Thursday, January 03, 2019

New Year's resolution: Practice Story

(Or - How to watch movies and TV to be a better writer)

So it’s the New Year and people are making resolutions right and left, or swearing off them because “they never work” and all that, right?

I think the better way of going about this is to ask yourself: What can I do this year to be a better -------? 

Fill in the blank—and the real answer is always “be a better person”—but since this is a writing blog, I’m going to deal with the subset of the person you are that is called “writer”.

I was doing some research and watching random Youtube videos on various subjects and I ended up down one of those Youtube rabbit holes and came across this one.

Robin Sharma has a lot of good ideas for achieving excellence in your field in this video, but the one that struck me as incredibly relevant to what I teach is the “60 Minute Student.” That is, do something for one hour every day and you will be the top in your field, whatever that is.

So I want to start the year with something you can do every day. You can do it with a New Year’s hangover, you can do it when you’re depressed, you can do it when you’ve got the kids all day, you can do it even when you have no desire to do anything at all. And it is the absolute bottom line basis of what I teach in my books, and workshops, and blogs.

Practice story.

If you commit some hours at the beginning of this year to learning how to analyze film story structure, then you truly can practice story by osmosis every single time the TV is on, which for many of us is every day, too many hours a day.

Once you have dedicated some time to doing it consciously, you will be able to do it unconsciously and you are growing as a writer every time there is a television remotely in your vicinity.

Don’t you want that?

Craig's and my Boxing Day movie was The African Queen. We were only watching it to space out after two straight days of family. Two very wonderful days. But you know – also family. So the only real intention was to space out on the couch and watch a great movie.

But because both of us practice story for a living, we were also having two great hours of being students of our craft.  

The African Queen is a fantastic movie to watch to get clear on the concept of SEQUENCES. It is an amazing, heartbreaking movie to watch for the concept of the HERO/INE’S GREATEST NIGHTMARE and ALL IS LOST moments – maybe the best I’ve ever seen outside The Silence of the Lambs — with both characters facing their greatest nightmares in completely devastating scenes that set up the excruciating choice they must face to complete their mission. It is a world-class love story with equal hero and heroine’s journeys, and the classic film Romancing the Stone would not exist without this powerful antecedent. It is the best movie ever for its resonant double entendre of The African Queen, as we see Katharine Hepburn becoming a queen before our very eyes.

So if you’re new to consciously analyzing story structure, I urge you to do it with a movie that I can talk you through, first.  Take one of the movies in either Stealing Hollywood or Writing Love, or one of the movie breakdowns that I send you when you sign up for my Story Structure Extras List. One that you already know well is a good choice. One that seems similar to what you are writing or want to write is a good choice.

First, read about the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure. You can download a free sample of Stealing Hollywood, which will give you the basics you need without you having to commit to buying the book. :) 
And then go through the movie sequence by sequence, reading my notes before each fifteen-minute sequence, then watching the sequence, then stopping at the end of the sequence to reread my notes, and make your own notes. Proceed through the movie one sequence at a time. Do that two or three times if you’re inspired to – make this movie your “teaching movie”, as Michael Connelly calls it.

After one screening, you have vastly expanded your understanding of story structure.

After two screenings, another whole level of structure will be revealing itself.

After three screenings, your mind will feel like it’s been blown open and you will be rabid to do it with another movie, and then another, and then another.

And you know what? It’s perfectly okay to stop “writing” completely and do just a month of This. Because This IS writing. And after that month, you will come back to your own book or script with a level of mastery unlike anything you’ve experienced before.

Happy New Year, and happy writing

-        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.  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 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:

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