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
6. Break into 2
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into 3
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!
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:
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.