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.


  1. While you can find good comparison in general story advancement of movies and novels, how some plots or character traits are developed in on-screen stories can differ significantly from how the written version is done. The little nuances can be harder to convey in writing. And, of course, there's no background of mysterious music to help build suspense in a book. But the basics don't change, and I like how you've shown how quickly the action/plot develops here, as it should in any good story.

    I've never been a big Tom Cruise fan, altho' I do like Jamie Foxx, and I remember he was highly acclaimed for his role in "Collateral". I haven't seen it but it sounds like it might be a good movie to rent and study, as you've done.

  2. Hi Carol. I wasn't a big fan of Cruise either until I saw Interview with a Vampire. Even I had to admit he stole the show. Then I saw Minority Report. I was shocked at how well he played the role. By the time I saw Collateral, I realized the man may be goofy, but he can deliver a strong performance.

    They say all actors are insecure in one degree or another.

    As for studying films and books, it definitely is helping with my work. The more I learn, the more confident I become.


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