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.


  1. The "three acts" concept is a good one. At one of the Surrey Conferences workshops Elizabeth Engstrom brought up the three acts. She said Act I is the "setup" and ends with the MC accepting the quest. Act II is the "complication" and ends with the MC's darkest moment. Act III is the "resolution" which involves a change of heart for the MC.

    At a different conference Jessica Morrell used a graph that I had seen before, a rising mountain with zigzags of "rising action" on one side, beginning with an inciting incident followed by various plot points -- points of change or of no return -- until the peak is reached. She called the peak "the dark night of the soul" and from there the "falling action" takes you toward the climax and then on down to the resolution.

    I tend to do a lot of my writing by the seat of my pants, but without a clear plan I sometimes end up putting too much emphasis in the wrong places and that requires a lot of juggling during the revision stage. I'm using a very rough outline this time, hoping it will save a lot of rewriting later.

  2. JK Lankford used the large letter W. Act One began on the top left. First big conflict came at the first bottom. Climax was the middle tip. And Act Three ended at the right top.

    I'm with you. The longer I write, the harder it seems to get. Maybe that's because we're pushing ourselves to do better.

  3. Maybe it's that "the more you know, the more you know you don't know" thing!

  4. I liked this post. I also agree with the comment, the longer we write the harder it gets. Twenty years ago, I thought I was a great writer---today---I think twenty years ago I was delusional! When I read someone else writing, I read it differently now. I try to "learn" from their writing. I also feel "the longer I write, the less I know about it." I consider ME a WIP------


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