Monday, October 8, 2012

Story Tips #1 - A Monthly Series

By Jax Hunter

Welcome to my “new” column for the PPW Blog, Story Tips from the Big Screen. In this monthly column (to be posted the second Monday of each month), I will be exploring screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story. Sometimes we get tunnel vision, focusing on craft to the exclusion of learning what makes a good story.

Likely, there will be very little here that will be earth shattering or completely new. But sometimes, all we need is to look at a topic from a different perspective. So that’s what I hope to do, look at some of the things that make a good story.

Cheers, Jax 

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Loglines and Story Concepts: Familiar terms? They are both movie industry terms that, occasionally, make their way into fiction writing books. So, what are they?

My definition: super short synopses.

The words are very often used interchangeably, making it difficult to pin down if there is a difference between them. Perhaps the real distinction lies in their purposes rather than in their “looks.”

Loglines are used primarily to sell ideas, to get your screenplay - or novel - read. They are the quick, roll off your tongue answer to “What’s your story about.” They’re the one-liner used in a query letter or face-to-face meeting to hook the agent or editor into asking to see more. And if the synopsis is hard to write, then the twenty-five word logline is even trickier.

The story concept is very similar in look and feel but is used at the beginning of the process. It’s the statement that keeps you focused as you write. For the purposes of this article, we’ll simply use the term story concept and consider how we use them and how we write them. Quick digression here. To date, I have been a seat-of-the-pants writer. When I’ve begun a novel, I’ve had a fairly clear idea of the characters, a what-if premise and a happily-ever-after ending. With those, I’ve merrily begun a project and typed along just fine for between fifty and a hundred pages. At that point I completely lose my mind. I have no idea where I’ve come from or where I’m going. I have no purpose, no real theme, no nothin’. Then it takes sheer  determination to continue, and that only after taking a week off to have a breakdown.

One of my goals this year is to become an outliner. Don’t know if it can be done, but I’m learning a lot and giving it a try even as I write this. I’m using some of what I’ve learned from the screenwriting world to outline my next project right now. I’ll tell you how that goes.

My point, though, is this: I’m going to use the story concept (which I’ll have for you by the end of this article) to sharpen everything that comes after.

So how does one go about writing one of these catchy short-shorts? If you start looking, you’ll find many approaches, all fairly similar. I’ll share a couple with you, along with a few examples.

The first and simplest:

1. Character: who is the story about?
2. Goal: what does he want?
3. Conflict: What stands in his way?

The passengers on a speeding bus will die if the bus falls below 50 mph. (Speed)

A tornado blows Dorothy to Oz where she fights a witch and seeks a wizard to find her way home. (Do I need to tell you?)

In order to win the starting goalie position, A.J. Charbonneau must overcome both his rival and his heart. (From Black Ice - my first novel)

This method is a great jumping off place. But, somehow, we seem to miss the emotion the why-should-we-care part of the story.

Another method uses the dramatic question in your story.

Will a young man find justice against the uncle who killed his father and married his mother? (Hamlet)

Can two teenagers bring their warring families together and find a happy ending? (Romeo and Juliet)

Will a novice sports reporter, who knows nothing about hockey, be successful in her new job and find her heart’s desire? (Thin Ice - my second novel.)

This method is good too. It might get us a little closer to the emotion of the story. But, wow, is it limiting.
Another process gives us very little of the story, but the resulting loglines are very easy to remember. Ray Frensham in Teach Yourself Screenwriting suggests two methods:

1. The rule of threes
2. Contrasts

Here are some of his examples:

She brought a small town to its feet, and a large corporation to its knees. (Erin Brockovich)

3 Casinos, 11 Guys, 150 million bucks. Ready to win big? (Ocean’s 11)

He was the perfect weapon - until he became a target. (The Bourne Identity)

Five criminals. One line-up. No coincidence. (Usual Suspects)

AND MINE: An Airman without a mission; a woman without a memory (A Soft Place to Fall- my third novel)

Very short and to the point. But again, little is actually said about the story, about the characters. And what are stories without characters, without emotion? These are likely best used in the sales pitch.

Here’s another recipe:

Situation, Complications, Action, Crisis, Transformation.

This recipe gives you much longer story concepts but allows the emotion of the story to come out as well.

My example using this recipe: Literary attorney, Lacey McKenna, has just left the corporate world to start her own business. When handsome author Kyle Chamberlain hires her to accompany him to California to meet with a movie producer, she makes the jump out of her comfort zone to make the money. Little does she know that Kyle is only out to take revenge for the past. The trip is magical and Lacey lives and loves like  she’s never done before. When she learns the truth, she’s left with both a broken heart and a business teetering on the edge of disaster. (Magic, unpublished)

The best method I’ve found so far was “invented” by Colorado author Jameson Cole, who very graciously allowed me to use it here. With this method, we concentrate on the character and the conflict.

A story concept has three elements of character descriptions:

PHYSICAL - aging, boozy
SOCIOLOGICAL - Secret Service agent, Boston lawyer
PSYCHOLOGICAL - the Secret Service agent feels guilty, the Boston lawyer wants to vindicate himself.
PAST - the relevant backstory.
PRESENT - a current dilemma usually requiring a goal-oriented decision.
FUTURE - what happens if failure occurs.

In The Line Of Fire:
PHYSICAL - An aging
SOCIOLOGICAL - Secret Service agent,
PSYCHOLOGICAL - who feels guilty
PAST - for failing to save President Kennedy from being murdered
PRESENT - duels a deadly assassin. The outcome of their battle
FUTURE - will decide whether the current president lives or dies and whether the agent's troubled past will give way to peace.

The Verdict:
PHYSICAL - A boozy
SOCIOLOGICAL - Boston lawyer
PRESENT - receives an easy malpractice case,
PSYCHOLOGICAL - but because it is his last chance to vindicate himself
PAST - against the establishment that betrayed him,
FUTURE - decides to battle their premier attorney.

A Killing In Quail County by Jameson Cole:
PHYSICAL - A fifteen-year old boy
SOCIOLOGICAL - in small town Oklahoma in the 50's
PSYCHOLOGICAL - growing up lonely
PAST - because of his parent's accidental death and his older brother's alienation
PRESENT - learns that a vengeful old bootlegger is trying to kill his older brother
FUTURE - and decides to find the old man's still so he'll be sent to prison.

Here are the resulting story concepts:

In The Line Of Fire - An aging Secret Service agent, who feels guilty for failing to save President Kennedy from being murdered, duels a deadly assassin. The outcome of their battle will decide whether the current president lives or dies and whether the agent's troubled PAST will give way to peace.

The Verdict - A boozy Boston lawyer receives an easy malpractice case, but because it is his last chance to vindicate himself against the establishment that betrayed him, decides to battle their premier attorney.

And mine: A hotshot hockey player who violently distrusts the press after he and his friends were preyed upon painfully, is tasked with babysitting the visiting female sportswriter. When betrayal overcomes them both, they must learn how and when to say I’m sorry. (Thin Ice - my second novel)

Still two sentences - 41 words. It could use some whittling down.

As a romance writer, I’m wondering if I should have one of these each for my hero and heroine. Okay, so here goes. My hero’s story concept for the next novel using Jameson’s method.

A successful computer geek, tormented by the Holy Grail girl who turned him down in school, puts together an elaborate deception in order to get her back, but ends up dealing with emotions he hadn’t counted on. (Magic)

The upshot here, friends, is that short shorts aren’t easy to write (at least for me), but there are guidelines. I hope you find one of them that jumps off the page and helps you along. In the meantime, start reading the TV guide blurbs and here is a website that has some interesting (some good, some not so good) story concept statements.

Another suggestion. Go to and take a look at loglines and story summaries - some written by the pros and some written by the consumers.

Until next month. BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keyboard)

(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)

About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.

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