I’m very excited to be teaching one of the writing Master Classes for the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival next month, along with the brilliant Denise Mina, one of my all-time favorite authors and a major inspiration for my Huntress Moon thrillers.
I always like to give my workshop students some optional homework in the weeks before classes, so that we get the most out of our workshop time – and also so that those of you who can’t make the workshop can play along at home!
What I teach in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshops is basic film story structure: the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure.
USC film school teaches it, the screenwriting story structure gurus teach it, all film execs and producers are aware of it even if it’s only in a vague way, and even screenwriters who claim not to follow this structure pattern do it to some extent or another. And it translates beautifully to novel writing. Not only does it make writing novels much easier – this is a rhythm of storytelling that readers (and audiences) are so used to that if you aren't using it to your advantage, they’re going to feel like something’s missing! You don’t want that to happen.
But I want my students to analyze examples that are meaningful to them, so the first assignment I give my workshop students is THE MASTER LIST: a list of ten novels and films that are specific to the story and genre you’re working on, and more importantly, that have had the maximum emotional and intellectual effect on you.
> ASSIGNMENT: List ten books and films that are similar to your own story in structure and/or genre (at least five books and three movies if you’re writing a book, at least five movies if you’re writing a script.).
Or if you’re trying to decide on the right project for you to work on, then make a list of ten books and films that you wish you had written!
And you people who feel like you’ve done this for me already – remember that it’s good practice to make a master list for every new project you’re working on! Your lists will be different for different books.
It’s very simple: in order to write stories like the ones that move you, you need to look at the stories that affect you and figure out what those authors and filmmakers are doing to get the effect they do.
Every genre has its own structural patterns and its own tricks. Screenwriter Ryan Rowe says it perfectly: “Every genre has its own game that it’s playing with the audience.”
For example, with a mystery, the game is “Whodunit?” You are going to toy with a reader or audience’s expectations and lead them down all kinds of false paths with red herrings so that they are constantly in the shoes of the hero/ine, trying to figure the puzzle out.
But with a romantic comedy or classic romance, there’s no mystery involved. 99.99% of the time the hero and heroine are going to end up together. The game in that genre is often to show, through the hero and heroine, how we are almost always our own worst enemies in love, and how we throw up all kinds of obstacles in our own paths to keep ourselves from getting what we want.
So if you’re writing a story like It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s not going to help you much to study Apocalypse Now. A story that ends with a fallen hero/ine is not going to have the same story shape as one that ends with a transcended hero/ine. (Although if both kinds of films end up on your list of favorite stories, you might find one is the other in reverse. That’s why you need to make your own lists!)
Once you start looking at the games that genres play, you will also start to understand the games that you most love, and that you want to play with your readers and audience.
I’m primarily a thriller writer, and my personal favorite game is: “Is it supernatural or is it psychological?” I love to walk the line between the real and unreal, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. That’s why my master list for any book or script I write will almost always include The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both classic books (and films) that walk the line between the supernatural and the psychological.
But what works for me structurally is not necessarily going to do it for you.
If you take the time to 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.
Another great benefit of making the master list is that it helps you “brand” yourself as an author. Agents, editors, publishing houses, publicists, sales reps, bookstores, reviewers, media interviewers, librarians, and most importantly, your readers — all of these people want to be able to categorize you and your books. You need to be able to tell all of these people exactly what it is you write, what it’s similar to, and why it’s also unique. That’s part of your job as a professional author.
Remember, the list isn’t written in stone! You can change anything on it at any time. And honestly, when you’re doing these lists, it’s often most useful to write the first ten films and books that come to mind. Doing it fast and without thinking about it too consciously might show you something you never realized about what you’re writing.
And I encourage you to splurge on a nice big beautiful notebook to work in. We writers live so much in our heads it’s important to give ourselves toys and rewards to make the work feel less like work, and also to cut down on the drinking.
Do your list, and share it in the comments if you feel like it – next post we’ll be analyzing the lists!
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