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Aug
2
2014

What Screenwriters Know that Novelists Don't -- by Suzie Quint

Do you have a stack of stories that, in spite of a strong start, hit a wall that forced you to abandon them? Yeah, me too. Usually about 75 pages in, give or take, I feel like a fish on the riverbank, flopping around, trying to find the river again. The story that had so much promise seems to have lost its way. My instincts told me that something significant needed to happen at the point to keep the story’s motor running, but I didn’t have a clue what, so the story stalled.

Then through a series of fortuitous events, I discovered something interesting. Those who write about writing books don’t write about story structure–but screenwriters do.  I'm not the first novelist to discover this because I'd heard about Save the Cat by Blake Snyder some time before I decided to spend the money to buy it. (I tend to be a tightwad, so I have to want something badly to pay "new book" prices.) Now I'm wishing I hadn't waited so long, because you know those stories I abandoned? That instinct that told me that something significant should happen at that precise moment of the story was dead right.  Now I know that I came up against that first plot point where, in the hero’s journey paradigm that was once so popular, the hero answers the call. Why the whole Hero’s Journey thing didn't gel for me, I can’t even guess. Maybe it would have had I been writing High Fantasy, but that’s not what I write these days. Romances are a little subtler, so swashbuckling hero patterns felt too flamboyant. STC! is written in a down to earth way that can be applied to any story you want. In fact, STC! Goes to the Movies is all about applying it to different story types. (We’ll come back to this point, I promise.)
 
The most useful tool in STC! is the Beat Sheet which is made of 15 plot points or “beats” that define the highs and lows of all successful stories . (There’s a little wiggle room in the order of these, but not much.) The beats are:
 
1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
3. Set-up
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break into 2
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into 3
14. Finale
15. Final Image
  
Most of STC! is devoted to defining these beats and exploring their significance.
 
For example, at the All Is Lost beat, you'll often find what Blake Snyder calls The Whiff of Death. Something at this stage dies, whether it's something tangible, like a person, or something intangible, like hope. This is the moment in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi dies and Luke (and the audience) realizes that not every character gets a happy ending. Is it worth knowing that your story needs this moment? I think so. Each of the beats on the beat sheet gets examined for what it means to the story, and this information is gold to a wouldbe novelist.
 
Like many great tools, the beat sheet appears almost too simple, but the more you study it, the more textured it becomes. How can the same story structure apply to When Harry Met Sally that applies to Die Hard? It may seem like a stretch, but it does. I'm not saying it doesn't take practice to see it. That's where Save the Cat Goes to the Movies is valuable. It breaks down beat-for-beat 50 popular movies, so you can see how these beats apply to different types of movies. Everything presented in STC! is demonstrated in STC! Goes to the Movies and for different story types (of which STC! defines 10.)
 
If you have a spot in your story that drags or you can't decide what should happen next or you've started a dozen stories and they all fade out after roughly the same number of pages, the beat sheet is the best tool I've found to help identify where you've gone wrong. Even if you're not a full-fledged plotter, the beats are enormously helpful when you don’t know “what comes next.”
 
The beat sheet alone is worth the price of the book, but STC! deals with other things as well. Like making your characters likable. In fact, the title comes from one of his methods for doing that. The theory is that you can give your character some fairly unlikeable traits as long as you also show something that promises that deep down, they've got at least one redeeming quality. Imagine an Ebenezer Scrooge who adopts all the stray cats in his neighborhood. There's at least one movie I can think of that takes this trick literally. Anyone who's watched Lethal Weapon III will remember the scene early on where Riggs and Murthuagh shove a cat out of the way just before Riggs cuts the wrong wire on the bomb and the timer starts to countdown in rapid time. Rigg's line to Roger? "Grab the cat." Since this is the third movie of the set, the writers didn't really need to convince the audience that Riggs was a good guy, so I'm convinced that this was a nod to that rule. An inside joke for other screenwriters.
 
But wait! There’s more! (This is starting to sound like one of those late-night infomercials for ginzu knives, isn't it?)
 
Don't you just hate to write loglines? Don't know what that is? That’s movie parlance for that one sentence that puts everything you slaved, sweated, and bled over, with all its subtleties and reversals, into the proverbial nutshell, also known as a one-line pitch in novel parlance. If you’re like me and you'd rather write an entire novel while sitting in a cactus patch than wrestle with that one sentence, there is hope and STC! is there to show you how to put it together. The ingredients that apply to novels are:
 
Irony
STC! offers an example that I'm sure you'll recognize.
A cop comes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office is taken over by terrorists. Who doesn't recognize Die Hard in that description? (If you don't, you really need to watch a movie or two.)
 
Then comes a compelling mental picture
STC! uses Blind Date for this example:  She's the perfect woman--until she has a drink.
 
A Killer Title
Like Legally Blonde
 
I'm not sure why the section about identifying your hero doesn't immediately follow the section about loglines because the two are so closely related (as you've seen in the above examples) but STC! does have a section dedicated to this. The book acknowledges knowing your characters and what drives them are necessary to amp up the log line. It helps the writer define what makes a good protagonist. STC! also pushes that the protagonist's motivation must be a primal need. Primal here means basic and universal. The character and his motivation strengthen the logline. The logline is likened to the story's DNA and when you're through with STC!, you'll be hard-put to disagree. After all, if you write a killer logline, the kind that will hook that agent, editor, or reader, why would you stray from that guideline when you write the story?
 
Had I understood all these things, all those wonderful story beginnings would have had complete stories attached to them, because I would have had a plan. At some point, I will look back at those beginnings and see if I can figure out that first turning point and resurrect some excitement for those stories.

 

Posted by Suzie Quint 2 Aug 2014 at 01:20
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Responses to this blog

Peggyc 2 Aug 2014 at 12:46  
I just ordered the book SAVE THE CAT after reading this post. Thank you so much for introducing this great resource!
Susieq 2 Aug 2014 at 12:48  
Quote by: Peggyc
I just ordered the book SAVE THE CAT after reading this post. Thank you so much for introducing this great resource!


I hope it does as much for you as it did for me. I bought all three of the Save the Cat! books at new book prices, I was so impressed.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Rellrod 2 Aug 2014 at 12:48  
Sounds fascinating.

Only . . . why do I have the feeling that I need to have written the complete story (first draft, at least) before I can write the logline? I know what the story's about going in, yes — but only when it's done do I really know what it's all about. (And maybe not even then. )

Rick
Susieq 2 Aug 2014 at 13:08  
Quote by: Rellrod
Sounds fascinating.

Only . . . why do I have the feeling that I need to have written the complete story (first draft, at least) before I can write the logline? I know what the story's about going in, yes — but only when it's done do I really know what it's all about. (And maybe not even then. )

Rick



I think that depends on your writing process. Different authors work in different ways. For a pantser, it may be true because we don't always end up where we think we will. On the other hand, loglines aren't based on the ending, but rather on the set-up. In any case, loglines are useful marketing tool, and you can't market what isn't finished.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Cjandrews 2 Aug 2014 at 13:24  
This book sounds very similar to The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, another great book on structure. He refers to the story as a journey and breaks it into twelve stages. He describes the purpose of each stage and also references familiar movies to help you identify with them.

He talks about the structural elements of the story and the roles of various characters: the hero, villain, mentor, and so on. He also discusses the value of giving the villain a redeeming quality.

It's been a few years since I read this. I think it's time to pull it out again.

Thanks for another great blog post!

CJ
Susieq 2 Aug 2014 at 13:30  
Quote by: Noregrets
This book sounds very similar to The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, another great book on structure. He refers to the story as a journey and breaks it into twelve stages. He describes the purpose of each stage and also references familiar movies to help you identify with them.


CJ



There are similarities, I think, but as big a fan as I am of Joseph Campbell, The Writer's Journey never gelled for me. If a you're writing a quest story, then it's absolutely on the money, but I had to stretch me brain too far with the stories I'm writing these days for it to be helpful. That probably says more about me than it does about the book. Save the Cat just works better with my brain.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Cjandrews 2 Aug 2014 at 14:03  
Quote by: Susieq
Quote by: Noregrets
This book sounds very similar to The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, another great book on structure. He refers to the story as a journey and breaks it into twelve stages. He describes the purpose of each stage and also references familiar movies to help you identify with them.


CJ



There are similarities, I think, but as big a fan as I am of Joseph Campbell, The Writer's Journey never gelled for me. If a you're writing a quest story, then it's absolutely on the money, but I had to stretch me brain too far with the stories I'm writing these days for it to be helpful. That probably says more about me than it does about the book. Save the Cat just works better with my brain.<br>



Sounds worth adding to my To Read list.
Imjustdru 3 Aug 2014 at 11:57  
Y'know I read something similar to this in Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels with Peter David. It also cover similar angles that screenwriters use when it comes to story plotting, etc.
Jjeffries 5 Aug 2014 at 07:25  

Jjeffries 5 Aug 2014 at 07:26  
Weird. I just checked this book out of the library last week. I guess I'll have to read it now.
Aldor 6 Aug 2014 at 14:16  
I like the sound of this book, more importantly I'm infected by your enthusiasm. Let me check if it's available on Kindle... Wow! ?7.26, I'll have to see if there's a s/h copy on ebay. But, regardless I enjoyed reading your synopsis.
Susieq 6 Aug 2014 at 15:14  
Quote by: Aldor
I like the sound of this book, more importantly I'm infected by your enthusiasm. Let me check if it's available on Kindle... Wow! ?7.26, I'll have to see if there's a s/h copy on ebay. But, regardless I enjoyed reading your synopsis.


I know. It's not cheap. I bought all 3 books in the series as new book prices, and I still think they were worth every dime.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Lexicon 7 Aug 2014 at 16:34  
I picked them up on the strength of your recommendation. I love how they seem to give structure to all the beats you pick up by instinct from reading/watching movies, then lay them logically out and discuss them.

Now I'm just waiting eagerly for the books to arrive in the mail!
Susieq 7 Aug 2014 at 17:44  
Quote by: Lexicon
I picked them up on the strength of your recommendation. I love how they seem to give structure to all the beats you pick up by instinct from reading/watching movies, then lay them logically out and discuss them.

Now I'm just waiting eagerly for the books to arrive in the mail!



STC really is capable of changing how you view story. I think you'll be amazed at how it clarifies how to lay out a story.

__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Lexicon 17 Aug 2014 at 23:17  
The books came! And though I started reading a bit of STC first, I ended up gravitating toward STC Goes to the Movies. I am so glad I took your advice and picked them up. Seeing all those movies laid out made me start thinking about my novel in beats as well!
Susieq 18 Aug 2014 at 06:43  
Quote by: Lexicon
The books came! And though I started reading a bit of STC first, I ended up gravitating toward STC Goes to the Movies. I am so glad I took your advice and picked them up. Seeing all those movies laid out made me start thinking about my novel in beats as well!


I think you'll be really happy with them. These are the writing books I pull off the shelf more often than any others. I referred to them just the other day because I needed to figure out how to order some plot points for a new story. They're so worth money.

__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Hessian6 19 Aug 2014 at 22:08  
Great persuasive post, Suzie! I immediately order both books from the library. You are a great writer and really made this book come alive for me and all the ways I can use it to help structure my writing.
Susieq 19 Aug 2014 at 22:22  
Quote by: Hessian6
Great persuasive post, Suzie! I immediately order both books from the library. You are a great writer and really made this book come alive for me and all the ways I can use it to help structure my writing.


I'm glad I could inspire you to look at these books. They may be the most valuable in my personal library. They're certainly the ones I pull out again and again.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Writeforfu 15 Sep 2014 at 18:31  
Your opening statements in this blog pulled me in! I really enjoyed how you equated writing to movies too. As I write I feel the movie it could be and see in my mind how I would like the story to progress on screen. I will look up STC so I to can read further on the structuring. Thank you for the inspiration!
Susieq 15 Sep 2014 at 19:54  
Quote by: Writeforfu
Your opening statements in this blog pulled me in! I really enjoyed how you equated writing to movies too. As I write I feel the movie it could be and see in my mind how I would like the story to progress on screen. I will look up STC so I to can read further on the structuring. Thank you for the inspiration!


Snyder's books are easily the ones I pull out more often than any others. I hope you find them as useful as I have.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

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