Act II: Part 1 - What’s the EXPERIENCE of Your Book?
In the next few weeks I’m going to be focusing on the essential Elements of Act II. And one of the key elements of Act II, especially Act II: Part 1, is the PROMISE OF THE GENRE.
Your GENRE (and subgenre) is a promise to your readers or audience about the EXPERIENCE they are going to get by reading your book or watching your movie.
It’s a contract with your readers. So let’s get you thinking about the experience you want to create for them!
You can get an immediate grasp of what EXPERIENCE a book or movie promises from the book cover or movie one sheet (ie the poster).
Authors complain constantly about the sameness of book covers, and yeah, there is a LOT of blatant copying among publishing houses. It’s embarrassing and infuriating for an author to get handed a book cover that is a virtual copy of a cover (or seven) they’ve already seen hundreds of times in bookstores and on Amazon and the socials in the last few years.
But, granting the laziness and borderline plagiarism, there is some justification for that sameness. When you see one of those covers featuring an empty swing in a deserted playground, you know you’re getting a thriller focusing on the rescue of a child in jeopardy, right? The reader gets that information in a split second, and if that kind of suspense and high stakes and police procedure and family dynamics is the experience they’re looking for, they pick up or click on that book, at least to check it out. And you, the author, are that much closer to a sale.
Your book marketing team knows they need to create covers that promise a specific experience. And you need to know what experience YOU are promising—and deliver it!
In horror stories like Hereditary, Insidious, A Quiet Place, Sinister, The Shining, The Exorcist, we EXPERIENCE the terror of being trapped in a house or world dominated by a powerful evil force (demons, aliens, ghosts), and the adrenaline rush of fighting to survive.
In romances, we experience the stages of falling in love, from that electrifying first glance at the loved one and the roller coaster magic of early infatuation, through all the exhilarating terror of coming up against all your weaknesses and realizing someone else has all the power over you, to the true marriage of souls.
In mysteries, we experience the intellectual pleasure of solving a puzzle. In a thriller, the pleasure is more visceral, focused on action and constant jeopardy.
So what is the EXPERIENCE that we hope and expect to get from your story?
Is it the glow and sexiness of falling in love, or the adrenaline rush of supernatural horror, or the intellectual pleasure of solving a mystery, or the vicarious triumph of kicking the ass of a hated enemy in hand-to-hand combat?
(For those of you working with horror stories, it’s very important to identify WHAT IS THE HORROR, exactly? What are we so scared of in this story? How do the storytellers give us the experience of that horror?)
You’ve SET UP your story and characters in Act I. In Act II: Part 1 you tend to get a lot of scenes that give you that genre experience.
So here are some exercises to help you hone in on the experience of your own book or script:
1. Start by looking at the Master List you made of movies similar to the story you’re writing. Identify the Experience that so thrills you in those movies and books. That will get you thinking about which of those Experiences you want to create for your own readers/audience.
In Jaws, we EXPERIENCE the terror of what it’s like to be in a small beach town under attack by a monster of the sea.
In How to Train Your Dragon, we get the EXPERIENCE and the wonder of discovering all these cool and endearing qualities about dragons, including and especially the EXPERIENCE of flying. We also get to EXPERIENCE outcast and loser Hiccup suddenly winning big in the training ring.
In The Godfather, we get the EXPERIENCE of the “weakest” Corleone son Michael gaining in power as he steps into, then takes over the family business. There’s a vicarious thrill in seeing him win these battles.
In Harry Potter, we get the EXPERIENCE of going to a school for wizards and learning and practicing magic (including flying!).
And look: it’s important to be as specific as possible when you’re doing this exercise! Like, if there are Reacher books on your list, what exactly is it that you get out of reading a Reacher book?
Because for you it might be the kick-ass action scenes: how one man is somehow able to defeat multiple villains, over and over again.
But for me, the pleasure of a Reacher story is seeing how over and over again, Reacher enters a community that is under siege, then gathers a bunch of misfits and outsiders from that community and quickly trains them as a surprisingly effective commando team that he leads to improbable victory over the bad guys.
Knowing the specific experience I crave in books and movies helps me create that experience for my own readers.
2. Take some time to write out what EXPERIENCE you want your audience or reader to have in your own story, so you can build scenes that deliver on that promise.
3. If you’re working on a rewrite, one of the best things you can do to make sure you’re delivering on the promise of your genre is to put your book or script up on Index Cards again.
It’s super easy to do this, because you’ve already written the chapters—you just need to write an index card for each scene and put them up on a story grid.
But this time, choose a separate color for your genre scenes. For example, if you’re writing a romance, put all your love scenes on red cards or Post-its. If you’re writing horror, put all your scare scenes on green cards.
Once you’ve done that, you can look over your story grid and instantly see if you’re delivering on your genre. If you have a whole sequence with no cards in that genre color, you know you need to work in some love scenes, or scare scenes, or action scenes.
And look, don’t panic if you find you don’t have enough genre scenes! The first draft is for finding the shape of your plot. Genre is perfect rewrite work:
4. I always encourage writers to do a GENRE PASS: Read through your book or script just focusing on where you can amp up the thrill of your particular genre.
I think it’s one of the most fun stages of writing!
For paid subscribers this week: Essential Elements of Act II.
To review, here’s a video on the most essential elements of Act I, moving into the essential elements of Act II:1 - as a narrative!
Get the workbooks:
Stealing Hollywood ebook, $4.99, also available as print workbook
Writing Love ebook, $2.99
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All material from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff