Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nanowrimo: The Third Quarter Drop-Dead


Home stretch!

Well, theoretically, anyway. But I find that right about now is when people tend to start dropping during Nano. First of all there's, well, Thanksgiving. Which even though it's a holiday, involves family, and family is never conducive to marathon writing. (They don't like to lose us to a book, it's just the truth. It brings up all kinds of feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. So - pretend you're going shopping and go to a cafe to write, that's what they're for.)

But also, let's face it, it's EASY to write a first act. It's new, it's fresh, it's exciting, it's like the first flush of being in love. You're so high you don't stop to think, and that means you don't get in your own way.

It can even be not so hard to get through Act II, part 1 to the Midpoint. But it's that third quarter where things get murky. You feel like you're not getting anywhere. In fact, you have no freaking clue where you are, or why in the hell you're wherever the hell you are to begin with, and you just want to give up and sleep for a week, or eat turkey and chocolate for a week, or all of the above.

I had a friend in movie development who called it "the third-quarter drop dead."

Well, here's an interesting thing. Structurally, this is EXACTLY the point in your story that your hero/ine is feeling those exact same things. In other words, it's the BLACK MOMENT, or ALL IS LOST MOMENT, or the VISIT TO DEATH, which almost always ends up as the climax or just before the climax of Act II.

It's as if we as authors have to work ourselves into the exact same hopeless despair as our characters, as if nothing good will ever come out of this situation and we might as well give up right now - in order to convey that emotion on the page and feel that exhilaration when the character SOLVES the problem and gets that final revelation and makes that final plan.

So if you find yourself in this situation, you might want to review the elements of Act II: Part 2, and take a look at some of these questions to see if they might help you find your way.


ACT II:2

In a 2-hour movie this section starts at about 60 minutes, and ends at about 90 minutes.

In a 400-page book, this section starts at about p. 300 and ends toward the end of the book.

Now, remember, at the end of Act II, part 1, there is a MIDPOINT CLIMAX, which I'll review briefly because it's so important.

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

And I strongly encourage you as authors to pay as much attention to your midpoint as filmmakers do with theirs.


THE MIDPOINT –

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

(More on MIDPOINT).


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

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

What’s the new plan?

* STAKES

A good story will always be clear about the stakes. Characters often speak the stakes aloud.

How have the stakes changed? Do we have new hopes or fears about what the protagonist will do and what will happen to him or her?


* ESCALATING ACTIONS/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

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

Do we see a new level of commitment in the hero/ine?

How are the hero/ine’s actions becoming more desperate?

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

* INCREASED ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST

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

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

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

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

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

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

* REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS/TWISTS

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

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

What is the All Is Lost scene?

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

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

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

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

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

* Often is a SETPIECE.

More discussion on Elements Of Act II:2

And here are the elements  for Act Three:

ACT THREE

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

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

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

2. The final battle itself (Sequence 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Closing Image

More on Act Three:

Elements of Act Three

What Makes a Great Climax?


Elevate Your Ending


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

What KIND Of Story Is It?

I hope that there's something there to get you through that third quarter, but I'll post a few more brainstorming tricks this week.

In the meantime, good luck with the family! I mean, Happy Thanksgiving!

Alex


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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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Monday, November 18, 2013

Nanowrimo: The MIDPOINT

Okay, it's a little past the midpoint of the month, so some, not all, of you will be coming up on the midpoint of your books. I am as ever skeptical that you can really get to the midpoint of a book in two weeks... but it's still a good reason to talk about one of the most important elements of any book, film, TV show, or play.

THE MIDPOINT

All of the first half of the second act – that’s p. 30-60 in a script, p. 100 to p. 200 in a 400-page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. So the Midpoint occurs at about one hour into a movie, and at about page 200 in a book.

The Midpoint is also often called the MOMENT OF COMMITMENT or the POINT OF NO RETURN or NO TURNING BACK: the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action. 

The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film: a major shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 minutes, not sixty years!).

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we will discuss further in the chapter on Creating Suspense (Chapter 31). A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The Midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and NEW PLAN of attack. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

Let's look at some examples.

As I've said before, a favorite PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION of mine is in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables.

Young FBI agent Eliot Ness is assigned to bring down mobster Al Capone. So far no one in law enforcement or government has been able to pin Capone to any of his heinous crimes; he keeps too much distance between himself and the actual killings, hijackings, extortions, etc. One of Ness’ Untouchable team, a FBI accountant, proposes that the team gather evidence and nail Capone on federal tax evasion. It’s not sexy, but the penalty is up to 25 years in prison. (As you might know, this PLAN is historically accurate: Al Capone was actually finally charged and imprisoned on the charge of tax evasion.)

So the PLAN and CENTRAL ACTION of the story becomes to locate one of Capone’s bookkeepers, take him into custody and force him to testify against Capone. Which they do. (With plenty of action sequences, of course.)

So as we approach the MIDPOINT, Ness’s team has the bookkeeper in custody, the trial is set, and Ness’s men are escorting the bookkeeper to court.

But the movie is only half over. So of course, as very often happens at the midpoint, the plan fails. In a suspenseful and emotional wrenching MIDPOINT CLIMAX, Ness’s accountant teammate, whom we have come to love, escorts the bookkeeper into the courthouse elevator to take him up to the courtroom. As the doors close, we see the police guard is actually one of Capone’s men.

Ness and his other teammate (a criminally hot Andy Garcia), realize that something’s wrong and race up (down?) the stairs to catch the elevator, but arrive to find a bloodbath – both accountants brutally murdered, and the word TOUCHABLE painted on the elevator in blood.

So the plan is totally foiled – they have no witness and no more case. It’s a great midpoint reversal, because we – and Ness himself – have no idea what the team is going to be able to do next (and also Ness is so emotionally devastated by the loss of his teammate that he begins to do reckless things.).
Not only does the murder of the two accountants (Capone's and Ness's) completely annihilate Ness's PLAN), but the murder of Ness's teammate makes the stakes deeply personal.

But a Midpoint doesn’t have to be a huge action scene. Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the Midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses. Staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes in much the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the Midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax; it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.

(I will concede that in Raiders, you could call the Midpoint a two-parter: Indy’s discovery that Marion is still alive is a big twist. But personally I think that scene is part of the next sequence).

Another very different kind of midpoint occurs in Silence of the Lambs: the “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have only three days before Buffalo Bill kills her. Clarice goes in at first to offer Lecter what she knows he desires most (because he has STATED his desire, clearly and early on) – a transfer to a Federal prison, away from Dr. Chilton and with a view. Clarice has a file with that offer from Senator Martin – she says – but in reality the offer is a total fake. We don’t know this at the time, but it has been cleverly PLANTED that it’s impossible to fool Lecter (Crawford sends Clarice in to the first interview without telling her what the real purpose is so that Lecter won’t be able to read her). But Clarice has learned and grown enough to fool Lecter – and there’s a great payoff when Lecter later acknowledges that fact.

The deal is not enough for Lecter, though – he demands that Clarice do exactly what her boss, Crawford, has warned her never to do: he wants her to swap personal information for clues – a classic deal with the devil game.

After Clarice confesses painful secrets, Lecter gives her the clue she’s been digging for – to search for Buffalo Bill through the sex reassignment clinics. And as is so often the case, there is a second climax within the midpoint – the film cuts to the killer in his basement, standing over the pit making a terrified Catherine put lotion on her skin – it’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes. (Each climax in SOTL is a one-two punch - screen the movie again and see what I mean!).

I recently reread Harlan Coben's The Woods, which employs a great technique to craft an explosive Midpoint: the book has an A story and a B story (well, really, with Coben it's always about sixteen different threads of each plot intricately interwoven, but two main plots). In the B story, the protagonist is prosecuting two frat boys who raped a stripper at a frat party, and at the Midpoint is the main courtroom confrontation of that plot. The storyline continues, but now it becomes subordinate (and of course interconnected to) to the building A plot. This very emotional climaxing of the B plot at the midpoint is a terrifically effective structure technique that is great to have in your story structure toolbox.

In Sense and Sensibility, the Midpoint is the emotionally wrenching scene in which Lucy Steele reveals to Elinor that she has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for five years. We are so committed to Edward and Elinor’s love that we are as devastated as Elinor is, and just as shocked that Edward would have lied to her. The Midpoint is even more wrenching because Elinor’s sister Marianne has also just been abandoned by her love interest. It’s a double-punch to the gut.

In Notting Hill, Julia Roberts has asked Hugh Grant up to her hotel suite for the first time, and Hugh walks in to find that Julia’s movie star boyfriend, Alec Baldwin, whom Hugh knew nothing about, is already there with her. We know that Hugh’s GHOST is that his ex-wife left him for a man who looked just like Harrison Ford (Alec is pretty close!), and to add to this blow, Alec mistakes Hugh for a room-service waiter and tips him, asking him to clean up while he takes Julia into the bedroom. Total emotional annihilation.

In a romance, the Midpoint is very often sexual or emotional. But the Midpoint can often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home.

Note that the Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene; it can be a double punch as I just pointed out about Sense And Sensibility, and it can also be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal, a cliffhanger – all or any combination of the above.

One of the great Midpoints in theater and film is in My Fair Lady. Talk about a double punch! There is not one iconic song at the Midpoint curtain, but two: first “The Rain In Spain”, in which Eliza finally starts to speak with perfect diction, and Professor Higgins, the Colonel, and Eliza celebrate with wild and joyous dancing: a moment of triumph. Then when the housekeeper takes Eliza upstairs to bed, Higgins privately tells the Colonel that she’s ready: they can test her out in public. He intends to take her to an Embassy ball and pass her off as a lady to win his bet with the Colonel, which Eliza knows nothing about. Meanwhile upstairs, giddy with happiness, Eliza sings “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and we realize she has fallen in love with the Professor.

Not just two of the greatest songs of the musical theater in a row, but all of this SETUP, big HOPE, FEAR, and STAKES. Eliza is in love with Higgins and he’s just using her for a bet. There’s a huge TEST coming up at this ball, and we saw excitable Eliza fail miserably in her first public test at the Ascot races. There’s a penalty of prison for impersonating a lady, so there are not just the emotional stakes of a possible broken heart, but possible prison time.

Do you think anyone was not going to come back into the theater to see what happens at that ball?

Asking a big question like that is a great technique to use at the Midpoint.

A totally different, but equally famous example: in Jaws, the Midpoint climax is actually a whole sequence long: a highly suspenseful setpiece in which the city officials have refused to shut down the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks and swallows a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near-paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), Brody decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in my poltergeist novel The Unseen, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold: what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty.”  It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough.

The Midpoint often LOCKS THE HERO/INE INTO A COURSE OF ACTION, or sometimes, physically locks the hero/ine into a location.

A great recent example is Inception: at the Midpoint, there’s a big action sequence, ending in a gun battle in which one of the allies, Saito (who hired the team to break into this dream) is badly wounded, and the team discovers that they can’t get out of the dream while Saito is unconscious. They’re stuck, perhaps forever, which forces them to devise a new PLAN.

There’s a not-so recent movie called Ghost Ship, about a salvage crew investigating a derelict ocean liner which has mysteriously appeared out in the middle of the Bering Straight, after being lost without a trace for forty years. At the Midpoint, the salvage crew’s own boat mysteriously catches on fire and sinks (taking one of the crew with it), forcing the entire crew to board the haunted ocean liner. They are physically locked into the situation, now, and their original PLAN – to tow the ocean liner back to shore – must change; they now have to repair the ocean liner and sail her out of the Strait. This development also solves the perennial problem of haunted house – or haunted ship – stories: “Why don’t the characters just leave?”

It’s a great Midpoint scene for all of the above reasons, plus it’s a great visual and action setpiece: the explosion of the salvage boat, the rescue (and loss) of crew members, and the suspense of who will get out of the water and on to the ocean liner alive.

So as you're writing your fingers off, try taking a minute to contemplate what your Midpoint is, and how it changes the action of your book. If you can devise a great setpiece for your midpoint and also somehow destroy your hero'ine's initial plan, you won't have to worry about a sagging middle section, because you and your hero/ine will suddenly be scrambling to figure out a brand new and exiting plan of action to get their desire.

It really is the KEY to Act II.

- Alex


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

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.


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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Nanowrimo: The PLAN (Act II)


So now we're over a third of the way into the month, and if you've been doing Nano diligently you may be up to 20,000 words. Amazing, but some people really do get that far this month.

Depending on how thorough you're being with all this writing, then, you've probably written the first act and are moving into the second. Or if you're taking this "write a book in a month" thing literally, then you're closer to the midpoint.  Of a very short book.

Either way, you are currently faced with or already struggling with the dreaded second act. Although anyone who has the workbooks and/or reads this blog regularly shouldn't fear the second act any more, right?

But today I wanted to review what I think it the key to any second act, and really the whole key to story structure: The PLAN.

You always hear that “Drama is conflict,” but when you think about it –what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonists’, PLANS.

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

And the protagonist’s plan (and the corresponding plan of the antagonist’s) actually drives the entire action of the second act. Stating the plan tells us what the CENTRAL ACTION of the story will be. So it’s critical to set up the plan by the end of Act One, or at the very beginning of Act Two, at the latest.

Let’s look at some examples of how plans work.

I always  like to start, improbably, with the actioner 2012even though I thought it was a pretty terrible movie overall.

Now, I’m sure in a theater this movie delivered on its primary objective, which was a rollercoaster ride as only Hollywood special effects can provide. Whether we like it or not, there is obviously a massive worldwide audience for movies that are primarily about delivering pure sensation. Story isn’t important, nor, apparently, is basic logic. As long as people keep buying enough tickets to these movies to make them profitable, it’s the business of Hollywood to keep churning them out.

But in 2012, even in that rollercoaster ride of special effects and sensations, there was a clear central PLAN for an audience to hook into, a plan that drove the story. Without that plan, 2012 really would have been nothing but a chaos of special effects.

If you’ve seen this movie (and I know some of you have … ), there is a point in the first act where a truly over-the-top Woody Harrelson as an Art Bell-like conspiracy pirate radio commentator rants to protagonist John Cusack about having a map that shows the location of “spaceships” that the government is stocking to abandon planet when the prophesied end of the world commences.

 Although Cusack doesn’t believe it at the time, this is the PLANT (sort of camouflaged by the fact that Woody is a nutjob), that gives the audience the idea of what the PLAN OF ACTION will be: Cusack will have to go back for the map in the midst of all the cataclysm, then somehow get his family to these “spaceships” in order for all of them to survive the end of the world.

The PLAN is reiterated, in dialogue, when Cusack gets back to his family and tells his ex-wife basically exactly what I just said above: “We’re going to go back to the nutjob with the map so that we can get to those spaceships and get off the planet before it collapses.”

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens; it’s not only Cusack’s PLAN, but the central action of the story, that can be summed up as a CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Cusack be able to get his family to the spaceships before the world ends?

Or put another way, the CENTRAL STORY ACTION is John Cusack getting his family to the spaceships before the world ends.

(Note the ticking clock, there, as well. And as if the end of the world weren’t enough, the movie also starts a literal “Twenty-nine minutes to the end of the world!” ticking computer clock at, yes, 29 minutes before the end of the movie. I must point out here that ticking clocks are dangerous because of the huge cliché factor. We all need to study structure to know what not to do, as well.)

And all this happens about the end of Act I.  Remember that I said that it’s essential to have laid out the CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION by the end of Act I? But also at this point – or possibly just after the climax of Act I, in the very beginning of Act II – we need to know what the PLAN is. PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION are integrally related, and I keep looking for ways to talk about it because this is such an important concept to master.

A reader/audience really needs to know what the overall PLAN is, even if they only get it in a subconscious way. Otherwise they are left floundering, wondering where the hell all of this is going.

In 2012, even in the midst of all the buildings crumbling and crevasses opening and fires booming and planes crashing, we understand on some level what is going on:

             - What does the protagonist want? (OUTER DESIRE) To save his family.

             - How is he going to do it? (PLAN) By getting the map from the nutjob and getting his family to the secret spaceships (that aren’t really spaceships).

             - What’s standing in his way? (FORCES OF OPPOSITION) About a million natural disasters as the planet caves in, an evil politician who has put a billion dollar price tag on tickets for the spaceship, a Russian Mafioso who keeps being in the same place at the same time as Cusack, and sometimes ends up helping, and sometimes ends up hurting. (Was I the only one queased out by the way all the Russian characters were killed off, leaving only the most obnoxious kids on the planet?)
Here’s another example, from a much better movie:

 At the end of the first sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark (which is arguably two sequences in itself, first the action sequence in the cave in South America, then the university sequence back in the US), Indy has just finished teaching his archeology class when his mentor, Marcus, comes to meet him with a couple of government agents who have a job for him (CALL TO ADVENTURE). The agents explain that Hitler has become obsessed with collecting occult artifacts from all over the world, and is currently trying to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to make any army in possession of it invincible in battle.

 So there’s the MACGUFFIN, the object that everyone wants, and the STAKES: if Hitler’s minions (THE ANTAGONISTS) get this Ark before Indy does, the Nazi army will be invincible.

And then Indy explains his PLAN to find the Ark: his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was an expert on the Ark and had an ancient Egyptian medallion on which was inscribed the instructions for using the medallion to find the hidden location of the Ark.

So after hearing the plan, we understand the entire OVERALL ACTION of the story: Indy is going to find Abner (his mentor) to get the medallion, then use the medallion to find the Ark before Hitler’s minions can get it.

And even though there are lots of twists along the way, that’s really it: the basic action of the story.

Generally, PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are really the same thing – the Central Action of the story is carrying out the specific Plan. And the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story is – “Will the Plan succeed?”

Again, the PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are almost always set up – and spelled out – by the end of the first act, although the specifics of the Plan may be spelled out right after the Act I Climax at the very beginning of Act II. 

 Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can sit back and let you drive.

If you haven’t done this yet, take a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identify the PLAN, CENTRAL STORY ACTION and CENTRAL QUESTION and them in a few sentences. Like this:

             - In Inception, the PLAN is for the team of dream burglars to go into a corporate heir’s dreams to plant the idea of breaking up his father’s corporation. (So the CENTRAL ACTION is going into the corporate heir’s dream and planting the idea, and the CENTRAL QUESTION is:  Will they succeed?)



             - In Sense and Sensibility, the PLAN is for Marianne and Elinor to secure the family’s fortune and their own happiness by marrying well. (How are they going to do that? By the period’s equivalent of dating – which is the CENTRAL ACTION. Yes, dating is a PLAN! The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will the sisters succeed in marrying well?)

             - In The Proposal, Margaret’s PLAN is to learn enough about Andrew over the four-day weekend with his family to pass the INS marriage test so she won’t be deported. (The CENTRAL ACTION is going to Alaska to meet Andrew’s family and pretending to be married while they learn enough about each other to pass the test. The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will they be able to successfully fake the marriage?

Now, try it with your own story!

             - What does the protagonist WANT?

             - How does s/he PLAN to do it?

             - What and who is standing in his or her way?

For example, in my latest thriller, Book of Shadows, here's the Act One set up: the protagonist, homicide detective Adam Garrett, is called on to investigate the murder of a college girl, which looks like a Satanic killing. Garrett and his partner make a quick arrest of a classmate of the girl's, a troubled Goth musician. But Garrett is not convinced of the boy's guilt, and when a practicing witch from nearby Salem insists the boy is innocent and there have been other murders, he is compelled to investigate further.

So Garrett’s PLAN and the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is to use the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing.  The CENTRAL QUESTION is: will they catch the killer before s/he kills again – and/or kills Garrett (if the witch turns out to be the killer)?

             - What does the protagonist WANT? To catch the killer before s/he kills again.

             - How does he PLAN to do it? By using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate further.

             - What’s standing in his way? His own department, the killer, and possibly the witch herself. And if the witch is right … possibly even a demon.

It’s important to note that the Plan and Central Action of the story are not always driven by the protagonist. Usually, yes. But in The Matrix, it’s Neo’s mentor Morpheus who has the overall PLAN, which drives the central action right up until the end of the second act. The Plan is to recruit and train Neo, whom Morpheus believes is “The One” prophesied to destroy the Matrix. So that’s the action we see unfolding: Morpheus recruiting, deprogramming and training Neo, who is admittedly very cute, but essentially just following Morpheus’s orders for two thirds of the movie.

Does this weaken the structure of that film? Not at all. Morpheus drives the action until that crucial point, the Act Two Climax, when he is abducted by the agents of the Matrix, at which point Neo steps into his greatness and becomes “The One” by taking over the action and making a new plan: to rescue Morpheus by sacrificing himself.

It is a terrific way to show a huge character arc: Neo stepping into his destiny. And I would add that this is a common structural pattern for mythic journey stories – in Lord of the Rings, it's Gandalf who has the PLAN and drives the reluctant Frodo in the central story action until Frodo finally takes over the action himself.

Here’s another example. In the very funny romantic comedy It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep’s character Jane is the protagonist, but she doesn’t drive the action or have any particular plan of her own. It’s her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), who seduces her and at the end of the first act, proposes (in an extremely persuasive speech) that they continue this affair as a perfect solution to both their love troubles – it will fulfill their sexual and intimacy needs without disrupting the rest of their lives.

Jane decides at that point to go along with Jake’s plan (saying, “I forgot what a good lawyer you are”). In terms of action, she is essentially passive, letting the two men in her life court her (which results in bigger and bigger comic entanglements), but that makes for a more pronounced and satisfying character arc when she finally takes a stand and breaks off the affair with Jake for good, so she can finally move on with her life.

I would venture to guess that most of us know what it’s like to be swept up in a ripping good love entanglement, and can sympathize with Jane’s desire just to go with the passion of it without having to make any pesky practical decisions. It’s a perfectly fine – and natural – structure for a romantic comedy, as long as at that key juncture, the protagonist has the realization and balls – or ovaries – to take control of her own life again and make a stand for what she truly wants.

I give you these last two examples – hopefully – to show how helpful it can be to study the specific structure of stories that are similar to your own. As you can see from the above, the general writing rule that the protagonist drives the action may not apply to what you’re writing – and you might want to make a different choice that will better serve your own story. And that goes for any general writing rule.

 QUESTIONS: 

Have you identified the CENTRAL ACTION of your story? Do you know what the protagonist's and antagonist's PLANS are?  At what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of the protagonist’s PLAN?  Is it stated aloud? Can you make it clearer than it is?

And yes, let's hear how everyone's doing!

Alex


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

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.


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Friday, November 08, 2013

Nanowrimo: Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure (and SETPIECES)

Oh, all right, one more post on the Inciting Incident.

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. Great 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 thrillers 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 here's the suggestion of the day.  Either before you go on to your Nano Act II, - or later, when you're done with the fast first draft and are looking to rewrite, try taking a moment to really consider whether your Call to Adventure is living up to the name.

Alex



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

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.


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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Nanowrimo: Something has to happen (Inciting Incident)

So, Nano, Day 6! Those of you who are doing it should be deep into your Act I by now. And I was going to do a general reminder of the Elements of Act I, but there are a few elements of Act I that are so very key that I'm going to do a few focused posts first.

Of all the many things I love about e books, I may love this feature the most: sampling. I'm a voracious browser and when I want something to read, unless I know exactly the book I want, I'll often go through a few dozen first chapters of a few dozen books in a row to find something that grabs me. 

This is a fantastic exercise when you're struggling with a first chapter of your own.

I read through a bunch of first chapters last night, a couple dozen books at least, and it was pretty shocking how few of them grabbed me enough for me to want to keep reading.

Now, I'm not saying these books are badly written. The prose is fine, really. I'm just like everyone - there are very few books out there (proportionately) that I'm actually going to take the time to read. I like certain things in a book and if they're not there, I'll move on. Nothing wrong with that AT ALL - the wonderful thing about books is that there ARE books that deliver the exact or almost exact experience we're looking for. So of course we look for those over less satisfying ones. I'm perfectly aware that just as many people discard MY books after the first few pages because I'M not delivering the experience they're looking for. I'm certainly not for everyone's tastes.

But there was something I was noticing in book after book that I started and then discarded last night that was just a structural error that could so easily have been fixed to - I think - increase the number of people who would want to keep reading. It's pretty simple, really.

I couldn't figure out what the book was about.


Or why I should care, either.

What was missing in the first ten, or twenty, pages I was reading was the INCITING INCIDENT (or the term I prefer - CALL TO ADVENTURE).

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. (More discussion on this key story element here).

SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT.


You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but there is something about that first action that lets us know, at least subconsciously: "Oh, I get it. That teenage girl was murdered and that cop is going to find the killer." "Oh, I get it. There's a shark out there off the coast eating tourists and that police chief is going to have to get rid of it somehow."

And once we know that, we can relax. It is a very disorienting and irritating thing not to know where a story is going.

Which means in general you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. And I would argue it's critical to get it out there if your book is or has any chance of being an e book, too, because it's just so easy to go on to the next e book on your reader.

Genre fiction is popular because we go in knowing pretty much what the story is going to be about. The kid is kidnapped and the detective has to get him back. The house is haunted and the new residents are going to have to fight to survive. But setting your book in a certain genre does not always guarantee that the reader is going to know what the story is going to be about (as evidenced by what I was reading last night.)

So I'm suggesting - find a way to get that critical inciting incident into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it right up front.

Reading a bunch of first chapters in a row points out a lot of common errors, actually. So here’s a brief list.

1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”. It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas refers to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. And that's what Nano is about.  Exactly. Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later. (for more on this: Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck)

BUT - when you’ve gotten to the end, you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, 50 pages later than you do. And this is partly why:

For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages. Back story is not story. So -

2. NEVER MIND THE FUCKING BACKSTORY!!!!!

With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action. You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more specifically, CAUGHT UP in a movie. The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.

We don’t need to know who this person is, yet. Let them keep secrets. Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook. What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.

Here are two tips:

3. IDENTIFY THE SENSATION AND EXPERIENCE YOU WANT TO EVOKE IN YOUR READER – AND THEN MAKE SURE YOU’RE EVOKING IT.

I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.

Now that you know what the experience is that you want to create, start to look at great examples of books and films that successfully create that experience FOR YOU. In other words - Make A List.

4. USE ALL SIX SENSES.

A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense. All six categories, every three pages.

5. SHOW, DON’T TELL.

This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”. Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling. If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give me a family history and Freudian analysis.


6. DETAIL THE INTERNAL DRIVES OF YOUR CHARACTER AND SET THE GENRE.

You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.

What we need to know their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM. We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them. We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME.

So while you're writing your brains out today, take a few minutes to ask yourself these key questions:

Do you know where your inciting incident is? Is it soon enough? Honestly?

Do we KNOW where your story is going by page ten of your book?

Can you maybe do a little rearranging to make sure this happens, before you move on?

And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.

- Alex


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

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.



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