Thursday, April 12, 2012

What's the EXPERIENCE?

I taught a Screenwriting Tricks workshop at Left Coast Crime last week, which went very well, although they always do.

I had this fear going into the workshop that I might get, um, testy. The thing is, when I teach a workshop, I always ask the participants to do a little homework up front – some exercises all you regulars are familiar with:

I always like to get some info from workshop participants before the conference so I can tailor my examples to the people who are actually in the class. Obviously this isn't mandatory homework, but it will pay off for you to do it. ;) The whole principle of what I teach is that we learn best from the storytellers and stories (in any medium) that have most inspired us, and that we as authors can learn a whole new dimension of storytelling by looking specifically at films that have inspired us and that are similar to what we're writing. So here are a few questions/exercises to get you thinking along those lines:

1. Tell me what genre you're writing in. All right, yes, it's a mystery conference. So tell me what subgenre or cross-genre you're writing in.

2. Make a list of ten movies and books - at least five movies - that you feel are similar in genre and structure to your work in progress or story idea (or if you don’t have a story idea yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written!)

3. Write out the premise of your story. If you're unclear on what a premise sentence is, here's a practical explanation with examples:

Not everyone does the homework, but the answers I get give me some ideas of examples to work with when I’m going through the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure. In a long workshop I can also work a little with the idea of premise; I’m not able to do that in a 2-hour workshop. This time I stayed away from much talk of premise; in fact it was a little hard to refrain tearing the class a collective new orifice. (Although with teaching, sometimes a good rampage is exactly what a student needs at the time; I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of some beneficial – and memorable - ones from my favorite teachers myself.)

Because I got a reasonable number of homework assignments back, and almost half of them went like this:

A professor (librarian, banker, accountant, divorcee) goes on holiday (to a high school reunion, to a Scottish castle, to his ex-wife’s wedding) and gets involved in solving a murder.

Uh huh.

Okay, I get the amateur sleuth fantasy about vicariously solving a murder. And maybe that’s all there does need to be to it to attract a certain type of reader. Maybe just that one situation in an infinite variety of settings really does get the job done, sort of like porn for the mystery-oriented mind. I’ve even picked up books myself that could be summed up the same way. Except that they happened to be written by Agatha Christie or Elizabeth George or Ruth Rendell, and I knew I was going to be getting my money’s worth.

But why would anyone buy a book described like that by someone they’d never heard of? And I’m not talking just readers – but how does that book even get read by an agent or editor to begin with?

I understand that people have problems with loglines, or premise sentences. Believe me, I do. I would teach a class on writing premise if it weren’t so damn hard to do that it exhausts me too much to teach it. After all, teaching is just this fun little sideline for me, and why should I wear myself out teach something so hard when there are much easier and more fun things to teach?

But look. Where’s the hook? Is it the quirkiness of the detective? Is it the fantasy aspect of the setting? Is it the jeopardy to the detective or to an excruciatingly sympathetic victim? Is it the startling and topical arena? It is an untenable moral choice the protagonist will be forced to make?

I guess what is really missing for me in most of the premises I read – ever – is the EXPERIENCE that the story is going to give me. Now, any of us know what that experience is going to be with an author we are already familiar with. I don’t need anyone to spell out what the experience is that I’m going to get from a Mo Hayder book - I know that I will be wrung out emotionally from the experience of human evil so overwhelming it might as well be supernatural. And call it masochism on my part, but that’s why I buy her books.

As authors it’s not just our job to know the experience that our books deliver, and that readers buy us for, it’s our job to be able to communicate that experience in the logline or premise sentence of our books. Myself, if I’m not making the hair on the back of people’s heads stand up when they read my flap copy, I’m in trouble.

Some of that knowing about the experience comes with – experience. Readers TELL you what they buy your books for, and that makes it easier both to deliver it in the next book, and to get a feeling of that experience into your promotional material.

But you have to know it to say it.

So the question today is, authors, what is the EXPERIENCE you feel you deliver in your books?

And readers, what is the EXPERIENCE you look for in some of your favorite authors’ books?

Alternately, tell us about a great rampage you got from a teacher or mentor that changed your work or life!

- 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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- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE



Angelica R. Jackson said...

I was there at the workshop, and when you mentioned that about the experience it hit home. I have a logline that I've been using (When a corbin, a type of pooka that usually inhabits crows, takes over her boyfriend Daniel’s body, 16-year-old Avery joins forces with the spirit to fulfill a dangerous mission and bring Daniel back… before she falls any harder for the corbin.) but I'm not sure if it does enough to convey the conflict and experience.

My book has a certain wry tone that doesn't appear in that logline, plus it's a bit dark and has the paranormal/faerie elements to it. It's definitely a hard thing to tackle!

C. S. Lakin said...

Terrific point! The experience they need to bring out speaks to the heart of the story and plot and provides a nice hook to arousing interest. I share so much of what you blog about and would like to encourage you to put buttons on your posts for retweeting and posting to Facebook (or maybe you need to switch to a Wordpress site?). Yours is the only blog I faithfully read carefully, every post. I teach a workshop on using camera angles deliberately in scenes and it always is an eye-opener to writers. They never think in those terms, and you are all about using techniques from screenwriting.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Angelica, it's a pretty good overview, but what exactly is the dangerous mission?

And to get more of the experience in, try what I always recommend. Make a list. (Really, I should have it on a T-shirt...) This time, try making a list of words that CONVEY that experience you're going for. Brainstorm a couple of pages of evocative words, and then use some of those in your premise to color it a bit.

BTW, paranormal and urban fantasy, and sff premises are the HARDEST. I always suggest that people start with the sentence, "In a world where..." and then try to finish that sentence concisely to come up with a quick description of your world. You don't have to start your PREMISE with "in a world where..." but it's a good place to start for brainstorming.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, CS, I always wondered how to do that, but MAN, has it been a hard year, never really had a minute to figure it out. It's a miracle when I can post at all, but I really appreciate the nudge.

Yeah, camera angles. Especially just the idea of an establishing shot and master shot. What are we LOOKING at? It's almost always missing in newer writers' writing.

runebug said...

Does this mean the way your reader is supposed to feel? When I write sci-fi and fantasy, I'm usually going for a sense of wonder and awe. When I write drama, I'm usually going for a feeling of melancholy and longing.

So I guess the idea is that the logline (and the title, and the opening) needs to give the reader that feeling?

That sense of wonder and awe was what attracted me to your fiction, and a sense of structure is what attracted me to your book about writing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Exactly, Runebug. It's a really good exercise to make a list (there, I said it again) of all the things you want your reader to feel and pick the key ones.