Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Into The Special World

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I was watching Collateral a few days ago, one of the best mainstream thrillers to come of Hollywood in ten years, I think (and anyone who says Tom Cruise can’t act is just plain wrong). Besides being maybe the most accurate and weirdly beautiful depiction of LA I’ve seen on film (actually digital video) since Chinatown, with wonderful characterizations from a stellar cast, it just hits so many things perfectly, seemingly without trying.

But a lot of “not trying” comes from having learned your craft so well that you make the right instinctive choices.

I’m thinking of a moment early in the film that on the DVD commentary director Michael Mann says he can’t explain, but he knew he had to have the shot because it summed up the whole story for him.

I was thrilled to hear it because it had been a goosebump moment for me when I rewatched the film.  But I know why, for me at least.

The shot I’m talking about is when cab driver Jamie Foxx heads out onto the downtown freeways to start his night shift (it’s late afternoon), and he drives seemingly head on into a huge, wall-sized Mexican mural that actually is sort of iconic, if you know downtown L.A: a painting of a desert canyon with a vaquero (cowboy) on a white horse, and a black bull.  The mural is unfinished, and the vaquero has no head.  And for a moment it really does look like Jaime Foxx is driving right into that landscape. It’s surreal, and mythic, and it totally sets up the action that is to come.

Well, that moment hits one of the most important beats in storytelling: the Into The Special World or Crossing The Threshold moment.

A story will usually begin by showing in some way the Ordinary World of the main character, which externalizes a lot of essential information about that character – especially why they are somehow stuck in the life they are presently living. Then it’s time to take her/him out of that old, familiar comfort zone and plunge them into the adventure – no matter what the genre is. And this is one of the most magical moments of storytelling; perhaps the most important one to get right.

Because it’s so big, this scene very often comes as the Act I Climax, although it can be as early as the Sequence 1 Climax. Once in a while it comes early in Act II, right after the Act I Climax. And once in a great while it doesn’t happen until the Midpoint, as in Jaws, when Brody and his team of Hooper and Quint finally head out (in that too-small boat) to open water to hunt down the shark.

It’s not uncommon to have several crossings of thresholds, as the hero/ine goes deeper and deeper into the Special World. This is always an effective technique to make us feel we’re really going on an adventure.

In Groundhog Day: the obvious Into The Special World scene is very early in the story, under the opening credits, in fact, when after the opening scene in the newsroom, TV weatherman Phil Connors, his producer Rita, and cameraman Larry drive out of Pittsburgh, over a bridge (an archetypal symbol of crossing a threshold), and into the snowy mountains of Pennsylvania. Out of the city, into a small mountain town. This kind of contrast underscores the feeling of newness and adventure we want to experience in an Into The Special World transition.

But there’s a second, more subtle Crossing The Threshold, when Phil wakes up in the morning to a replaying of the day he just spent. The filmmakers cue this moment with the shot of the clock alarm clicking over to 6 a.m., while “I Got You, Babe” plays on the radio. It’s a big visual that will repeat and repeat and repeat. The numbers on the clock are like a door, and they usher Phil into the real Special World: a time loop where every day is Groundhog Day and there’s no escaping Punxsutawney, PA.

The first Harry Potter is a great example of the many-threshold technique. There is often a special PASSAGEWAY into the special world, and in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone you first see Harry enter the new world of London, then Hagrid magically rearranges the bricks in a stone wall so Harry can step through into the very new world of Diagon Ally, then Harry has to figure out the trick of Platform 9 ¾, then the train takes Harry and the other first years into the wilderness, then finally the kids cross the dark lake (looking very much like the River Styx) in small torch-lit boats to get to Hogwarts.  The Into The Special World moment is very often turned into a whole scene or sequence to give it the weight it deserves.

Other famous passageways are the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz (and Dorothy stepping over the threshold into Technicolor Oz is certainly the most famous depiction of that moment in film history!), the red pill in The Matrix, the chalk sidewalk paintings in Mary Poppins, the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the tesseract in A Wrinkle In Time.

But certainly the entering the Special World moment doesn’t have to be a supernatural experience. In While You Were Sleeping – the warm, bright Callaghan house is a special world to lonely Lucy, who wishes for a family of her own. When she gets out of the taxi and sees the big house covered in Christmas lights, you can see her longing to belong there on her face.  There she is confronted by a Threshold Guardian on the porch: the family friend who suspects she is lying about who she is.

Joseph Campbell talked about the idea of the Threshold Guardian: a character (or sometimes an animal or creature!) who tries to turn the hero/ine back at the gate.  It’s a great way of giving the Crossing The Threshold moment extra resonance.

Another trick is to use symbols we all have in our heads. Bridges, doors, gates, freeway on-ramps or off-ramps: these are all symbols that are used constantly by filmmakers and authors to create the sense of Crossing The Threshold.  And it’s very effective to have this sequence be a descent: Clarice descends multiple staircases and passes through seven gates to get to Lecter down there in that dungeon – a great, ominous Crossing The Threshold scene, that takes us down into the subterranean realms of the unconscious along with her.

So I’m wondering, Rati: are you aware of that Into The Special World  moment when you’re reading or watching a film? Writers, do you design that moment, consciously or unconsciously?

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers; hope everyone’s doing something special for their own!


Key Story Elements – Inciting Incident

by Alexandra Sokoloff

As I continue to work my way through the Key Story Elements

Okay, I admit there’s something more than a little OCD about this venture of mine, but it’s also a much more concrete endeavor than writing fiction, especially a first draft, which is where I happen to be in my novel, which makes doing this story elements thing oddly relaxing for me. 

Whether I’m blogging, writing, or teaching, I keep looking for ways to make the point that filmmakers take extra care with certain key scenes of a story. Filmmakers pay particular attention to all the ways they have at their disposal to underscore the significance of these moments – whether it’s delivering the pure visceral experience of the genre, revealing character, conveying theme, externalizing the hero/ine’s ghost – any and sometimes many of the above and more.

And to do that, they usually create those scenes as SETPIECES.

To review – there are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in – a shower, for instance, in Psycho. Setpieces are the tent poles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.  They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes – and as certain key scenes, like the Inciting Incident.

And I think it’s one of the very best lessons we as authors can take from filmmakers.

So today I want to break down a key scene among key scenes – the INCITING INCIDENT, or INCITING EVENT, and show how a few of my favorite movies handle that scene.

The Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy.

This beat also often called the CALL TO ADVENTURE (from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, summarized by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey), and that’s the phrase I actually prefer, it’s just more – more.

But I’ve been watching a lot of classic movies lately (God bless TCM!) and the more I look at this story beat, the more I’ve realized that while the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are often the same scene – they are just as often two completely different scenes.  And it’s useful to be aware of when and how they’re different, so you can bring out the particular qualities of each scene, and know when to combine them and when to separate them.

In Jaws, the inciting incident is immediate, occurring on the first pages of the book and the first seconds of the movie: the shark swims into the Amityville harbor and attacks and kills a swimmer.   The protagonist, Sheriff Brody, is not present for the inciting incident, he’s not even aware of it.  The next morning he gets a phone call reporting a missing person, possible drowning, and he goes off to investigate, not having any idea what he’s about to get into.  It’s a very small moment, played over the ordinary sounds of a family kitchen in the morning.

But we’ve already seen the big setpiece inciting incident and we know what he’s in for.

However, I don’t think that Inciting Incident is the actual Call To Adventure.  I think that comes at the climax of Act One, when the bereaved mother of a little boy who was killed in the second shark attack walks out on the pier and slaps Sheriff Brody, accusing him of killing her son (because he didn’t close the beaches after the first attack) in front of all the townspeople.   And this is one of the best examples I know of an emotional setpiece: the camera just holds on the mother’s ravaged face as she goes on for what feels like forever, telling Brody that her son would be alive if he’d done the right thing to begin with.  And as she stands there against the sun and sky, the black veil she is wearing whips around her face in the wind… she looks like the Angel of Death, or an ancient Fate, or a Fury. It’s a moment with mythic resonance, in which Brody is called to right this wrong himself, to redeem himself for this unwitting and tragic mistake.   Now that is a real Call – not just to adventure, but to redemption.

It’s one of the most haunting scenes of the movie – and I find it really interesting that Spielberg uses it as his Act Climax instead of another shark attack.

The Inciting Incident of a love story is very often meeting the love interest.  In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant hovers in the aisles of his little bookshop, realizing that the customer who just walked in is the movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts).  In a prolonged moment he watches her as she browses, but he’s not just gawking at a celebrity.  It’s a classic depiction of how time seems to stop when the Beloved walks into our lives, and we get to experience that moment with him.

In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are the same scene, and a whole lot of other things are going on in the scene as well – it’s one of my favorite Calls To Adventure for all the layers of it.

Professor Indiana Jones is called out of his archeology class by his mentor Marcus, who also serves as a HERALD here, too, summoning Indy to a meeting with a pair of government agents who will deliver the actual Call To Adventure. It’s worth noting as a technique that having this double layer to the Call – first a Herald appearing to say to the hero/ine, “There’s someone here with a job for you”, and then escorting the hero/ine to a different location where another set of messengers delivers the call, builds up the importance of the moment and the mission.

And the location of this next scene, where the government agents (US Army Intelligence) explain the mission, is very significant here. This scene could have been set just in an office. Instead, the filmmakers make it a setpiece all on its own by putting it in a huge, elegant, high-ceilinged auditorium with stained glass windows, creating a cathedral-like ambiance. The setting gives us a feeling of the import of this mission. And since the Call is one of the most exciting and crucial moments of any story, why not give it a setting to create an extra layer of excitement and significance?

We learn from the government guys that a Nazi telegraph has been intercepted and Hitler’s men are looking for Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood. Indy and Marcus interpret the telegraph: The Nazis have discovered an archeological site where supposedly the Lost Ark of the Covenant has been buried for millennia, and they think Ravenwood can help them pinpoint the exact location of the Ark. 

Hitler has been sending teams of Nazis out all over the globe collecting occult artifacts (this is historically true). Ominously, the legend of this particular artifact, the Ark, is that it will make any army who bears it invincible.

These are the really huge STAKES of this story, and our FEAR: If Hitler gets the Ark, it will make the German army invincible. World domination = not good.

So we also get a glimpse of what Indy is up against: his real OPPONENT is the ultimate bad guy: Hitler and the whole German army.

And our HOPE is that Indy finds the Ark before Hitler does.

This is also a good example of an EXPLAINING THE MYTHOLOGY scene – you often see these when the mission is convoluted, or fantastical – such as in horror movies, sci-fi, fantasy – and the scene often includes the hero explaining the rules to an outsider. Here, it’s Indy and Marcus explaining the history of the Ark to the government guys. And they also explain that the Nazis want to find Ravenwood because he has a medallion that can be used to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark (Indy draws all this on a blackboard, a SET UP for when we see him do for real it at the Midpoint).  So we also get the whole PLAN of the movie in this scene.

There is also a big SET UP and FORESHADOWING with the illustrations of the Ark bringing down the wrath of God on a blasphemous army – it’s a sketch of exactly what happens in the final scene.

However, although Indy knows the mythology of the Ark, he quickly adds, “If you believe all that stuff.” – indicating that he himself does not believe it. This is an action-adventure film, there isn’t a huge CHARACTER ARC here, but this is what it is: Indy starts out scoffing at the supernatural and mystical and ends up barely saving his life and Marion’s precisely by believing in the power of the Ark and showing reverence. (The secondary character arc has to do with reconciling romantically with Marion, although in the trilogy that doesn’t last long. There is also even a reference to this GHOST when Indy says, with some shame – that he and Ravenwood had “a sort of falling-out.”)

Also, adding to the THEME of world religions, there are several Judeo-Christian references in the University scene – the auditorium that looks like a church, with the stained glass windows, the leather-bound text that looks like a Bible, the references to the story of Moses and the Israelites and the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the wrath of God. Marcus’s voice echoes in the auditorium like the voice of a priest.

The tag line of the scene is Marcus saying: “An army carrying the Ark before it was said to be invincible”, leaving us a moment to think about that most important point as the scene changes. 

All of that, about a dozen key story elements – in one scene!   It’s really a miracle of compression.

Hmm.  I look at those three examples I just detailed above, all chosen because they were the first Call To Adventure scenes that came immediately to my mind, and I realize that even though they’re very different stories and styles, what those scenes all have in common for me is a sense of mystical, or even mythical, importance.  That’s certainly my preference as a writer and reader, but I also think that there should be something mystical and mythical about any Call To Adventure scene. It’s the scene that summons the hero/ine to the journey, and invites us, the reader or audience, to come along.  Shouldn’t that be magical?

I’ve also just realized that in my own current WIP, and the book I just finished, and also in my last thriller out, Book of Shadows, the protagonist’s Call To Adventure in the crime story is simultaneous with meeting the love interest.  I didn’t do that in previous books, and the Inciting Incidents and Calls To Adventure in my other books are separate scenes.  I wonder if I’m getting more efficient at storytelling – or if possibly my stories are getting more twisted!  But I look at what I’m doing now and I know it’s right that those two story elements occur together; it says something thematically that I definitely wanted to say, although I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time I wrote those scenes.

All of which I think illustrates the point that I’m always trying to make in my blogs and teaching – that taking the time to analyze a particular story element by looking at examples that really do it for you – can take your writing to a whole other level.

So do you have examples for us today of favorite Inciting Incidents and/or Calls To Adventure – from your favorite movies and books or from your own books or WIPs?

And, right – remember that we have Captcha on again and you have to type in the letters to get your comment posted.  Sorry, but it’s the spammers who should die.



From Alex On The Road

By Alexandra Sokoloff
I am at RT with I think half of the Rati (funny about that… if you ever thought a romance conference wasn’t for you…)
So of course I’m in teaching mode, and today while I’m teaching you get my enornously expanded Story Elements Checklist.

I’m going to be working through the Checklist item by item with examples of how movies and books handle these key story elements, which will take all summer or possibly the rest of my life, but I really do have to start with this monster before I go there. 
(Here’s the original checklist)

For those of you new to some of these elements, what I’ve been doing for a couple of years now is identifying key story elements of WHATEVER dramatic form you happen to be working in – film, novels, plays, television – pointing out where relevant how often these elements occur in about the same places in the Three-Act Structure (and the Eight Sequence Structure) and discussing how different stories present those elements for maximum impact.

What I am forever suggesting is that studying the movies and books that you love, and looking specifically for those story elements and how they are handled, is like playing scales on a piano or doing barre work in dance. Practicing this kind of analysis builds your chops as a writer and becomes a natural part of your writing process. It can also help you solve virtually any story problem you come up against.

(All of this and more is compiled in the workbook, Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.).

So here’s the list so far along with some questions that you can apply either to movies and books you’re analyzing, or to your own story.



(The full discussion is here – but a very brief summary:

– In a 2-hour movie, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 30 minutes.

– In a 400-page book, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 100 pages.

And adjust proportionately depending on the length of the story.

First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. What time do they start, and what time do they climax? (Full discussion here.

In a movie there will usually be two approximately 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 1 and Sequence 2, and the climax of Sequence 2 will be the Act 1 Climax, at about 30 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even (rarely) four in Act I. There may also be a short PROLOGUE.

In a book you have more leeway with number and length of sequences – there may be three or four in one Act, and they may vary more in length – 40 pages, 20 pages, 30 pages. But generally in a 400 page book, the Act One climax will be still be around p. 100.


Describe the OPENING IMAGE and/or opening scene of the story.

What mood, tone and genre does it set up? What kinds of experiences does it hint at or promise? (Look at colors, music, pace, visuals, location, dialogue, symbols, etc.).

Does the opening image or scene mirror the closing image or scene? (It’s not mandatory, but it’s a useful technique, often used.). How are the two different?

* What’s the MOOD, TONE, GENRE (s) the story sets up from the beginning? How does it do that?


(More discussion here.)


What does the ordinary world look and feel like? How does it differ in look and atmosphere from THE SPECIAL WORLD?


How do we know this is the main character? Why do we like him or her? Why do we relate to him or her? What is the moment that we start rooting for this person? Why do we care?


What does the Hero/ine say s/he wants? Or what do we sense that s/he wants, even if s/he doesn’t say it or seem to be aware of it? How does what s/he thinks s/he wants turn out to be wrong?


(This is usually an immediate external problem, not an overall need. In some stories this is more apparent than others.)


What is haunting them from the past?


Look at the beginning and the end to see how much the hero/ine changes in the course of the story. How do the storytellers depict that change?


(This can be the same scene or separated into two different scenes.)

How do the storytellers make this moment or sequence significant?


Is the hero/ine reluctant to take on this task or adventure? How do we see that reluctance?

• 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).

How do we know this is the antagonist? Does this person or people want the same thing as the hero/ine, or is this person preventing the hero/ine from getting what s/he wants?


Who and what else is standing in the hero/ine’s way?


There are usually multiple themes working in any story, and usually they will be stated aloud.


How is each ally introduced?

* INTRODUCE MENTOR (may or may not have one)

What are the qualities of this mentor? How is this person a good teacher (or a bad teacher) for the hero?

• INTRODUCE LOVE INTEREST (may or may not have one).

What makes us know from the beginning that this person is The One?


What is the Special World? How is it different from the ordinary world? How do the filmmakers make entering this world a significant moment?

This scene is often at a sequence climax or the Act One Climax. Sometimes there are a whole series of thresholds to be crossed.


Is there someone standing on the threshold preventing the hero/ine from entering, or someone issuing a warning?


In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 15 minutes in. How do the filmmakers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this sequence is over and Sequence 2 is starting?

(Each sequence in a book will have some sort of climax, as well, although the sequences are not as uniform in length and number as they tend to be in films. Look for a revelation, a location change, a big event, a setpiece.).


scussion here


(Such a big topic you just have to wait for the dedicated post.)


What does the hero/ine say they want to do, or what do we understand they intend to do? The plan usually starts small, with a minimum effort, and gradually we see the plan changing.


Does a character state this aloud? When do we realize that this is the main question of the story?


In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 30 minutes in. In a 400-page book, about 100 pages in.

How do the storytellers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this act is over and Act II is starting?

You will also possibly see these elements (these can also be in Act Two or may not be present):




And also possibly:

***** MACGUFFIN (not present in all stories but if there is one it will USUALLY be revealed in the first act).

*****TICKING CLOCK (may not have one or the other and may be revealed later in the story)

* And always – look for and IDENTIFY SETPIECES.


(Elements of Act I checklist is here).

In a 2-hour movie Act II, Part 1 starts at about 30 minutes, and ends at about 60 minutes.

In a 400-page book it starts at about p. 100 and climaxes at about p. 200.

Identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. Where do they start, and where do they climax? In a movie, usually there will be two 15-minute long sequences, Sequence 3 and Sequence 4, and the climax of Sequence 4 will be the MIDPOINT, at about 1 hour into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2.

And a book may have several more sequences in this section of more variable length, but the MIDPOINT will still be at about p. 200 in a 400-page book.

Act II, Part 1 is the most variable section of the four sections of a story. I have noticed it also tends to be the most genre-specific. It doesn’t have the very clear, generic essential elements that Act I and Act 3 do – except in the case of Mysteries and certain kinds of team action films, which generally have a more standard structure in this section.

IF THE FILM IS A MYSTERY, this section will almost always have these elements:



– SETTING UP TEAM MEMBERS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES that will be tested in battle later.

There may also be


But if the story is not a mystery or a team action story, the first half of Act 2 will often have some of the above elements, and ALL stories will generally have these next elements in Act II, part 1 (not in any particular order):


(This scene may already have happened in Act One, but it often happens right at the end of Act One or right at the beginning of Act Two.) How do the storytellers make this moment important? Is there a special PASSAGEWAY between the worlds?


There is very often a character who tries to prevent the hero/ine from entering the SPECIAL WORLD, or who gives them a warning about danger.


– What is the hero/ine’s PLAN to get what s/he wants?

The plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the hero/ine start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail.


Same as for the hero/ine: the plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the villain start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail. Even if the villain is being kept secret, we will see the effects of the villain’s plan on the hero/ine.


How do we see the antagonist attacking the hero/ine?

Whether or not the hero/ine realizes who is attacking her or him, the antagonist (s) will be nearby and constantly attacking the hero/ine. How does the hero/ine fight back?


How do we see the hero/ine being tested?

In a mentor story, the mentor will often be designing these tests, and there may be a training sequence or training scenes as well. Sometimes (as in THE GODFATHER) no one is really designing the tests, but the hero/ine keeps running up against obstacles to what they want and they have to overcome those obstacles, and with each win they become stronger.

The hero/ine USUALLY wins a lot in Act II:1 (and then starts to lose throughout Act II:2), but that’s not necessarily true. In JAWS, Sheriff Brody doesn’t get a win until the big defeat of the Midpoint, when he is finally able to force the mayor to sign a check and hire Quint to kill the shark.


This is one of the great pleasures of any story – seeing the hero/ine make lifelong friends or fall in love. Besides the more obvious romantic scenes, the love scenes can be between a boy and his dragon, as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON; or between teammates, as in JAWS; or a man and his father or a woman and her mother (some of the most successful movies, like THE GODFATHER, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS show these dynamics). What are the scenes that make us feel the glow of love or joy of friendship?

Or in darker stories, instead of bonding scenes, the storytellers may show the hero/ine pulling away from people and becoming more and more alienated, as in THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER, THE SHINING, CASINO.

In a love story, there is always a specific scene that you might call THE DANCE, where we see for the first time that the two lovers are perfect for each other (this is often some witty exchange of dialogue when the two seem to be finishing each other’s sentences, or maybe they end up forced to sing karaoke together and bring down the house…). You see this Dance scene in buddy comedies and buddy action movies as well.

– GENRE SCENES (action, horror, suspense, sex, emotion, adventure, violence)

Act II, part 1 is the section of a story that will really deliver on THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE.

What is the EXPERIENCE that you hope and expect to get from this story? – is it the glow and sexiness of falling in love, or the adrenaline rush of supernatural horror, or the intellectual pleasure of solving a mystery, or the vicarious triumph of kicking the ass of a hated enemy in hand-to-hand combat?

Here are some examples:

– In THE GODFATHER, we get the EXPERIENCE of Michael gaining in power as he steps into the family business. There’s a vicarious thrill in seeing him win these battles.

– In JAWS, we EXPERIENCE the terror of what it’s like to be in a small beach town under attack by a monster of the sea.

In HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, we get the EXPERIENCE and wonder of discovering all these cool and endearing qualities about dragons, including and especially the EXPERIENCE of flying. We also get to EXPERIENCE outcast and loser Hiccup suddenly winning big in the training ring.

– In HARRY POTTER (1), we get the EXPERIENCE of going to a school for wizards and learning and practicing magic (including flying).

(I want to note that for those of you working with horror stories, it’s very important to identify WHAT IS THE HORROR, exactly? What are we so scared of, in this story? How do the storytellers give us the experience of that horror?)

Ask yourself what EXPERIENCE you want your audience or reader to have in your own story, then look for the scenes that deliver on that promise in Act II, part 1. Well, do they? If not, how can you enhance that experience?

And another big but important generalization I can make about Act II, part 1, is that this is often where the specific structure of the KIND of story you’re writing (or viewing) kicks in. For more on identifying KINDS of stories, see What Kind Of Story Is It?

Act II part 1 builds to the MIDPOINT CLIMAX – which in movies is usually a big SETPIECE scene, where the filmmakers really show off their expertise with a special effects sequence (as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and HARRY POTTER, 1), or a big action scene (JAWS), or in breathtaking psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. Whatever the Midpoint is, it is most likely going to be specific to the promise of the genre.


– Completely changes the game
– Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
– Is a point of no return
– Can be a huge revelation
– Can be a huge defeat
– Can be a huge win
– 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

More discussion on Elements of Act Two.


In a 2-hour movie this section starts at about 60 minutes, and ends at about 90 minutes.
In a 400-page book, this section starts at about p. 300 and ends toward the end of the book.

First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. In a movie, usually there will be two 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 5 and Sequence 6, and the climax of Sequence 6 will be the ACT TWO CLIMAX, at about 90 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter than 2 hours, the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2, and in a shorter movie this section is often condensed into just one sequence or two very short sequences. (I’ve noticed that Act II:2 tends to be the place where a shorter movie will condense the action).

A book may have 2, 3, or even 4 sequences in this section, and the page count can vary.

Act II, part 2 will almost always have these elements:

* 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.

What’s the new plan?


A good story will always be clear about the stakes. Characters often speak the stakes aloud. How have the stakes changed? Do we have new hopes or fears about what the protagonist will do and what will happen to him or her?


Little actions by the hero/ine to get what s/he wants have not cut it, so the actions become bigger and usually more desperate.

Do we see a new level of commitment in the hero/ine?
How are the hero/ine’s actions becoming more desperate?

* It’s also worth noting that while the hero/ine is generally (but not always!) winning in Act II:1, s/he generally begins to lose in Act II:2. Often this is where everything starts to unravel and spiral out of control.


Just as the hero/ine is becoming more desperate to get what s/he wants, the antagonist also has failed to get what s/he wants and becomes more desperate and takes riskier actions.

* HARD CHOICES AND CROSSING THE LINE (IMMORAL ACTIONS by the main character to get what s/he wants)

Do we see the hero/ine crossing the line and doing immoral things 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).

Do any allies walk out on the hero/ine or get killed or injured?

* A TICKING CLOCK (can happen anywhere in the story, or there may not be one.)



There is always a moment in a story where the hero/ine seems to have lost everything, and it is almost always right before the Second Act Climax, or it IS the Second Act Climax.

What is the All Is Lost scene?

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a THE LOVER MAKES A STAND scene, where s/he tells the loved one – “Enough of this bullshit waffling, either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.” This can be the hero/ine or the love interest making this stand.


* Often will be a final revelation before the end game: often the knowledge of who the opponent really is, that will propel the hero/ine into the FINAL BATTLE.

* Often will be another devastating loss, the ALL IS LOST scene. In a mythic structure or Chosen One story or mentor story this is almost ALWAYS where the mentor dies or is otherwise taken out of the action, so the hero/ine must go into the final battle alone.

* Answers the Central Question – and often the answer is “no” – so that the hero/ine again must come up with a whole new plan.

* Often is a SETPIECE.

More discussion on Elements Of Act II:2


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) (Sequence 7).

2. The final battle itself (Sequence 8)

* In addition to the FINAL PLAN, there may be another GATHERING OF THE TEAM, and a brief TRANING SEQUENCE.

• There may well be DEFEATS OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS (each one of which should be given a satisfying end or comeuppance. (This may also happen earlier, in Act II:2).

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

* The protagonist’s character change

* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

* Possibly ally/allies’ character change (s) and/or gaining of desire (s)

* Possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Bac
k 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.

• Possibly a sense of coming FULL CIRCLE – returning to the opening image or scene and showing how much things have changed, or how the hero/ine has changed inside, causing her or him to deal with the same place and situation in a whole different way.

* Closing Image

More on Act Three:

Elements of Act Three

What Makes a Great Climax?

Elevate Your Ending

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

What KIND Of Story Is It?

– Alex


Key Story Elements: Opening Image

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Spring is here, my OCD has kicked in, and I have started on a spring project that you all are going to get the benefit of (or have to suffer through, one of those…)

I’ve been wanting for a long time to go through this Story Elements Checklist I compiled a while ago and revise and expand it with all the great new things I’ve been learning in my own workshops this year.  My plan is to work through the elements one by one, discussing each in-depth, hopefully with lots of brilliantly illuminative examples and analysis.  

How’s that for a resolution?  (Yes, the mania has kicked in as well….)

And I am especially in need of doing this because I am sunk into the ENDLESS, INTERMINABLE SLOG portion of my own writing process, ie. three-quarters of the way through that wretched first draft of my new one, and can only dream longingly of happier days of brainstorming or rewriting.

(Here’s the preliminary expanded checklist – way too long to post here!

I think my main focus throughout is going to be Visual Storytelling, but you never, ever can tell once I get going.

But one of the main points I’ll be trying to make is: just as filmmakers consciously design some of these key story scenes for maximum emotional and visual impact, we as novelists can be doing the same thing on the page for our readers – making the most of critical scenes such as ESTABLISHING THE HERO/INE’S GHOST, THE CALL TO ADVENTURE, CROSSING THE THRESHOLD, ESTABLISHING THE PLAN, and so on. 

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.”   Well, very often these six great scenes are off that list of the key story elements.   It makes sense, doesn’t it?  Scenes like THE CALL TO ADVENTURE and CROSSING THE THRESHOLD are magical moments – they change the world of the main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right along with the character.   These are numinous events, and we want to write scenes that are worthy of them.   That’s why I think it’s a wise idea to study the more blatant examples – the way these scenes are depicted in fantasies like Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz – so you get the full-on, literally magical experience of a Call To Adventure or Crossing the Threshold scene first – and then start looking for more subtle variations in less fantastical stories.  

For those just joining us who want to play along, or for those who somehow never got around to doing this, now would be a good time to make a MASTER LIST – a top ten (or more) list of your favorite movies and books in the genre that you’re writing and/or similar in structure – Orr if you don’t have a premise in mind, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written – so you can refer to the list for examples.

And we’ll start, as the song goes, at the very beginning, with OPENING IMAGE.

In a film, of course, you have an opening image by default, whether you put any planning into it or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will very consciously design that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the story – mood, tone, location, and especially theme.

Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax  – which takes place in the grain silo – one of the villains is killed by the spill of grain.

The opening image of ROMACING THE STONE is a classic, gorgeous Western shot of magnificent buttes in a desert landscape and a voluptuous buckskin-clad heroine straight from the old bodice-rippers.   It’s adventure and romance which the voice-over narration also establishes as comic and tongue-in-cheek.   It’s a great miniature of the whole story – this is protagonist Joan Wilder’s fantasy, which quickly becomes her not-so-appealing reality.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a boat on fire in a dark harbor and a man taking a piss into the dark water… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say – on the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream;  it’s eerie, disturbing, and hypnotic – putting us, the audience, squarely in a dream with her.

Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourselves trying to concoct a great first line which will just as likely annoy a reader into throwing your book against the wall as make them keep reading, how about giving some thought to what your opening scene LOOKS like? It takes a lot of the pressure off that first page anxiety – because you’re focused on conveying a powerful image that will intrigue and entice the reader into the book.

What do we see? How does it make us feel?  How might it even be a miniature code of what the whole story is about?

Take a look at a few of the films on your master list and see what they do with the opening image.   Bear in mind that the opening image may be more of an opening scene – and the key image may not be the very first thing we see.  For example, in CASINO, the film starts with DeNiro walking out to his car, with narration over.   Then as he gets in, the car explodes in flame – and the credits sequence begins – the visual underneath which is a long, long take on a cut-out of a man falling slowly through flame – a descent into hell.  That falling through flame, with the blinking neon of the casino all around, would be the opening image, what Scorcese has chosen to fix in the audience’s mind – it is exactly what the story is about. 

One of my favorite opening images/sequences is the credits scene of THE SHINING.   I don’t think there’s a creepier opening to be found anywhere in film.   It’s all aerial camerawork of those vast, foreboding mountains as that tiny little car drives up, up, up toward what turns out to be the Overlook.   It’s vertiginous, it’s ominous, it emphasizes the utter isolation of the hotel and the circumstances, and somehow, through the music and the visuals and the constant movement, Kubrick establishes a sense of  huge, vast, and malevolent natural forces.   As a horror writer (or whatever you want to call me), I am constantly looking for ways to convey all those things – that EXPERIENCE – on the page. 

Here’s another great film technique to be aware of:  The opening image will sometimes –often – set up a location that will return in the final battle scene or in the resolution scene of the story – only at the end there will be a big visual contrast to show how much the hero/ine has changed.   A fantastic recent example of this is in the truly lovely animated film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.  It opens with a long aerial swoop down into the Viking village.   It’s dark, torchlit, forbidding…  and then smashes into the opening attack by dragons – a scene of chaos and violence.  And we hear young protagonist Hiccup’s wry narration over it.

In the RESOLUTION, we see the same aerial swoop into the village, but now it’s daylight, sunshine, flowers – and instead of attacking, the dragons are flying with their new – well, not owners, but partners – the same Vikings who were fighting them in the beginning.   And Hiccup’s wry narration is the same – only with a few key words changed.   The whole village has been transformed by Hiccup’s personal journey – it’s a magnificent visual of not just character arc, but the change in philosophy of the whole Viking society.

Think you can’t possibly achieve this on the page?   Think again.  Mo Hayder’s THE TREATMENT  is one of my favorite recent examples…  when she focuses on a murder of crows strutting on the grass of a crime scene, evil just rolls off the page, and you start to wonder if you really want to keep reading the book.     (It’s worth every shudder, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.).

Now, look – I’m not at all saying that an opening scene HAS to be visual to work.  I had a student in a workshop recently who opened her romantic comedy with a series of dueling press releases – it was hilarious and perfect for her very funny book.   As authors we have the luxury of not having to convey things purely visually.   I’m just saying – if you’re struggling with an opening, this could be a technique that would help you pull it all together.   It works wonders for me.    And thinking of the opening visually instantly solves the problem that I’ve become increasingly aware of in the opening chapters of newer writers:  they fail to set up the visual in any way, which leaves the reader  floundering to figure out where the hell they are.   Not an auspicious way to begin, let me tell you.

As human beings, we are primarily visual creatures (and no, I don’t just mean men.  All of us.).   So?  Why not use it?

My question of the day:   Visual or not visual – what are some of your favorite book and movie openings of all time? 


The Long And Short Of It

(Or – Killing Allison Brennan)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

This month, because I have nothing else to do, I wrote a short story. 

I don’t usually do that.   Practically ever.    I only said yes because it was for ITW’s great Thriller – Stories To Keep You Up At Night series and Our Allison  is co-editing (with Sandra Brown) and she asked me.   The thing is, we were all recruited for this book so long ago, and so much has happened since then, that I sort of misplaced the idea of a deadline, if I ever knew it to begin with.

So it came up – suddenly.    Which is good, in a way, because the reason I don’t do shorts is that they’re only short in length – the process is excruciating and feels as long as any other writing I ever do except for Twitter updates, and I rarely even do that.  I didn’t have any room to stall, I just had to do it.

On the other hand, two weeks ago I was having serious thoughts about killing Allison, which just seemed easier and less emotionally draining than doing the story.   Plus I knew she would understand, as long as I was creative about it.

But it really is amazing to me, every single time, how obliging our subconscious is  (or – “those guys in the basement”, as Stephen King says.).  When we need an idea, when we have a scary deadline, the subconscious, the guys, the Muse, the Universe – whoever it is out there always comes through.

First, since this anthology focuses on the romantic suspense subgenre, I picked a dream location in the Bahamas – sexy, glamorous, escapist, that I happened to have made a whole lot of notes about on a not-too-long-ago vacation .    Since setting is HUGE to me, always a key element in anything I write, that was a big jumpstart – I knew I could deliver a sensual experience, which is half the battle in those more romantic thrillers. 

Then, I blatantly used my own feelings at the exact moment – which happened to be deep grief over the loss of a loved one.   It instantly brought up a central emotional question: Will the protagonist ever feel like living again?   And that question led to another:  Well, what in that fantastical environment would MAKE her want to live again?   And that’s the kind of question that leads to a story.

And from there, the Universe did most of the work.  As it always does if we pay attention.  A Tarot card came up as my card of the day that gave me most of the central images and objects of the piece.   I could steal from my sister’s work history to get the heroine’s job (always one of the biggest pains for me to figure out unless I’m writing a cop story or something equally obvious).   My jazz dance teacher was playing a lot of Jamaican music that I had heard on this trip.   Because of the Oscars, Colin Firth was all over the media, and if there’s a better inspiration for sex scenes, I don’t know of one.  And having spent a week in the place I was writing about, I knew the layout of the hotel and the sounds and colors and smells, so I didn’t really have to stop and think all that much.  

And somehow it all just happened and was done in a couple of weeks and I am mad at Allison again because now I have to be grateful to her for the rest of my life that she made me do this.  

I don’t usually get this kind of instant gratification from writing.   Writing a novel is such a long process that even FINISHING doesn’t have much of a rush for me beyond profound relief leading pretty instantly to coma.   I don’t really get to enjoy writing until I start hearing back from readers and realize that the story I wrote actually EXISTS – not just for me but for anyone who wants to pick it up and step into that weird alternate universe that a book is.  Which is a huge gratification, mindblowing, really, but so delayed that it doesn’t seem to have much connection to the writing process.

But a short – somehow is a little miraculous.    One day there is nothing but a black hole of panic and three weeks later or so there is a mini standalone alternate universe.   It makes you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something.   In fact, you have physical proof that you have actually accomplished something.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine putting myself through this on a regular basis.   I know some people can churn out short stories without blinking, but that’s not me.  Realistically, my novel would be a month further ahead if I hadn’t taken the time, and a month is a lot.   Since all writers really have is our time…. as much as I love the story, and as fulfilling as it is to have it, now, and as much as I admire the Thriller series (and, yes, okay, Allison) and am honored to be part of it – was writing the story actually a smart thing to do? 

So, those of you who write short stories – I’d really love to know why you do it.   What do you think is the benefit of writing short stories – in a career sense (if any)?   Or is it a more personal pleasure?    Alternately, here’s a good question:  What if anything do you enjoy about writing?   Honestly?

And readers – has a short story ever inspired you to check out an author you haven’t read?

Finally, all good thoughts out to all those affected by that devastating Tokyo quake and tsunami… it’s just been surreal to see.



First chapters

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Last post I went on a rant about VOICE because of the first chapter submissions (first three chapters, really) I was reading for a conference, and today, because it is cold, I am going to rant some more about FIRST CHAPTERS in general.  

There is no question that reading a bunch of – well, anything – in a row gives you a good idea of what to do and not to do in executing that particular thing.   And I maintain I can’t teach anyone to write, but I sure can point out the problems I’m seeing over and over and over again.  So here’s a brief list. 

1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here.  As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”.   It doesn’t have to be polished.  It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you.   At the Southern California Writers Conference this weekend screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas (WANTED, 3:10 TO YUMA)  referred to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”.   Exactly.     In my current WIP I am writing scenes out of order in a way I never have in my entire writing life.  So what?   I’m switching POVs in a way I never have before and I need to write some things out of order because I have no idea what the best order is.   I’m writing scenes I know will be in there somewhere and I’ll figure it out in the second draft, or the third, or the fourth. 

Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later. (for more on this:  Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck )

BUT – when you’ve gotten to the end, if you are a newer writer, I suspect you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, even 50 pages later than you did.   And this is partly why:

For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages.   Back story is not story.  You will lose every potential agent, editor, and future reader in the known universe.   So –  


With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with, that’s fine too) is caught up in ACTION.   You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more precisely, CAUGHT UP in a movie.    The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.

We don’t need to know who this person is, yet.  Let them keep secrets.  Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook.   What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.

So here are two tips:


I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.   Are you getting that – and I mean ALL of that – into your first chapter?  Your first three chapters?   If not, you have work to do.   And you know what?  That goes just as much for me, and all of us.   In spades.  GIVE US THE EXPERIENCE.

4, Make sure you’re using all SIX SENSES.   A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.    All six categories, every three pages.   (Sounds too by the numbers?  Try it.  Now admit it – isn’t that better?  Aren’t you just more there?)


This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”.   Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling.   If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give us a family history and Freudian analysis.   Action, action, action. 


You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.

What we need to know instead is: their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM.  We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them.   We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME. 

And  –


You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear,  and an immediate external problem – but also I mean you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and  CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible.  Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back.   It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.

For more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see  ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.

And if you disagree with me, awesome!  But if you do think everything I’ve just said is wrong, then at the very least, make your own list.   Ten first chapters, by your own favorite authors, that just turn you inside out.  And take a look at what those storytellers are doing in those chapters.  Break it down.   Really look at it from every angle.  What is it EXACTLY that makes you commit in a few pages, a few sentences, a few words, to those authors and those stories?  

And then  – meaning once you’re finished with your first draft and have celebrated mightily – look at your own first chapter and be ruthless with yourself.   Are you doing whatever it is that they are doing that you love so much?   Are you?  Really?  

Or is there something that you might do… just a little more like – that.

That’s all I’m saying.

And for today, I would love to hear about some first chapters that break every rule I’ve outlined above and still rock your world.   Seriously.   And your favorite first chapters in general, of course.  I just reread THE FIRM for the dozenth time or so and that first chapter still just knocks me out every time.  Perfect thriller opening.   THE SHINING, THE TREATMENT, ROSEMARY’S BABY – THE GODFATHER!! – those are some of my favorite books from the very first page.   Give us your own list!)

Or whatever else you want to talk about, as always.   And keep warm this weekend!  (Snow in San Francisco?????)


And, right – remember that we have Captcha now and you have to type in the letters to get your comment posted.  Sorry, but it’s the spammers who should die.

That elusive voice

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I accidentally agreed to read some first chapter submissions for an upcoming conference (or the conference organizer figured out I’m a Pisces and just pretended I agreed to it so I’d have to do it, which actually would work like a charm.  Hmm… and that would be just like him, too.)

This is not something I ordinarily do because I’m so much more comfortable teaching plotting and structure – and rewriting! – than I am teaching more basic writing writing, which I tend to believe can only be self-taught.  I know how to write because I spent however many dozens of years journaling, starting at age four (my mother was a teacher and insisted that my siblings and I write every day.  First a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page.   Let me tell you – it worked.).  That’s not something you can recreate in a workshop, any more than you can teach someone to play the piano in a workshop or teach someone to dance or paint in a workshop.  The authors I know ARE writers; they may just have gotten around to writing a first book, but inevitably, in whatever way, they have been writers for dozens of years.

So I am reading these first chapters, and realizing that I am absolutely right – I cannot teach these people to write.   Some of them can write already, and some of them can’t.   I can make suggestions to all of them to improve what they have handed in to me.   And actually the suggestions would pretty much be along the same lines to all of them.  But the ones who can write will take my suggestions and end up with better first chapters – or they’ll ignore me completely and their chapters will still be good, possibly better than they would be if they tried to rewrite them.

And the ones who can’t write can take those suggestions and incorporate them until the cows come home and – I’m afraid – they are still never going to have chapters that would be of any interest to any editor.

These are not terrible writers I’m talking about, either.  The writing is not uneducated, or laughable.  That’s sort of what makes this kind of thing so painful to see.

And it occurs to me that this is mainly what editors are talking about when they talk about VOICE.  I think there’s some confusion on this issue because a lot of times when people talk about voice they’re talking about how a character narrates a story – especially those first-person narrations.   If they’re clever and witty and self-deprecating or use a lot of hip words, then a lot of people call that “voice”.    I also hear “voice” used to describe an author’s unique storytelling –I mean the author’s character, or persona, as it comes through the story.

But there’s a more important voice that makes a book – and I mean literally MAKES a book.  And that is the way an author puts a bunch of images, actions, thoughts, emotions and sensations into an order, in words, that puts a reader into the action and makes a reader have the exact experience that the characters are having – just like being inside a dream or a movie.

That is the real and completely elusive magic of storytelling – that an author can make all those disparate elements play as an engaging, unbroken whole – that literally becomes more important to the reader than their own consciousness.   Because it’s true, isn’t it?  When we read, we give up our own consciousness, our ego awareness, to the book, to the story.

I don’t know if this makes any sense at all, but voice is like the unspoken narrative that makes a dream seem to make sense at the time that you dream it.  It gives the action cohesion.

Okay, here’s another analogy.  I was a theater director, mostly musical theater, and I’ve sat through many an audition.  This is always an excruciatingly tense thing in the first couple of seconds of a song, because you do not know if the person in front of you is actually going to be able to sing or not.  You are bracing yourself – physically bracing yourself, for the very real possibility that this person will not be able to pull off a song at all, which is actually very sad and painful.

Most of us now get to have this special experience with televised American Idol tryouts, right?

And when that person starts the song, and they really can sing, there is first a relief, and then a relaxation, a giving over into that person’s hands, because you know they’re not going to drop you. You can commit to that song, that performance, because of the singer’s confidence.  They’re going to do the work and make it not seem like work, and carry you along.

Same with writing.  The first page, the first chapter, has to convey that confidence in storytelling that will make the reader relax and give themself over to you.  They are putting themselves in your hands. But the thing that makes them have that trust is VOICE.

I would not exactly say that ALL published authors have this skill, or gift… not as far as I’m concerned. But they obviously have that gift enough to make other people (agents, editors, readers) give their consciousness up to their stories.   And most of the time, annoying as I find these authors, I would have to reluctantly concede that they have at least that much skill – compared to unpublished authors.

I’ve taught enough now to know that some things about writing CAN be taught successfully, so I find this question of voice very interesting, and, like most unknowns – scary.  

Is there a way to teach it, I wonder?   Or is it like perfect pitch – you can fine-tune it, but if you don’t have it, you don’t?

Now, there are obvious, easily definable problems with some of these first chapters I’m reading.   I think a first chapter carries the whole weight of the book with it.  It has to convey mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency  main character need and desire, setting, theme (especially, especially, ESPECIALLY theme) – and a dozen other things I’m not awake enough to list – and the absolute sense that this is a journey that we want to take. (Note I didn’t mention “a great first line”.  I am not one of the cult of the first line). 

And a first chapter doesn’t have to be explosive or perfect to convey those things, either.  If an author has written a book worth reading, the first chapter will communicate that (partly because if it hasn’t, the author will have rewritten the chapter or started over with a new chapter that introduces the book convincingly.)

So I can tell these writers that they need to be conveying mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency, main character need and desire, setting, THEME, etc.,  in their first chapters.   And I can make very concrete suggestions about how to bring those things out.   And I think I’ll make that my next blog post, as a matter of fact.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s going to do a thing to improve the voice of a book.

And – I’m not sure if I’ve ranted about this before, here, but I think contests put far, far, far too much emphasis on endlessly rewriting the first three chapters when there’s no book there to begin with.

Maybe the only advice to give people who haven’t discovered voice is – keep writing.  Write whole books.  And find a critique group that will let you read your work aloud, where it becomes immediately evident if voice is there or not.

Except that even in that situation,  if a writer doesn’t have voice, it doesn’t seem evident to them at all.


So here’s the question and discussion for the day.   Authors, can you actually tell us how you learned voice?   Have you ever encountered a teacher who was able to teach voice (or even adequately explain it)?    How do you define voice?    Readers, do you read for voice, and how would you define or explain it?

And Rati, if you have posts on voice that I can link to here, I think it would be great to have a compilation on the subject.    I was able to find Allison’s here:

Discovering Voice


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How ’bout those resolutions?

By Alexandra Sokoloff

Yike, a month gone already.  I’m still trying to get the hang of the new year. 

Well, good excuse for a check up on things, so I’m going to be eclectic today.

First, I would not be a human being if I did not say that I have been riveted and awed by the power of the Internet as used by the citizens of our planet as a tool for revolutionary change in the last few weeks.  I would never disparage our own quests to create art and entertainment; it’s one of the ultimate promises of a free society.   At the same time, anything I talk about today pales in comparison to what’s going on in Tunisia and Cairo.   I feel unworthy to use Facebook or Twitter.

That being said – an update in no particular order.

As part of my New Year intentions, I said I wanted to dance more this year, and that, at least, is one resolution (I mean intention) I’ve kept.  I signed up for a two-hour, three-day a week college jazz class. 

College dance classes are no joke.   So many people want in that you’re only allowed two absences.   Considering my schedule, which I am afraid these days even to look at, this is a HUGE commitment.

And yes, I am sore.  

I remember this feeling.   Specific pain, unspecific pain, a nagging worry about hairline fractures in the top arches of both my feet…. mitigated a lot by the fact that all the other dancers in the class are constantly discussing their specific and unspecific pains in detail, a topic of conversation second only to sex, of course, and dance shoes as always coming in a close third.

On the other hand, after just a week of this, I feel my center all the time.   I enjoy every move that I make – sitting, standing, walking, driving – everything in my body feels the way movement should feel like.   One of the all- time great feelings on the planet. 

And at least for 6 hours a week and the few hours after class, I am calm.  The absolute immediacy of dance relaxes me in about the same way that sitting in sand and staring at the sun on the ocean does.

I also have to say that anyone who thinks college is the peak of a human being’s physical power is delusional.  At twice the age of some of these kids, even with possibly broken bones in my feet, I am still about ten times stronger.   It makes me worried for them out on the street, actually.

But beyond just musculature, I don’t have to struggle with the thing that makes dance or any art so hard:  doing everything all together at once, without having to think of the component parts every single second.  In dance they call it “muscle memory”.   And I wish there was a term for it in writing.   Well, maybe there is, I’d love to hear it!

I don’t know at what point in my career that kicked in for me, the point I realized I can always finish a script or book – that no matter how bleak it looks I will be able to pull it off.   No guarantee (actually no hope) of perfection, but completion, for sure.   All elements pulled together into a whole that is recognizably a story.   That’s a good thing to remind myself of today, before I start writing, because I’m doing something I haven’t done before and it’s VERY uncomfortable, like trying to do a triple turn (on the left!) when you’re used to doing doubles. 

What I’m doing is a double point of view, when all my other books have been a very close third person from a single focus.   Actually, that’s not true – The Shifters alternates between the female lead and the male lead, but this feels completely different, much, much harder.  I guess because even though I am inside both characters’ heads, I am holding back so much information inside one of the characters.  Not exactly an unreliable narrator, but an opaque one.   And I’m not sure if that character’s POV should be present or past tense.  And then there’s the nagging feeling that I might need to have another character’s POV as well, which feels completely overwhelming.

Anxiety is a constant companion right now.   It always is in a first draft, though, I have to keep telling myself that.   Also the world situation, not to mention the publishing industry situation, might have a bit to do with it.

But it doesn’t make writing any easier when in a way you have to teach yourself how to write every single novel – from scratch.   You have no idea of what the real problems are going to be until you’re actually in there fighting them.

Still, I sit down every day, and I do the pages, and if I have to do a lot more structural rearranging in the second draft, that’s doable. 

And I have to remember, the story chose ME, right?   Not anyone else.   I have to have a little faith that it knew what it was doing.

Another new thing this year – I am back in school in a completely different way: I’m teaching a class on story structure at Otis Parsons, the LA art school.   And for those of you who wonder what’s the point of blogging, I was asked to teach because the chairman of the Digital Media Department read my blog. 

While I’ve been teaching several workshops a year across the country, they have been very short intensives, geared toward adult aspiring and professional novelists.   I’ve never taught a college class before, so it’s a huge luxury to have a whole semester to explore story – and specifically visual storytelling – with such bright and committed young filmmakers.   (But thank God it’s only a half day a week!).

Because of the class I’m watching a lot more movies these days (TCM is the world’s greatest film school, if you ask me), and I can’t help thinking that this intense, targeted exposure to film is going to work a profound change in my creative process and product, just as the discipline of taking an intensive jazz class three days a week will have a profound change in my dancing and body makeup.  And that’s an exciting thing.  I don’t know what those changes are going to be, but if you’re not constantly growing as an artist, you’re dead.  So I’m really grateful that even in the fog of confusion that was last year, I have been put in places that I know will take my work to the next level.

And it must be said – I’m grateful for Southern California weather.

So I’d love to get reports on everyone else’s New Year, so far.  How are those resolutions?  Or did the year decide to make some changes for you all on its own?

And I’ll copy Brett’s reminder:  to anyone in or around Los Angeles on Monday, it’s The Mystery Bookstore‘s final day, and there will be a party starting at 6 – if not earlier – and going until whenever.  Brett, Rob, Steve, and I will all be there along with a lot of other writers and fans.   And they’re giving away some fabulous prizes.   Hope some of you can make it!



by Alexandra Sokoloff

So because of the ongoing maelstrom of my life I’m now back in Southern California.   Which doesn’t exactly suck – we’re suffering through temps in the 80’s while the rest of the country is buried in snow and dead birds.   And dead fish.   And – well, if I say anything else, that would be veering into politics, but it all sounds pretty much like the Apocalypse, when you start adding it up.

But here in So Cal, we’ve got palm trees swaying in the Santa Anas, all that.   Sunsets that define the film term “Magic hour”.   Grapefruit and oranges and lemons and limes right there on the trees, for free, as God intended.   I’m actually working on an impressive sunburn and I’m going to have to break down and get a pedicure if this weather keeps up.

That’s LA, baby.

Things I was missing desperately about So Cal without sometimes even knowing it:

– Dallas Raines.    They just don’t have weathermen like that… um… anywhere.  Let’s hear it for the man.

– The palm trees.   Do you know that the palm trees START at the border between Arizona and California?   Like, did they draw the state line because of the palm trees?   Or did California plant the palm trees to distinguish itself from Arizona?  Whichever came first, it gives me great joy in my heart to see those palm trees, right past those rockin’ Arizona rock formations.  

– What I especially like is the view of palm trees against towering snow-capped mountains.   And no, Dusty, there are NO REAL MOUNTAINS IN NORTH CAROLINA.   You come out here and look at the view I’ve got going and you’ll see what I mean.

– I love the way men in California smile at you when they look at you.   In the South, African American men smile for sure, it’s lovely, I feel like they actually see me, but white men look you over and never crack a smile.   I hate that.

– I’m sorry, it’s probably sexist, but I am so much more comfortable saying  “you guys” as a plural than “you all”  or “y’all”  (although I will miss “all y’all” and especially “all y’all ladies”.   Because the more specific language is, the more I like it.) 

– People know how to drive, here.   I know everyone talks about road rage in LA, but for the most part, people here are UNBELIEVABLY patient for what they have to go through.  And people are conscious enough to move the traffic along.  They know how to make the most of left turns – for example, four cars should easily turn at most intersections, if people are paying attention.  People let you into lanes when there’s a closure.   They for sure don’t stupidly slow down on a right turn that a kindergartener could make…

Okay, maybe I’m heating up a little, but the civilized flow of traffic is YOUR responsibility, people….

Um, anyway…

– I love the portion control in California.   It is so much easier to eat reasonably.   I especially love that salt is used only in emergencies.

– Gas and real estate may be outrageous, but dance classes are cheaper here. Manicures are cheaper.  Car washes are cheaper.  Produce is cheaper and much better.

– And I just have to say the cats have been unbelievably okay about the big move – I’ve schlepped them across the country 3 times in the last year and a half and they seem to have gotten used to it.   Of course temps in the 80s in January smooth a lot of ruffled fur.   But for those transporting cats by car,  I highly recommend the large soft wall pet crates – the big ones are big enough for a cat bed and a small litter box – which makes all the difference.

All right, that’s the small stuff, but it adds up.

What does all this have to do with writing, you may be asking?   Well, interestingly, I’m back full time in California just as I’m writing a novel set mostly in California.  Which is actually my second, I just haven’t quite finished the last one yet. 

I guess I’m coming home in more ways than one.

The book I just almost finished is set in California, but just one town.   This new one is California, all over the map.  Which I have some real experience with.

So my real topic, three-quarters of the way into my post, is – Why is it so hard to write about the place you know best?

Ever since my first book came out I’ve been getting the question:  “Why don’t you set something in California?”   It started to mystify me, too.  After all, most of the screenplays I’ve written have been set in California.  It’s not like I don’t DO California.

It has to do with tone, I think.

I was able to do my usual dark thing in a California setting in my last novel, no problem.  Maybe because it has an intensely limited location.   Or maybe it was easier to do because I wasn’t actually IN California when I was writing it.

But this one…

Oh, man, is it hard to do a dark story with a California native detective.

You can do it if you put them in the middle of LA, or even (but less so) in San Francisco.   LA has a particular blend of darkness, sordidness, narcissism, and overwhelming free-floating anxiety that is perfect for crime fiction.   But outside of LA, California just has a hard time looking dark.

And that’s just ridiculous, really, when you have any idea of what’s happening along the border, for example.    Horrible, evil things happen in this state just as often or more as they do anywhere else.

But then… there are those frigging palm trees. 

I’m excited to be writing about places I don’t actually have to go research.  (Well,  okay, there is some beach research I’m going to have to do, just to be entirely accurate, you understand.).  It’s a wonderful thing to actually know the distances between places, and the history, and how people in other towns perceive a town.   I love knowing how all the places I’m writing about look and feel.   And smell.   I love knowing what kind of trees a character would be looking at out the window and what kind of wildlife I can work into the story.   But maybe knowing too much about a place makes it harder to select out the things that create a specific mood and sensation.

Or maybe it’s a particular challenge of this story because it’s on the road – there is no ONE specific place, and yet I have to create a sense of a unified arena.

But I’m beginning to think I had to have distance from California, to live outside of it, to develop an omniscient point of view about it, before I could truly start to write about it.   I know my state from the inside, but I had to experience it from the outside.

It feels like a whole new chapter.  Maybe a whole new book.  And it’s a struggle, not a very comfortable one, but I think I might just be able to say something different and true about this state.

So how about you guys?  Y’all?  All y’all ladies and gentlemen?    Those who write, do you write about your home town, home state?   Or do you prefer exploring other, stranger locations?   As readers, do you especially enjoy reading about your home town or state?   Are you as demanding as I am about locations having to be thematically accurate?

(And okay, how’s the weather out there?)


The Essence of Character

– by Alexandra Sokoloff

I so loved Stephen’s post on character yesterday I wanted to continue the discussion, from a slightly different angle.

First  I just have to say this.  In just a few paragraphs – tiny black marks on paper, or bits on a screen – Steve put a REAL PERSON into our heads.   An unforgettable person.  

That’s great writing.   But I don’t think you can break it down into the words he used and what order he used them in.   It’s not a technical skill so much as – well, as another Steve says in On Writing – it’s telepathy.   Steve  – Our Steve – was struck to his core by a unique human being and so moved by the experience that he used his own being to communicate that profound encounter to us – whole – so that we could have that encounter with Henry, too…


How awesome is that?

That is the real magic of writing.

And that doesn’t have a lot to do with details, really. It has to do with ESSENCE.

Note what SJS didn’t put into his characterization of Henry.  He didn’t say what he was wearing (didn’t need to – we’ve all seen how men dress to move furniture).  He didn’t say if he was married, with or without children, gay, straight.  He didn’t give us his long and involved back story, what kind of cereal he likes, what team he roots for, what side of the bed he sleeps on, what his astrological sign is.   There weren’t even any descriptions of fascinating tattoos.

I’ve seen character bio forms that have writers list all of those things and more, and they always make me uneasy.   It’s too much information.  A character comes through not because of a mountain of details, but because of those one or two unmissable things that define him or her – in this case, Henry’s infinite patience and presence in a frustrating, mundane situation (and the contrast of that personal serenity in the body of a bruiser.).

Steve’s portrayal of Henry doesn’t have much to do with the words he used, either, with technical skill.  Oh, we need technical skill all right, but mainly so that we don’t get in our own way while we’re writing.   We learn all those things, the words, the pace, the grammar rules and how to break them, iambic pentameter (yes, we all use it if we’re writing in English…) – but that’s just a pianist’s scales, or a dancer’s barre work.   We do those things so that we have a finely tuned instrument that is always ready on a moment’s notice to communicate the pure ESSENCE of a character (or love scene, or  fight, whatever we’re needing to communicate in our story.)

I think I’m going on about this because – well, of course it’s what I do, but also I’ve been thinking about the essence of character because I went on a Reacher binge recently and caught up on a few of the older books I hadn’t read yet.  And then I wanted more, and I started up rereading the ones I’ve already read.

As I have confessed here before, I’m not much of a series reader.   I realize that part of it is that I am generally doubtful and cynical that any one author can continue to build depth and complexity in the same characters for more than three or four books.  And that’s if they’re really good and really lucky.   With a series, I am always bracing myself for ennui to set in.   Now, I think TV can do series brilliantly – but TV has the incredible advantage of having ACTORS along with a whole staff of writers looking after character development.   And actors are fanatically devoted to exploring their particular character, exclusively.   That specialization and focus can, in the best of circumstances, carry TV characters much farther than authors are usually capable of carrying them.   That’s by no means a slight on writers, it’s an acknowledgement of the art, craft, magic and specialization of actors.

But Lee Child’s Reacher is an exception, and so is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and that has to do with unbelievably great plots, for sure, but I think it also has to do with character essence.

In any Reacher book you care to pick up, on the first few pages you are going to find this character who is almost always out on the open road, and preternaturally observant. Okay, sometimes you meet him right before a fight in which he is always outnumbered and always the last man standing, but the fight will be portrayed moment by moment so that we experience Reacher’s mental and psychological calculations at every second of the action.    I don’t much think about what Reacher looks like – muscle seems to have very little to do with anything that happens.  In fact, Reacher is huge, but is constantly dispatching bigger and stronger men because he’s fighting with his brain.  It’s the Sherlockian powers of observation, whether in a fight or in the course of an investigation –  that are compelling about the character.

There are a few other constant, essential things about Reacher that make him unique.  He HATES a situation in which a big guy, whether an individual or corporation, is dominating or oppressing a weaker person or entity; he is driven to right that imbalance time and time again.   He hates having any encumbrances – house, clothing, place, or even money.  And he must have the companionship of an intelligent, unique woman to feel balanced and whole – that is, as balanced and whole as Reacher will ever even temporarily be (he doesn’t say this, but it’s constantly played out).  

Harry Bosch is another character I never get tired of.  Harry was devised with a particular back story of being a tunnel rat in Vietnam, which – without being stated – gives a sense of why this man is damaged.  And Harry is wounded, no doubt – while he is often heroic, you worry about him, wonder how he even gets through a day, sometimes.   As an LAPD detective, Harry is constantly up against overwhelming forces – it’s not just about the case he’s working on, but the bureaucracy and sometimes malignance of the police department in general, or superiors in the department in particular.  Sometimes the very family Harry is trying to help is working against him.   Sometimes there’s a bigger, amorphous evil like racism.   In fact, there’s always a sense of a greater evil that might finish Harry off for good.  Harry is on some level aware of these larger forces and still he goes out there and does his job with a dogged determination that is both relentless and slightly – autistic, is the word that comes to mind.

Of course both Reacher and Harry are wounded knights, an archetype that has captured the popular imagination for hundreds of years, if not since the beginning of time.

I loved Denise Mina’s prickly, scrappy Paddy Meehan instantly because of her in-your-face Scottishness.  Irishness.  Mongrel-mixedness.  She’s a new journalist from the wrong side of the tracks and too young to have any practical experience who ends up uncovering more than any of her male colleagues combined because of sheer cussedness.  The lone woman up against a force of often hostile male colleagues has always done me (the brilliant BBC series Prime Suspect is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen) because it’s so true to my own experience.   Paddy’s also like Tess’s Jane Rizzoli, who startled me as a female lead because she is so desperately unhappy, so NOT a Cinderella.  In the book which was Jane’s introduction, The Surgeon, Jane DOESN’T get the guy – she nearly gets killed instead.   She gets no respect on the job because she’s a woman and she gets no respect from her Italian family because she’s a woman.  And experiencing her pain and outsiderness made me a devoted fan.

Margaret Maron, to me, captures the essence of the South in her Deborah Knott books.   Margaret’s own laser perception masked by that “Who – little ol’ me?” Southern slyness oozes through in Deborah.

Cornelia’s Madeline Dare is a fascinating character to me because she lives in – or at least has lived in – a world that is completely alien to my experience, and yet I completely relate to her razor-sharp smarts, wicked tongue, and feminism.  SJS’s Hayden Glass being driven by this demon of addiction is compelling to me in essence.  Ken Bruen’s  Irish cop Jack Taylor’s essence to me is his wide-open heart and purity of soul.   

Okay, you know what I want from you today.   Who are YOUR favorite series characters and what is it about them – what is the essence – that draws you back, again and again?