Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More from the Movies

A newer approach to screenwriting calls for breaking a film down into eight 15-minute sequences—or, to transfer the idea to a 400-page book, into eight 50-page sequences. At the end of each sequence comes a mini-climatic scene, some kind of twist, reversal, or “Aha” moment that flips the action into the next sequence. These eight sequences are still grouped into the three acts—in other words, the first two sequences are Act One, then next four sequences are Act Two, and the final two sequences are Act Three.

What’s nice about this approach? Well, breaking your story into eight segments is a great way to get a handle on it. And the need to have a climax at the end of each segment keeps the story from becoming too linear.

One of the points Alex Sokoloff made when we were talking to her at the Jubilee Jambalaya is that a story resonates with particular effectiveness when the climatic scene at the end of Act One asks a question that isn’t answered until the end of Act Two. For instance, in Silence of the Lambs, the end of Act One asks the question, Will Hannibal help Clarissa catch the serial killer? At the end of Act Two, when Hannibal escapes, we realize the answer to that question is, No. He won’t; Clarissa will have to draw on all Hannibal has taught her in order to catch the killer and save the girl herself. (Incidentally, this is a frequent construction: The hero thinks he has help, then at the end of Act Two discovers he doesn’t; it’s at this point that the hero and the audience realize that in Act Three, the hero will need to accomplish his objective all on his own.) Notice this Act Two question is slightly different from the overall story question: Will Clarissa catch the serial killer in time to save the girl?

The climatic scene at the end of Act Two is also a good point for your protagonist to have his or her moment of revelation. This is frequently the point at which the protagonist discovers/acknowledges his inner “need” (as opposed to his acknowledged “want”). But then, not all stories have this need/want dichotomy; it’s far more common in literary works and women’s fiction, for instance, than in mysteries or thrillers, especially series.

If you’re not tired of this yet, I have some more screenwriting points I’d like to ponder. And I have some good news: The massmarket edition of WHAT ANGELS FEAR has sold out and it going back to press for a hefty second printing. Sales have been up considerably over the last six months, since the publication of WHY MERMAIDS SING. Let’s up it continues!


Charles Gramlich said...

Here's a question for you, or maybe for our Monday Night group. Why is "linear" storytelling bad? I like twists and stuff, of course, and a good surprise is a great pleasure, but in and of itself, what is wrong with linear storytelling?

cs harris said...

That is a good question, Charles! My first editor complained that my first couple of books had a tendency to be episodic. I remember thinking, But some of my favorite books are episodic! I suspect it's genre books that aren't supposed to be episodic or linear.

Steve Malley said...

I think it may have to do with the rules of genre and a 'fresh' experience.

Like, when a spunky young girl in the bitg city for the first time has a cruel boss and meets a dark handsome stranger, you pretty well know what lines that story is going to follow.

On the one hand, the reader *wants* that predictability. If I'm in the mood for a puzzle-murder, I open a cozy. If I want raw action, I go for that, etc. But too much predictability gets boring. So we throw in twists and turns, etc.

I guess what I'm saying is, linearity is built into genre, so we mask it with the appearance of disorder. Series are episodic in nature, so we mask this with an appearance of closure.

ANd yes, Candy, do pray continue. You gots me scratching my chin, and that's a good thing. It rattles loose knowledge down so there's room for more!

Sphinx Ink said...

Sure wish I could have sat in on those screenwriting sessions with Sokoloff. This is very interesting stuff. Please continue.

Shauna Roberts said...

Count me in among those who want to hear more about applying screenwriting techniques to novels.

Isma'il Awad Wasem said...