Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Visual Storytelling: Setpiece Scenes

By noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra Sokoloff)

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Filmmakers take that “six great scenes” concept very literally. These setpiece scenes—so named because before the advent of location shooting, elaborate sets were built as backdrops to key scenes—are also often called the “trailer scenes” or the “money scenes” (as opposed to “money shots” – that’s a whole different post!). As incensed as I am personally about how trailers these days give every single bit of the movie away, I understand that this is essential movie advertising: those trailer scenes have to seduce the potential audience by giving a good sense of the experience the movie is promising to deliver.



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As a screenwriter, when I go in to pitch a movie or television show, I concentrate on the setpieces, because I know if I can make the producers/studio/director SEE those scenes, I’ll get the job. It’s essential moviemaking.


What does that have to do with you as an author? Well, when I moved from screenwriting to writing novels, I took that concept of setpiece scenes with me. I’m often told that my thrillers are extremely visual and cinematic; I’m pretty sure that the comment I get most often from readers is “I could see the whole story like a movie playing in my head.” I absolutely feel that my job as an author is to put a movie into my readers’ heads — and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard editors say that’s what they’re looking for, too.

I believe any author, at any professional level, will benefit from studying this filmmaking concept.

Authors tend to think that their craft is about words. But words really aren’t the point of storytelling at all – they’re only a tool to convey images, emotion, action.

Location is definitely part of the art of creating setpieces. My first thrillers are on the supernatural side, and the house in a haunted house story (or a haunted dorm story like my ghost story The Harrowing) is every bit as much a character as the living ones. I’ve gone so far as to go live for weeks in a haunted mansion to collect realistic detail for the haunted mansion I was depicting in my poltergeist thriller, The Unseen. Next week I’m heading out to Death Valley to do visual research for the 6thHuntress thriller.


But a really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just visually dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in The Silence of the Lambs. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels. And all these visuals were on Thomas Harris’s page before they were translated to film.


If you watch or rewatch the erotic thriller Sea Of Love, you’ll see how the storytellers work the sea images and the love images throughout the film. The film is often shot in blue tones and against backdrops of wide panes of glass, with moving shadows – all creating an undersea or aquarium effect, especially in the suspense scenes. The story explores themes of love, including obsessive love, and addiction – sex addiction and alcoholism. There are repeating visuals of bottles, glasses, drinking, nudity, erotic art, X-rated movie theaters, hookers.


The Harry Potter books and films are so crammed full of visual imagery it would take a book to go into it all (there probably is one, in fact…) The books play with all the classic symbols of witches, wizards and magic: owls, cats, gnome, newts, feathers, wands, crystals, ghosts, shapeshifters, snakes, frogs, rats, brooms (I don’t really have to keep going, do I?). Look at The Wizard of Oz (just the brilliant contrast of the black and white world of Kansas and the Technicolor world of Oz says volumes). Look at what Barbara Kingsolver does in Prodigal Summer, where images of fecundity and the, well, prodigiousness of nature overflow off the pages, revealing characters and conflicts and themes. Look at what Robert Towne does with water in Chinatown—and also, try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away. Take a look at Groundhog Day, which constantly provides groundhog images, images of stopped or handless clocks (and that malevolent clock radio!), an ice image of the eye of God, anthropomorphic weather.

In film, every movie has a production designer: one artist (and these people are genius level, let me tell you) who is responsible, in consultation with the director and with the help of sometimes a whole army of production artists) for the entire look of the film – every color, costume, prop, set choice.


With a book, guess who’s the production designer?


I am. You are. The author is.


As a screenwriter, I was used to having producers tell me a scene had to be set someplace else because it would be too expensive to shoot. But as an author I have the incredible advantage of an unlimited production budget. Whatever settings, crowds, mechanical devices, alien attacks or natural disasters I choose to depict, my only budget constraint is in my imagination. The most powerful directors in Hollywood would kill for a fraction of that power. Theoretically, they can’t even begin to compete.


So I approach setting as a production designer. My Thriller Award-nominated Huntress series (Huntress Moon, Blood Moon, Cold Moon, Bitter Moon, Hunger Moon) follows a haunted FBI agent’s interstate manhunt for what he believes may be a female serial killer. I get to show off the staggering beauty of my home state of California, and I have a lot of fun with locations. I get a lot of raves about a key scene that takes place in a butterfly colony in a eucalyptus grove. Now, growing up in California as I have, I couldn’t very well set a thriller on the central California coast and not use the monarch grove, and the visuals are breathtaking – but the monarchs also make a great metaphor for my killer. In another key scene (in Blood Moon) the memorial gardens of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco add a ritual mysticism to the aftermath of a murder scene. And using my beloved Haight Ashbury as a continuing setting in Blood Moon and Cold Moongives those books the hint of magical forces that is a subtle part of the series.


So if you want to learn how to build a great setpiece, how do you start?

(My students know the answer to this one).

Make a list of setpieces that have stayed with you. What are key scenes from movies that resonate on a visual level? Make that list WITHOUT viewing the movies at first, and try to write down everything you remember about a few of those key scenes.

Now watch one of those scenes – repeatedly, and break it down. What’s going on in it, not just visually, but thematically and emotionally? What key story conflicts are happening, and how does the visual reflect that? What key story elements are present in the scene (you’ll find many setpiece scenes contain several key story elements at once).

And let me know – what are some great examples of memorable setpieces for you – in books or films?

– Alex





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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)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE



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


Via: Alexandra Sokoloff

    

Huntress Moon sale, $1.99 - and let's get you writing this year!

By noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra Sokoloff)

To start your New Year off, I have a book sale and a writing series for you.

HUNTRESS MOON SALE

Book 1 of my Thriller Award-nominated Huntress Moon series is on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon US! (January 6 only). The series turns tropes of violence against women inside out: my haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer. Who kills men. All over the country. For years.

So if you’re in the mood to see the predators LOSE, here’s your chance to get a great deal.

Special Agent Matthew Roarke thought he knew what evil was. He was wrong.

here.

2. Nanowrimo Now What?

Maybe you’ve written more than five minutes a day. Maybe you did Nanowrimo and now have 50,000 or more wonderful, messy words. But – now what?

Here are the Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting.

3. Practicing Craft: It’s a Wonderful Life

What if you could get better as a writer every single time you sat down to watch a movie or TV show? Wouldn’t that push your craft to the next level or two or seven?

A little prep work before every movie or show you watch will pay off hugely. Try it with this classic.


4. Setpieces and Key Story Elements

These are two of the most important elements any writer can steal from the movies. I’ll be talking through them at length this month.

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Via: Alexandra Sokoloff

    

Writing five minutes a day for a year equals a book

By noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra Sokoloff)

by You CAN write a novel (or a script, or a TV pilot….) in whatever time you have. Even if that’s only five minutes a day. If you have kids, if you have the day job from hell, if you are clinically depressed – whatever is going on in your life, if you have five minutes a day, as long as you write EVERY DAY, to the best of your ability, you can write a novel that way.

I just don’t think that’s said often enough.





If you’re new to this blog, start here:

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I wrote my first novel, The Harrowing, by writing just five minutes per day.

My day job was screenwriting, at the time, and yes, it was a writing job, but it had turned into the day job from hell.

But fury is a wonderful motivator, and at the end of the day, every day, I was so pissed off at the producers I was working for that I would make myself write five minutes a day on the novel EVERY NIGHT, just out of spite.

Okay, the trick to this is – that if you write five minutes a day, you will write more than five minutes a day, sometimes a whole hell of a lot more than five minutes a day most days. But it’s the first five minutes that are the hardest.

Sometimes I was so tired that all I could manage was a sentence, but I would sit down at my desk and write that one sentence. But some days I’d tell myself all I needed to write was a sentence, and I’d end up writing three pages. I finished that book, and sold it to a major publisher, in less than a year.

It’s just like the first five minutes of exercise – something I learned a long time ago. As long as I can drag myself to class and endure that first five minutes of the workout, and I give myself permission to leave after five minutes if I want to, I will generally take the whole hour or hour and a half class, and usually end up loving it. (There are these wonderful things called endorphins, you see, and they kick in after a certain amount of exposure to pain…)

The trick to writing, and exercise, is – it is STARTING that is hard.

I have been writing professionally for . . . well, never mind how many years. But even after all those many years—every single day, I have to trick myself into writing. I will do anything – scrub toilets, clean the cat box, do my taxes, do my mother’s taxes – rather than sit down to write. It’s absurd. I mean, what’s so hard about writing, besides everything?

But I know this just like I know it about exercise. If you can just start, and commit to just that five minutes, those five minutes will turn into ten, and those ten minutes will turn into pages, and one page a day for a year is a book.

Think about it.

Or better yet, write for five minutes, right now.

Alexandra Sokoloff

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

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)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE



———————

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

Via: Alexandra Sokoloff

    

Holiday Homework: It's a Wonderful Life

By noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra Sokoloff)

by

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:

INNER AND OUTER DESIRE:
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 reallydriving the character, and in good characters, almost always, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will knowthat 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.
STATEMENT OF THEME:
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:
INTRODUCTION OF THE MAIN CHARACTER:

“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.

HOPE/FEAR and STAKES
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 ANTAGONIST

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?
FINAL BATTLE:
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

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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 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:

Via: Alexandra Sokoloff