Monday, October 31, 2011

Writing the Dark

I know, we're in the middle of the story elements for Nano, but it's HALLOWEEN, people!

I love - not just the day. October is my favorite month of the year. Always has been – the wind, the lengthening shadows, that subtle chill in the air. I guess that speaks to an early taste for the dark. Is that nature or nurture, I wonder?

I suspect that pretty much every single darker writer of us has at some point gotten the question: “What’s a nice girl/boy like you doing writing stuff like THAT?”

Well, first of all, “nice”? Um… responsible, sure. Compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful. Kind, even. But “nice” isn’t the first word that comes to my mind.
Still, much as I may disagree with the word choice, I know what these nice people are trying to ask.

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm big on identifying THEMES in your work. This is hard to escape when you write horror and crime fiction and are always being asked what life incidents led you to choose this dark genre of ours (some of us darker than others….).

For instance, I realized after seeing the movie ZODIAC that the Zodiac killer was a huge early – influence? Inspiration? Impression? What I mean is, I grew up in California and even years after this guy had dropped off the map, we kids were scaring ourselves senseless by telling ourselves Zodiac stories around the fire at Girl Scout camp. He was our Boogey Man.

A lot of the blame I can put squarely on my father. Dad loved horror and suspense -- books, movies, plays, anything – the house was full of mystery and horror and sci-fi classics, so early on I developed a taste for being scared senseless – possibly in self-defense. Also, Dad grew up in Mexico and that country lives with spirits in a much different way than we do (don’t you just love this month for all of the Dia de Los Muertos art?) Dad had a passel of terrifyingly realistic ghost stories that he’d pull out around the campfire to scare us with. Come to think of it, I had a lot of campfires in my childhood…

Also, since Dad was a scientist and Russian, and attended a lot of scientific conferences that got turned into family road trips, I have early memories of us in the family station wagon being followed by the CIA because, you know, Russians were out to destroy the world at the time. All that ever happened was that they followed us around but naturally I’d spice the whole thing up in my imagination – my first attempts at thrillers.

It’s also only recently occurred to me that perhaps I write ghosts because I went to a haunted high school – specifically, the grand and decrepit old auditorium where I spent most of my high school, rehearsing choir programs and plays, was supposedly haunted by a girl named Vicki who died the night of her prom back in the 20’s. Yes, yes, I know that’s a classic urban legend, but we all believed in Vicki, and there were parts of that auditorium where you just didn’t want to go, alone or with others. Cold spots. Strange noises. Disappearing props.

(But somehow it never once crossed my mind while I was writing THE HARROWING that I was writing about a haunted school because I went to a haunted school. And THE SPACE BETWEEN features a school haunted in an entirely different way.).

Also when I was a teenager I experimented with the paranormal, as teenagers do - ESP, dream interpretation, Tarot, spending the night in graveyards, all that fun stuff (that shows up in everything that I write: And you know, there's a lot more in heaven and earth, Horatio! It never ceases to fascinate me.

I have to admit, though - to me those otherworldly experiences are never as horrifying as the evil that people can do. From the time I was a very young child I was very sensitive to the fact that there's a lot of weirdness out there, and a lot of danger from unstable people. My family did quite a bit of traveling, so along with all the good stuff - great art, ancient cultures, different mores and political beliefs - I was exposed to disturbing images and situations: poverty, desperation, oppression, madness.

I had some pretty scary experiences early on in life that made me convinced that there is actual evil out there – in the form of people who have something terribly wrong with them, who actively want to hurt and destroy. A child molester who’d been trolling the streets around my elementary school tried to grab me one afternoon when I was walking home from school. He was a small and creepy man, and even though I didn’t have any concrete sense of what child molesting was at the time, I knew there was something wrong and dangerous about him and I ran. That was my first full-on experience of what evil looks and feels like, though certainly not my last - and it’s not something you forget or let go.

And I had friends, as we all do, who were not so lucky about escaping predators, and I’ve taught abused kids in the Los Angeles juvenile court system, and my anger about what I’ve seen has fueled a lot of my writing.

There’s more, of course, and once you start thinking of influences, it’s pretty fascinating how much you uncover about your motivations.

But the great, cathartic thing for me about good mysteries, thrillers, horror, suspense - is that you can work through those issues of good and evil. You can walk vicariously into those perilous situations and face your fears and - sometimes - triumph.

So, all, I wondered - what kinds of experiences from real life have made the dark writers of you the dark, twisted souls you are? And for the readers of you – why do you think you seek out this dark, twisted genre?

And it you AREN'T one of those darker souls, have you spent some time thinking about the themes of your work and why you write what you do?

As it's Halloween, there are treats. I just got my author copies of the UK version of my poltergeist thriller, THE UNSEEN, with this fabulous cover (It actually gave me a bad nightmare, and I almost never have nightmares.)

And in anticipation of the e book release, I'll also give away a signed copy of THE HARROWING to a random commenter. Yes, the comment can be a question about Nano!

Happy Halloween, everyone!

- Alex

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nanowrimo: Elements of Act Two, Part 2


All of the first half of the second act – that’s p. 30-60 in a script, p. 100 to p. 200 in a 400-page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. So the Midpoint occurs at about one hour into a movie, and at about page 200 in a book.

The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film: a major shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 minutes, not sixty years!).
The Midpoint is also often called the MOMENT OF COMMITMENT or the POINT OF NO RETURN or NO TURNING BACK: the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action.

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we will discuss further in the chapter on Creating Suspense (Chapter 31). A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The Midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and NEW PLAN of attack. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

In Sense and Sensibility, the Midpoint is the emotionally wrenching scene in which Lucy Steele reveals to Elinor that she has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for five years. We are so committed to Edward and Elinor’s love that we are as devastated as Elinor is, and just as shocked that Edward would have lied to her. The Midpoint is even more wrenching because Elinor’s sister Marianne has also just been abandoned by her love interest. It’s a double-punch to the gut.

In Notting Hill, Julia Roberts has asked Hugh Grant up to her hotel suite for the first time, and Hugh walks in to find that Julia’s movie star boyfriend, Alec Baldwin, whom Hugh knew nothing about, is already there with her. We know that Hugh’s GHOST is that his ex-wife left him for a man who looked just like Harrison Ford (Alec is pretty close!), and to add to this blow, Alec mistakes Hugh for a room-service waiter and tips him, asking him to clean up while he takes Julia into the bedroom. Total emotional annihilation.

In a romance, the Midpoint is very often sexual or emotional. But the Midpoint can often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home.

Note that the Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene; it can be a double punch as I just pointed out about Sense And Sensibility, and it can also be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal, a cliffhanger – all or any combination of the above.

One of the great Midpoints in theater and film is in My Fair Lady. Talk about a double punch! There is not one iconic song at the Midpoint curtain, but two: first “The Rain In Spain”, in which Eliza finally starts to speak with perfect diction, and Professor Higgins, the Colonel, and Eliza celebrate with wild and joyous dancing: a moment of triumph. Then when the housekeeper takes Eliza upstairs to bed, Higgins privately tells the Colonel that she’s ready: they can test her out in public. He intends to take her to an Embassy ball and pass her off as a lady to win his bet with the Colonel, which Eliza knows nothing about. Meanwhile upstairs, giddy with happiness, Eliza sings “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and we realize she has fallen in love with the Professor.
Not just two of the greatest songs of the musical theater in a row, but all of this SETUP, big HOPE, FEAR, and STAKES. Eliza is in love with Higgins and he’s just using her for a bet. There’s a huge TEST coming up at this ball, and we saw excitable Eliza fail miserably in her first public test at the Ascot races. There’s a penalty of prison for impersonating a lady, so there are not just the emotional stakes of a possible broken heart, but possible prison time.

Do you think anyone was not going to come back into the theater to see what happens at that ball?

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

But a Midpoint doesn’t have to be a huge action scene. Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the Midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

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

(I will concede that in Raiders, you could call the Midpoint a two-parter: Indy’s discovery that Marion is still alive is a big twist. But personally I think that scene is part of the next sequence).

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

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

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

The Midpoint often LOCKS THE HERO/INE INTO A COURSE OF ACTION, or sometimes, physically locks the hero/ine into a location.

A great recent example is Inception: at the Midpoint, there’s a big action sequence, ending in a gun battle in which one of the allies, Saito (who hired the team to break into this dream) is badly wounded, and the team discovers that they can’t get out of the dream while Saito is unconscious. They’re stuck, perhaps forever, which forces them to devise a new PLAN.

There’s a not-so recent movie called Ghost Ship, about a salvage crew investigating a derelict ocean liner which has mysteriously appeared out in the middle of the Bering Straight, after being lost without a trace for forty years. At the Midpoint, the salvage crew’s own boat mysteriously catches on fire and sinks (taking one of the crew with it), forcing the entire crew to board the haunted ocean liner. They are physically locked into the situation, now, and their original PLAN – to tow the ocean liner back to shore – must change; they now have to repair the ocean liner and sail her out of the Strait. This development also solves the perennial problem of haunted house – or haunted ship – stories: “Why don’t the characters just leave?”

It’s a great Midpoint scene for all of the above reasons, plus it’s a great visual and action setpiece: the explosion of the salvage boat, the rescue (and loss) of crew members, and the suspense of who will get out of the water and on to the ocean liner alive.


The game-changing action of the Midpoint will very often cause the hero/ine to have to recalibrate the PLAN.

In Sense And Sensibility, the PLAN was for Elinor and Marianne to marry well (hopefully for love), and secure their family’s future. At the Midpoint, their initial hopes for marriage are crushed, and immediately afterward the Mentor character, Mrs. Jennings, proposes a NEW PLAN: to take the sisters to London for “the Season”, where she is sure she can marry them off.

In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy’s PLAN is to continue pretending to be Peter’s fiancĂ©e to keep his family happy while he’s in the coma (partly to keep his grandmother from having a heart attack). At the Midpoint, Peter wakes from the coma, and now Lucy plans to confess the ruse to the family (but it’s complicated…)

As always, however the hero/ine decides to change the plan, it’s useful to state it aloud.


Now the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, and there may also have been a big failure at the Midpoint, so it’s time for desperate measures.

In fact, I’ve noticed that in a lot of stories, the hero/ine tends to be winning throughout Act II, part 1, but after the Midpoint, in Act II, part 2, the hero/ine suddenly starts to lose, and lose big.

Losing leads to escalating actions by the hero/ine, and these escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: The hero/ine actually starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive, or downright immoral. You see Bill Murray start to self-destruct and lash out at everyone around him in Act II:2 of Groundhog Day after Andie MacDowell rejects him (and rejects him again, and again, and again!) at the Midpoint.

And often the hero/ine will LOSE SUPPORT FROM KEY ALLIES when s/he begins to cross the line.


In Act II:2, the antagonist is escalating his or her actions as well – because of course, s/he hasn’t won yet, either, and is getting frustrated, and probably tired. The attacks are more brutal, and often more lethal. In suspense, very often the most intense action sequences happen during this third quarter, and this is another place that the hero/ine’s ally or allies may be killed. In a romantic comedy, this is where everything starts to spiral out of control (Tootsie is a great example, as we see Michael’s double life start to run him ragged).


This third quarter of your story is almost certainly going to contain a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, also known as ALL IS LOST, or APPARENT DEFEAT, or THE BLACK MOMENT, or VISIT TO DEATH (which may also be a separate scene). The detective is thrown off the case, the crucial lawsuit is dismissed, a key witness is killed, an ally walks out. In The Wizard of Oz it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene, and often it’s because a loved one has actually died.

Yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.

In lighter romance, the All Is Lost Scene is very, very often a scene I call THE LOVER MAKES A STAND. In this scene the Lover, the one who loves most deeply, basically says to the Loved One: “I’m not going to take your bullshit any more. Make up your mind. Either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.”

In It’s Complicated: Steve Martin tells Meryl Streep that she’s not done with Alec yet, and Steve doesn’t want to see her while she’s still emotionally involved with him. In Notting Hill: Hugh Grant tells Julia Roberts in the bookstore that between her “foul temper” and his far less experienced heart, he doesn’t think he would recover from being discarded again, and turns down her offer to date. In When Harry Met Sally, Sally refuses Harry’s offer to go to the New Year’s party as a friendly date: “I’m not your consolation prize, Harry.”

In all of the above scenes, the Lover’s Stand forces the Loved One to step up and commit just as deeply as the Lover is committed. But it seems that very, very, very often, it’s one character, the Lover, who has to force the issue.

Also in romance, the All Is Lost moment is often the scene in which the WRONG PERSON PROPOSES (or the hero/ine proposes to the wrong person!) and All Is Lost because the hero/ine, for whatever reason, foolishly accepts.

This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act (either right before it or right after it) because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end. In fact, the All Is Lost Moment is so big it often serves as the Act II Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel).

But the Act Two Climax can also be a final revelation before the end game.

In suspense, it’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or the main enemy, and it also often happens also that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Chief Renault in Casablanca, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick). This device can work just as well in romance, as we see in New In Town, when Lucy realizes her real antagonists are the executives of her own company, who are about to close the factory that Lucy has come to love. This is quickly followed by a great revelation that Lucy might be able to save the factory, and all the workers’ jobs, by using her ally Blanche’s secret tapioca recipe. And shortly after that, her biggest antagonist, the factory foreman, becomes her biggest ally in revamping the factory.

The second act climax is another place that you might start a TICKING CLOCK (although a clock can begin at virtually any time in a story).

Also usually at the climax of Act Two, the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story, that was asked in the first act, is answered. And here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the answer is often: No.

In The Proposal, the Central Question is: “Will Margaret and Andrew be able to successfully fake a marriage and pass the INS test on Monday?” But at the Act II Climax, as Margaret prepares to walk down the aisle in front of Andrew’s family, she realizes she can’t go through with it. Andrew deserves more than a fake marriage. She confesses the ruse, apologizes to the family, and walks out on the wedding to surrender herself to the INS.

This is a good example of how the hero/ine is often pursuing the wrong goal, and has to give up on what s/he thought she wanted in order to get what she truly needs. If you put that moment at the Act Two Climax, it plays as a TWIST, which is always a great thing in storytelling.

There’s one more general point I’d like to make about Act II, Part 2. In shorter films and stories, this is the section that is most often shortened and compressed. There’s a big buildup in Act II, Part 1, and then after the Midpoint reversal, a quick slide into chaos and an All Is Lost moment in Act II, Part 2. And very often romances are shorter stories than other genres, and from what I’ve seen, it definitely holds true that Act II:2 is the section that is most often shortened.

Just something to keep in mind!

Next, Act Three – the FINAL BATTLE and RESOLUTION.

- Alex

And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.


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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- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nanowrimo: Elements of Act Two, Part 1

                             Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

Act Two is summed up by the greats such as, like, you know, Aristotle — as “Rising Tension” or “Progressive Complications.” Or in the classic screenwriting formula: Act One is “Get the Hero Up a Tree,” and Act Two is “Throw Rocks at Him.” (And for the impatient out there, I’ll reveal that Act Three is “Get Him Down.”)

All true enough, but a tad vague for my taste.

Here’s the thing. The first half of Act Two, which we will call Act II, Part 1 (30-60 minutes in a film, pages 100-200 in a book), is the most variable of all the acts. I can give you very specific story elements, even give them to you in a relative order, for every other part of a story, but Act II:1 can be maddening. That is, I think, because what happens in Act II:1 is totally dependent on what KIND of story you’re telling. Is it a mystery, a fairy tale, a reluctant witness story, a mistaken identity story, a mythic journey, an epic, a forbidden love story, a Chosen One story, a magical day story, several of the above, or something else entirely?

Each one of those story types has its own particular structure and story elements besides the general key story structure elements we’ve been talking about, and Act II:1 is where you most often see those specific story elements come into play.

Here are the general story elements that you will usually find in Act II, Part 1, no matter what genre or story pattern you’re working with.

The beginning of the second act of a book or film (30 minutes or 30 script pages into a film, 100 or so pages into a book) — can often be summed up as INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD or CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.

We’ve met the hero/ine in their ORDINARY WORLD, and we know something’s missing for them, even if they’re not quite sure what, themselves. They’ve received a CALL TO ADVENTURE, and may have resisted it. But now it’s time for them to leave their comfort zone and go off into the SPECIAL WORLD to go after their heart’s desire.

This step might come in the first act, or once in a while somewhat later in the second act, but it’s generally the end or beginning of a sequence: landing in Alaska in The Proposal; flying down to Cartagena in Romancing the Stone; flying to Rio in Notorious; landing in wintry New Ulm in New in Town. As you can see from those examples, it’s often the beginning of an actual, physical journey, but the Special World can be much closer to home than that. In Meet the Parents it’s the in-laws’ house; in While You Were Sleeping it’s the warm, noisy, rambling Callaghan house; in Four Weddings and a Funeral it’s a wedding (really, a whole season of weddings!). Entering the Special World is a huge moment and deserves special weight.

Dorothy opening the door of her black and white house and stepping into Technicolor Oz is one of the most famous and graphic filmic examples … Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole is a famous literary example. The passageway to the special world might be particularly unique, like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; that between-the-numbers subway platform in the Harry Potter series; Alice again, going Through the Looking Glass; the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz; the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) in The Matrix; the tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time; the umbrella Mary Poppins uses to travel with (and indeed, you can just study the Mary Poppins books for all kinds of great examples of passageways between worlds). You may not be writing a fantasy, but it’s still useful to look at more colorful examples of the INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD moment to inspire you to capture that feeling of an adventure beginning, even in a much more realistic story.

There is often a character who serves the archetypal function of a THRESHOLD GUARDIAN or GUARDIAN AT THE GATE, who gives the hero/ine trouble or a warning at this moment of entry; it’s a much-used but often powerfully effective suspense technique that always gets the pulse racing just a little faster, which is pretty much the point of suspense. At the very least a guardian at the gate will give the hero/ine conflict in a scene.

(While we’re on the subject, I highly recommend (again) Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and John Truby’s Anatomy of Story for brilliant in-depth discussions on archetypal characters such as the Herald, Mentor, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, and Trickster/Fool.)

If this has not already happened in Act One, the very early in the second act, the Hero/ine must formulate and state the PLAN. To review: we know the hero/ine’s GOAL or OUTER DESIRE by now (or if we don’t, we need to hear it, specifically). And now we need to know how the hero/ine intends to go about getting that goal. It needs to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. “Dorothy’s PLAN is to journey to the Emerald City to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz to send her home to Kansas.” “Margaret and Andrew’s PLAN is to pretend they’re married and learn everything they can about each other during the weekend with Andrew’s family so they can pass the INS marriage test on Monday.” “Anna’s PLAN is to pay Declan to get her across Ireland to Dublin in time for her to propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day.”

Notice in the above examples that when I spell out the PLAN, I am also summing up the CENTRAL ACTION of each story: journey to Oz, pretend to be married, get across Ireland. This is so key to storytelling I wish I could somehow physically implant it in the brain of everyone who reads this book. Writers so often have no idea what the Central Action of their story is, or the Plan, and it’s the lack of these two things that is almost always where a story falls flat.

As we’ve already discussed, it’s human nature to expend the least amount of energy to get what we want. So the hero/ine’s Plan will change, constantly — as s/he first takes the absolute minimal steps to achieve her or his goal, and that minimal effort inevitably fails. So then, often reluctantly, the hero/ine has to ESCALATE (or CHANGE) THE PLAN.

Also throughout the second act, the antagonist has his or her own goal and plan, which is in direct conflict or competition with the hero/ine’s goal. We may actually see the forces of evil plotting their plots (John Grisham does this brilliantly in The Firm), or we may only see the effect of the antagonist’s plot in the continual thwarting of the hero/ine’s plans. Both techniques are effective.

This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

(I’m giving that its own, bold line to make sure it sinks in.)

The hero/ine’s plans should almost always be stated (although something might be held back even from the reader/audience, as in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca — that Bogey was a sly one). The antagonist’s plans might be clearly stated or kept hidden — but the effect of his/her/their plotting should be evident. It’s good storytelling if we, the reader or audience, are able to look back on the story at the end and understand how the hero/ine’s failures were a direct result of the antagonist’s scheming.

Another important storytelling and suspense technique (and I mean suspense as it plays out in any genre, not just thrillers) is KEEPING THE HERO/INE AND ANTAGONIST IN CLOSE PROXIMITY. Think of it as a chess game: the players are in a very small, confined space, and always passing within inches of each other, whether or not they’re aware of it. They should cross paths often, even if it’s not until the end until the hero/ine and the audience understand that the antagonist has been there in the shadows all along. In Romancing the Stone, a romantic comedy/adventure, you see protagonist Joan Wilder, and villain Zolo, and comic villains Ralph and Ira, all passing within spitting distance of each other, constantly. It’s a great suspense technique in itself. In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy is always running into her apparent antagonist, Peter’s brother Jack, at the hospital, as both of them are constantly visiting Peter.

Act II:1 is also where you really need to deliver on THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE. That is, if you’re writing a fantasy, you need to give us scenes that give us the experience of wonder and magic. If you’re writing a comedy, you better be making us laugh. If you’re writing any kind of romance, here’s where we want to see and feel the hero and heroine falling in love, even if from the outside it looks more like the two of them are trying to kill each other. Think of the EXPERIENCE you want your reader or audience to have, and make sure you’re creating that experience; it’s one of your primary jobs as a writer.

The hero/ine’s ALLIES will be introduced in the second act, if they haven’t already been introduced in Act I. One of the great pleasures of Act II, Part 1 is experiencing the BONDING between the hero/ine and the allies, the team, the mentor or the love interest — or all of the above.

In fact, there is often an entire sequence you could call ASSEMBLING THE TEAM which comes early in the second act. The hero/ine has a task and needs a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies and caper movies very often have this step and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of Armageddon, The Sting, Mission Impossible (I mean the great TV series, of course), The Dirty Dozen, Star Wars. But you also see the team being assembled in fantasies like The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lord of the Rings. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form — or alternately, a bunch of unlikely amateurs, losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic. I had fun with this in The Harrowing; even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of an Assembling the Team sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding, make for some great scenes; it’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique that you can see at its best in Four Weddings and a Funeral (in fact almost all of the films of Richard Curtis have stellar ensembles).

There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of Karate Kid, and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.

There’s often a SERIES OF TESTS designed by the mentor (look at An Officer and a Gentleman and Silence of the Lambs). It could be the antagonist who is putting the heroine through tests (there’s a great sequence of this in While You Were Sleeping). And when there is no mentor, it may be life itself that seems to be designing the tests and challenges (well, and doesn’t life do exactly that?). Look at how Fate slyly intervenes in Groundhog Day, and in a more subtle way, in French Kiss.

Another inevitable element of the training sequence, and common to Act II:1 in general, is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS. For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the final battle. Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force … so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. It’s a lovely moment of spiritual transcendence.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in Dirty Dancing. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Johnny attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting.

Of course you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through the story. You can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff. One of the most classic examples of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment: this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him, and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Sallah slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit — to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes — but that’s what makes it all so funny. (Of course, it’s also a suspense builder in this case: the descent into the tomb is that much more scary because we’re feeling Indy’s revulsion.)

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs (and I’ve included a whole section on the technique, Chapter 32). Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle). Woody Allen’s film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, does this beautifully with the long buildup to the entrance of Maria Elena, the Penelope Cruz character. Penelope completely delivers on her introduction and I knew she was a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for that one. (In fact, she won.)

The Training Sequence can also involve a “Gathering the Tools” or “Gadget” Sequence. The wild gadgets and makeup were a huge part of the appeal of Mission Impossible (original TV series) and spoofed to hysterical success in Get Smart (original TV series), and these days, CSI uses the same technique to massive popular effect.

In a love story or romantic comedy, the Training Sequence or Tools Sequence is often a Shopping Sequence or a Workout Sequence or a Makeover Sequence, or a combination of all of the above. The heroine, with the help of a mentor or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the most important of tools: the right clothes and shoes and hairstyle. It’s worked since Cinderella, whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls. See the original Arthur for the world’s loveliest example — can I have John Gielgud for my fairy godmother, please? But there are practically infinite examples: Miss Congeniality, Clueless, Maid to Order, My Fair Lady, New in Town, The Princess Diaries — we love this scene. Use it!

And the fairy tale version of Gathering the Tools is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero or heroine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time.

I’d also like to point out that if you happen to have both an Assembling the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole fourth of your story right there! Awesome! You’re halfway through already!

In a thriller or romantic suspense or urban fantasy or mystery — or in a fantasy like Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz — there will be continual ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE by the antagonist and/or forces of opposition. These will often start subtly and then increase in severity and danger. In a lighter romance these attacks can come from the antagonistic love interest, as in While You Were Sleeping, or the rival for the love interest’s hand (Made of Honor).

In a detective story, which is often also the structure of romantic suspense, paranormals, and urban fantasy, Act Two, Part One often consists very specifically of INTERVIEWING WITNESSES, FOLLOWING CLUES and LINING UP THE SUSPECTS, very often interspersed with ACTION SEQUENCES and ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE. You will want to weave in RED HERRINGS and FALSE LEADS. And there’s another convention of the genre you’ll want to look at, which is THE DETECTIVE VOICING HIS/HER THEORY. Mysteries are by nature convoluted, because there are so many possible explanations for what’s going on, so don’t be afraid to have your detective or amateur sleuth just say what s/he’s thinking aloud. Your reader or audience will be grateful.

If you are using mystery elements, you will definitely want to break down several classics to see how these elements and sequences are handled. Murder on the Orient Express, Silence of the Lambs, Sea of Love, and Chinatown are great examples to analyze.

Also in the second act of many genres, you may be setting a TICKING CLOCK, which I’ll talk more about in an upcoming chapter on suspense techniques. Note that a clock can be set at any time in a story, not just in Act II.

And you’ll also want to be continually working the dynamic of HOPE and FEAR: you want to be clear about what your audience/reader hopes for your character and fears for your character, as I talked about in Elements of Act One.

A screenwriting trick that I strongly encourage novelists to look at is the filmmakers’ habit of STATING THE HOPE/FEAR AND STAKES, right out loud.

In The Proposal, the INS agent states the penalty for falsifying a marriage: Margaret will be deported, but Andrew faces a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Yikes.

In Sense and Sensibility, numerous parallels are made between Marianne and Colonel Brandon’s tragic love, who ended up basically a prostitute who died in the poorhouse. Talk about fear and stakes! Very realistic for the period.

The writers often just have the characters say flat out what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Spell it out. It works.

All of the first half of the second act is leading up to the MIDPOINT. This is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any story — a huge shift in the dynamics of the story.

It’s so important that I will let you all take a breath now and deal with it in the next post.

- Alex

And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

                                       STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

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I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nanowrimo: Elements of Act One

So, now that we’ve talked about the index card method, and basic filmic structure and how it might be applied to novels, the natural question is: What actually goes into a first act?

The first act of a movie (first 30 script pages/30 minutes) or book (first 100 pages, approximately) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.

If you're making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

• Opening Image
• Meet the Hero or Heroine

• The Ordinary World
• Hero/ine’s Inner and Outer Desire

• Hero/ine’s Problem
• Hero/ine’s Ghost or Wound
• Hero/ine’s Arc
(And yes, in a love story with an equal hero and heroine, each character must have all of the previous five elements!)
• 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?

• Sequence One Climax

• Introduce Allies

* Introduce Mentor
• Introduce Love Interest 

• Plants/Reveals (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

• Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

• Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)
• Central Question/Central Story Action

• Hero/ine’s Plan
• Antagonist's Plan (which we might not know until later in the story, but YOU need to know!)
• Act One Climax

Yeah, it’s a lot! And these are elements that are present in all genres; we haven’t even gotten to story elements specific to specific genres.

That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. Every element on that list (except optional elements like the mentor and the ticking clock) has to be present, but they all have to be introduced within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply have to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down. I’ll do a quick overview here, but we’re going to go in-depth into some of these elements later on.


In a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of Witness: the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish, the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next images to come: the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax, which takes place in the grain silo; one of the villains is killed by the spill of grain.

The opening image of Notting Hill is actually a montage of movie star Anna Scott’s career: newspaper headlines, magazine spreads, photo shoots, paparazzi tailing her at premieres and the Oscars. This montage sets up this story’s unusual antagonist; it’s Anna’s fame that is the constant opposition to Will and Anna’s love in this Cinderella story.

The opening image of New in Town is the frozen tundra of New Ulm, Minnesota (in December!), an arctic wasteland compared to the heroine’s Miami home. Of course this sets up the Special World into which fish-out-of water Lucy will be thrust. But the film also uses the images of snow and ice to represent Lucy’s frozen emotions, which will thaw and then melt during the course of this romantic comedy.
Well, what I’m suggesting is that we novelists can steal this idea of opening image to write much more powerful opening pages. We’ll be talking more about that soon.


Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. (And there’s a whole chapter on Character Introductions coming up.) But there are a whole lot of structural details that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.

I go into the idea of inner and outer desires in depth in both workbooks. For now I’ll just say that it’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself; and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonist comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline to follow because it clearly shows character growth. But in love stories, there’s usually a more general sense that a hero/ine’s outer desire is for a person (and usually the wrong person!) but their inner desire is to be a better and more complete person, something that s/he is usually best able to accomplish through making a true partnership with the love interest.

Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning, right?). The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is _________ (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will progress, for example: from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth. And the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up, and then work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.


This can mean the Hero/ine’s inner need, but there is often, but not always, one immediately apparent problem that the hero/ine needs to solve, and quickly (such as the threat of deportation in The Proposal.) This can be the INCITING INCIDENT, but is not always. Some stories don’t have this kind of external problem; the problems come later, when, for example, the hero tries to pursue the love interest and is in some way blocked from doing so.


The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own chapter. For now I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.
But - it must be said immediately that in many love stories the main antagonist is actually the lover. This is not necessarily so; sometimes there is an obvious outside opponent, or several. When the lover is the main opponent, what you generally see is a DOUBLE REVERSAL: both the protagonist and antagonist change, with significant character arcs, so that they can ultimately be together happily.


Also in the first act, you’ll probably set up most of the hero/ine’s allies: the sidekick, the co-worker, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister. Allies can also be introduced in other acts of the story.


Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.


This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (as you find in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor.


This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.
In The Proposal, the Canadian heroine Margaret is threatened with deportation because her visa has expired – a pressing EXTERNAL PROBLEM that forces the heroine to react, and quickly (so she pressures her assistant to marry her to keep her legally in the country).

In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood women, including sisters Elinor and Marianne, lose their home and all they have when their father dies and the house and estate go to their half-brother according to the law of primogeniture.

In Leap Year, Anna’s very long-term boyfriend gives her earrings instead of the engagement ring she was expecting, and Anna decides to fly to Ireland to propose to him on Leap Day, when any man proposed to by a woman is traditionally required to accept.

In It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep has ex-sex with her ex-husband Alec Baldwin at their son’s graduation, and the two are back into an affair, even though he has remarried.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation.)

Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. S/he must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here: THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often (not always!) reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. When you think about it, it’s human nature to resist change, so a little reluctance on the part of the hero/ine can bring some psychological truth to your story, as well as dramatic tension.

Also note that the INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE may be the same scene, or they can be two separate scenes. But we’ll talk more about that later.


Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. In It’s A Wonderful Life, we HOPE George Bailey will keep defying villainous Mr. Potter and continue building houses and doing good for people in the town. We FEAT Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our FEAR for the character should be the absolute worst-case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love – but that means you have to make that love and the potential loss of it meaningful.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but in most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning. And I need to point out that what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character is often quite different from what the character hopes and fears for herself: because we are able to see what or who they really need.


A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of It’s a Wonderful Life, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they are doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.

In Sea Of Love, the filmmakers set up protagonist Frank’s obsession with his ex-wife right from the start – which mirrors the killer’s obsessive love for his ex-wife that is driving him to murder. It’s a major theme of the story and we get it right up front.


An act or sequence climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location that spins the story into the next act.


I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you must have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a Central Question:

In New In Town: Will corporate executive Lucy be able to streamline the struggling factory and get that promotion?

In Leap Year: Will Anna get across Ireland to Dublin in time to propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day?

In The Proposal: Will Margaret and Andrew be able to fake a marriage convincingly enough to prevent Margaret from being deported?

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges, and it’s usually answered definitively at the climax of the second act (and usually with a twist).


The Central Story Action is directly related to the protagonist’s PLAN to get what s/he wants, or thinks she wants. (Although sometimes the Central Story Action and Plan are more the protagonist’s reaction to the antagonist’s Plan).

Plan, Central Question and Central Story action are usually set up in the first act, but they are the crux of the second act, and maybe the most important key elements to understand about your story. More about those HERE.


The climax of an act is very, very often a SETPIECE SCENE: there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws.).

But let’s cover the basics right now. 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 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. They are tent poles 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. Folding up Paris and the zero gravity fight in the hotel corridor in Inception. The goofy intergalactic 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. 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…).

Actually, this might just be a good time to stop, take a breath, and watch some movies, to see all of these techniques we’re talking about in action (and pay particular attention to setpieces!). Again, only use any of these techniques that appeal to you or that you think will help.


You can work off a movie from your own master list, or if you've never done this before, I include full breakdowns of movies in both my STFA workbooks (see below(.

If you really want to see how the Elements of Act One function, get hold of three of movies, and watch the first act of one of the films, looking for the elements I’ve discussed here. Then read my Act One breakdown for that film, and watch the first act again. Do that with three movies in a row, and you will be super-prepared to start analyzing the films on your own list.

And I’m sure you realize this, but I’m going to say it anyway. The reason that I suggest you break down several movies of your choice for the story elements is to make it easier for you to identify these same story elements in your own story.

- Alex


If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one, and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes. Whether from my list or your own, try to choose movies that you think are structurally similar to the story you're working on.

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.


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


Monday, October 17, 2011

Nanowrimo: Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet

There really is something about fall for me, this huge jolt of energy. Thank God, because I have a lot to do. Last week I did my taxes and a book proposal at the same time, two activities that should never be performed simultaneously, and I went to Houston to teach a workshop.

This week I have to write another book proposal while doing edits for another book. In the middle of all of this there is another book that I am dying, just dying to get done. (At some point the brain does explode, doesn’t it?)

But again, this is why I’m a big fan of Nanowrimo. Even though, truthfully, like every full-time writer I have a Nano-like writing schedule most of the time, there’s something about having a designated month where all kinds of people are putting in this kind of insane writing time with the insane goal of having some rough approximation of a book at the end of it that makes it all feel okay, somehow, even doable.

So back to Nanowrimo Prep. We've already covered Story Structure 101.

And I was going to continue today to go over the story elements of each act, starting with Act One, but this year I'm going to try something a little different, first.

The more I analyze structure, the more it seems to me that every story has the same underlying structure. In previous years I’ve come up with a checklist of story elements, and last year I really expanded on that one. But in the last month of some short workshops and my Nano Prep, I’ve actually tried to put the most important of those story elements into an almost narrative, a cheat sheet for story development.

So I’m running it by you all today, to see if it makes sense to anyone but me.


NARRATIVE STRUCTURE CHEAT SHEET, from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

Act I:

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.

S/he has:

-- a Ghost or Wound

-- a strong Desire

-- Special Skills

And an Opponent, or several, which is standing in the way of her getting what s/he wants, and possibly wants exactly the same thing that s/he wants

She gets a Call to Adventure: a phone call, an invitation, a look from a stranger, that invites her to change her life.

That impulse may be blocked by a

-- Threshold Guardian

-- And/or the Opponent

-- And/or she is herself reluctant to take the journey.

But she overcomes whatever opposition,

-- Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

-- Formulates a specific PLAN to get what s/he wants

And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.

Act II:1

The hero/ine goes after what s/he wants, following the PLAN

The opponent blocks and attacks, following his or her own PLAN to get what s/he wants

The hero/ine may now:

-- Gather a Team

-- Train for battle (in a love story this can be shopping or dating)

-- Investigate the situation.

-- Pass numerous Tests

All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

No matter what genre, we experience scenes that deliver on the Promise of the Premise – magic, flying, sex, mystery, horror, thrills, action.

We also enjoy the hero/ine’s Bonding with Allies or Falling in Love

And usually in this Act the hero/ine is Winning.

Then at the Midpoint, there is a big Reversal, Revelation, Loss or Win that is a Game-Changer.

Act II:2

The hero/ine must Recover and Recalibrate from the game-changer of the Midpoint.

And formulate a New Plan

Neither the Hero/ine nor the Antagonist has gotten what they want, and everyone is tired and pissed.

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies

And the hero/ine, or if not the hero/ine, at least we, are getting the idea (if we didn’t have it before) that the hero/ine might be WRONG about what s/he wants.

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

And get Darker and Darker (even if it’s funny)

Until everything crashes in a Black Moment, or All is Lost Moment, or Visit to Death.

And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the hero/ine

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.


The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

The Team (if there is one) Attacks the Opponent on his or her own turf, and all their

--- Skills are tested.

--- Subplots are resolved,

--- and secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

Then the Hero/ine goes in alone for the final battle with the Antagonist. Her Character Arc, everything s/he’s learned in the story, helps her win it.

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

And we see the New Way of Life that s/he will live.


If this works to make the process a little easier for you, great! It may be more useful to look at it later, during your rewrites.

And if not, no problem - forget it! I'm just always looking to try to explain things in different ways, because I know for myself, sometimes it just doesn't sink in until I hear it for the tenth or ten thousandth time.

- Alex


If you'd like some in-depth help with your prep, the writing workbooks based on this blog, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available for just $3.99 and $2.99.

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

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

These interrelated key story elements are so important I’m going to start with them even before I get into all the elements of Act One. Partly because I think understanding these elements will help a lot of people with their premises, but also - if there is just ONE thing to take out of all of these hundreds of posts, I think this is the one I would choose. Seriously.

Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

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

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

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto. There is also someone, something, or a set of someones and somethings that is BLOCKING the desire (the Antagonist or Forces of Antagonism.) That's the SET UP of Act I in a nutshell.

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

And the protagonist’s plan (and the corresponding plan of the antagonist’s) actually drives the entire action of the second act. Stating the plan tells the audience or reader what the CENTRAL ACTION of the story will be. Until we know that as a reader, we are floundering around trying to figure out what the story is actually going to be about. So it’s critical for you, the author (or screenwriter) to set up the plan by the end of Act One, or at the very beginning of Act Two, at the latest.

Let’s look at some examples of how plans work.

I’m going to start, improbably, with the actioner 2012, even though I thought it was a pretty terrible movie overall.

Now, I’m sure in a theater this movie delivered on its primary objective, which was a rollercoaster ride as only Hollywood special effects can provide. Whether we like it or not, there is obviously a massive worldwide audience for movies that are primarily about delivering pure sensation. Story isn’t important, nor, apparently, is basic logic. As long as people keep buying enough tickets to these movies to make them profitable, it’s the business of Hollywood to keep churning them out.

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

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

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

The PLAN is reiterated, in dialogue, when Cusack gets back to his family and tells his ex-wife basically exactly what I just said above: “We’re going to go back to the nutjob with the map so that we can get to those spaceships and get off the planet before it collapses.”

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens; it’s not only Cusack’s PLAN, but the central action of the story, that can be summed up as a CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Cusack be able to get his family to the spaceships before the world ends?

Or put another way, the CENTRAL STORY ACTION: John Cusack must get his family to the spaceships before the world ends.

(Note the ticking clock, there, as well. And as if the end of the world weren’t enough, the movie also starts a literal “Twenty-nine minutes to the end of the world!” ticking computer clock at, yes, 29 minutes before the end of the movie. I must point out here that ticking clocks are dangerous because of the huge clichĂ© factor. We all need to study structure to know what NOT to do, as well.)

And all this happens about the end of Act I. Remember that I said that it’s essential to have laid out the CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION by the end of Act I? But also at this point – or possibly just after the climax of Act I, in the very beginning of Act II, we need to know what the PLAN is. PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION are integrally related, and I keep looking for ways to talk about it because this is such an important concept to get.

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s another example, from a much better movie:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Generally, PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are really the same thing – the Central Action of the story is carrying out the specific Plan. And the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story is – “Will the Plan succeed?”

Again, the PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are almost always set up – and spelled out - by the end of the first act, although the specifics of the Plan may be spelled out right after the Act I Climax at the very beginning of Act II.

Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can relax and let you drive.

If you haven’t done this yet, take a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identify the PLAN, CENTRAL STORY ACTION and CENTRAL QUESTION and them in a few sentences. Like this:

- In Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant’s PLAN is to break up Katharine Hepburn’s wedding by sending in a photographer and journalist from a tabloid, which he knows will agitate her and her whole family to the point of explosion. (So the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is using the journalists to break up the wedding, and the CENTRAL QUESTION is – Will he be able to break up the wedding?)

- In Inception the PLAN is for the team of dream burglars to go into a corporate heir’s dreams to plant the idea of breaking up his father’s corporation. (So the CENTRAL ACTION is going into the corporate heir’s dream and planting the idea, and the CENTRAL QUESTION is – Will they succeed?).

- In Sense And Sensibility the PLAN is for Marianne and Elinor to secure the family’s fortune and their own happiness by marrying well. (How are they going to do that? By the period’s equivalent of dating – which is the CENTRAL ACTION. Yes, dating is a PLAN! The CENTRAL QUESTION is, Will the sisters succeed in marrying well?)

- In The Proposal, Margaret’s PLAN is to learn enough about Andrew over the four-day weekend with his family to pass the INS marriage test so she won’t be deported. (The CENTRAL ACTION is going to Alaska to meet Andrew’s family and pretending to be married while they learn enough about each other to pass the test. The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will they be able to successfully fake the marriage?

Now, try it with your own story!

- What does the protagonist WANT?

- How does s/he PLAN to do it?

- What and who is standing in his or her way?

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

So Garrett’s PLAN and the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is to use the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing. The CENTRAL QUESTION is: will they catch the killer before s/he kills again - and/or kills Garrett (if the witch turns out to be the killer)?

- What does the protagonist WANT? To catch the killer before s/he kills again.

- How does he PLAN to do it? By using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate further.

- What’s standing in his way? His own department, the killer, and possibly the witch herself. And if the witch is right… possibly even a demon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASSIGNMENT QUESTIONS: Have you identified the CENTRAL ACTION of your story? At what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of the protagonist’s PLAN? Is it stated aloud? Can you make it more clear than it is?

And you guys, you really need to understand this. This idea of a CENTRAL STORY ACTION goes back THOUSANDS of years, to the Golden Age of Greek drama. Aristotle laid it out in the POETICS (here's a reminder...)

If you think you can fight thousands of years of dramatic structure (which is by now, I would venture to say, part of our DNA strand...) well, good for you, you rebel, you! But why make things so hard on yourself? Think about it. Thousands of years, this stuff has worked. Fight it at your peril, is all I'm saying.

- 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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