Jump Jerry Shaw! The makings of a perfect ending

I admit it, I’m a Shia LaBeouf fan.  I fell for him in Disturbia, then Transformers, then Indy and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and so I couldn’t wait to see him in Eagle Eye.  Besides, the movie just looked great, with high action and an edge-of-your-seat premise.  What if you had no control over your life?  What would you do? 


I wasn’t disappointed. Eagle Eye had me on the edge of my seat the entire two hours, some of the time with my hands pressed up against my face (in fact, I think I even made red handprints).  Non-stop action, great motivations, incredible conflict…a movie that took my breath away.  Sometimes, in thrillers, let just say, uh….any of the Die Hard movies…we have a hero who is all about the quest, all about getting the bad guys.  And, in a high-action thriller, yep, that’s the main point. 


But, sometimes, don’t we want more?  Don’t we want the character to grow, and change?  To become a stronger, better hero?  And, in the end, don’t we want to leave with more than the sense that he got the bad guy? 


Yes – and that’s what made Eagle Eye a movie worth adding to your shelf.  Not only to study the dynamics of motivation versus stakes, but also for the effective character change realized through two or three distinct scenes, and the perfectly woven ending. 


Let’s take a look: 

First, we see the kind of person Jerry Shaw is in the opening sequence – he’s playing poker with his buddies and he uses his incredible persuasive skills to convince a buddy to place his bet.  Of course, he wins, and we think he’s some great tycoon…until he walks out into his real life and we realize he’s just a copy boy.  Hmm…something’s not right. 


Then, he goes home, tries to smooth talk the landlord into accepting partial rent and receives a phone call that rocks his world.  His twin brother has died.  And not only is he not Jerry – he’s an overachiever with medals who died for his country. What happened to Jerry? 


Finally, Jerry ends up at his home, in his brother’s room in a poignant scene where he tells his father that he just wishes he felt like he belonged.  (code for:  why am I so different from my twin brother?).  


Then, the action starts.  Jump, Jerry Shaw!  Find your destiny!  As a viewer, the story has become more than a thriller. We now understand Jerry’s deepest desire – to be like his twin and it’s all the motivation we need to believe in Jerry’s desperate journey, both internally and externally.  Although he denies he’s like his twin brother, we see his heroic character start to surface, first in his daring acts of desperation, then in protecting the woman in the mess with him, and finally in deciding that whatever happens, he’s going to complete his brother’s mission, and not let him down.  When Jerry finally realizes what he has to do to save the day, he does it with all the heroism of his twin, and finally becomes the man he was destined to be. 


He takes that leap into heroism with a resounding hurrah from the viewer because the screenwriters took the time to show us Jerry’s deepest, even unknown, desires, and then brought them to fruition. 


The final scene brings us full circle, nearly back to the thematic conversation with his father, where Jerry sees how he is the twin of a hero.  (aka, a hero himself).  It’s the perfect ending because not only has he saved the day, but he’s also finished his emotional journey.  A great ending goes beyond plot to emotions and spiritual needs. 


When you’re setting up your story, find scenes that reveal the deepest desire of the hero.  They’ll work to build motivation and give you a target to shoot for when defining the happily ever after.   Then close the circle for your hero, bringing them back to their desires, now fulfilled, and you’ll give the reader more than a thriller – you’ll give them a story that makes them wonder if they too, could save the day and be a hero.



What makes a great black moment?


So, we’re almost to the end of our Heroes’ Journey! We’ve had our character change (and we touched on the Black moment in that discussion) and we’re off to storm the castle in our last battle.  He’s been changed by events, and is a new man, and is trying to apply everything he learned….


But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to that Black moment and just touch on the elements that make it profound. 


1.      Attack their Greatest Fears – emotionally and physically.  Since the beginning of the story, you know what your hero fears the most…and you’ve been slowly pushing him to this place.  You know that Frodo fears succumbing to the ring, or worse, his own hobbitness.  You know that Bourne fears he’ll never be more than an assassin.  You know that Richard Kimball fears letting his wife’s killer go free.  We know this because we’ve asked hard questions, and we’ve figured out what is at stake for our hero.  So, now, to put it in Jean-Luc Picard language  – make it so.   Bring them to their knees with their greatest fears. 


2.      Unexpected yet Plausible – As in creating great scene dilemmas, you want to create a black moment that makes sense for the movie/situation/character.  Whatever black moment you choose, it must be something that could happen – for example, even though I didn’t love the new Indy movie  (despite Shai LeBeouf) the black moment did work.  Because, even though I didn’t like the crystal skulls coming to life to suck out people’s brains through their eyeballs, and then vanish on a spaceship, it was pretty Indy.  After all, in previous movies, the Ark came alive and punched out people’s souls, and then there was the melting man who “chose poorly” in the Last Crusade.  So, even though I didn’t like the premise (and more on that in this month’s CFO magazine!) the screenwriters DID build up enough plausibility for it to happen.  And, let’s admit it – it was sort of unexpected (and creepy!)  So, you can get away with crazy out of this world black moments if you build up the plausibility.


3.      Build in a Healing Epiphany – you want to make sure that the hero looks back to his mistakes, and sees what he did wrong.  And then, comes to some truth that will open a new door to a new future.  In other words, deal with them on an emotional spiritual, even VALUES level to make them re-evaluate everything they believe in.  One of my favorite movies is Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Love it…and cried during the epiphany where Steve Martin realizes that John Candy has lied to him…and has no place to go.  And all the annoyance is put aside by his gratefulness that he has a family to return home to.  His perspective is changed and he’s forever a changed man, just in time for the holidays.  Makes sure your black moment rends their heart, and their epiphany heals it.


Okay, enough on Black Moment and Epiphany!  Let’s move on to the Happily Ever After!  What makes a great ending!  Stop by tomorrow…and find out!


And, were still talking about SCENES over at Voices – so stop by and post your scene, get feedback and encouragement!

Writing a A Not So High Action Scene

So yesterday, we went through a high action scene, working through the details that went beyond structure to words and cadence.  “But, Susie, I don’t write a thriller!” you say. 


Not a problem.  You can still write a riveting scene using the basic princicples I laid out yesterday….


First, we: Start with Setting and the Current State of Affairs

Then we establish the Goals of the scene

And we won’t forget to fortify the Motivations of your characters action/decisions

Finally we can write the Action of the scene. 


And we’re going to pay special mind to the sentence structure and words we use to create mood. 


This excerpt is from Finding Stefanie – it’s a subplot character named Gideon who wakes up in Stefanie’s house after a horrible event.  He’s 18, and on the run with his two kid sisters.



He’d died and gone to paradise. Only, Gideon knew he didn’t deserve paradise, so perhaps this was simply a dream. Or maybe just an old west movie, because everything about this place screamed cowboys and horses and an episode of one of those ancient Lone Ranger shows. From the warm, dry single bed, with the wool red and black checkered blanket, to the bull riding posters on the walls, the trophies lining the dresser, a coiled rope hung on the bedpost of the other single bed, to more trophies on the opposite dresser. Whoever had lived here had overachiever written all over them.  Still, Gideon lay in the bed rested for the first time in – he did the mental math and couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t slept with one eye open, waiting for the nightmares, both real and imagined.


[I set the scene, and used it to also compare and contrast how Gideon feels about himself]


No nightmares last night. Except, of course, the big one – the fact he’d burned down the house of mega-rich, mega-star Lincoln Cash. Yes, that should make the news and send the cops running in his direction. Apparently, he still had the knack of knowing how to really blow it, and big. Gideon’s eyes had nearly fallen from his sockets when he’d seen the movie star walk up – in fact, he would have considered brain-altering smoke inhalation before he believed that Lincoln Cash owned the house he’d commandeered, and by accessory, incinerated. But Stefanie Noble – she introduced herself and her big brother Nick, the guy who had probably saved his life, when they reached their ranch – had no problem identifying the actor.


[State of Current Affairs]


He wasn’t sure what he’d done to deserve Stefanie Noble’s loaded shotgun defense – he’d expected to be led off in handcuffs, right back to juvie hall. He made a mental note never to cross Stefanie Nobel.

Although it felt good, way too good, to have someone on his side.


[Motivation to trust her, alittle]


Especially when she offered him a place to stay, as much as he hated to say yes. But Haley and Macy needed some place warm. One night, he’d told himself. One safe, quiet, night. And tomorrow he’d hike back to the ranch, fetch the Impala, pile his sisters inside and head…somewhere.


[Goals – he wants to make sure everyone is okay, and then keep moving with his sisters.  The last thing he wants is to get caught and have them go back to foster care.]


(note: I deleted a bit of backstory here that also went to motivation)


He sat up, hung his head in his hands. Laughter – was that Haley? — drifted from the kitchen.

He stood, grabbed his jeans and shucked them on.  Then he crept toward the door. The aroma of breakfast – eggs and sausage? roped him in and he grabbed his shirt and edged out, into the hall.


[Okay, now we’re moving into the ACTION of the scene]


“I put a pair of Rafe’s old jeans and a shirt in the bathroom. You can take a shower and help yourself, if you want.” The voice came from behind him, and he turned, saw the woman he’d hit last night – Stefanie? – pulling a towel from the closet. She handed it to him and he saw her jaw had begun to purple.

“I’m really sorry about that.” He nodded to the bruise on her jaw.

“Don’t worry about it. Get cleaned up – breakfast is almost ready.”

She had pretty eyes – dark, yet they bore a kindness that made him duck his head.  She didn’t look that much older than himself – with her long dark hair she’d plaited into two braids, and the pink tee-shirt under a brown corduroy shirt, her low-rider jeans. Yet, something about her made her seem…wise, maybe. He took the towel.  “Thanks. We’ll be out of your way in a—”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”


[So, I start into the scene in a normal pace, interjecting some thoughts (-Stefanie? – ) but then we have our first conflict.  She’s not going to let him go so easily.  But remember, he wants to trust her…so this is good inner dissonance…she’s nice, but he doesn’t want to get caught]


He looked up at her. Her smile had vanished, and for a second, he saw the scene last night, and the way she’d dismantled Lincoln Cash with her bare hands. He stepped back, toward the bathroom, and refuge.


[He isn’t sure what power she has…note some of the words – dismantled, refuge…he’s nervous].


“Unless I’m reading the situation wrong, you have little money, an old car, no place to stay and two sisters to care for. You’re either runaways, or homeless, and my guess is that if you leave, you’ll simply drive until you find another vacant house, squat there for a while until some other disaster happens.”

“We’d make do.”

“Oh yeah, eating out of garbage cans, stealing. Sleeping in the car. How long before something happens to Macy, or Haley while you’re out ‘making do?’ And what, exactly, will you have to do to “make do,” Gideon? Because, you’re not in jail now, but from my vantage point, you might as well start forwarding your mail.”


[She dives right in with the attack, and I put it in language that would bowl him over, as well as long passages of speech that seem to go on and on, like a barrage. ]


He already knew she didn’t pull her punches, and he wondered now if he might be bleeding. “Hey, I have a job. And I’m taking care of them.”

            She held up her hand. He noticed the calluses. “Hold up. I’m not saying you aren’t trying. But is it the best life for them?”

He clenched his teeth, looked away. “Just, stay out of it.” What did she know? “I should have never come here.”

            Stefanie stepped to block his entrance into the bathroom. “You absolutely should have.”


[Shorter dialogue pieces can give the feeling of either fast snappy talk, or profound statements.  Don’t bury the important stuff in lots of dialogue – set it apart]


            By the tilted head, the way she folded her arms over her chest, she didn’t look easily moved. Great. Only, for a second, relief streaked through him.

            Which was why his, “What do you want from me?” came out less caustic than it could have.

            Her eyes gentled. He felt like a piece of cellophane. If he didn’t watch it, he’d start babbling again. He looked away.

“Okay, the truth is, I want to help.” She lifted a shoulder, looked down at her stocking feet, then back to up, wearing a smile. “I know this is going to sound strange, but in a way, I think you’re sort of an answer to prayer. I’d like to help you, and your sisters, if you’d let me.”

            Why would—oh, of course.


[This is a good way to show realization – cut off the sentence, and then have him figure it out mid-thought.  The key is to SHOW the thought process by the way you arrange the words on the page].


 Haley. Everyone loved Haley, with her big innocent eyes. In fact, it had been social services’ decision to list Haley for adoption that prompted Macey’s panic, and their subsequent escape from the foster shelter.

            This woman wanted Haley. She’d probably give Gideon and Macey a full tank of gas and a bag lunch if they’d agree to leave Haley behind.

Sorry, but he hadn’t boosted a car and committed a couple misdemeanors for this know-it-all woman to swoop in and steal his sister.


[Note how here, he immediately reverts back into teenage street language, and from here on out, he’s the tough guy.  The shift in how they view people, how they refer to things in their thoughts is a great way to convey body language, tone and demeanor].


“I don’t need your charity,” he snapped, and shoved the towel back at her. He brushed past her, thumping down the stairs, his chest tight. He stalked through a nice-looking family room, leather chairs, stone fireplace, lots of homey, sweet family pictures on the wall, and into the kitchen.


[Note the use of verbs here:  snapped, shoved, brushed, thumping, tight, stalked… and it’s juxtaposed with homey, sweet…everything he doesn’t have].


Haley sat at a wooden table, clutching that stupid, grimy stuffed cat with one arm, scooping cereal into her mouth. Macey sat beside her, eating an apple. Although Haley wore a clean shirt over her grubby pants, Macey still wore her same filthy black I-hate-the-world uniform, the sleeves pulled down over her hands, her thumbs sticking out of a hole she’d made in the cuffs. She looked up at Gideon, but didn’t smile.

The pregnant woman he’d seen last night stood at the stove, scrambling eggs. She glanced at him. “Morning.”

He gave her a look, then went over to Haley, lifted her from the chair. “We’re leaving, Mace. Now.”


[Note his use of his nickname for her, establishing his territory, reminding everyone that he is their protector.]


He saw her jaw tighten, but for once she didn’t argue. Just stood up, and grabbed another apple, stuck it in her pocket.

“Gideon!” He heard Stefanie’s voice, but he didn’t turn, even with Haley’s hand limp in his.

“Thanks for the hospitality,” he said, not nicely.

“At least eat something.”

For a second, a crazy impulse inside screamed stay! Stay here and see what this woman, this family had to offer. He looked down at Haley, and her eyes had widened, her face pale.

Stay…so they could call social services, maybe even the cops and have him hauled away, back to prison. Only, this time he’d go to adult lock up.

Even he couldn’t deny the fear that snaked through him.

“C’mon Haley,” he said, tugging her.

Stupid. The word pulsed in his mind as he opened the door, walked out into the brisk air.  He kept a grip on Haley he thumped down the steps.


[When you have a moment of hesitation, as if something is pulling your character back, write it like that.  Stay.  Stay here….  Etc.]


The sky seemed to have collected the smoke from the night before, gunmetal gray in tone, it mirrored the misery that Macey and Haley wore on their faces. The wind skimmed up dirt, spit it at him as he walked past corrals of horses, the cherry red truck from last night, miles and miles of pasture land. Off in the distance, he could hear cows mooing.

[I wanted him to get a good glimpse of what he was giving up, while still reflecting his attitude.  Gunmetal gray, smoke, dirt skimmed up, spitting at him….juxtaposed with a cherry red truck and miles of pasture, contented cows.  Scenery is a good way to mirror, reveal mood].





[We don’t even have to know who says this to feel the jerk, the pull of desperation in her voice].


He didn’t turn at the voice, refusing to even let it slow his step.

“Where are we going, Gideon?” Macey said softly.

He didn’t answer.


So, no  jumping off boats, or beating up bad guys.  But plenty of conflict (Remember: conflict in every scene!) and most of all sentences and words that convey mood and help the reader sense Gideon’s emotional tug of war. 


We’re almost at the end of our character’s journey!  Next week we’ll be talking about the final leg of the journey, and how to wrap up your story!  Have a great weekend!



Writing (High Action) Scenes

So, the last few weeks we’ve been talking about Character change – bringing him through the various steps, until he’s finally on his knees, (black moment)  realizes what he needs to sacrifice to change, (epiphany) accepts the truth, and then emerges a new man to test his resolve and fight his final battle. 


Awesome.  Lot’s of great theory and structure there.  Now, let’s get specific with scene building for a bit here.   We’ve already covered Scenes and Sequels (go to the articles section to read more) as well as action objectives.  We’ve also talked about sizzling dialogue, paring your backstory to a minimum, and using strong sensory words to create mood.  So let’s talk about how you put those elements together. 


It’s about beat, and drawing the reader inside the character’s head, and using your sentence structure to create the right pace/emotions. 


First, as you enter the scene, regardless the kind of scene (action (scene) or reaction (sequel)) you need to set it up so the reader can keep up with what is in your head:


1.       Start with Setting and the Current State of Affairs (response from previous scene)


2.       Then establish the Goals of the scene (What do they hope to accomplish?)  Of course, sometimes the character doesn’t even know…but you as the author know and you want to hint at it.  For example, a woman comes home from her husband’s funeral.  She doesn’t know that the purpose of the scene is to find his secret will hidden under the mattress.  No, her goal is to just go upstairs and deal with her emotions. During which, she gets so upset she rips all the sheets off the bed…revealing the envelope containing the will.  However, as the author, you might say, in the beginning of the scene, something along the lines of:  Of course, he’d left her with nothing but a giant mortgage, a three year old and a fixer-up list that could wallpaper her cold bedroom.  Her goal might be to:  she just wanted to go upstairs and climb into bed, maybe never emerge.   If you establish these at the beginning of the scene, it sets up the elements you can use to cause conflict, and dilemmas with which to end the scene. 


3.      Don’t forget to fortify the Motivations of your characters action/decisions.  A woman who has a houseful of guests after a funeral probably isnt’ going to go to bed.  BUT, after her mother-in-law says something terribly harsh (and esp. if they have a bad relationship), she might go HIDE in her room.  And have a bit of a emotional breakdown.  Establish the motivations for every action/decision. 


4.      NOW, you have the Action of the scene.  This is where you pay particular attention to the cadence and beat of the sentences, pick out the specific words to create emotion.  If your character’s thoughts are running over each other, or if you have a lot of chaotic action, you may want to consider a run on sentence with a few fragments thrown in.   (English teachers should probably avert their eyes from this paragraph).  Likewise, if you have a lot of quick, sharp action, use shorter, more succinct sentences.  Even one word sentences. 


To really add pop to a scene, sometimes I create one word paragraphs.  The key is to create mood and feeling from the way you use your words and sentence structure.


Now, because I write Thrillers, I chose a HIGH ACTION scene.  Tomorrow, we’ll dissect a slower scene using the same techniques.


This is from Wiser than Serpents, where Yanna and David escape from Kwan, her captor. 



Think, Yanna, think!  Yanna stared up at David, at the horror on his face as he clutched her stupid little knife and her brain went blank.  Aside from being exactly the last scenario she would have conjured up for meeting David again, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that right now his brain was checking out every possible egress route from the tiny boat cabin, every possible angle where he wouldn’t have to blow his cover to save her life. 

            And probably coming up empty.


[Setting, and Current State of affairs, goals]


            Contrary to current appearances, Yanna made her living using her brain and solving problems.  And from her viewpoint, David had only one option. 

            Kill her, or be killed. 

            And, neither of those seemed acceptable.  At least, not to her.   

[Motivation for decision/action]


            Yanna caught eyes with David.  And then, with everything inside her, she kicked out at Kwan’s gun hand. 

            She connected in a bone-jarring crunch.  The gun fired, missing David’s head, or where his head had been because the moment she exploded, he turned her cute little knife on Ying, or maybe Yang – whomever, because Chinese thug went down, bleeding from the neck. 


[a mix of shorter sentences with one long run-on sentence designed to show that a lot of action happened all at once, too difficult to separate out]


            Yanna followed with an inside kick to Kwan’s knee.  He collapsed, but not before he grabbed her arm, pulling her with him. 

            She landed on top of him, pinning him with her chair.  Kwan grabbed her hair. 


[shorter, succinct sentences, a sequence of actions]


            She looked up just in time to see her knife go spinning across the floor, knocked from David’s hand by Yang.  But David dispatched him in two blows, and in a second, he’d picked up Yang’s gun. 

            Then, for a moment, all Yanna heard were three people, breathing hard. 

[Again, a run-on sentence that almost feels as if you are out of breath.  Punctuation gives the reader a chance to breathe, and I wanted to make it feel breathless.  But then, I slowed the scene to a screeching halt with a “for a moment” beat.]


            “Let her go.” David pointed the gun at Kwan.  “I won’t ask twice.” 

            Outside, shouts, running could be heard.

            “You’ll be dead long before they get here,” David added.

Kwan released her hair.  “You’re the dead man.”

David pulled Yanna to her feet, helped her wiggle from the chair.  Before he could force the handcuff key from Kwan, the door burst open. 

            “Run!”  David pushed Yanna ahead of him, towards another door. 

Yanna stumbled through it to a narrow hallway.  

            Shots fired behind her as David burst through the door, slammed it behind him.  “Run!” 


[I restarted the action with a series of shorter sentences, crisp dialogue.  The things that took a little more time, (like helping Yanna to her feet, helping her wiggle from the chair), I made into a compound, slower sentence.  When we needed more movement, I shortened the sentences. And, things that happened all at once, I gave simultaneous movement to (shots fired…as…)]



            Yanna fought for balance, her hands cuffed behind her.  She reached the stairs and stumbled up them. 

            Twilight, the sun setting on the far horizon, turning the ocean to fire, beckoned from the bow of the yacht. 


[I set off the setting in its own paragraph because I imagined her stumbling up the steps, blinking into the sunlight, and I wanted it to sort of sideswipe her for a moment. ]


            David had her by the arm, running, pulling her, now flinging her right over the edge into the frothy depths. 


[Again, movement so quick she can’t separate the actions, so I used a string of sequentials all in the same sentence.]


            Cold! The ocean gulped her whole, sucking her under, stinging as she went down.  She kicked, and kicked, surfaced with a greedy gulp of air. 


[I used the one word, Cold!  Abrupt and with an exclamation point to emphasize the impact.  Then, again, I let the ocean suck her under and overwhelm her by a longer sentence.  Note the section sentence is three almost separate sentences, strung together.  If I had used and AND conjunction in that last sentence, it would have slowed it, and I still wanted to keep the action fast.]



            And David was right there, arm around her waist, pulling her against him.  “Kick!” 

            Yeah, okay.  She coughed, but kicked, letting David drag her against the hull of the yacht.  Above, voices yelled, clearly searching for them. 

            “Shh.”  David’s voice, his cheek rested against hers, his voice calm, as if they might be out for a leisurely swim.  “Stay calm.” 


[Now, I wanted to slow the action, give the reader a chance to breathe.  Notice I used the word ‘rested’ – almost as subliminal cue for the reader to breathe. ]


The key to writing a HIGH ACTION scene is to write it like the character is experiencing it, while still allowing the reader moments to breathe/catch up.  Try writing it without the rules (here’s hoping the English teachers still aren’t looking).  Write it how it feels.  You can always go back in and clean it up later.


And don’t forget, whatever you do, end the scene with a new dilemma…


Yanna stared up at David, breathing for the first time.  He braced one knee on the seat, both hands on the wheel, glancing back over his shoulder now and again.  The wind parted his long dark hair, which sailed out behind him, and, in his flamboyant silk shirt and wet jeans – which had torn somehow in their great escape – he looked uncannily like some modern day pirate. 

            All he needed was a tattoo. 

            And, look at that.  As his shirt flapped open in the breeze, what did she see but the etchings of a design.  An eagle.  

            David Curtiss had turned into a scallywag. 

            She looked up at him, and for a split second couldn’t help but smile. 

            Apparently, however, he had the demeanor of a pirate, too, because he frowned back.  “We’re not outta trouble yet, Yanna.”  Then his eyes softened, and something so much like relief filled his eyes, she felt herself completely wordless. 

            Well, at least one of them was still in serious, way-over-her-head big trouble, indeed. 


*grin* Okay – now, Go to VOICES and post YOUR high action scene in the SCENES discussion.  Let’s learn together!  See you tomorrow!