Archive for the ‘advice’ Category

Screenwriting 101

August 24th, 2008 7 comments

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. (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, 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 film 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.

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 number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula.

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… 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.

I’m proud to have a story in it and be in the company of such mystery and horror greats as 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, the late and much-missed Jerry Rodriguez, Reed Farrell Coleman, Doselle Young, Mat Johnson, Peter Spiegelman, 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, as always, please order from your local independent bookstore!

And now for something completely different (Romantic Times)

April 24th, 2008 17 comments

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I have to warn you, this month’s post is going to seem a bit radical to some of you. You may even feel, well, horror, at what I’m about to tell you.

I’m going to talk about my secret favorite convention. And no, it’s not WHC, or WFC, or World Con or Horrorfind or DragonCon or any of those.

It’s the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention.

(I’ll wait for the gasps to subside…)

But I think it’s important for people in the mystery, thriller and, yes, even horror genres, to hear this because Romantic Times is a convention that probably is not on the radar for other genre writers – but it should be.

Let me make this perfectly clear. I never read romances as a kid, or any time after – I had less than zero interest, although looking back I can see there was some romance crossover in the Gothic thrillers I gobbled up in my endless quest for the supernatural. And it’s that crossoverness that definitely makes Romantic Times a more obvious bet for me than a balls-out horror writer, because paranormal is so huge right now – in romances AND mysteries, and though a lot of paranormal seems to be about warm and fuzzy werewolves and endless variations on quirky vampires, there’s also a significant segment of the paranormal readership that likes a good straight-up ghost story.

Now, if you are writing balls-out horror, this is not the place for you. But if you are writing comic horror, erotic horror, horror/mystery crossovers, horror/thriller crossover psychic detectives, ghost stories, fantasy thrillers or, bluntly, if you are a female author, period – you might want to pay some attention, here.

What you’ve probably heard about RT – if you’ve heard anything at all – is that it’s that it’s full of women dressed as vampires and fairies, and half-naked male cover models slinking around. Well, you would be right. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

I heard from almost the very beginning of my promotional efforts that I should go to RT because I write sexy and I write paranormal, and because romance readers simply Buy Books. In fact, they Buy Books voraciously, which I discovered when I went to my first romance-centric workshop in the fall, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans and sold more books to an audience that didn’t know me from Adam than I had sold at several other genre conventions combined.

But the thing that stunned me from the very first moment of the Romantic Times convention last year was how incredibly professionally and logically organized RT is. It’s put on by the Romantic Times review magazine and it’s very adamantly a fan conference. Even though there are lots of aspiring authors there, and great programs for them, this conference is a goldmine for published authors because there are so many people there just to meet authors and buy books (well, okay, and attend the endless and amazingly fun parties, which I’ll get to…)

And here’s my main point. I think we all, admit it, can be a little snotty about our own genre, and look down on writers who write and readers who read things that we wouldn’t necessarily read or write ourselves. But romance readers buy more books than any other single group of readers and they do NOT have the same prejudices. They love reading, they love authors, they love books. Period. Give me THAT reader any old time.

I am frankly staggered at how smart this genre is about marketing and promotion. RT really works to recruit and organize a thriller track and a mystery track (track = a series of panels and events in that genre), alongside their bookseller track, a huge paranormal track, writing tracks, and breakout (how to get an agent/publish) tracks. ITW (International Thriller Writers) and various mystery groups work well in advance with RT planners to organize outside book signing at the truly lovely Murder By The Book bookstore bookseller events (last year the fourteen thriller writers chipped in to host a breakfast for all 75 booksellers in attendance at RT, where we did a meet and greet and gave out promotional material and books. 75 booksellers at once – think about it…).

The conference also features some unique ways of handling reader/author interaction. Apart from outside bookseller events, there is only one mass signing – that takes place in a HUGE convention room on Saturday, after all the authors have already done their panels. The book fair is heavily promoted to the community, on radio, TV and in print, and lots of readers turn up just for that. The authors are lined up alphabetically at long rows of tables, and the readers just walk up and down the aisles. There are drawings for dozens of author-donated gift baskets going on throughout the whole three hour signing, and video screens project book trailers through the whole event as well (THAT was fascinating, and this year I was excited to have both of my book trailers playing in the book room and on the hotel TV during the convention. And yeah, you bet that sold books for me this year, and beyond that, was putting my name and my book titles out there for the entire convention, so that even people who would never buy what I write are now aware of me as an author.).

Another cool feature of RT is “Club RT”. Throughout the convention, in the dealers’ room there are a couple dozen little café tables set up and authors are scheduled for one hour slots where they just sit at these tables and anyone who wants to can come up and chat, get books signed, etc. If I were an aspiring author I would have spent half my time at this conference just going around to chat with different authors in my genre. A truly unique and intimate opportunity for authors, aspiring authors, and fans.

Of course a feature of RT I really love and am thrilled to be able to participate in is Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater, an original musical review written by Heather and her longtime, comically brilliant collaborators, writer/director/performer Lance Taubold and writer/manager/performer Rich Devin, always featuring several of Heather’s charming and multitalented offspring. Last year the show was “Vampires of the Wild Wild West”; this year it was “Blood and Steel, a Pittsburgh Monster Mash,” in which I was tricked out as a kinky Bride of Frankenstein, and F. Paul Wilson played Riff Raff, the butler – belting out an insane version of Hotel Transylvania).

I also have to say, when women organize these things everything is just – prettier. The attention to detail is staggering. Promo Alley, where authors put out their postcards and bookmarks and giveaways, is a long aisle of covered tables on both sides, and instead of having people just throw their swag on the tables, all the giveaways have to be in displays or decorated baskets. Yes, that takes an extra hour of prep time, but oh man, is it worth it. You can actually SEE the promo stuff, and you get a feel for each author from the decorations of the boxes and baskets. Brilliant idea.

Ditto with the parties. RT has professional costumers/decorators who dress the ballrooms for the theme parties – Moulin Rouge, Midnight at the Oasis, Vampires of the Wild, Wild West, Immortals of Rock and Roll, the Golden Age of Hollywood and of course, the Faery Ball. There is lighting. There are trees. There are enormous Moroccan pillows. There are stage backdrops. There are mirror balls and candles. There are screaming mechanical skulls. And the level of personal costuming rivaled the Renaissance Faire events and special effects masters’ parties I’ve been to in LA (I never even dreamed there were so many variations on fairies. Seriously…).

And these women DANCE. All night. I’m sorry, but you can only talk so much. You get out on the dance floor with a bunch of readers screaming “It’s Raining Men” and you have made friends for life.

And the point of the parties, is, of course, that they attract fans. Boy, do they.

If this is all sounding a little estrogen-heavy, you’re right. But remember – women buy books. And male authors are catching on to the gold mine of readers to be – mined – at RT and are coming over to the decadent side. This year F. Paul Wilson and Barry Eisler were featured authors (Joe Konrath dropped out at the last minute… terrible drag) and I expect that more and more men are going to be realizing what an advantage that Y chromosome gives them in a situation like this.

And well, okay, I admit it – all professionalism aside – after years of having to put up with only female strippers at Hollywood events, I like the turnabout of having half-naked beefcake at a convention.

Sue me.