To Save or Not to Save (the Cat): That is the Question

save-the-cat
“There’s this inherent screenplay structure that everyone seems to be stuck on, this three-act thing. It doesn’t really interest me. To me, it’s kind of like saying, ‘Well, when you do a painting, you always need to have sky here, the person here and the ground here.’ Well, you don’t.” — Charlie Kaufman

“Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” That’s the town crier outside your window, all decked out in a red and gold robe, white breeches, black boots and a tricorne hat, clanging his handbell and making the public pronouncement that “Hollywood is broken!”

A statement which isn’t close to being accurate. Even if the industry fails to rake in the desired opening weekend profits from their current crop of mega-budget box office bombs, it will continue to churn out content even if it has to scale back production costs and cut salaries to do so. The real problem with Hollywood lies within its mindset, the outdated mode of thinking it still employs.

The simple fact is what used to work a few years ago no longer does and unless you’re Amish, a hermit, a bunkered-in end-of-the-world survivalist, or possess a serious dislike for 24-frame-per-second entertainment, you’ll have noticed a decline of late in the quality of Hollywood movies. And you’re not alone. Not only has theater attendance been dwindling and the grousing of movie critics and cinema snobs increased regarding the lack of originality springing from the loins of Tinseltown–particularly during this painful remake, reboot and prequel/sequel franchise phase—but even the average LCD movie-goer has begun to experience a touch of ennui in the midst of all the fast-paced, mind-baffling CGI and excessive explosions.

No big news if you’re a screenwriter, aspiring or otherwise, as this has been a source of debate and complaint for a couple of years now and it didn’t truly become headline worthy until Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke at USC, weighing in on the subject and predicting the inevitable “implosion” in the mega-budget film industry. Which, of course, led to a series of articles speculating, finger-pointing and assigning blame.

The latest target is American screenwriter Blake Snyder, who released a screenwriting manual in 2005, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. His book provided a by-the-minute pattern for screenwriting, which included 15 essential plot points or beats that all scripted stories should contain (the example below is based on a screenplay 110 pages in length ):

1. Opening Image (Pg. 1) – Is a snapshot of the world before this story begins.

2. Theme Stated (Pg. 5) – Where you state what your movie is about before the adventure begins.

3. Set-Up (Pgs. 1-10) – The introduction to the world, the protagonist and the overall problem within the story.

4. Catalyst (Pg. 12) – Often referred to as the inciting incident, this is the point where something happens within your protagonist’s world that sets the story into motion.

5. Debate (Pgs. 12-25) – Though it’s obvious that your protagonist must accept the “call to adventure,” he/she doubts the journey they must take.

6. Break into Two (Pg. 25) – Your protagonist has faced the now-or-never choice and proactively steps into Act 2 where the story begins to ramp up.

7. B Story (Pg. 30) – Usually associated with the “love” story, this is where the protagonist encounters the person to whom they can confide what’s happening. But the role isn’t restricted to a love interest — it can be a Mentor, or a bunch of new characters that will help the protagonist understand this strange new place, assist him/her, and teach them the lesson of the journey.

8. Fun and Games (Pgs. 30-55) – This is where you find your “trailer moments.” The plot gets put on hold as your protagonist explores the new world (essentially it’s your pitch for the movie when it comes time to sell it).

9. Midpoint (Pg. 55) – Is the “no turning back” part of your movie, where your protagonist faces a whole new problem — even bigger than the one they started out with. This is where we get either a “false victory” (high) or a “false defeat” (low). It’s also where “time clocks” appear to pick up the pace of the story and rush to the end.

10. Bad Guys Close In (Pgs. 55-75) – From this point, both internal (problems inside the protagonist’s team) and external (the antagonists tighten their grip) pressure is applied that makes life tough for the hero.

11. All Is Lost (Pg. 75) – Something (an old belief system) or someone (the mentor) dies at this point in the story, forcing the protagonist to change in order to grow into the person they need to be to accomplish their goal(s).

12. Dark Night of the Soul (Pgs. 75-85) – The “Why hast thou forsaken me?” part where the protagonist is bereft and wondering, “Now what?” They have lost all hope.

13. Break into Three (Pg. 85)
– But thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute advice or information from that person representing the B Story, the protagonist takes a proactive step into Act 3, devising a brand new plan of action and committing to going all the way!

14. Finale (Pgs. 85-110) – By adding what he’s learned to what he was before, the protagonist applies all that they are in a brand new way. Here is when your hero is at the doorstep of defeat yet “digs deep down” for that last ounce of strength — and faith — to triumph!

15. Final Image (Pg. 110) – Since all stories are about “transformation,” this is reverse of the Opening Image, a “snapshot of the world after,” proves that a change has occurred within the protagonist and their world.

Unfortunately, Mr. Snyder passed away in 2009 and is unable to defend himself, but is his book actually the reason that more and more people are becoming disenchanted with new releases? Screenwriters fall on both sides of this argument. There are those who see Save The Cat as a boon since the book instructs writers on producing unique, hot concepts, requires that they carry out the “promise of the premise” and beseeches them to “escalate the stakes” with full force in a bold new manner. While others think Mr. Snyder’s formula is best suited for high concept family comedies and has no business being applied to adult-themed stories that operate in black/grey moralities, as shoehorning them into the rigid 15 beat structure chokes the life out of the original work.

When it comes to the subject of creating beat sheets, not to sound like a fence-rider, but I find myself being both pro and con. On the plus side, hats off to Mr. Snyder for analyzing the composition of Hollywood films and further segmenting the 3 Act structure into smaller more manageable parts, much in the same way Gustav Freytag did in the nineteenth century with stage plays (see: Climbing The Freytag Pyramid). It really does help you gain a better understanding of the basic anatomy of an average studio-produced movie.

On the negative side, you have what I call the Nostradamus Effect, and if you’ve watched more than a handful of movies in your lifetime, you’ve experienced it to some degree. It occurs whilst viewing a film and suddenly you’re able to predict all the salient plot points, the futures of the supporting characters, and spot each and every twist and turn as if you’ve read them on signposts a mile off. That’s your brain recognizing the pattern, the formula. And I firmly believe that formulas cannot produce art, nor can they possess the spontaneity necessary to shock and surprise the modern day movie audience.

Having said that, I take a “Hey, man, whatever gets you writing” approach to Mr. Snyder’s methods when it applies to other writers. And that’s not to say that I don’t use the Save The Cat formula on occasion, but only when a stubborn story refuses to take shape. Once I get that bad boy locked down, I shake things up accordingly in the rewrite. Rules are meant to be broken, after all, and any writer worth their salt knows this. But guess who doesn’t? Yup, the rest of the industry.

Studios employ script readers who provide coverage–the analysis and grading of screenplays with Pass/Fail marks—which takes the whole beat system a bit too literally about hitting all the 15 marks on exact page counts. And if a script happens to be lucky enough to make it past these literary sentries, it will go through an additional series of rewrites by various screenwriters, adding studio-suggested bits stolen from other popular films “that worked previously”—whether the recycled bits fit the theme of the current script or not–often resulting in a frankenfilm. Sorry, you can’t hang that on Save The Cat.

I can’t tell you the number of early draft screenplays I’ve read that were far and away superior to the finished product. A few recent ones that come to mind are: Jon Spaihts’ “Alien Engineers” (Prometheus), Evan Daugherty’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and Kurt Wimmer’s “Edwin A. Salt” (Salt).

In closing I’d like to invite all the doomcasters to stop picking on a dead man whose system is quite possibly the victim of misuse and put their sandwich boards away. Hollywood is getting a much needed wake-up call–thanks in no small part to the internet and other modes of content distribution–and isn’t in danger of imploding, it’s just experiencing some growing pains. The first thing it needs to do, in the process of mitigating its risk in the creation of new product, is to focus a little more on forecasting what will sell tomorrow (#innovation) rather than duplicating what sold yesterday.

Sally forth and be structurally knowledgeable yet rule-breakingly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

At Loggerheads With Loglines? Try These Trusty Dusty Tips…

http://dfwwritersworkshop.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/logline.jpg

Even if you’re not familiar with the term logline (or log line) you’ve undoubtedly come across them when looking at TV listings or surfing movie info sites. It’s simply a brief summary of a television program or film often providing a synopsis of the program’s plot along with an emotional hook to stimulate interest.

White House Down: A Secret Service agent must fight to protect his daughter, the President, and the country from an attack on the White House.

In ye olden days of Hollywood, the studios stored their screenplays in script vaults and readers wrote a concise one line summary of what the script was about on the title page, allowing studio executives, producers, directors, and actors to scan a great many scripts quickly while searching for a project that met their needs. Loglines were also written on the spine of the script, allowing people to read the summaries of scripts that were stacked without having to unstack them.

Oblivion: In the future the world is decimated from an alien invasion. A drone repairman, one of the few remaining humans on Earth, finds another human who holds secrets that will put the repairman’s faith in humanity in question.

A competent logline–I shy away from using the word good because that’s so incredibly subjective–should contain the following parts (though not all do):

  1. The set-up. Where your story takes places and possibly in what time period. It also includes the inciting incident (the thing that forces the protagonist into action), and may set up your main character (but doesn’t necessarily have to).
  2. Protagonist introduction. Where we meet your main character and the physical/mental/emotional/internal challenges they face.
  3. Antagonist/conflict introduction. Where you establish the major action, conflict and/or antagonist in the story (essentially what your main character is up against).
  4. The goal. You’re not giving the story away, merely hinting at the climax.
  5. The hook. The answer to, “Why should I watch this?” Give ’em something juicy to whet their appetites. You should also work in your story’s genre and tone.

Elysium: In a future where the wealthy elite live on a ring-shaped space platform in the skies above Los Angeles, a slum-dwelling guy struggles to find his way there, first to save his own life but later to bring hope to all of humanity.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, the truth of the matter is most writers find the act condensing their screenplay/teleplay down to a single sentence that still maintains the the story’s raw emotion and power to be nigh-impossible. That’s because they put off writing the damned thing until the end, when it’s no longer about fleshing out a concept, but whittling a fully formed entity down to its skeleton.

But that doesn’t apply here, does it? Because you, being the smart person I know you are, will construct your logline waaaay before you even think about typing FADE IN: on Page 1 of your script… and I’m gonna walk you hand-in-hand through the rest of the process (who sez I ain’t a proper gen’leman?). In addition to the five points listed above, here are a few more helpful tips:

  • No need to get personal. Keep character names out of your logline, they serve no purpose here. What you should do is use an adjective and/or job title (only if it’s relevant) to add a little character depth.
  • Put the protagonist’s main goal front and center. Your main character’s action drives the logline and its the key ingredient in your story pitch.
  • Give the antagonist equal time. Same rules apply as with the protagonist but in less detail.
  • Make sure your main character is a pro. No, I don’t mean making them the best at what they do (that’s all on you, if you choose to go that route). I mean they’re your protagonist so make them proactive. They are the driving force of your story and this needs to be communicated in your logline.
  • Time and pace wait for no man. Add a ticking clock, if at all possible. Nothing speaks to urgency like an action that must occur by a deadline.
  • Brevity is the soul of wit… and a proper logline. Do not crowd your logline with unnecessary details. You’re not telling the entire story soup to nuts here. Your goal is to sell the story. Pique the crowd’s interest and leave ’em wanting more.

And there you have it, all the basics needed to begin tinkering with your own loglines. Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to jump in feet first and craft a few cringe-inducing logs until you get the hang of the process. I know I said it once before but it bears repeating: Your logline is a crucial element in the selling your screenplay and most often, along with the title, is the first thing a studio, prodco or acquisition exec will read, so make it as brief and mind-blowing as you can.

In case you’re interested in further studying the structure, here are some additional loglines of films released this year:

The Great Gatsby: When Nick Carraway moves in next door to Jay Gatsby, he is introduced to a world of affluence and lavish parties, and ends up striking an odd friendship with the charismatic and mysterious individual.

Frances Ha: An aspiring dancer moves to New York City, and becomes caught up in a whirlwind of flighty fair-weather friends, diminishing fortunes and career setbacks.

The Hangover Part III: While taking Alan to a psychiatric facility, the wolfpack is side-trekked when a mysterious man kidnaps Doug and forces them to track down Mr. Chow, who stole $21 million from him.

Epic: A troop of brave bugs march off to save a garden, where they encounter an evil spider queen and must summon the mythical Leaf Men to save the day.

The Internship: When their careers begin to sink due to the digital age, two salesmen land an internship at Google where they must compete against brilliant college students for a shot at employment.

The Purge: In the near future, a family hides in their home on the one night of the year when all laws are erased and people are allowed to murder without consequences.

Olympus Has Fallen: A Secret Service agent must rescue the President after a group of North Korean militants storm the White House, take hostages, and demand the United States remove military forces from the Korean Peninsula.

World War Z: A United Nations employee traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.

Lone Ranger: Spirit warrior Tonto recounts the adventures that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into The Lone Ranger, an outlaw of justice.

Pacific Rim: In a future where malevolent creatures threaten the earth, the planet must band together and use highly advanced technology to eradicate the growing menace.

Sally forth and be writeful.

Improve Your Screenwriting in 22 Steps

Everyone has at least one good story within themselves to tell, but not all people are writers, just as not all writers are screenwriters. Good news for you, right, you determined and spunky aspiring screenwriter? Well, yes and no.  The current rough odds of selling a screenplay to a major and minor Hollywood production company or within the independent market come in at 1 in 5,000. And that’s only if you’re a good screenwriter with a great script.

Part of your job as the aforementioned determined and spunky aspiring screenwriter is to cut those odds by half or even a quarter (don’t look at me like that, it’s doable). Here are 22 ways to set you on your path:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Read produced screenplays and search for what they did well. Read for a contest and see the difference between the winners and the ones that didn’t make it.
  3. Take screenwriting classes. I can easily recommend a few.
  4. Get feedback on your writing.
  5. Critique another writer’s scripts.
  6. Join a screenwriting group.
  7. Take your favorite screenplay and transcribe it, noticing the choices the writer made.
  8. Select a technique to improve and use it in one or more scenes.
  9. Write the same scene a completely different way: (Reverse a scene or character; Increase the stakes; Change who prevails in the scene; Use a twist to change the end of the scene; Put the characters in a worse position)
  10. Have another writer write one of your scenes in a completely different way.
  11. Take a character to an extreme to see what other possibilities are available.
  12. Take a line of dialogue or description and rewrite it 10 different ways or more.
  13. Stretch yourself: Give your character an unsolvable problem and then solve it.
  14. Pick a scene in a movie you like and write it. Once you have completed it, read the writer’s script for that scene and see how he or she wrote it differently.
  15. Watch a movie, stopping it at the end of each scene. Write down what happened in the scene, how the characters changed, what was the in and out points, and what was the most interesting part of the scene.
  16. Take your best idea and top it in some way! Sometimes, it is not about the writing. It is about the thinking and the breakthroughs and getting used to coming up with fresh ideas. Force yourself to top your best ideas on a regular basis and soon, you’ll have the best ideas in Hollywood.
  17. Find out what a producer or reader wants in a script. This can shift your chances dramatically. It may save you from writing something that has no chance of success.
  18. Take an acting class.
  19. Do a read-through with actors.
  20. Shoot a short on DV. For anyone who has done this, you’ve had the experience of seeing actors bring your script to life. Until you do, you can’t imagine the amount of pride and embarrassment you’ll experience. But directing even one scene will change how you write.
  21. Give yourself permission to write from your heart with no holding back.
  22. Decide that you will constantly improve your writing until you are one of the best screenwriters there is.

I know, I know, you probably won’t get around to doing everything on the list, but you should attempt to do at least one everyday. And that’s one in addition to writing (like I had to tell you that).

Sally forth and be writeful. And sell a script while you’re at it. I dare you.

The Dynamic Progression of Dual Protagonists (say what?)

Twins-600x449

Being normal and following the rules bores the pants off of you, so how do you shake up an otherwise blasé story? Why, you chuck in another protagonist, of course! Two for the price of one, double the bang for your buck, right? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, kiddo, but it’s generally not a good idea (unless you’re writing an ensemble/multi-plot screenplay like Crash or Magnolia). Each plot should have a single protagonist—–or Main Character—–whose eyes we see the story through. Une. Unus. Uno. Uma. Eins. Ena. One.

But you’re a rebel, aren’t you? You ain’t gonna have no faceless hack on a blog tell you how to write your story. So, since you’re determined to go the dual protagonist route, why not try thinking of your screenplay in terms of a Dynamic Progression —–having a Main Character who arcs and a Dynamic Character who teaches the Main Character what they need to know? (Pay, I say, pay attention, kid… I’m tryin’ to show you how you can have your cake and eat it too).

THE DYNAMIC PROGRESSION

The Main Character: the main character’s experience or emotional journey is emphasized through his active misbehavior (the way the character acts which affects other people around him/her negatively.)

Example 1: the main character uses violence to solve problems, but then, in the end, works through the main climax utilizing non-violent methods. The active misbehavior doesn’t have to be a negative behavior necessarily, but it does have to affect everyone else around the main character in a negative fashion.

Example 2: In The Apartment, the main character is a human doormat, constantly allowing himself to be trodden upon by others——this is his active misbehavior. Then, he finally learns to stand up for himself at the end.

The Dynamic Character: the central relationship between the main character and a secondary character, with this relationship acting as a catalyst for change in the main character.

Example: Adrian is the reason we care about Rocky. The main character’s active misbehavior affects the secondary character in a negative way. This dynamic relationship is useful in structuring the second act.

The dynamic character may also have an active misbehavior—–most often this is the exact opposite misbehavior exhibited by the main character (violent main character paired up with a non-violent partner; an obsessive-compulsive main character paired up with a laid-back partner, etc). This is true for buddy movies such as Lethal Weapon—–a crazy, suicidal cop is partnered up with a careful, conservative family man—–and on top of this, the conservative, family man cop is retiring in a week.

The 4 Stage Dynamic Progression – in which the main character and the dynamic character are transformed by each other (extremely useful for structuring the second act).

1. Dynamic Introduction: Not necessarily when the main character and the dynamic character meet, but when the nature of their relationship is firmly established.

Example 1: The Sting – Redford meets Newman in scene X, but in scene Y, Redford asks him, “Will you teach me?” and Newman says yes—–the nature of their relationship has then been established.

Example 2: Heathers – when Winona and Christian, together, cover up the accidental death of a friend–they are now locked together in their cover-up. Note that they had met earlier, but the exact nature of their relationship had not been established until the point of said cover-up. The Dynamic Introduction usually happens just before or just after the Act 1 to Act 2 shift.

2. Dynamic Escalation: the deepening of the dynamic relationship, where it becomes more profound, and usually hits The Point of No Return at the mid point.

Example: in Witness—-Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis are locked together when they realize he has to protect her by allowing him to hide out at her place, but their relationship deepens and reaches The Point of No Return when they fall in love (and have sex for the first time–another common Dynamic Escalation). The Dynamic Escalation usually happens halfway through Act 2, at the Mid-Act 2 Reversal.

3. Dynamic Estrangement. The main character and the dynamic character are separated: whether it be mentally, physically, or both. In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi dies, in The Matrix Morpheus is captured, etc. The Dynamic Estrangement usually happens at the Low Point just before the Act 2 to Act 3 shift and is typically the catalyst which begins Act 3 (Neo’s decision that, yes, he is in fact going back into the Matrix to rescue Morpheus, etc.)

4. Dynamic Convergence/Resolution. The dynamic relationship is resolved—–there is closure to the relationship. Sometimes this means the two cannot hope to be together, but they understand at the same time why it has to be this way (Casablanca, Roman Holiday or in Star Wars when Ben Kenobi returns, in a sense, with the sage advice, “Use the Force, Luke” while Luke makes his final run on the Death Star). The Dynamic Convergence takes place in the climax, the battle scene, at the height of Act 3.

See? That wasn’t so painful, was it? Sally forth and be writeful.

10 Screenwriting Tips From Billy Wilder

1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Tony Bill: “Forget the Mumbo Jumbo and Just Write the Damn Script.”

Get a hold of three or four terrific original scripts. You decide which ones. Read them; analyze them if you want, or just let them wash over you. Notice their format: it’s standard in the industry, no exceptions. Then throw away or erase from memory all the books, articles, and lessons that reference or espouse three-act structures, five- and seven-act structures, “inciting events,” “character arcs,” “redemption,” Joseph Campbell’s name, plot graphs and charts, or supposed “tricks of the trade.” Forget the mumbo jumbo and just write the damn script and finish it in 120 pages or less. If you’re sufficiently talented, original, and inspired, nothing else is necessary. If you’re not, nothing else will help. If it turns out that you lack one or all of those elements, write another script. Maybe another. Give up when you can’t take it anymore. The time saved by not reading all those how-to books should be enough to carry you through the first several scripts at least, with time to spare. Sound cruel? Ask any screenwriter.

Sally forth and be writeful… and enjoy your weekend.

Greets The Lightning, Fears The Thunder

04a

Although the rough draft was completed last year, I finally put the spit and polish touches on the official first draft of my latest horror screenplay, “Greets The Lightning, Fears The Thunder.” And while the screenplay might be new, the story isn’t. “Greets” first saw life as a short story written for a long-forgotten vanity press, Writerarium, way back in the Fall of 1988. It was loosely based on actual events involving my then girlfriend who suffered from a severe case of astraphobia and night terrors.

There’s a strange sense of satisfaction in breathing new life into old work that I wish I experienced more often, Most times, old stories lose their malleability, having found contentment in their original form. This work fought me a little as well, but in the end we were able to come to a suitable compromise.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

UPDATE: The first draft of “Greets” went up for review on the Trigger Street Labs site on May 15th and the first review was:

“This is an action packed, intense thriller!

I’d love to see this made into a movie. I feel like your dialogue and script feels well developed. I feel like maybe more comic relief would break up the intense moments. But overall really well written.

Your opening scene really sucked me in and I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t tell if it was a dream she was having or real at the beginning.

i liked the flashback scenes to Africa – so you get the background story. I feel like this was a perfect way to get the information you needed about Leyna.

The ending was awesome, gives you the notion that there was more to the elements than we knew. That maybe Gordon is now a catalyst of the bird… I loved the ending.”

UPDATE: “Greets” got the screenplay review treatment on June 3rd by the New York City Screenwriters Collective.

UPDATE: “Greets” was subjected to a third round of script review, this time in Los Angeles on February 2nd courtesy of Write Club.

UPDATE: “Greets” was subjected to a fourth round of script review, this time in Los Angeles on April 1 courtesy of the Malibu Screenwriting Group.

UPDATE: “Greets” was subjected to a fifth round of script review, this time in Los Angeles on April 20 courtesy of the Inktank Screenwriting Group.