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.

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- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE


Rhonda Lane said...

I told my non-writer husband about Pope in the Pool when "Game of Thrones" was on.

The show so often delivered exposition during some variation of a sex scene that GOT was famous for "sexposition."

Mike Keyton said...

Alexandra, your blog is a treasure trove. Thank you.

Veronica Rossi said...

Alex, you are amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I love this blog.

Anonymous said...

I have bought both of your writing books. I thank you for sharing what you know.