Saturday, October 29, 2016

NANOWRIMO: The Plan

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Time for one more prep post before the madness of Nanowrimo begins. So today I want to review what I've come to believe is the key to any second act, and really the whole key to story structure: The PLAN. If you're going to read any of my posts before Nanowrimo, this is probably the one!

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’m going 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 can be generally stated as – “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.

Try taking a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identifying the PLAN, CENTRAL STORY ACTION and CENTRAL QUESTION of 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 spooky 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?



Alex


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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.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.


                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $13.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:




Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nanowrimo Prep: Story Elements for Brainstorming Index Cards

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Now we've covered the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure and you've seen how you can lay those sequences out on a story structure grid, and how to use index cards for brainstorming your plot.

So on to what we REALLY need: a cheat sheet for brainstorming.

Below is a general Story Elements Checklist, so you have a whole overview of scenes and story elements that appear in each act, of pretty much any story,  to help you flesh out your story to the end.

In the next ten days, you can put together an outline of your own story very quickly by using the list below and the Index Cards and Structure Grid. You can also print out this list as a general roadmap as you're writing next month.

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

Even better - they're almost certainly going to appear in the Act in which I've listed them below.  There are exceptions, of course, but those are rare. 

It's okay if there are holes, right now! Write in what you know.  I'm a big believer that just asking the question will get your subconscious working on the perfect answer. Write out the card in the most general sense today, and you may well wake up with the perfect scene tomorrow morning.

Once you've got the cards in rough place on your structure grid, then  try putting your story in order in a simple outline.

You don't have to follow the outline exactly, or at all! But while you're writing next month, you'll have it as a roadmap to pull out and remind you where your story is going, when you inevitably get lost in the pure creativity of a first draft.

We'll talk about these elements in depth in the next couple of weeks.

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



STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST FOR GENERATING INDEX CARDS



ACT ONE

* Opening image


* Meet the hero or heroine in the ordinary world

* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.


* Hero/ine's ghost or wound

* Hero/ine’s arc
-

* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure

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


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


* Allies


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

* Love interest 
(probably)

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


* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)


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


* Sequence One climax


* Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

* Act One climax

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

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

* Threshold Guardian/Guardian at the Gate (possibly)

* Hero/ine’s Plan

* Antagonist’s Plan

* Training Sequence (possibly)

* Series of Tests
-
* Picking up new Allies

* Assembling the Team (possibly)

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

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

*Bonding with Allies


THE MIDPOINT

* Completely changes the game

* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action

* Can be a huge revelation

* Can be a huge defeat

* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss

* Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


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

* Recalibrating – after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.

* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive

* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)

* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

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

* Reversals and Revelations/Twists.

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

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

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

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

* Answers the Central Question

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


ACT THREE

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

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

1. Getting there (Storming the Castle)

2. The final battle itself


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

* The protagonist’s character change

* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

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

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

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

* Closing Image

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

I strongly recommend that you watch at least one, or much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.




                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 










WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)






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

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Nanowrimo Prep: The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

THE INDEX CARD METHOD

by Alexandra Sokoloff

#Nanowrimo begins tomorrow! Are you panicking because you have only the vaguest clue what you're writing about?

Here's a fun and lighting-fast brainstorming method that I absolutely guarantee will get you closer to understanding the story you want to write.

It's the number one structuring tool of most screenwriters I know. I have no idea how I would write without it.
                                         Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

Get a corkboard or a sheet of cardboard - or even butcher paper - big enough to lay out index cards (or stick Post-its) in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your story laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space.  I find the tri-fold boards that kids use for science projects just perfect in size and they come pre-folded in exactly three acts of the right size!  Just a few dollars at any Office Max or Staples.

Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two: 1 at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Act Two: 2 at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

Now write Act One Climax at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the grid. These are scenes that you know you MUST have in your story, in those places - whether or not you know what they are right now.

And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either four long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).




Here's what it looks like on a trifold board:





So you have your structure grid in front of you. 

(If you're just finding this blog, then please read up on The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure!)

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

Get yourself a pack of index cards. You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method - experiment and find what works best for you.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60),  every scene goes on one card. Now, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you may be doubling or tripling the scene count, but for me, the chapter count remains exactly the same: forty to sixty chapters to a book.

So count yourself out 40-60 index cards. That's your book! You can actually hold it in your hand. Pretty cool, right?

This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your story, one scene per card (just one or two lines describing each scene - it can be as simple as - "Hero and heroine meet"  or - "Meet the antagonist".)  You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your board in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole story this way.

And this eight-sequence structure translates easily to novels. And you might have an extra sequence or two per act, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. With a book you can have anything from 250 pages to 1000 (well, you can go that long only if you’re a mega-bestseller!), so the length of a sequence and the number of sequences is more variable. But an average book these days is between 300 and 400 pages, and since the recession, publishers are actually asking their authors to keep their books on the short side, to save production costs, so why not shoot for that to begin with?

I write books of about 350-400 pages (print pages), and I find my sequences are about 50 pages, getting shorter as I near the end. But I might also have three sequences of around 30 pages in an act that is 100 pages long. You have more leeway in a novel, but the structure remains pretty much the same.

In the next few posts we’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – key scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme,  call to adventure/inciting incident, introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body: human beings (with very few exceptions) have the exact same skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton; it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.

ASSIGNMENTS:

-- Make two blank structure grids, one for the movie you have chosen from your master list to analyze, and one for your WIP (Work In Progress). You can just do a structure grid on a piece of paper for the movie you’ve chosen to analyze, but also do a large corkboard or cardboard structure grid for your WIP. You can fill out one structure grid while you watch the movie you’ve chosen.

-- Get a pack of index cards or Post Its and write down all the scenes you know about your story, and where possible, pin them onto your WIP structure grid in approximately the place they will occur.


If you are already well into your first draft, then by all means, keep writing forward, too – I don’t want you to stop your momentum. Use whatever is useful about what I’m talking about here, but also keep moving.

And if you have a completed draft and are starting a revision, a structure grid is a perfect tool to help you identify weak spots and build on what you have for a rewrite. Put your story on cards and watch how quickly you start to rearrange things that aren’t working!

Now, let me be clear. When you’re brainstorming with your index cards and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. Always write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.

Ideally I will always be working on four piles of material, or tracks, at once:

  1. The index cards I'm brainstorming and arranging on my structure grid.

  2. A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to me as I'm outlining, and that I can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

  3. An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that I'm compiling as I order my index cards on the structure grid.

  4. A collage book of visual images that I'm pulling from magazines that give me the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of my story (we will talk about Visual Storytelling soon.)

In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that prep work.

At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. Because I come from theater, I think of my first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will finish a book or a script.

Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

But that’s my process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “pantser” – not my favorite word, but common book jargon for a person who writes best by the seat of her pants. And if you’re a pantser, the methods I’ve been talking about have probably already made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here!

Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pantsers have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.

But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.

Next up - a list of essential story elements that will help you brainstorm your index cards.

Alex

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All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in the workbooks.:

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 










WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

BITTER MOON giveaway!

Goodreads is giving away 100 copies of my newest book, #4 in the Thriller Award-nominated Huntress series! BITTER MOON is available for preorder, on sale Nov. 1. Click here to enter the giveaway, 

But – you really need to read the Huntress series from the beginning, and as it happens, Amazon Prime members can get Book 1, HUNTRESS MOON for free this month. Click here to order.

Also for bloggers and reviewers - BITTER MOON is now up for download on Netgalley. Let me know if you'd like a direct link/invitation.

The Huntress/FBI Thrillers:

Special Agent Matthew Roarke is on the trail of that most rare of killers – a female serial. His hunt for her will take him across four states and will force him to question everything he knows about evil and justice.






BITTER MOON:  A haunted FBI agent and a ruthless killer track evil across decades in the next thrilling Huntress/FBI novel. A sixteen-year-old cold case offers Roarke a glimpse into the Huntress's past…and a chance to catch a savage predator.

Pre-order now for Nov. 1 delivery, $3.99

Friday, October 07, 2016

NANOWRIMO PREP: The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

Here's the most important thing I can tell you about film story structure that will help you for the rest of your writing life - no matter what form you're writing in.

If you're new to this blog, start here:   Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns 

There is a rhythm to dramatic storytelling, just as there’s a rhythm to every other pleasurable experience in life, and the technical requirements of film and television have codified this rhythm into a structure so specific that you actually already know what I’m about to say in this post, even if you’ve never heard it said this way before or consciously thought about it. And what’s more, your reader or audience knows this rhythm, too, and unconsciously EXPECTS it. Which means if you’re not delivering this rhythm, your reader or audience is going to start worrying that something’s not right, and you have a real chance of losing them.

You don’t want to do that!

Early playwrights (and I’m talking really early, starting thousands of years ago in the Golden Age of Greece) were forced to develop the three-act structure of dramatic writing because of intermissions (or intervals). Think about it. If you’re going to let your audience out for a break a third of the way through your play, you need to make sure you get them back into the theater to see the rest of the play, right? After all, there are so many other things a person could be doing on a Saturday night….

So the three acts of theater are based on the idea of building each act to a CLIMAX: a cliffhanger scene that spins the action of the play in such an interesting direction that the audience is going to want to hurry back into the theater at the warning chime to see WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. Many plays break at the middle, so the Midpoint Climax is equally important.

This climactic rhythm was in operation for literally thousands of years before film and television came along and the need for story climaxes became even more, um, urgent. Not just because life was faster paced in the 20th century, but again, because of the technical requirements of film and television.

In a two-hour movie, you have not three climaxes, but seven, because film is based on an eight-sequence structure.

The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about 10-15 minutes of film. The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished, so early screenwriters incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel and built to a cliffhanger climax, so that in that short break that the projectionist was scrambling to get the new reel on, the audience was in breathless anticipation of “What happens next?” – instead of getting pissed off that the movie just stopped right in the middle of a crucial scene. (If you get hold of scripts for older movies, pre-1950’s, you can find SEQUENCE 1, SEQUENCE 2, etc, as headings at the start of each new sequence.)

Modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm, because that rhythm was locked in by television – with its even more rigid technical requirements of having to break every fifteen minutes for a commercial. Which meant writers had to build to a climax every 15 minutes, to get audiences to tune back in to their show after the commercial instead of changing the channel.

So what does this mean to you, the novelist or screenwriter?

It means that you need to be aware that your reader or audience is going to expect a climax every 15 minutes in a movie – which translates to every 50 pages or so in a book. Books have more variation in length, obviously, so you can adjust proportionately, but for a 400-page book, you’re looking at climaxing every 50 pages, with the bigger climaxes coming around p. 100 (Act I Climax) p. 200 (Midpoint Climax), p. 300 (Act II Climax), and somewhere close to the end. Also be aware that for a shorter movie or book, you may have only six sequences.

If you put that structure on a grid, it looks like this:Structure_gridLooking at that grid, you can see that what I started out in this article calling the three-act structure has evolved into something that is actually a four-act structure: four segments of approximately equal length (30 minutes or 100 pages), with Act II containing two segments (60 minutes or 200 pages, total).

That’s because Act II is about conflict and complications. While plays tend to have a longer Act I, because Act I is about setting up character and relationships, the middle acts of films have become longer so that the movies can show off what film does best: action and conflict. And books have picked up on that rhythm and evolved along with movies and television, so that books also tend to have a long, two-part Act II as well.

You don’t have to be exact about this (unless you’re writing for television, in which case you better be acutely aware of when you have to hit that climax!). But you do need to realize that if you’re not building to some kind of climax in approximately that rhythm, your reader or audience is going to start getting impatient, and you risk losing them.

Once you understand this basic structure, you can see how useful it is to think of each sequence of your story building to a climax. Your biggest scenes will tend to be these climaxes, and if you can fit those scenes onto the grid, then you already have a really solid set of tentpoles that you can build your story around.

So here’s the challenge: Start watching movies and television shows specifically looking for the climaxes. Take a film from your Master List (you did make that, didn't you?) Screen it and use the clock on your phone or the counter on your DVD player to check where these climaxes are coming. It won’t take long at all for you to be able to identify climactic scenes.

Your next task is to figure out what makes them climactic!

I can give you a few hints. The most important thing is that the action of your story ASKS A QUESTION that the audience wants to know the answer to. But climaxes also tend to be SETPIECE scenes (think of the trailer scenes from movies, the big scenes that everyone talks about after the movie).

And what goes into a great setpiece scene?

Well, that’s another post, isn’t it?

- Alex

If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of The Matrix, The Wizard of Oz,  Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the StoneSense and Sensibility, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, and The Mist - and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Stealing Hollywood.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.



 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook, $3.99    
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, $14.99











Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US


Barnes & Noble/Nook


Amazon UK


Amazon DE



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