Saturday, September 19, 2015
Stealing Hollywood for Writers @AlexandraSokolof
LUCY BURDETTE: When I heard that Alexandra Sokolof had a new writing workbook out, I asked her to come talk about it. She is very very good at explaining why a story works and what we fiction writers can learn from Hollywood. Welcome Alex!
ALEXANDRA SOKOLOF: Always a pleasure to be here!
I was a screenwriter for ten years before I wrote my first novel, and now in between being a full-time mystery novelist, I teach my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop all over the US and internationally (last week as a master class for the Bloody Scotland Crime Festival) as well as to film students in Los Angeles.
The key to the story structuring technique I write about and that everyone's always asking me to teach is the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Most writers are at least vaguely familiar with the concept of the Three Act structure (but it never hurts to review – and this post may give you a better idea of why it’s so important!).
But the real secret of film writing and filmmaking, that I teach authors to steal for their novel writing, is that most movies are written in a Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into eight discrete 12-15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.
The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten to fifteen minutes of film (movies were also shorter, proportionately). The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished. Early screenwriters (who by the way, were mostly playwrights, well-schooled in the three-act structure) incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing individual sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel, so that as the reel ended, the sequence also ended, on a cliffhanger climax – so that as the projectionist was scrambling to change reels, the audience was in a state of high anticipation about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT – instead of being frustrated and pissed off about having their moviegoing experience interrupted in the middle of a key scene. Because nobody likes having a climax interrupted, right?
Obviously these days we have digital projection and no one is up in that projection booth scrambling to change reels, but modern films still follow that same climax-every-15-minutes storytelling rhythm. Because - what storytelling form came along mid-twentieth century that really locked that cliffhanger rhythm into place?
Right! Television! Network TV writers always end a sequence on a cliffhanger before the station cuts away to a commercial break. It’s just too easy to change channels, otherwise.
And the eight-sequence structure actually translates beautifully to novel structuring, although we have much more flexibility with a novel and you might end up with a few more sequences in a book. But watching movies with the eight-sequence structure in mind is an excellent way to get familiar with this storytelling rhythm, and once you’re able to spot the sequence and act climaxes in movies, they’ll start becoming very apparent in the novels you read as well (you’ll be seeing these climaxes about every fifty pages in a 400-page novel.)
If you’re a writer, you are probably already unconsciously following this structure – that’s what most people in my workshops discover! They just needed someone to point it out to them and show them how to make the most of their climaxes (sorry, it’s impossible to talk about this without sounding like the non-fiction version of 50 Shades…).
Think about it. How many movies and TV shows have you seen in your lifetime? I’m willing to bet it’s thousands. You know this rhythm. Your readers know this rhythm. And here’s the thing: your readers unconsciously EXPECT this rhythm, and if you’re not giving it to them, they’re going to get worried that you’re doing something wrong.
So it’s very, very useful to get conscious about the eight-sequence structure yourself, so you can use it most effectively.
If you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you'll probably want to check out my sample breakdowns (full breakdowns of different movies are included in the workbooks) and watch several, or all, of those movies, following along with my notes, before you try to analyze a movie on your own. You can also sign up for my Story Structure Extras list and get free sample movie breakdowns.
But if you want to jump right in with your own breakdowns and analyses, this is how it works:
Take a film that is similar in structure to your own WIP (work in progress), and screen it, watching the time clock on your DVD player (or your watch, or phone). At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax: an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big SETPIECE. 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, approximately every 15 minutes. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes, Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.
NOTE: You can also, and probably should, say that a movie is really four acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Hollywood continues to use "Three Acts." Whichever works best for you!
So how do you recognize a sequence?
It's generally a series of related scenes, tied together by location and/or time and/or action and/or the overall intent of the hero/ine.
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, based on the new information. 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.
But the biggest clue to an Act or Sequence climax is a SETPIECE SCENE: there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws. And Casablanca, too.).
The setpiece is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking, one of the most valuable for novelists, and possibly the most crucial for screenwriters, and I talk much more about them throughout the Screenwriting Tricks workbooks.
But me talking about it is not going to get you anywhere. You need to DO this. Watch the movies yourself. Do the breakdowns yourself. Identify setpieces yourself.
Screening one movie looking for this structure one will get you far, three will lock it in, and as you practice looking out for it, this new awareness will open new worlds in your writing.
But eventually, it will be as natural to you as breathing, and you will find yourself incorporating this rhythm into your storytelling without even having to think about it.
So go, go, watch some movies. It's WORK (don't you love this job?)
And here’s where you can learn more:
STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print
Alex will be stopping in to answer questions, so bring them on!