Today I’m pleased to introduce MWC blog readers to Jule Selbo, a multi-talented writer who recently has made Portland her permanent home. Jule is a former screenwriter (with film and television credits), a playwright (her most-recent play BOXES premiered at the Good Theater in Portland in November, 2019) a teacher (Cal State-Fullerton among other institutions) and now a crime writer. Her debut thriller, TEN DAYS, will be released this Wednesday, August 11. I had the good fortune to snag an early copy and found it to be an electric read. Pick an unrushed day and find yourself a comfortable reading nook when you dive into TEN DAYS – you won’t want to put it down.
JULE SELBO: I am deep into the second half of the next book in my Dee Rommel Mystery series. The publication date of 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, is August 11, 2021 and I was hoping 9 DAYS would be finished by the time the first book came out.
Not going to happen.
Of course, I’m asking myself, why did I think the second book would be ‘easier’? Hadn’t I built the main characters, their personalities – their positive and negative traits? Hadn’t I determined the style (first person, present tense)? I thought I’d be able to concentrate on the creation of the crime/mystery plot and the more “personal” stories of the characters would unfold (per outline) from those set up in book one.
But then, the issue of balance raised its leering head.
The longest section of my writing career, to date, has been as a screenwriter. I worked in Los Angeles in television and film for over twenty years. My first feature assignment was at Paramount Pictures, and I was terrified. My only training in writing for the movies had been watching a gazillion films (not as crazy as Tarantino, but pretty obsessive), reading a few how-to screenwriting manuals, writing a few plays (these got me the feature assignment) – and being an absolute lover of story, structure and genre components.
Back up: Screenwriters use genre within a project, not just as an overall labeling of the end-product. As an example: Casablanca (1942), considered one of the best romance movies of all time, can be broken down in its four genre components: war/drama/romance/buddy. Legally Blonde (2001) is a comedy/fish-out-of-water/romance/coming of age/buddy movie. Inception (2010) is a sci-fi/drama/romance/mystery/crime story. Each story genre nestled inside the movie has dictates, and these provide guideposts for the screenwriter.
One of my self-training exercises as a young screenwriter was to watch the movies with a stopwatch in hand. I filled notebooks with breakdowns – I noted the lengths of scenes, the amount of screen time the protagonist enjoyed versus the time given to the main antagonist and other supporting characters, the “act breaks”, set-up systems, and especially the time given to the various story genres of the main (A) story and supporting (B) stories.
I became consumed with the desire to understanding the balance of genres in the film stories that I admired the most. I had done so many breakdowns, last week I decided to go to my old notebooks to help me come to terms with some problems I was having in the pacing of 9 DAYS. I knew I needed a re-think: the story elements seemed just a bit out of balance.
Here’s an example of how my stopwatch and I broke down genre components in two Scorcese films (one I loved and one I wanted to love but never could): Gangs of New York (2002, written by Jay Cocks, Steve Zallian and Kenneth Lonergan) and The Departed (2006, adapted by William Monahan, based on the Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs).
I’m a huge fan of The Departed and have watched it a dozen times, Gangs of New York (although interesting and amazingly well-done) I’ve viewed only three times. I figured it was the balance of genres that made the distinctive difference for me. Both used drama as the overriding story genre, they also used romance, coming of age (seen mostly in the surrogate father/son elements), war (turf war), and action. The films had very similar story elements, so why did I enjoy one more than the other? Quick Review: Gangs of New York centers on the struggle for control of the Five Points area of New York City in the 1860s between two gangs, the Natives (Protestant street gang working with the existing political machine in NYC) and the Dead Rabbits (Irish Catholic immigrants). The Departed examines the struggle of the Irish mob for domination of territory in Boston, approximately a hundred and sixty years later. The Irish gang wants to keep the Italian mob at bay and also faces the emergence of an Asian criminal organization.
Flashback to me, 15 or so years ago, with my stopwatch and notebook in hand. (Caveat: Math was always my worst subject, so the below may only make sense to me, but you’ll get the idea of what I was doing.)
Gangs of New York: 2 hours, 47 minutes
Total number of scenes in film – 125
Total number of scenes played primarily for drama – 119 *
Within the drama genre category…
Total number of scenes focused on “war”/action – 47 (40%)
Total number of scenes focused on “war”/politics – 25 (21%)
Total number of scenes played solely for romance – 9 (8%)
Total number of scenes played solely for Civil War information – 8 (7%)
Total number of scenes played solely for coming-of-age – 18 (15%)
Coming-of-age scenes played solely for father/son dynamic – 12 (10%)
*Obviously, some scenes will overlap in genre components, but this was as clean as I could suss it out. There are location shots, set up shots, even a nod or two scenes with a lighter tone etc. that make up the rest of the number of scenes. Also, scene lengths varied; the percentages helped me to see timings.
In breaking down The Departed, it was clear to me that the genre mix was more balanced; Gangs of New York is top heavy in war/action whereas The Departed spends more time in the coming-of-age, action, romance and father/son dynamic areas. This division allowed the writers to explore the dimensionality of the world, the characters, their lives and choices, and gave the audience more complete character exploration of the protagonists (this film has two of them – Colin (Matt Damon) and Billy (Leonardo di Caprio) and supporting characters.
The Departed: 2 hours and 31 minutes
Total number of scenes in film – 152
Total number of scenes played primarily for crime drama – 92*
Within the drama genre category…
Total number of scenes focused on “war”/action – 38 (25%)
Total number of scenes played solely for romance – 16 (11%)
Total number of scenes concerning politics of police force – 6 (4%)
Total number of scenes played solely for fish-out-of-water – 6 (4%)
Total number of scenes played solely for coming-of-age – 30 (20%)
Coming-of-age scenes played for father/son dynamics – 20 (13%)
* See starred comment above.
All this was fascinating to me, my friends with whom I shared with my thoughts and findings found it interesting (but perhaps they were being polite).
Admiration for a film or literary work is always subjective but knowing my own viewer/reader preferences allowed me to take a more objective view for the re-thinking of portions of my current project, 9 DAYS.
The first book in the series is a combo of crime/ mystery/coming of age/buddy/a touch of romance. I wanted to keep a balance similar to 10 DAYS – however, I found that filling in of backstory (for readers who may not read 10 DAYS) was shifting the proportions of the narrative. This was bugging me big time. It felt like passive exposition and sort of fell into the coming-of-age genre (character growth) area but was not moving the current story forward. I had worked on a lot of tv series, we had the luxury of starting each show with a “last week on…” sequence to bring the audience up to date. Certainly, a few pages detailing the plot and character arc of the previous book could be added into some sort of prologue in a crime/mystery series, but for a lot of good reasons, it’s not done. But the pacing, tension (and page count) of this second book was suffering because I felt tied to “too much explaining”.
So, I headed to my bookshelves to see how Sue Grafton, Anne Perry, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly and Mainers like Coffin, Flora, Buchanan, Doiron and a long list of other writers of crime/mystery series handled backstory. I needed examples of how to get the reader up to speed on where the main character – and his/her attitude and personal progress, as well as skills, and the environs – and the “whys” of character choices and why he/she is acting and reacting in certain ways. I found some successful examples – so thanks everyone.
Just as with films (and tv shows) narrative fiction comes in all shapes and sizes, and in the crime/mystery genre, there are a lot of sub-genres, like cozies, capers, domestic thrillers, hardboiled tales, noirs, procedurals etc. Most attain a familiar balance with their interior story genres – readers have come to expect the balance and enjoy it. It’s also obvious, that even within sub-genres, and even within a series that is well on its way, the balance can change a bit from book to book. (Thinking of Louise Penny’s Gamache series here.)
The Dee Rommel series falls into the investigator/domestic thriller arena. Personally, I like to read in all the sub-genres – because the puzzle of the mystery and/or the “whodunit” is my favorite afternoon pastime – but the balance I’m after in 10 DAYS – and 9 DAYS – falls into books that are in a similar category.
Anyway, these are my blog musings on mystery/crime writing – balance and the necessity (for me) of making sure passive backstory that illuminates prior coming-of-age elements doesn’t bog down the narrative. Thank goodness blogs can be just “musings”.
No need for answers. Just pondering while pounding on the computer keys is okay.
So, thanks for the chance to cogitate. I know how I’ll be spending my time in next few days – streamlining backstory, re-shaping some of the story genre components, and concentrating on keeping crime/mystery line of 9 DAYS at the forefront.
Jule Selbo is an award-winning author and screenwriter, an active member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she has given workshops and speeches at numerous writing conferences and book events. She lives in Portland, Maine. Her latest book is 10 DAYS: A Dee Rommel Mystery (Pandamoon, August 2021).