Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: A Process For Writing

These are such anxious days, waiting to hear from friends who were in the line of the storm. I'm hoping everyone is fine and undamaged.

But I know some of you will be launching into NaNo tomorrow and I wanted to get this post up for reference.

Obviously, NaNo is just for getting it all out of you any way you can! I'm not trying to suggest how you do that (although I do find coffee, Cheetos and chocolate help...). But if you find yourself lost somewhere in the middle of the month, there, some of these links might help.

Good luck to all, and keep us posted on everything!

Alex

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A PROCESS FOR WRITING

1. First, before you start a project, even if you already have a great idea that you’re committed to, it really helps to allow yourself to do free-form brainstorming, to see what themes and characters are rolling around in your head that might just help you with the new project. And if you don’t have that great idea yet, this is the way to uncover it.



2. Take a stab at writing the premise. You may not know what it is exactly, yet – that’s fine!



3. See if you can identify what KIND of story it is. Again, you may not know this at early stages – don’t worry about it! Just ask the question of yourself, and keep alert for the answer.



4. Make a Master List of movies and books in the genre of your new project, and that are structurally similar to your project (the same KIND or type of story).



5. Pick at least three of them that are MOST SIMILAR to your own story and watch them, doing a detailed story breakdown, identifying the key Story Elements, Acts, Sequences, Climaxes, etc. I really urge you to put some thought into which movies will be of the most use to your own story and not just do breakdowns for the sake of doing them – that’s fun, but it’s not the point.





6. At the same time, start generating index cards for your own story. Write every scene that you know or imagine in the story on index cards and stick them on a structure grid if you have a vague idea where that scene goes. Write cards for the climaxes and story elements even if you don’t know specifically what they are, yet. Allow yourself to be inspired by the movies you’re watching – let the movies show you what scenes are missing in your own story.





7. Also do word lists of visual and thematic elements for your story to start building your image systems. Start a collage book or online clip file of images if that appeals to you.



8. Work back and forth between the index cards and your growing on paper or in file outline of the story. Write whole scenes out when you are inspired. Flesh out the acts by reviewing the elements of each act:












9. As you continue to work the index cards, your sequences and act climaxes will become clearer to you. These will also probably change during the writing process – that’s fine! The goal of the cards and the initial outline is a road map to help your subconscious out when you’re doing that endless slog of a first draft.

10. As you find out more about your story, write the premise again, and make sure you have identified and understand the Plan and Central Story Action.




11. When you’re ready to start writing from the beginning then write. Set a writing schedule and stick to it – you can sacrifice one hour of TV or playing on Facebook a night. Professional authors are people who understand that TV and social networking are the biggest waste of writing time on the planet. Do you want to veg, or do you want to create? The choice is yours.

12. Keep moving forward – DO NOT go back and endlessly revise your first chapters. You may end up throwing them out anyway. Just move forward. If you’re stuck on a scene, write down vaguely what might happen in it or where it might happen as a place marker and move on to a scene you know better. The first draft can be just a sketch – the important thing is to get it all down, from beginning to end. Then you can start to layer in all the other stuff.

13. When you’re stuck - make a list.



14. Remember that the first draft is always going to suck.



15. You can always watch movies and do breakdowns to inspire you and break you through a block.

16. When you reach THE END – celebrate! Most people never get anywhere near that far in their whole lives. Take several weeks off for perspective, no matter how much you want to jump back into it.

17. Then when your brain is clear, do a read through as suggested here to see what the story is that you wrote (as opposed to what you THOUGHT you were writing. Then start the rewriting process. Definitely do a re-carding of the whole story – it will have changed!





=====================================================

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.


Kindle


Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)






Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)







=====================================================

HALLOWEEN GIVEAWAY

Last day to sign up to win one of 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows and The Unseen.




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

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals







A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane... or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.




Sunday, October 28, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: Thematic Image Systems

I couldn't send you all off to do NaNo without taking you through one of my all-time favorite writing exercises, the one I get the most raves about when I do my workshops.

But first, we need to talk about theme. I’m not here to define theme, today...

Oh, is that cheating?

Well, okay, if you insist. Theme is what the story is about. On a deeper level than the plot details. The big meaning. Usually a moral meaning.

Hmm. See why I don’t want to define it?

Well, how about defining by example?

I’ve heard, often, “Huck Finn is about the inhumanity of racism.”

Uh... I don't know about you, but for me, that's too soft and vague. You could write about five billion different stories on that.

Also have heard a lot that the theme of Romeo and Juliet is “Great love defies even death.” Except that – in the end, they’re dead, right? So how exactly is the love defying death? Risking death and losing, maybe. Inspiring people after death, maybe.

Okay, how about this? “A man is never truly alone who has friends” is a great statement of the theme of It’s A Wonderful Life. (And stated overtly in the end of that movie.)

The trouble is, I personally think it’s closer to the soul of that movie to say that it’s the little, ordinary actions we do every day that add up to true heroism.

So defining theme has always seemed like a slippery process to me. Different people can pull vastly different interpretations of the theme of a story from the same story. And even if you can cleverly distill the meaning of a story into one sentence… admit it, you’re not REALLY covering everything that the story is about, are you?

I think it’s more useful to think of theme as layers of meaning. To think of theme not as a sentence, but as a whole image system.

And that’s where it gets really fun to start working with theme – when it’s not just some pedantic sentence, but a whole world of interrelated meanings, that resonate on levels that you’re not even aware of, sometimes, but that stay with you and bring you back to certain stories over and over and over again.

(Think of some of the dreams you have - maybe – where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal. I had a dream last night, in fact, that had just about every possible act, object, setting and word variation on "counter").

There are all kinds of ways to work theme into a story. The most obvious is the PLOT. Every plot is also a statement of theme.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a great, great example of plot reflecting theme. George Bailey’s desire in the beginning of the film is to be a hero, to do big, important things. Throughout the story, that desire seems to be thwarted at every turn by the ordinariness of his life. And yet, every single encounter George Bailey has is an example of a small, ordinary goodness, a right choice that George makes, that in the end, when we and he see the town as it would have been if he had never existed, lets us understand that it IS those little things that make for true heroism.

Presumed Innocent is an interesting book for plot reflecting theme. I love how that book (and the very good film made of it) depicts the horrifying randomness of the legal system – that justice can turn on the assignment of a judge, on the outcome of a political race, on the loyalties of a witness – or on the very, very clever defendant himself. To me it’s a brilliant exploration of what justice really is, or isn’t, or can never be.

And here's a brilliant example of a plot twist conveying theme: with Lecter’s escape, The Silence of the Lambs drives home the point that we can win a battle with evil, but never the entire war.

DIALOGUE is another way to reflect theme.

I rewatched The Matrix a couple of times this year and was very amused to note this blatantly thematic dialogue in Sequence 1. I’ve bolded all the thematic references:

----------------

From The Matrix, written by Larry & Andy Wachowski

In Neo's apartment. He is asleep at his computer, with headphones on. On his computer screen, we see he is running a search on a man named Morpheus. Suddenly on his computer screen appear the words 'Wake up, Neo.' He sits up, and stares at his computer screen.

Neo : What?

On the computer, now appears 'The Matrix has you...'

Neo : What the hell?

On the computer, now appears 'Follow the white rabbit...'

Neo : Follow the white rabbit?

He presses the 'esc' key repeatedly, no effect. the computer comes up with one last message : 'Knock knock, Neo.' There is a loud knock at his door, and he jumps. He stares at the door, and then back at his computer screen. it's now blank.

Neo : .....Who is it?

Choi : It's Choi.

Neo : Yeah...yeah...you're two hours late.

Choi : I know, it's her fault.

Choi gestures towards DuJour.

Neo : You got the money?

Choi : Two grand.

Neo :Hold on.

Neo goes into his apartment, shuts the door, and opens a book, takes out a CD rom and goes back to the door, handing the CD to Choi.

Choi : Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.

Neo :You get caught using that...

Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don't exist.

Neo : Right.

Choi : Something wrong, man? You look a little whiter than usual.

Neo : My computer....it..you ever have that feeling where you don't know if you're awake or still dreaming?

Choi : Mm, all the time. It's called Mescaline. It's the only way

to fly. Hey, it sounds to me like you need to unplug, man.

------------

The Matrix is all about waking up (enlightenment), about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. And escaping. And going down the rabbit hole.

Well, that above is maybe a four minute scene, and look how blatant the themes are. It spells out the entire story. And yet it works on the surface level as well, an audience isn’t stopping to think, "Oh, there’s a theme, and there’s a theme, and yet another theme."

(If there’s anything I learned from screenwriting it’s that you can JUST SAY IT. And it generally works better if you just do.)

Another hugely effective and important way to convey theme is through VISUAL STORYTELLING. Whether you’re writing a book or a film, it’s useful to do specific passes through your story, thinking of yourself as a production designer whose specific function is to create the look of the story – AND – reflect the themes of the story in those visuals.

As I've said here before, no one does image systems better than Thomas Harris. The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales, choosing elements that create a deeper meaning for his plots, and achieves the sense of a mythic battle between good and evil. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember – her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale – Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have a twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

There’s a theme running through Silence of monstrousness. Before Harris got all Freudian with Lecter, to the detriment of the character, IMO, he presented this character as a living embodiment of evil – an aberration of nature, right down to the six fingers on his left hand. In fact, Harris virtually created the Serial Killer as Monster.

So to reflect this inhumanness (and also just creep us out) Harris works the animal imagery, especially insect imagery, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris also works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget – he’s trying to turn into a dragon.

LOCATION is another huge, huge factor in conveying theme. Places have specific meanings, or you the author can create a specific meaning for a place. I’ve said this before, but basements are used so often in horror stories because basements symbolize our subconscious, and all the fears and childhood damage that we hide from ourselves. Characters’ houses or apartments reflect themselves. The way you describe a city gives it a particular meaning – you can emphasize particular qualities that help you tell your story.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what thematic systems authors are working with in books and films that YOU love. As I am always saying – make yourself a list (ten is good) of books and films that have particularly effective image systems. Then reread and rewatch some of your favorites, paying close attention to how theme is conveyed, in plot, in dialogue, in visuals, in location.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words that convey what my story is about, to me. For The Harrowing it was words like: Creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… pages and pages like that.

For The Price – bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, Rumpelstiltskin, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose and dialogue so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.



At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). You can create a slideshow of images or a collage in Photoshop (just don't ask me how to do it.) It’s another way of growing an image system. Also, it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

And these days Pinterest is a great way of collecting thematic images; you can see some of mine, here.  

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.

And maybe most importantly: Know what your PERSONAL themes are. And that means - yes - Make a list.

So th  NANOWRIMO ASSIGNMENTS for today are:

- Make a thematic words list for your book.

- Make a list of your personal THEMES - the ones you vibrate to in other people's stories, and the ones you keep coming back to in your own stories, over and over again.

- And - What particular themes do you see working in your WIP?

I'd love to hear some examples of books and films that to you have particularly striking thematic image systems, and your own favorite images to work with.

And by the way - what are some ways of conveying theme that I’ve left out?

- 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.



- Kindle

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)






- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE



=====================================================

HALLOWEEN GIVEAWAY

It's October, my favorite month, and you-know-what is coming, so I'm giving away 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows. and The Unseen.

Enter here to win!



Book of Shadows.
 
An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of satanic killings.

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals






The Unseen

A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane... or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: Elements of Act One

So now we've talked about basic filmic structure as it might be applied to novels, and you have your structure grid, and a grasp on how you're going to use index cards to brainstorm and lay out your story.

I don't know about you, but when I start a project, I know much, much, much more about the first act than any of the rest of it. I can see the mountains in the distance, but at first, I know much more about the basic set up and characters. So it makes sense to start at the beginning, and fill out the Elements of Act One.

What actually goes into a first act?

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

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

- Opening image

- Meet the hero or heroine

- Hero/ine’s inner and outer need
- Hero/ine's ghost or wound
- Hero/ine’s arc
- Inciting Incident/ Call to Adventure

- Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)

- State the theme/what’s the story about?

- Allies

- Mentor

- A mirror character (sometimes)
- Meet the Love interest (and please don't "Meet Cute")

- Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)

- Central Question
- Plan/Central Story Action (may not be introduced until early Act II)

- Sequence One climax

- Act One climax (or curtain, or culmination)
- Crossing the Threshold or Into the Special World (which we'll talk about later)


Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.

OPENING IMAGE:

Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next 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 – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… 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.

Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourself trying to concoct a great first line, 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?

Try it!

(I'll talk more about this in posts on VISUAL STORYTELLING.)

MEETING THE HERO/INE

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

In fact, let’s just stop right there and talk about this crucial idea of

INNER AND OUTER DESIRE.

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my multiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

One of the great examples of all time of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonist comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

But even in a romantic comedy, where the inner and outer desire might not be so deep, there can be a lot of meaning and change. In Romancing The Stone, Joan Wilder's obvious plot-driven outer desire is to save her sister - she's a good person and she's already got an unselfish drive. But she's also got a personal outer desire: for a great love with the man of her dreams, the one she keeps writing about.

But her inner need is to become the self-realized woman she is capable of being: the intrepid, independent, and loving woman she writes about. Through the course of the movie we see her becoming that woman before our eyes, and we see her flawed real-life man fall in love with her because of that independence and adventurousness. She gets her man by finding herself.

CHARACTER ARC

Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (and this is important to think about from the very beginning of Act One, since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning.)

The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

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

INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.

In JAWS, it happens on the first few pages of the book, and the first few minutes of the movie: the shark swims into the quiet bay and eats a swimmer. That’s the event that forces the hero, Sheriff Brody, to take action. (In mysteries and thrillers the first death is often the inciting incident – it’s so common that writers refer to it as “the corpse hits the floor”. In the case of JAWS, the corpse hits the ocean floor.)

In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker finds the hologram of the captured Princess Leia pleading for help that she has hidden in the robot R2D2.

In CHINATOWN, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray walks into Jake Gittes’ office and hires him to prove her husband is cheating on her. (In a detective story, the inciting incident is often the case that lands in the detective’s lap, or again, “the corpse hits the floor”.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government guys come to Professor Indiana Jones and want to hire him to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant – before Hitler gets it.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice is called to FBI agent Crawford’s office, where he tells her he has “an interesting errand for her.”

In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation).

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

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here – THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. Let's face it - we all tend to resist change and the unknown, right? So much easier to just see what's on TV tonight.

In CHINATOWN, for example, Jake initially tries to talk “Mrs. Mulwray” out of pursuing the case. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE there’s a whole sequence of Harry’s uncle trying to prevent Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwart’s school.


THE ANTAGONIST

The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post - see here and here. For the purposes of this post I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.

ALLIES

Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.

MENTOR

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

LOVE INTEREST

Again, optional, but it's rare not to have one! This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, a mentor, or the actual villain.

Obviously, meeting the love of your life is an extremely significant moment and it should be treated as such in your script or book. Unfortunately this usually translates into appalling "meet cute" scenes in which - more times than I can freaking count - the hero spills coffee on the heroine, or vice-versa, ruining her or his new suit just before that big job interview, so the heroine has an excuse to hate the hero even though he offers to pay for the suit. Or vice-versa.

I'm not going to go into my whole rant about "meet cute" right now, I'm just bringing it up as an example hoping you will cringe as much as I do and vow to do better. A lot better. As always, I suggest you make a list of your favorite meetings of soon-to-be lovers, and see what great storytellers do with the moment - whether it be comic, erotic, or downright bizarre.

HOPE/FEAR (STAKES)

Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. This is one of the most dynamic storytelling tricks you can employ in your writing, in fact, because it engages your reader or audience fully in the action of the story.

Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning

STATEMENT OF THEME:

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

FIRST ACT CLIMAX/CENTRAL QUESTION:

We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but that’s me.)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?


(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Obviously your ASSIGNMENT is to create index cards for the first act, all the while of course making index cards for other parts of your story as they occur to you.

And if you don't know what an element is yet, like the opening image, or the call to adventure, then I strongly suggest that you just write a card that says OPENING IMAGE. And one for CALL TO ADVENTURE, and pin it up there on your structure grid in approximately the right place. Our creative minds are so very eager to do this work for us that if you just acknowledge that you need a scene like that, your subconscious will jump right to work and figure one out for you. I swear. It is one of the great miracles of writing.

If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, check out these breakdowns of the first acts of several movies, identifying these steps:

THE MATRIX

CHINATOWN Act One Breakdown

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE - Act One Breakdown

Romancing the Stone


I'll do Plan, Central Question, and Central Story Action in a separate post, because those are just that important.

So I’m interested in all questions and comments, of course, but I’m always looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict. Got any for me?

- Alex



=====================================================

PREVIOUS NANOWRIMO PREP POSTS:

What is the Three Act Structure and Why Should You Care?

The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Structure Grid

Story Elements Checklist for Brainstorming Index Cards



=====================================================

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.




- Kindle

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE




=====================================================

HALLOWEEN GIVEAWAY

It's October, my favorite month, and you-know-what is coming, so I'm giving away 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows. and The Unseen.

Enter here to win!



Book of Shadows.
 
An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of satanic killings.

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals






The Unseen

A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane... or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: Campbell, Vogler, the Hero's Journey, The Writer's Journey and Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet

I'm always encouraging you guys to read EVERYTHING you can about writing processes and structure, and I feel like this is a good time to nudge you all again to do a little reading about Joseph Campbell and the monomyth he details in his classic Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Christopher Vogler's  Hollywood Cliffs' Notes version of the same: The Writer's Journey.

Wikipedia is a perfectly fine overview, and has all the info and links for you to explore further if you are so moved, and I hope you do.

Campbell 
Vogler

It's easy to get lost in Campbell (such a GOOD lost!) so Vogler's is a more streamlined version, but as useful as it is, and it is - I think it falls short in one major way.

Here are the twelve steps of the journey that Vogler details: 
  1. The hero/ine is introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD
  2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE
  3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
  4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
  5. CROSS THE THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
  6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES.
  7. They APPROACH THE IN-MOST CAVE, cross a second threshold
  8. where they endure the ORDEAL
  9. They take possession of their REWARD and
  10. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
  11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
  12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the ORDINARY WORLD.
 Absolutely!  But let's break that down into where those steps fall in the three-act structure:

Act One:
  1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD
  2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE
  3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
  4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
  5. CROSS THE THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
Act Two:
  1. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES.
  2. They APPROACH THE IN-MOST CAVE, cross a second threshold
Act Three:
  1. where they endure the ORDEAL
  2. They take possession of their REWARD and
  3. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
  4. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
  5. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the ORDINARY WORLD.
Do you see the problem with this template?  All good for Acts I and III... but there are only two steps to guide you through that vast, interminable, suicide-inducing second act.  And the second act is a full HALF of the story.

That's not a whole hell of a lot of help when you're in the middle of the damn thing.

I have another problem with Vogler, in that THE ROAD BACK step.  I have far too often seen fairly new writers struggling with that concept, when the fact is that not all stories even have this step. It's a great element for a pure Mythic Journey story, like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Wizard of Oz. But NOT ALL STORIES FALL INTO THIS PATTERN.

So I've composed an alternate version of this journey that gives a little more detail to help you through that treacherous middle.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

NARRATIVE STRUCTURE CHEAT SHEET, from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

Act I:

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.

S/he has:

-- a Ghost or Wound

-- a strong Desire

-- Special Skills

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

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

That impulse may be blocked by a

-- Threshold Guardian

-- And/or the Opponent

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

But she overcomes whatever opposition,

-- Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

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

And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.


Act II:1

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

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

The hero/ine may now:

-- Gather a Team

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

-- Investigate the situation.

-- Pass numerous Tests


All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

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

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

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

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


Act II:2


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

And formulate a New Plan

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

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies

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

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

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

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

And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the hero/ine, including understanding what s/he has been wrong about from the beginning

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.


Act III

The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

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

--- Skills are tested.

--- Subplots are resolved,

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

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

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

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

--------------------------------------------------


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

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

So do you use Campbell and/or Vogler in plotting or revising your stories? Tell us about it!

- 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.




- Kindle

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE




=====================================================

HALLOWEEN GIVEAWAY

It's October, my favorite month, and you-know-what is coming, so I'm giving away 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows. and The Unseen.

Enter here to win!



Book of Shadows.
 
An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of satanic killings.

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals






The Unseen

A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane... or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.


Monday, October 15, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: Story Elements Checklist

As any of you who are brainstorming Index Cards right now have found, this is not an orderly process. You will be coming up with scenes in no order whatsoever, all over the structure grid. Some that you will have no idea where to put. And so while this week I will be working ahead through story structure in a relative order, I want to re-post the whole general Story Elements Checklist, so you have a whole overview of scenes and story elements you will be needing beyond whatever act we happen to be talking about at the time.

When you start out brainstorming index cards, you can make cards for all of the elements below, even if you have no idea what those scenes might look like, because with only one or two exceptions (which I've noted below), these are scenes and elements that are going to appear in your story no matter what genre you're writing in.  

Even better - they're almost certainly going to appear in the Act in which I've listed them below.  There are exceptions, of course, but those are rare.  When you start looking at stories for where these elements turn up, and noticing how prevalent the patterns are, it will make plotting out any story so much easier you won't even believe it.   And I'm a big believer that just asking the question will get your subconscious working on the perfect answer.  Write out the card in the most general sense today, and you may well wake up with the perfect scene tomorrow morning.




STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST FOR GENERATING INDEX CARDS



ACT ONE

* Opening image


* Meet the hero or heroine in the ordinary world

* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.


* Hero/ine's ghost or wound

* Hero/ine’s arc
-

* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure

* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)


* State the theme/what’s the story about?


* Allies


* Mentor
 (possibly. You may not have one or s/he may be revealed later in the story).

* Love interest 
(probably)

* Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)


* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)


* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)


* Sequence One climax


* Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

* Act One climax

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
ACT TWO, PART ONE

* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)

* Threshold Guardian/Guardian at the Gate (possibly)

* Hero/ine’s Plan

* Antagonist’s Plan

* Training Sequence (possibly)

* Series of Tests
-
* Picking up new Allies

* Assembling the Team (possibly)

* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as coming from the antagonist)

* In a detective story, Questioning Witnesses, Lining Up and Eliminating Suspects, Following Clues.

*Bonding with Allies
 

THE MIDPOINT

* Completely changes the game

* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action

* Can be a huge revelation

* Can be a huge defeat

* 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


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
ACT TWO, PART TWO

* 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.

* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive

* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character 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).

* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)

* Reversals and Revelations/Twists.

* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (also known as: All Is Lost)

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a The Lover Makes A Stand scene

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is

* Answers the Central Question

------------------------------------------------------------------------


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)

2. The final battle itself


* Thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare

* The protagonist’s character change

* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

* Possibly ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire

* 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.

* Closing Image


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.

Which we will talk about next.

- 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.




- Kindle

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE




=====================================================

HALLOWEEN GIVEAWAY

It's October, my favorite month, and you-know-what is coming, so I'm giving away 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows. and The Unseen.

Enter here to win!



Book of Shadows.
 
An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of satanic killings.

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals






The Unseen

A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane... or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.