Thursday, October 31, 2013

So, You Wanna NaNo?

Are you NaNoWriMo-ing Tomorrow?

What's NaNoWriMo you ask? Check out my post from a year ago then come back here.

Now that we're on the same page, and since this is my second year at this (and therefore an expert, thank you very much), there are a few thoughts that I'd like to share with you.


Please, this is about using an excuse to focus on writing for one month. Friends want to go to the Justin Beiber concert? First, get new friends. Second, tell them, "I'm on a deadline. I made a commitment!"

Second: Get into your story world

I won't bother to tell you that you need to nail your concept, know your characters, plot it out or pants it in -- you are NaNoWriMo-ing, you understand this stuff.

But what you need to do in preparation of your daily writing session is get into the world/universe you've created for this story. Feel it, see it, hear them. Make it vivid and the stakes will become vivid.

I have a writing journal where I write out, what happened, what will happen next, and why do they matter.

Three headings, bullets underneath each. Remember that what happens next must have a reason for happening. As Jim Scott Bell says, happy people in happy land does not make for a compelling story.

Spend 15 minutes on this and your writing will get an octane boost.

Third: Don't stop until you're done

That means don't go back and reread what you wrote. Don't revise now. Stop that. All you're doing is stalling the creative process.

I know the pain, I've been there. You're well into the second act then you realize, "Holy Bat Juice, Batman, if I made Bobby a woman, then I can add this very cool plot twist." But it's more than changing the name, it's changing some of the interactions, the dialogue, it's, it's.... STOP I tell you.

Get a post it, on it write "Bobby = Barbie" then stick it on your table, your monitor, your forehead (scratch that). When you are DONE with the first draft, you will have to revise -- none of us are good enough to write perfect first drafts -- at least no one that reads this blog.

The desire to go back and revise is your inner child saying you're not good enough. The universe will conspire against you. Don't get hooked by it. You are a writer. Do what you do -- tell the story before your characters decide to leave you.

Fourth: Write

It's that simple. Just Write.

It doesn't matter if it's crap. You can't fix what hasn't been written. I am a better reviser than a first drafter. But I know that when I put the story on paper, the world becomes real and my characters become three dimensional -- they become vested in the outcome of their story. They can't do that if I am navel-gazing wondering if the first responder would be the Highway Patrol or the Sheriff. Who cares?

Write it now, fix it later.

You are a story teller. Your medium is writing. Now go and do it and let me know how you're doing.

Fight the good fight!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Plot & Structure Analysis - Sleepless in Seattle

Sleepless in Seattle 

If you haven't done it yet, you are missing out on a very powerful tool. The tool I'm referring to is story decomposition.

No, not like the decay of once living things, but breaking down something into manageable, understandable pieces, so that you can learn from them.

Decomposing your favorite story (screenplay or novel) into it's various beats is a powerful and instructive way of learning what works, what doesn't and why/how to incorporate the same concepts into your work.

One of my more popular posts was when I did the Plot & Structure Analysis for the movie Notting Hill. For that one I used James Scott Bell's methodology as outlined in his must-have book Plot & Structure.

For this one, I will use another powerful method: Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! framework.

Boiling it down to the basics, all good stories (commercial ones at least) will have specific beats (scenes) that must happen in order for the plot to move forward in a convincing and satisfying way. The more primal the scenes, the more the story will resonate with the audience.

Warning: Spoiler alert. If you haven't seen this romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, then I will give it all away. It's a fun movie. Go and get it.

Why Sleepless in Seattle? Why not could be a good response, but there is a tactical answer. The current story I'm writing required me to keep the hero and heroine away from each other for an extended period of time. The first third of the book in fact. General wisdom says you don't want to have too many scenes where the would-be-lovers are kept away from each other. Yet, this movie pulled it off for nearly the entire movie. How did they do it? What elements in the story and/or characters allowed the writer to get away with it? Let's dig in.

The Opening Image: Sets the tone, mood, type and scope (style and stakes). This is the starting point of hero -- the “Before” snapshot. Cemetery, father and son staring at casket. "Mommy got sick and died...if we ask why we'll all go crazy." The world is suddenly broken for these two. How will they cope? Notice that this is not the inciting incident. The story has not yet started. What we have is that they are alone. By the end we will have a matching beat where the closing scene should show us how the character/s have evolved throughout the story.

Theme stated: Hanks and son decide to leave home and start a new. Hanks's friends tell him that soon he'll meet someone. Hanks snaps back, "and I'll grow a new only happens once." This is the theme. Can true love happen again? This statement that Hanks makes is the theme and the movie is really about answering this question. The writer gets this out and in your face up front. The audience wants to see, will this man be able to find love again.

The Set-Up: The hero, the stakes and goals are stated with vigor. We meet all the key players in the story. We meet Meg and her allergic to everything fiancé. When Meg's mom tells her daughter how she knew she had fallen in love, Meg realizes that she doesn't have a similar experience. She felt no magic. Is he right guy? For Hanks, even though they moved, life is still empty. And the son is getting concerned for his father.

Catalyst: The main characters get knocked off the stasis world. Meg hears a kid on a pop-psychology radio talk show. He's Hank's son saying his father is sad because after his wife died he didn't find anyone. Hank's grudgingly gets on the call. "What was so special about your wife?" the radio host asks. He says, "I knew it the very first time I touched her. It's like coming home." He knew it was love. "It was like magic," he says, the same thing Meg's mom had said. Meg's world has been destabilized. Typically in movies this inciting incident happens later -- they have a captive audience. In books, you have less time to get the reader engaged.

Debate: The interview still ringing in his head, Hank's begins to debate if he should date again. Thousands of women are sending him letters. Meg is thinking about the interview also, wondering if she's with the right person.

Break into act two: Hero enters the “Upside Down World.” Meg hears the replay of the interview and begins to cry. Her life is missing the romance. Hanks makes the decision -- he calls a woman for the first time and in the background we hear the music, "I'm back in the saddle again." Meg decides to write Hanks a letter.

B Story revealed: Here the other story is revealed. Eventually the A and B stories will come together. For now, we see them as part of the life of the characters. In most stories, this is usually the love story which carries the theme
. We see both main characters trying to get on with life but they are both incomplete. This is a love story. He's trying to find that magic again, she suspects that Hanks may be the one, even though she has never met him.

Fun and Games: This is the core of the story. Various set pieces are loaded here with both characters. We see how the father and son are struggling with all of this. We see her struggle with the life she has versus a fairly tale story she wants. She even hires a private investigator to get information on him. She's obsessing over him.

Mid-point: The stakes are raised here. This is when he becomes serious with the woman his dating and his son doesn't like it. The son has read through all the letters from women who want to meet Hanks and the son wants his dad to call "Annie" the Meg Ryan character. The father will not hear any of it.

Bad Guys Close in: Internal and external forces, tighten the grip. Hank's friends fly in to visit. She also fly's into Seattle to try to meet him. Out of pure coincidence they see each other at the airport. He stares at her, not sure why, but something about her has him in a trance. Shortly after, she finds his home and decides she will introduce herself. But she sees that he's with someone else. She thinks that he's in love again. It turns out it's Hanks's friends from back home. Meg escapes, goes back home.

All is Lost: She escapes, returns home and declares, "It's good that I'm back." The fairy tale will not happen. In her letter, she had asked him to meet with her on Valentine's day, at the top of the Empire States building, just like her favorite movie. Now she realizes she was being a fool. She refocuses on her relationship with her fiancé. 

Dark night of the soul: Father and son have a big fight and the son says, "I hate you."

Break into Three: The son gets a plane ticket and goes to New York to meet "Annie." Hanks finds out two hours later and also gets on a plane, on track to find his son and maybe to meet his destiny.

Finale: The A and B stories collide. Meg and fiancé are in NY, about to have dinner. She sees the lit Empire States building and realizes, she has to see if Hanks will meet her there. What if? She admits everything to her fiancé. They break up and she makes a dash for the rendezvous point. Hanks is in New York, desperately trying to find son. When they find each other they reaffirm their love for each other. They agree that they are fine together as they are. They leave. At the same instance, she shows up, but they are gone. But all is not lost, the son forgot his backpack, they go to get it and find Annie there. "It's you," he says, realizing she was the one at the airport.

Final Image: He holds her hand, and just as he had described the first time he had held his wife's hand, something happens. They both feel the magic. Hanks and son with a new woman. Will she be mom? We see the three walk out together. A family that appear happy and complete. A far cry from the opening scene.

What I realized by decomposing this story is that unlike most romantic comedies where one of the two is a lot more evolved, in this case, both had a fairly steep character arc. They both were trying to find an answer, unlike say, Notting Hill, where he knows he loves her, but she has to struggle with her life until she realizes he is the one. That may be the secret sauce in this one. Practically two stories that converge.

Hope this was helpful.

Fight the good fight!

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