tell us about a project that caught fire with the perfect research factoid. Or about a subject you wish you could find a thriller or mystery about.

- Alex



Charlotte Examiner review

Dark Scribe magazine review

Genre Reviews review

Monday, August 08, 2011

THE UNSEEN - out in the UK today!

Amazing, ANOTHER book release! My poltergeist thriller The Unseen comes out in the UK today, with probably my favorite cover ever. It actually gave me a bad nightmare, and I almost never have nightmares.

The Unseen is a spooky thriller that crosses mystery and the supernatural, with some romance, too, this time. Yes, my genre identity issues are alive and well in this one.

The story is based on the real-life, world-famous ESP experiments conducted by Dr. J.B. Rhine at the Duke University parapsychology lab: the first dedicated parapsychology lab in the U.S., founded in the late 1920’s.

Most people are aware of Dr. Rhine’s ESP studies with Zener cards.

Not so many people know that in the 1960’s Duke researchers also conducted field studies of poltergeists.

Poltergeists! I've always been fascinated by them. I mean, what even are they?

In my fictional story, a young psychology professor from California experiences a precognitive dream that shatters her engagement and changes her life forever. Determined to make a fresh start,, she decides to take a professorship in the Duke psychology department, and soon becomes obsessed with the long-sealed files of the parapsychology lab, which attempted to prove whether ESP really exists.

Along with a charismatic male colleague, she discovers a file on a controversial poltergeist experiment which may have been the cause of the lab’s closing. The two professors team up to take two psychically gifted students into an abandoned Southern mansion to replicate the experiment.

What they don't know is that the entire original research team ended up insane… or dead.

This story percolated in me for a long time (I've been pretty much obsessed with the idea of ESP testing since I was seven or eight years old), and I was able to do some very cool research for this one, including ghost hunts and a stay in a seriously haunted mansion that I used as the model for my poltergeist house. I'm going to talk about all of that more this week... in the meantime you can read an excerpt on my website, or just order it from Amazon UK.


"Sokoloff keeps her story enticingly ambiguous, never clarifying until the climax whether the unfolding weirdness might be the result of the investigators' psychic sensitivities or the mischievous handiwork of a human villain."

- Publisher's Weekly


"This spine-tingling story has every indication of becoming a horror classic... a chillingly dark look into the unknown."

- Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars


"Alexandra Sokoloff takes the horror genre to new heights."

- Charlotte Examiner


"Sokoloff has provided a new and interesting twist to the genre, one that will stay with the reader long after the book has been read… the hair on the back of my neck may never lie down."

"One of the better books I've read this year... sure to please readers with the most discerning taste."

- Fear Zone