Saturday, December 23, 2017

Holiday Homework: It's a Wonderful Life

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Two days to Christmas. Yes, I know, it’s SO HARD to get any writing done this time of year. I’m not putting any pressure on you, I swear! 
But there is something that almost all of us do this time of year that we can actually turn into an almost miraculous, (as it were) two-and-a-half hour session on writing.
We sit down with the family (or with a bottle of champagne) and watch It’s a Wonderful Life. 

Anyone who’s read my books and blog knows that I’m all about using movies to learn the craft of writing – not just screenwriting, but very much novels, too. And like the other classic anti-totalitarian movie of the WWII era, The Wizard of Oz, this is much much more than a feel-good fantasy.

The story packs a staggering emotional and thematic impact on young and old (I used to show it to the incarcerated gang kids I taught in the Los Angeles County prison system, and it always bowled them over – they GOT it.

And there’s no better film to watch (and watch again, and again, and again) to internalize some of the most basic lessons of powerful storytelling. So this year, why not do a few minutes of prep before the movie and resolve to look out for how the filmmakers handle these KEY STORY ELEMENTS:

One of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist’s overall DESIRE and NEED in the story. You also hear this called “internal desire” and “external desire,” and “want” and “deep need” — but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion or to get the love interest into bed. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, almost always, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will know that s/he wants that outer desire, but will probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

So you, the writer, have to know your character’s inner and outer desires and how they conflict.  
It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the greatest filmic examples of inner and outer desire in conflict. From the very beginning, George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings: all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles — on a microcosmic level, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

Every choice George actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily — he fights it every single step of the way and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character that we emphasize with. It’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.


A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often, good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of It’s a Wonderful Life, in that scene in which George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things,” George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they are doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.  

And by the way – this theme is overtly stated in our very first glimpse of the adult George:


“Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I want a big one.” 

And freeze frame on that hand span… a fabulous, funny, sexy introduction. (That big, huh? Mmm.) This intro goes on to tell us something about George Bailey’s outer DESIRE line: he wants to do big things, build big things, everything big. In fact, the story will be about how all the little things George does in his life will add up to something more than simply big, but truly enormous.


Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we HOPE and FEAR for the main character. Generally, what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. In It’s a Wonderful Life, we hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst-case scenario: in a drama, mystery, or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin, or even the end of the world. (This is also what is AT STAKE). In a comedy or romance, the stakes are more likely the loss of love.


The person whom the protagonist is fighting is often a dark mirror of the protagonist; in many stories we see that it wouldn’t take much for the hero/ine to become the antagonist, metaphorically speaking. The hero/ine and the antagonist often want the same thing, whether it’s an actual object, like the lost Ark of the Covenant or the Maltese Falcon; or money; or a power, like control of a town in It’s A Wonderful Life) or control of a country (The Lion in Winter) or control of a family (Another Part of the Forest); or a person: a child (Kramer Vs. Kramer) or a lover (five billion romantic comedies). 

And sometimes the only thing that distinguishes the protagonist from the antagonist is what methods they’re willing to use to get what they want; the hero/ine, we hope, is moral about it (though the hero/ine crossing a moral line is almost an inevitable part of any story), and the antagonist is willing to lie, cheat, hurt, or kill for it.    

Of course Potter is a wonderfully evil villain, perfectly played as a huge human spider by the great Lionel Barrymore. The deal with the devil scene in which he almost – almost succeeds in getting George to sign his soul away is a masterpiece all on its own. But what’s particularly interesting about IAWL is that the battle is taking place on several different levels – in George’s massive internal conflict, the particular antagonist of Mr. Potter - but the real opponent is bigger. George is not just fighting Mr. Potter, but a whole way of life that is anti-community, that destroys community and individuality. It’s a Wonderful Life, like The Wizard of Oz, is an anti-totalitarian statement made in the midst of a massive battle against totalitarian forces of World War II.

And couldn’t we all use that, right now?


This is not the classic “hero confronts villain on villain’s home turf” third act. In fact, Potter is nowhere around in the final confrontation, is he? There’s no showdown, even though we desperately want one. There’s not even a hint that Potter will be punished in any way for essentially stealing the Building and Loan money from Uncle Billy and then compelling the police to arrest George for the theft.

But the point is that George Bailey has been fighting Potter all along. 

There is no big glorious heroic showdown to be had, here, because it’s all the little grueling day-to-day, crazy-making battles that George has had with Potter all his life that have made the difference. And the genius of this film is that it shows in vivid and emotionally wrenching detail what would have happened if George had not had that whole lifetime of battles against Potter and for the town. Every single encounter George Bailey has had throughout the film is an example of a small, ordinary goodness, a right choice that George makes, that in the end, when we and he see the town as it would have been if he had never existed, lets us understand that it is those little things that make for true heroism. In the end, even faced with prison, George makes the choice to live to fight another day, and is rewarded with the joy of seeing his town restored.

This is the best example I know of, ever, of a final battle that is thematic — and yet the impact is emotional and visceral. It’s not an intellectual treatise; you live that ending along with George, but also come away with the sense of what true heroism is.


It’s A Wonderful Life is also a terrific example of emotional exhilaration in a climax. Once George Bailey has seen what would have happened to his little town if he had never been born, and he decides he wants to live and realizes he is alive again, the pleasures just keep coming and coming and coming. It is as much a relief for us as for George, to experience him running through town, seeing all his old friends and familiar places restored. And then to see the whole town gathering at his house to help him, one character after another appearing to lend money to pay off his debt, Violet deciding to stay in town, his old friend Sam wiring him a promise of as much money as he needs – the whole thing makes the audience glad to be alive, too. We feel, as George does, that the little things we do every day do count.

This is a great lesson, I think, that above all in an ending, the reader/audience has to CARE. A good ending has an emotional payoff, and it has to be proportionate to what the character and the reader/audience has experienced.

There’s so much more I could say (and have said!) about this film and all the story elements of it, but yes, time is short and shopping lists are long. At least now you have a chance to do some writing work while it looks like you’re playing – one of my favorite writerly tricks.

Happy Solstice, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Merry Christmas to all.
It’s been a brutal year, but it really is a wonderful life. Definitely worth fighting for.

-        - Alex


a All the information on this blog and more is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors 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 print, all countries 


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:

Friday, December 22, 2017

Happy Solstice!! What's YOUR writing intention?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

It’s Solstice, a powerful time to set intentions. Yes, I know you have Christmas shopping to do. Quite possibly some cooking, if that’s what you’re into. We could all do some cleaning. And almost undoubtedly there's family, which this year might be more fraught than usual.

(Also taxes. I hate to even bring it up, but that whole travesty wasn’t MY idea - and now we have to live with it. You may want to give this a quick read: Hacking the Tax Plan.)

But still. Even with all of the above - there’s a reason we traditionally write resolutions at this time of year. Sow some seeds that will blossom for you in 2018/ Take a minute, or an hour, to BE still, and answer the questions for yourself:  

What next? What do I want for the coming year? What does it look like for me?

And of course, I have some questions specifically for the writers.

Do you want to finish that book, the one from Nanowrimo or otherwise? Publish for the first time? Publish at a whole new, spectacular level? Get that movie or TV series made?

This is the time for ALL those shimmering wishes.

And to help nudge the writers along, I’m going to start some posts on rewriting. I have WHOLE BOOKS on writing, that you can conveniently order below. But here on the blog, since we’re into that Nanowrimo Now What time of year, let’s focus on the rewriting part.

Here’s a general list of my best advice on rewriting to start. You don’t have to read it now! You have shopping, and cooking, and family, and probably some tax scrambling to do.

But it’s Solstice, so I’m planting the idea in your heads - and wishing you a bright and bountiful harvest in the New Year.

                                            TOP TEN THINGS I KNOW ABOUT REWRITING

Now that we've had some time off from the frenzy of writing that was November, we need to get back to those drafts and - yike - see what we've got.

Remember, the most important thing is taking enough time off from that draft.  But now that you have taken the time off… how the hell do you proceed with the second draft?

Well, first you have to read the first draft. All the way through. Not necessarily in one sitting (if that’s even possible to begin with!).  I usually do this in chunks of 50 pages or 100 pages a day – anything else makes my brain sore.

(And yes, if you’ve been paying attention (The Three Act Structure and The Eight Sequence Structure), that would mean I’m either reading one sequence or two sequences a day).

I picked up a tip from some book or article a long time ago about reading for revisions, and I wish I could remember who said it to credit them, because it’s great advice. Grab yourself a colored pen or pencil (or all kinds of colors, glitter pens - go wild) and sit down with a stack of freshly printed pages (sorry, it’s ungreen, but I can’t do a first revision on a screen. I need a hard copy). Then read through and make brief notes where necessary, but DO NOT start rewriting, and PUT THE PEN DOWN as soon as you’ve made a note. You want to read the first time through for story, not for stupid details that will interrupt your experience of the story as a whole. You want to get the big picture – especially – you want to see if you actually have a book (or film, if that’s what you’re writing).

If your drafts are anything like mine, there will be large chunks of absolute shit. That’s pretty much my definition of what a first draft is. X them out on the spot if you have to, but resist the temptation to stop and rewrite. Well, if you REALLY are hot to write a scene, I guess, okay, but really, unless you are totally, fanatically inspired, it’s better just to make brief notes.

When you’ve finished reading there should - hopefully! - be the feeling that even though you probably still have massive amounts of work yet to do, there is a book there. (I love that feeling…)

Once I’ve read through the entire thing, I make notes about my impressions, and then usually I will do a re-card (see The Index Card Method). I will have made many scribbled notes on the draft to the effect of “This scene doesn’t work here!” In some of my first drafts, whole sections don’t work at all. This is my chance to find the right places for things. And, of course, throw stuff out.

I will go through the entire book again – going back and forth between my pages and the cards on my story grid - and see where the story elements fall. There is no script or book I’ve ever written that didn’t benefit from a careful overview once again identifying act breaks, sequence climaxes, and key story elements like: The Call to Adventure; Stating the Theme; identifying the Central Question; Central Action and Plan; Crossing the Threshold; Meeting the Mentor; the Dark Night of the Soul - once the first draft is actually finished. A lot of your outline may have changed, and you will be able to pull your story into line much more effectively if you check your structural elements again and continually be thinking of how you can make those key scenes more significant, more magical.

(For a quick refresher on Story Elements, skip down to #10 at the bottom of this post, and the links at the end for more in-depth discussion.)

Also, be very aware of what your sequences are. If a scene isn’t working, but you know you need to have it, it’s probably in the wrong sequence, and if you look at your story overall and at what each sequence is doing, you’ll probably be able to see immediately where stray scenes need to go. That’s why re-carding and re-sequencing is such a great thing to do when you start a revision.

Now, the next steps can be taken in whatever order is useful to you, but here again are the Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.

1. Cut, cut, cut.

When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will. It's okay if you bitch about it all the way to the trash file, too - I always do.

2. Find a great critique group.

This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

3. Do several passes.

Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

4. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

5. Know your Three Act Structure.

If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

6. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

7. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

8. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.

9. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a first draft unless you feel it’s very close to the final product, but when you’re further along, the best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

Some of you are already well aware that I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points, so here it is again, for those just finding this post.



* Opening image
* Meet the hero or heroine
* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
* Hero/ine’s problem
* 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. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
* Love interest
* Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
* Sequence One climax
* Central Question
* Central Story Action
* Plan (Hero/ine's)
* Villain's Plan
* Act One climax



* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
* Threshold Guardian (maybe)
* Hero/ine’s Plan
* Antagonist’s Plan
* Training Sequence
* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies
* Assembling the Team
* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
* In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


* 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


* 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).
* Visit to the Goddess
* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
* Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)


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



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 allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
 * Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs 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.

- Alex


                                        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 print, all countries 


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, December 03, 2017

Nanowrimo Now What?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

YAY!!! You survived! Or maybe I shouldn’t make any assumptions, there.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say you survived, not only what was arguably the worst November in modern history, but Nanowrimo, too, and now have a rough draft (maybe very, very, very rough draft) of about 50,000 words.

What next?

                      Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

Well, first of all, did you write to “The End”? Because if not, then you may have survived, but you’re not done. You must get through to The End, no matter how rough it is (rough meaning the process AND the pages…). If you did not get to The End, I would strongly urge that you NOT take a break, no matter how tired you are (well, maybe a day). You can slow down your schedule, set a lower per-day word or page count, but do not stop. Write every day, or every other day if that’s your schedule, but get the sucker done.

You may end up throwing away most of what you write, but it is a really, really, really bad idea not to get all the way through a story. That is how most books, scripts and probably most all other things in life worth doing are abandoned.

Conversely, if you DID get all the way to “The End”, then definitely, take a breakAs long a break as possible. You should keep to a writing schedule, start brainstorming the next project, maybe do some random collaging to see what images come up that might lead to something fantastic - but if you have a completed draft, then what you need right now is SPACE from it. You are going to need fresh eyes to do the read-through that is going to take you to the next level, and the only way for you to get those fresh eyes is to leave the story alone for a while.

In the next month I'll be posting about rewriting. But not now.

First, no matter where you are in the process, celebrate! You showed up and have the pages to show for it.

Then - 

1. Keep going if you’re not done


2. Take a good long break if you have a whole first draft, and if you MUST think about writing, maybe start thinking about another project.

And in the meantime, I’d love to hear how you all who were Nanoing did.


                                          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 print, all countries 


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)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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