Tag! You're It!

      I'm not sure how this happened but I may be ahead of the curve for once, discovering a new internet fad before it's so "been there, done that." It's called an Accent Vlog, and I'm sure it has linguists around the word salivating all over themselves. As a writer who's struggled with figuring out how to individualize voices, there's a little drool on my chin as well.

So here's the deal. Someone out there got this ball rolling (if anyone knows who, please share) and made up a list of words and questions and set it free in the blogosphere.  Some folks appear to have made variations to their list, but the most common list seems to be:

Accent Vlog Words: Aunt, Route, Wash, Oil, Theater, Iron, Salmon, Caramel, Fire, Water, Sure, Data, Ruin, Crayon, Toilet, New Orleans, Pecan, Both, Again, Probably, Spitting image, Alabama, Lawyer, Coupon, Mayonnaise, Syrup, Pajamas, Caught

The Accent Vlog Questions:
What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
What do you call gym shoes?
What do you say to address a group of people?
What do you call the kind of spider that has an oval-shaped body and extremely long legs?
What do you call your grandparents?
What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
What is the thing you change the TV channel with?

Here are some samples from Youtube.

From the American South

from Texas

from NYC

from the Carribbean

There's a lot here that's of value to writers, but for the moment, just enjoy. Have fun with it. See if you can find a "voice" from somewhere that's really different from how you sound. If you find any that are especially worth sharing, (and there are lots of posts, so I may not be as early into this as I initially thought) throw the link in a comment. Or if you decide to play, share that link, too. I'd love to see it.

Stein on Writing - My Writing Bible

Stein on Writing
Publisher: St. Martins

Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and StrategiesIf I could own only one book on writing, it would be Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. I sometimes refer to it as my writer’s bible, because it covers such a broad spectrum of writing topics. Everything from character markers to plotting to creating tension to dialog to flashbacks to sensory input to conflict to writing love scenes to revision to titles to . . . well, you get the picture. And though the book is only 303 pages, Stein is able to say everything he needs to so succinctly and his examples are so spot on that you finish each chapter feeling that it’s been thoroughly covered.

You should understand that Sol Stein isn't just some schmo off the street. He was the chief editor for Stein and Day Publishers for 27 years. He's edited such BNAs (Big Name Authors) as George Orwell, Elia Kazan, and James Balwin. This is someone who knows his stuff with a capital S.

Stein on Writing is easily the writing book I recommend more often than any other. Mostly, I refer it to novice writers, because of its broad spectrum of topics and clarity of thought, but I wouldn’t hesitate to refer it to advanced writers as well.

Stein states on the first page that this is a book of usable solutions--how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that's good, how to create interesting writing in the first place. I’m sure you can already tell that I think this book measures up to its promise, so let’s get started with examples, so you’ll know that I’m not just blowing smoke up your skirt.

One of my two favorite chapters to recommend to neophyte writers is the chapter How To Show Instead of Tell. Stein illustrates the difference between showing and telling with this simple example:

He was nervous tells
He tapped his fingers on the tabletop shows

But then he goes a step further and illustrates that there are different levels of showing with this example:

He took a walk tells.
He walked four blocks begins to show
He walked the four blocks slowly shows more clearly.
He walked the four blocks as if it were the last mile shows more by giving the reader a sense of the character’s feelings, which the previous version did not.
He walked as if against an unseen wind, hoping someone would stop him shows most of all because it gives the reader a sense of what the character desperately wants.

My other favorite chapter is titled Particularity. In my mind, this is part two of How to Show Instead of Tell. The thrust of the chapter is picking the details that illuminate characters, settings, action, etc.  Others might call this the art of picking Telling Details. Stein calls it picking details that individualize. This is where writing comes to life.

An example he gives is from his own book The Touch of Treason:

Thomassy could see Roberts’s handshake coming at him all the way down the aisle, above it that freckled face proclaiming I can be friendly to everybody, I was born rich.
            Roberts’s smile, Thomassy thought, is an implant.

That’s a vivid example of how to characterize not just efficiently but with originality and it certainly individualizes both Roberts and Thomassy, showing you so much about both characters: Roberts would make a first-rate politician and Thomassy is snide and cynical.

There’s so much that’s valuable here. Perusing the book to see what else to include in this review, I ran across Stein’s statement in the chapter The Adrenaline Pump  that you open a book by introducing a character then, as soon as possible, creating some moments of tension. Such a simple formula for an opening. And so hard to execute well. And so different in texture from the current advice to start en media res which too many interpret to mean that you start with action (like a car chase or an explosion) which doesn’t do the job because it doesn’t matter what’s happening until you put a face on it. This chapter goes on to explore the importance of tension and how to draw it out–and yes, tension is different from suspense. 

In another chapter (Love Scenes), Stein reminds you that you don't want to tell the reader what the characters are feeling, but to evoke feelings in the reader as a result of what (the characters) say to each other and what they do. Then he shows you how that’s done.

The chapters on character offer such gems as how to create markers for your characters and how to describe characters through their actions. Stein shares the secrets of good dialog and borrows an exercise from the famed Actor’s Studio that shows you how to create conflict by giving your characters different scripts. All good stuff.

The book is packed with more practical wisdom than I can even begin to mention in a blog I hope to keep to a reasonable length. It’s great stuff for novice or intermediate writers and a fantastic review of principles for advanced writers.

Do you have a writers Bible? If you do, what is it? 

If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.  

Careers for Characters - Sonographer

      I was delighted when Joan Swan offered her expertise for this feature, because I'm pretty tired of doctors and nurses being the only people from the medical field to get any serious stage time. I can think of so many ways a sonographer's job could add drama, especially now that my awareness of what they do has been broadened.

What don’t people know about the job of a sonographer?

A sonograher’s job is critical to a patient’s well being, regardless of the type of facility one works in.  This position is completely technologist dependant, which means an ultrasound is only as good as the technologist performing it.  Because there is no way to completely image everything we see, our job is to evaluate the patient in regards to the reported illness and take representative pictures of organs/areas of the body in question.  If we don’t see the problem, we may or may not image the problem.  If we don’t image the problem, the radiologist (physician who reads the scan) will not see the problem. 

In that way, ultrasound is different than CT or x-ray or MRI or mammography.  Those modalities have certain techniques employed in the same fashion with each exam.  In that situation, a technologist needs to understand his/her equipment and basic patient positioning to perform an adequate exam.  Ultrasound is completely different.  A technologist must understand not only the equipment and patient positioning, but anatomy, physiology and pathology—of every organ we image.  If we see something pathologic, we then need to make a decision regarding what to image next, what to highlight or what to investigate further.  Unlike other modalities (CT, x-ray, etc.) various techniques can be employed to get better images.  Those techniques differ depending on the patient, their illness/condition, their body build…the list goes on.  A good sonographer is skilled and diligent.

A sonographer’s job is extremely physically and emotionally demanding.  I can’t tell you the number of people who think we simply sit in a chair all day, put some “jelly on their belly” and “move a wand” around. 

Physically, scanning is tough on many parts of the body just as any job with repetitive or strenuous action.  We stand most of the day and put a great deal of pressure on our feet, hips, shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, not to mention the muscles and tendons in those areas.  Every career sonographer I know has some physical job-related injury.  Carpal tunnel, rotator cuff, pulled muscle, misalignment of hips, pelvis, spine and shoulders are only a few problems.  The more demanding the work environment, the more injuries a sonographer will have.  Ergonomics are a pipe dream in the field of ultrasound. 

Emotionally, a sonographer must employ a combination of professional distance while maintaining a personable nature and butt-load of compassion.  No matter where a sonographer works, they will discover/see terrible tragedy—miscarriage, trauma, internal bleeding, cancer.  People (aside from happy pregnant couples – which, by the way, do not make up the majority of obstetrical scans I’ve performed across the board in my 20 years as a sonographer, regardless of the facility type) come to sonographers because they are in pain or a doctor suspects a problem.  They are generally not happy or pleased to be there.  And of course, it is difficult to see anyone in pain, but to watch children suffer is often unbearable.  Pain and suffering are an all day, every day reality for sonographers. 

Sonographer have a lot of education and training.  Many people assume sonographers are “technicians”, trained to run equipment and little more.  Sonographers have as much or more training than Registered Nurses or RNs.  Two years of specialized training in ultrasound is required, which encompasses not only anatomy, physiology and pathology of the human body, but intense knowledge of physics.  To become a registered sonographer (just as nurses become registered nurses), a sonographer must pass medical boards in both physics and whatever specialty they desire.  Additional board tests must be passed to for various specialties.

What is a typical day like?

Daily routines vary according to the type of facility.  Clinics generally schedule patients every half hour or so.  Hospitals may schedule outpatients (patients who come from outside the facility) as well as handle whatever inpatient (or in-house patients) scans are requested.

Where I work, shifts are staggered so the hospital is covered from 7am until 8pm.  The early person scans all neonatal heads, which is an ultrasound of a newborn’s brain.  My facility has a huge Neonatal Intensive Care unit, so the morning sonographer can spend up to 4hrs just scanning babies. 

If a sonographer takes call (which is often a requirement of the job, not an option), their day doesn’t end there.  They either stay until all studies are performed or they come back at all hours of the night and morning to perform urgent scans.  Then return to work the following day for their regular schedule—regardless of how little sleep they’ve gotten.

Our day consists of handling medical paperwork, intensive patient care, the actual scan of the patient, reviewing the study with radiologists, and transport of that patient to and from their room (or out of the hospital if they are an outpatient).  We pre-scan, prep and assist with procedures such as biopsies, thoracentesis (drainage of fluid from chest), paracentesis (drainage of fluid from abdomen) and abscess drainage (infected fluid collection anywhere in the body).  General maintenance of machinery and stocking of supplies occupies our non-existent free time.

My day at UCSF typically starts as soon as I hang up my jacket and doesn’t stop until I get the last patient back to their room.  I spend the day juggling portable scans in the several ICU units including the neonatal ICU, the operating rooms, the recovery room and patients sent to us by the emergency room or any one of the 10 patient care floors.  I often don’t sit down most of the day, never take regular breaks and am thrilled if I get a lunch away from the department.

What type of people would you associate with in this job?

A sonographer regularly associates with doctors of every specialty known to the medical field, nurses, fellows (radiology physicians who have completed residency and are specializing in ultrasound), residents (radiology physicians going through residency), patients, a patient’s family, fellow sonographers, other radiology technologists, hospital transporters, secretaries, housekeeping, maintenance workers.

What are the differences between facility types?

Clinics are generally orderly with only “walkie-talkies” or patients who come into the facility by their own steam (outpatients).  They are typically nicely appointed, calm and quiet.  Patients are scheduled every half hour to every hour with an occasional add-on patient request from a doctor’s office.  Hours run 8am to 4:30-5pm with a 30-60 minute lunch (rarely missed).  Overtime is rare.

Radiologists in these locations are generally quite personable, people-oriented, skilled and knowledgeable in ultrasound.

Small or rural hospitals can be as quiet as they can be chaotic.  This typically depends on the physicians practicing at the facility, how liberally they order studies, how well they understand what diagnoses ultrasound can and can’t provide.  Outpatient exams are generally scheduled on the hour with inpatients and emergency room studies accommodated as they come up during the day.  A lot of juggling and triage by the sonographer is necessary, deciding whether an ER patient must be scanned before the schedule outpatient, etc. 

There is typically little to no support from attending radiologists within these facilities, as I find most radiologists at small hospitals are either not interested in ultrasound and/or not skilled within the field.  Because the modality requires practice, many radiologists will not scan, but will depend entirely on the sonographer’s proffered study and their opinion.  Often, in these facilities, studies the sonographer deems “normal” or not imminently troublesome will not be checked by the radiologist prior to the patient being released.

These facilities can also vary in appearance, depending on available funds and allocation of those funds and can range from nicely kept with well-appointed surroundings to run-down, barely passing JACHO inspection. (Joint Commission of Accredited Hospital Organizations—kind of like an OSHA for hospitals.)

Large hospitals or teaching medical centers are typically busy to the point of chaos.  Patients come from every direction—emergency, outpatient, inpatient, operating room and recovery room.  Several sonographers work as a team to coordinate and juggle.  The radiologist or sonologist (a radiologist specializing in sonography) are very involved in all scans and procedures.  Generally all studies are checked prior to release of the patient and the radiologists are also skilled at scanning.  In these facilities, radiologists place great trust and pride in their sonographers, as these locations only tolerate the most skilled and knowledgeable technologists.  Excuses for substandard studies are unacceptable and rejected by radiologists in this setting.

These locations can also vary in appearance depending on their funding, but generally are well-kept if not new and carry high-quality equipment.

When I think of sonograms, I think of expectant mothers and pictures of their fetuses but I'm sure your work has a wider range than that and that there's a variety of challenges. Can you share some of those with us?

Sonography can be used for more purposes than I can name.  We can scan every surface of the body, although penetration (visibility) depends on the contents beneath the skin.  Ultrasound cannot penetrate bone and scatters in the presence of air or gas, which means we can not scan intestines or bowel very well.  Ultrasound is used as a powerful, non-invasive, non-radiating and completely safe tool to visualize the abdomen, pelvis, unborn fetus, vasculature, heart and even the newborn brain.

Other than fetuses, ultrasound is used extensively in the following areas:

  • In the abdomen we scan liver, kidneys, vasculature, ducts, pancreas, spleen and limited view of stomach in babies. 
  • In the pelvis we can view the uterus, ovaries, bladder and prostate.
  • “Small parts” include testicle/scrotum, thyroid and breast.
  •  Neonatal head sonography visualizes a newborn’s brain through the fontanel (soft spot) of the skull. 
  • Vasculature ultrasound can visualize arteries and veins throughout the body.
  • Other types of scans are performed throughout the body in search for and/or evaluation of fluid pockets, bleeds, aneurysms, blood flow, abscesses, etc.
  • Procedures include utilizing ultrasound to localize and mark a spot for fluid drainage as well as guide for a “real time” biopsy of many organs and any mass which can be viewed sonographically.
  • Of course the heart can also be visualized extensively with ultrasound, but that is done in the Cardiac/Vascular department, the studies reviewed by cardiologists.

As a top transplant facility, at UCSF we scan a variety of transplant patients—liver, kidney and pancreas mostly. 

95% of the fetal ultrasound that are performed at UCSF is referral from other centers or doctor’s offices.  Patients come from all over northern California on a regular basis for “targeted” or “level two” sonograms because either a sonographer or physician noticed something wrong on a prior study.  Therefore, the fetal scans we perform are typically worrisome, troubled and problematic.  Many require in-utero surgery.  Many don’t survive.

What kind of qualifications would someone need to get into this field?

To qualify to sit for the board tests, a sonographer must have over 2000 hours of internship or scanning experience in a given specialty.  That is one year of full-time scanning experience in addition to two years at an accredited sonography program.

Is there a particular "personality type" that gravitates toward this field?

2 types of people seem to gain interest in becoming a sonographer:

1—Someone who has worked in the radiology field and has knowledge of the profession, such as an x-ray technologist, who would then go back to school to gain the necessary education and experience to practice and obtain a job as a sonographer.  These people are generally intelligent, compassionate, people-oriented hard workers who understand the demands of working in a medical facility.

2—Someone who sees the profession as a quick fix and/or easy money.  These tend to be young people searching for a vocation in lieu of attending college or adults who are being sponsored to retrain for a second career as part of a worker’s compensation rehabilitation-type program—usually due to injury on previous job.  These types of people usually underestimate the intense requirements involved in becoming a competent sonographer and lack the work ethic to persevere.

Where do sonographers fit within the medical heirarchy? In other words, who do you answer to?

Ultrasound is within the radiology department.  In smaller locations we really have two bosses -- the manager of the radiology department and the radiologist. The radiologist usually pulls rank when there is a conflict.

What kinds of things go wrong?

You name it.  Patients can code (heart stops beating), decompensate (drop in respiration, blood pressure, or oxygenation) or become combative during an exam.

I have had two newborns code on me.  I have had one adult pass away immediately after I had scanned him and he’d been returned to his hospital room.  More recently, I had a woman miscarry during an exam.  I have been sworn at, pushed and hit by patients.  Once a man threatened to kill me.

Patients can be in too much pain to tolerate a study.  A variety of medical conditions and drug side effects can cause hallucinations, which generally cause the patient to become uncooperative at best, violent at worst.

Exposure to bacteria, viruses and a patient’s bodily fluids are a constant risk.  I’ve been coughed on, sneezed on, spit on, peed on, puked on, pooped on, oozed on, leaked on, and bled on.  If you can imagine a bodily fluid, I’ve been exposed to it.

As disturbing as all that is, what troubles me most is how easily life-threatening problems can be missed.  An inexperienced, or simply careless, sonographer can miss something as crucial as an ectopic pregnancy, an aortic aneurysm or internal bleed.  All of those oversights can be lethal.

Less immediately life threatening, but equally as devastating in the long run, is the possibility of a sonographer missing a small cancer or enlarged organ which could be intervened upon relatively successfully in the early stages, but deadly if allowed to metastasize or worsen.

What are the emotional rewards of this job?

  • Touching a patient’s life in a positive way during one of the darkest times.
  • Helping uncover the source of a patient’s pain.
  • Knowing my time at work makes a positive difference in the world.
  • Camaraderie of quality physicians and technologists.
  • Respect of renowned specialists.
  • Taking pride in my work.
  • The challenge of every scan.
  • Continued learning.

Can you give us a ballpark idea of where sonographers make?

Registered sonographers start off at anywhere from $20/hr to $45/hr depending on their level of experience and specialization as well as the area of the country in which they work.  Experienced, multiple-specialty sonographers working at a top-notch facility in a highly populated area for a long period of time average between $50-$90/hr. 

A sonographer that works full time and takes a considerable amount of call can make between $100k and $175k a year – but sacrifices are inevitable and the results cumulative.  (Aging sucks.)  Lack of sleep leads to illness, stress, reduced happiness and shortened life span.  Lack of free time takes its toll on one’s personal life, family life and sanity.  Overwork produces multiple physical problems including spine, joint, limb and neck problems.  Most career sonographers live with some level of physical pain. 

Is there jargon that would be useful for a novelist to know?

There is too many to list!  It’s such a specialized field within the huge field of medicine.

*** To make this even more interesting, Joan will randomly choose one commenter to award a $10 ITunes Card. The comment must be made on this blog post between now and midnight PST Sunday February 27th. Be sure we have the means to contact you.

NOTE: This video gives a nice view of the equipment which would be useful for writing the scenes and it gives a sample of the language one might expect to put into a character's mouth. Joan reviewed it before I included it, and said that it worked for those purposes, but cautions that it's a simplistic depiction of the job. Youtube has a number of these videos for various scans which could be useful in supplying your character with the right jargon for specific areas.

Website http://joanswan.com Blog http://joanswan.blogspot.com Brava Authors http://www.bravaauthors.com/authors/joan-swan/ Twitter  http://twitter.com/joanswan Facebook  http://facebook.com/ultraswan Savvy Authors  http://www.savvyauthors.com/vb/content.php?901-practiced-mastery-with-joan-swan

Want to contribute to Careers for Characters? This be the place.

If you find yourself on this page without quite knowing how or why you’re here, an explanation of the goal of this project can be found here. For the rest of you who know why you’re here and would like to contribute, please leave a comment below. If you don't have a blogger ID (or it's not turned on) please include a way for me to contact you.

I may not be in touch immediately, depending on how many irons I have in the fire at that moment. I do like to have a couple interviews in the works, but at the same time, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself and keep folks waiting in the queue too long.

Mirroring Heroes and Villains; Will it Work for You?

The best villains are mirror images of the hero. There but for the grace of God, go I.  That’s one of the pieces of story wisdom that you see time and again. But is it true? Lots of excellent stories don’t  practice it. Lots of stories don’t even have villains. Where is the villain in stories that pit the hero against nature?

Unbreakable [Blu-ray]Remember M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Unbreakable? Maybe not. It didn’t do nearly as well as The Sixth Sense

The premise revolved around two men, one of whom (Bruce Willis’ character) was invulnerable, literally the sole survivor of a nasty train wreck. The other (Samuel L. Jackson's character) a man whose bones broke if he blinked wrong. Hero and villain, set up as mirror images of each other. The villain even says as much near the end. But it obviously didn’t work because the movie basically bombed. The question is why? I think it had to do with choices. Bruce’s character was wishy-washy about his abilities in the beginning. When he takes on a superhero persona, he does so reluctantly and only to be a hero in his son’s eyes. I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason. The villain seems to choose villainy for even weaker reasons. And at the core, neither of them chose to be invulnerable or fragile. That was a genetic crapshoot. So nothing here resonated.

Does that negate the mirror theory?

Or does execution make a difference?

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Special Edition)Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? Indy and the French archeologist Belloq? This is another one where the villain points out that there’s not much difference between himself and the hero, and Indy snarls at him for daring to say such a thing. Except Belloq really isn’t the big villain in the story. He’s more of a convenience for getting the characters into the position the screenwriter needed them to be in. The villains are the Nazis. I can’t really get behind making a case that the Nazis mirror anything about Indy.

So another place where the wisdom bombs.

Let’s try again.

One has to ask why Darth Vader is such an enduring villain because through most of the Star Wars trilogy, he’s pretty one dimensional. Okay, yes, there’s something terrifying on a primal level about that constant asthmatic breathing. That’s the kind of thing that can haunt your nightmares without even needing to see who’s stalking you. But character-wise, he’s an obstacle, a personification of the Empire, until the big reveal that he’s Luke’s father. Then he gets interesting. There’s a touch of that mirroring thing here. Will Luke become his father? And that’s interesting because it’s based on choices. Vader’s as well as Luke’s. 

There’s a lot we learn in the prequels that mark differences between the two, but we didn’t know all that when it was just the original trilogy, so I feel justified in ignoring it. The original movies are where Vader earned the status of immortal villain, and there’s mirroring in those. So yes, mirroring the hero and villain can be effective when it’s done well.

Crimson TideIn the movie Crimson Tide, Gene Hackman’s character plays an old-school submarine commander who believes his primary duty is to follow orders. Denzel Washington, his XO, is less rigid. When they receive orders to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against Russia which is then followed by a secondary transmission that is cut off, Hackman intends to follow his last standing order. Washington believes they must wait to get the order verified because the lost transmission could have rescinded the previous order (an excellent example of high stakes if ever I saw one.) The conflict between these two becomes the crux of the story. On a basic level, the two men mirror each other. Old school vs. new school. Follow the orders given or take the initiative to question?

Because audiences demand a winner and a loser, the story resolution gives us one, and Washington’s position is validated, although at the end of the movie, the military board determines that they were both right. And it would have been easy to write an alternate ending that validated the commander’s position, which also makes this movie an interesting example of the principle that the most interesting conflicts are good vs. good--but that’s another post. Although it provokes the thought that mirroring might be most effective in good vs. good conflicts. Hm. A thought worth exploring. But again, that’s another post. The point of this post is whether mirroring is a valid story tool, and this example clearly shows that it adds layers of depth that would be hard to achieve without it.

P.S. I Love You [Blu-ray]In fact, mirroring works even when you’re not talking about villains and heroes. P.S. I Love You doesn’t have a villain per se. Holly’s journey back to living after the devastating loss of her husband is the main story line. The mirroring between Holly and her mother, whose husband walked out and never came back when Holly was fourteen, is an important part of the story. Her father’s desertion makes Holly’s loss more poignant because on an emotional level the loss of father and husband mirror each other, but even more important to the story is the mirroring of Holly and her mother. Though the mirroring between the two is there through most of the movie, the screenwriter states it plainly when Holly’s mother says that the worst feeling a mother can have is watching her daughter head for the exact same life the mother led and feeling helpless to stop it. 


Powerful stuff that mirroring.

Do you use mirroring in your stories? If so, are you aware when you do?

Story Structure Architect - Was it Good For You?

By Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D.
Publisher: Writers Digest Books

You may have notice that most of the writing books I’ve reviewed so far focus on story structure. That’s because that’s where I am on the learning curve. That’s why I picked up this book. I mean, Story Structure Architect? Come on. That’s got to have something useful for the quest, doesn’t it? One would think so, wouldn’t one?

But right from the beginning, I had doubts about this book. I’d just come off a reread of the Save the Cat! and one of Syd Field's books so I was used to their chatty sytles. This read like a text book or maybe a master's thesis. So before I was done with the first chapter, I got curious enough to check Amazon.  The only books listed by this author are 45 Master Characters, Book in a Month, and this one. So right away I'm thinking, "This author is all about lists."

I decided that this doesn’t mean she doesn’t have something valuable to bring to the table, but it does mean that if she says something that conflicts with someone like Blake Snyder or Sol Stein, I’m going to discard her opinion because she’s never really been in the trenches.

It never became an issue because this isn’t really about how to write a story.

I decided I'd review it anyway because what these reviews are about is letting you know which resources have real value and which . . . not so much.  So . . .

There are four sections to this book.

1. Drafting a Plan
Subsections here deal with the 5 Dramatic Throughlines (why she had to make up her own terminology is beyond me,) the 6 basic conflicts, and the 21 genres. This is really just an brief overview because this whole section is only 24 pages.

2. Building the Structure
The subsections here start with defining 11 Master Structures, the first of which she calls The Roller Coaster Ride which is 5 pages devoted to simplistic story structure. Then she moves onto The Replay which she defines as having two or three version of the same events in one story (5 more pages.) Then we move on to the Fate structure which is where the Climax takes place at the beginning of the story as well as the ending of the story (another 5 pages.)  And so on through the remaining eight structures.

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

But lest you think I’m being too judgmental , let’s examine one of these. Romance, the genre I write, gets 7 whole pages.

The author maintains that if you analyze the fairy tales—Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty, you will understand the structure of every type of romance written.
The Cinderella Structure is all about the heroine falling in love with the hero first and being at his mercy (the author’s word choice, not mine.) Her main concern in life (regardless of the level of her independence) is whether he will love her back (as with Hamlet and Ophelia).

The Beauty and the Beast Structure has the hero falling in love with the heroine first and being at her mercy even though he’s an “extremely powerful man in every area of his life except where she is concerned” (as in The Phantom of the Opera).

In the Sleeping Beauty Structure, both fall in love together and then save each other (ala Romeo and Juliet… sort of)

With each structure there is a three act outline.

There is some additional information about the features of the romance genre, but I’ll leave it at that because if I comment further, I’m going to go all snarky.

3. Introducing the Dramatic Situations
The situations are all paired up, being presented as mirroring aspects and while most have some validity, some are also more than a little outdated if taken literally, such as Situations 7 & 8 Vengeance Taken for Kindred Upon Kindred and Appearance of a New Kinsman. Richard III is a classic example she uses. The Golden Child would be her modern version but I think she’s stretching.

I won’t say this book has no value, because someone might use it to stimulate ideas, but that’s about all the contribution I can see it making to a working writer, because nothing is covered in any depth. It’s all shallow, surface information more suited to an academic paper.

I'll grant you that the Save the Cat! books are a hard act to follow but this book just makes them look that much more impressive. If you're looking for something to help you get a handle on story structure go with those. If you want to write a paper for a literature class, Story Structure Architect may be what you need. 

If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.

STC! Strikes Back - A Review

Save The Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for the Screenwriter to Get into . . . and Out of
by Blake Snyder
Publisher: Save the Cat! Press  

Have you ever found a wonderful writing book and been so enthusiastic you bought another writing book by the same author only to find it was the same information repackaged? I sure have. But this isn't one of those. These pages are filled with lots of new insights.

If you’re a natural plotter or you’re determined to convert into one, I can’t see much of anything in this book that won’t delight you.  Even as a pantser, I’m an enthusiastic advocate of Blake Snyder's beat sheet. Knowing how stories should be structured isn’t going to turn me into a plotter. Writing is a journey of discovery for me and that keeps it fun and interesting. If I knew every twist and turn ahead of time, I'd lose interest. That's just how I'm made. I've generally got a fairly decent idea of what my last scene is going to look like even as I'm typing page 1, and I may have some fun and games as well as a few pivotal scenes rattling around in my brain, but I don't know exactly how things are going to lay out, and I don't want to. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think STC! Strikes Back isn’t a gold mine.

Early in the book, Mr. Snyder looks at the world that exists in the three separate acts of a story and defines them as the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis worlds. Now I sometimes (okay, most of the time) have trouble pinpointing the first plot point in stories, but I think this will help me, because if I can’t recognize it other stories, how am I supposed to fashion one for my own story? Thinking of the change as stepping into another world that’s different from the one the character knew before makes it so much easier. For example, in Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner leaves New York City behind for the jungles of South America. Wow! That’s a world she’s not used to. In P.S. I Love You, Holly’s husband dies, and that creates a new world for Holly. Yes, these are really obvious transitions, but baby steps, folks. I’m working up to the tough stuff.

STC! Strikes Back then digs back into the beats of the beat sheet presented in the first book of the series, taking things a level deeper, drawing parallels between the progression of certain beats and showing how they mirror each other.

A considerable amount of space is dedicated to finding the spine of the story, which is basically Mr. Snyder’s version of the Hero’s Journey. To help define the spine of the story, he asks these questions:
  • Who is the story about?
  • What is his problem?
  • How does the hero begin the story and how does he end up?
  • What are your hero's goals?
  • What's it about?
Identifying the character isn't always as easy as it first appears, particularly in buddy or ensemble pictures. For example, in Lethal Weapon (what's called a two-hander), he identifies the spine of the story as belonging to Danny Glover's character. I always thought it was Mel's, but I was wrong. In the original Pirates of the Caribbean (a three-hander), it's Keira's story. Again I'd have called that badly. So it's not always obvious, but Blake gives us the tools to understand why it must be so. 

Identifying the problem accurately isn't always easy either. I know this because I still have trouble with this, even when it should be easy. In fact that's usually when I have the most difficulty because the “easy” answer is too easy. STC! SB helps bring me back to reality.

The third thing he asks of you is to compare where your hero is at the beginning of the story and where he is at the end. If you can't answer how your hero changes, you've got big problems with your story.  (You may even be mistaken about whose story it is.) The solution offered is to force the changes, to set the hero up at both the beginning and the end so that the change has the widest possible swing to it. He swears it works and I think it has to work better than allowing your hero to languish without changing.

Goals he identifies as the hero's wants and needs, and he gives a nice example of the athlete who wants to win the game but needs a lesson in teamwork. Notice how nicely they relate to each other. Yeah, that's important. Notice that the hero's goal needs to be tangible, so he knows when he's achieved them, and he must pursue them with vigor. As important as this is, it's the hero's need, which is often intangible, that makes us take this trip. An example in many romances might be that the heroine wants to get married, but what she needs is a good man who loves her. The wedding with the husband waiting at the altar are the tangibles, but the love shining from his eyes is why it works.

With the final question--what's it about?--we come back to theme. Ah, the dreaded theme. I hate coming up with a theme statement. I usually just settle for knowing what my theme emotions are, and hope that's enough. Maybe it is. But maybe it's not. Just in case, Blake has an interesting method for determining theme. He suggests sitting down and listing "30 Bad Ideas for the Theme of My Story." In those 30 bad ideas, he says, there will be a great one. Knowing how sneaky the subconscious is, I have no doubt that he's right. He has some questions to help stir the juices: 
  • What does the hero learn?
  • What is the moral of the story?
  • What's on your mind? What statement, issue, or ax to grind finds voice in your characters?
  • If the theme were your title, what would it be?
  • What film is your story most like, and what's its lesson?
These are all just different ways to look at the same thing, but sometimes that slight shift in perspective is just what you need. I actually think the best gift STC! has given me about theme is in the first book (my review of that is here.) Putting a statement into a character's mouth that states what the story will prove or disprove makes it seem so easy to me. Is it because it shifts the responsibility from me to a story character? Or is it that my story characters are smarter than I am? I suspect the latter, but a beautiful example is in P.S. I Love You when Gerry tells his wife Holly that she shouldn’t be waiting for her life to start. It’s already started. And then the movie is all about her finding her way back to living in the present after he dies.

In the section on rewriting, STC! Strikes Back matter-of-factly praises critique groups. Given that movies are more of a group effort and that they quickly leave the screenwriter's control, it makes sense to make the script as bulletproof as possible and a trusted group of writers can help make that happen. It's no less important for book authors, particularly new authors. That point aside, much of the section on rewrites is skewed toward screen writers (that is who the book targets after all), but it’s worth sifting through all that to find the pieces of wisdom that applies to novels. Everyone seems to have a different method for revision however, so this is too tricky for me to evaluate because what works for one person might be a total train wreck for someone else.

There is an extensive 4-page checklist at the back of the book to help you decide if your story is ready to be sent out into the world. I'm still at the stage where I appreciate it because it helps me identify the beats of the story, so I know I'm on track. The book also provides a short pitch guide. (You can never have to many of those, can you?)

As good as all that is, it’s when STC! Strikes Back gets into the story beats introduced in the original that you get the real gold. Between the then and now of the two books, Blake Snyder taught his beat sheet in workshops. The feedback that resulted let him know what he needed to expand on, so he takes a short trip back through the original beats, adding wisdom. For example, he starts calling the Midpoint of the story the Magical Midpoint because he’s come to understand how vital the midpoint break is to story structure and he uses strong examples to illustrate both the False Victory and the False Defeat types of midpoint breaks.

Good stuff, huh?

But it's peanuts compared to the real treasure. Pay attention. This is the real gold. Enough writers in the workshops cried out about how vague this Finale beat was in the original STC! that Blake Snyder knew more was needed. And he delivers.

In the Finale which begins Act Three, the worlds of Act 1 and 2 synthesize into a new world. Or as Blake Snyder puts it: 
from what was and that which has been learned, 
the hero forges a third way.
The path to that new way is a Five Point Finale that Blake affectionately calls Storming the Castle. The points are:
1. Gathering the Team
2. Executing the plan
3. The High Tower Surprise
4. "Dig Deep Down”
5. The Execution of the New Plan
What’s really fascinating about these five points is that there’s an arc to them that mirrors previous arcs found in the story structure. As the explanation unfolds, you can feel the structure resonate. For example, The High Tower Surprise has the same emotional vibration as the Debate moment in the first half of the story and the All is Lost moment in the second half.  You feel it in your bones that if you can pull this off, the story you’re writing will be better than you ever imagined.

Sadly, Blake Snyder died in 2009, but he’s left a legacy that will reach out and touch people around the world as they watch the movies and read the books that will be shaped by his wisdom. His gift to us will endure. I intend to make what I write part of that legacy. How about you?

If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.