Saturday, October 21, 2017

#MeToo - and the Huntress Moon series

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by Alexandra Sokoloff

Instead of finishing my normal Nanowrimo Prep posts for this month, the posting I’ve been doing on social media has revolved around the #MeToo campaign – focusing awareness on sexual harassment and sexual assault - YET AGAIN - in the wake of the “exposure” of a pretty universally known “secret” that producer Harvey Weinstein is a serial sexual predator. Like the one in the Oval Office.

Image by artist and graphic designer Victoria Siemer (also known as @witchoria)

Please. Spare me. These aren’t secrets. These are facts of rape culture. These entitled, predatory men have been blatant about their misogyny and abuse, and have been enabled and supported by frightening numbers of people. 

And that has to STOP.

So this week I’ve been posting some of my #MeToo incidents on my Facebook page, including one incident that just took place at Bouchercon in Toronto, which has generated some interesting discussion.

And while I will get back to some Nanowrimo prompts next month, I absolutely believe that there is no craft without content. And now is the time to talk about content, and the power we have as authors to change social atrocities like rape culture.

I wrote the Huntress Moon series because I am sick to death of women and children being raped, tortured, mutilated,
and murdered for entertainment in novels, movies, TV shows – and oh yeah - real life. 

The Huntress series turns the tables. The books follow a haunted FBI agent on the hunt for a female serial killer who kills men. A lot of them.

The fact is, one reason novels and film and TV so often depict women as victims is that it’s the stark reality. Since the beginning of time, women haven’t been the predators — we’re the prey. But after all those millennia of women being victims of the most heinous crimes out there wouldn’t you think that someone would finally say: “Enough”? And maybe even strike back? Well, that’s a story, isn’t it? And it’s a story that needs to be told now, more than ever, given this political nightmare we’re living. The premise is a way to explore the third rail of crime: the inherent, entrenched, misogyny of the system.   

 And this series is a way for me to explore SOLUTIONS. I am not writing fantasies about clever serial killers. I’m writing from real-life psychology and pathology, using real-life examples and profiling, to counter some of the absolutely ridiculous and false portrayals of this pathology that we see in film and television and books.

Serial killers are NOT criminal masterminds. They do NOT have artistic or poetic bents. They are serial rapists who have graduated to murder. It’s a facet of the male pattern violence that we are seeing revealed in the #MeToo stories and lists from millions of women and teenagers in the past few weeks. Mass shooters – that’s also male pattern violence, with domestic abuse being a key indicator of the type of man who commits this particular atrocity. 

You read the #MeToo stories - much less LIVE them! - and the totality of it seems overwhelming. The fact that we have a serial sexual predator and blatant misogynist (and racist, white supremacist, xenophobe, looter, plutocrat…) in the most powerful office in the world, determining national and international policy, appointing judges, reversing laws that protect women and children – all that is part of the totality and even more overwhelming.   

However, there ARE solutions. There are practical and actually very obvious ways to CHANGE this horrific culture of rape and predation. I've spent years now, researching and interviewing experts about real psychology, real systemic failures, and real solutions. I've written ALL of that into the Huntress series, enacted by characters who reader really care about.

One of the keys to understanding male violence is that it is NOT universal. It is a percentage of repeat offenders who commit these crimes (whether identified or not) over and over and over again. We need to be very clear on this point. The problem is not all men. The problem is a percentage of repeat offenders. 

To underscore this point, in the Huntress series, my FBI investigators are mostly men, gay and straight, different races - with one key woman on the team and lots of female leads from various social and legal and religious services. I wanted to depict the kind of men I know, that I have always known, that I personally have always been easily able to identify and not randomly lump in with criminals. I wanted to depict THEIR struggle with the overwhelming force of entrenched rape culture, and their difficult fight to work within the system to change it. I wanted the situation of their hunt for this unusual, very female killer to force them to grapple with extremely real life, practical, workable solutions to changing the system.

I cover different facets of different legal and societal systems in each of the books. And in the new one, Hunger Moon, which comes out next week, I have Special Agent Roarke and his team working toward a very explicit, law-enforcement based, multi-pronged approach to identifying and convicting serial sexual predators. 

If we ALL, male and female, binary and non-binary, LGBTQ, people of every race and variation thereof, could come to understand that we need to deal with this segment of repeat offenders, we COULD change this. We could.

It is NOT overwhelming, when we take a breath and break it down. And commit to doing better for everyone. Women, men - and especially, especially children.

But we need to know the facts. We need to know where the systemic failures have been. And we need to keep speaking out against EVERY predator. Always. 



Don’t give up. There is a way forward. Si se puede. We can do this.

       -- Alex 
 PS: I have a lot going on this week (!) - but I will be posting elaborations on this topic: from some of the real-life solutions that my FBI investigators are grappling with, to the real psychology of serial killers, to the real-life crimes that inspired the Huntress series, to ways we can amplify growing protests against this political nightmare we’re living in, to organizations you can donate to to help.

                                                  




The Huntress Moon series is on sale right now for $1.99 US, 99p UK, and 1.49 AU.   

Amazon Prime readers can read Book 1, Huntress Moon for free.
 

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


                    Out October 24, 2017 in print, ebook and audio. Pre-order here.




In the new book, Roarke and his FBI team are forced to confront the new political reality when they are pressured to investigate a series of mysterious threats vowing death to college rapists... while deep in the Arizona wilderness, mass killer Cara Lindstrom is fighting a life-and-death battle of her own.

For thousands of years, women have been prey.

No more.

 Enter to win one of 100 print copies on Goodreads.



Hunger Moon is Book 5 of the Huntress/FBI series. The series is chronological and it is strongly recommended that you read the series in order, starting with Huntress Moon.

 



 


 


                 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Nanowrimo Prep - Identifying Act Climaxes: Raiders of the Lost Ark

by Alexandra Sokoloff



So now that we've talked about WHY Act Climaxes (plot points, turning points, act breaks, curtain scenes, whatever you want to call them) are important, let's take a look at some classic examples so you can see HOW they work.

Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

First, a quick review of what each Act Climax does:

Remember, in general, the climax of an act is very, very, very often a SETPIECE SCENE – there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws.).

Also an act climax is often more a climactic sequence than a single scene, which is why it sometimes feels hard to pinpoint the exact climax. And sometimes it’s just subjective! These are guidelines, not laws. When you do these analyses, the important thing for your own writing is to identify what you feel the climaxes are and why you think those are pivotal scenes.

Now specifically:


ACT ONE CLIMAX

- (30 minutes into a 2-hour movie, 100 pages into a 400 page book. Adjust proportions according to length of book.)

- We have all the information we need to get and have met all the characters we need to know to understand what the story is going to be about.

- The Central Question is set up – and often is set up by the action of the act climax itself.

- Often propels the hero/ine Across the Threshold and Into The Special World. (Look for a location change, a journey begun).

- May start a TICKING CLOCK (this is early, but it can happen here)


MIDPOINT CLIMAX

- (60 minutes into a 2 hour movie, 200 pages into a 400 page book)

- Is 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.

- Can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.

- Completely changes the game

- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action

- Is a point of no return.

- 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

- May start a TICKING CLOCK.

- The Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene – it can be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal – all or any combination of the above.


ACT TWO CLIMAX

– (90 minutes into a 2 hour film, 300 pages into a 400 page book)

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

- Often comes immediately after the “All is Lost” or “Long Dark Night of the Soul” scene - or may itself BE the "All is Lost" scene.

- Answers the Central Question

- Propels us into the final battle.

- May start a TICKING CLOCK


ACT THREE CLIMAX

- (near the very end of the story).

- Is the final battle.

- Hero/ine is forced to confront his or her greatest nightmare.

- Takes place in a thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare

- We see the protagonist’s character change

- We may see the antagonist’s character change (if any)

- We may see ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire

- There is 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)

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

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Story by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman
Directed by Stephen Spielberg

Please feel free to argue my points!

And note all times are APPROXIMATE - I'm a Pisces.

1 hour 55 minute running time.


ACT ONE CLIMAX:

Act One Climax here is easy: the great Nepalese bar scene. Total setpiece scene – the visuals of that snowy mountain and the tiny bar, the drinking contest that Marion wins, the fight between Indy and Marion with its emotional backstory and sexual chemistry, the entrance of Toht and his heavies, who are ready to torture Marion for the medallion, the re-entrance of Indy and the huge, fiery fight, which ends in the escape of Indy and Marion with the medallion and Marion’s capper line: “I’m your goddamn partner!” (34 minutes in).

Everything you could ever want in a setpiece sequence, visuals, action, sex, emotion: and all we need to know to understand what the story is going to be has been laid out.

MIDPOINT

An interesting and tonally very unique 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 the Well of Souls with the medallion 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 much in 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 this is a two-part climax, though – the twist that comes just after it that Marion is still alive is a big emotional beat, and the subsequent twist that Indy doesn’t release her because leaving her captive will buy him time to get down into the Well of Souls, is a great relationship beat (great maybe isn’t the word I’m looking for; maybe the word is more like “male”.)


ACT TWO CLIMAX

(About 1 hr. 15 min. in) After the big setpiece/action scene of crashing through the wall in the Well of Souls to escape the snakes, Indy and Marion run for a plane on the airfield to escape, and Indy has to fight that gigantic mechanic. Indy has to simultaneously race to stop the plane, with Marion on it, from blowing up from the spilled gas (reliving his nightmare – losing her again). He saves Marion just before the plane blows up. And the capper- Indy learns the Nazis have put the Ark on a truck to take to Cairo – cut to Indy on a horse, charging after them.


CLIMAX


Of course, the opening of the Ark and the brutal deaths of all the Nazis who look at it. This is a unique climax in that the protagonist does virtually nothing but save his own and Marion’s lives; there’s no battle involved; they’re tied up all the way through the action. It’s a classic deus ex machina as God steps in (metaphorically) to take the Ark back.

But this non-action is actually a big CHARACTER ARC for Indy. I'll be talking about that in the full story breakdown I'm doing for Raiders this month, since I'm using the film to teach the Sisters in Crime Sinc into Great Writing workshop at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, in Toronto.

If you want to get this free breakdown, be sure you're signed up to my Story Structure extras list!

Okay, so any examples of your own for me today? Or any stories you're having trouble identifying the climaxes of that we can help with? Or problems with your love life? I'm here to help.

- Alex



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

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


                                        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  $12.99
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)









Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


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





HUNGER MOON, Book 5 of my Thriller Award-nominated Huntress/FBI Thrillers, releases October 24. The books follow a haunted FBI agent in pursuit of a female serial killer,  and it really is a series that needs to be read in order, so Thomas & Mercer has put the first four books in the series ON SALE for $1.99 US, 99p UK, and 1.49 AU.

 
Click here to shop.


 Enter to win one of 100 print copies of HUNGER MOON on Goodreads.




Saturday, October 07, 2017

Nanowrimo Prep: The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

Today we talk about maybe the most useful thing you can ever learn about story structure. If you read any post in this Nanowrimo Prep series, this is the one!

(If you're just joining us today, here's the first Nanowrimo Prep assignment.)

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 (or prospective agent or editor) 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!
Alexandra Sokoloff
Alexandra Sokoloff
So today we’re going get conscious, and talk about everyone’s favorite subject. You know it’s true! What’s not to like about a climax?
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 have just one 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.
STEALING_HOLLYWOODOnce 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. 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


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

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


                                        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  $12.99
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)









Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


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



HUNGER MOON, Book 5 of my Thriller Award-nominated Huntress/FBI Thrillers, releases October 24. The books follow a haunted FBI agent in pursuit of a female serial killer,  and it really is a series that needs to be read in order, so Thomas & Mercer has put the first four books in the series ON SALE for $1.99 US, 99p UK, and 1.49 AU.

 
 

Friday, October 06, 2017

All Huntress books now on sale in US, UK and AU: 1.99, .99, 1.49

Book 5 of my Thriller Award-nominated Huntress/FBI Thrillers, following a haunted FBI agent in pursuit of a female serial killer, releases October 24.

This really is a series that needs to be read in order, so Thomas & Mercer has put the first four books in the series ON SALE for $1.99 US, 99p UK, and 1.49 AU.







          Special Agent Matthew Roarke and mass killer Cara Lindstrom return - in 

                                        Book 5 of the Huntress/FBI Thrillers.

                                       College rapists better watch their backs.

 



                    Book 5: out October 24, 2017 in print, ebook and audio. Pre-order here.

In the new book, Roarke and his FBI team are forced to confront the new political reality when they are pressured to investigate a series of mysterious threats vowing death to college rapists... while deep in the Arizona wilderness, mass killer Cara Lindstrom is fighting a life-and-death battle of her own.

For thousands of years, women have been prey.

No more.
  
 Enter to win one of 100 print copies on Goodreads.

If you are caught up with the series, HUNGER MOON is also now up on Netgalley, if you have an account. Blogger/Reviewers, please message me for the direct link or a pdf!  alex AT alexandrasokoloff DOT com

 
You'll find out what's been happening with some of the other characters while Roarke was off in the desert in Bitter Moon. It's - complicated.



As always, you're in for a road trip: the book takes Roarke and Cara (not together!) to the canyons of Arizona; the wealthy coastal enclave of Santa Barbara; the gorgeous campus of my alma mater, UC Berkeley; the Santa Ynez wine country; and the surreal desert wasteland of the Salton Sea.




And speaking of surreal - there's the political... roller coaster. Imagine trying to write a realistic contemporary FBI series with all of the current madness going on. (Actually, imagine how hard it is to write ANYTHING with all of the current madness going on. My publishers had to ask me if they could move the book out a month because none of the authors who had deadlines before me had gotten their books in on time. Yeah. That bad.)

So no, I haven't backed off from writing about the unreality of it all, and I'm not sorry. I know that readers are already loving this book for telling it like it is. I'm also anticipating death threats. (Like that's anything worse that what's happening everywhere.) I will happily repost and distribute any trolling and disgruntled emails to all relevant media, so bring it on. :)

Best of all, no matter what Betsy DeVos is trying to do, or undo, some college rapists are going to learn that no matter what complicit judges or moronic Secretaries of Education say - they're not going to get away with it any more.


                                       ----------------- SPOILERS ---------------


Special Agent Matthew Roarke is back from his desert sojurn to head an FBI task force with one mission: to rid society of its worst predators.

But when the skeletal symbols of Santa Muerte, “Lady Death,” mysteriously appear at universities nationwide, threatening death to rapists, Roarke’s team is pressured to investigate. Then a frat boy goes missing in Santa Barbara, and Roarke knows a bloodbath is coming.

Meanwhile, avenging angel Cara Lindstrom is in hiding in the Arizona wilderness, still on her own ruthless quest - until an old enemy comes after both her and the FBI team, forcing her back into Roarke’s orbit. This time, the huntress has become the hunted . . .

Out October 24, 2017 in print, ebook and audio.

Pre-order

Goodreads 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

It's Nanowrimo PREP month!!!

by Alexandra Sokoloff

It's October first, and you know what that means....

It's Nanowrimo PREP month!

                      Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


I always do a brainstorming and story structure review series in October, and continue throughout November with prompts and encouragement, based on my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and workshops. (Bearing in mind, of course, I have my own new thriller coming out October 24, which is going to take some of my time!)

If you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall road map, before November 1?

So let's get this party started with The Master List.

I'm teaching the SinC into Great Writing Masterclass at Bouchercon in Toronto, October 11.


And he first thing I always have my workshop students do is make a Master List of their favorite movies in the genre they're writing in.

And you guys who have done this master list before, remember, it helps to do a new one every time you sit down with a new project, and brainstorm a list of movies and books that are structurally similar to your new project.

It’s very simple: in order to write stories like the ones that move you, you need to look at the specific 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 mega-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.
So the first order of business is to make your master list.

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.

ASSIGNMENT: Go to an office or stationery store or shop on line and find yourself a wonderful notebook to work in.

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!


ANALYZING YOUR LIST

Now that you’ve got your list, and a brand-new notebook to keep it in, let’s take a look at what you’ve come up with.

For myself, I am constantly looking at:

Silence of the Lambs (book and film)
A Wrinkle in Time (book)
The Wizard of Oz (film)
The Haunting of Hill House (book and original film)
Anything by Ira Levin, especially Rosemary’s Baby (book and film), and The Stepford Wives
The Exorcist (book and film)
Jaws (film, and it’s interesting to compare the book)
Pet Sematery (book, obviously!)
The Shining (book and film)
It’s A Wonderful Life

That's off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I'm about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now. On another day my list could just as easily include Hamlet, The Fountainhead, Apocalypse Now, The Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, Philadelphia Story, and Holiday Inn.

All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories. But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who's writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare are some of my favorite stories on the planet, and my master list for a different story might well have some of those stories on it).

Okay, what does that list say about me?

• It’s heavily weighted toward thrillers, fantasy, horror, and the supernatural. In fact, even the two more realistic stories on the list, Jaws and Silence of the Lambs, are so mythic and archetypal that they might as well be supernatural – they both have such overwhelming forces of nature and evil working in them.

• It’s a very dark list, but it includes two films and a book that are some of the happiest endings in film and literary history. I read and watch stories about the battle between good and evil… but if you’ll notice, except for the Ira Levin books, I do believe in good triumphing.

• The stories are evenly split between male protagonists and female protagonists, but except for Jaws, really, women are strong and crucial characters in all of them.

And guess what? All of the above is exactly what I write.

A lot of the stories on your own list will probably be in one particular genre: thriller, horror, mystery, romance, paranormal, historical, science fiction, fantasy, women’s fiction, YA (Young Adult, which is really more of an umbrella for all genres). And odds are that genre is what you write.

(If you’re not clear on what your genre is, I suggest you take your master list to the library or your local independent bookstore and ask your librarian or bookseller what genre those books and films fall into. These people are a writer’s best friends; please use them, and be grateful!)

But there will also always be a few stories on your list that have nothing to do with your dominant genre, some complete surprises, and those wild cards are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

Every time I teach a story structure class it’s always fantastic for me to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives me such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling.

You need to create your list, and break those stories down to see why they have such an impact on you - because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn't going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different - even if they're very similar. 

So try it:

 ASSIGNMENT: Analyze your master list of stories. What does the list say about the stories, themes and characters that most appeal to you?

- 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  $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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