Thursday, February 21, 2013

Writing The Unseen

I didn't plan it this way, but my big promo for my parapsychology thriller The Unseen is happening at the same time that I'm heading down to a writing retreat with my posse of mystery writer friends (I should say goddesses!): Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner.  Several times a year we go on retreat to the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place. We work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts!).
And one of our favorite retreats is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.  

Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd.  James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become - what else? - a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.
It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly.  

It's also notoriously haunted.

When you write ghost stories, PLACE is hugely important - it's got to be absolutely a character in the book, just as much as the human characters are.  
And THE UNSEEN   is a haunted house story – two psychology professors take a group of psychically gifted students into a house with a history of poltergeist manifestations, to replicate a controversial experiment from the 1960’s.  I was inspired by the real-life, world famous ESP testing and poltergeist investigations that took place at the Duke University parapsychology lab, headed by Dr. J.B. Rhine.


You probably recognize those cards, which were used in laboratory tests to determine through statistical analysis whether ESP really occurs.   Two test subjects would sit at a table divided by a screen, and one subject, the sender, would flip through a deck of 25 cards, concentrating on one card at a time, while the receiver would write down her or his guesses about what that card was.
Pure chance is 20% right, so any score significantly above chance was considered to be an indicator of some psychic ability.   And if you want to try it for yourself, here's an online version of the test! 
As the daughter of scientists, I was always completely fascinated by the idea of testing something as spooky cool as ESP in a laboratory setting.   But what really hooked me about the history of the Rhine lab was that in the sixties, the researchers started doing field research of haunted houses and poltergeists.  
I know what a ghost is, kind of, but a poltergeist is such an elusive - creature.   Is it the random sexual energy of an adolescent gone wild?    Is it a particularly noisy and mischievous ghost?   Is it an otherworldly entity?   Or is it just a teenager faking spooky effects for attention?
The mystery of it has always fascinated me.  
Now, I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the universe opens up all kinds of fantastic opportunities to you.   And I started writing THE UNSEEN at the same time that our group had its first trip to Weymouth. In fact, we came down to the house on the very day that my characters were moving into THEIR haunted house.
(I’m telling you, writing is a little scary.  More than a little scary, in this case…)
Some of us had some truly spooky encounters in that place.   Every time I turned around there was knocking on the walls (the pipes in the kitchen), weird manifestations (a ghostly team of horses trotting by with a buggy on the road outside) and rooms that were just too creepy to go into after dark.  One night I had to go all the way back upstairs, across the upstairs hall and around to the front stairs to get to a room I wanted to go to because I was too freaked out to cross the Great Room in the dark.   And another one of us had the classic “Night Hag” visitation:  she woke up feeling that someone or something was sitting on her chest.  Brrrrr…..
One prevalent theory of hauntings is that a haunting is an imprint of a violent or strong emotion that lingers in a place like an echo or recording.   I’ve always liked that explanation.
Well, this house was imprinted, all right, but far beyond what I had expected.
Because besides the requisite spooky things… that house was downright sexy.  There’s no other way to say it.   Seriously - hot.
I had ridiculously, I mean – embarrassingly -  erotic dreams every night.  There were rooms I walked into that made my knees go completely weak.   The house, the gardens, even the golf course, just vibrated with sex.
Now, maybe that was just the imprint of creativity – the whole mansion is constantly inhabited by writers and musicians, and as we all know, creativity is a turn-on.
But also, consider the history.   As I said – Weymouth was a “Yankee Playtime Plantation”.   Rich people used that house specifically to party - in the Roaring Twenties, no less.   (Think THE GREAT GATSBY!).   God only knows how many trysts, even orgies, went on.   So could sex imprint on a place, just as violence or trauma is supposed to be able to imprint?
It makes sense to me.
That sexual dynamic surprised the hell out of me, but it completely worked with my main character’s back story - she’s a young California psychology professor who impulsively flees to North Carolina after she catches her fiancĂ© cheating on her.  (Actually, she dreams her fiancĂ© is cheating on her, in exactly the scenario that she catches him in later.)    So her wound is a specifically sexual one, and one of her great weaknesses is that she’s vulnerable to being sexually manipulated.  
Add to that that the most prevalent explanation of a poltergeist is that it’s hormones run amok:  that the projected sexual energy of an adolescent or young adult can randomly cause objects to move or break.
So of course I went with it.   It wasn’t anything to do with my outline, but California girl that I am, how can I not go with the obvious flow?
I think it adds a great dimension to the story, in a way I never could have anticipated, and I’m pleased to have been true to the - um, spirit - of poltergeists.
So first, I’m always interested in hearing your ghost and psychic experiences.  Come on, I know you have them.  And then of course, there's the "How far will you go to research?" question!  Do you all take this to the same extremes I do?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Free e books from Killer Thrillers!

Killer Thrillers is an authors collective I joined last fall with 23 other award-winning, best-selling, and internationally published thriller authors. There are hundreds of excellent, low-cost e-books featured on the website, and this Wednesday through Friday, February 20 - 22, six of our titles will be FREE!

From February 20 - 22, you can download all 6 FREE e-books here

Freezing Point by Karen Dionne
Lucidity by CJ Lyons 
Switch by Grant McKenzie 
A Fine and Dangerous Season by Keith Raffel 
Breaking Cover by JD Rhoades 
The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Top Ten Romantic Movies

So for Valentine's Day, I thought I'd do a romantic but useful post.

As many of you know by now, the first assignment I lay out in my Screenwriting Tricks workbooks, and the first exercise I make any class or workshop I teach do right up front, is a Top Ten List of favorite movies.

Because, yes, I teach story structure, but what works for me structurally is not necessarily going to do it for you. My primary goal is to teach you how to do this for yourself.

If you take the time to list, study and analyze the books and films that have had the greatest impact on you personally, or that are structurally similar to the story you’re writing, or both, that’s when you really start to master your craft. Making the lists and analyzing those stories will help you brainstorm your own, unique versions of scenes and meta-structures that work in the stories on your master list; it will help you figure out how your particular story will work. And doing this analysis will embed story structure in your head so that constructing a story becomes a fun and natural process for you.

So - List ten books and films that are similar to your own story in structure and/or genre (at least five movies and three books if you’re writing a book, mostly movies if you’re writing a script).

Or if you’re trying to decide on the right project to work on, then make a list of ten books and films that you wish you had written.

And in honor of the day, I'm going to do a favorite love story list.

Four Weddings and a Funeral
• Lost in Translation
• Next Stop Wonderland
• Notorious
• Bridget Jones’ Diary  (the book more than the movie, for me)
• Notting Hill
• When Harry Met Sally
• Philadelphia Story
• Rebecca
• Bringing Up Baby
• Much Ado About Nothing
• Casablanca
• Sleepless in Seattle

(That’s a list of more than ten, just to demonstrate that the list is whatever you want it to be!)

Four Weddings and a Funeral, Philadelphia Story, and Lost in Translation are probably my favorites of that list.

Four Weddings appeals to me on a very personal level because writer Richard Curtis, as is his wont, is not just exploring love relationships between two people, or several sets of two people, but also the group love dynamic of a posse of friends. In fact, in that movie, the group dynamic is one of the factors keeping the hero, Charlie (Hugh Grant) from settling down to marry — and has kept every single one of the others single, except for the one truly married couple in the group, the gay couple who can’t legally marry. (Wonderful, scathing truth there).

That group dynamic has always resonated deeply with me, and I imagine it struck a chord for a lot of people. Also, in terms of high concept, the film is great because most of us have experienced that totally exhausting year that every single person you know gets married and your entire social calendar revolves around weddings. I certainly could relate to Hugh Grant groaning and burying his head under a pillow as yet another embossed linen envelope arrived in the mail.

But the real beauty of Four Weddings is the underlying theme that there is something magical about a wedding that opens the door to love, not just for the couple involved, but potentially for everyone who attends. The structure of the film is a round-robin, where at each wedding at least two people find the loves of their lives, and we see one of those weddings next, or the preparation for a wedding, or at least the deepening of the relationship with a promise of marriage. This is something I think most of us would like to believe about weddings: that there is an encompassing magic there, a kairos, that invites something life-changing. That story truly delivered on that theme.

When Harry Met Sally is an enduring romantic comedy not just because of the great chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan and the charming documentary clips of elderly couples talking about how they met and fell in love, but because it explores a strong theme: Can a man and woman ever really be friends? And we experience the great treat of watching Billy and Meg first becoming friends and then  falling in love.

Next Stop Wonderland and Sleepless in Seattle are examples of the theme of the soul mate — that there is someone out there who is destined for you, and that the Universe will guide you to that person. Next Stop Wonderland shows two people whose paths cross over and over again, with all kinds of attendant signs that these two people are supposed to be together — but they don’t meet until the last few seconds of the movie. Sleepless in Seattle explores the same kind of fatedness, and similarly keeps the hero and heroine apart until the end of the movie. I admit, this kind of thing just turns me inside out. I would love to believe that there is one person who is all that, and that all of life is conspiring to help you find that person.

Lost in Translation is a bittersweet variation on the soul mate theme: Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are two married people (married to other people!) in spiritual crisis who meet each other in a posh hotel in Japan. They are drawn to each other despite their marriages and the big age difference between them, and we feel a simultaneous HOPE and FEAR that they will get together. We want it at the same time we sense it’s wrong. But the story is really about — to me — the concept that we may have lived multiple past lives, with multiple lovers, and sometimes in the midst of a crisis, one of those soul mates will show up to guide you through the dark woods … but not necessarily stay with you. In the Final Battle (the film’s climax), Bill does not sleep with Scarlett, and they part ways, but their lives have been transformed by each other nonetheless.

Notting Hill is an interesting story because there’s no one person who’s the antagonist (even though Alec Baldwin does a charming turn as the rival, the movie star boyfriend). The real obstacle to Hugh Grant’s and Julia Roberts’ relationship is her fame, and each sequence explores a different aspect of that celebrity and how it keeps the couple apart.

Philadelphia Story has a very sophisticated underlying premise: Cary Grant knows that Katharine Hepburn will never be able to love him fully until she steps off her pedestal and has a roll in the mud. It’s only after she abandons herself and sleeps with Jimmy Stewart (oh, come on, you know they did!), that she is fully human to love Cary.

Every time I teach a story structure class it’s always fascinating for me to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives me such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling. The list tells you who you are as a writer. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

I really urge you to create your list, and break those stories down to see why they have such an impact on you — because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers.  Why not learn fron your favorite storytellers how to do it?

So of course, what I want today is love stories! What are yours?

Happy Valentine's Day!

- Alex


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Monday, February 11, 2013

Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure (Key Story Elements)

As I continue to work my way through the Key Story Elements…

Whether I’m blogging, writing, or teaching, I keep looking for ways to make the point that filmmakers take extra care with certain key scenes of a story. Filmmakers pay particular attention to all the ways they have at their disposal to underscore the significance of these moments – whether it’s delivering the pure visceral experience of the genre, revealing character, conveying theme, externalizing the hero/ine’s ghost – any and sometimes many of the above and more.

And to do that, they usually create those scenes as SETPIECES.

To review - there are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in - a shower, for instance, in Psycho. Setpieces are the tent poles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes – and as certain key scenes, like the Inciting Incident.

And I think it’s one of the very best lessons we as authors can take from filmmakers.

So I want to break down a key scene among key scenes – the INCITING INCIDENT, or INCITING EVENT, and show how a few of my favorite movies handle that scene.

The Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy.

I would like to emphasize, for new writers, that SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT.

You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem – but I strongly suggest that you get to your INCITING INCIDENT as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.

This beat also often called the CALL TO ADVENTURE (from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, summarized by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey), and that's the phrase I actually prefer, it's just more - more.

But I’ve been watching a lot of classic movies lately (God bless TCM!) and the more I look at this story beat, the more I’ve realized that while the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are often the same scene – they are just as often two completely different scenes. And it’s useful to be aware of when and how they’re different, so you can bring out the particular qualities of each scene, and know when to combine them and when to separate them.

In Jaws, the inciting incident is immediate, occurring on the first pages of the book and the first seconds of the movie: the shark swims into the Amityville harbor and attacks and kills a swimmer. The protagonist, Sheriff Brody, is not present for the inciting incident, he’s not even aware of it. The next morning he gets a phone call reporting a missing person, possible drowning, and he goes off to investigate, not having any idea what he’s about to get into. It’s a very small moment, played over the ordinary sounds of a family kitchen in the morning.

But we’ve already seen the big setpiece inciting incident and we know what he’s in for.

However, I don’t think that Inciting Incident is the actual Call To Adventure. I think that comes at the climax of Act One, when the bereaved mother of a little boy who was killed in the second shark attack walks out on the pier and slaps Sheriff Brody, accusing him of killing her son (because he didn’t close the beaches after the first attack) in front of all the townspeople. And this is one of the best examples I know of an emotional setpiece: the camera just holds on the mother’s ravaged face as she goes on for what feels like forever, telling Brody that her son would be alive if he’d done the right thing to begin with. And as she stands there against the sun and sky, the black veil she is wearing whips around her face in the wind… she looks like the Angel of Death, or an ancient Fate, or a Fury. It’s a moment with mythic resonance, in which Brody is called to right this wrong himself, to redeem himself for this unwitting and tragic mistake. Now that is a real Call – not just to adventure, but to redemption.

It’s one of the most haunting scenes of the movie – and I find it really interesting that Spielberg uses it as his Act I Climax instead of another shark attack.

The Inciting Incident of a love story is very often meeting the love interest. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant hovers in the aisles of his little bookshop, realizing that the customer who just walked in is the movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). In a prolonged moment he watches her as she browses, but he’s not just gawking at a celebrity. It’s a classic depiction of how time seems to stop when the Beloved walks into our lives, and we get to experience that moment with him.

In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are the same scene, and a whole lot of other things are going on in the scene as well – it’s one of my favorite Calls To Adventure for all the layers of it.

Professor Indiana Jones is called out of his archeology class by his mentor Marcus, who also serves as a HERALD here, too, summoning Indy to a meeting with a pair of government agents who will deliver the actual Call To Adventure. It’s worth noting as a technique that having this double layer to the Call – first a Herald appearing to say to the hero/ine, “There’s someone here with a job for you”, and then escorting the hero/ine to a different location where another set of messengers delivers the call, builds up the importance of the moment and the mission.

And the location of this next scene, where the government agents (US Army Intelligence) explain the mission, is very significant here. This scene could have been set just in an office. Instead, the filmmakers make it a setpiece all on its own by putting it in a huge, elegant, high-ceilinged auditorium with stained glass windows, creating a cathedral-like ambiance. The setting gives us a feeling of the import of this mission. And since the Call is one of the most exciting and crucial moments of any story, why not give it a setting to create an extra layer of excitement and significance?

We learn from the government guys that a Nazi telegraph has been intercepted and Hitler’s men are looking for Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood. Indy and Marcus interpret the telegraph: The Nazis have discovered an archeological site where supposedly the Lost Ark of the Covenant has been buried for millennia, and they think Ravenwood can help them pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

Hitler has been sending teams of Nazis out all over the globe collecting occult artifacts (this is historically true). Ominously, the legend of this particular artifact, the Ark, is that it will make any army who bears it invincible.

These are the really huge STAKES of this story, and our FEAR: If Hitler gets the Ark, it will make the German army invincible. World domination = not good.

So we also get a glimpse of what Indy is up against: his real OPPONENT is the ultimate bad guy: Hitler and the whole German army.

And our HOPE is that Indy finds the Ark before Hitler does.

This is also a good example of an EXPLAINING THE MYTHOLOGY scene – you often see these when the mission is convoluted, or fantastical – such as in horror movies, sci-fi, fantasy – and the scene often includes the hero explaining the rules to an outsider. Here, it’s Indy and Marcus explaining the history of the Ark to the government guys. And they also explain that the Nazis want to find Ravenwood because he has a medallion that can be used to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark (Indy draws all this on a blackboard, a SET UP for when we see him do for real it at the Midpoint). So we also get the whole PLAN of the movie in this scene.

There is also a big SET UP and FORESHADOWING with the illustrations of the Ark bringing down the wrath of God on a blasphemous army – it’s a sketch of exactly what happens in the final scene.

However, although Indy knows the mythology of the Ark, he quickly adds, “If you believe all that stuff.” – indicating that he himself does not believe it. This is an action-adventure film, there isn’t a huge CHARACTER ARC here, but this is what it is: Indy starts out scoffing at the supernatural and mystical and ends up barely saving his life and Marion’s precisely by believing in the power of the Ark and showing reverence. (The secondary character arc has to do with reconciling romantically with Marion, although in the trilogy that doesn’t last long. There is also even a reference to this GHOST when Indy says, with some shame – that he and Ravenwood had “a sort of falling-out.”)

Also, adding to the THEME of world religions, there are several Judeo-Christian references in the University scene – the auditorium that looks like a church, with the stained glass windows, the leather-bound text that looks like a Bible, the references to the story of Moses and the Israelites and the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the wrath of God. Marcus’s voice echoes in the auditorium like the voice of a priest.

The tag line of the scene is Marcus saying: “An army carrying the Ark before it was said to be invincible”, leaving us a moment to think about that most important point as the scene changes.

All of that, about a dozen key story elements – in one scene! It’s really a miracle of compression.

I look at those three examples I just detailed above, all chosen because they were the first Call To Adventure scenes that came immediately to my mind, and I realize that even though they’re very different stories and styles, what those scenes all have in common for me is a sense of mystical, or even mythical, importance. That’s certainly my preference as a writer and reader, but I also think that there should be something mystical and mythical about any Call To Adventure scene. It’s the scene that summons the hero/ine to the journey, and invites us, the reader or audience, to come along. Shouldn’t that be magical?

I’ve also just realized that in my most recent books, Book of Shadows, and Huntress Moon, the protagonist’s Call To Adventure in the crime story is simultaneous with meeting the love interest. I didn’t do that in previous books, and the Inciting Incidents and Calls To Adventure in my other books are separate scenes. I wonder if I’m getting more efficient at storytelling - or if possibly my stories are getting more twisted! But I look at what I’m doing now and I know it’s right that those two story elements occur together; it says something thematically that I definitely wanted to say, although I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time I wrote those scenes.

All of which I think illustrates the point that I’m always trying to make in my blogs and teaching – that taking the time to analyze a particular story element by looking at examples that really do it for you – can take your writing to a whole other level.

So do you have examples for us of favorite Inciting Incidents and/or Calls To Adventure – from your favorite movies and books or from your own books or WIPs.



All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Key Story Elements: Opening Image

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” 

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

Just as filmmakers consciously design some of these key story scenes for maximum emotional and visual impact, we as novelists can be doing the same thing on the page for our readers — making the most of critical scenes such as ESTABLISHING THE HERO/INE’S GHOST, THE CALL TO ADVENTURE, CROSSING THE THRESHOLD, ESTABLISHING THE PLAN, and so on.

So this week I want to look more closely at a few of those key story elements (and that’s key to all genres) and detail some examples of how filmmakers create these beats as setpiece scenes. And of course, these key scenes are very often used as act climaxes or sequence climaxes — we’ll talk about which elements are generally used as which act climaxes.

                 Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


As I said earlier, in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you put any planning into it or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will very consciously design that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the story: mood, tone, location, and especially theme. There can be more than just one image or shot at work, too; sometimes it’s more like a whole opening scene.

The opening image of Romancing the Stone is a small, stuffy cabin — which quickly opens up to a classic, gorgeous Western landscape of magnificent buttes in a desert setting; the heroine of the opening scene is a voluptuous buckskin-clad heroine straight from the old bodice-rippers. It’s adventure and romance, which the voice-over narration also establishes as comic and tongue-in-cheek. It’s a great miniature of the whole story — this is protagonist Joan Wilder’s fantasy, which quickly becomes her not-so-appealing reality.

The opening image(s) of Notting Hill is a montage of movie star Anna Scott’s career: newspaper headlines, magazine spreads, photo shoots, paparazzi tailing her at premieres and the Oscars. This montage sets up this story’s unusual antagonist; it’s Anna’s fame that is the constant opposition to Will and Anna’s love, and the storytellers make that fame concrete and vivid in these images.

The opening image of New in Town is a frozen, wintry landscape, symbolizing the heroine’s frozen emotions, and then the first scene shows a group of three women scrapbooking and talking about the fate of the new plant manager, a scene that brings to mind the three Norns, or Fates, of Scandinavian myth.

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

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

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

One of my favorite opening images/sequences is the credits scene of The Shining. I don’t think there’s a creepier opening to be found anywhere in film. It’s all aerial camerawork of those vast, foreboding mountains as that tiny little car drives up, up, up toward what turns out to be the Overlook Hotel. It’s vertiginous, it’s ominous, it emphasizes the utter isolation of the hotel and the circumstances, and somehow, through the music and the visuals and the constant movement, Kubrick establishes a sense of huge, vast, and malevolent natural forces. As a thriller writer (or whatever you want to call me), I am constantly looking for ways to convey all those things — that experience — on the page. Mo Hayder’s The Treatment is one of my favorite recent examples … when she focuses on a murder of crows strutting on the grass of a crime scene, evil just rolls off the page, and you start to wonder if you really want to keep reading the book. (It’s worth every shudder, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

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

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

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

- Alex

ASSIGNMENT: Make a list. Visual or not visual — what are some of your favorite book and movie openings of all time?

ASSIGNMENT: Now look at your own opening pages. Are they visual? Do we know where we are? Can you make that location, and the things we see in it, thematically meaningful?


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