Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Dark Side of YA

I have YA on the brain.

I did an event in Long Beach this weekend that was very YA-centric. I'm also excited that RWA has asked me to do a Screenwriting Tricks workshop for their national conference in Anaheim with a specifically YA focus. So of course I'm going to be experimenting on - I mean, running things by - you all - as I prep for that workshop.

Honestly, the key story elements we're always talking about here are the absolute same for any genre. And YA isn't even a genre, it's really an umbrella for EVERY genre, but with a particular age level in mind (um, vaguely).

But there are some focuses (foci?) that are specific to YA that I'm looking forward to spotlighting, and issues about writing YA that I'm looking forward to exploring, and I'm going to be hitting those in the next couple of months, in no particular order, as is my wont.

And at least for me, the very first issue has got to be -

Is there such a thing as TOO dark in YA?

I know, I know, I can hear you all thinking back at me: Well, Hunger Games is dark. Twilight is – well, at least twisted. The Wicked Lovely series is TRULY twisted, and dark, especially in later books. Beautiful Creatures deals very realistically with teenage depression in a fantastical setting. Forest of Hands and Teeth has ZOMBIES, yo, of course it’s dark!

But fantastical dark, or paranormal dark, or sci-fi dark, or steampunk dark, or dystopian dark, is different from dark as it happens in real life. For example, I love the first Hunger Games, but it’s SO high concept - for once I’ll use the odious “It’s ---- Meets -----!!!!!!!“ paradigm: It’s Survivor meets The Lottery!!!!!!!!

I mean, unquestionably brilliant, but let’s face it, there is nothing that is not Hollywood about it. And Hollywood just doesn’t do dark, these days. Not on a budget over $1 million, anyway, not since the seventies (or unless you’re Steven Spielberg and you’re doing the Holocaust. But that was a good while ago, even so.).

The sheer VASTNESS of the Hunger Games setting undercuts the darkness of it. These days, Hollywood is not going to go all the way to the dark side. Sorry, but it’s simply not. Edgy, fine, but Katniss is not going to die, okay? That’s not a spoiler, it’s just the way it is.

(Check back at the end of this month - I'll definitely be breaking down the film after it premieres!).

But that’s what I’m trying to get at for today’s discussion. Dark in a fantastical, paranormal, dystopian, sci-fi setting, is not the same as dark as it happens . . . in real life.

Now, I’ve read some dark YA. Dark as I am, I tend to seek out the dark. Um, compulsively. And currently, for me, the winner of that particular lottery on the YA front is Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, a riveting and completely realistic exploration of a high school boy who walks the line between high school jock narcissism and sociopathy, and –

Well, read it. It’s not pretty.

Speak is dark, too. Can you believe people have tried to ban this book? Like, let’s pretend rape just doesn’t happen. After all, it wasn’t even a felony for. . . a REALLY REALLY LONG TIME. Oh and especially don’t let teenage girls know how often this happens, with them as the primary target. Although boys certainly aren’t exempt—but that’s even darker to write about, isn’t it? Nobody wants to talk about THAT. But with that monster Jerry Sandusky all over the news, maybe we’ll finally have to.

But this is the thing for me as a writer, writing dark YA. What I write, personally, is a cross between reality and - supernatural, paranormal, horror, whatever you want to call it – it confuses even me. So when I write dark, which I do with my adult thrillers and which I have done in spades with my own first YA, THE SPACE BETWEEN, it’s fantastical, sort of, and supernatural, sort of, and sci-fi, sort of, and horror, sort of - and maybe even paranormal, sort of - but the thing that makes it dark is the reality of it.

A reality so dark that I made this novel my first indie-published novel after - five traditionally published books and four more traditionally contracted books coming in the pipeline. I didn’t even want to try to publish The Space Between traditionally, because I didn’t want to undercut the reality of it, and I didn’t want to fight with the powers that be about the content, I just wanted to DO it. Because I REMEMBER high school. I had a wonderful time in so very many ways; our school had an awesome theater department and I had some of the best times and the best professional training of my life there. But I remember how – outside theater – how high school really was, the stuff no one really talks about. And I’m not just remembering as a student – I taught incarcerated teenagers in the Los Angeles County prison system before I sold my first film script, when I was just 22 years old, so as a young teacher I was able to observe the darkness of that teen age while I still had all the feelings of BEING that age. And it impacted me, let me tell you.

So my first and only-so-far YA is dark in a way I was just too uneasy to unleash on traditional publishing. It’s not like there’s no hope in it, I swear! In fact, because of the subject matter, there are so many potential endings, light and dark, I’m going to have to make the whole thing a trilogy. But I did not want anyone telling me you CAN’T DO THAT, and I truly believed that was what would happen. I’m a hopelessly right-brained person in reality but I had to research and come to some understanding of advanced algebra, probability, and quantum physics just to make this book a reality, and I knew going into it that the scariness of the science involved could make it a hard sell, let alone the themes of school shootings, sexual harassment, sexual predators, mental illness, PTSD, dwarfism, some pretty brutal bullying and teenage sex. But no one was going to tell me I couldn’t do it, and the miraculous thing is, these days, we authors don’t have to worry about people telling us what we can and can’t do.

And so far, so good. The book IS too dark for some people but it really lights others up with its subject matter, fascinating dreamworld and emotonal reality.

So my questions for the day are: Do you ever worry about writing TOO dark? Can you give me examples of YA books that are so dark that you are shocked they were ever published?

Or – tell me how was your high school? Light? Dark? Grey?

And please, if you know any – give me good examples of YA horror. I’d just like to know!

- Alex

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The Space Between -  $2.99 on Amazon and Nook

Sixteen-year old Anna Sullivan is having terrible dreams of a massacre at her school. Anna’s father is a mentally unstable veteran, her mother vanished when Anna was five, and Anna might just chalk the dreams up to a reflection of her crazy waking life — except that Tyler Marsh, the most popular guy at the school and Anna’s secret crush, is having the exact same dream.

Despite the gulf between them in social status, Anna and Tyler connect, first in the dream and then in reality. As the dreams reveal more, with clues from the school social structure, quantum physics, probability, and Anna's own past, Anna becomes convinced that they are being shown the future so they can prevent the shooting…

If they can survive the shooter — and the dream.


"Alexandra Sokoloff has created an intricate tapestry; a dark Young Adult novel with threads of horror and science fiction that make it a true original. Loaded with graphic, vivid images that place the reader in the midst of the mystery and danger, The Space Between takes psychological elements, quantum physics and multiple dimensions with parallel universes and creates a storyline that has no equal. A must-read. " -- Suspense Magazine.

Download now:

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____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Also now available, definitely NOT YA, although it does deal with troubled older teens:





Download now, $3.99

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(Remember, you don't need a Kindle; you can download a free Kindle app to your PC or Mac or i pad or phone).

An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem to solve a series of Satanic killings.




"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn't-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended." - Lee Child

"Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones." --- Library Journal

"Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they've devoured the book." --- Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Space Between: free on Amazon today!

For Mardi Gras, I've made my YA thriller The Space Between FREE on Amazon today, so download at will, and then save it - and go party till you drop!

Sixteen-year old Anna Sullivan is having terrible dreams of a massacre at her school. Anna’s father is a mentally unstable veteran, her mother vanished when Anna was five, and Anna might just chalk the dreams up to a reflection of her crazy waking life — except that Tyler Marsh, the most popular guy at the school and Anna’s secret crush, is having the exact same dream.

Despite the gulf between them in social status, Anna and Tyler connect, first in the dream and then in reality. As the dreams reveal more, with clues from the school social structure, quantum physics, probability, and Anna's own past, Anna becomes convinced that they are being shown the future so they can prevent the shooting…

If they can survive the shooter — and the dream.


Download to your Kindle.

I am definitely portraying the darker side of high school here - the book is for older teens (and younger ones whose reading tends toward Stephen King and Shirley Jackson!) and adults.

The Space Between is based on my short story “The Edge of Seventeen”, which won the Thriller award for Best Short Fiction.

- Alex

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Key Story Elements: Lessons from Musical Theater

I’ve often said here that the best training I ever got for writing novels, and screenplays, was my musical theater background (acting, directing, choreography). Well, at the moment I’m teaching a film class to primarily animators, and I am stressing to them how useful understanding musical theater can be to their careers as film animators. But the same is true for any writer.

Looking at musical theater is an excellent way to learn how to present key story elements like Inner and Outer Desire, Into the Special World, the Hero/ine’s Plan, the Antagonist’s Plan, Character Arc, Gathering the Team – virtually any important story element you can name. Musical theater knows to give those key elements the attention and import they deserve. What musicals do to achieve that is put those story elements into song and production numbers. They become setpiece scenes to music. And you know how I’m always encouraging you all to SPELL THINGS OUT? Well, there no better way to spell things out than in song. The audience is so entertained they don’t know you’re spoon-feeding them the plot.

Yes, I know, you can’t put songs on the page. But - you can most certainly learn from the energy and exuberance of songs and production numbers, and find your own ways of getting that same energy and exuberance onto the page in a narrative version of production design, theme, emotion and chemistry between characters, tone, mood, revelation – everything that good songs do.

Right now my class is looking at The Nightmare Before Christmas. Let’s take a look at the songs in that piece one by one and identify the key story element, or elements, that each song is dramatizing.


• Overture –

(An Overture does what an opening image or credits sequence does: it establishes mood, tone, theme and expectation. In this film the Overture ends with the Opening Image shot of the circle of trees in the woods that turns out to be a portal to all the different holidays. An important set up and a visual depiction of the premise of the entire movie, really.

• "This is Halloween" – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast/ choir

The opening number is big production number, as befits a musical, which sets up THE ORDINARY WORLD of Halloween Town, and almost all the principle characters (except Santa Claus).


• "Jack's Lament" – Jack

Nothing is better than musical theater for externalizing character’s needs, desires, plans and wishes. But there’s often more to a Desire song than that.

As I am always saying, a great deal of what creates dramatic conflict and character arc comes from the conflict between a hero/ine’s Inner and Outer Desire. For MOST characters, what they think they want is not what they actually need, and during the journey of the story, they will come to realize that they are WRONG about what they want. This musical is a strong example of that storytelling principle in action. “Jack’s Lament” is a Desire or Want or Wish song; he’s tired of doing the same thing every year (basically, he puts on Halloween) and feels there’s something missing. He is going to seize on Christmas as the answer to that desire, when very soon we realize that what he really needs is Sally. Jack’s Character Arc has to do with realizing that very thing himself, as well as realizing that he’s good at what he does, he’s supposed to be the Pumpkin King, and thus finding new excitement in his life and life’s work.

A Desire song is very, very often a “Careful what you wish for” moment. It certainly is, here!


• "What's This?" – Jack

Here we have a song of Jack exploring the Special World, after he’s gone through the door to Christmastown (The Passageway to the Special World – which is also the Opening Image of the film: the circle of trees in the woods, with each tree having a door to a different holiday. This passageway scene has elements of C.S. Lewis’s The Mageician’s Son, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, and probably a whole slew of other classics I’m not thinking about.)

• "Town Meeting Song" – Jack and Citizens

Here is a GATHERING THE TEAM song; Jack calls a town meeting to try to explain Christmas to the Halloween people, and rally them around this exciting new idea. Unfortunately, the team doesn’t get it.

So Jack’s first PLAN is to figure out Christmas so he can rally Halloween Town behind a new and exciting celebration, but the more he studies it, the more it eludes him.

• "Jack's Obsession" - Jack and Citizens

A musical depiction of the HERO’S PLAN and OBSESSIVE ACTIONS (Obsessive and/or Immoral Actions and Crossing the Line are key elements of Act II, part 2).

• "Kidnap The Sandy Claws" – Lock, Shock, and Barrel

A PLAN song: in this case it’s Jack’s Plan, but carried out by these three villainous henchmen, which turns it more into a Villain’s Plan without making us completely hate Jack. However, Jack has definitely Crossed the Line with this plan, as illustrated by the song, which should cause some recoil in the audience!

This song is also a SIDEKICK song; one of the perennial delights of musical theater, which often, as here, employs the RULE OF THREE (even the names of the characters, Lock, Shock and Barrel, are a classic Rule Of Three pattern: same, same, different. In straight musical theater this is often a tap dance song; tap epitomizes playful exuberance and some comic slyness as well.)

(Of course one of the most wonderful examples of the Allies’ Song or Sidekick Song
and the Rule of Three is the three choruses of “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve) in The Wizard of Oz, which also serves as the Gathering the Team Sequence.)

• "Making Christmas" – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast:

This is the production number that dramatizes the Storming the Castle scene; Jack Storms The Castle (Christmas Town) by reindeer and sleigh, and proceeds to terrify the sleeping citizens of Christmas Town by delivering horrifying and in some cases, vicious presents.

• "Oogie Boogie's Song" – Oogie Boogie

Meanwhile back in Halloween Town we get a classic Villain’s Plan song: main villain Oogie Boogie is going to torture Santa Claus. This is a down and dirty New Orleans- style song, which musical theater loves, especially as a musical style for the villain. It undercuts the villainy by making it seem sexy and appealing and danceable, which in a children’s film takes the edge off the scariness of this monster.

• "Sally's Song" – Sally

The love interest’s DESIRE SONG comes quite late in the film, but her desire for Jack has not only been clear from the beginning, it’s actually been the emotional core of the whole film. We get completely behind Sally’s Desire at the same time that we’re getting more and more uneasy about Jack’s Desire. Here her Desire song is actually used as a Black Moment or All Is Lost scene for her, too; she does not believe at this moment that she’ll ever be with Jack (which makes us WANT that for her even more.)

• "Poor Jack" – Jack

Jack’s All Is Lost Moment comes as he has been shot down from the sky by the police of Christmastown, and has fallen onto a cross in the cemetery. He sings as he hangs from the cross that he has failed utterly at his attempt to take over Christmas. But in the middle of the despair of this song, he also finds a Revelation: that he is good at exactly what he does, and he becomes excited about planning for the next Halloween. He races off with a New Plan, to save Santa Claus and restore him to Christmastown before it’s too late. He Storms The Castle again, this time Oogie Boogie’s castle, to fight Oogie and rescue Santa Claus and Sally in the Final Battle.

• "Finale" – Jack, Sally, Citizens of Halloween Town

Besides the production number of the finale (in which Halloween Town citizens frolic in the snow that Santa has sent as a gesture of forgiveness), Jack and Sally’s final love song at the end is a REPRISE, another favorite trick of musical theater. A Reprise is a great way to show Character Arc and a change in the hero/ine’s core philosophy or life outlook, as the second or third version of the song changes in lyrics and tone/mood (often with key changes from minor to major) to show progression. The love song is the same as Sally’s lament in Act II:2, but the words change from “Some things will never be” to “Some things are meant to be”. Of course, this and the kiss out on the frozen wave under the moon show us their NEW WAY OF LIFE: happily in love.


So today, I’d like to brainstorm other great examples of Key Story Elements in song. I’ll start it off:

PLAN songs: “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/We’re Off to See the Wizard” in The Wizard of Oz. “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in Oklahoma (hey, I’m always saying, dating is a Plan.) “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl. "Tevye's Dream" - Fiddler on the Roof.

Interestingly, “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King is a PLAN song: Simba’s Plan at the moment is just to have a good time (like Prince Hal in Henry V). Of course, we know that Plan is not going to save the Kingdom from Scar! We want Simba to get his act together and do the responsible thing. I would also say “Luck Be A Lady” from Guys and Dolls is not just a Desire song but also a Plan song; often songs fulfill several story element functions.

Oh, and let’s not forget dark PLAN songs! One of my favorites is the duet between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: “Have a Little Priest”. Their PLAN is for Sweeney Todd to butcher people in his upstairs barber chair, and send the bodies down for Mrs. Lovett to bake into her pies, thereby fulfilling both their Desires: ST’s for revenge on humanity (especially the Judge) and Mrs. Lovett’s: to have a thriving pie shop and get closer to Sweeney Todd.

DESIRE songs:

Too many to even name! – there’s at least one in every musical. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (My Fair Lady), “Reflection” (from Mulan – also a great Inner/Outer Desire song)”. “Corner of the Sky” (Pippin). “If I Were A Rich Man”. “I’m The Greatest Star” from Funny Girl. . .

When you have a character cluster such as the three oldest sisters in Fiddler on the Roof, they will almost always sing the Desire song as a group number as in “Matchmaker” (again, also, the Rule of Three). The male soldiers of Mulan (one set of her allies) express their own desires in “A Girl Worth Fighting For”.

It's also very effective to use a group number to express a group Desire: as in "God I Hope I Get It", in A Chorus Line. Every single one of those auditioning dancers wants the same thing: the job.

Sometimes instead of or along with a DESIRE song, the Hero/ine has an I AM song, in which s/he expresses a belief or philosophy that will be challenged during the course of the musical. A great, hilarious recent example: “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon.

I AM songs also can be, and often are: WE ARE songs: ensemble numbers in which a town or a group sings together about a group philosophy. "This is Halloween", from Nightmare, is one of those, and there are some great ones throughout musical theater: “When You’re a Jet” and “America”, from West Side Story (which expresses battling philosophies within the culture and the song), and “Tradition”, from Fiddler on the Roof, also “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story, which is simultaneously a “We Are” song, a comic male specialty number, and a searing statement of the societal FORCES OF OPPOSITION in the story.

VILLAIN’S PLAN:

Scar’s song in The Lion King: a production number that climaxes Act One. We see exactly what will happen to the animal kingdom if Simba doesn’t get his act together and defeat Scar.

The Villain’s Plan song also expresses our FEAR of what will happen, and concurrent HOPE – that the Hero/ine will prevent this dire vision from happening.

I want to point out that very often in musicals and especially in film musicals and animation, the Villain does NOT have a song; he or she will express the plan in words and action, not music. Except in the rare case like Sweeney Todd, music tends to undercut the impact of the villainy – you wouldn’t want to see the Wicked Witch of the West burst into song, now, would you? The fact is that absence of music is suspect and scary, as Shakespeare said so eloquently:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
(The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7)

However, as we see in Nightmare Before Christmas, having a scary villain sing can make him or her less threatening to children, which is an important consideration.

Also, secondary villains are often given the songs so you can have a vicarious musical delight in the evil, before the real evil kicks in. Herod’s flashy honky-tonk song in Jesus Christ Superstar is a good example.

TRAINING SEQUENCE songs:

“I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” – from Mulan. Some great irony, there, as the song also expresses the hero’s philosophical flaw as well as the theme of the movie.

MENTOR SONGS

This is also a kind of training sequence song. “On the Right Track” from Pippin (also could be read as a Temptation Song) “True to Your Heart”, from Mulan, “Hakuna Matata”, from The Lion King, Aunt Eller’s “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends” in Oklahoma! "Bear Necessities" from Jungle Book is both an I Am song and a Mentor song. Most of the songs in the first half of Godspell are Training/Mentor songs, as befitting one of the ultimate Mentor stories.

The TRIUMPH or BREAKTHROUGH song:

“The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly In The Plain.” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. This number is often at an Act Climax or Midpoint.

The Triumph can be and often is the realization or reciprocation of love: “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “If I Were A Bell” (from “Guys and Dolls”), "Now I Have Everything", from Fiddler.

ALLLIES’ SONGS and SIDEKICK SONGS.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a very streamlined story, so subplots are sparse, but in full-length musicals some of the best numbers are ALLLIES’ SONGS and SIDEKICK SONGS. Allies’ Songs very often, if not almost always, express the Ally’s Desire, and are often a comic counterpoint to the hero or heroine AND also the hero/heroine love relationship (Ado Annie and Will in Oklahoma!) These songs are also often character dances such as tap, hip hop, regional dances. modern, swing, salsa, samba, tango, etc.).

I have to add that my absolute favorite kind of musical theater song is the SPECIALTY DANCE NUMBER, a group of usually five to seven women in a song and dance showstopper like the ones Bob Fosse is so famous for: numbers like Steam Heat, Big Spender, Mein Herr, He Had It Coming. At the moment I can’t think of any equivalent in film; it’s much easier to find specialty showstoppers with a small group of men, the classic tap numbers you see time and again both on stage and in film and the breathtaking gang numbers of West Side Story, but I wanted to bring the female equivalent up as an example of subversive female empowerment.

Okay, I could go on and on, and probably will in a second post, but I have a book to finish and I’d like to hear some examples from you guys! And by the way, I've made up a lot of those names for songs and dance numbers, so I'd love to hear other names for them.

The point I’m trying to make here is that whether or not you’re using music, song and dance in a story, you can learn volumes about creating emotionally effective scenes from looking at how musical theater handles key story elements. Take a favorite musical and watch it with that idea in mind. I think you’ll be amazed.

- Alex

http://alexandrasokoloff.com


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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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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Love Story Elements

Two weeks to V Day! So let's get in the spirit of things and talk about Love Story Elements.

The whole basis of what I teach in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors books and workshops is that we learn the most when we look at the stories that have had the greatest impact on us, personally — look at them in-depth to really figure out what those storytellers are doing to create that impact. And I teach writing through looking at movies because movies are such a stripped-down form of storytelling that it’s often easier to see structure patterns by analyzing movies than it is to analyze books. Plus, since we’ve seen so many of the same movies, it’s just an easier focus for discussion.

What I am always pushing to my classes and readers is the idea making a list of ten movies and books (at least five movies) that are structurally similar to the book (or script) that you’re writing.

One of the most illuminating AND most fun discoveries you make when you do this list is that you immediately see patterns and key elements of stories in your genre (or cross-genres). And this is invaluable when you’re writing a book, even more when you’re editing a book, because these are the elements your readers unconsciously EXPECT to be in a story like yours; even elements they actually crave, and you can get all kinds of great ideas about what you might be missing in your story.

When I was writing the second book in my Screenwriting Tricks series, Writing Love, I quickly discovered these recurring scenes and setups that are very typical in romance and romantic comedy. The following are just a partial list. I’ve tried to focus mostly on plot points or premises instead of just gags or bits – that is, these are actual story elements that can help you build a story, if you use them wisely. And these elements will often overlap with the key story elements that I’m also always writing about:

Story Elements Checklist

Expanded Story Elements Checklist

that is, the CALL TO ADVENTURE in a love story might be a case of FATE INTERVENES; THE PLAN might be to PRETEND WE’RE MARRIED; THE HERO/INE’S GHOST might show up at the MIDPOINT and radically shift the dynamics of the story, and so on.

Now, any of these love story elements can be done badly and devolve into the worst kind of cliché. Part of the point of knowing the common elements is to be aware they’ve been done before and find your own unique ways of using them, if you’re going to use them.

I’m not going to waste time on the clichés for which there probably is no hope, ever, but just for example of those clunkers, here’s my own partial list, which I’m sure you can add to:

- The hardboiled career woman who needs thawing
- The heroine working as a book or magazine editor (Really? Another one?)
- The heroine loosening up in a drunk scene (and recently, promptly vomiting on the - hero’s shoes. I’m sorry, this is comedy?)
- The hero/ine meeting the love interest by spilling something on them (truly vomit-inducing, usually a pathetic version of Meet Cute)
- The African-American or gay best friend who has no other purpose in life but to support the hero/ine (and of course, show how wonderfully open-minded they are)
- The climactic race to the airport to stop the loved one from leaving

Okay, I’m already nauseous just making that much of a list, but you get the point. Let’s go on to some common elements that are much used, but still useful, used wisely.

MEET CUTE

Okay, I lied. There’s nothing useful about this one. Please, please don’t do it. Instead, why not try thinking about what it really is to meet the One – to see someone for the first time who might just change your entire destiny. Go into your own life, and the lives of everyone around you, and really ask yourself what that moment is. You can dress it up with comedy, that’s totally fine, but find something real and meaningful about it. Otherwise, why even bother?

THE INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

In a love story, while the INCITING INCIDENT that starts off the story action may be a job offer, a wedding invitation, a misbooked hotel room, or any other inciting incident common to any genre, the actual CALL TO ADVENTURE in a love story is very, very often that first look at the beloved. This is why so often that first look seems on the surface to be HATE AT FIRST SIGHT – it’s a variation on the RELUCTANT HERO/INE (or REFUSAL OF THE CALL). When we meet that true love, there’s often as much or more fear and panic involved as joy and relief. Life is never going to be the same.

LOVE INTEREST INTRODUCED AS COMPLETE IDIOT

An example of MISAPPREHENSION, which is a form of MISTAKEN IDENTITY. Bridget Jones’ Diary, New In Town.

THE HERO/INE’S GHOST

In a love story, the Ghost or Wound is most often related to love and attachment, obviously: the heroine’s parents died when she was a child (The Proposal), the hero’s father has had a succession of failed marriages (Made Of Honor, You’ve Got Mail), the heroine’s father was always chasing rainbows, impoverishing the family (Leap Year).

The ghost often comes out deep into the story, in a confessional scene in which the hero/ine reveals to the love interest WHY I’M LIKE THIS (often at the MIDPOINT), but it’s generally better storytelling to dramatize it: In You’ve Got Mail, when Tom Hanks’ father leaves his much younger wife and moves in with Tom in his temporary crash pad (boat) Tom realizes he doesn’t want to be like his father and that he loves Meg (which in this story is THE ACT TWO CLIMAX/REVELATION into the FINAL BATTLE).

HANDCUFF THE COUPLE TOGETHER

In Romancing The Stone, Joan needs Jack to take her out of the jungle and back to Cartagena; Jack needs Joan’s money because he’s just lost all the rare birds he was smuggling. In The Proposal, Margaret needs Andrew to pretend he’s married to her so she won’t be deported and she threatens him with career annihilation if he refuses; Andrew agrees to do it if Margaret promotes him and publishes a book he loves. In Leap Year, Anna needs Declan to take her to Dublin, Declan needs Anna’s money to save his pub from foreclosure. In What Happens In Vegas, a judge orders Cameron Diaz and Aston Kutcher to remain married for six months if they want to split the three million dollar casino payoff they won together. (This story beat is also often an OFFER S/HE CAN’T REFUSE.)

A common variation on Handcuffing The Couple Together is:

FATE (OR THE WEATHER) INTERVENES

It’s amazing how often romantic comedy uses this device. Fate, very often in the form of the weather, prevents the heroine from leaving town (New In Town, Groundhog Day), or deposits them on the opposite side of the country from where they are supposed to be (Leap Year), so that the hero/ine can meet his or her true love.

This is especially well done in Groundhog Day.

THE OFFER S/HE CAN’T REFUSE

A plot point that usually comes early in the first act: the hero/ine is locked into a situation because their boss or family or a judge gives them an ultimatum – eg. in The Proposal, if Margaret does not fake a marriage with Andrew, she will be deported. See New In Town, Leap Year, What Happens In Vegas.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY OR FALSE IDENTITY

False identity was a staple for Shakespeare’s comedies, and is still widely used in romantic comedy, sometimes as a scene or sequence (pretending to be a sister or a fiancée), sometimes as the whole premise of the story: While You Were Sleeping, Tootsie, Mulan).

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

I don’t have to explain this one, do I? It’s the first time the hero and heroine let down their respective guards and start to spill personal information. It’s very often done very badly, as an information dump.

COUPLE FORCED TO PRETEND THEY’RE MARRIED

A staple of romantic comedy; it can be a scene, as in Leap Year where Anna and Declan must pretend to be married in order to get a room for the night at a B & B owned by religiously conservative proprietors, or it can be the whole premise of the story: whether it’s to get an inheritance or some other large chunk of money (What Happens in Vegas) or get a green card (The Proposal, Green Card).

LET’S PRETEND WE’RE MARRIED

A different kind of scene, more spontaneous – in which the couple find themselves digging in a garden or working well together in a kitchen (Leap Year) or one of them talks the other off an emotional ledge (Sally gently calming Harry down after he explodes in front of their best friends in When Harry Met Sally), and we get a glimpse of the well-matched couple they would be.

TICKING CLOCK

A staple of all genres, often used very unconvincingly, so be careful. Some good examples: In Leap Year, Anna needs to get to Dublin by Leap Day to propose to her reluctant boyfriend. In The Proposal, Margaret and Andrew have four days to get to know each other well enough to convincingly pass themselves off as married to a suspicious INS agent. At the climax of When Harry Met Sally, Harry is desperate to get to a New Year’s Eve party in time to kiss Sally at the stroke of midnight, something he utterly failed to do the year before.

THE BET

Can be a scene, or a whole premise, in which the hero/ine bets friends that s/he – usually he – can bed or dump a lover in a certain timeframe. Or some other bet that leads to a romantic entanglement. (My Fair Lady)

EX-SEX

Sometimes the second time is the charm. Or not. Sweet Home Alabama, It’s Complicated.

THE MAGICAL DAY (YEAR, PLACE, HOUR)

The idea that there is a magical day, or hour, or place, that will lead magically to true love and/or marriage. Leap Year has a heroine racing across Ireland in order to propose to her reluctant boyfriend on Leap Day, when traditionally men are obliged to accept any proposal they receive. Four Weddings and A Funeral plays with the idea that a wedding is a magical moment in time in which not only the bridal couple but anyone in attendance can find true love. Groundhog Day – well, it isn’t pretty, but it’s that day, repeated over and over, that changes surly Phil Connor’s life.

WHY THEM?

This is appallingly lacking in most love stories: some indicator of why we’re supposed to want this couple to get together to begin with. I know, love is a hard thing to define, but please, give us something! Some common explanations here:

- Opposites attract (Leap Year, Groundhog Day)
- A shared passion (New In Town)
- In a class by themselves (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story)
- They bring out each other’s best selves (Sense And Sensibility)
- They make each other laugh
- They understand and support each other’s most cherished dreams (While You Were Sleeping, Sense And Sensibility)

I’m sure you can think of lots of others – I’d love to hear them!

THE DANCE

One of the most crucial scenes in any romance or romantic subplot, and one that goes a long way toward explaining WHY THEM? The Dance is a scene in which we see that two people are perfect for each other: they have the same rhythm, they work around each other’s flaws, they have the same passion, they complete each other. One of my favorites is the beautiful scene in Sense And Sensibility in which Edward and Elinor coax Elinor’s younger sister Margaret out from where she has been hiding under the library table by pretending ignorance of the source of the Nile. We see that Edward and Elinor are perfectly matched: both intelligent, witty, sensitive, kind, and off-the-wall. They are at their most charming when they’re together, and we are totally committed to the relationship by the end of the short scene. So much more meaningful than “Meet Cute”!

FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE FAMILY

It’s very common to have a scene or sequence where we see the hero/ine falling in love with the loved one’s entire family (While You Were Sleeping, The Proposal). A variation of this is FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE HERO/INE’S FRIENDS (Notting Hill).

OOPS, WRONG BROTHER! (or WRONG SISTER!)

You know this one: the hero/ine thinks s/he’s happily engaged until – uh oh – s/he meets the loved one’s brother or sister (While You Were Sleeping, Holiday).

WRONG MAN/WRONG WOMAN

Not to be confused with Hitchcock’s “Wrong Man” story, about an innocent falsely accused (or set up). What I mean here is, in a story where the hero/ine is dating or engaged to the wrong person, there are going to be scenes that demonstrate clearly that this is the WRONG MAN, or WRONG WOMAN. I would venture to say these scenes are going to happen in virtually every love story in which there is a rival for the hero/ine’s love interest’s love.

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS/BOYFRIENDS PAST

Obviously, having an old flame around makes for conflict and sometimes dramatic suspense in a love story, but it also often makes for good comedy. Four Weddings And A Funeral has not just one, but two great examples of this scene: at one wedding dinner Hugh Grant is seated at a table with four of his exes, comically dramatizing his problem of chronic serial monogamy. Then later his love interest Andie McDowell has a great monologue about her exes, all 33 of them.

THE AWFUL TRUTH

The hero or love interest scathes the heroine, or vice-versa, and knowingly or unknowingly hits the nail squarely on the head about what the hero/ine’s problem is. (While You Were Sleeping, and there are several good zingers in Leap Year.)

PRATFALLS

This is of course a visual, but I’m including it for the screenwriters (and some authors do it wonderfully on the page – Helen Fielding being a good example). Since the early screwball comedies, romantic comedy heroines have been falling over. This can be tiresome, but good physical comedians/comediennes can make it sublime – Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, and Meg Ryan perfected the art.

THE REVOLVING DOOR

Another staple of physical comedy, but it’s one you can use on the page. The wrong person shows up at the wrong time and the hero/ine is forced to hide someone in the closet, under the bed, on the windowsill, etc. Another component of this is more people keep showing up to complicate the deception. This is a variation on:

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME

Another staple of comedy. In Four Weddings And A Funeral: Charlie gets caught in the bridal suite just as the bridal couple decide to consummate their new marriage.

THE CATCHPHRASE or TAGLINE

While real-life lovers often play word games, the catchphrase is a dangerous thing, not often pulled off. “You had me at hello” from Jerry Maguire is one of the best. The Proposal doesn’t do too badly with “We’re just two people who weren’t supposed to fall in love, but did.” Try a making a Top Ten list for inspiration!

THE RIDDLE

Sometimes the love interest asks a thematic question that the hero/ine finally comes to understand, usually at the climax of the story – an interesting fairy tale touch (Leap Year).

GOSH, S/HE’D MAKE A GREAT PARENT! (or THE YEARNING FOR A FAMILY)

It’s very typical to show the hero/ine looking longingly after children or show the hero/ine noticing how good the hero/ine is with kids: Aston Kutcher coaching Little League in What Happens In Vegas, Meg Ryan reading aloud to preschoolers in You’ve Got Mail. A much funnier scene – Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy being run ragged by Jessica Lange’s baby daughter in Tootsie.

THE MAKEOVER

This can be a terrible cliché, so be careful. For an example of how to do this right, look at Romancing The Stone, which has wonderful fun taking Joan Wilder’s expensive but mousy wardrobe and shredding it until she’s dressed in a good approximation of her romantic alter-ego Angelina’s buckskins and bodices. New in Town and The Proposal realistically depict their heroines’ wardrobes changing from executive stiffness to a more practical and appealing softness.

COUPLE FORCED TO KISS

It’s kind of amazing to me how often a romantic comedy will have a scene like this. Forced to kiss? How do writers come up with these things?

COUPLE FORCED TO SHARE A BED

Look at that! This hotel room has only one bed!

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

The couple is forced to stay overnight in an isolated place. There a nice variation on this one in Romancing The Stone, where the “cabin” is the wreck of an airplane that crashed in the jungle – carrying a cargo of marijuana. Which Jack promptly uses to build a fire…

SEX AT SIXTY

All of the above often leads to this – that’s sex at 60 minutes in a movie, or the Midpoint, meaning it’s around page 200 in a 400-page book. This is common to find in all genres, even more common in romantic comedy. Yes, it can be almost sex at sixty. If there is actual sex at sixty, it usually crashes the relationship immediately.

THE CONFESSION SCENE

This is different from the DECLARATION below. The confession is where the hero or heroine or both open up about their childhood, ghosts, fears, hopes – their INNER DESIRES opposed to their OUTER DESIRES. It often occurs at the MIDPOINT.

YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS

Often during the confession scene, the hero and heroine will express a long-held, secret dream (Jack’s is to own a boat in Romancing The Stone. In While You Were Sleeping another Jack’s is to start his own business. In Sense And Sensibility Edward’s is to be the vicar of a small parsonage) and the loved one totally gets it and supports it, when no one else (usually the hero’s family) ever has. I don’t think it’s accidental that I’ve listed a bunch of male secret dreams that the heroines support; women have a long history of being better supporters that way.

This beat is separate from:

ONLY YOU

The scene where the hero and heroine bond over some song or piece of poetry or dog or combination of foods that only the loved one could ever understand. (This kind of improbably works in The Proposal.)

GET THE COUPLE TO SOMEONE ELSE’S WEDDING

Many romances have a scene or whole sequence at someone else’s wedding – throwing the hero and/or heroine right into that crucible to show their reactions to the whole idea in general. Not just romantic comedies, but romantic suspense will do this; see Sea Of Love.

CINDERELLA GOES TO THE BALL

Another version of going to a wedding, and usually involves a MAKEOVER. The original Arthur does this well, with John Gielgud as the world’s most charming (in a deadpan way) fairy godmother.

INTERRUPTING THE WEDDING

This is usually done by mistake, for comic effect (and it’s often not funny at all, be careful). But sometimes it’s a deliberate act, as in:

I’M GOING TO BREAK UP THAT WEDDING IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO

Can be one scene, but it can also be the whole premise of the story, as in Philadelphia Story and My Best Friend’s Wedding, or Made Of Honor.

“IF ANYONE KNOWS OF ANY REASON…”

Speaking of interrupting weddings - very often once the couple is at someone else’s wedding, some kind of disturbance will occur just at this critical juncture in the ceremony. Often it turns into a plot point (in the climax of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

THE PROMISE or DEATHBED PROMISE scene, or DYING WORDS scene.

In Four Weddings And A Funeral – one of the last things Gareth says to his circle of friends before he dies of a heart attack is: “I want to see you all married. Go forth and find husbands and wives.” Of course Hugh Grant takes that to heart…

THE LOVER MAKES A STAND

This scene seems almost always to come in the very last part of Act II:2, but sometimes in Act III. Basically, it’s the crux of Sequence Six or Sequence Seven. In this scene the Lover, the one who loves most deeply, 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.” It’s often the ALL IS LOST MOMENT.

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

THE DECLARATION

Yes, it’s essential to have a well-written declaration of love, it’s one of the biggest payoffs of the genre. I suggest you make a Top Ten List of your favorites for inspiration: try Julia Roberts’ “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy” in Notting Hill, Hugh Grant stammering through “I think I love you” in Four Weddings And A Funeral, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie: “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man;” Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start right now;” Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire: “You complete me.”

In a love story, the declaration very often is the FINAL BATTLE. And, oh, right – it’s very often a PROPOSAL.

It is also often a public declaration, in front of as many people can be crowded into the scene. But that’s become so much of a cliché I would really suggest avoiding it, if at all possible.

And remember, if the lover has behaved particularly badly, the audience or reader probably wants to see a little GROVELING.

THE KISS

I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? Well, let me just say: in love stories there are usually two key kisses: one someplace around the MIDPOINT, or at the Midpoint, where the couple have a first kiss and both suddenly realize, usually separately, that they’re in deep trouble. This is often the COUPLE FORCED TO KISS scene.

Then the very end of the movie or book, or the Act III climax, is the prolonged, never coming up for air, make the audience or reader really feel it kiss. Unfortunately in lesser stories this often substitutes for a real ending.

And then of course there’s the INTERRUPTED KISS, a way of building sexual tension before that first real kiss.

NEW WAY OF LIFE

This is truly an essential beat to get right in a romance, and nothing beats Romancing The Stone for this moment – wouldn’t anyone want the life Joan and Jack are sailing off to? And somehow it’s much more delicious because the yacht is not on the ocean, but parked on that Manhattan street. It’s the ultimate romantic gesture by a bad boy with a wicked sense of humor.

I also love seeing Hugh Grant shyly hitting the red carpet in Notting Hill, and the flip side of their life, the payoff of the two sprawled on that inscribed garden bench.

But yes, sometimes a kiss will do it, too, especially if it’s Colin Firth doing the kissing, as in Bridget Jones’ Diary.

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As you may have guessed, I’ve made up a lot of those names for the above elements. You can call those scenes, moments and setups something else entirely, and hopefully you’ll be adding lots of observations of your own to an ever-growing list.

So what have I left out? And/or what are examples of movies and books that do some of these elements particularly well?

- Alex


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- Amazon UK

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