Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rewriting: the Genre Pass

In my recent Rewriting blog I advocated doing several dedicated revision passes through your book focusing on particular elements of storytelling. One of the most critical of these passes is The Genre Pass.

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

I’m sure you regular readers have already gotten this message, but I’ll say it again anyway: whatever genre you are writing in, your JOB as a writer is to deliver the promise of that genre, the EXPERIENCE of it, to your readers/audience: comedy in a comedy, action in an actioner or action thriller, romance and sex in a romance, romance and sex and comedy in a romantic comedy, romance and sex and comedy and action in a romantic comedy/adventure (see ROMANCING THE STONE for an excellent example of delivering all the promises of those genres in one seamless gem of a movie).

So today we're going to talk about the Genre Pass.

Of course, for my money, your first step is always to make a master list – ten movies and books in the genre you’re writing that you can look at to see how the master storytellers deliver on the promise in the genre.

A great exercise is to go through a movie or book minute by minute, or page by page, and literally count the genre scenes. List each one and how many minutes, seconds or pages there are between each genre scene or moment. At the end of this exercise you should be able to say with confidence, for example, in GROUNDHOG DAY, there is a laugh-out loud moment every 4 minutes (or however many minutes it is) Seriously. This is a great way to internalize the rhythm of a particular genre.

I must confess, I personally believe that if you’re not a comedian right here, right now, you’re never going to be a comedian. BUT – if you are not a born comedian but are writing a romantic comedy, and you know need to get more laughs in, this a great way to do that. Other genres are, I believe, more forgiving than comedy and easier to learn how to do.

Another good method is to lay out your story on index cards or Post Its again, and this time use a particular color of card or Post It to signify a comedy (action, sex, suspense) scene. If when you step back and survey your story board and you see a long sequence of scenes with none of that color, that’s a good indication that you need to work that sequence and those scenes to layer in genre elements.

The other thing that is essential to look at is how the act and sequence climaxes in a good movie or book are almost always genre scenes. In a love story, these turning points are emotional or sexual. In an action story, they are action scenes, with the essential revelations occurring within the action (Think of the climax of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – Darth Vader didn’t reveal Luke’s parenthood to him while they were washing dishes, now, did he?). Even if you don’t quite pull off every single act climax and sequence climax as a rip-roaring genre scene, it’s not a bad idea to shoot for that, because then at the very least you will know that you have eight scenes that deliver on your genre promise, and that’s a really solid foundation for a successful story. And when you get yourself to think specifically in terms of genre scenes, your mind will be automatically looking for other places to insert genre moments.

While we’re on Act Climaxes, I just wanted to mention the concept of multiple climaxes (in storytelling; hopefully we’re all experts at the other). Some people make themselves crazy looking for the exact scene that is the Act Climax. Well, if it’s not obvious, then chances are you’ve got multiple climaxes, or what I like to call a “rolling climax”. ROMANCING THE STONE’s Act I climax is a perfect example of several different scenes that fulfill the genre promises of comedy, action, romance and sex, which all work togther to make up the act break – take a look at the discussion here:

And here are some posts to help you with identifying Act Climaxes:

- Identifying Act Climaxes

- Raiders of the Lost Ark - Act Climaxes

The good news here is that – you don’t have to get all of this into your first draft! These are rewriting tricks. Write out the bones of your scenes and the story, first, and then start to layer in these genre elements. Take a look at where you might combine two completely different scenes so that you get a big revelation or plot twist inside of a comic or fight scene, or in the middle of sex.

This is the fun part of writing – everything after the first draft is icing. So enjoy!

- Alex


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

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Anonymous said...

Great post. I used the index card method for my second novel and will definitely be using it again. It's been a great to lay things out without having to reread the same thing 100 times.

Pranada Comtois said...

Hi Alexandra, Your posts are brilliant, your heart large to share so much with us. Thank you. You've opened my writing process up with your clear delineation of screenwriting tips.

Perhaps I'm dull, but I don't completely understand what a sequence is. I can tell you it's climax will have a setpiece, will deliver on the premise, will be a genre scene, has a beginning, middle, and end, there are eight of them in a movie . . . But I don't understand EXACTLY what is a sequence. I understand an Act, I understand a scene. Can you help me understand the difference between sequence and scene (besides that a sequence is series of scenes)? Sending me to one of your existing blogs would be great. I've just missed it. Thank you SO much. All the best,
Pranada Comtois

Mike Keyton said...

Thank you

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Girl, I know EXACTLY what you mean. The index cards are the best overview - you don't have to get lost in the microcosm of reading.

Mike, you're welcome.!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Pranada, you're not dull at all! I think I know exactly what is confusing you about sequences, and the reason is because it's confusing.

In fact this is such a good topic that I should do the next blog on it, but for the time being, briefly, the confusion I think is because we're talking about two different kinds of sequences.

!. When I talk about the "eight sequence structure", that's a term very specific to movies (that I think is useful to understand for writing novels), BUT --

2. The term "sequence"actually is more often used to mean something different, which is - "a collection of scenes focused on a single central action (and sometimes taking place in the same location, in real time) with a beginning, middle and end."

Really, when I'm talking about the eight sequences of a movie, a better term would be SEGMENT. Because Sequence One, or Segment One, of a movie might be just one SEQUENCE, as I defined in #2 above, but more often it will be composed of two or three SEQUENCES as defined in #2.

For example, Sequence One of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which you could call the South America sequence, is also a complete SEQUENCE unto itself. It is composed of several scenes all focused on one central action (stealing the gold idol), taking place in approximately the same location and in a discrete time frame.

But more often the first sequence of a movie (or book) will not be as unified and cohesive as that; it will ramble through different scenes you could loosely call the SET UP.

In fact, I would start calling the eight sequences SEGMENTS for clarity, but it's never a good idea to mess around with such an entrenched vocabulary. I'm just going to have to be more clear about it in subsequent posts.

Anyway, I hope that starts to clarify things for now, and I really will do a post on the subject.

Pranada Comtois said...

Thanks Alexandra. This, indeed, does help. And I'll look forward to your edifying post on it. Happy Holidays. May your year and spirit be bright.