Monday, March 28, 2011

Key Story Elements - Opening Image

Okay, FINALLY - I’ve expanded the Story Elements Checklist and we’re going to commence the immense and brutal task (for me) of going through the story elements one by one and discussing each in-depth, hopefully with lots of brilliantly illuminative examples and analysis. How’s that for a Spring resolution?

And I am especially in need of doing this because I am sunk into the ENDLESS, INTERMINABLE SLOG portion of my own writing process, ie. three-quarters of the way through that wretched first draft of my new thriller, and can only dream longingly of happier days of brainstorming or rewriting.

I think my main focus throughout is going to be Visual Storytelling, but you never, ever can tell once I get going.

But one of the main points I’ll be trying to make is: just as filmmakers consciously design some of these key story scenes for maximum emotional and visual impact, we as novelists can be doing the same thing on the page for our readers – making the most of critical scenes such as ESTABLISHING THE HERO/INE’S GHOST, THE CALL TO ADVENTURE, CROSSING THE THRESHOLD, ESTABLISHING THE PLAN, and so on.

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” Well, very often these six great scenes are off that list of the key story elements. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like The Call To Adventure and Crossing the Threshold are magical moments – they change the world of the main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right along with the character. These are numinous events, and we want to write scenes that are worthy of them. That’s why I think it’s a wise idea to study the more blatant examples – the way these scenes are depicted in fantasies like Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz – so you get the full-on, literally magical experience of a Call To Adventure or Crossing the Threshold scene first – and then start looking for more subtle variations in less fantastical stories.

For those just joining us who want to play along, or for those who somehow never got around to doing this, now would be a good time to make a MASTER LIST – a top ten (or more) list of your favorite movies and books in the genre that you’re writing, or if you don’t have a premise in mind, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written - so you can refer to it for examples.

And we’ll start, as the song goes, at the very beginning, with OPENING IMAGE.

OPENING IMAGE:

In a film, of course, you have an opening image by default, whether you put any planning into it or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will very consciously design that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the story – 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 image 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 ROMANCING THE STONE is a classic, gorgeous Western shot of magnificent buttes in a desert landscape and a voluptuous buckskin-clad heroine straight from the old bodice-rippers. It’s adventure and romance which the voice-over narration also establishes as comic and tongue-in-cheek. It’s a great miniature of the whole story – this is protagonist Joan Wilder’s fantasy, which quickly becomes her not-so-appealing reality.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a boat on fire in a dark harbor and a man taking a piss into the dark water… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say - on the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream; it’s eerie, disturbing, and hypnotic – putting us, the audience, squarely in a dream with her.

Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourselves trying to concoct a great first line which will just as likely annoy a reader into throwing your book against the wall as make them keep reading, how about giving some thought to what your opening scene LOOKS like? It takes a lot of the pressure off that first page anxiety - because you're focused on conveying a powerful image that will intrigue and entice the reader into the book.

What do we see? How does it make us feel? How might it even be a miniature code of what the whole story is about?

Take a look at a few of the films on your master list and see what they do with the opening image. Bear in mind that the opening image may be more of an opening scene - and the key image may not be the very first thing we see. For example, in CASINO, the film starts with DeNiro walking out to his car, with narration over. Then as he gets in, the car explodes in flame – and the credits sequence begins – the visual underneath which is a long, long take on a cut-out of a man falling slowly through flame – a descent into hell. That falling through flame, with the blinking neon of the casino all around, would be the opening image, what Scorcese has chosen to fix in the audience’s mind – it is exactly what the story is about.

One of my favorite opening images/sequences is the credits scene of THE SHINING. I don’t think there’s a creepier opening to be found anywhere in film. It’s all aerial camerawork of those vast, foreboding mountains as that tiny little car drives up, up, up toward what turns out to be the Overlook. It’s vertiginous, it’s ominous, it emphasizes the utter isolation of the hotel and the circumstances, and somehow, through the music and the visuals and the constant movement, Kubrick establishes a sense of huge, vast, and malevolent natural forces. As a horror writer (or whatever you want to call me), I am constantly looking for ways to convey all those things – that EXPERIENCE - on the page.

Here’s another great film technique to be aware of: The opening image will sometimes –often – set up a location that will return in the final battle scene or in the resolution scene of the story – only at the end there will be a big visual contrast to show how much the hero/ine has changed. A fantastic recent example of this is in the truly lovely animated film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. It opens with a long aerial swoop down into the Viking village. It’s dark, torchlit, forbidding… and then smashes into the opening attack by dragons – a scene of chaos and violence. And we hear young protagonist Hiccup’s wry narration over it.

In the RESOLUTION, we see the same aerial swoop into the village, but now it’s daylight, sunshine, flowers – and instead of attacking, the dragons are flying with their new – well, not owners, but partners – the same Vikings who were fighting them in the beginning. And Hiccup’s wry narration is the same – only with a few key words changed. The whole village has been transformed by Hiccup’s personal journey – it’s a magnificent visual of not just character arc, but the change in philosophy of the whole Viking society.

Think you can’t possibly achieve this on the page? Think again. Mo Hayder’s THE TREATMENT is one of my favorite recent examples… when she focuses on a murder of crows strutting on the grass of a crime scene, evil just rolls off the page, and you start to wonder if you really want to keep reading the book. (It’s worth every shudder, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.).

Now, look – I’m not at all saying that an opening scene HAS to be visual to work. I had a student in a workshop recently who opened her romantic comedy with a series of dueling press releases – it was hilarious and perfect for her very funny book. As authors we have the luxury of not having to convey things purely visually. I’m just saying – if you’re struggling with an opening, this could be a technique that would help you pull it all together. It works wonders for me. And thinking of the opening visually instantly solves the problem that I’ve become increasingly aware of in the opening chapters of newer writers: they fail to set up the visual in any way, which leaves the reader floundering to figure out where the hell they are. Not an auspicious way to begin, let me tell you.

As human beings, we are primarily visual creatures (and no, I don’t just mean men. All of us.). So? Use it.

Visual or not visual – what are some of your favorite book and movie openings of all time?

And for those of you who HAVEN'T bought the Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workbook (and why not?) - it's now just $2.99 on Amazon.

- Alex


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Screenwriting Tricks For Authors, available on Kindle and for PC and Mac - now at $2.99.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Expanded Story Elements Checklist

Compiling the whole expanded Story Elements Checklist in one post, with Act Three added.

Next, we start working through the Checklist item by item with examples of how movies and books handle these key story elements. (Here’s the original checklist)

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For those of you new to some of these elements, what I’ve been doing on this blog for a couple of years now is identifying key story elements of WHATEVER dramatic form you happen to be working in – film, novels, plays, television - pointing out where relevant how often these elements occur in about the same places in the Three-Act Structure (and the Eight Sequence Structure) and discussing how different stories present those elements for maximum impact.

What I am forever suggesting is that studying the movies and books that you love, and looking specifically for those story elements and how they are handled, is like playing scales on a piano or doing barre work in dance. Practicing this kind of analysis builds your chops as a writer and becomes a natural part of your writing process. It can also help you solve virtually any story problem you come up against.

(All of this and more is compiled in the workbook, Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.).

But before I launch into examining these elements one by one, I wanted to post an expanded story elements checklist along with some questions that you can apply either to movies and books you’re analyzing, or to your own story.



----------STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST------------



ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE:

(The full discussion is here - but a very brief summary:

- In a 2-hour movie, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 30 minutes.

- In a 400-page book, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 100 pages.

And adjust proportionately depending on the length of the story.

First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. What time do they start, and what time do they climax? (Full discussion here.

In a movie there will usually be two approximately 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 1 and Sequence 2, and the climax of Sequence 2 will be the Act 1 Climax, at about 30 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even (rarely) four in Act I. There may also be a short PROLOGUE.

In a book you have more leeway with number and length of sequences – there may be three or four in one Act, and they may vary more in length – 40 pages, 20 pages, 30 pages. But generally in a 400 page book, the Act One climax will be still be around p. 100.




- OPENING IMAGE/OPENING SCENE

Describe the OPENING IMAGE and/or opening scene of the story.

What mood, tone and genre does it set up? What kinds of experiences does it hint at or promise? (Look at colors, music, pace, visuals, location, dialogue, symbols, etc.).

Does the opening image or scene mirror the closing image or scene? (It’s not mandatory, but it’s a useful technique, often used.). How are the two different?

* What’s the MOOD, TONE, GENRE (s) the story sets up from the beginning? How does it do that?

* VISUAL AND THEMATIC IMAGE SYSTEMS

(More discussion here.)

* THE ORDINARY WORLD/THE SPECIAL WORLD

What does the ordinary world look and feel like? How does it differ in look and atmosphere from THE SPECIAL WORLD?


* MEET THE HERO OR HEROINE

How do we know this is the main character? Why do we like him or her? Why do we relate to him or her? What is the moment that we start rooting for this person? Why do we care?


• HERO/INE’S INNER AND OUTER DESIRE

What does the Hero/ine say s/he wants? Or what do we sense that s/he wants, even if s/he doesn't say it or seem to be aware of it? How does what s/he thinks s/he wants turn out to be wrong?


• HERO/INE’S PROBLEM

(This is usually an immediate external problem, not an overall need. In some stories this is more apparent than others.)

* HERO/INE’S GHOST OR WOUND

What is haunting them from the past?


• HERO/INE’S CHARACTER ARC

Look at the beginning and the end to see how much the hero/ine changes in the course of the story. How do the storytellers depict that change?


• INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

(This can be the same scene or separated into two different scenes.)

How do the storytellers make this moment or sequence significant?

* REFUSAL OF THE CALL

Is the hero/ine reluctant to take on this task or adventure? How do we see that reluctance?

• 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).

How do we know this is the antagonist? Does this person or people want the same thing as the hero/ine, or is this person preventing the hero/ine from getting what s/he wants?


* OTHER FORCES OF OPPOSITION

Who and what else is standing in the hero/ine’s way?


• THEME/ WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?

There are usually multiple themes working in any story, and usually they will be stated aloud.


• INTRODUCE ALLIES

How is each ally introduced?


* INTRODUCE MENTOR (may or may not have one)

What are the qualities of this mentor? How is this person a good teacher (or a bad teacher) for the hero?

• INTRODUCE LOVE INTEREST (may or may not have one).

What makes us know from the beginning that this person is The One?


* ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD/CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

What is the Special World? How is it different from the ordinary world? How do the filmmakers make entering this world a significant moment?

This scene is often at a sequence climax or the Act One Climax. Sometimes there are a whole series of thresholds to be crossed.


* THRESHOLD GUARDIAN

Is there someone standing on the threshold preventing the hero/ine from entering, or someone issuing a warning?

• SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX

In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 15 minutes in. How do the filmmakers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this sequence is over and Sequence 2 is starting?

(Each sequence in a book will have some sort of climax, as well, although the sequences are not as uniform in length and number as they tend to be in films. Look for a revelation, a location change, a big event, a setpiece.).

• PLANTS/REVEALS or SET UPS/PAYOFFS

Discussion here

• HOPE/FEAR and STAKES

(Such a big topic you just have to wait for the dedicated post.)


* PLAN

What does the hero/ine say they want to do, or what do we understand they intend to do? The plan usually starts small, with a minimum effort, and gradually we see the plan changing.

• CENTRAL QUESTION, CENTRAL STORY ACTION

Does a character state this aloud? When do we realize that this is the main question of the story?


* ACT ONE CLIMAX:

In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 30 minutes in. In a 400-page book, about 100 pages in.

How do the storytellers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this act is over and Act II is starting?

You will also possibly see these elements (these can also be in Act Two or may not be present):


***** ASSEMBLING THE TEAM


***** GATHERING THE TOOLS –


***** TRAINING SEQUENCE


And also possibly:

***** MACGUFFIN (not present in all stories but if there is one it will USUALLY be revealed in the first act).

*****TICKING CLOCK (may not have one or the other and may be revealed later in the story)


* And always - look for and IDENTIFY SETPIECES.


ACT TWO, PART ONE


(Elements of Act I checklist is here).

In a 2-hour movie Act II, Part 1 starts at about 30 minutes, and ends at about 60 minutes.

In a 400-page book it starts at about p. 100 and climaxes at about p. 200.

Identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. Where do they start, and where do they climax? In a movie, usually there will be two 15-minute long sequences, Sequence 3 and Sequence 4, and the climax of Sequence 4 will be the MIDPOINT, at about 1 hour into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2.

And a book may have several more sequences in this section of more variable length, but the MIDPOINT will still be at about p. 200 in a 400-page book.

Act II, Part 1 is the most variable section of the four sections of a story. I have noticed it also tends to be the most genre-specific. It doesn’t have the very clear, generic essential elements that Act I and Act 3 do – except in the case of Mysteries and certain kinds of team action films, which generally have a more standard structure in this section.

IF THE FILM IS A MYSTERY, this section will almost always have these elements:

-QUESTIONING WITNESSES
-LINING UP AND ELIMINATING SUSPECTS
-FOLLOWING CLUES
-RED HERRINGS AND FALSE TRAILS
-THE DETECTIVE VOICING HER/HIS THEORY

IF THE FILM IS A TEAM ACTION STORY, A WAR STORY, A HEIST OR CAPER MOVIE (like OCEAN’S 11, THE SEVEN SAMURI, THE DIRTY DOZEN, ARMAGGEDON and INCEPTION) then this section will usually have these elements:

- GATHERING THE TEAM
- TRAINING SEQUENCE
- GATHERING THE TOOLS
- BONDING BETWEEN TEAM MEMBERS
- SETTING UP TEAM MEMBERS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES that will be tested in battle later.

There may also be

- A MACGUFFIN
- A TICKING CLOCK

But if the story is not a mystery or a team action story, the first half of Act 2 will often have some of the above elements, and ALL stories will generally have these next elements in Act II, part 1 (not in any particular order):

- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD/ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD

(This scene may already have happened in Act One, but it often happens right at the end of Act One or right at the beginning of Act Two.) How do the storytellers make this moment important? Is there a special PASSAGEWAY between the worlds?

- THRESHOLD GUARDIAN (maybe)

There is very often a character who tries to prevent the hero/ine from entering the SPECIAL WORLD, or who gives them a warning about danger.

- HERO/INE’S PLAN

- What is the hero/ine’s PLAN to get what s/he wants?

The plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the hero/ine start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail.

- THE ANTAGONIST’S PLAN

Same as for the hero/ine: the plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the villain start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail. Even if the villain is being kept secret, we will see the effects of the villain's plan on the hero/ine.

- ATTACKS AND COUNTERATTACKS

How do we see the antagonist attacking the hero/ine?

Whether or not the hero/ine realizes who is attacking her or him, the antagonist (s) will be nearby and constantly attacking the hero/ine. How does the hero/ine fight back?

- SERIES OF TESTS

How do we see the hero/ine being tested?

In a mentor story, the mentor will often be designing these tests, and there may be a training sequence or training scenes as well. Sometimes (as in THE GODFATHER) no one is really designing the tests, but the hero/ine keeps running up against obstacles to what they want and they have to overcome those obstacles, and with each win they become stronger.

The hero/ine USUALLY wins a lot in Act II:1 (and then starts to lose throughout Act II:2), but that’s not necessarily true. In JAWS, Sheriff Brody doesn’t get a win until the big defeat of the Midpoint, when he is finally able to force the mayor to sign a check and hire Quint to kill the shark.

- BONDING WITH ALLIES – LOVE SCENES

This is one of the great pleasures of any story – seeing the hero/ine make lifelong friends or fall in love. Besides the more obvious romantic scenes, the love scenes can be between a boy and his dragon, as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON; or between teammates, as in JAWS; or a man and his father or a woman and her mother (some of the most successful movies, like THE GODFATHER, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS show these dynamics). What are the scenes that make us feel the glow of love or joy of friendship?

Or in darker stories, instead of bonding scenes, the storytellers may show the hero/ine pulling away from people and becoming more and more alienated, as in THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER, THE SHINING, CASINO.

In a love story, there is always a specific scene that you might call THE DANCE, where we see for the first time that the two lovers are perfect for each other (this is often some witty exchange of dialogue when the two seem to be finishing each other’s sentences, or maybe they end up forced to sing karaoke together and bring down the house…). You see this Dance scene in buddy comedies and buddy action movies as well.

- GENRE SCENES (action, horror, suspense, sex, emotion, adventure, violence)

Act II, part 1 is the section of a story that will really deliver on THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE.

What is the EXPERIENCE that you hope and expect to get from this story? – is it the glow and sexiness of falling in love, or the adrenaline rush of supernatural horror, or the intellectual pleasure of solving a mystery, or the vicarious triumph of kicking the ass of a hated enemy in hand-to-hand combat?

Here are some examples:

- In THE GODFATHER, we get the EXPERIENCE of Michael gaining in power as he steps into the family business. There’s a vicarious thrill in seeing him win these battles.

- In JAWS, we EXPERIENCE the terror of what it’s like to be in a small beach town under attack by a monster of the sea.

- In HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, we get the EXPERIENCE and wonder of discovering all these cool and endearing qualities about dragons, including and especially the EXPERIENCE of flying. We also get to EXPERIENCE outcast and loser Hiccup suddenly winning big in the training ring.

- In HARRY POTTER (1), we get the EXPERIENCE of going to a school for wizards and learning and practicing magic (including flying).

(I want to note that for those of you working with horror stories, it’s very important to identify WHAT IS THE HORROR, exactly? What are we so scared of, in this story? How do the storytellers give us the experience of that horror?)

Ask yourself what EXPERIENCE you want your audience or reader to have in your own story, then look for the scenes that deliver on that promise in Act II, part 1. Well, do they? If not, how can you enhance that experience?

And another big but important generalization I can make about Act II, part 1, is that this is often where the specific structure of the KIND of story you’re writing (or viewing) kicks in. For more on identifying KINDS of stories, see What Kind Of Story Is It?

Act II part 1 builds to the MIDPOINT CLIMAX – which in movies is usually a big SETPIECE scene, where the filmmakers really show off their expertise with a special effects sequence (as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and HARRY POTTER, 1), or a big action scene (JAWS), or in breathtaking psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. Whatever the Midpoint is, it is most likely going to be specific to the promise of the genre.


THE MIDPOINT –

- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Is a point of no return
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a huge win
- Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
- Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems

More discussion on Elements of Act Two.



ACT II:2

In a 2-hour movie this section starts at about 60 minutes, and ends at about 90 minutes.
In a 400-page book, this section starts at about p. 300 and ends toward the end of the book.

First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. In a movie, usually there will be two 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 5 and Sequence 6, and the climax of Sequence 6 will be the ACT TWO CLIMAX, at about 90 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter than 2 hours, the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2, and in a shorter movie this section is often condensed into just one sequence or two very short sequences. (I've noticed that Act II:2 tends to be the place where a shorter movie will condense the action).

A book may have 2, 3, or even 4 sequences in this section, and the page count can vary.

Act II, part 2 will almost always have these elements:

* RECALIBRATING– after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must REVAMP THE PLAN and try a NEW MODE OF ATTACK.

What’s the new plan?

* STAKES

A good story will always be clear about the stakes. Characters often speak the stakes aloud. How have the stakes changed? Do we have new hopes or fears about what the protagonist will do and what will happen to him or her?


* ESCALATING ACTIONS/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

Little actions by the hero/ine to get what s/he wants have not cut it, so the actions become bigger and usually more desperate.

Do we see a new level of commitment in the hero/ine?
How are the hero/ine’s actions becoming more desperate?

* It’s also worth noting that while the hero/ine is generally (but not always!) winning in Act II:1, s/he generally begins to lose in Act II:2. Often this is where everything starts to unravel and spiral out of control.

* INCREASED ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST

Just as the hero/ine is becoming more desperate to get what s/he wants, the antagonist also has failed to get what s/he wants and becomes more desperate and takes riskier actions.

* HARD CHOICES AND CROSSING THE LINE (IMMORAL ACTIONS by the main character to get what s/he wants)

Do we see the hero/ine crossing the line and doing immoral things to get what s/he wants?

* LOSS OF KEY ALLIES (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

Do any allies walk out on the hero/ine or get killed or injured?

* A TICKING CLOCK (can happen anywhere in the story, or there may not be one.)

* REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS/TWISTS

* THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL and/or VISIT TO DEATH (also known as: ALL IS LOST).

There is always a moment in a story where the hero/ine seems to have lost everything, and it is almost always right before the Second Act Climax, or it IS the Second Act Climax.

What is the All Is Lost scene?

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a THE LOVER MAKES A STAND scene, where s/he tells the loved one – “Enough of this bullshit waffling, either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.” This can be the hero/ine or the love interest making this stand.

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often will be a final revelation before the end game: often the knowledge of who the opponent really is, that will propel the hero/ine into the FINAL BATTLE.

* Often will be another devastating loss, the ALL IS LOST scene. In a mythic structure or Chosen One story or mentor story this is almost ALWAYS where the mentor dies or is otherwise taken out of the action, so the hero/ine must go into the final battle alone.

* Answers the Central Question – and often the answer is “no” – so that the hero/ine again must come up with a whole new plan.

* Often is a SETPIECE.

More discussion on Elements Of Act II:2


ACT THREE

The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1. Getting there (Storming the Castle) (Sequence 7).

2. The final battle itself (Sequence 8)

* In addition to the FINAL PLAN, there may be another GATHERING OF THE TEAM, and a brief TRANING SEQUENCE.

• There may well be DEFEATS OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS (each one of which should be given a satisfying end or comeuppance. (This may also happen earlier, in Act II:2).

* Thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
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* The protagonist’s character change
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* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

* Possibly ally/allies’ character change (s) and/or gaining of desire (s)

* Possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s A Wonderful Life)

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

• Possibly a sense of coming FULL CIRCLE – returning to the opening image or scene and showing how much things have changed, or how the hero/ine has changed inside, causing her or him to deal with the same place and situation in a whole different way.

* Closing Image

More on Act Three:

Elements of Act Three

What Makes a Great Climax?


Elevate Your Ending


Now, I'd also like to remind everyone that this is a basic, GENERAL list. There are story elements specific to whatever kind of story you're writing, and the best way to get familiar with what those are is to do the story breakdowns on three (at least) movies or books that are similar to the KIND of story you're writing.

What KIND Of Story Is It?

- Alex




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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Expanded Story Elements Checklist (Act II:2)

(Elements of Act I checklist is here).

Elements of Act II:1 checklist is here:



ACT II:2

In a 2-hour movie this section starts at about 60 minutes, and ends at about 90 minutes.
In a 400-page book, this section starts at about p. 300 and ends toward the end of the book.

First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. In a movie, usually there will be two 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 5 and Sequence 6, and the climax of Sequence 6 will be the ACT TWO CLIMAX, at about 90 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter than 2 hours, the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2, and in a shorter movie this section is often condensed into just one sequence or two very short sequences. (I've noticed that Act II:2 tends to be the place where a shorter movie will condense the action).

A book may have 2, 3, or even 4 sequences in this section, and the page count can vary.

Act II, part 2 will almost always have these elements:

* RECALIBRATING– after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must REVAMP THE PLAN and try a NEW MODE OF ATTACK.

What’s the new plan?

* STAKES

A good story will always be clear about the stakes. Characters often speak the stakes aloud. How have the stakes changed? Do we have new hopes or fears about what the protagonist will do and what will happen to him or her?


* ESCALATING ACTIONS/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

Little actions by the hero/ine to get what s/he wants have not cut it, so the actions become bigger and usually more desperate.

Do we see a new level of commitment in the hero/ine?
How are the hero/ine’s actions becoming more desperate?

* It’s also worth noting that while the hero/ine is generally (but not always!) winning in Act II:1, s/he generally begins to lose in Act II:2. Often this is where everything starts to unravel and spiral out of control.

* INCREASED ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST

Just as the hero/ine is becoming more desperate to get what s/he wants, the antagonist also has failed to get what s/he wants and becomes more desperate and takes riskier actions.

* HARD CHOICES AND CROSSING THE LINE (IMMORAL ACTIONS by the main character to get what s/he wants)

Do we see the hero/ine crossing the line and doing immoral things to get what s/he wants?

* LOSS OF KEY ALLIES (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

Do any allies walk out on the hero/ine or get killed or injured?

* A TICKING CLOCK (can happen anywhere in the story, or there may not be one.)

* REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS/TWISTS

* THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL and/or VISIT TO DEATH (also known as: ALL IS LOST).

There is always a moment in a story where the hero/ine seems to have lost everything, and it is almost always right before the Second Act Climax, or it IS the Second Act Climax.

What is the All Is Lost scene?

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a THE LOVER MAKES A STAND scene, where s/he tells the loved one – “Enough of this bullshit waffling, either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.” This can be the hero/ine or the love interest making this stand.

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often will be a final revelation before the end game: often the knowledge of who the opponent really is, that will propel the hero/ine into the FINAL BATTLE.

* Often will be another devastating loss, the ALL IS LOST scene. In a mythic structure or Chosen One story or mentor story this is almost ALWAYS where the mentor dies or is otherwise taken out of the action, so the hero/ine must go into the final battle alone.

* Answers the Central Question – and often the answer is “no” – so that the hero/ine again must come up with a whole new plan.

* Often is a SETPIECE.

More discussion on Elements Of Act II:2


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

Monday, March 07, 2011

ELEMENTS OF ACT II, PART 1 - expanded story elements checklist

(Elements of Act I checklist is here).

In a 2-hour movie Act II, Part 1 starts at about 30 minutes, and ends at about 60 minutes.

In a 400-page book it starts at about p. 100 and climaxes at about p. 200.

Identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. Where do they start, and where do they climax? In a movie, usually there will be two 15-minute long sequences, Sequence 3 and Sequence 4, and the climax of Sequence 4 will be the MIDPOINT, at about 1 hour into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2.

And a book may have several more sequences in this section of more variable length, but the MIDPOINT will still be at about p. 200 in a 400-page book.

Act II, Part 1 is the most variable section of the four sections of a story. I have noticed it also tends to be the most genre-specific. It doesn’t have the very clear, generic essential elements that Act I and Act 3 do – except in the case of Mysteries and certain kinds of team action films, which generally have a more standard structure in this section.

IF THE FILM IS A MYSTERY, this section will almost always have these elements:

-QUESTIONING WITNESSES
-LINING UP AND ELIMINATING SUSPECTS
-FOLLOWING CLUES
-RED HERRINGS AND FALSE TRAILS
-THE DETECTIVE VOICING HER/HIS THEORY

IF THE FILM IS A TEAM ACTION STORY, A WAR STORY, A HEIST OR CAPER MOVIE (like OCEAN’S 11, THE SEVEN SAMURI, THE DIRTY DOZEN, ARMAGGEDON and INCEPTION) then this section will usually have these elements:

- GATHERING THE TEAM
- TRAINING SEQUENCE
- GATHERING THE TOOLS
- BONDING BETWEEN TEAM MEMBERS
- SETTING UP TEAM MEMBERS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES that will be tested in battle later.

There may also be

- A MACGUFFIN
- A TICKING CLOCK

But if the story is not a mystery or a team action story, the first half of Act 2 will often have some of the above elements, and ALL stories will generally have these next elements in Act II, part 1 (not in any particular order):

- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD/ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD

(This scene may already have happened in Act One, but it often happens right at the end of Act One or right at the beginning of Act Two.) How do the storytellers make this moment important? Is there a special PASSAGEWAY between the worlds?

- THRESHOLD GUARDIAN (maybe)

There is very often a character who tries to prevent the hero/ine from entering the SPECIAL WORLD, or who gives them a warning about danger.

- HERO/INE’S PLAN

- What is the hero/ine’s PLAN to get what s/he wants?

The plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the hero/ine start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail.

- THE ANTAGONIST’S PLAN

Same as for the hero/ine: the plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the villain start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail. Even if the villain is being kept secret, we will see the effects of the villain's plan on the hero/ine.

- ATTACKS AND COUNTERATTACKS

How do we see the antagonist attacking the hero/ine?

Whether or not the hero/ine realizes who is attacking her or him, the antagonist (s) will be nearby and constantly attacking the hero/ine. How does the hero/ine fight back?

- SERIES OF TESTS

How do we see the hero/ine being tested?

In a mentor story, the mentor will often be designing these tests, and there may be a training sequence or training scenes as well. Sometimes (as in THE GODFATHER) no one is really designing the tests, but the hero/ine keeps running up against obstacles to what they want and they have to overcome those obstacles, and with each win they become stronger.

The hero/ine USUALLY wins a lot in Act II:1 (and then starts to lose throughout Act II:2), but that’s not necessarily true. In JAWS, Sheriff Brody doesn’t get a win until the big defeat of the Midpoint, when he is finally able to force the mayor to sign a check and hire Quint to kill the shark.

- BONDING WITH ALLIES – LOVE SCENES

This is one of the great pleasures of any story – seeing the hero/ine make lifelong friends or fall in love. Besides the more obvious romantic scenes, the love scenes can be between a boy and his dragon, as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON; or between teammates, as in JAWS; or a man and his father or a woman and her mother (some of the most successful movies, like THE GODFATHER, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS show these dynamics). What are the scenes that make us feel the glow of love or joy of friendship?

Or in darker stories, instead of bonding scenes, the storytellers may show the hero/ine pulling away from people and becoming more and more alienated, as in THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER, THE SHINING, CASINO.

In a love story, there is always a specific scene that you might call THE DANCE, where we see for the first time that the two lovers are perfect for each other (this is often some witty exchange of dialogue when the two seem to be finishing each other’s sentences, or maybe they end up forced to sing karaoke together and bring down the house…). You see this Dance scene in buddy comedies and buddy action movies as well.

- GENRE SCENES (action, horror, suspense, sex, emotion, adventure, violence)

Act II, part 2 is the section of a story that will really deliver on THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE.

What is the EXPERIENCE that you hope and expect to get from this story? – is it the glow and sexiness of falling in love, or the adrenaline rush of supernatural horror, or the intellectual pleasure of solving a mystery, or the vicarious triumph of kicking the ass of a hated enemy in hand-to-hand combat?

Here are some examples:

- In THE GODFATHER, we get the EXPERIENCE of Michael gaining in power as he steps into the family business. There’s a vicarious thrill in seeing him win these battles.

- In JAWS, we EXPERIENCE the terror of what it’s like to be in a small beach town under attack by a monster of the sea.

- In HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, we get the EXPERIENCE and wonder of discovering all these cool and endearing qualities about dragons, including and especially the EXPERIENCE of flying. We also get to EXPERIENCE outcast and loser Hiccup suddenly winning big in the training ring.

- In HARRY POTTER (1), we get the EXPERIENCE of going to a school for wizards and learning and practicing magic (including flying).

(I want to note that for those of you working with horror stories, it’s very important to identify WHAT IS THE HORROR, exactly? What are we so scared of, in this story? How do the storytellers give us the experience of that horror?)

Ask yourself what EXPERIENCE you want your audience or reader to have in your own story, then look for the scenes that deliver on that promise in Act II, part 1. Well, do they? If not, how can you enhance that experience?

And another big but important generalization I can make about Act II, part 1, is that this is often where the specific structure of the KIND of story you’re writing (or viewing) kicks in. For more on identifying KINDS of stories, see What Kind Of Story Is It?

Act II part 1 builds to the MIDPOINT CLIMAX – which in movies is usually a big SETPIECE scene, where the filmmakers really show off their expertise with a special effects sequence (as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and HARRY POTTER, 1), or a big action scene (JAWS), or in breathtaking psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. Whatever the Midpoint is, it is most likely going to be specific to the promise of the genre.


THE MIDPOINT –

- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Is a point of no return
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a huge win
- Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
- Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems

More discussion on Elements of Act Two.

- Alex


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

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Expanded Story Elements Checklist (Act I)

As I’ve been threatening, I’m going to start working thorough my Story Elements Checklist item by item with examples of how movies and books handle these key story elements. (Here’s the original checklist)

For those of you new to some of these elements, what I’ve been doing on this blog for a couple of years now is identifying key story elements of WHATEVER dramatic form you happen to be working in – film, novels, plays, television - pointing out where relevant how often these elements occur in about the same places in the Three-Act Structure (and the Eight Sequence Structure) and discussing how different stories present those elements for maximum impact.

What I am forever suggesting is that studying the movies and books that you love, and looking specifically for those story elements and how they are handled, is like playing scales on a piano or doing barre work in dance. Practicing this kind of analysis builds your chops as a writer and becomes a natural part of your writing process. It can also help you solve virtually any story problem you come up against.

(All of this and more is compiled in the workbook, Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.)

But before I launch into examining these elements one by one, I wanted to post an expanded story elements checklist along with some questions that you can apply either to movies and books you’re analyzing, or to your own story.

So today, Act One checklist, expanded.



----------STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST------------


ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE:

(The full discussion is here - but a very brief summary:

- In a 2-hour movie, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 30 minutes.

- In a 400-page book, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 100 pages.

And adjust proportionately depending on the length of the story.

First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. What time do they start, and what time do they climax? (Full discussion here.

In a movie there will usually be two approximately 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 1 and Sequence 2, and the climax of Sequence 2 will be the Act 1 Climax, at about 30 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even (rarely) four in Act I. There may also be a short PROLOGUE.

In a book you have more leeway with number and length of sequences – there may be three or four in one Act, and they may vary more in length – 40 pages, 20 pages, 30 pages. But generally in a 400 page book, the Act One climax will be still be around p. 100.




- OPENING IMAGE/OPENING SCENE

Describe the OPENING IMAGE and/or opening scene of the story.

What mood, tone and genre does it set up? What kinds of experiences does it hint at or promise? (Look at colors, music, pace, visuals, location, dialogue, symbols, etc.).

Does the opening image or scene mirror the closing image or scene? (It’s not mandatory, but it’s a useful technique, often used.). How are the two different?

* What’s the MOOD, TONE, GENRE (s) the story sets up from the beginning? How does it do that?

* VISUAL AND THEMATIC IMAGE SYSTEMS

(More discussion here.)

* THE ORDINARY WORLD/THE SPECIAL WORLD

What does the ordinary world look and feel like? How does it differ in look and atmosphere from THE SPECIAL WORLD?


* MEET THE HERO OR HEROINE

How do we know this is the main character? Why do we like him or her? Why do we relate to him or her? What is the moment that we start rooting for this person? Why do we care?


• HERO/INE’S INNER AND OUTER DESIRE

What does the Hero/ine say s/he wants? Or what do we sense that s/he wants, even if s/he doesn't say it or seem to be aware of it? How does what s/he thinks s/he wants turn out to be wrong?


• HERO/INE’S PROBLEM

(This is usually an immediate external problem, not an overall need. In some stories this is more apparent than others.)

* HERO/INE’S GHOST OR WOUND

What is haunting them from the past?


• HERO/INE’S CHARACTER ARC

Look at the beginning and the end to see how much the hero/ine changes in the course of the story. How do the storytellers depict that change?


• INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

(This can be the same scene or separated into two different scenes.)

How do the storytellers make this moment or sequence significant?

* REFUSAL OF THE CALL

Is the hero/ine reluctant to take on this task or adventure? How do we see that reluctance?

• 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).

How do we know this is the antagonist? Does this person or people want the same thing as the hero/ine, or is this person preventing the hero/ine from getting what s/he wants?


* OTHER FORCES OF OPPOSITION

Who and what else is standing in the hero/ine’s way?


• THEME/ WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?

There are usually multiple themes working in any story, and usually they will be stated aloud.


• INTRODUCE ALLIES

How is each ally introduced?


* INTRODUCE MENTOR (may or may not have one)

What are the qualities of this mentor? How is this person a good teacher (or a bad teacher) for the hero?

• INTRODUCE LOVE INTEREST (may or may not have one).

What makes us know from the beginning that this person is The One?


* ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD/CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

What is the Special World? How is it different from the ordinary world? How do the filmmakers make entering this world a significant moment?

This scene is often at a sequence climax or the Act One Climax. Sometimes there are a whole series of thresholds to be crossed.


* THRESHOLD GUARDIAN

Is there someone standing on the threshold preventing the hero/ine from entering, or someone issuing a warning?

• SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX

In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 15 minutes in. How do the filmmakers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this sequence is over and Sequence 2 is starting?

(Each sequence in a book will have some sort of climax, as well, although the sequences are not as uniform in length and number as they tend to be in films. Look for a revelation, a location change, a big event, a setpiece.).

• PLANTS/REVEALS or SET UPS/PAYOFFS

Discussion here

• HOPE/FEAR and STAKES

(Such a big topic you just have to wait for the dedicated post.)


* PLAN

What does the hero/ine say they want to do, or what do we understand they intend to do? The plan usually starts small, with a minimum effort, and gradually we see the plan changing.

• CENTRAL QUESTION, CENTRAL STORY ACTION

Does a character state this aloud? When do we realize that this is the main question of the story?


* ACT ONE CLIMAX:

In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 30 minutes in. In a 400-page book, about 100 pages in.

How do the storytellers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this act is over and Act II is starting?

You will also possibly see these elements (these can also be in Act Two or may not be present):


***** ASSEMBLING THE TEAM


***** GATHERING THE TOOLS –


***** TRAINING SEQUENCE


And also possibly:

***** MACGUFFIN (not present in all stories but if there is one it will USUALLY be revealed in the first act).

*****TICKING CLOCK (may not have one or the other and may be revealed later in the story)


* And always - look for and IDENTIFY SETPIECES.



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