Monday, June 29, 2009

Readers Deserve Their Money's Worth.

The thing about doing story breakdowns is they never loose their value. Doesn't matter if you've published five book or none, all of us (writers) owe it to our readers to write the best story we can write. Readers pay big bucks for novels these days. If studying movies or novels makes us better storytellers, well then maybe more readers will get their money's worth.

I still hear writers say they don't believe in analyzing their work because it threatens their creative flow of consciousness or whatever. Maybe. But even if you never run into a problem and therefore never required extra knowledge of story structure, why not understand the intricacies of your work?

If the answer is still no, then this post is not for you.

First of all, studying story breakdown is hard work. I had to put aside my normal routine of banging away on my keyboard in favour of sharing my comfy sofa with my cats and watching Collateral starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. I chose Collateral because it's good suspense; it surprised me and held my interest from beginning to end. Cruise and Foxx do an outstanding job, and both shine on screen.

Here's the breakdown of Act One:

0:00 - The movie opens with a silver-haired man walking through a crowd. We learn within seconds that he's in an airport and he's involved in some kind of clandestine situation. The scene then switches to inside a garage where Jamie Foxx's character is killing time doing a puzzle. Almost immediately we're shown that he cares about his cab and thoughts of a particular tropical island is the motivating force behind him. Also, nobody has to tell us this is LA., it's very evident.

04:50 - Four minutes and fifty seconds into the movie boy meets girl, illustrating the basic fundamentals of any story. Chance meetings will or will not change your life forever. Meanwhile, Max drives Annie into downtown LA, letting us know that it is night. Most importantly these two characters make a connection.

08:06 - Max shares his dream of Island Limos with Annie. She flashes those beautiful brown eyes at him, making an indelible impression on Max and us. Author/Director has created a character we will not forget.

10:00 - Annie shares with Max the private preparations she goes through the night before a big case begins. Reader understands why this particular girl has made an impression on Max. Their entire time together lasts 10 minutes yet we sense that this chance meeting has happened for a reason.

13:59 - Silver-haired man (Vincent) is on the down escalator and passes Annie on her way up the escalator. This contrasts Max and Annie's meeting because they don't notice each other. We'll still privy to the question: is Max the connection between them?

14:13 - Max is in la-la land thinking about Annie when Vincent approaches his cab. When Max doesn't immediately acknowledge him, Vincent turns to the next cab. Max quickly calls to him, a small, insignifant gesture, yet marking the incident event of the opening. If Max hadn't met girl, he wouldn't have been parked at that specific spot when Vincent exited the federal building.

(Even I don't pick up on everything. I've watched this movie 4x and I still don't get why Vincent was there. If you know, pls let me know in the comments. Thanks)

Let's summarize. Less than 15 minutes into the movie (chapter one of novel) we meet the hero, know the theme is that chance meetings can drastically change your life, see love interest, see set pieces or plants (ie Annie's business card) and witness central story question, to name just a few. We suspect Vincent is the antagonist, thereby experiencing tension, possible conflict and suspense. We wonder if this chance meeting between Vincent and Max will improve upon Max's circumstances.

15:38 - another important hint, this time Vincent remarks about a dead man on subway for 6 hours before anyone notices him.

17:00 - Vincent reveals his schedule, and we learn the time frame of story: present until 6 a.m..

17:40 - this is where the story changes directions. Vincent entices Max with money to drive him to his 5 appointments the rest of the night. This is where Max finally connects with Vincent.

17:58 - Vincent makes his first stop and tells Max to park in the back. This dramatically alternates events.

19:10 - Dead man falls from appartment and lands on cab. A few seconds later, Act One climax, the incident that answers the story question? The answer is NO. Vincent is a hitman. Consequently, we are hooked on knowing what will happen next. And as Max comes to terms with what has just happened, Act One ends and Act Two begins.

* For more on screenwriting tricks for authors, check out author of The Unseen, Alexandra Sokoloff's blog.

I'll be back later with Act Two's breakdown.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Formula: Breaking Down the Story.

I'm in the middle of doing movie plotting exercises because I've hit a wall with my work-in-progress. I'm hoping they'll spark some ideas. Monday, I watched Get Carter twice in one day to see if I could pinpoint its turning points.

Get Carter is about an enforcer for the Las Vegas mob going home to attend his brother's funeral. It stars Sylvester Stallone and is directed by Stephen Kay. If you're into screenwriting, you must purchase a copy. Under Special Features, Mr. Kay does a complete audio commentary of the movie. He explains every aspect of the film, from cutting scenes to camera angles to inserting clues. IOWs, he explains why his filmed the story the way he did. Excellent free invaluable lessons for any one interested in writing a great story.

Alexandra Sokoloff, author of The Unseen, does story breakdowns regularly on her blog. She's an excellent teacher and she usually covers stuff that I'm struggling over. After reading the breakdown she did on Chinatown, I tried to find a copy of the movie in my area. No such luck. Of course, I'll end up ordering one online only to see it in every store I visit next week.

But, I digess. Because I follow Alexandra's blog regularly, I decided I'd take her up on the exercises. I watched Get Carter and jotted down what the three Acts were, what happened every 15 minutes of the movie and what the big climax at the one hour mark was. She suggests you keep an eye on the DVD's clock because most films follow a strict formula.

Sure enough. After the first 15 minutes Jack Carter had learned that his brother was murdered. In fact, every 15 minutes another turning point took place. An hour into the film the big climax occured. Jack discovers who killed his brother and why. He also discovers more than he bargained for.

I found the same formula in The Replacement Killers. I'm watching Collateral next and after that, Point of No Return, then Panic Room, etc etc. I might stop at 10 movies before I return to my WIP.

I should probably come clean and confess that formulas didn't sit well with me at first. I was under the impressive, for quite a few years, that formulas ruined originality. Silly me. I've come to appreciate the recipe for a good book, just like a good director does when he makes a movie. 15 minutes into a novel is comparable to the first one-third (75-100 pages) of a book. The climax happens around page 200 - 300, depending on the length.

A lot of writers write without understanding the mechanics of writing. More power to them. Me, I need to understand all of it. After publishing Dead Witness, I knew I owned it to myself to hone my skills. Even if it means going over the same old thing. Remembering that novels can be broken down into 3 Acts, prompts me to understand every intricate part of writing a novel.

Act One introduces the protagonist and the problem. Act Two is a series of complications that increase the conflict and adds minor crisis to the story. Act Three reveals the plot and answers the story question. Act Four ties everything together. That's just the basics, but it's a good place to start.

I'm only up to page 71 (35,300 words), but I'm able to rough in an outline of the three acts for my WIP. I'm focusing on the three acts. I know not every writer can write that way, and while I didn't do that for my previous 5 manuscripts, it seems to be working this time.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Farm Friendly.

Still not feeling up to par, nor am I inspired enough to write a decent blog. So, here's a little diversion. The butt-end of a friendly Lama to cheer your day. We're farm-sitting while the owner is away up north. It didn't take long to see that all the animals have distinct personalities. The most entertaining, (below) is Egor, the baby lamb. He runs to meet the truck every morning, bah'ing constantly until a warm bottle of milk is shoved in his mouth.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Good Computer Chair

A good computer chair is worth its weight in gold. Don't you think?

It's amazing how debilitating a pulled muscle can be. A week ago, I was making the bed, when I stood up and instantly felt two definite crunches in my lower back. I spent the rest of the day on the couch because moving was too painful. The next morning I couldn't get out of bed. It was a long boring week of heating pad, chesterfield and TV. Thankfully, yesterday I was moving well enough to join my family (husband, sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren) on the pontoon boat for a day of fishing.

Today, I'm checking out my computer chair from every angle because every time I sit down, after about 15 minutes, my back starts aching. Yet, the chair looks great. Strong, firm back, level armrests, and firm, steady seat. The back seems a perfect mold to my back.

I hear two distinct responses from others who spend their work day at a computer. Either they love their chair or they hate it. But they all agree, when they were in the store picking out the chair, it seemed perfect. So, my question is. ... how do you tell if you're going to love your chair or not? How do you know that your comfy choice may prove a big mistake once you sit on it for a few weeks?

I can remember picking out my chair at Staples. I tried all of them, after visiting all the other office furniture stores in town. I was convinced this chair was for me. And I'm pretty sure it was for a long time. Actually. I'm not even sure that's changed. Maybe I'm just worn out. Or maybe the chair (8 yrs old) needs to be retired. Chairs are damn expensive. I guess the answer is, does my back deserve better? Or should I be grateful I'm not sitting on my dining room chair?

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Last week I was tired. Good excuse, eh? Sunday morning I pulled a muscle in my back. The result is fifteen minutes max in my computer chair before I'm back flat on my back with a heating pad. Makes for a long long day. But it has made me grateful for those small things that I so often take for granted: walking, sitting, moving.

I'll be back at it as soon as I can.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tired, Anybody?

During my three trips to town this week, every women I ran into complained of being exhausted. One of them was ahead of me in a long lineup and had be woken up by the clerk, who called her twice before she responded. "Tired," the woman confessed after that dazed look vanished.

Another lady put two items in my grocery chart and when I informed her of the mistake, she said, "I can't seem to stay focused. For about a month now, my brain's been on vacation."

I sympathize.

At the gym this morning, three separate women brought up the subject of being tired. One lady, who's been a regular for months, said she'd been to the doctor and his advice was to exercise.

Another lady said her doctor told her to cut out all sugar and alcohol from her diet. After 6 weeks, when she was still dragging her butt (her words) she went back. This time he suggested she get outside and spend more time in the sun.

Can all this fatigue simply be a result of a long winter? Today's the third day of 30+ temperatures. (80-90 F) Are we tired because of the dramatic contrasts? Or is the problem even related to the climate?

Yesterday, I drank a large can of Red Bull at 10:30 in the morning, then had a 20-minute nap. After a 30-min-workout in the afternoon, I had a hour's nap. By 3 pm, I tried Tai Chi and then spent the next few hours vegetating on the couch. I watched ... I can't remember.

Over the phone last night, my best-friend said she was given vitamin B shots while she was pregnant (100 years ago) and it made her feel wonderful and very energized. I bought a bottle this morning after I left the gym. When I got home, I looked up tired and vitamins on the internet. Interestingly, vitamins don't yield usable energy. They aid the enzymes that release energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats, while providing no energy themselves. However, the good news: B75 Complex is known as the "energy vitamin".

Isn't the Net wonderful.

But if vitamins and minerals are the solution, what's the problem?

I get it that fighting depression can be exhausting. And nothing should ever been done without consulting a doctor; even if, like the lady above, you need to return again and again until the diagnosis is determined. A physical examination, blood tests and scans could rule out other causes. Apart from the weather, there's anemia (low red cells, an underactive thyroid gland, or liver and kidney problems. Not to mention Menopause.

Or it could be Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Something else that would have to be determined by a doctor. Especially if this is a recurring problem over a six-month period or more.

I'm having blood work done next week. Meanwhile, here's some of the symptoms from the CFS website that I found interesting:

In addition to fatigue, other symptoms are also common, although most people do not have all of them. They include:- Muscular pain, joint pain, and severe headaches.

  • Poor short-term memory and concentration.
  • Difficulty organising your thoughts and finding the right words.
  • Painful lymph nodes this is often felt as tender, glandular swelling around your throat.
  • Stomach pain and other problems similar to irritable bowel syndrome for example bloating, constipation, diarrhea and nausea.
  • Sore throat.
  • Sleeping problems, such as insomnia and disturbed sleep.
  • Sensitivity or intolerance to light, loud noise, alcohol and certain foods.
  • Additional, less common symptoms, such as dizziness, excess sweating, balance problems and difficulty controlling body temperature.
  • Psychological difficulties, such as depression, irritability and panic attacks may also occur.
Depending on your symptoms, CFS is often categorized into four categorizes, mild, moderate, severe or very severe:
  • Mild CFS - you are able to care for yourself, but may need to take days off work to rest.
  • Moderate CFS - you may have reduced mobility and your symptoms can vary from time to time. You may also have disturbed sleep patterns and commonly sleep in the afternoon.
  • Severe CFS - you are able to carry out minimal daily tasks, for example brushing your teeth, but occasionally you may need to use a wheelchair. You may also have difficulty concentrating.
  • Very severe CFS - you are unable to carry out any daily tasks for yourself and rely on bed rest for the majority of your day. Often, in severe cases, you may experience an intolerance to noise, and become very sensitive to bright lights.

Most cases of CFS are mild or moderate, but up to 1 in 4 people have severe or very severe symptoms.