By firstname.lastname@example.org (Alexandra Sokoloff)
by Alexandra Sokoloff
It’s October first, and you know what that means….
It’s Nanowrimo PREP month!
I always do a brainstorming and story structure review series in October, and continue throughout November with prompts and encouragement, based on my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and workshops.
Because if you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall roadmap, before November 1?
This year I’ve had an attack of fall housekeeping, which should benefit all you readers of this blog.
– First, I’ve created a separate page on the blog where I’ll collect the Nanowrimo posts in order as we work our way through Nanowrimo Prep in October. (There’s now a tab on the nav bar at the top of the blog that says Nanowrimo!)
– And for those who want to skip ahead, I’ve also put up a Table of Contents page (the tab says How to Use this Blog) and linked some of the major posts in a useful order.
– Of course, all the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in the workbooks. Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.
– Amazon US
– Amazon UK
– Amaxon DE
– Amazon FR
– Amazon ES
– Amazon IT
If you’re a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.
– And finally, I’m always up for suggestions – what would YOU like me to cover in this Nano prep month?
So let’s get this party started with The Master List.
The first thing I always have my workshop students do is make a Master List of their favorite movies in the genre they’re writing in.
And you guys who have done this master list before, remember, it helps to do a new one every time you sit down with a new project, and brainstorm a list of movies and books that are structurally similar to your new project.
It’s very simple: in order to write stories like the ones that move you, you need to look at the specific stories that affect you and figure out what those authors and filmmakers are doing to get the effect they do.
Every genre has its own structural patterns and its own tricks — screenwriter Ryan Rowe says it perfectly: “Every genre has its own game that it’s playing with the audience.”
For example: with a mystery, the game is “Whodunit?” You are going to toy with a reader or audience’s expectations and lead them down all kinds of false paths with red herrings so that they are constantly in the shoes of the hero/ine, trying to figure the puzzle out.
But with a romantic comedy or classic romance, there’s no mystery involved. 99.99% of the time the hero and heroine are going to end up together. The game in that genre is often to show, through the hero and heroine, how we are almost always our own worst enemies in love, and how we throw up all kinds of obstacles in our own paths to keep ourselves from getting what we want.
So if you’re writing a story like It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s not going to help you much to study Apocalypse Now. A story that ends with a fallen hero/ine is not going to have the same story shape as one that ends with a transcended hero/ine (although if both kinds of films end up on your list of favorite stories, you might find one is the other in reverse. That’s why you need to make your own lists!)
Once you start looking at the games that genres play, you will also start to understand the games that you most love, and that you want to play with your readers and audience.
I’m primarily a thriller writer, and my personal favorite game is: “Is it supernatural or is it psychological?” I love to walk the line between the real and unreal, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. That’s why my master list for any book or script I write will almost always include The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both classic books (and films) that walk the line between the supernatural and the psychological.
But what works for me structurally is not necessarily going to do it for you.
If you take the time to study and analyze the books and films that have had the greatest impact on you, personally, or that are structurally similar to the story you’re writing, or both, that’s when you really start to master your craft. Making the lists and analyzing those stories will help you brainstorm your own, unique versions of scenes and mega-structures that work in the stories on your master list; it will help you figure out how your particular story will work. And doing this analysis will embed story structure in your head so that constructing a story becomes a fun and natural process for you.
Another great benefit of making the master list is that it helps you “brand” yourself as an author. Agents, editors, publishing houses, publicists, sales reps, bookstores, reviewers, media interviewers, librarians, and most importantly, your readers — all of these people want to be able to categorize you and your books. You need to be able to tell all of these people exactly what it is you write, what it’s similar to, and why it’s also unique. That’s part of your job as a professional author.
So the first order of business is to make your master list.
And I encourage you to splurge on a nice big beautiful notebook to work in. We writers live so much in our heads it’s important to give ourselves toys and rewards to make the work feel less like work, and also to cut down on the drinking.
> ASSIGNMENT: Go to an office or stationery store or shop on line and find yourself a wonderful notebook to work in.
> ASSIGNMENT: List ten books and films that are similar to your own story in structure and/or genre (at least five books and three movies if you’re writing a book, at least five movies if you’re writing a script.).
Or – if you’re trying to decide on the right project for you to work on, then make a list of ten books and films that you wish you had written!
Now that you’ve got your list, and a brand-new notebook to keep it in, let’s take a look at what you’ve come up with.
For myself, I am constantly looking at:
Silence of the Lambs (book and film)
The Haunting of Hill House (book and original film)
Anything by Ira Levin, especially Rosemary’s Baby (book and film), and The Stepford Wives
The Exorcist (book and film)
Jaws (film, and it’s interesting to compare the book)
Pet Sematery (book, obviously!)
The Shining (book and film)
That’s off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I’m about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now. On another day my list could just as easily include Hamlet, The Fountainhead, Apocalypse Now, The Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, Philadelphia Story, and Holiday Inn.
All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories. But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who’s writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare are some of my favorite stories on the planet, and my master list for a different story might well have some of those stories on it).
Okay, what does that list say about me?
• It’s heavily weighted toward thrillers, fantasy, horror, and the supernatural. In fact, even the two more realistic stories on the list, Jawsand Silence of the Lambs, are so mythic and archetypal that they might as well be supernatural – they both have such overwhelming forces of nature and evil working in them.
• It’s a very dark list, but it includes two films and a book that are some of the happiest endings in film and literary history. I read and watch stories about the battle between good and evil… but if you’ll notice, except for the Ira Levin books, I do believe in good triumphing.
• The stories are evenly split between male protagonists and female protagonists, but except for Jaws, really, women are strong and crucial characters in all of them.
And guess what? All of the above is exactly what I write.
A lot of the stories on your own list will probably be in one particular genre: thriller, horror, mystery, romance, paranormal, historical, science fiction, fantasy, women’s fiction, YA (Young Adult, which is really more of an umbrella for all genres). And odds are that genre is what you write.
(If you’re not clear on what your genre is, I suggest you take your master list to the library or your local independent bookstore and ask your librarian or bookseller what genre those books and films fall into. These people are a writer’s best friends; please use them, and be grateful!)
But there will also always be a few stories on your list that have nothing to do with your dominant genre, some complete surprises, and those wild cards are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.
Every time I teach a story structure class it’s always fantastic for me to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives me such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling.
You need to create your list, and break those stories down to see whythey have such an impact on you – because that’s the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn’t going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different – even if they’re very similar.
So try it:
> ASSIGNMENT: Analyze your master list of stories. What does the list say about the stories, themes and characters that most appeal to you?
Via: Alexandra Sokoloff