Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

And the Oscar goes to…

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I didn’t participate in J.T.’s “Who Influenced You?”  thread yesterday, not because I don’t
have tons of people I should be on my knees thanking every day for their
inspirations.   But really,
it’s the meme thing.   There’s
just something soul-killing about it. 
 Look, the whole reason I
started writing story structure articles to begin with was that I just didn’t
have anything more to say about myself.

But if I HAD participated in the meme that was or maybe
still is going around, “Twenty-Five Things You Don’t Know About Me”, this would
have been one of them.

I win Oscar pools.

I don’t gamble, hate cards, don’t buy lottery tickets, am
bored senseless in casinos… but over the years I have won thousands of dollars
on casual Oscar pools, and have made other friends who took my picks a few
hundred here and there, too.  And let me  be clear – the vast majority of these Oscar pools that I've won have been at parties IN HOLLYWOOD, where I was betting against other screenwriters, directors, actors, agents, DPs, editors, production designers – many of whom were arguably more clued in than I was.

actually won my first Oscar Derby when I was sixteen years old and entered a
contest in the local paper.  
I think that’s young enough to count as evidence of a genetic

Or maybe it was just foreshadowing. 

So I was going to post another story structure article
today, but hell, it’s Oscar weekend, and why should we at Murderati be exempt?   I bet you all want to dish.  And myself, I’m curious if this
talent I have was mostly a product of living in Southern California and just
having it all in the air.  
This year I am NOT in California and in fact just got back from out of
the country, so I don’t feel at all  plugged in.  
In other words, no promises!

All that disclaimed, let’s take a look, here.   And here’s a link to a printable
Oscar ballot
, for your own purposes and so that I don’t have to list all the
nominees, myself.

Best Picture.    I’m not going out on a limb to say that SLUMDOG
MILLIONAIRE is a juggernaut.  
But if you’ll remember, I raved about it the second I saw it.  

Best Director: 
SLUMDOG’S Danny Boyle, whom I’ve loved since the outrageous

Best Original Screenplay:  Dustin Lance Black for MILK.   And anyone who hasn’t seen this one – what are you
waiting for?   Bio pics are
about the hardest genre of all to pull off, and this one lets you live this
history AND a wrenching, uplifting story at the same time.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy for SLUMDOG.   I understand perfectly why
Indians would take offense at the character changes he made to Vikas Swarup’s
novel.   This is a
quintessentially Hollywood film, stereotypes and all.  But as Hollywood films go, it’s magic.

(Note how Oscar ballots don’t list the names of the
nominated screenwriters.   The
“Big Six” Oscar ballots don’t list the screenwriting categories at all.   Now, aren’t you glad you’re an

Best Actress: 
Kate Winslet.   
Haven’t seen THE READER yet – that’s tonight.   Didn’t particularly care for her performance in
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (and the film – not recommended!!)   No matter what
she does in READER, and no matter how much I love her, and I truly do, I cannot
in my wildest imagining believe that she even comes close to Meryl Streep’s
literally breathtaking performance in DOUBT.   But if you’re voting to win, that’s the buzz.   (I heard someone put it
perfectly, in Hollywood terms: 
“The movie’s about the Holocaust.   How can she lose?”)

Best Actor: 
Here’s the real race.  
If I were voting my heart, Sean Penn, hands down.   He didn’t play Harvey Milk – he
became Harvey Milk.   I
completely forgot that was Sean Penn up there.    But Mickey Rourke was heartbreaking in THE
WRESTLER, and Hollywood loves a comeback.    And Frank Langella was truly mesmerizing in
FROST/NIXON, and as another prognosticator put it, Rourke and Penn have the
same fan base so they might split the vote and give Langella the edge (these
are the things you REALLY have to consider when you’re handicapping the
Oscars).   Every one of these
men deserves an Oscar for his performance.    I say Penn, but my guess is as good as yours,

Best Supporting Actress:  Here’s a rule of thumb for voting this category:   “Youngest, cutest.”   Sad, but true.   The race is between Viola Davis
and Penelope Cruz.   
Both stellar, Oscar-worthy performances in polar opposite roles.   I hear people saying, “Viola
might get it because of Obama.”  
This is the kind of talk you hear for months around Hollywood, really,
it’s fascinating.    I’d
love to see Viola, but Penelope was better than I’ve ever seen her (and I’m not
really a fan) in VICKI CHRISTINA BARCELONA.   I say Penelope gets it.

Best Supporting Actor:   And this is no race at all.   Heath Ledger, and it’s really just too sad.

Now, if you’re going for the whole ballot,  there are a couple of other good bets I
can give you. 

SLUMDOG will probably sweep, so you can’t go too far wrong
just marking it down for all the tech categories, sound, editing, effects, it’s
nominated for.  It won’t WIN in all
of them, probably, but if you’re playing to win, it’s still your best bet. 

Animated Feature: 
WALL-E – unbeatable. 

Best Editing: 
almost always wins along with director.   Chris Dickens for SLUMDOG, in case you were thinking
of voting for something else.

This is the one that I think has a chance of going elsewhere.   This might be the one big award
that BENJAMIN BUTTON gets.  
But that’s a lot about my personal taste.

Best Song:  I’d
go for the one from WALL-E, but haven’t heard it.

Art Direction, Makeup, Visual Effects – SLUMDOG’S out of the
running for all of these and it’s going to be a battle between BENJAMIN BUTTON
and THE DARK KNIGHT.  As a matter
of fact I’m most curious about these production awards.   I found BUTTON a very
unsatisfying movie but the look of it was just stupefyingly lovely, and I’d like
to see it rewarded for that.   
There’s sort of a backlash against the film, though, a lot of grumbling,
and a lot of Hollywood talkers think THE DARK KNIGHT hasn’t been recognized

Documentary feature, short feature, animated short:  the handicapping rule of thumb here is
– Is there a Holocaust movie?  Vote
for that one.    This
year I know nothing about any of them but I have heard people rave about MAN ON
WIRE, for whatever that’s worth.

So there you go.  
Not all-inclusive, but if you don’t generally have luck at these Oscar
pools, it might help you.   Or – not.   That's why they call it gambling.

Me, I actually have other plans tomorrow night, so I’ll be
speeding through the show on DVR later.  
If you’re not at an actual Oscar party, and drinking heavily, it’s the only way to get through
it.   ;) 

I do have to say that I’m grateful for some truly
exceptional films and performances this year.   I can’t remember when I was last excited about so many
WRESTLER, GRAN TORINO (but I definitely don’t want to get into THAT debate
right now!).   

If you haven’t seen some of these, do yourself a favor and
go.  Sometimes Hollywood just gets it right.

Okay, people – let’s hear it.   Your favorite films?   Writing?  
Production design?  
Who should win, and who do you think WILL win?

Are there any other Oscar pool pros out there?

And Monday, we can talk about the clothes.






What Is High Concept?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I am out of town… all right, out of the country! – this week, and so I'm leaving you with a post about something that I've talked about before here on Murderati, but have never done a dedicated post on – the High Concept premise.
So what the hell is "High Concept"?
There seems to be eternal confusion on this subject. It’s sort of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. But today I will do what I can to define it.
If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is – AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it – that’s high concept.
Here’s another way of looking at it: the potential of the setup is obvious. A movie like MEET THE PARENTS instantly conjures all kinds of disaster scenarios, right? Because we’ve all (mostly) been in the situation before, and we know the extreme perils.
I would also add, not as an afterthought – with a high-concept premise, the moneymaking potential is obvious.
Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” – you’ve got a high-concept premise.
Screenwriter/producer Terry Rossio calls it “Mental Real Estate” – a topic or subject that is in a majority of people’s heads already, and his essay "
Mental Real Estate" on is a must-read on the subject. (Then take some time – got a few years? – and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott).
Think about one of their movies – PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Who hasn’t been on that Disney ride? All the studio had to do to advertise it was slap that skull and crossbones on a one-sheet, and people were sold.
But okay, let’s break it down, specifically. What makes stories high concept? One or more of these things:
– They’re topical – they hit a nerve in society at the right time: FATAL ATTRACTION for AIDS, JURASSIC PARK for cloning, DISCLOSURE for sexual harassment (only reversing the sexes was utter bullshit.)
– They are about a subject that we all have in our heads already (THE PASSION, THE DA VINCI CODE, FOUR CHRISTMASES, JURASSIC PARK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)
– They exploit a primal fear (JAWS, JURASSIC PARK)
– They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, BLIND DATE. That movie out recently – FOUR CHRISTMASES – is about a young couple who have to spend a Christmas with each set of their divorced parents. Very universal!)
– They are controversial and/or sacrilegious enough to generate press (DA VINCI CODE, THE LAST TEMPTATION, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)
– They generate water-cooler talk (FATAL ATTRACTION, INDECENT PROPOSAL)
– They have a big twist (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE SIXTH SENSE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE). And not necessarily a twist at the end – the twist can be in the set up. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is about two people falling in love – when they've never met. RUTHLESS PEOPLE is about a group of kidnappers who kidnap a wealthy woman and threaten to kill her if her husband doesn't pay – which turns out to be her heinous husband's dream scenario. He WANTS her dead, and now the kidnappers are stuck with a bitch on wheels.
– They are about a famous person or event – or possible event: TITANIC, GALLIPOLI, APOLLO 13, ARMAGEDDON, ROSWELL.
– There's also just the "Cool!!!" factor. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK revolves around an artifact that supposedly has the supernatural power to will any army undefeatable. Well, what if Hitler got hold of it?
Let’s take a closer look at a few high-concept ideas:
JURASSIC PARK – A group of scientists and the children of an inventor tour a remote island where the inventor has cloned dinosaurs to create a Jurassic amusement park – then have to fight for their lives when the dinosaur containment system breaks down.
What kid has not had that obsession with dinosaurs? And who of us has not had the thought of how terrifying it would be to be face to face with one of those things – live? Throw in the very topical subject of cloning (they get dinosaur DNA from a prehistoric fly trapped in amber) and the promise of amusement-park thrills, and who ISN’T going to read that book and/or see that movie?
FATAL ATTRACTION – A happily married man has a one-night stand and then his family is stalked by the woman he hooked up with.
This film hit a huge number of people in the – uh, gut – because even people who have never had an affair have almost certainly thought about it. Also the film came out when AIDS was rampant, with no effective treatment in sight, and suddenly a one-night stand could literally be fatal. It’s easy to see the potential for some really frightening situations there, as the innocent family is terrorized, and of course we all like to see a good moral comeuppance.
INDECENT PROPOSAL – A young, broke couple on vacation in Vegas are offered a million dollars by a wealthy man for one night with the wife.
This is a great example of the “What would YOU do?” premise. It’s a question that generated all kinds of what the media calls “water cooler discussion”, and made it a must-see movie at the time. Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars? Would you let someone you love do it? Oh, boy, did people talk about it!
Are you starting to get the hang of it?
One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating – I made my first "screenwriting" money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.
Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist I highly recommend you try the same exercise – make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept. You'll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas. You don’t have to sell out. I’m always telling exactly the stories I want to tell, about the people I want to write about. But there’s no reason not to think in more universal terms and be open to subject matter, locations, themes, topics, that might strike a chord in a bigger audience.
When THE PRICE was optioned by Sony the executives pitched it as “The devil is walking around the halls of a Boston hospital making deals with the patients and their families.” And there’s a “What would YOU do?” built in: “What would you give to save the life of a loved one?”
I’ve already gotten unsolicited TV interest for THE UNSEEN and we don’t even have galleys yet! But that book is based on the real-life – and world-famous – ESP experiments and poltergeist investigations conducted by Dr. J.B. Rhine at the Duke University parapsychology lab – and just the bare bones premise line is attracting producers, because that’s “mental real estate”.
The reality is, these days agents and editors and publishers are looking for books that have those unique, universal, high-concept premises, and the attendant potential for a TV or movie sale.
Open your mind to the possibility of high concept, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself.
So, any favorite examples of high concept for me, today?
– Alex

What Makes a Great Villain?


by Alexandra Sokoloff

Allison beat me to this one with this excellent post last week, and I wasn't going to post it, but you know, while we're on the subject, why not?  It's a HUGE subject! Plus I'm out of town – out of the country, technically, so I need to go with what I've got.

Here's a strange thing. I don't think I've done one dedicated post on character, yet – hero/ine, villain, supporting, or otherwise.

That’s probably because while I feel comfortable expounding on how to create and structure a story, I am not so clear about how to explain how to create character. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a very explicable process, for me. I think what I do is create a space for them – a situation, a theme, the beginnings of a story – and pray that the characters will show up to inhabit it. Which, thank God, they always do. And then from there they do most of the work.
In other words, it’s magic – or possibly Dusty is right, it’s mental illness – and I don’t know how to explain magic OR mental illness. Quite possibly I don’t WANT to know.
But I think – I’m pretty sure – most writers have characters in their heads from a very early age. Maybe ALL people do – because that’s what fantasy is, and we all daydream being other people, or superfantastic versions of ourselves. So in a way we’re all creating character all the time.
I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s AUDITION, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, and it will translate to writing.
All that being disclaimed, I want to start talking about character, and I’ll start today with great villains and how one might – MIGHT – go about creating them.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a villain will just come to you whole, right? I’ve dreamed a few. I love that, when your subconscious does the work for you.
Sometimes you have a real, heinous person in mind, either a criminal you’ve read about who sparks such an outrage in your soul that you have to create him on paper just to destroy him the way he needs to be destroyed. Sometimes it’s a heinous person you really know – in the novella I recently finished I took great pleasure in detailing all the banal viciousness of a producer I know and then bashing his brainless head in.
But other villains I’ve written have been more conscious creations, have grown out of the specific situation of a story. So, while allowing for the pure magic of it – it’s not purely magic, is it?
I’d like to suggest that you can develop a great villain – or any other character you create – through the same process that I’ve been advocating for creating the structure of your story.
Make a list.
Who or what are your top ten villains? And I don’t mean make a list for the ages, or for popular consumption – I mean FOR YOU. What is it about these particular characters that makes them so delicious, or terrifying, or both? What turns YOU on in a villain? What particular qualities are you responding to?
You don’t have to think too hard about it, either, when you’re listing. It might be more useful to do it fast and see what comes up, because that non-thinking list will be more relevant to your present project, or a brewing project. These lists are never written in stone, either – you can make a whole different list tomorrow.
Breaking it down, analyzing the specifics, is like doing scales on the piano, or doing dance technique exercises at the barre. It gives you the foundation and the strength and mental coordination for the magic of art to happen.
My favorite villains, off the top of my head.
Hannibal Lecter.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME.
Mary Tilford in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
Tony Perkins in PSYCHO.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD.
Now, I can look at that list and already identify a lot of patterns going on. I like my villains sexy, perverted, bizarre, insane, diabolical, and preferably a combination of the above.
But now it’s time to go deeper. What is it about each of those villains that really works for me?
Rumpelstiltskin. The twisted dwarf is an archetype I particularly respond to. In Jungian psychology, the dwarf, or perverted little old man, is a strong recurring archetypal figure for women who have been sexually abused or have sexual trauma issues. I haven’t been, but with all my near-misses with predators, I can relate to that analysis. And studying Jungian and other world archetypes is great fodder for brainstorming interesting villains.
Dracula. The sex thing, obviously. Vampires are supposedly about addiction issues. I can relate to that, too. Marion Woodman has some hugely intriguing books about these archetypes.
Hannibal Lecter. The devil archetype, my absolute favorite. Thomas Harris created a monster for the ages by turning a serial killer into a mythic archetype (although for my money he should have stopped with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). But what really does me about Lecter is the magician/mentor aspect of him. Here’s this evil, psychotic genius – who sees something in Clarice that makes at least part of him want to mentor her, even protect her. More than that, he UNDERSTANDS her – better than any other living soul. That to me is the ultimate seductiveness of the devil – that he GETS you – right down to your very soul. There’s no greater intimacy – and that’s a lot of what I was exploring when I wrote THE PRICE.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME. Gorgeous, sensual, ruthless schemer, played by one of my favorite British actresses, Polly Walker. Her relationships with her son and daughter are completely perverted and I love it. I understand her, because living in such a patriarchal society would twist any intelligent woman, and I love seeing her WIN.
Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR – one of the most chilling portraits of a sociopathic child that I’ve ever seen. The final scene with the grandmother taking responsibility for her is particularly haunting. I love stories about evil children. I have to admit, I find small children frightening. They are ruthless, narcissistic and irrational; they operate according to some inexplicable set of rules that they are constantly making up as they go along. And they wield enormous power, totally out of proportion to their actual physical strength and stature. Is that not the definition of a villain?
Norman Bates in PSYCHO. The concept of multiple personality fascinates me even though it’s been done so badly so many times that I’m not sure I would ever attempt such a character myself. But you feel such poignant sympathy for Norman even as you fear “Mother” – it’s a terrible portrait of an imprisoned soul.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9. Is he a demon? A fragment of personality in a multiple personality patient which has assumed autonomy? It’s, well, mindblowing to try to wrap your brain around. And the slippery inexplicableness of evil is a theme that draws me again and again.
Bob Sugar in JERRY MAGUIRE – the blond, blandly sociopathic agent. Not hard to see why I respond to that! But I love Sugar as an example of an effective comedic villain. He’s pitch-perfect – there are hundreds just like him in Hollywood, soulless, narcissistic, casually malevolent. But he also makes a perfect foil for Jerry because he is a mirror image of Jerry – this is what Jerry is on his way to becoming before his attack of conscience in the opening scenes – Sugar is the thing we don’t want him to become. A villain’s story function is often to be the dark mirror of the protagonist, and Sugar is a stellar example.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE. Oh, all right, that’s pure sex. No, also I love the reversal that Stringer is trying to get out of the drug lord business – that he’s taking business school classes, investing in real estate – and it’s the far greater sociopathy of the politicians and city developers that destroys him in the end. As with Atia, this is a man who has been forced toward villainy by the ruthless inequities of society.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD. Also pure sex – I’ve had a crush in Ian McShane forever. But there again, the devil archetype – a powerful, brilliant, sexual, violent man who has his own occasional staggering moments of morality and transcendence – the kind of man that draws women like moths to the flame. As with Lecter and Clarice, there’s a Beauty and the Beast undercurrent here – the monster that we just might be able to tame. I will never forgive creator David Milch for ending that series before Swearengen could have his way with Mrs. Garret – and she with him.
You see how that starts to work? I truly believe that taking the time to analyze what you love and respond to in a villain in the stories you love will get your subconscious working on crafting that perfect villain for YOUR story. So much of creativity is the DESIRE to get it right. Make your wishes specific, and the magic will start to happen.
Next post I’d like to talk more about villains and get into not just the story functions of single villains, but the idea of forces of antagonism, and non-human villains, since the opponent in a story can be multiple, animal, environmental, historical or societal, as well as just the classic single bad guy.
But for today – you don’t have to give me all ten, but who are some of the villains that really do it for you, and why?
– Alex


Previous articles on Story Structure:

Creating Suspense, Part 2

I FINALLY got my galley corrections in for THE UNSEEN.  I know I grumped here about having to do that over the holidays – it seemed especially hard.   But there was a silver lining under all the tediousness:  I was surprised, even pleased, at how well the suspense was working in that book.   And that reminded me that I never did post a follow-up post on specific suspense techniques, so that's what I'm going to do.

Here's the first, to refresh everyone's memory:  Creating Suspense

So this is my number one overall recommendation:


After I've written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it's amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes of you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense.

Unlike the techniques I discussed in that first post on suspense, which are more structural in nature, you don't have to get all of the following ones into your first draft – in fact it's probably more effective to use techniques like this after the structure of your story is solid.   A lot of these tricks are REWRITING techniques to keep in mind for your suspense pass.


This is a huge overall suspense technique and there are many ways to achieve it. 

Ask a question that you leave hanging. “But why does that mild mannered librarian have duct tape in the back of his car?” “But why won’t his stepmother let him go in that back room?” It will remain in the audience’s or reader’s mind and chafe. That sense of discomfort is a crucial element of suspense.

Another variation of this is: let a character, or many of them, lie.And then don’t have any other character call them on it. Let the reader notice the lie, let it bother them, and leave it hanging. 

Use PLANTS – like showing that gun early on. Audiences and readers subliminally know that you wouldn’t be showing that gun if it wasn’t going to be used, so you set them up to expect violence.

Any twist or surprise will off-balance the reader/audience and keep them off balance. Set them up to expect one thing and give them something from left field.


A classic suspense trick is to use water or sex or a combination of the two to get the audience or reader to unconsciously relax so you can really dial them up with the attack that’s coming. We’ve all seen this a million times, so much so that it’s often now played for comedy when a character gets into the shower or bathtub in a horror movie. But again, if you do it with a little imagination, it does work for a reason. A great example is in the first ALIEN, where Harry Dean Stanton is off on his own, searching for the alien in the bowels of the ship, and stops under a broken water pipe to wash off his face. He takes his time (and so do the filmmakers) enjoying the water… we feel the heat of the steamy tunnel, and the cool of the water ourselves. It’s as hard to resist as a neck massage, and our defenses go down. Same with a sex scene. This is a big example of why sensory detail, and sensual detail, is so hugely important in creating suspense.


Within the course of your own book or film, you can literally train your reader or audience to be scared on command.

JAWS does a great thing in the first act that establishes the white-knuckling suspense that film is famous for. Spielberg kills off two people in rapid-fire succession – the girl in the opening scene, the little boy on the beach. Spielberg is quickly and efficiently training us, Pavlov-style, to expect bloody mayhem any time anyone goes near the water, and he does it so well that after those two deaths, the whole film can slow down considerably and become more about character and theme. No one dies again for more than a half hour, but we’re still on pins and needles the entire time in anticipation of the next attack.

The other classic Pavlovian technique in that film is John Williams’ now iconic score – Da dump Da dump Da dump…. Every time we hear it our own blood pressure skyrockets, because we know it signals the approach of the shark.

Note that Spielberg and Williams don’t cheat with that technique, either. When the two boys manage to scare the bejesus out of the entire swimming community with their plastic fin, there is NO shark music underneath the scene; it’s a subtle invitation to the audience to figure out the shark is a fake. 

I saw another good example of that Pavlovian association recently and it is driving me crazy that I can’t remember what film it’s from. It was a low-budget J-horror, and it’s probably better for you that I don’t Google it and give you the name, because you definitely don’t want to waste your time, but it does use this technique effectively. It shows a female character with long dark hair from behind, and when she turns, her face is hideously disfigured, and we jump. Yeah, yeah, what a cliché, right? Not to mention a total ripoff of RINGU! But it works – so that every time we see a shot of this woman from behind, we freeze up in anxiety, thinking we’re going to get another view of her face. 

If you set up a negative association: linking a certain shot, or location, or person, or situation, with a bad scare, then you can keep your reader/audience unbalanced by the mere suggestion of that situation or person – or shark.


One of the rules of comedy is: Always go for the joke. Well, likewise, one of the rules of suspense is: Always go for the scare.

How many times have we seen a bunch of birds fly up in a hero’s face, or a cat drop off a refrigerator (in TERMINATOR it was an iguana), freaking the heroine and audience out with a false scare? Well, while you do run the risk of cliché or outright stupidity, false scares are a staple of suspense for a reason, and if your story has gone too long without suspense, I suggest you try putting in a false scare – mainly for this reason: Very often brainstorming on a false scare will give you an idea for a real, organic, scare.


This is something I usually do in my dedicated suspense pass when I see a scene that’s just flat or too expositional. Say I have a character who needs to get some information out of a library, or from someone at an office, or in a hospital. I can have the character simply ask the appropriate personnel for help, but there’s not much suspense in that. How much better is it to have the character have to break in somewhere, or sneak in, to get that file or that book? Suddenly you have stakes, suspense, jeopardy – in a scene that could have been just flat exposition.

It’s a very simple trick, but hugely effective, and you’ll find that once you start brainstorming about why that particular file is lo
cked up and what the danger is to the heroine if she’s caught while sneaking in to get it, the scene will come alive and possibly give a whole new layer of meaning to the story.

Again, go for the scare.


You’ve seen and probably used this yourself this a million times – a film cuts away to the killer coming back to the house when the hero is searching it. But always be looking for interesting variations on this technique. One of the most awful and heartbreaking examples I know is in PET SEMATERY, in the beautiful scene when the father and son are out flying a kite for the first time. At the end of the scene, in a simple sentence that you might miss if you’re a skimmer like I am – I’m paraphrasing because I couldn’t find the book this morning – “He had no idea that at that moment Gage had only two weeks to live.”


(Of course, I could do a whole post, and just might have to, on the structure of fate in that book. Every single thing about it leads inevitably to that horrific conclusion.)


The easiest way to make a reader feel unease is to let her or him in on the character’s unease. Let her imagine a shadowy stalker behind her (whether it’s there or not). Take your time to put your character through the physical sensations of fear, and let the reader experience the physical sensations of fear with her. 


A variation on inner monologue, but very effective, when a character has a premonition of danger to come.

Again, PET SEMATERY has a great example of a premonition, when early in the book the father is carrying his son up the stairs and has a moment of sheer, unfocused, primal terror. (It’s also important in a book or film like that to warn the audience or reader that this is not going to end happily, otherwise they will feel ripped off when things go to such dark places in the end. PAN’S LABYRINTH did this well in the beginning, too… you’re prepared for the girl to die, even though you forget the beginning.)

Let’s face it, most of us do have moments like this once in a while, and premonitions are realistic in the context of a thriller because danger heightens ALL our senses and makes us more perceptive to clues around us. I very, very strongly recommend that every suspense and thriller writer read Gavin deBecker’s THE GIFT OF FEAR. It’s a non-fiction book by security consultant to the stars deBecker which provides fascinating accounts of ordinary people’s lifesaving perceptions. Unmissable, and not just for writers – it's essential self-defense stuff for all.


This may be as simple as asking a question that is set up but not answered, but you should strive to make every one of your chapters or scenes end with some sort of cliffhanger that makes that reader have to turn the page. 

If you find your chapters are NOT ending with cliffhangers, then you may be breaking the chapter or scene at the wrong moment. Go back through it and see if there’s some other logical break that will create the suspense you’re looking for: break when the doorbell rings, but without revealing who’s behind the door, so that the reader will turn the page to find out who’s at the door. It really can be that simple. 

Another way to amp up the urgency and make the reader want to turn the page is to have the character voice a question, either silently or aloud, that s/he really wants the answer to. If the character wants it, the reader or audience will likely want it, too.


– the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the Maltese Falcon, the file, the book – and state it often. If there’s not a specific object, have the character repeatedly ask the question that s/he wants the answer to. It may not be suspense, exactly, but it builds emotion by creating impatience and urgency and a desire in the audience to get the answer, and when the character finally finds the – whatever – the reader or audience will be just as excited as the character.

Suspense is emotional manipulation, so manipulating ANY emotion will increase the suspense of your story.

In fact, besides doing a suspense pass, I also find it hugely useful in the later stages of revision to do an EMOTIONAL PASS, in which I read a script or a manuscript putting myself into the frame of mind of the reader, and just thinking of what I want the reader/audience to be experiencing in every scene. 

These are just a few specific techniques, and once you start looking for them, you’ll notice all kinds of great tricks. Why not start a section in your personal story structure workbook just for notes on suspense tricks?

And fair’s fair – share!

– Alex


Previous articles on Story Structure:

What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method 

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Creating Suspense

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

What Makes a Great Climax? 

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

Story Structure Workshop:

I’m going to be teaching an online workshop of these techniques we’ve been talking about, for the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, during the month of February.   If you're interested, you can learn more about it here.


Big ben 

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So here we all are in that lost week between Christmas and New Year's – the week I think of as "The Crack" (nothing dirty or illegal,the term is from the Mary Poppins books actually, and bonus points for anyone who gets the allusion). 

Do you all do New Year's Resolutions?   I used to, but I don't remember having done them the last few years.   If I didn't, I imagine it was because I was lost in the new author vortex.   It's hard to take a breath and step back and look at the whole next year if all you can think of is the approaching deadline, or if you're on tour, or if you're waiting to hear back on a proposal.

This end-of-the-year isn't any less harried for me than the last few, but it feels like it is for some reason, and I think that reason might be that I have a better sense of the shape of next year than I have had the last two years.   

Part of this is that after two or three, depending on when you want to start counting) years now as an author,  I have a better idea of how long things take. Yeah, I have galleys to correct by the 6th (Grrrrr….  that's not what I call a Merry Christmas present….), but I've done them before now and I know I'll get them done.  Yes, the sudden arrival of the galleys interrupted my resolve to get to the end of my second draft of the book I'm writing in my spare time by New Year's Eve, and I'm pissed about it, but I think I'm going to make it anyway, if I divide my day carefully.

So instead of doing a list of resolutions, I'm finding myself looking at the overall shape of my work year in 2009 – something I've never really done or even been able to do before.   Being self-employed – and I have been for pretty much my whole adult life – makes your work life maybe a little too spontaneous and improvisational, but lo and behold, the business side next year really does structure itself out in amazingly clear way.

In the first quarter of 2009 I will finish this secret other book (shhh), and keep churning out the first draft of my Bahamas book (my fourth for St. Martin's.)  Michael and  I will go to the Bahamas for research – and vacation! –  courtesy of my MIL, yay!!!    When I finish the secret book I will continue working on the Bahamas book and start on the outline for my paranormal for Harlequin Nocturne.

I also have a novella in an anthology that we'll be taking out in the beginning of the new year.

I have conferences I am going to in  the first quarter of 2009 but not too many, and they're easy travel, like the South Carolina Book Festival, and I'm being paid to go to all of them, at least expenses, so that's huge progress.

In the second quarter of 2009 we will start moving into our new (renovated house), but it's not the same kind of stress as moving moving because we don't have to SWITCH houses, and there's no deadlines involved – we just have to get ourselves gradually over to the other one, and it's walking distance.  That will be a great burst of energy in the spring, to start in a beautiful new home.   Michael just finished the back deck this last week which I know we're going to live on, so I'm looking forward to that new office…

THE UNSEEN comes out at the end of May, by which time I'll be finished with and have turned in both the outline for the paranormal and the Bahamas book, so I can put a good concentrated month or two into touring and conferences just as the season picks up.  I'll be hitting some big ones:  BEA, RWA National, Thrillerfest, the Horror Writers Association Stoker weekend, ALA.

I''ll also be teaching a lot of workshops on story structure and screenwriting techniques for authors at these cons, so I'll be growing that book on the side.

After that flurry of touring, end of Junish, we're into third quarter of 2009, and I will be ready to power through on the paranormal book, due in October, and also I'll start outlining my seventh novel   Yes, I said seventh.   Astonishing!

And realistically I bet I will have started that one way before June.

Of course I'll be doing revisions on the Bahamas book throughout the summer, too.

It doesn't seem possible, but if I work just a few pages at a time throughout the year, I am pretty sure I will also have my story structure book done by fall, if not before.   Also in the fall the UK versions of my books start coming out, so maybe by then a nice promotional trip to England or Australia will be in order – it's something to keep in mind.

And with all that laid out so nicely, I don't think I have to plan the fourth quarter of 2009 too extensively – whatever has happened during the first half of the year will shape the second half of it.

Looking at that 2009 overview, it's clear to me why I'm feeling less than frantic at the end of this year, even though of course the writers' life is always full of stressors, some self-created, some real.

Life is always a huge variable, but the shape of my work year is solid and I can look at it and both think – "Yeah, I can handle all that," and "Wow, what a fantastic life I have!"    It's my perfect combination of factors – a strong structure with lots of fun variations and improvisations within it.

But within that grand plan, I guess I also have a few resolutions.

– Dance more.  
– Meditate every day.   Well, most days.
– Swing classes with Michael so that we can go out dancing together.
– Start a collage book of decorating ideas for the new house.
– Keep in better touch with friends and spend a lot of time with family.

Not that many, but doable.    I'm hoping to get more ideas from YOU all, because of course my questions for today are – Do you ever do a year plan or overview?   If so, what's yours?

And/or – what are your resolutions?


Elements of Act Three (part 3): Elevate Your Ending

by Alexandra Sokoloff

about the endings of films and books that stay with you.   What is that extra something they
have that makes them stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of stories
out there?  That’s your mission,
today, Jim, should you decide to accept it:  Figure it out.

a storyteller the best thing you can do for your own writing technique is to
make that list and analyze why the endings that have the greatest impact
on you have that impact.  
What is/are the storyteller/s doing to create that effect?

you start to analyze stories you love, you will find that there are very
specific techniques that filmmakers and novelists are using to create the
effect that that story is having on you.   That’s why it’s called “art”. 

you’re not going to be able to pull a meaningful ending out of a hat if the
whole rest of your story has one-dimensional characters and no thematic
relevance.  But there are concrete
ways you can broaden and deepen your own ending to have lasting impact or even
lasting relevance.   Today I’d
like to look at some endings that have made that kind of impact on me, and I
hope you’ll take the cue and analyze some of your favorite endings right back
at me.

I must say up front that this whole post is full of spoilers, so if you don’t
want to know the endings before you see or read some of these stories, you’ve
been warned. 

me I think the number one technique to create a great ending is: 


to say, you say!    Yeah,
I know.

favorite movie of this year so far, maybe of the last five years,  SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, does a beautiful
and very simple thing in the third act that makes the movie much bigger in

story has set up that the “slumdog” 
(boy from the Mumbai slums) hero, Salim, is on a quiz show that is the
most popular show in all of India: 
“Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”.   In several scenes the characters talk about the show
briefly – that it represents the dream of every Indian:  escape.   As the story moves into the third act, Salim has
advanced on the show to a half-million rupee pot – larger than anyone has ever
won on the show, and the film shows shots of crowds of people watching the show
in the streets – the whole country has become involved in Salim’s story.   More than that – Salim’s story
has become the story of every Indian – of India herself.   This is made very poignantly
clear when Salim and his handlers are fighting through the crowd to get to the
studio for the final round and an old Indian woman grabs his arm and says “Do
it for all of us.  Win it all.”

is one of those archetypal moments that has amazing impact because it is played
perfectly.   In this moment
the woman is like a fairy godmother, or a deva spirit:  in every culture elderly women and men
are magically capable of bestowing blessings (and curses!).    That’s a bit of luck that
we trust, in that moment.   The
gods are on Salim’s side.  It also
blatantly tells us that Salim is doing this for all of India, for all the
Indian people.   You know how
I keep saying that you should not be afraid to SPELL THINGS OUT?   This is a terrific example of how
spelling things out can make your theme universal.

really very simply, the author, screenwriter and director have used some crowd
shots, a few lines of dialogue about the popularity of the quiz show, and one
very very short scene in the middle of a crowd to bring enormous thematic
meaning to the third act.   It
would certainly not have the impact it does if the whole rest of the film
weren’t as stellar as it is (have you seen it yet?   Why not????) – but still, these are very calculated
manipulative moments to create an effect – that works brilliantly.

are many, many techniques at work here in that film’s ending:

your main character Everyman. 


giving your main character a blessing from the gods in the form of a fairy tale


expanding the stage of the story – those crowd shots, seeing that people are
watching the show all over the country.


spelling out the thematic point you are trying to make!   (and this usually comes from a
minor character, if you start to notice this.)

film is also a particularly good example of using stakes and suspense in the
third act.  (At this point it would
be good to reread the post on
, since
all of those techniques are doubly applicable to third acts). 

stakes have become excruciating by this point in the story – not only is Salim
in an all-or nothing situation as far as the quiz show money is concerned, but
he feels appearing on the quiz show is the only way to find his true love
again.   (But I still think
the biggest stake is the need to win this one for the Indian people).  And there’s the suspense of will he win
or will he lose, and will his love escape her Mafioso sugardaddy (sorry, I was
not a fan of this subplot).  
And the suspense of “Will she get to the phone in time…” 

movie is also a good example of bringing all the subplots to a climax at the
same time to create an explosive ending: 
the quiz show, the brother deciding to be a good guy in the end, the
escape of the lover…

ending also uses a technique to create a real high of exhilaration:  it ends with a musical number that lets
you float out of the theater in sheer joy.    I can’t exactly describe an equivalent to a
rousing musical number that you can put on the page in a novel, but the point
is, a good story will throw every trick in the book at the reader or audience
to create an EMOTIONAL effect. 


is something you must set up from the beginning, as we discussed in Elements of Act One

I will say up front – a huge character arc is NOT necessary for a great
story.   In SLUMDOG
MILLIONAIRE, Salim’s character doesn’t really change.   He is innocent, joyful, irrepressible, relentless, and
pure of heart in the beginning of the story, as a little boy, and he is
essentially the same lovely person as a man.   That’s why we love him.   He is constant and true.   

most stories show a character who is in deep emotional trouble at the beginning
of the story, and the entire story is about the hero/ine recognizing that
s/he’s in trouble and having the courage to change:  from coward to hero, from unloving to generous.

you start to watch for this, you’ll see that generally the big character change
hinges on the difference between the hero/ine’s INNER and OUTER DESIRE, as we
talked about in 

Elements of Act One

very often the hero/ine’s big character change is realizing her outer desire is
not important at all, and might even be the thing that has been holding her
back in life, and she gives that up to pursue her inner desire, or true need. 

me personally it’s a very satisfying thing to see a selfish character change
throughout the course of the story until at the climax s/he performs a heroic
and unselfish act.   The great
example of all time, of course, is CASABLANCA, in which Rick who “sticks his
neck out for no one” takes a huge risk and gives up his own true love for the
greater cause of winning the war.  
Same effect when mercenary loner Han Solo comes back to help Luke
Skywalker in the final battle of STAR WARS. 

is another classic example – the events of the story take him believably from
miser to great benefactor – who “kept Christmas in his heart every day.” 

said it before, but I also thought it was a beautiful and believable character
change when Zack Mayo in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – gives up his chance at
being first in his class to help his classmate complete the obstacle course,
thus turning into a real officer before our eyes. 

sense of big contrast and big change makes for a dramatic and emotionally
satisfying ending.

course, you may not be writing a happy ending, and the dramatic change may be
for the worse.  That can be just as
powerful.   In the end of THE
GODFATHER  Michael Corleone ends up
powerful, but damned – he has become his father – which even his own father
didn’t want to happen.  
Michael goes from the least likely of the family to take over the
business – to the anointed heir to his father’s kingdom.   It’s a terrible tragedy from a
moral point of view – and yet there’s a sense of inevitability about all of it
that makes it perversely satisfying – because Michael is the smartest son, the
fairy tale archetype of the youngest and weakest third brother, the one whom we
identify with and want to succeed… it’s just that this particular success is

dark example:   PAN’S
LABYRINTH had one of the most powerful endings I’ve experienced in a long
time.   It is very dark – very
true to the reality of this anti-war story.   The heroine wins – she completes her tasks and saves
her baby brother with an heroic act – but she sacrifices her own life to do
it.   In the last moments we
see her in her fantasy world, being welcomed back as a princess by her dead
mother and father, as king and queen, and see the underworld kingdom restored
to glory by the spilling of her blood (rather than the spilling of her
brother’s blood).   But then
we cut back to reality – and she’s dead, killed by her evil stepfather.   The film delivers its anti-war
message effectively precisely because the girl dies, which is realistic in
context, but we also feel that the death did tip the balance of good and evil
toward the good, in that moment.  
It’s a satisfying ending in its truth and beauty – much more so than a
happy ending would be.

can be used very effectively to deepen the effect of your ending.  

I’ve said before, in great stories like THE WIZARD OF OZ, and PHILADELPHIA
STORY, every subplot character has his or her own resolution, which gives those
endings broader scope. 

of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – one of the very few thrillers out there that creates
a victim we truly care for and don’t want to die.   In a very few strokes, Harris in the book, and Demme
and Tally and actress Brooke Smith in the film, create a ballsy, feisty fighter
who is engineering her own escape even at the bottom of a killing pit.   In a two-second shot, a few
sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up
before she is kidnapped.  
Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with
animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus
driving the killer into a bigger frenzy).   It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know
how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a
character in its own right.  
(Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you
can cram into it).   And of
course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let
anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

of course I’ve already gone into this, but the intricacy of detail about the
killer’s lair, and the fairy tale resonance of this evil troll keeping a girl
in a pit, give that third act a lot of its primal power.

know, I know, a lot of dark examples.   

Okay, here’s a lighter one, one of the happiest and
most satisfying endings in an adventure/comedy:  BACK TO THE FUTURE.   This is a great example of how careful PLANTS can pay
off big when you pay them off in the end.   In the beginning we see high school student Marty
McFly in a life that, well, sucks.  
His family lives in a run-down house, his sweet but cowering father
won’t stand up to the bully he works for, the parents’ marriage is faltering.    Marty is transported back
to the past by mistake, and is confronted with a fantastic twist on the classic
time-travel dilemma:  he is
influencing his future (present) with every move he makes in the past – and not
for the better.   In fact,
since his high-school age mother has fallen in love with him, he’s in danger of
never existing at all, and must get his mother together with his father.   Brilliant.

Marty wants to do is get his parents back together and then get back to the
future before he does too much damage.   Mission accomplished, he returns… to find that every
move he made in the past DID influence his future – and much for the
better.   The house he returns
to is huge and gorgeous, his parents are hip and happy, and the bully works for
his father.   It’s a
wonderfully exhilarating ending, surprising and delightful – and it works
because every single moment was set up in the beginning.

ending owes a lot to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GROUNDHOG DAY  (which itself owes a lot to IAWL).   All three are terrific examples
of how you can use the external environment of the main character to illustrate
character change and make your theme resonate in the third act and for years to

give a completely different example – suppose you’re writing a farce.  I would never dare, myself, but if I
did, I would go straight to FAWLTY TOWERS to figure out how to do it (and if
you haven’t seen this brilliant TV series of John Cleese’s, I envy you the treat
you’re in for).    Every
story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from
rigid control to total breakdown of order.    It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of
what his life should be and the reality that he creates for himself over and
over again that will have you screaming with laughter. 

very technical lesson to take from FAWLTY TOWERS – and from any screwball
comedy – is SPEED IN CLIMAX.  
Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end, to
create that exhilaration of being out of control – which is the sensation I
most love about a great comedy.   

The most basic and obvious technique of speeding up your third act is – make it shorter than the other acts.   Really.  Write fewer pages. It seems faster because it IS faster.  

Another technique is cross-cutting between subplots or lines of action.   We very often see the hero/ine and allies split up in the third act and approach the site of the final battle from different directions.  That creates an opportunity to cut away from one plot at a cliffhanger moment, and go to another set of characters, leaving the reader/audience paralyzed with suspense over the dilemma of the first set of characters, and then even more agonized as you cut away from the second plot and characters, and so on through all the subplots as they converge.   

TICKING CLOCK is often used to speed up the action, especially in thrillers –
in ALIEN there’s a literal countdown over the intercom as Ripley races to get
to the shuttle before the whole ship explodes.   But I’ll warn again that the ticking clock is also
dangerous to use because it has been done so badly so many times, especially in
romantic comedies where the storytellers far too often impose an artificial
clock (“I have to get to the airport before she leaves!   Oh no….TRAFFIC!   I must get out of the taxi and
unfortunately succumbed to that cliché and I swear it nearly ruined that
otherwise perfect film for me.

just like with all of these techniques I’m talking about – the first step is
just to notice when an ending of a book or film really works for you.   Enjoy it without thinking the
first time… but then go back and figure out how and why it worked.   Take things apart… and the act of
analyzing will help you build a toolbox that you’ll start to use to powerful
effect in your own writing.

examples for me today?    Or is everyone caught up in holiday
traffic?  I mean, shopping?   Remember – this year, give books!


Note:  Typepad seems to be acting up – I've had trouble both posting and commenting in the last few days, and getting weird cabbagy error messages.   So please, if you're commenting, copy your post before hitting post in case of gremlins.  I know how we all hate losing posts to the ether.


Previous articles on story

What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method 

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Creating Suspense

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

What Makes a Great Climax? 

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

Elements of Act Three

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Oh, all
right, I guess I can’t avoid this one any longer.

So why
is this so hard?

third act so often falls apart or disappoints, don’t you think?
   We all seem to be somewhat afraid
of it – that is, unless it’s all there in our heads to begin with and we can
just – “speed we to our climax”, as Shakespeare said.

even then, a third act is a lot of pressure.
   So maybe I’ll just make it easier on myself and say
that this is going to be a SERIES of discussions on the third act.
   (There, I feel better already.)

study how to craft a great third act, you have to look specifically at the
endings that work for YOU.
(Back to “The List”.  
Have you made yours yet?). 

essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and

that’s all there is to it – one final battle between the protagonist and
   In which case
some good revelatory twists are probably required.

(And as
a reminder – the third act is generally the final twenty to thirty minutes in a
film, or the last seventy to 100 pages in a four-hundred page novel.
   The final quarter. )

By the
end of the second act, pretty much everything has been set up that we need to
know – particularly WHO the antagonist is, which sometimes we haven’t known, or
have been wrong about, until that is revealed at the second act climax.
    Of course, sometimes, or
maybe often, there is one final reveal about the antagonist that is saved till
the very end or nearly the end – as in THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE EMPIRE

We also
very often have gotten a sobering or terrifying glimpse of the ultimate nature
of that antagonist – a great example of that kind of “nature of the opponent”
scene is in CHINATOWN, in that scene in which Jake is slapping Evelyn around
and he learns about her father.

a location aspect to the third act – the final battle will often take place in
a completely different setting than the rest of the film or novel.
  In fact half of the third act can be,
and often is, just GETTING to the site of the final showdown.
  One of the most memorable examples of
this in movie history is the “storming the castle” scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ,
where, led by an escaped Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion scale
the cliff, scope out the vast armies of the witch (“Yo Ee O”) and tussle with
three stragglers to steal their uniforms and march in through the drawbridge of
the castle with the rest of the army.
   A sequence like this, and the similar ones in STAR
WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, can have a lot of the elements we discussed
about the first half of the first act:
a plan, assembling the team, assembling tools and disguises, training or

And of
course speed is often a factor – there’s a ticking clock, so our hero/ine has
to race to get there in time to – save the innocent victim from the killer,
save his or her kidnapped child from the kidnapper, stop the loved one from
getting on that plane to Bermuda…


clichéd ending EVER.
Throw in the hero/ine getting stuck in a cab in Manhattan rush hour
traffic and you really are risking audiences vomiting in the aisles, or
readers, beside their chairs.
It almost destroyed my pleasure in one of the best movies I’ve seen this
year – totally took me out of what had been up until that moment a perfect

when you think about it, the first two examples are equally clichéd.
   Sometimes there’s a fine line
between clichéd and archetypal.
You have to find how to elevate – or deepen – the clichéd to something

example, one of the most common third act structural patterns involves
infiltrating the antagonist’s hideout, or castle, or lair, and confronting the
antagonist on his or her own turf.
castle, the Imperial Starship, Buffalo Bill’s house, the sewers in IT, Las Vegas in THE STAND…

that this pattern naturally divides itself into two separate and self-contained
  getting in, and the
confrontation itself.

putting the final showdown on the villain’s turf means the villain has
home-court advantage.
  The hero/ine
has the extra burden of being a fish out of water on unfamiliar ground (mixing
a metaphor to make it painfully clear).

OF THE LAMBS is a perfect example of elevating the cliché into archetype.
   It takes place in the basement,
   Therapists talk about “basement issues” – which are your
worst fears and traumas from childhood – the stuff no one wants to look at, but
which we have to look at, and clean out, to be whole.

Thomas Harris, in the book, and the filmmakers, bringing it to life in the
movie, create a basement that is so rich in horrific and revelatory and mythic
(really fairy tale) imagery that we never feel that we’ve seen that scene
   In fact I see new
resonances in the set design every time I watch that film… like Gumb having a
wall of news clippings just exactly like the one in Crawford’s office.
   That’s a technique that Harris
uses that can elevate the clichéd to the archetypal:
  LAYERING meaning.

ON ELM STREET takes that clichéd spooky basement scene and gives it a whole new
level, literally:
  the heroine is
dreaming that she is following a sound down into the basement and then there’s
a door that leads to ANOTHER basement under the basement.
   And if you think bad things
happen in the basement, what’s going to happen in a sub-basement. 

switch genres completely for a moment, an archetypal final setting for a
romantic comedy is an actual wedding.
   We’ve seen this scene so often you’d think there’s
nothing new you can do with it.
But of course a story about love and relationships is likely to end at a

again, make your list and look at what great romantic comedies have done to elevate
the cliché.

One of
my favorite romantic comedies of all time, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, uses a
classic technique to keep that wedding sequence sparkling: every single one of
that large ensemble of characters has her or his own wickedly delightful resolution.
   Everyone has their moment to
shine, and insanely precocious little sister Dinah pretty nearly steals the
show (even from Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant!!) with her
last line:
  “I did it.   I did it ALL.”

is a good lesson for any ensemble story, no matter what genre – all the
characters should constantly be competing for the spotlight, just in any good
theater troupe.
  Make your
characters divas and scene stealers and let them top each other.)

you see a completely different kind of final battle in IT’S A WONDERFUL
  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
   There’s no showdown,
even though we desperately want one.

But the
point of that story is that George Bailey has been fighting Potter all
   There is no big
glorious heroic showdown to be had, here – because it’s all the little grueling
day to day, crazymaking battles that George has had with Potter all his life
that have made the difference.
the genius of that film is that it shows in vivid and disturbing detail what
would have happened if George had NOT had that whole lifetime of battles, against
Potter and for the town.
in the end 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.

And so
again – in case you haven’t gotten the message yet – when you sit down to craft
your own third act, try looking at the great third acts of movies and books
that are similar to your own story, and see what those authors and filmmakers
did to bring out the thematic depth AND emotional impact of their stories.

I'm going to stop now, because there's something else I want to post about today.

So – if there's anyone out there who isn't shopping, today – what are some of your favorite third acts?  What makes it real for you – the location, the thematic elements, the battle itself? 

next time – and here’s more about
Makes a Great Climax?

Previous articles on story

Your Premise?

Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

– The Craft

of Act One

of Act Two

of Act Two, Part 2


Storytelling Part 1

Storytelling Part 2

Makes a Great Climax?

Tale Structure and the List


Forget shopping. Do something purely great for yourself and anyone you love, instead – go see this film.
You'll be knocked over – repeatedly – and then lifted to undreamed of heights – by the story, the filmmaking, the sheer magic of it.
But more than that, this is the most perfect example of perfect structure I've seen in a long, long time. The structure of this story is THE way to tell this story.
It's based on the novel
Q and A, by Indian diplomat and novelist Vikas Swarup, which I'll be reading immediately, and I want to talk about both the novel and the film as part of this structure series, but I don't want to spoil one moment of the experience of watching and reading by telling you anything more.
I will warn that the first 20 minutes or so are so harsh I wasn't sure I was going to be able to take it, but once you grasp where it's going, you completely commit to the ride.
Just GO.

Based on the novel
Q and A by Vikas Swarup
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle

The anti-food post

by Alexandra Sokoloff

The eating season is upon us.  
Deck the halls with lots of calories. My favorite blogs, usually so rich
with information about writing or politics or sex, have suddenly started
posting recipes. Fa la lala  – feh.

hate that part of this season.

makes me uncomfortable.   Oh,
I’ve dined in some of the world’s best restaurants, I can appreciate a
five-star meal, I know the difference between great food and merely tolerable.   A well-crafted piece of sushi can
give me just as many orgasms as the next person.

honestly, when it comes to eating, I’d really just rather – not.

this is a combination of things.  
You grow up in California and chances are, if you’re a girl, a typical meal is
a steamed artichoke, a cube of tofu, and a six-hour workout afterward.   You grow up in California as a
dancer, and you can lose the tofu in the above equation.   There’s a highly-sought after
acting coach in L.A. who starts all his classes with the admonition:  “Wanna be a professional actor?  Then you can’t eat.”

a perfectly healthy eater now, and I guarantee I know more about  food combining, amino acids, and
getting the optimal protein out of a meal than anyone here.   I’m also just healthy in general,
thank God.   But when I was
younger I spiraled through every eating disorder on the books.

I wasn’t alone.  When I was at
Berkeley, you couldn’t go into a women’s restroom without smelling vomit.  

TMI for some of you?   But I
thought we were writers, here.  
There’s no such thing as TMI for a writer, right?  TMI is pretty much our job
description.  And eating disorders
are a serious problem for far too many girls in our culture, and increasingly,
boys as well.   If you’ve
written, say, a couple dozen characters in your writing career so far, and you
haven’t written a character who has a problem with food, or weight, you’re
probably not being very realistic.  
Think about it.

never write a female character without considering what her relationship is
with food and weight and body image. It may never come to the fore in a
particular story, but it’s as much a part of building a character for me as
family dynamics, birth order, all those things we routinely factor into

mean, please, have you ever met a woman for whom food and weight WASN’T an
issue?   Think about THAT.

I’m here to tell you what I know.

I was at Berkeley girls in the dance department taught each other how to puke;
it was part of the curriculum.  If
you were overweight, you were warned, and if you didn’t lose the weight, you
were bounced from the program. 
Period.   That’s the
job.   And I doubt all that
vomit was coming just from the dance department.   There were a few sororities at Berkeley, too,
marginalized and mocked though they were.   And a lot of women, in general.

throwing up is just hard, and after a bout with it I just learned not to eat
much.   Dieting starts as a
chore, it grows into an obsession, and then it just starts to feel like life.   It feels GOOD.

That's something I don't often hear discussed.  We hear about anorexia being a control issue, and a self-esteem issue, but I think it's more of an addiction issue.  

never been so anorexic that I’ve threatened my health or lifestyle.
   But I've been a dancer for a long
time and also have taught dance, and in case you haven’t picked up the National
Enquirer lately, for dancers, and actresses, and maybe every celebrity, anorexia
 is a pervasive problem. I've had
to pull students aside and have THE TALK with them, and I've been pulled aside
by my teachers, myself, because of my occasional flirtations with
"Ana". The thing people don't talk about is that anorexia FEELS good.
 You're constantly high as a kite
from endorphins produced by starving yourself and you don't want that feeling
to go away. You feel light and happy and in control. Then it starts to mess
with your mind and you get convinced you're LOOKING as good 
as you feel, even though your
bones are starting to show.

fact, I think it's useless to try to treat the issue without acknowledging the
pleasure aspect of it.
there’s a whole book about the addictive spiritual aspect of anorexia
– Holy
It’s a rush of endorphins probably
not unlike heroin.

a great article on the issue here,
Addiction and the Eating Disorders, that also says that
food restriction reduces anxiety – and I myself can attest to that. 

anorexia affects more than just dancers and actresses.
   Girls binge and purge, they
starve themselves, they work out compulsively, or they overeat themselves into
obesity and social oblivion.

alarming rise in the use of steroids by teenage and younger boys has been
linked to a male version of
body dysmorphia too.

disorders are often linked to sexual abuse traumas.
  It’s not necessarily a cause, but often so related that if
you’re building a character, that’s something to look at.

I’m just being perverse, the devil’s advocate, with this compulsion to shine a
light on the darker side of what for so many people is a holiday pleasure, the
ritual gorging…

what pleasure really is there in being so obese you have to book two airline
seats if you want to travel?

pleasure is there in eating if you’re compelled to throw it all up afterward,
or starve yourself for weeks, or work out to the point of injury?

I’d rather be able to button my pants the day after Thanksgiving, and I don’t
think that’s because of any mental condition.
   It just FEELS better.   

There's a little more to all this eating than comfort and joy, is what I'm saying.

lest you think I’m overlooking the obvious irony – I’m very well aware that
this is what people call a problem of success.
  Our culture is so abundant that instead of being worried
about starvation and malnutrition, we are burdened with the increasing health
problems caused by obesity and eating disorders. 

what about you all – honestly?
you ever think about your characters’ relationships to food and weight and
appearance when you’re writing?
Do you yourself take unmitigated pleasure in your food, or do you have
  Have you never given a
second’s thought to weight or appearance?

is there maybe a flip side to the holiday eating orgy for you as well?

Fairy tale structure and The List

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Grimms3 This week I got a truly excellent request: for a list of books that would illustrate some of these things I’ve been talking about. I’ll have to start compiling it.

But this is why I really stress, and I should continue to stress, the importance of creating your OWN master list in your own genre, in that story notebook I talked about.

Anyone who’s developing a new story, or is even remotely thinking about it, who hasn’t done this yet should do it RIGHT NOW: make a list of ten books and movies in the genre that you’re writing in: books and films that you love, that you think are structured similarly to the story that you’re telling, or even that are not in your genre but are your favorite books and movies of all time.

Because what works structurally for me is not necessarily going to do it for YOU.

For me, I am constantly looking at SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (book and movie), A WRINKLE IN TIME (book), THE WIZARD OF OZ (film), THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (book and ORIGINAL film), anything by Ira Levin, especially ROSEMARY’S BABY (book and film), THE EXORCIST (book and film), JAWS (film, but I need to go back and compare the book), PET SEMATERY (book, obviously), THE SHINING (book and film), IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

That’s off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I’m about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now.

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

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

I will start using more examples of each thing I’m talking about. I’ll go back at some point and revise these posts with more content, too. But in the meantime, I will keep begging for everyone’s examples so we can have a more eclectic and genre-inclusive discussion and so I can learn something, too.

I just taught a story structure workshop last week and it was as always fantastic to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives you such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling. Make your list. Think of the story you are writing right now and list ten books and films that are like it – without thinking about it too much. There will always be some complete surprises on there, and those stories are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer.

Bluebeardskey One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that my favorite stories of all are fairy tales and myths – which are often interchangeable, although Christopher Vogler and John Truby make good arguments that stories with mythic structure and stories with fairy tale structure have their own rules and formulas.

When I respond deeply to a movie or book, no matter how realistic and modern it seems on the surface, chances are it’s going to have a fairy tale structure.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON, THE EXORCIST, THE GODFATHER, A WRINKLE IN TIME, STAR WARS, THE TREATMENT (Mo Hayder) – every single one of them is a fairy tale. And fairy tales have their own structural rules that just work for me.

This week I finally saw PAN’S LABYRINTH (I know, I’m WAY late on that one, and Del Toro is one of my favorite directors. It’s wonderful, heartbreaking.)

That movie has a blatant fairy tale structure, and as in so many fairy tales, the heroine is told by her mentor and ally the faun that she must perform three tasks to save the underworld kingdom and reclaim her place as the princess of that world (and thus escape her horrifying reality in 1944 Spain.)

The three-task structure is SO useful and successful because it tells the audience exactly what they’re in for. Audiences (and readers – but especially audiences) need to know that things will come to an end eventually, otherwise they get restless and worried that they will never get out of that theater. I’m not kidding. And a reader, particularly a promiscuous reader like me, will bail on a book if it doesn’t seem to be escalating and progressing at a good clip. But with a three-task structure, the audience is, at least subconsciously, mentally ticking off each task as it is completed, and that gives a satisfying sense of progress toward a resolution. 2006_pans_labyrinth_wallpaper_002_2 Plus once you’ve set a three-task structure, you can then play with expectation, as Del Toro did in PAN’S LABYRINTH, and have the heroine FAIL at one of the tasks, say, the second task, and provide a great moment of defeat, a huge reversal and surprise, that in this case was completely emotionally wrenching because of the heroine’s very dire real-life situation.

Another classic fairy tale structure is the three-brother or three-sister structure. You know, as in The White Cat, or The Boy Who Had to Learn Fear, or Cinderella. In this structure there is one task that is the goal, and we watch all three siblings attempt it, but it’s always the youngest and ostensibly weakest sibling that gets it right.

Another Rule Of Three fairy tale structure deals with the three magical allies. THE WIZARD OF OZ has this – Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion; the animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY – fairy godmothers Flora, Fauna and Merriwether; A WRINKLE IN TIME – the “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs Which; and STAR WARS – R2D2, C3P0, Han Solo (Okay, there’s four, Chewbacca, but he’s so joined at the hip to Han that they’re really one entity.). Magical allies give gifts, and they provide substructure for stories by each having their moment or moments of aiding the hero/ine.

I must point out that you DO NOT have to be writing a fantasy to use any of these structural techniques. They all can work just as well in the most grittily realistic story. Just look at THE GODFATHER, the most classic modern example I know of the three-brother structure. There’s the old king, the Godfather; the two older brothers, Sonny, with his lethal temper, and Fredo, with his weak womanizing; and the youngest brother, Michael, who is the outsider in the family: college-educated, Americanized, kept apart from the family business, and thought of as the weakest. And throughout the story we see this unlikely younger brother ascend to his father’s throne (even though it’s about the last thing we want.)

You can see the three-brother structure working loosely in MYSTIC RIVER, with the three friends who are all cursed by a horrific childhood event that inextricably binds their fates together. Lehane even uses a fairy tale analogy in the tale: “The Boy Who Was Captured By Wolves,” and the fairy-tale resonances in that book and film contribute to its haunting power.

THE DEERHUNTER is another three-brother structure, that opens with another huge fairy tale story element: a curse. The whole first sequence is a wedding, complete with unwanted guest (the Green Beret who won’t talk to the three friends about Vietnam), and at the height of the merrymaking the bride and groom drink from the same cup and spill wine on the bride’s gown, thus bringing on the curse for all three friends.

The point is, if you really look closely at stories on your list, you might just find a similar meta-structure at work that will help you shape your own story. Try it!

And please do give us all some examples today – your own master list, or books and films with fairy tale elements or structure.

Previous articles on story structure:

What’s Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Creating Suspense

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

What makes a great climax?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Come on, admit it, one of the great things about being writers is that we get paid for them.

Brett talked about beginnings this week – so I thought I’d bookend it.

I was watching “The Making of Jaws” the other night. I swear, DVD bonus features are the best thing that EVER happened for writers and film students. No one needs film school anymore – just watch the commentaries on DVDs. (That’s something you’re not going to be able to experience the same way when everything goes to streaming video – could be a big problem, there…)

Peter Benchley, the author and co-screenwriter, was talking about the ending of the film. He said that from the beginning of production Spielberg had been ragging on him about the ending – he said it was too much of a downer. For one thing, the visual wasn’t right – if you’ll recall the book, once Sheriff Brody has killed the shark (NOT by blowing it up), the creature spirals slowly down to the bottom of the sea.

Spielberg found that emotionally unsatisfying. He wanted something bigger, something exciting, something that would have audiences on their feet and cheering. He proposed the oxygen tank – that Brody would first shove a tank of compressed air into the shark’s mouth, and then fire at it until he hit the tank and the shark went up in a gigantic explosion. Benchley argued that it was completely absurd – no one would ever believe that could happen. Spielberg countered that he had taken the audience on the journey all this time – we were with the characters every step of the way. The audience would trust him if he did it right.

And it is a wildly implausible scene, but you go with it. That shark has just eaten Quint, whom we have implausibly come to love (through the male bonding and then that incredible revelation of his experience being one of the crew of the wrecked submarine that were eaten one by one by sharks). And when Brody, clinging to the mast of the almost entirely submerged boat – aims one last time and hits that shark, and it explodes in water, flesh and blood – it is an AMAZING catharsis.

Topped only by the sudden surfacing of the beloved Richard Dreyfuss character, who has, after all, survived. (in the book he died – but was far less of a good guy.) The effect is pure elation.

Spielberg paid that movie off with an emotional exhilaration rarely experienced in a story. Those characters EARNED that ending, and the audience did, too, for surviving the whole brutal experience with them. Brilliant filmmaker that he is, Spielberg understood that. The emotion had to be there, or he would have failed his audience.

This is a good lesson, I think: 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.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is another terrific example of emotional exhilaration in the end. 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 see 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, Violet deciding to stay in town, his old friend wiring him a promise of as much money as he needs – the whole thing makes the audience glad to be alive, too. They feel, as George does, that the little things you do every day DO count.

So underneath everything you’re struggling to pull together in an ending, remember to step back and identify what you want your reader or audience to FEEL.

Another important component in an ending is a sense of inevitability – that it was always going to come down to this. Sheriff Brody does everything he can possibly do to avoid being on the water with that shark. He’s afraid of the water, he’s a city-bred cop, he’s an outsider in the town – he’s the least likely person to be able to deal with this gigantic creature of the sea. He enlists not one but two vastly different “experts from afar”, the oceanographer Hooper and the crusty sea captain Quint, to handle it for him. But deep down we know from the start, almost BECAUSE of his fear and his unsuitability for the task, that in the final battle it will be Sheriff Brody, alone, mano a mano with that shark. And he kills it with his own particular skill set – he’s a cop, and one thing he knows is guns. It’s unlikely as hell, but we buy it, because in crisis we all resort to what we know.

And it’s always a huge emotional payoff when a reluctant hero steps up to the plate.

It may seem completely obvious to say so, but no matter how many allies accompany the hero/ine into the final battle, the ultimate confrontation is almost always between the hero/ine and the main antagonist, alone. By all means let the allies have their own personal battles and resolutions within battle – that can really build the suspense and excitement of a climactic sequence. But don’t take that final victory out of the hands of your hero/ine or the story will fall flat.

Also, there is very often a moment when the hero/ine will realize that s/he and the antagonist are mirror images of each other. And/or the antagonist may provide a revelation at the moment of confrontation that nearly destroys the hero/ine… yet ultimately makes him or her stronger. (Think “I am your father” in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)

The battle is also a chance to pay off all your setups and plants. Very often you will have set up a weakness for your hero/ine. That weakness that has caused him or her to fail repeatedly in previous tests, and in the battle he hero/ine’s great weakness will be tested.

PLACE is a hugely important element of an ending. Great stories usually, if not almost always, end in a location that has thematic and symbolic meaning. Here, once again, creating a visual and thematic image system for your story will serve you well, as will thinking in terms of SETPIECES (as we’ve talked about before) Obviously the climax should be the biggest setpiece sequence of all. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice must go down into the labyrinth to battle the monster and save the captured princess. In JAWS, the Sheriff must confront the shark on his own and at sea (and on a sinking boat!). In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy confronts the witch in her own castle. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indy must infiltrate the Nazi bunker. In PSYCHO, the hero confronts Tony Perkins in his basement – with the corpse of “Mother” looking on. (Basements are a very popular setting for thriller climaxes… that labyrinth effect, and the fact that “basement issues” are our worst fears and weaknesses).

And yes, there’s a pattern, here – the hero/ine very often has to battle the villain/opponent on his/her own turf.

A great, emotionally effective technique within battle is to have the hero/ine lose the battle to win the war. AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN did this beautifully in the final obstacle course scene, where the arrogant trainee Zack Mayo, who has always been out only for himself, sacrifices his own chance to graduate first in his class to help a classmate over the wall and complete the course, thus overcoming his own flaw of selfishness and demonstrating himself to be true officer material.

Another technique to build a bigger, more satisfying climax is is to have the allies get THEIR desires, too – as in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

And a particularly effective emotional technique is to have the antagonist ma have a character change in the end of the story. KRAMER VS. KRAMER did this exceptionally well, with the mother seeing that her husband has become a great father and deciding to allow him custody of their son, even though the courts have granted custody to her. It’s a far greater win than if the father had simply beaten her. Everyone has changed for the better.

Because CHANGE may just be the most effective and emotionally satisfying ending of all. Nothing beats having both Rick and Captain Renault rise above their cynical and selfish instincts and go off together to fight for a greater good. So bringing it back to the beginning – one of the most important things you can design in setting up your protagonist is where s/he starts in the beginning, and how much s/he has changed in the end.

I bet you all can guess the question for today! What are your favorite endings of screen and page, and what makes them great?

Previous articles on Story Structure:

What’s Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Creating Suspense:

Elements of Act Two, Part Two: