Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Women and Horror

by Alexandra Sokoloff


There’s an essay in the New York Times Review of Books tomorrow called “Shelley’s Daughters”, about contemporary women authors who are writing in the vein of psychological horror opened by such visionary authors as Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

And I’m in it.

Right there beside three other contemporary female authors whose powerful and disturbing work I love: Sarah Langan, Sara Gran, and Elizabeth Hand.

Wow. The New York Times. I mean, coming from Southern California, specifically from philistine Hollywood, I have to admit this is a little freaky. That’s, like, a real newspaper from a real city, read by actual grownups. It’s so big. And it has so many words. People routinely take a whole day out of their week just to read that paper.

So that’s the first slightly surreal thing about this.

But the other, really surreal thing is – those authors. Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson and the lesser-known Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote a short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper”, about a woman’s descent into madness when confined to her room to rest from an “hysterical condition” by her physician husband, which was an absolutely pivotal shift in my consciousness as a woman and a writer at the time that I read it. I’m linking to it so that anyone who’s missed it has a chance to see what I’m talking about.


If I had to make a list of three authors who had done the most to influence and inspire what I write, and a bit how I live as a woman, that would arguably be it. The top three.

So to be considered in the same essay with them, in such a public forum, is a shockingly intimate thing.

And it means that I really am writing what I think I’m writing. That other people see it that way, too. Now, that might be sort of the point of all this writing to begin with, and I guess I’ve been becoming more aware of that from other reviews that I’ve gotten and from letters I get from readers and feedback I get in person at signings.

But I’ve never had it driven home in exactly this way before. That I am. Writing EXACTLY. What I think I’m writing.

Maybe other authors here don’t have the same genre identity problem going that I do. But look, it gets confusing. Depending on which bookstore or library you walk into, I’m shelved in horror (if there is even a horror section, which these days there usually isn’t), sometimes mystery/thriller, sometimes fiction and literature. I go to mystery, thriller, romance, horror, and even sci-fi/fantasy conferences, and have readers at each. Add to that the fact that as a screenwriter I would work on projects that could start out as adventure thrillers and end up as musicals, through that special process Hollywood calls “development”; and add to THAT my own personality disorder – I mean, chameleon nature – and the fact that my own publisher is careful not to call what I do “horror” – which by all accounts is a dead genre, at least for the time being…

Yes, I’d say I’m confused.

And it’s also frustrating because I know it’s hard for people to find my books. There’s no consistency. It’s worrisome – how many people just give up? I can’t tell you how often I’ve asked my agent if I should just write a straight thriller for the next book, and he always says, No, it’s going to take some time, but you’re doing something that nobody else is doing, and people will find you.

Well, reading that article made me realize that he has it right – that not many people at all are writing this kind of thing – and that’s why I got that shock of recognition seeing my name with Sarah Langan, Sara Gran and Elizabeth Hand, who ARE writing this kind of thing. What it is, is feminist horror. Or since the Right has somehow insidiously twisted “feminism” into as dirty a word as “politically correct” – even just feminine horror.

That’s what galvanized me about Shelley, Jackson and Gilman when I discovered them, growing up. Not just that they told ripping good scary stories, dripping with perverse sexuality and unnerving psychological insight, but that those stories were from an unmistakably and unrelentingly female point of view. About oppression and patriarchy and a kind of madness, but prophetic madness, that comes with always being the Other.


Let’s face it – women have a lot to say about horror. We live with violence on a much more intimate and everyday level than most men do. A walk out to the parking lot from the grocery store can on any given night turn into a nightmare from which some women will never fully recover.

I think security expert and author Gavin DeBecker got it exactly right when he said “A man’s greatest fear about a woman is that she’ll laugh at him. A woman’s greatest fear about a man is that he’ll kill her.”

Women know what it’s like to be prisoners in their own homes, what it’s like to be enslaved, to be stalked, to be prostituted, what it’s like to be ultimately powerless. And they know everything there is to know about rage, even when it’s so deeply buried they don’t know that’s what it is they’re feeling.

(When I start to think about it, the mystery to me is why more women AREN’T writing horror.)

Now, I’ve been writing for a long time, and I’ve known for a long time that that’s what I was exploring in my writing. And because I’ve worked in Hollywood and had to, you know, eat – I’ve learned how to couch that in entertainment, even write primarily about men, when the real story in the story is what’s happening with the women.

But we get caught up in all the chaotic day-to-day of being authors, especially fairly new authors, and we sometimes forget what it is we’re trying to say. We forget the mission statement.

And the mission might change, too, so subtly that we’re not aware of the change.

I know why some authors don’t read their reviews. I understand how it might be better to just write by your internal compass, and not worry about what gets said in print. And whoever said that if you’re going to read your reviews, you have to read them ALL as truth – the good and the bad – I think that person has it right. And I’ve read some whopping bad ones, and I have to – cringingly – admit the truth of them. (And there’s sometimes unexpected gold – I’ll always cherish the bad review that ended with: “I’ll buy her next book, but I’m not looking forward to it.”)

But now I understand a little better the value of outside criticism. Sometimes in all the day-to-day chaos, someone can suddenly remind you exactly who you are, and what you’ve been trying to do all along.

Authors, what would be your ideal list of three other authors to be compared with? Or who would be your three authors who influenced you the most as a writer? And/or – have you ever had a review that reminded you exactly what your mission was?

And readers, who would be the three authors who have influenced you the most as a person?

(As part of my program of complete overextension, I’m also guest blogging at Laura Benedict’s Notes from the Handbasket today as part of her Octoberguest! Series. More on the dark side….)

You know what’s wrong with Bouchercon?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Look, I did my raves already, here.   And I’ll fight anyone to the death who even dares to hint that Ruth and Jon and Judy didn’t just put on the greatest show on earth.   But let’s get honest, now.   There’s something missing, endemically, intrinsically, about the whole Bouchercon experience.

There’s no dancing.

Yeah, yeah, I can feel the skeptics of you out there going skeptical on me already, but trust me, this is leading somewhere you might just want to go.

Because of my confused genre identity, and because romance readers love them some ghost stories, I end up at a lot of romance conferences.   And there is dancing there, oh, is there.   No hangovers ever at an Romantic Times or RWA conference, because you just dance it right out.   Great exercise, too – no one needs to bother with the gym at these things.   And it’s great bonding. But there’s a major problem there, too.

No men.

Oh, well, there are the requisite half-naked beefcake cover models.  And Barry Eisler.  Unfortunately not half-naked, but simply working it.

But besides that – pretty testosterone-deprived.

It’s not that I don’t love dancing with three hundred women at a time.  I do.  It’s just that it’s not exactly… the same.   I love women.   I love men.   But what I love most of all is women and men together, all variations, doing whatever they do, in all possible permutations.

My favorite advice columnist, Miss Manners, said that “Flirting is what adults do because they know it’s not practical or even desirable to have sex with everyone you’re attracted to.”

Well, that’s precisely the point with dancing, but with more full body contact.   That’s what social dancing was invented for – the preservation of monogamy while maintaining healthy levels of fantasy promiscuity.

Social dancing is maybe the one thing that the sixties really screwed up, and I’m from Berkeley, where the sixties never died, so you know I wouldn’t say anything like that unless I really meant it.  When people started to dance free-form, non-contact, by themselves (which is what tends to happen when you’re tripping) a whole way of life started to crumble.   The sexual revolution had a lot to do with it.  Men realized they were going to get sex anyway, so they didn’t have to go to the trouble of learning how to dance in order to get laid.  And somehow women let them get away with it.   But oh, the loss.

I’m sure it was fine in the seventies, when people were still sleeping with each other left and right.   And in the eighties, before the dark age of AIDS and during the age of, well, cocaine.   

But then suddenly rampant random sex was not happening any more. But when we lost the random rampant sex, we somehow didn’t go back to the socially sanctioned safe-sex substitute of dance.   

Which leaves us – not screwed, but pathetically UNscrewed, I think is what I mean to say.

I haven’t been at this author thing that long, but my observation is that as a group, authors are overwhelmingly…

Married.   And faithful.   


And it’s a lovely thing – commitment, fidelity – I’m all for it.   Cheating is bullshit.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want a cheap feel from a friend – or an attractive stranger – once in a while.   And social dancing used to make that not only possible, but pretty much mandatory.   

Whoever invented compulsory social dancing really, really, REALLY knew what they were doing.   Because within that context, you’re allowed to try out dozens, no, hundreds, even thousands, of different partners.   Feel how they move, see if they have a sense of humor and sense of adventure, get a good taste of their passion or lack of, see if they’re generous or selfish, see if you FIT with them.   All without saying a word.

And then even once you have your perfect partner (who may not be a great dancer at all, btw – that’s really not the point – you could laugh all the way through the dance of the four left feet and know at the end of it that you’ve found the love of your life) – you don’t have to give up all those other partners.   You get them every weekend, all those hundreds and thousands of three-or-five-or-seven minute living fantasies, as long as you’re still able to stand.

What a perfect system!

Let’s apply this to our own situation for a moment.

Some of my favorite times at B’Con this year were with girlfriends, dishing about the guys.  And the maybe couples – are they or aren’t they?

Yes, I know we were all there working it.  But in the meantime, weren’t you, you know, looking?   And thinking?   

Is Marcus Sakey too young, or would you make an exception for his old soul?   Why do so many women name Dr. Lyle as one of the sexiest men in the mystery community?   Did anyone, ever, have a professor like Derek Nikitas in college, and if you did – well, did you?   Can anyone’s voice shake you to the – uh – core – like Gary Phillips’?   Wouldn’t you love to feel Ken Bruen’s soul in a dance the way you can reading him on the page?   How many of the rest of you have secretly wished that Jim Born would just take out the damn handcuffs? This year especially, didn’t you just want to just line up the Brits?   Or at least have them talk at you until you passed out?  And how about those Teds, as we say in So Cal – the big, comfortable, easy guys you just want to curl up on… er, with…   Brett, Rob, Dusty, Bill Cameron, Jason Pinter, Ali Karim?   

JA Konrath, angel or demon?

And let’s not forget the agents and editors.  I’d put Scott Miller up for a Men of Mystery calendar any day.  Joe Veltre was looking mighty fine, and Lukas Ortiz is not only a hottie, but after a five-hour bike ride with him last year in Anchorage I can testify to his endurance. Marc Resnick is so sly and smart – and Eric Raab has that rock star soulfulness – could be Adam Duritz’s brother.

And speaking of brothers and rock stars – when we have two tall elegant brilliant Englishmen like Lee Child and Andrew Grant skulking about the proceedings – and they’re brothers?    Or Michael Palmer, pere, and Daniel Palmer, fils, doing the rock star thing at ThrillerFest?   I mean, this is better than twins, people.   Doesn’t the mind run wild?

Talking about it is fun (Louise Ure and Lori Armstrong and Tasha Alexander and Christa Faust, I’ll dish with you any hour of any day).   Talking to people is fun.   But after 14 hours or so of it I’m talked out.   When the lights get lower and the cocktails are flowing, I want more.

How breathtaking to have a socially sanctioned excuse to leave all that talking behind and simply step into someone’s arms.   Repeatedly.

And I’m not talking about drunken groping.  I’m talking about people being skilled enough at the LANGUAGE of dance to get out on the floor for three or four minutes and have a whole thrilling, surprising, funny, sexy, touching, mindblowing conversation – every bit as complicated as writing  – through rhythm, through touch, through teasing, through holding back and then pushing through, anticipating and riffing on each other’s moves – all without a word.   (Is this reminding you of anything?   It should be.)

There’s that disconcerting feeling you get as a powerful, independent woman – to have to surrender to his hold.  And how thrilling to find that he knows exactly what he’s doing.   Yeah, it’s a little flustering that he as the lead is in ultimate control (I tell my male friends that men don’t really dance, they STEER) – but as the woman, or follow, you have any number of opportunities to change the game on him – to halt the step, to change the pattern and make him adjust to you, or just make him watch and know that everyone else in the room is watching while you seduce them along with him.

Dance is conversation to music, too.   The music is really another partner, a whole dimension, as much a part of the experience as the person you’re with.   If you listen to the great swing tunes, you’ll see that the music changes constantly within the song, from swing to rumba to mambo to, hell, a tap break.   If you and your partner are on the ball, you can follow  not just each other, but the different dances within a single song.   And when you dance a lot, there are certain songs that you just crave to dance with a certain man, to see if he’s up to it.   And if he isn’t, you could always dance it with someone else.  Dancing doesn’t have to be just one-on-one.  You can be dancing WITH someone – but dancing FOR someone else entirely, if you see what I mean. 

Think about this for a moment. Let’s just imagine that you CAN dance, just like you can talk, because you’ve been in classes and at cotillion and social dances from the time you were eight, then on to the jazz clubs and Latin clubs, or shag or tango competitions – depending on where you’re from.  You can speak dance as well as you speak – if not quite English, then French or Spanish or whatever you speak as a second language.  Because that’s the way it used to be.  Salsa, Rumba, Swing, Foxtrot, Samba, Lindy Hop, Waltz, Tango, Shag in the South… everyone spoke those languages.

(And let me tell you another thing – age means nothing in dance – it’s all about the conversation.   I’ve been tossed in the air by high school kids and danced down a ballroom staircase with the then-85-year-old maestro Frankie Manning (pioneer of the Lindy Hop) and every experience is uniquely wonderful.)   

Now, what if that was simply the thing that we all did – from nine or ten pm on?

That’s the way it used to be.   

Do you get just a glimpse of what I’m talking about?   Can you blame me for being a little nostalgic for that time of night when the talking was done, and a whole other level of communication opened up? 

Oh, and the best thing?   It’s understood: What happens on the dance floor – stays on the dance floor.

So, if you could…

Who would you want to dance with?   At B’Con or Thrillerfest or LCC or wherever.   And don’t even pretend you don’t know.   Most of you probably have a whole list.  Writers are the sexiest people around, and that’s just the truth.

So that’s the question for today.  Who would you dance with?   Truth or dare.

And if you don’t quite dare, is there something besides writing or reading that does you the way dance does me?

Story Structure – Act Two, Part Two

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Okay, back to story structure this week. Come on, you know you want to.

As we were talking about in our discussion of the Elements of Act Two, the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film – a major shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.)

It’s also sometimes called the “Point of No Return”, in which the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action (this may have been the German dramaturg Freytag’s assertion – I’ll have to research it further).

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we discussed in Building Suspense. A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.

And the Midpoint will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

The Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene – it can be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal – all or any combination of the above. For example, in JAWS, the Midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence in which the city officials have refused to shut the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), he decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact Midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses – staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes much in the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax – it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.

Another very different kind of midpoint occurs in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: the “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have only three days before Buffalo Bill kills her. Clarice goes in at first to offer Lecter what she knows he desires most (because he has STATED his desire, clearly and early on) – a transfer to a Federal prison, away from Dr. Chilton and with a view. Clarice has a file with that offer from Senator Martin – she says – but in reality the offer is a total fake. We don’t know this at the time, but it has been cleverly PLANTED that it’s impossible to fool Lecter (Crawford sends Clarice in to the first interview without telling her what the real purpose is so that Lecter won’t be able to read her). But Clarice has learned and grown enough to fool Lecter – and there’s a great payoff when Lecter later acknowledges that fact.

The deal is not enough for Lecter, though – he demands that Clarice do exactly what her boss, Crawford, has warned her never to do: he wants her to swap personal information for clues – a classic deal with the devil game.

After Clarice confesses painful secrets, Lecter gives her the clue she’s been digging for – to search for Buffalo Bill through the sex reassignment clinics. And as is so often the case, there is a second climax within the midpoint – the film cuts to the killer in his basement, standing over the pit making a terrified Catherine put lotion on her skin – it’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes.

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in my latest book, THE UNSEEN, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold – what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty”. It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough. So now although they don’t actually have sex yet, there’s definitely sex in the air, and it’s very clear that that desire is driving her.


In the second half of the second act the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, so it’s time for desperate measures.

These escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: the hero/ine very often starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive or downright immoral. When Catherine is kidnapped, Clarice is warned by her roommate that if she doesn’t study for and take her FBI exams, she’ll be kicked out of the program. Of course Clarice puts Catherine’s well-being above her own, but it’s a great way to back her into a corner and force hard choices. Often the hero/ine will lose support from key allies when s/he begins to cross the line.

Naturally the antagonist’s actions are escalating as well.

This third quarter also almost always contains a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. In THE WIZARD OF OZ it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass and all looks lost. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene – yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.

This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act, because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end.

Now, remember, in standard film structure, the second half of Act Two is two sequences long – two fifteen minute sequences, each with a beginning, middle and climax. A book will perhaps have three or four or five sequences in this 100 page section. But if you concentrate on escalating obsessive actions by the hero/ine and antagonist, and then an abject failure, out of which a new revelation and plan occurs, you pretty much have the whole section mapped out to the ACT TWO CLIMAX

As I’ve discussed before, the Act Two Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel) often answers the Central Question set up at the end of Act One, and often the answer is “No”. No, Lecter is not going to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine – Clarice is going to have to do it herself. No, Quint will not kill the shark; the shark kills him instead and Sheriff Brody is going to have to face the shark alone.

The second act climax will often be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is (as in THE FUGITIVE, when Dr. Richard Kimble realizes that his friend Chuck has set him up and that leads to the final confrontation and fight/chase. THE FUGITIVE has a nice, satisfying structure because at the same time that Kimble is realizing who his real enemy is, US Marshal Gerard (the Tommy Lee Jones character), who has been chasing Kimble for the entire film, also becomes convinced of Kimble’s true nature – that he’s innocent.

It’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or THE main enemy, and it also often happens that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick).

The second act climax is another place that you might start a ticking clock – such as in ALIEN, when Ripley sets the ship to blow up in ten minutes and has to evade the alien and get to the shuttle by then – as if being chased by an acid-bleeding monster weren’t stressful enough!

And 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.

But we’ll talk about the third act and climax in a separate post.

What I’m really interested in today is hearing examples of great midpoints.

For previous articles on story structure:

What’s your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Creating Suspense

How do you know what’s the right book?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

My question today is – “How do we choose what we write next?” And I really, really want to know.

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.
As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. St. Martin’s isn’t going to pay me for my next book if I turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. My agent wouldn’t be too thrilled about it, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.

You’re even more restricted if you are writing a series – a kind of restriction I haven’t wanted to take on, myself. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place, so I’m really interested in hearing our series authors talk about how THEY decide on the next story they write.

I don’t let a lot of time go by between when I turn in a project and start the next one.

Part of this is mental illness. I know that. My SO sighs and shakes his head. Perhaps one of these days he’ll leave me over it; it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

And maybe I would be a better writer if I took more time to decide. actually. It’s an interesting question.

But I need to know what I’m working on. For me it’s better than Xanax. I’m not a very pleasant person when I’m floundering in the gaps between projects.

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time.

But how does that decision process happen?

If you’ve been working at writing for a while you have a lot of stories swirling around in your head at any given moment, and even more in that story warehouse in the back of your mind – some much more baked than others. But I find it’s not necessarily the most complete idea that draws you.

Sometimes, maybe often, you need to do something different from what you’ve just done. THE HARROWING was about college students so I wanted to do something more adult. THE PRICE turned out to be maybe TOO adult – it was a very emotionally grueling book to write for me; I had to go to even darker places than usual, so instead of going on to write another book that I had completely outlined already, but was equally dark, I jumped in to a story that I only had the vaguest premise line for. THE UNSEEN has turned out to be much more of a romp than my previous two books, insomuch as a supernatural thriller can be a romp. It’s lighter, more romantic, and more overtly sexual than the other two (that last really was because when I stayed in the haunted estate that I used for the haunted estate in the book, there was a distinctly sexual imprint on the house, and it influenced the story. I had nothing to do with it. Really.)

For my new book, I knew I wanted to do something around water, because bluntly, I want to spend more time at the ocean this year, and research is one of the job perks. You take them where you can.

But again, once I’d turned in THE UNSEEN, the ocean story that I had been working on for a while already was not the one that pulled at me. I wanted to do the beach desperately, but I wasn’t feeling excited about that story, and it finally occurred to me that it was about a character who was very isolated, and a lot of the book would be about what was going on in her head, and I was just balking at the idea of having to write that. I really wanted to do something structurally more like THE HARROWING, more of an ensemble piece, with a lot of dialogue and one-upmanship among the characters. And suddenly it hit me that I did have a story idea about a group of people that also had a lot to do with the beach and the water, which I won’t say much about because I just don’t talk about it at this early stage. But I started piecing that one together and it just started to fly – the kind of can’t-write-fast-enough-to-get-the-ideas-down writing that we all live for.

And that brings me sort of to my point.

The way I really know what to write is when the entire world around me is giving me clues. Like when I keep getting into random conversations with strangers that turn out to be exactly what my book is about. Like when I am writing a scene about rum on the plane and I walk off the plane and the first thing I see on the causeway is a rum bar (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a rum bar). Like when I meet a person on the street or see someone on television and realize THAT’S one of my main characters that I had been struggling to define.


In other words, it doesn’t feel like working – I’m in the flow. When you’re in the flow, your book comes alive around you and all you have to do is write it down. It’s being in love – an altered state in which everything feels ecstatic and RIGHT.

And you can feel the whole shape of the book in your head – it’s almost like being able to pick the story up in your hands and heft it and say – “Yeah, everything’s there. I can do this one.”

That may not make any sense, but it’s a really palpable feeling for me, physical, visceral. And such a relief to finally get there, I can’t even tell you.

So how do YOU know?


Brett, Naomi and I will be among the hundreds of authors speaking and signing at the West Hollywood Book Fair tomorrow, Sunday, in West Hollywood Park. If you’re in the LA area, hope you can come by!


ETA: Devastated to report that Paul Newman has died.

Ah, men.

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Maybe it’s that sudden tingle of fall, but I’m just not in the mood to write about craft today. I want something fun.

Here at Murderati we have a Wine of the Week, a Word of the Week, a Song of the Week, each hosted by experts in those fields. And that got me musing about what I might be a connoisseur of, and, well…

Let me say up front that I am happily mated, as are most of us on this here blog. But we can look, can’t we? In fact, isn’t it our JOB to know about these things?

So today I want to talk about men. And you men are perfectly welcome to talk about women, and women are perfectly welcome to talk about women, and men are perfectly welcome to talk about men, and every variation therein. Mix and match, go wild – we only live once.

I like men. I’m pretty generally in favor of them, except of course for the ones who deserve the death penalty, even though I don’t really believe in it.

And as a writer, it’s one of my duties to study men, because, of course, I have to write them and sound like I know what I’m doing.

I study women, too, but not exactly in the same way. Because women are not much of a mystery to me. I enjoy all the varieties of women, I study them, I catalogue them, I collect them, I even obsess over them (I’ve blogged here about my crush on Shane on THE L WORD). But pretty much I know where they’re coming from, because, well, they’re me.

Men are a different story.

I am very often disappointed in the portrayal of men in books. Truly, disappointed.

Because there are so many variations. There are so many factors that go into the character of a man. I can’t possibly begin to cover them all in one post, but let’s just take an obvious thing that I feel authors simply do not take enough time to explore and illuminate.

Men vary WILDLY by state, region, country. They’re like different species. But I very, very rarely see an author accurately portray the unique regional qualities of men – or women, and the differences in how men and women interact with each other in a particular city. So the game for today is delineating traits of regional subsets of men, or women. I will give my own examples to encourage participation.

This is research, people – research.

In the book I just turned in I was writing about a California woman transplanted to the South, because the story as it was HAD to be set in North Carolina, as it’s based on real events, but I knew there was no way in hell as a California native I was going to pull off a book from the POV of a Southern character, so I had to make her a transplant, a fish-out-of-water.

Now, one of the things Southerners will say to a Californian right away is – “Aren’t the people so much FRIENDLIER here?”

And my bitten-back and never vocalized response is – “Well, the women are friendly, yes, definitely.”

But I’ll let my character say what I – I mean she – thinks of the men:

They look and look and never crack a smile. At least in California men smile at you when they look you over.

As a woman and a total fish out of water in the South, I have to say, this is my experience. It may be just me… but so far pretty much except for Dusty, who is a total Ted (Ted, like teddy bear – smiles, hugs, lavishes attention) – it’s true.

Of white men.

African-American Southern men, as in California, will beam at me as if I’m the most gorgeous thing they’ve ever seen at this moment in their direct line of vision. Very charming and gratifying.

(Disclaimer re: Southern men – This is all of course exempting my own 2XL Southern alpha male, who I met on a rafting trip on the Colorado River and who not only smiled but proceeded to charm the… well… whatever I was wearing, he got it off me pretty fast.)

Maybe Southern men are different with Southern women, and if so I’d love to hear about it, but as a Californian I am not used to this cool and unrevealing style.

I’ve lived most of my life in Northern California and Southern California and I’m used to a certain thing from California men. Berkeley men and women are sluts. Charming, egalitarian, sluts. Sex is like having a cup of coffee – warm, friendly, casual… and political/artistic chat with expresso or alcohol afterward.

San Francisco men, oh, lovely. A lot of gay men, proportionately, but you don’t have to concern yourself about hooking up with a man who will turn out to be in the closet, because anyone who decides to live in SF is going to be unmistakably OUT. And the straight men are just dolls – you get these beatific smiles, full-body-glow smiles, on the street – think Treat Williams in HAIR – and everyone has great asses and thighs because of all the walking on all those hills. I have often thought that there is some chemical equivalent to Ecstasy in the water or air of San Francisco because the vibe you get from people there is all love.

If I ever feel not so attractive, a quick trip to San Francisco will remind me of the goddess I obviously am.

Men in LA are less beatific – there’s that sweet, spacy distance of surfers. There’s a lot of friendly cruising on the street – you never feel ignored. They’re sort of your instant buddy while they’re getting into your pants, cute without being necessarily overtly sexy. Think BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.

Another great town for men is Chicago. I think all that snow and wind and winter bulks them up in a way I find – uh… warming. Bottom line, they are bears. They’re quick to fight with other men and you really don’t want to cross them, but they’re very protective of their women and cuddly one-on-one.

I LOVE Boston men. They are incorrigible flirts – I have been hit on by boys as young as 10 and men as old as – well, the hills. I think it’s the overwhelmingly Irish influence in that city, crossed with some hot Italian blood. In Ireland Irish men will look at you with oh, such longing and then not act on it unless you initiate, and maybe not even then (and you really don’t want to get me started on Catholic men…) – Boston men have that American can-do initiative and will look at you longingly for just that split second, long enough to trap you, and then close in for the kill. They slay me. I would say the biggest flirts in the US, really.

New York men are so very multicultural that it’s hard to say exactly WHAT they are, but certainly, they’re not shy. They’re not the romantic flirts that Boston men are, but there’s that great intimacy in New York – walking those streets you have dozens of encounters and possibilities per day – it’s a human smorgasboard. Another city to go to instantly if you need to be reminded of how gorgeous you really are.

Outside the US – British men are about the bane of my existence. Dry, cheeky, witty – and that accent, and they KNOW it. They are crazy, and savagely funny, and every one of them knows how to use words in a way that will make a writer’s toes curl, and…

Well, never mind that. Moving on …

– Russian accents do me in every single time, but since I’m Russian myself, I’m on guard, because I know what to be on guard from.

– Frenchmen are great dancers, and I love the language, but they don’t turn me inside out the way British men do.

– Aussie men – nuts and criminals, so naturally I adore them. And again, the accent…

You get the idea. So tell me – what are the men and women from your city/state like? What cities have the best window shopping (or shopping shopping) for you?


Speaking of great men, writer/director Brad Anderson’s film TRANSSIBERIAN is out this weekend. Run run RUN to see this… Brad (SESSION 9, THE MACHINIST, NEXT STOP WONDERLAND, multiple episodes of THE WIRE) is one of the best suspense filmmakers out there – scary smart, and will scare the pants off you, too, in the best possible way. Just in time for the Halloween season. Can’t wait!!!

Elements of Act Two (Story Structure, cont.)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Since Gustav prevented me from teaching my “Screenwriting Tricks” workshop in New Orleans, I’m even more ready to continue the conversation here (plus I know some people out there are waiting for Act Two tips…)

Here’s the Elements of Act One discussion, for those just joining us.

But first – I wasn’t here to respond to Rob Gregory Browne’s excellent comment on that post, so I’d like to start with it. He said:

The one thing I would argue with — and this always gets me into trouble — is character arc.

Most stories take place over a few hours, days, or weeks. Unless you’re writing a sweeping saga, the timeline is very short.

To have a character discover something about herself over such a short period of time — at least to the point where it changes her, is, to my mind, a bit of a stretch.

Generally speaking, people don’t change in a few days, no matter what they’re confronted with. If something major happens, like a death in the family, a mugging, an accident — people are certainly affected by it, but any change they go through would still take months or even years.

Yes, I know we’re talking fiction, and fiction often has a kind of accelerated reality, but I think too many of us put too much emphasis on the idea that your hero has to change in some way.

Does James Bond change? Even in this last, best Bond, Bond went from being a ruthless killing machine to a slightly more ruthless — and pissed off — killing machine. Not much of a change.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has changed, but it has taken several books — and years — for that arc, and it’s still in progress.

Or look at Jack Reacher. To my mind, he is one of the greatest characters in fiction these days — every writer wishes he’d created a Reacher, and readers love him. But change? Not much. In fact, we don’t WANT him to change. Reacher remains the same solid, unflinching nomad throughout the story, and we know that in the end he’s going to save the day, then walk off alone into the sunset.

Now, I’m not suggesting there’s anything WRONG with a nice character arc, I just don’t think it’s a NECESSARY element of fiction.

My two cents, at least.

Well, first, I’d like to disagree that sweeping character change is not possible in a limited time frame. Compression is pretty much the essence of drama, and a great story will present a human being in a crisis, or crucible, that forces great change. That’s one of the main things we seek out in stories, especially standalones, in which you only have that one shot to say EVERYTHING you want to say.

Plus, you know, I’m a drama queen and I need things BIG.

But Rob is right that a lot of classic characters don’t have a huge range of change. So I’d like to restate what I’ve said before about


Series hero/ines are a different animal than standalone hero/ines. One theory of this is that readers who are devoted to a series character really want to see the same person, over and over again.

I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think a lot of classic series characters, especially series detectives – and of course James Bond and his sexier modern incarnation Jack Reacher do spring immediately to mind – are really examples of the “Mysterious Stranger” archetype, and Mysterious Stranger stories have their own story structure. Mary Poppins is the classic Mysterious Stranger; she pops in (get it?), fixes the family, and pops out, while remaining herself “Practically Perfect in Every Way”. SHANE is a great film with a Mysterious Stranger structure, although Shane is a much more wounded Stranger than Mary Poppins – he’s very imperfect, unable to change, and therefore unable to integrate into society in the end – but he does fix the town’s problem and the wound in the family that temporarily takes him in.

James Bond and Jack Reacher are also perfect characters in their ways (although, from a female POV, perfectly infuriating). Rob is right – we don’t want them to change. The trick to the Mysterious Stranger structure is that it’s the OTHER characters who have the big character arcs in the story (although in some Mysterious Stranger stories, the Stranger does have an arc as well. Emma Thompson had some fun with that – as the screenwriter and actress – in the recent film NANNY McPHEE, based on the books by Christianna Brand). And of course not all series detectives are perfect Mysterious Strangers, either – I myself am partial to the flawed ones, like Tess’s surly Jane Rizzoli.

This all goes to emphasize an important point: different genres have very different story structures, and you need to study and understand the classic tricks and expectations of your own genre. That’s why I so adamantly advocate creating your own story structure workbook, as I’ve talked about here:

All right, on to Act Two.

Act Two is summed up by the greats such as, like, you know, Aristotle – as “Rising Tension” or “Progressive Complications”. Or in the classic screenwriting formula: Act One is “Get the Hero Up a Tree”, and Act Two is “Throw Rocks at Him” (and for the impatient out there, like Toni, the end-skipper, I’ll reveal that Act Three is; “Get Him Down.”)

All true enough, but a tad vague for my taste.

So let’s get more specific.

The beginning of the second act of a book or film (30 minutes or thirty script pages into a film, 100 or so pages into a book) – can often be summed up as “Into the Special World” or “Crossing the Threshold”. Dorothy opening the door of her black and white house and stepping into Technicolor Oz one of the most famous and graphic examples… Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole is another. The passageway to the special world might be particularly unique… like the wardrobe in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE; that between-the-numbers subway platform in the HARRY POTTER series; Alice again, going THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS; the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ; the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) in THE MATRIX; or the tesseract in A WRINKLE IN TIME.

This step might come in the first act, or somewhat later in the second act, but it’s generally the end or beginning of a sequence – think of ALIEN (the landing on the planet to investigate the alien ship), STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, going out on the ocean in that too-small boat in JAWS, flying down to Cartagena in ROMANCING THE STONE, flying to Rio in NOTORIOUS, stopping at the Bates Motel in PSYCHO. It’s often the beginning of an actual, physical journey in an action movie; in a ghost story it is entering the haunted house (or haunted anything). It’s a huge moment and deserves special weight.

There is often a character who serves the archetypal function of a “threshold guardian” or “guardian at the gate”, who gives the hero/ine trouble or a warning at this moment of entry – it’s a much-used but often powerfully effective suspense technique – always gets the pulse racing just a little faster, which is pretty much the point of suspense. Think of the housekeeper in Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE – who memorably will not stay in the house “in the night… in the dark…”

I highly recommend Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY for brilliant in-depth discussions on archetypal characters such as the Herald, Mentor, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, and Fool.

Also very early in the second act the Hero/ine must formulate and state the PLAN. We know the hero/ine’s goal by now (or if we don’t, we need to hear it, specifically.). And now we need to know how the hero/ine intends to go about getting that goal. It needs to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. “Dorothy needs to get to the Emerald City to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz for help getting home”. “Clarice needs to bargain with Lecter to get him to tell her Buffalo Bill’s identity.”

It’s important to note that it’s human nature to expend the least amount of energy to get what we want. So the hero/ine’s plan will change, constantly – as the hero first takes the absolute minimal steps to achieve her or his goal, and that minimal effort inevitably fails. So then, often reluctantly, the hero/ine has to escalate the plan.

Also throughout the second act, the antagonist has his or her own goal, which is in direct conflict or competition with the hero/ine’s goal. We may actually see the forces of evil plotting their plots (John Grisham does this brilliantly in THE FIRM), or we may only see the effect of the antagonist’s plot in the continual thwarting of the hero/ine’s plans. Both techniques are effective.

This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

(I’m giving that its own line to make sure it sinks in.)

The hero/ine’s plans should almost always be stated (although something might be held back even from the reader/audience, as in THE MALTESE FALCON). The antagonist’s plans might be clearly stated or kept hidden – but the EFFECT of his/her/their plotting should be evident. It’s good storytelling if we, the reader or audience, are able to look back on the story at the end and understand how the hero/ine’s failures actually had to do with the antagonist’s scheming.

Another important storytelling and suspense technique is keeping the hero/ine and antagonist in close proximity. Think of it as a chess game – the players are in a very small, confined space, and always passing within inches of each other, whether or not they’re aware of it. They should cross paths often, even if it’s not until the end until the hero/ine and the audience understand that the antagonist has been there in the shadows all along.

Besides this continual clash of opposing plans, the hero/ine’s allies will be introduced in the second act, if they haven’t already been introduced in Act One.

In fact there is often an entire sequence called “Assembling the Team” which comes early in the second act. The hero has a task and needs a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies and caper movies very often have this step and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of ARMAGEDDON, THE STING, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (I mean the great TV series, of course), THE DIRTY DOZEN, STAR WARS – and again, THE WIZARD OF OZ. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form – or alternately, a bunch of unlikely losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic. I had fun with this in THE HARROWING – even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of a “Gathering the Team” sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding make for some great scenes – it’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique.

There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of KARATE KID, and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

There’s often a SERIES OF TESTS designed by the mentor (look at AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).

Another inevitable element of the training sequence is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS. For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the final battle. Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. Lovely moment of transcendence.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film DIRTY DANCING. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Patrick attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting.

Of course you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through the story… you can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff. A classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment – this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him – and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit – to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes – but that’s what makes it all so funny.

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs. It’s a delicious storytelling trick that filmmakers are particularly aware of and deft at… it’s all a big seductive game to play with your audience, and an audience eats it up.

Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle). Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, does this beautifully with the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. Penelope completely delivers on her introduction and I think she’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for that one.

The Training Sequence can also involve a “Gathering the Tools” or “Gadget” Sequence. The wild gadgets and makeup were a huge part of the appeal of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (original) and spoofed to hysterical success in GET SMART (original), and these days, CSI uses the same technique to massive popular effect.

In a love story or romantic comedy the Training Sequence or Tools Sequence is often a Shopping Sequence or a Workout Sequence. The heroine, with the help of a mentor or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the most important of tools – the right clothes and shoes and hair style. It’s worked since Cinderella – whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls.

And the fairy tale version of Gathering the Tools is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero or heroine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time.

I’d also like to point out that if you happen to have a both a Gathering the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole fourth of your story right there! Awesome! You’re halfway through already!

Also in the second act (but maybe not until the second half of the second act) you may be setting a TIME CLOCK or TICKING CLOCK. I talked about this suspense technique here:

And you’ll also want to be continually working the dynamic of HOPE and FEAR – you want to be clear about what your audience/reader hopes for your character and fears for your character, as I talked about in the Elements of Act One.

A screenwriting trick that I strongly encourage novelists to look at is the filmmakers’ habit of STATING the hope/fear/stakes/odds, right out loud. Think of these moments from

JAWS: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (Well, yeah, they should have, shouldn’t they?)

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: “Do NOT tell him anything personal about yourself. Believe me, you don’t want Lecter inside your head.” (And what does Clarice proceed to do?)

ALIEN: “It’s going to eat through the hull!” (When they first cut the alien off John Hurt and its blood sizzles straight through three layers of metal flooring. How do you kill a creature that bleeds acid?)

The writers just had the characters say flat out what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Spell it out. It works.

Okay, this is long enough for one blog so we’ll continue next week, after I say one more thing.

All of the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. This is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any story – a huge shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line), or the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.) And this will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home.

We’ll pick it up next week – Act Two, Part Two.

But in the meantime – can you give me any great examples of the story structure elements we’ve talked about here?

Gustav and Me

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Thanks and sorry to everyone who was worried about me being in New Orleans (at Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans Workshop) last weekend while Hurricane Gustav was on its way. I didn’t mean to scare anyone!

I guess it must have seemed rash of me not to just cancel the trip, but I didn’t go blithely down to the workshop on Saturday when storm warnings were in effect – I wrote that blog on Wednesday, before anyone really knew where the storm was going to hit and at what strength, and I was committed to showing up at the workshop as long as it was still on – it would have left Heather in too much of a lurch to have all her speakers canceling on her.

As it turned out, we spent a lot of the time we did have down there watching the weather forecasts and listening to half the locals say that everyone was overreacting – at the same time that businesses all over the French Quarter were closing down and boarding up. Faux News was screaming gloom and doom, while the Weather Channel kept saying that no one would know anything until Monday. No one could really talk about anything else.

I have to say – earthquakes are less time-consuming. Really. Because there’s no build up. They hit, period, end of story, and then you deal with whatever the damage is. No one talks about them before, because you never know at all when or if they’re going to hit. Well, except for that anxiety that takes over native Californians when the winds are hot and dry off the desert – the infamous Santa Anas) and the ground seems to just bake under you. We call that “earthquake weather” and it makes anyone who grew up in the state jittery, even though there’s apparently no proven correlation between Santa Anas and earthquakes.

But with hurricanes, you know they’re coming, but you don’t know exactly where. It stops time and momentum. All you can do is talk about it, but no one really knows how bad it’s going to be. Having been through it now, I’m not a big fan of that tension, myself. It’s the damn back-and-forth that will kill you.

Anyway, those of us who decided to tough it out – including authors Harley Jane Kozak, F. Paul Wilson, Nathan Walpow, Dave Simms, Kathy Love, Erin McCarthy, Cathy Maxwell and Kathy Pickering; editors Kate Duffy, Leslie Wainger and Adam Wilson; Barbara Vey from Publishers Weekly, Medallion Press publisher Helen Rosburg – just went on with the show – rehearsal for Heather’s traditional Saturday musical (this year, “Pirates! A Fractured History of the Lafitte Brothers in New Orleans”, with songs like Louie, Louie, Smoke on the Water, Come Sail Away, and You’re No Good), an opening party featuring vampire band The Impalers at the Monteleone Hotel, then on to Helen Rosburg’s lavish Victorian party, upstairs at Muriel’s on Jackson Square – an old (and of course, haunted) New Orleans mansion preserved in period splendor – from formal rooms to red wallpapered bordello and séance rooms crammed with Victoriana, from red velvet love seats to erotic paintings to sarcophagi. Psychics were on hand to tell fortunes, a photographer was taking portraits of us in our Victorian garb (designed and built by the fabulous Connie Perry) in the bordello room, and people played charades in the parlor, while others ate at the multiple carving stations in the ballroom

After midnight (and changing out of poufy Victorian dresses) the party reconvened on Bourbon Street… with more Impalers… so to speak…

Even so, I got a decent six hours of sleep that night… er, morning… for which I was grateful, considering how the next day turned out.

Saturday the opening breakfast was served at the top of the hotel, a fabulous view of the Mississippi and a fabulous spread of food, and I was very grateful to have the chance to talk with legendary Kensington editor Kate Duffy at breakfast and confide my third book what-do-I-call-the-damn-thing title woes; she offered to help brainstorm, but when I told her the front-running choice was THE UNSEEN, she told me in Duffyesque pull-no-punches style – “But that IS the title. It’s eerie, it’s two words and nine letters” (she said without even blinking; she must have one of those calculator minds)… “It fits perfectly on a cover – why are you still looking?”

Then the program started, with bestselling authors F. Paul Wilson and Cathy Maxwell providing the featured chat over breakfast… and about half an hour into it the hotel manager interrupted to announce that Mayor Nagin had declared a mandatory evacuation and that the hotel was closing down. All tourists were asked to go to the airport (there were shuttles provided at another hotel) and our flights would be rescheduled to get us out early.

Okay, fine. We all knew this could happen. We knew we were headed for a freeway that looked like a parking lot and an airport that would look like a refugee camp, but it was so sunny and still… not like a hurricane at all.

The thing is, there were about 18 in our immediate party, half of that being Heather’s family, with two vans to accommodate all of us – and you know how it is getting a group that size to do anything, even when there isn’t a hurricane and a mandatory evacuation…

It was kind of fascinating what happened. We all were trying to pack at the same time that we were on our cell phones trying to get hold of our airlines to rebook flights and track down everyone else at the hotel, but the connections kept dropping, and there was an adrenaline charge to the whole thing… spaciness, fast compulsive talking, sudden outbreaks of tears. It wasn’t as if we were in any immediate danger; the major stressor was trying to decide if we should take our chances trying to get flights out of town at the New Orleans airport, which was apparently going to shut down completely on Sunday at 6, or drive out of town to some other airport to fly out from there. I didn’t like that idea myself, having seen endless news footage of what highways look like during an evacuation, but this was all new to me, so I busied myself collecting every available foodstuff and especially bottled water I could find in the hotel, since we’d heard that all the airport vendors had already closed down their shops and left.

It was an interesting four-hour ride to the airport (which is usually about a half hour trip from the Quarter), too. One hour was stopping at the ER of Tulane Hospital, as one of our party had developed a staph infection that had to be treated right away and we didn’t want to split up. That was a bit surreal, as all of downtown was completely deserted except for a few construction crews boarding up windows and a lot of emergency vehicles and National Guard. The upside is that there was no waiting in the ER, as no other patients were there. It was also hot as hell, with sun blazing down and no wind whatsoever.

On the freeway at last, it was, of course, a parking lot; the agonizing crawl only broken up once in a while by the scream of police escorts taking buses of prisoners out of town.

We had another hour detour on that ride when someone spotted a lone Burger King that was actually open and we spent an hour in that drive-through line (they wouldn’t let anyone inside the store) to get what might be the only hot meal we could get in the next 24 hours. All they had left were chicken nuggets, French fries and diet Cokes, but in evacuation panic mode we managed to get $150 worth of them. I didn’t know it was possible to spend $150 in a fast-food drive-through, but when we finally got to the airport the TSA guys joked that we should be able to get a dollar a fry inside (we didn’t actually try.)

I had already missed the last flight out that day on my airline (which I could have booked several hours before, but I’d had a feeling I wouldn’t get to the airport in time). Half of us were able to get out on standby, leaving about eight who’d have to fly out the next day, so we staked out some floor in the main terminal and set up camp for the night. All the vendors were indeed closed up except for the news shop, and we already really had all the junk food we could eat, but there were a few travel blankets and pillows to purchase. I built a little camp of suitcases for privacy (really mostly so that we wouldn’t get stepped on – people were uniformly dazed and spacy and weren’t very conscious of where they were going).

Toni Causey very sweetly called and, so typically of her, offered to come pick all of us up and put us up at her house in Baton Rouge, but there really wasn’t any danger, and it made no sense to have her or Carl try to drive hours down and hours back; we were all resigned to getting what sleep we could on the floor.

It was a long, noisy, crowded and COLD night – I must have piled every piece of clothing I had on top of me and I was still freezing from the AC, even with all of those people crowded nearby. Barbara Vey was fun to have around, the intrepid reporter – she blogged live, with photos, and way early in the morning when the National Guard showed up with MREs and water for the masses, she had Heather film her opening various MREs and showing off the contents. I reflected in between dozing (awakened periodically by National Guard patrols) that all in all it was less stress than I would have felt actually rehearsing and performing the “Pirates!” show, although I really regretted not being able to do the panels and my screenwriting tips for novelists workshop. I do know that we’ll just be that much more ready to do “Pirates!” next year, so that’s a plus.

I had more anxiety in the morning when I woke up to find that my flight had been delayed five hours – and as I waited I saw more and more flights on the board being canceled, not something you want to contemplate on 2 hours of sleep… and the airport was shutting down at six… which made me feel rather like Dorothy staring at that damned hourglass… But finally I did get on the plane, and it was an uneventful flight back. Or maybe there was a foiled terrorist takeover, I was too fast asleep to notice.

The real anxiety started when I was home obsessively watching CNN, wondering if New Orleans was done for this time. But as we all know by now… lots of damage, but nothing catastrophic, thank God.

We’re still waiting to hear how much damage our favorite Louisiana bookstore, Bent Pages in Houma, sustained – we heard Molly and Kay lost the roof and are worried. We’re all ready to fly down and do a benefit, though. Um, “Pirates!”, anyone?

Otherwise, as they say, all’s well that ends well.

Except that, right, Hannah is now headed straight for North Carolina. No beach this weekend, that’s for sure.

Oh well, you know… it makes a good story.

– Alex


Starting this Monday, Sept. 8, THE PRICE is the featured horror title at, the online book club that e mails you about a chapter a day of a different book every week. You can sign up to get excerpts of books in all genres, here , and if you want to get your excerpts of THE PRICE, and a chance to win a free autographed copy, you can sign up here.

And will ‘Rati Catherine and RJ please contact me via I need your addresses again to send you books. Thanks!

The First Act

So, continuing the conversation from last week, what actually goes into a first act?

The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and the main conflict.

When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes looks like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

– Opening image
– Meet the hero or heroine
– Hero/ine’s inner and outer need.
– Hero/ine’s arc
– Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
– State the theme/what’s the story about?
– Allies
– Mentor
– Love interest
– Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)
– Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
– Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)
– Central Question
– Sequence One climax
– Act One climax

Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.


Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – 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 – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking a 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.


Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES (more here… ) and how they conflict. Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning. The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up, and then work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.


The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post, of course; I’ll have to get on it. For now I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.


Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.


Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.


This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor.


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

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning


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


We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but hey, look at the title of this blog…)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?
(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Next post I’ll move on to the elements of the second act.

And now I’m headed to New Orleans… wish me luck (!).

More Screenwriting 101

By Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m doing another one of my screenwriting in an hour workshops in New Orleans this weekend, at Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans workshop. Well, yes, and partying in New Orleans, too – I deserve it, okay?

I know, it’s crazy, right? – what can you possibly teach anyone about anything in an hour?

Well, I can’t teach screenwriting in an hour, but I’ve found I can teach people how to start to teach THEMSELVES screenwriting in an hour. (And what I’m really teaching is story structure, and secretly I’m really teaching it to help novelists use screenwriting techniques to improve their own writing, because as I’ve said about a million times, and explained here – if you’re not willing to commit to an actual career as a screen or TV writer, or have a source of independent financing for your movie, then it’s a waste of your time to write a script, except as a learning experience. Write a book instead.)

To teach yourself story structure, you start by making a list of 10 movies and books in the genre you’re writing in and/or that you feel are similar in structure to the story you want to write. From this list you are going to develop your own story structure workbook.

Then – write out the PREMISE or LOGLINE for each story on your list – as I’ve already talked about here, and compare your own story premise to those of your master list. The most important step of writing a book or a movie is to start with a solid, exciting, and I would say, commercial premise (because after all, we are making a living at this, aren’t we?)

Now we are going to step back and talk about basic filmic structure. Movies generally follow a three-act structure. That means that a 110-page script (and that’s 110 minutes of screen time – a script page is equal to one minute of film time) – is broken into an Act One of roughly 30 pages, an Act Two of roughly 60 pages, and an Act Three of roughly 20 pages, because as everyone knows, the climax of a story speeds up and condenses action. If you’re structuring a book, then you basically triple or quadruple the page count, depending on how long you tend to write.

Most everyone knows the Three Act structure. But the real secret of writing a script is that most movies are a Three Act, eight-sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.

Try this with your master list. Watch a film, watching the time clock on your DVD player. At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big set piece. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.

Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle and end of each sequence. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes (you could also say that a movie is really FOUR acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Whichever works best for you.), Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

In many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action. A good exercise is to title each sequence as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall picture of the progression of action.

Also be advised that in big, sprawling movies like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE WIZARD OF OZ, sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this 8-sequence format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical precision is kind of a lifesaver.

My advice is that you watch and analyze ALL TEN of your master list movies (and books) before you do anything else. Once you’ve watched a movie for basic overall structure, you should go back and watch it again and this time do a step outline, or scene outline – in which you write down the setting, action, conflict and revelation in each scene, as well as breaking the whole down into its three acts and eight sequences. After you’ve worked your way through at least three movies in this way to get this structure clearly in your head (although all ten is better) you’re probably ready to start working on your own story as well.

And the method I teach in my workshops is the tried and true index card method.

(Pantsers will HATE this, but it warms the cockles of my plotter heart.)

You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method – experiment and find what works best for you.

Get yourself a corkboard or sheet of cardboard big enough to lay out your index cards in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your movie laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space. Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Midpoint at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

Then write a card with Act One Climax and pin it at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the appropriate cards.

And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either 4 long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).

Now you have your structure grid in front of you.

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60) so every scene goes on one card. This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your corkboard in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole movie this way.

Now obviously, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you will be approximately tripling the scene count, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the breakdown of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. There will be more, but not really very many more.

Now, that’s about enough for this post, but in my next installment I’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme (as early in the story as possible), introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula, let me assure you – it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body – human beings (with very few exceptions) have the EXACT SAME skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton – it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.

THE DARKER MASK, Heroes from the Shadows, came out this week from Tor Books – an anthology of noir superhero stories with an illustration for each story in the pulp style.

Naomi Hirahara and I both have stories in it, along with the great Walter Mosley, Gar Haywood, Chris Chambers and Gary Phillips (co-editors), L. A. Banks, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Tananarive Due and Stephen Barnes, Mike Gonzales, Gar Anthony Haywood, Ann Nocenti, Jerry Rodriguez, Reed Farrell Coleman, Doselle Young, Mat Johnson, Peter Spiegelman, Gary Phillips, Victor LaValle, and Wayne Wilson.

As you might guess from that lineup, these are not your standard white male superheroes (and no clingy helpless white female secretaries, strippers, or cheerleaders, either). THE DARKER MASK offers disenfranchised, marginalized characters who have to overcome personal and societal obstacles to grow into their extraordinary talents.

Read more about the book on Amazon, here:

But of course, please order from your local independent bookstore!

Need, Desire and Motivation

by Alexandra Sokoloff

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” – n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my mutiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

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

One of the great examples of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

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

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish – something the protagonst comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

So I bring all this up this morning because I’m looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict, and I wanted to throw that out to the collective brain, here.

On another topic entirely, the lovely and talented Michelle Gagnon made a comment a few days ago that I thought was worth following up on.

She said that she wasn’t convinced of the usefulness of drop-in book signings – and cited that clerk we all have met – young and clueless, who couldn’t care less that a real live author is standing in front of her, offering to sign books.

Well, it so happens I’m on a mini tour, yesterday and today – my friend, paranormal author Jenna Black and I drove from Raleigh to Virginia Beach yesterday to do a signing at the grand opening of the Virginia Beach Books-a-Million. We hit four other area bookstores on the way yesterday and are doing another eight today. Is it useful? Oh, hell, yeah.

Even though the very best time to do this is when you have a book just out and the stores are more likely to have a number of your book in stock, this trip has been gold for me. Virginia Beach turns out to be a very bookstore-heavy town, they love the supernatural and paranormal, and our reception has been fantastic. The stores that didn’t have the books ordered them in on the spot, and we’ve had multiple requests for signings when our next books come out in December.

I feel like I’ve cracked another market that wasn’t particularly aware of me (I’ve never done any events in Virginia before) and I have a new buddy to make these drop-in trips with.

I do want to say that the key is NOT to rely on the first clerk you talk to but to ask to speak to a manager or CRM. Most will be thrilled to see you, really.

So my other question of the day is – do you do bookstore drop-ins, and do you have helpful tips for those on the fence about it?

We’re off on the rounds now, but I’ll check in later today.

– Alex