Oct 232012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Eight days and counting. Yes, I know, Halloween is seven days. I’m actually talking about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month.

I said that I’d do some prep here, but that’s not really feasible when I only blog twice a month (some of you have been prepping over at my blog, of course!). Still, I wanted to post SOMETHING useful for NaNo.

(If you have been living in a cave for the last ten years and have not heard of NaNo, you can read all about it here.)

I’m always encouraging you guys to read EVERYTHING you can about writing processes and structure, and I feel like this is a good time to nudge you all again to do a little reading about Joseph Campbell and the monomyth he details in his classic Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Christopher Vogler’s  Hollywood Cliffs’ Notes version of the same: The Writer’s Journey.

Wikipedia is a perfectly fine overview, and has all the info and links for you to explore further if you are so moved, and I hope you do.



It’s easy to get lost in Campbell (such a GOOD lost!) so Vogler’s is a more streamlined version, but as useful as it is, and it is – I think it falls short in one major way. 

Here are the twelve steps of the journey that Vogler details: 

  1. The hero/ine is introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD
  2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE
  3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
  4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
  5. CROSS THE THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
  6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES.
  7. They APPROACH THE IN-MOST CAVE, cross a second threshold
  8. where they endure the ORDEAL
  9. They take possession of their REWARD and
  10. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
  11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
  12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the ORDINARY WORLD.

 Absolutely!  But let’s break that down into where those steps fall in the three-act structure:

Act One:

  1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD
  2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE
  3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
  4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
  5. CROSS THE THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where

Act Two:

  1. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES.
  2. They APPROACH THE IN-MOST CAVE, cross a second threshold

Act Three:

  1. where they endure the ORDEAL
  2. They take possession of their REWARD and
  3. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
  4. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
  5. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the ORDINARY WORLD.

Do you see the problem with this template?  All good for Acts I and III… but there are only two steps to guide you through that vast, interminable, suicide-inducing second act.  And the second act is a full HALF of the story.

That’s not a whole hell of a lot of help when you’re in the middle of the damn thing.

I have another problem with Vogler, in that THE ROAD BACK step.  I have far too often seen fairly new writers struggling with that concept, when the fact is that not all stories even have this step. It’s a great element for a pure Mythic Journey story, like Lord of the Rings (the first), Star Wars, and The Wizard of Oz. But NOT ALL STORIES FALL INTO THIS PATTERN.

So I’ve composed an alternate version of this journey that gives a little more detail to help you through that treacherous middle.


NARRATIVE STRUCTURE CHEAT SHEET, from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

Act I:

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.

S/he has:

— a Ghost or Wound

— a strong Desire

— Special Skills

And an Opponent, or several, which is standing in the way of her getting what s/he wants, and possibly wants exactly the same thing that s/he wants.

She gets a Call to Adventure: a phone call, an invitation, a look from a stranger, that invites her to change her life and crystallizes her desire.

That impulse may be blocked by a

— Threshold Guardian

— And/or the Opponent

— And/or she is herself reluctant to take the journey.


But she overcomes whatever opposition,

— Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

— Formulates a specific PLAN to get what s/he wants

And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.


Act II:1

The hero/ine goes after what s/he wants, following the PLAN

The opponent blocks and attacks, following his or her own PLAN to get what s/he wants

The hero/ine may now:

— Gather a Team

— Train for battle (in a love story this can be shopping or dating)

— Investigate the situation.

— Pass numerous Tests

All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

No matter what genre, we experience scenes that deliver on the Promise of the Premise – magic, flying, sex, mystery, horror, thrills, action.

We also enjoy the hero/ine’s Bonding with Allies or Falling in Love

And usually in this Act the hero/ine is Winning.

Then at the Midpoint, there is a big Reversal, Revelation, Loss or Win that is a Game-Changer.

Act II:2

The hero/ine must Recover and Recalibrate from the game-changer of the Midpoint.

And formulate a New Plan

Neither the Hero/ine nor the Antagonist has gotten what they want, and everyone is tired and pissed.

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies

And the hero/ine, or if not the hero/ine, at least we, are getting the idea (if we didn’t have it before) that s/he might be WRONG about what s/he wants.

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

And get Darker and Darker (even if it’s funny)

Until everything crashes in a Black Moment, or All is Lost Moment, or Visit to Death.

And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the hero/ine, including understanding what s/he has been wrong about from the beginning

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.



The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

The Team (if there is one) Attacks the Opponent on his or her own turf, and all their

— Skills are tested.

— Subplots are resolved,

— and secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

Then the Hero/ine goes in alone for the final battle with the Antagonist. Her Character Arc, everything s/he’s learned in the story, helps her win it.

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

And we see the New Way of Life that s/he will live.




If this works to make the process a little easier for you, great! It may be more useful to look at it later, during your rewrites.

And if not, no problem – forget it! I’m just always looking to try to explain things in different ways, because I know for myself, sometimes it just doesn’t sink in until I hear it for the tenth or ten thousandth time.

So are you doing Nano? Do you use Campbell and/or Vogler in plotting or revising your stories? Tell us about it!





Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in a e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.





Amazon UK


Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE








It’s October, my favorite month, and you-know-what is coming, so I’m giving away 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows. and The Unseen.

Enter here to win!


Book of Shadows.

An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of satanic killings.

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals





The Unseen

A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane… or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.

Aug 172012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

(I’m in Australia, teaching an all-day Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop today, or maybe that’s tomorrow, so I’ll try to comment tomorrow, or yesterday, or whatever! — Alex, jetlagged…)


A couple of weeks ago I was driving home from a “Noir at the Bar” reading here in L.A., and my favorite radio station was playing a live recording of a Sting concert at the Hollywood Bowl I’d actually been in the audience for, years ago. I always love that multidimensional feeling; it was like being in a time machine taking me back to a night I remember very well, because I’d just sold my first screenplay that month, a huge kick-start to what turned into an eleven-year screenwriting career. Now, when you’re outside the film business, a break like that feels like shattering some enormous, impenetrable glass dome atop the mythical business they call “the movies”, a dome that you’ve been circling for years, trying to figure out the entry point.  A familiar feeling for any of us who have ever experienced circling the glass dome of publishing, I imagine!

And it was a great synchronicity, being transported back to that time and that feeling… because I’ve just now broken into e publishing with the launch of my new direct-to-e thriller Huntress Moon and am feeling the same kind of exhilaration of shattering a barrier to a whole new and exciting level of my career.  It reminded me how life is a spiral like that. You come back to the exact same points of life, but hopefully you’re constantly moving UP the spiral, taking all your knowledge of that pivotal threshold with you and ascending to a both a higher and a deeper level.

It also reminded me that as writers, we are constantly reinventing ourselves. I would say “having to reinvent ourselves” but that sounds scary and ominous. Oh well, okay, let’s be real. We are constantly HAVING to reinvent ourselves.

I started out as a theater person, from the time I was a kid, really, but after college I quickly switched my ambitions and focus to screenwriting, because I was aware of the practical need to, you know, eat.  Knowing nothing about the film business, I moved to L.A. just figuring I would figure it out. And the fact is, I did pretty much just that – I got the classic entry level job into movies, a script reader for various production companies, learned the business and the craft of film writing by reading and reporting on hundreds of scripts in a very short amount of time, wrote my own script with a writing partner, got an agent by using what I’d learned as a script reader, and sold the script to Fox in a bidding war.

Now, the trouble with being a screenwriter, and with Hollywood in general, is that you get caught up in the fact that you’ve MADE IT in a profession that all the naysayers (you know the ones I mean) always told you you would never MAKE IT in, and you’re making great money for doing what you love and the people you’re working with are wildly talented and interesting, and it’s all so exciting and non-stop that it becomes very hard to see when things are not quite working out the way you envisioned.  Screenwriters have very little power over their work; the potential movies you work on are very very seldom made, and most of them don’t look like any movie you would want your name on anyway once the script has been through the process very aptly named “development hell.” Cut to ten years later and I had become so creatively miserable, without really knowing it, that it was affecting every other area of my life. And when a movie I’d written that I was truly passionate about fell through when we lost our director to another movie, I snapped. I just wasn’t going to go through that whole thing again.

And that’s how I wrote my first novel, The Harrowing.  And all the naysayers started up again, a lot of them inside my own head. “You’ll never make a living in publishing. At least in screenwriting you’re writing AND getting paid…”  (insert any profession, you know the drill….) But I knew I had to do something else, so I did, and the book got written, and it got sold, and suddenly a whole other glass dome had been shattered and I was on the rollercoaster of a whole new career, to mix a couple of metaphors. And I was lucky to make the shift when I did, because changes in the film industry have made a screenwriting career exponentially more difficult and creatively frustrating than it was when I started in the business.

But now I had to learn a whole different business and figure out a whole different way of making a living at writing. (NOT making a living was not an option – I’ve been writing professionally for so long I have no other marketable job skills). And publishing is a different way of making a living.

When you start out as an author – well, when I started out as an author, in 2006, people advised that we put our entire first book advance back into promotion. Because that’s how important the lift-off factor is in traditional publishing. I was a total newbie, and got completely obsessed with trying everything there was to try in marketing, all the things I imagine all the authors here have been doing or preparing to do with varying degrees of terror: website, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, blog, grog, blog tours, book tours – oh right, and writing that second book. (If you want a bloodcurdling glimpse into how it was, I’ve blogged about it here: Marketing =Madness).

Well, I made a good launch with The Harrowing – nominations for Stoker and Anthony Awards, significant recognition as a new and interesting female horror writer… but nothing like the brass ring, bestseller status. But I wrote more good books and got more recognition and also figured out how to create multiple income streams in my writing life –like teaching my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop, that I started on my blog and developed into an e workbook (doing the workshops for free at conferences until I was in demand, and then starting to pick and choose my venues and going only where people would pay me, which also turned into self-perpetuating and well-paying promotion, as well as a personally rewarding avocation).

I’m a big believer in diversifying your writing career in the same way that you diversify a financial portfolio; the money is erratic in a writing career, often cyclical, and it’s a huge mistake to think you’ll earn the same income every year – I’ve seen way too many talented screenwriters and authors crash and burn by making that assumption. Invest wisely when you have the money and always keep a cushion for the lean years, because believe me, there are going to be lean years.

But still, I wasn’t published for long before I started getting that uncomfortable feeling again.  This time it didn’t take as long for me to figure out that I had to try something different – again. (Watching the publishing industry starting to crumble before my eyes with the rise of e readers and self-publishing was a pretty good clue…)

I truly believe we are in the midst of the biggest revolution since the invention of the printing press. E books, ereaders – it is ALL good news for us as writers, because we have so many more choices now. Look, I know it’s hard enough to just get through the day doing the writing you have to do and the promotion you have to do on top of that. You may be just learning the ropes of traditional publishing and here I am suggesting that you add learning the ropes of e publishing, to boot. Don’t panic! Do what you need to do at whatever step you are on in your career. But if you do find you’re not getting picked up by an agent when you know –  and enough credible people have told you – that you’ve got a great book… or you’re not making enough of a living with your traditionally published book(s)… or you are getting a nagging feeling that your publisher is not getting enough of your books out there to be bought and read in the first place… or Barnes & Noble goes bankrupt or something – there is a whole other miraculous option for you now.

In a time of diminishing publisher advances and massive bookstore closures, I and many of my traditionally published author friends who started out in publishing at the same time as I did have recently had the surreal experience of making more money in the first few weeks of an e publishing book launch as we ever got for a traditional advance. We can put a book out as soon as we finish it, rather than waiting a year and a half to two years for the publishing process to grind through its cycle. 

Given the choice between a traditional publishing deal for Huntress Moon and the tens of thousands of new readers that I was able to reach in just three days of a free Amazon promotion, plus having the force of the Amazon marketing machine behind the book (which is now an Amazon bestseller that is outselling a staggering number of high-profile traditionally published books that have a Big Six publisher behind them)…

Well, it’s a no-brainer to me.

I guess what I’m trying to say to you is: Be aware. Be aware if a small voice in your head or your gut or wherever those small voices come from tells you that you need to do something different. Be aware of the incredible sea changes taking place in publishing because of the e publishing revolution, and the incredible opportunities that are there for you.  Be aware that you can always, always reinvent yourself.

We’re writers. We make things up. 

Including ourselves.


Jun 222012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Okay, I’m sure a lot of you have read this NYT article by now (or at least heard it mentioned here on Murderati) which tells us that the minimum output of books per year for a professional author is now two. Per year.  Double what people are used to thinking.

In the E Reader Age, a Book a Year is Slacking 

And the article links this new phenomenon to the e book revolution.

Well, I would strongly disagree.  MOST of the authors I know who make a good living at just writing books have been writing AT LEAST, at the VERY least,  two books a year for longer than I’ve been in the author business.  There are very few I know who can afford the leisurely pace of a book per year.  (I dream of being able to afford that luxury…)

It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved from screenwriting to the author business in 2006. Successful writers write a LOT of books.  Tons.  Staggering numbers. Plus stories and any number of other things. (I felt like a total slacker until I realized if I had been writing books instead of screenplays for the last 11 years I would have those kinds of numbers, too.)

Of course, there’s a catch that we all have to be wary of.  How long does it take to write a GOOD book?  When are you starting to risk, well, dreck?

I wanted to think and talk about that today.

From the beginning of my (still quite short, really) author career, one of the questions I have gotten most often at book signings and panels is, “How long does it take you to write a book?”

My feeling is what’s always being asked is not how long it takes me to write a book, but how long it would take the person asking to write a book. Which of course, I have no way of answering, unless it’s to cut to the chase and shout, “Save yourself! Don’t do it!” But that’s never the question, so I don’t say it.

What I started out answering instead was, “About nine months.” Which, from Chapter One to copyedits, used to be true enough. But I’m getting faster. And the paranormals I write take more like two months. And of course with e publishing, the whole process of publishing has changed, and the time frame has changed, too.

I wrote three and a half books last year.  One YA thriller, THE SPACE BETWEEN, one non-fiction writing workbook, WRITING LOVE, one paranormal, TWIST OF FATE (coming out in 2013), and half of my latest crime thriller, HUNTRESS MOON, which will be out next month.  (And technically I also outlined another paranormal, KEEPER OF THE SHADOWS, which will also be out in 2013.  Outlining is writing, too!).

This year I will have written another four or possibly four and a half. Two paranormals, another thriler and a half, and – either a half or whole other SOMETHING yet to be determined.

So that’s a lot of books.  How long did it take me to write any one of those?  It’s really hard to say when those projects are constantly overlapping.

But the fact is, in almost every case, the real answer to the question of “How long?”  is almost always: “Decades.”

Because honestly, where do you even start? I’m quite convinced I’m a professional writer today because my mother made me write a page a day from the time I could actually hold a pencil. At first a page was a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then a real page, but it was writing. Every day. It was an incredibly valuable lesson, which taught me a fundamental truth about writing: it didn’t have to be good, it just had to get written. Now I make myself write however many pages every day. And now, like then, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to get written. Some days it’s good, some days it’s crap, but if you write every day, there are eventually enough good days to make a book.

Then there were all those years of theater, from writing and performing plays in my best friend’s garage, to school and community theater, to majoring in theater in college, to performing with an ensemble company after college. Acting, dancing, choreography, directing – that was all essential training for writing.

And then the reading. Again, like probably every writer on the planet, from the time I could hold a book. The constant, constant reading. Book after book – and film after film, too, and play after play – until the fundamentals of storytelling were permanently engraved in some template in my head.

Hey, you may be saying, that’s TRAINING. That wasn’t the question. How long does it take to WRITE A BOOK?

I still maintain, it takes decades. I think books emerge in layers. The process is a lot like a grain of sand slipping inside a clamshell that creates an irritation that causes the clam to secrete that substance, nacre, that covers the grain, one layer at a time, until eventually a pearl forms. (Actually it’s far more common that some parasite or organic substance, even tissue of the clam’s own body, is the irritant, which is an even better analogy if you ask me, ideas as parasites…)

Let’s take a look at Book of Shadows, the thriller I’ve just gotten back from my publisher and put out myself as an e book last week.  

When did I start Book of Shadows? Well, technically in the fall of 2008, I guess. But really, the seed was planted long ago, when I was a child growing up in Berkeley. (The Berkeley thing pretty much explains why I write supernatural to begin with, but that’s another post.) Those of you who have visited this town know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag ending at the U.C. campus, is a gauntlet of fortune tellers (as well as clothing and craft vendors and political activists and, well, drug dealers.).

Having daily exposure to Tarot readers and psychics and palm readers as one of my very first memories has been influential to my writing in ways I never realized until I started seeing similarities in Book of Shadows and my paranormal The Shifters, and discovered I could trace the visuals and some of those scenes back to those walks on Telegraph Ave.

Without mentioning an actual number, I can tell you, that’s a lot of years for a book to be in the making.

Over the years, that initial grain of sand picked up more and more layers. Book of Shadows is about a Boston homicide detective who reluctantly teams up with a beautiful, enigmatic practicing witch from Salem to solve what looks like a Satanic murder. Well, back in sixth grade, like a lot of sixth graders I got hooked on the Salem witch trials, and that fascination extended to an interest in the real-life modern practice of witchcraft, which if you live in California – Berkeley, San Francisco, L.A. – is thriving, and has nothing at all to do with the devil or black magic. Hanging out at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (more Tarot readers!), I became acquainted with a lot of practicing witches, and have been privileged to attend ceremonies. So basically I’ve been doing research for this book since before I was in high school.

And my early love of film noir, and the darkest thrillers of Hitchcock, especially Notorious, started a thirst in me for stories with dark romantic plots that pit the extremes of male and female behavior against each other; it’s one of my personal themes. Book of Shadows is not my first story to pit a very psychic, very irrational woman against a very rational, very logic-driven man; I love the dynamics – and explosive sexual chemistry – of that polarity.

So to completely switch analogies on everyone, this book has been on the back burner, picking up ingredients for a long, long time.

Now, what pulls all those ideas and layers and ingredients into a storyline that takes precedence over all the other random storylines cooking on all those hundreds of back burners in my head (because that’s about how many there are, at any given time), is a little more mysterious. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe storylines leap into the forefront of your imagination mostly because your agent or editor or a producer or executive or director comes up with an opportunity for a paycheck or a gentle reminder that you need to be thinking of the next book or script if you ever want a paycheck again. I know that’s a powerful motivator for me. So speed in writing comes partly out of practical necessity.

But the reason a professional writer is able to perform relatively on demand like that is that we have all those stories cooking on all those back burners. All the time. For years and years, or decades and decades. And if a book takes nine months, or six months, or a year to write, that’s only because a whole lot of stuff about it has been cooking for a very, very, very long time.

A long time.

And I’m wondering, lately, if one of the keys to writing faster without killng yourself doing it is to check those pots bubbling back there on the mental back burners more often. Taking the time every few months to just sit quietly and free-form brainstorm on paper or on the screen… and see what ideas might be more done than not. Sometimes random and seemingly separate ideas can suddenly combine to create a full story line. Because I’m quite sure that we ALL have books that have been cooking back there for decades now. Maybe it’s time to take them out.

So writers, how long does it take YOU to write a book? Or your latest? How many stories do you figure you have on the back burner at any one time?

And readers, do you ever notice certain themes – or recurring scenes or visuals – in your favorite authors’ books that make you suspect that story seed was planted long ago?

And here’s one worth discussing: is anything MORE than a book a year cheating the book?




All right, Nook people, you keep asking, and for a limited time I’m putting The Unseen, The Harrowing and The Price up at B&N.com for Nook:  $2.99 each.

Jun 082012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Lisa asked this week if I would blog about my financial (read: survival) strategy of building multiple income streams. Well, okay, but I think it’s going to have to be a series!

The principle we’re talking about is like the financial strategy of a balanced portfolio.  A lot of people derive income from just their job, and so it’s devastating if anything happens to that job – as we’ve seen all over the country and for so many people we know since the financial crash four years ago. But there are other financial philosophies that would caution strongly against having income from just one source (and to cultivate as many sources of passive income, like investments and royalties, as possible.)  And the very interesting thing about consciously cultivating multiple income streams is that these don’t have to be massive rivers of cash to support you. Every stream is meaningful, and every stream will probably wax and wane.  If you’re invested in the stock market, you know sometimes a stock is up, and sometimes it’s down. But if you spread your investments over a wide range of KINDS of stocks, or sectors, and also have some of your savings in cash, and some in bonds, then it doesn’t matter so much if one sector is down, because your other sectors will cover the loss until that troublesome sector picks up again.

This works with this concept of income streams, too.

This week I’m going to talk a little about one of my income streams – the teaching, since I’m coming up on what may be my favorite teaching gig, the West Texas Writers Academy, at Texas A&M University.

This was not something I ever expected to be doing. But when sold my first novel and got involved in the conference circuit, I saw an opportunity to create an income stream that would be a no-brainer and actual fun for me.

The occasional teaching gigs I have, which are a very welcome income stream, I get because of my blog and because I go to conferences.

I’ve said here before that I started blogging on craft because I was out of things to say about myself.  Well, it’s true. But I also was being asked to teach screenwriting workshops at novel writing conferences, and I would always start those workshops like this:

“Who here lives in LA?”  (Almost never any hands up). 

“Who plans to move to L.A.?” (No hands here, either).

“Then you’re not going to be a screenwriter.  So here’s how you can use screenwriting tricks to write better novels, which is way more satisfying and more likely to earn you money anyway.”

It may sound harsh, but I think it’s despicable how many struggling screenwriters take money for teaching workshops on screenwriting and somehow fail to mention what the actual requirements of the job are. Selling false hope is a crime.  (Of course, if there are people in the workshop under 30 or so, who say they want to be screenwriters, I tell them to move to L.A. if they’re serious. Under 30 you still have a chance to catch that train.)

Well, people were responding so enthusiastically to the techniques I was teaching that I started blogging about what I was teaching, and teaching about what I was blogging, and pretty soon so many groups were asking me to teach workshops that I could never possibly do it and do all of my fiction writing, too, so I started asking for a lot more money for the workshops and choosing only places I really wanted to go. 

And that craft blogging and occasional workshop turned into a really nice double income stream when I wrote my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook and put it out as an e book, and then wrote another and put that one up…. that’s now a very solid passive income stream (the very best kind, because it means the money flows in without me doing a thing) that I can count on every month, and I know I can always do another and create another income stream…

And more than that, it all turned into a kind of calling.

The thing is, I love teaching because it’s – well, performance.  These days I spend most of every day chained to a desk, and I do it because that’s how writing gets done, but it’s very hard for me to sit still and to be alone for such a large chunk of every day.  I spent OH so many years on the boards, or the street, elevators, balconies, wherever, all the world’s a stage…  and I still do the performance thing a couple times a year thanks to my friend, bestselling author/singer/goddess Heather Graham, and her gypsy theater troupe, the Slush Pile Players.  Yes, and there’s the occasional drunken karaoke.  I like to dress up, and sing and dance and have no boundaries with my fellow players. Steve asked last week about our reincarnational hangovers – well, the traveling theater troupe is surely one of mine. When I die you can bury me in unconsecrated ground with the other prostitutes-slash-actors, thank you very much; at least I’ll know I’ll be spending eternity having wild fun with wildly interesting people.

And I think I bring something a little different to the workshop experience for a couple of reasons.  First, I’ve taught dance, which is a very visceral and immediate thing to do.  And more than that, it’s so INTIMATE.  You need to figure out exactly what a dancer’s issue is and correct it on the spot (usually with a lot of touching) so they can do better on the next run-through, or maybe even break through to excellence. Well, that applies to writers, too – alas, without the touching. But one thing I’m really good at from dance is knowing how intimate the process is, and not being afraid to be intimate about it, so the dancer (or writer) isn’t afraid to be intimate, too. Otherwise – how are we ever going to engage our readers’ emotions, desires, and soul?

And then of course there were all those years of spitballing in film development meetings. When my first script sold, my partner and I had about a million meetings in the first two months, but one of the first was with a couple of young hotshot producers who are now film industry moguls, and in that breakfast (I think) meeting, one of them was prodding me to rewrite the script in front of him and I said, naively, that I would have to go home and think about it, and he said, “What kind of bullshit is that?  Tell me NOW.  I want to SEE you think.” 

Total, immediate awakening to what my actual job as a screenwriter was, which was to be creative RIGHT NOW, in front of whoever was asking me.  And be entertaining about it, too, by the way.

Well, so, from dance and from screenwriting, and from theatrical directing too, for sure, I’m very good at identifying the immediate creative problem and solving it right there.  I can do it pretty much on command. Which makes me a good teacher. I LOVE to solve story problems.  Please don’t ask me to play charades or Scrabble or chess, but if there’s a story problem?  I’m your girl.  Even if I’m asleep, the challenge will inevitably wake me up. I’m not unusual in that at all, that’s how creative people are wired.

But I never expected to be doing the teaching along with writing. In fact I resisted anything that resembled teaching for a very long time because my mother, the teacher, was always doing that really annoying thing that parents do with their creative offspring: “You know, you could always fall back on…”

(Personally I think I’m a professional writer because I refused to consider a fallback position.)

But it turns out that teaching a workshop maybe once every other month, and writing the Screenwriting Tricks workbooks one blog at a time, has been not just a practical supplement to my fiction writing income, but sort of lifesaving, psychologically speaking, because I’ve realized I NEED that interaction with creative people over creative ideas.  I need to be able to move around a big space and gesticulate wildly and joke with a room full of people once in a while to break the monotony of hunching over a computer.

Teaching opportunities abound for professional writers, and I’ve discovered they don’t have to take up a lot of time. They’re also a great way to have someone else subsidize my rather alarming and terribly expensive travel habit.  One huge upside of the author life is that you get to meet and befriend people from all over the country. One huge downside is that your friends are all over the country and you never get to see them except at conferences. Except now I can take a teaching gig nearby and see people I want to see.  Or even go someplace fabulous, like, well, the Gold Coast of Australia, where I’m doing a Screenwriting Tricks workshop in August.

It’s a perfect income stream for me because of all of the above and because of its infinite flexibility; I can do it just as much as is fun for me and that works into my regular writing schedule. And it’s also automatic promotion for me as an author; there’s always a big book signing attached to these workshops, so I’m selling books and building my readership, too. But now people pay ME to travel and promote myself instead of me shelling out for it, a very good deal.

I don’t need my teaching to pay the mortgage, but it pays for a lot more than I ever expected it to.

So the financial lesson here is – be alert for opportunities to turn what you are doing anyway and love to do into an income stream.  It doesn’t have to be teaching!  There are so many writing-related services that could turn into an income stream for you: designing book covers, formatting e books, social media assistance to the overbooked… the list is really endless.

The question is, what are you good at and how can you make it pay?

So, do you practice multiple income streams, in investing, saving, writing, or whatever? Or is this a new concept that might work for you financially? How ARE people making ends meet in this most definitely improving, but still precarious economy?

And most importantly – do you EXPECT to be paid for doing the things you love, if you are doing them well?  Or have you bought into the idea that artists must starve and struggle?


May 112012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m headed off to teach a Screenwriting Tricks workshop in Cleveland (open to all, if you’re in that part of the country, see here).

So of course my head is in craft mode.

I sit on the plane thinking about what is really essential that I want to get across in an always too-limited time to talk about our craft, and also about what people are hiring me in particular to teach.

One of the things I always hope people get out of my workshops and writing workbooks is the concept of setpiece scenes. I try to hit that hard up front in a workshop, and keep going back to examples during the day.

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” And I’ve said before that these six great scenes are usually from that list I’ve given you of the Key Story Elements.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like The Call To Adventure and Crossing the Threshold (and on the darker side, the Visit to Death or All is Lost scene) are magical moments: they change the world of the main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right along with the character.

Filmmakers take that “six great scenes” concept very literally.  These scenes are often called the “trailer scenes” or the “money scenes”  (as opposed to “money shots”, which is a different post, with a different rating!).  As incensed as I am personally about how trailers these days give every single bit of the movie away (I won’t even watch them before a movie I’m interested in seeing), I understand that this is essential movie advertising: those trailer scenes have to seduce the potential audience by giving a good sense of the EXPERIENCE the movie is promising to deliver.  The scenes that everyone goes into the theater to see, and that everyone comes out of the theater talking about, which creates first the anticipation for a movie and then that essential “work of mouth” that will make or break a film.

And do not for a second think that directors aren’t putting excruciating thought and time and detail into designing and staging those scenes.  There’s not a director out there who is not in the back of his (or her, but statistically mostly his) mind hoping to make cinematic history (or at least the Top 100 AFI Scenes of All Time list in whatever genre) with those scenes. These are scenes that often cost so much money that producers will not under any circumstances allow them to be cut, even if in editing they are clearly non-essential to the plot.

The attention paid to these critical scenes is not all an ego thing, either. We are not doing our JOB as storytellers if we are not delivering the core experiences of our genre. Genre is a PROMISE to the audience or readers; it’s a pact.

And a setpiece doesn’t have to cost millions or tens of millions of dollars, either, although as authors, we have the incredible advantage of an unlimited production budget. Did you authors all get that?  We have an UNLIMITED PRODUCTION BUDGET. Whatever settings, crowds, mechanical devices, alien attacks or natural disasters we choose to depict, our only budget constraint is in our imaginations.  The most powerful directors in Hollywood would KILL for a fraction of our power. Theoretically, they can’t even begin to compete. 

However, directors can and do compete and top most authors on a regular basis because they know how to manipulate visuals, sound, symbolism, theme and emotion to create the profound and layered impact that a setpiece scene is.

So how do we take back that power? By constantly identifying the setpiece scenes in film and on the page that have the greatest impact on us personally and really looking at what the storytellers are doing to create that effect and emotion, so we can create the same depth on the page.

I’ve compiled some examples (and categorized them by story elements they depict) on my own blog and in my second Screenwriting Tricks workbook.

But just in the last week I’ve come across some great examples that have really stayed with me.

I’m on an Edith Wharton tear at the moment, and it’s striking how beautifully she sets her love scenes, on every visual and sensual level, like this setup from THE HOUSE OF MIRTH:

Selden had given her his arm without speaking. She took it in silence, and they moved away, not toward the supper-room, but against the tide which was setting thither. The faces about her flowed by like the streaming images of sleep: she hardly noticed where Selden was leading her, till they passed through a glass doorway at the end of the long suite of rooms and stood suddenly in the fragrant hush of a garden. Gravel grated beneath their feet, and about them was the transparent dimness of a midsummer night. Hanging lights made emerald caverns in the depths of foliage, and whitened the spray of a fountain falling among lilies. The magic place was deserted: there was no sound but the splash of the water on the lily-pads, and a distant drift of music that might have been blown across a sleeping lake. 

Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations. It would not have surprised them to feel a summer breeze on their faces, or to see the lights among the boughs reduplicated in the arch of a starry sky. The strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being alone in it together. At length Lily withdrew her hand, and moved away a step, so that her white-robed slimness was outlined against the dusk of the branches. Selden followed her, and still without speaking they seated themselves on a bench beside the fountain.

On a different note, in the romantic comedy FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (a younger audience would call it a “lude comedy”, and I don’t disagree!), the hapless hero has his first kiss with the love interest at the Midpoint, of course, a classic “sex at sixty” scene (sixty minutes, that is, halfway through the film.).  Every kiss in a romance or romantic comedy is, or should be, a setpiece and the filmmakers give the lovers a typically gorgeous romance setting, in this case a cliff overlooking the ocean in Hawaii. But being as this is a comedy, the reckless heroine tells the hero, quite rightly, that they’re both in ruts and need to take a leap of faith, which she promptly does, off the cliff.  The hero doesn’t land quite so well, but after narrowly escaping death and possible castration on his slide down, he ends up in the water with her, for a beautiful backdrop to a sensual first kiss that is also a baptism that the hero has been sorely needing.

On the nose? Yes, but well-played and effective, and it does what the Midpoint is supposed to do – it kicks the second half of act two up to another level.

In the film of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, over and over the filmmakers use images of bridges and interesting corridors, or stepping stones in a creek, to underscore significant moments. The heroine first meets her love interest, The Chairman, on a bridge over a stream, with cherry blossoms in the background. Now, those of you with jaded eyes might look at that and think, ‘Oh, right, another “lovers meet on a Japanese bridge in an explosion of cherry blossoms’ scene, but the setting is utterly gorgeous, and I would be very surprised if most of the moviegoing audience even notices the bridge or the cherry blossoms – except subliminally, which is how these things are supposed to register.

And in a subsequent scene, the nine-year-old heroine has just realized what the desire of her life is to be, and runs through a long, curving passageway, another classic symbol of transition and birth, but the scene is filmed as an endless following shot in the psychedelically orange gateways of the Fushimi Inari shrine (just click through and look!), and truly delivers on the sensation of transformation that the moment is.

Now, filmmakers have location scouts to find these perfect physical settings for them, but I think it’s one of the great joys of my job as an author (as it was when I was a screenwriter) to be constantly on the lookout for perfect locations to use in current and yet-to-be-conceived storylines.  And they’re all ours for the taking.

So you know the question.  What are some of your favorite setpieces and locations in films or books?  Come across any good ones lately?  Or – what is a location you’ve always thought would make a great setpiece scene in a film or book?


Mar 302012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m teaching my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors Workshop at Left Coast Crime in Sacramento this week, so today I’ll be in and out when I can, you know how the conference thing goes, especially depending on how late I was at the bar last night.

I’m sure the workshop went well (it was yesterday); they always do. I hope I refrained from tearing the class a collective new orifice. Although with teaching, sometimes a good rampage is exactly what a student needs at the time; I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of some beneficial – and memorable – ones from my favorite teachers myself.

I had this fear going into the workshop that I might get, um, testy.  The thing is, when I teach a workshop, I always ask the participants to do a little homework up front – some exercises all you regulars are familiar with: 

I always like to get some info from workshop participants before the conference so I can tailor my examples to the people who are actually in the class. Obviously this isn’t mandatory homework, but it will pay off for you to do it.  😉  The whole principle of what I teach is that we learn best from the storytellers and stories (in any medium) that have most inspired us, and that we as authors can learn a whole new dimension of storytelling by looking specifically at films that have inspired us and that are similar to what we’re writing.  So here are a few questions/exercises to get you thinking along those lines:

1. Tell me what genre you’re writing in. All right, yes, it’s a mystery conference.  So tell me what subgenre or cross-genre you’re writing in.

2. Make a list of ten movies and books – at least five movies – that you feel are similar in genre and structure to your work in progress or story idea (or if you don’t have a story idea yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written!)

3. Write out the premise of your story.  If you’re unclear on what a premise sentence is, here’s a practical explanation with examples:   

Not everyone does the homework, but the answers I get give me some ideas of examples to work with when I’m going through the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure.  In a long workshop I can also work a little with the idea of premise; I’m not able to do that in a 2-hour workshop.  Nonetheless, if I had a rampage yesterday, I can guarantee it was on premise.

I understand that people have problems with loglines, or premise sentences.  Believe me, I do. I would teach a class on writing premise if it weren’t so damn hard to do that it exhausts me too much to teach it.  After all, teaching is just this fun little sideline for me, and why should I wear myself out teach something so hard when there are much easier and more fun things to teach?

Especially after I got a reasonable number of homework assignments back, and almost half of them went like this: 

A professor (librarian, banker, accountant, divorcee) goes on holiday (to a high school reunion, to a Scottish castle, to his ex-wife’s wedding) and gets involved in solving a murder.

Uh huh.

Okay, I get the amateur sleuth fantasy about vicariously solving a murder. And maybe that’s all there does need to be to it to attract a certain type of reader. Maybe just that one situation in an infinite variety of settings really does get the job done, sort of like porn for the mystery-oriented mind. I’ve even picked up books myself that could be summed up the same way.  Except that they happened to be written by Agatha Christie or Elizabeth George or Ruth Rendell, and I knew I was going to be getting my money’s worth.

But why would anyone buy a book described like that by someone they’d never heard of?  And I’m not talking just readers – but how does that book even get read by an agent or editor to begin with?

Where’s the hook? Is it the quirkiness of the detective? Is it the fantasy aspect of the setting? Is it the jeopardy to the detective or to an excruciatingly sympathetic victim? Is it the startling and topical arena?  It is an untenable moral choice the protagonist will be forced to make?

I guess what is really missing for me in most of the premises I read – ever – is the EXPERIENCE that the story is going to give me.  Now, any of us know what that experience is going to be with an author we are already familiar with. I don’t need anyone to spell out what the experience is that I’m going to get from a Mo Hayder book  – I know that I will be wrung out emotionally from the experience of human evil so overwhelming it might as well be supernatural. And call it masochism on my part, but that’s why I buy her books.

As authors it’s not just our job to know the experience that our books deliver, and that readers buy us for, it’s our job to be able to communicate that experience in the logline or premise sentence of our books.  Myself, if I’m not making the hair on the back of people’s heads stand up when they read my flap copy, I’m in trouble.

Some of that knowing about the experience comes with – experience.  Readers TELL you what they buy your books for, and that makes it easier both to deliver it in the next book, and to get a feeling of that experience into your promotional material.

But you have to know it to say it.

So the question today is, authors, what is the EXPERIENCE you feel you deliver in your books?

And readers, what is the EXPERIENCE you look for in some of your favorite authors’ books?

Alternately, tell us about a great rampage you got from a teacher or mentor that changed your work or life!

I’ll be checking in from LCC with reports when I can.  Maybe I can rope some other authors into reporting with me!



Feb 172012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I am always saying that the best training I ever got for writing novels and screenplays was my musical theater background (acting, dancing, directing, choreography). At the moment I’m teaching a film class to primarily animators, and I am stressing to them how useful understanding musical theater can be to their careers as film animators. But the same is true for any writer.

Looking at musical theater is an excellent way to learn how to present key story elements like Inner and Outer Desire, Into the Special World, the Hero/ine’s Plan, the Antagonist’s Plan, Character Arc, Gathering the Team – virtually any important story element you can name. Musical theater knows to give those key elements the attention and import they deserve. What musicals do to achieve that is put those story elements into song and production numbers. They become setpiece scenes to music. And you know how I’m always encouraging you all to SPELL THINGS OUT? Well, there’s no better way to spell things out than in song. The audience is so entertained they don’t know you’re spoon-feeding them the plot.

Yes, I know, you can’t put songs on the page. But – you can most certainly be inspired by the energy and exuberance of songs and production numbers, and find your own ways of getting that same energy and exuberance onto the page in a narrative version of production design, theme, emotion and chemistry between characters, tone, mood, revelation – everything that good songs do.

Right now my class is looking at The Nightmare Before Christmas. Let’s take a look at the songs in that piece one by one and identify the key story element, or elements, that each song is dramatizing.

• Overture –

An Overture does what an opening image or credits sequence does: it establishes mood, tone, theme and expectation. In this film the Overture ends with the Opening Image shot of the circle of trees in the woods that turns out to be a portal to all the different holidays. An important set up and a visual depiction of the premise of the entire movie, really.

• “This is Halloween” – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast/ choir

The opening number is big production number, as befits a musical, which sets up THE ORDINARY WORLD of Halloween Town, and almost all the principle characters (except Santa Claus).  It’s also a WE ARE song, which I’ll get into in a minute.

• “Jack’s Lament” – Jack

This is a DESIRE song, or a WISH song. Nothing is better than musical theater for externalizing character’s needs, desires, plans and wishes. But there’s often more to a Desire song than that.

As I am always saying, a great deal of what creates dramatic conflict and character arc comes from the conflict between a hero/ine’s Inner and Outer Desire. For MOST characters, what they think they want is not what they actually need, and during the journey of the story, they will come to realize that they are WRONG about what they want. This musical is a strong example of that storytelling principle in action.  In “Jack’s Lament” Jack sings that he’s tired of doing the same thing every year (basically, he puts on Halloween) and feels there’s something missing. He is going to seize on Christmas as the answer to that desire, when very soon we realize that what he really needs is Sally, the rag doll (sort of!) who is secretly in love with Jack.  Jack’s Character Arc has to do with realizing that what’s missing in his life is Sally, as well as realizing that he’s good at what he does, that he’s supposed to be just who he is, the Pumpkin King, and thus finding new excitement in his life and life’s work.

A Desire song is very, very often a “Careful what you wish for” moment. It certainly is, here!

• “What’s This?” – Jack

Here we have a song of Jack exploring the Special World, after he’s gone through the door to Christmas Town (The Passageway to the Special World – which is also the Opening Image of the film: the circle of trees in the woods, with each tree having a door to a different holiday. This passageway scene has elements of C.S. Lewis’s The Mageician’s Son, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, and probably a whole slew of other classics I’m not thinking about.)

• “Town Meeting Song” – Jack and Citizens

Here is a GATHERING THE TEAM song; Jack calls a town meeting to try to explain Christmas to the Halloween people, and rally them around this exciting new idea. Unfortunately, the team doesn’t get it.

So Jack’s first PLAN is to figure out Christmas so he can rally Halloween Town behind a new and exciting celebration, but the more he studies it, the more it eludes him.

• “Jack’s Obsession” – Jack and Citizens

A musical depiction of the HERO’S PLAN and OBSESSIVE ACTIONS (Obsessive and/or Immoral Actions and Crossing the Line are key elements of Act II, part 2, here they come a little earlier than that, but then, it’s a 71 minute movie!).  The song ends with a MIDPOINT revelation: Jack realizes he doesn’t have to understand Christmas to make it his, and decides to impersonate Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws, as he says it).  He cries out to the town “This year Christmas will be OURS!”

• “Kidnap The Sandy Claws” – Lock, Shock, and Barrel

A PLAN song: in this case it’s Jack’s Plan, but carried out by these three villainous henchmen, which turns it more into a Villain’s Plan without making us completely hate Jack. However, Jack has definitely Crossed the Line with this plan, as illustrated by the song, which should cause some recoil in the audience when LS and B start singing about boiling Santa like a lobster, just for example.  The song also sets up the true antagonist: Oogie Boogie.

And this song is also a SIDEKICK song; one of the perennial delights of musical theater, which often, as here, employs the RULE OF THREE (even the names of the characters, Lock, Shock and Barrel, are a classic Rule Of Three pattern: same, same, different. In musical theater this is often a tap dance song; tap epitomizes playful exuberance and some comic slyness as well.)

Of course one of the most wonderful examples of the Allies’ Song or Sidekick Song
and the Rule of Three is the three choruses of “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve in The Wizard of Oz, which also serves as the Gathering the Team Sequence.

• “Making Christmas” – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast:

This is a production number that first dramatizes a Training Sequence, as Jack directs the Halloween Town people to make toys for his descent onto Christmas Town.  It also   dramatizes the Storming the Castle scene; Jack Storms The Castle (Christmas Town) by reindeer and sleigh, and proceeds to terrify the sleeping citizens of Christmas Town by delivering horrifying and in some cases, vicious presents.

• “Oogie Boogie’s Song” – Oogie Boogie

Meanwhile back in Halloween Town we get a classic Villain’s Plan song: main villain Oogie Boogie is going to torture Santa Claus. This is a down and dirty New Orleans- style song, which musical theater loves, especially as a musical style for the villain. It undercuts the villainy by making it seem sexy and appealing and danceable, which in a children’s film takes the edge off the scariness of this monster.

• “Sally’s Song” – Sally

The love interest’s DESIRE SONG comes quite late in the film, but her desire for Jack has not only been clear from the beginning, it’s actually been the emotional core of the whole film. We get completely behind Sally’s Desire at the same time that we’re getting more and more uneasy about Jack’s Desire. Here her Desire song is actually used as a Black Moment or All Is Lost scene for her; she does not believe at this moment that she’ll ever be with Jack (which makes us WANT that for her even more.)

• “Poor Jack” – Jack

Jack’s All Is Lost Moment comes as he has been shot down from the sky by the police of Christmas Town, and has fallen onto into the arms of an angel statue (representing Sally) in the cemetery. He sings as he hangs from the angel/cross that he has failed utterly at his attempt to take over Christmas. But in the middle of the despair of this song, he also finds a Revelation: that he is good at exactly what he does, and he becomes excited about planning for the next Halloween. He races off with a New Plan, to save Santa Claus and restore him to Christmas Town before it’s too late. Jack Storms The Castle again, this time Oogie Boogie’s castle, to fight Oogie and rescue Santa Claus and Sally in the Final Battle.

• “Finale” – Jack, Sally, Citizens of Halloween Town

The finale starts with a production number, a reprise of “What’s This?” in which Halloween Town citizens frolic in the snow that Santa has sent as a gesture of forgiveness, finally grasping at least the joy of Christmas.  Then Jack and Sally’s final love song at the end is also a REPRISE, another favorite trick of musical theater. A Reprise is a great way to show Character Arc and a change in the hero/ine’s core philosophy or life outlook, as the second or third version of the song changes in lyrics and tone/mood (often with key changes from minor to major) to show progression. The love song is the same as Sally’s lament in Act II:2, but the words change from “Some things will never be” to “Some things are meant to be”. Of course, this and the kiss out on the frozen wave under the moon show us their NEW WAY OF LIFE: happily in love.


So I started this on my own blog this week, and today I’d like to keep brainstorming other great examples of Key Story Elements in song. I’ll start it off:

PLAN songs: “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/We’re Off to See the Wizard” in The Wizard of Oz. “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in Oklahoma (hey, I’m always saying, dating is a Plan.) “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl. “Normandy” from Once Upon a Mattress.  And maybe my favorite plan song: “Tevye’s Dream”, from  Fiddler on the Roof, in which Tevye feigns an elaborate nightmare to convince his superstitious wife that their eldest daughter should marry the poor tailor instead of the rich butcher.

Interestingly, “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King is a PLAN song: Simba’s Plan at the moment is just to have a good time (like Prince Hal in Henry V). Of course, we know that Plan is not going to save the Kingdom from Scar! We want Simba to get his act together and do the responsible thing. I would also say “Luck Be A Lady” from Guys and Dolls is not just a Desire song but also a Plan song; often songs fulfill several story element functions.

Oh, and let’s not forget dark PLAN songs! One of my favorites is the duet between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: “Have a Little Priest”. Their PLAN is for Sweeney Todd to butcher people in his upstairs barber chair, and send the bodies down for Mrs. Lovett to bake into her pies, thereby fulfilling both their Desires: ST’s for revenge on humanity (especially the Judge) and Mrs. Lovett’s: to have a thriving pie shop and get closer to Sweeney Todd.

DESIRE songs:

Too many to even name! – there’s at least one in every musical. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (My Fair Lady), “Reflection” (from Mulan – also a great Inner/Outer Desire song)”. “Corner of the Sky” (Pippin). “If I Were A Rich Man”. “I’m The Greatest Star” from Funny Girl, “Joanna” from Sweeney Todd, “Where is Love?” from Oliver! (also a THEME song). 

When you have a character cluster such as the three oldest sisters in Fiddler on the Roof, they will almost always sing the Desire song as a group number as in “Matchmaker” (again, also, the Rule of Three). The male soldiers of Mulan (one set of her allies) express their own desires in “A Girl Worth Fighting For”.

It’s also very effective to use a group number to express a group Desire: as in “God I Hope I Get It”, in A Chorus Line. Every single one of those auditioning dancers wants the same thing: the job.

Sometimes instead of or along with a DESIRE song, the Hero/ine has an I AM song, in which s/he expresses a belief or philosophy that will be challenged during the course of the musical. A great, hilarious recent example: “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon.

I AM songs also can be, and often are: WE ARE songs: ensemble numbers in which a town or a group sings together about a group philosophy. “This is Halloween”, from Nightmare, is one of those, and there are some great ones throughout musical theater: “When You’re a Jet” and “America”, from West Side Story (which expresses battling philosophies within the culture and the song), and “Tradition”, from Fiddler on the Roof, also “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story, which is simultaneously a “We Are” song, a comic male specialty number, and a searing statement of the societal FORCES OF OPPOSITION in the story.


In a musical, as in romance, the inciting incident is often that first look at the loved one:  “Maria”, from West Side Story, “Some Enchanted Evening,” from South Pacific.  But there are some great non-love songs, too: “Neverland” from Peter Pan, “Bali Hai”, from South Pacific, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell.  And Godspell’s great composer Stephen Schwartz does the same kind of opening Call to Adventure in “Pippin” with “Magic To Do” – he really understands how to give the whole audience a Call to Adventure.


Ghost songs are not so common in musical theater, but “A Barber and His Wife” from Sweeney Todd sure fits the bill with its horrifying tale.  In musical comedy you will more often see a comic flaw song, like “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma! and “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls (which is a comic ghost song, in its way).


“Sensitivity from Once Upon a Mattress”, Oliver from “Oliver!”, Scar’s song in The Lion King: a production number that climaxes Act One. We see exactly what will happen to the animal kingdom if Simba doesn’t get his act together and defeat Scar.

The Villain’s Plan song also expresses our FEAR of what will happen, and concurrent HOPE – that the Hero/ine will prevent this dire vision from happening.

I want to point out that very often in musicals and especially in film musicals and animation, the Villain does NOT have a song; he or she will express the plan in words and action, not music. Except in the rare case like Sweeney Todd, music tends to undercut the impact of the villainy – you wouldn’t want to see the Wicked Witch of the West burst into song, now, would you? The fact is that absence of music is suspect and scary, as Shakespeare said so eloquently:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
      (The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7)

However, as we see in Nightmare Before Christmas, having a scary villain sing can make him or her less threatening to children, which is an important consideration.

Also, secondary villains are often given the songs so you can have a vicarious musical delight in the evil, before the real evil kicks in. Herod’s flashy honky-tonk song in Jesus Christ Superstar is a good example.


“I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” – from Mulan. Some great irony, there, as the song also expresses the hero’s philosophical flaw as well as the theme of the movie.   “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” from Oliver (also a Mentor song), Do Re Mi, from “Sound of Music”.


This is also a kind of training sequence song. “On the Right Track” from Pippin (also could be read as a Temptation Song) “True to Your Heart”, from Mulan, “Hakuna Matata”, from The Lion King, Aunt Eller’s “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends” in Oklahoma!, “Impossible” from Cinderella, “Climb Every Mountain”, from Sound of Music, “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera (which is a villain song, too, and more of a Svengali song, but that’s a mentor variation). “Happy Talk” from South Pacific.  “Bear Necessities” from Jungle Book is both an I Am song and a Mentor song. Most of the songs in the first half of Godspell are Training/Mentor songs, as befitting one of the ultimate Mentor stories.


“The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly In The Plain.” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. This number is often at an Act Climax or Midpoint.

The Triumph can be and often is the realization or reciprocation of love: “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “If I Were A Bell” (from “Guys and Dolls”),  “Miracle of Miracles” and “Now I Have Everything” from Fiddler.


The Nightmare Before Christmas is a very streamlined story, so subplots are sparse, but in full-length musicals some of the best numbers are ALLLIES’ SONGS and SIDEKICK SONGS. Allies’ Songs very often, if not almost always, express the Ally’s Desire, and are often a comic counterpoint to the hero or heroine AND also the hero/heroine love relationship (Ado Annie and Will in Oklahoma!) These songs are also often character dances such as tap, hip hop, regional dances. modern, swing, salsa, samba, tango, etc.  Also Sidekick and secondary couple songs are often about a comic flaw: “I Cain’t Say No” in Oklahoma! and  “Adelaide’s Lament” in Guys and Dolls.

I have to add that my absolute favorite kind of musical theater song is the SPECIALTY DANCE NUMBER, a group of usually five to seven women in a song and dance showstopper like the ones Bob Fosse is so famous for: numbers like Steam Heat, Big Spender, Mein Herr, He Had It Coming. At the moment I can’t think of any equivalent in film; it’s much easier to find specialty showstoppers with a small group of men, the classic tap numbers you see time and again both on stage and in film and the breathtaking gang dance numbers of West Side Story, but I wanted to bring the female equivalent up as an example of subversive female empowerment.


And don’t forget that some songs are just to flat-out state the theme of the whole story: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, from South Pacific, “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods, “Cabaret” from Cabaret.

Okay, I could go on and on, but the point is I’d like to hear some examples from you guys! And by the way, I’ve made up a lot of those names for songs and dance numbers, so I’d love to hear other names for them.

The point I’m trying to make here is that whether or not you’re using music, song and dance in a story, you can learn volumes about creating emotionally effective scenes from looking at how musical theater handles key story elements. Take a favorite musical and watch it with that idea in mind. I think you’ll be amazed.



For those in the L.A. area, I’m doing a brand new event in Long Beach next weekend, sponsored by the great Mysterious Galaxy Books: Passion and Prose, featuring events with 40 romance and suspense authors.  Info here!