Last week’s blog from screenwriter/director Gaz Alazraki generated a lot of interest in hearing more about the process of creating a box office record-setting feature film, especially one that so consciously employed STC! principles. Master Cat! Tom Reed sat down with Gaz to examine his methodology. We hope you find the depth and insight of his answers as inspiring as we did.
TR: Congratulations on the amazing success of Nosotros Los Nobles. And thanks for agreeing to do this. So let’s get started. At what point in the process of creating this project did you first employ STC! teachings? Was it at the premise level? That is, were you thinking of Blake when you first came up with the idea? Or was it at the stage where you were defining the genre/s? Or was it when you started beating out the story?
GA: This was my eighth script. I kept aiming for less ambitious stories as I threw away script after script. No matter how much simpler I tried to write, and how many screenwriting books I read, I kept getting lost….Keep in mind that I even attended McKee’s seminar three times. I paid Linda Seger for an analysis of a script… and yet after 10 years of trying to write one good script, I kept failing.
I showed an old Mexican movie to a Warner Bros exec, saying that it could be a great remake. He offered to pay for the rights and my salary as a screenwriter (he knew me from film festivals where he had seen my short films screened). It was The Great Madcap by Luis Buñuel. So I figured “Perfect! The movie is already made….The first half doesn’t work, so I have to restructure it in order to rearrange the premise, and we should be shooting by the end of the year. This time, structure should not be a problem.”
I finished the first draft in three months. All the partners loved it. The WB exec approved it… just asked me to tweak a few details, but we should be getting the money in no time! So I went to prepare for a casting strategy with Judith Weston in LA. She read the script and asked me “Have you thought about hiring professional screenwriters?”
I was devastated. I went back to the bookstore and decided to buy more books. I bought Save the Cat! and Your Screenplay Sucks. And as I was flying back to Mexico, I read on Your Screenplay Sucks that they compared Save the Cat! on par with McKee… so I opened STC… and couldn’t put it down! Everything I could never decipher about structure was neatly drawn out in those 15 beats… the logline structure… the genre… the 40 scenes….I had finally found the handbook for creating a Hollywood movie in Spanish!
Now… I had to put it all in practice…
TR: I know exactly what you mean. There’s a lot of great insight out there regarding how to write a screenplay — McKee, Truby, Seger, Vogler, Hauge, et al — much of it saying the same thing in different terms, different languages. Did Blake’s language resonate with you more clearly than the others? Any parts in particular, or just the whole package?
GA: The difference between Blake and all other gurus is that Blake outlines a PROCESS, and he then backs it up with explanations and examples.
The 15 beats were the first thing that broke down a Berlin Wall in my mind. I was able to learn screenwriting by re-viewing all my favorite films, with a display counter running.
I mourned all the years spent on trying to decipher structure–when someone had it down so simply–and kept watching in awe, the simplicity with which the 15 beats landed on every spot.
I later began to spot the beats without even having a counter running. And THEN I began to notice a correlation between movies that executed the 15 beats properly and their Tomatometer ratings and Box Office. The formulaic ones had bad ratings, but a decent Box Office. And the ones that built true emotion on an original premise and solid 15 beats, kept doing well on ratings and many on Box Office AND Ratings.
Then my brother and I began texting each other with quizzes on the genre of our favorite films… which is the 2nd MOST important breakthrough I had with Save the Cat!:
Blake’s study on Genre originated from Literary Genres–which later on manifested themselves on film–(while Voytilla and Vogler did the same study on genre films–based on the Blockbuster breakdown of genre–which only confused me more than ever). So as we began to hone our eye for the 15 beats and the Genre breakdown, my understanding of film kept growing and evolving.
TR: Your process is remarkably conscious and thorough. I think that level of thoroughness–and immersion–is essential in finally understanding the power of these tools. At what time in the process of writing the screenplay did you identify the genre for yourself (in STC! terms) and did your script become a conscious genre hybrid? In my own study of films using STC! methods I’ve found that most films have a primary and secondary genre, and sometimes trace elements of a third (or even a fourth). But it’s one thing to identify these elements after-the-fact, and quite another to make these conscious decisions and/or discoveries up front. How was if for you on this project?
GA: My first guess was that I was making a Fool Out of Water film, but I was struggling with hitting all the conventions that Blake outlined for the genre. It was only until my 16th out of 18 drafts that I realized that I was missing the genre for the B Story, which was the Right of Passage the family had to overcome. It was the death of the mother, who had the father stuck in time (Stasis=Death).
But even during the shooting phase, this wasn’t all too clear. Even now, I wouldn’t dare to pin down the genres on concrete. I always tried to use “The Melody” of the genre more than the “Rules” of the genre, because I wanted to stay more true to the characters than the convention of the genre, and I was afraid of losing freshness by sticking religiously to the rules… which led me to have 30 minutes of extra footage that never made it to the screen (the consequence of lacking rigour in the script phase).
TR: I think that’s an excellent example of having a plan but staying flexible, especially when it comes to keeping characterization organic and true. But now that the film is done would you say it’s a Fool Triumphant/Rite of Passage (Death Passage) hybrid, or something else?
GA: Yes. I would say it’s a hybrid of a Fool Triumphant/Rite of Passage….But I would love to see what people find in the Chat Forum, where they guess the genre… I’m thinking there might be more to analyze–but I never did. I wanted to get out of my head and into the story.
TR: There’s always more to analyze so I hope it gets a lot of attention along those lines. But you provide the perfect segue–”into the story.” Did you outline the script according to the 15 beats? Did you keep going back to the 15 beats as you refined the script? Did you go deeper into any particular beat than you thought you would have at the outset? Was there any one part of the BS2 that was especially illuminating to you while you found your way through the story?
GA: Yes!!! Oh god, yes!!! When I discovered the 15 beats I was like “Finally! So easy!”… I dived into them! But then I began to struggle and then I got confused about the story. And then I wrote myself into an ending that made no sense….And Warner Bros wasn’t happy…
So I began beating out my cousins (It Happened One Night, Coming to America, Trading Places, Overboard, The Royal Tenenbaums, Swept Away ), and began to understand the nuances and different spins that other writers had on the same beats….And I began to understand the variety of meanings behind Bad Guys Closing In… and the Mythical Midpoint….And yet, I was never sure how to structure all of this, cause even though the story was about a Wealthy Father who stages the bankruptcy of his company in order to teach his lazy children how to work, the father didn’t do anything during the 2nd act! He had no true action. He only fixed up the house, facing no real enemy! So… maybe I should structure the beats around the daughter, who has the love triangle? Or should I change the logline, because it isn’t about a wealthy father and his lazy children, since his enemy is the lazy son-in-law-to-be, who wants to blackmail him in exchange of his daughter’s hand and inheritance?….But that’s NOT the Fun n Games!!!! And the B Story is supposed to come in during minute 30, but the “Object of Affection” doesn’t show up until minute 43!!! So Who the hell is my B Story????
So I kept experimenting with the Logline, guessing which character was B Story, A Story, ’cause there were all these characters in the movie….So I never knew if I was right or not, but I came to the following conclusion:
A Story: The Wealthy Father has to stop his spoiled daughter from marrying a lazy gigoló. (The Love Triangle fits in this story.) B Story: The Wealthy Father has to teach his spoiled children a lesson.
I decided to split the children into A Story and B Story… so that way, it made sense when Break into 2 happened, and when the B Story began, and when they met during the Midpoint and the All Is Lost scene, and the Break into 3. It took me 15 drafts to get this right! And yet… I still wasn’t sure what or when was my Debate, or why the All Is Lost happened on page 85 instead of 75… but it worked on Overboard… so I stuck with that structure.
HOWEVER… I botched it with the scenes… Blake wanted around 40. I had 52. Every character needed their arc, their weight in the story… One father, 3 children, one business partner, one gigoló… There was no way to cut them down!…
Until I hit the editing room and lived through the horror of how long and slow the movie felt!!! 135 minutes!!! With trimmed scenes!!!
It was only then and there that I dared to cut out all the scenes that I didn’t want to take out in the script, and only then and there that I finished understanding why the beats were set in those minutes….And only then and there, where the theme stated landed on minute 6 instead of page 12. It was only then and there that the movie came together. It was ALSO then and there that I understood the gravity of the lack of discipline in the script. I wasted 6 days of shooting that never made it to the screen… 6 days that would have made my shoot a much easier shoot, if I would’ve spread out the scenes that I actually needed on the days I had money for shooting. And in the end, on the screen I had 43 scenes…
TR: Gaz, this is an inspired answer, and I know it’s going to be incredibly instructive to anyone who reads the blog. It’s a testament to the quality and reliability of the system, even though everyone has to wrestle their way through the particulars of every story, as you clearly did. Now that the film is done, are you happy with the result? And is there anything you’ll do differently on your next project that has a bearing on STC?
GA: Well… the movie is being hailed as the reconciliation of Mexican Cinema with the Mexican Audience. We are breaking every record ever set by every Mexican filmmaker I ever admired. Kids are dressing up like my characters for costume parties… T-Shirts with catch-phrases from the movie are beginning to emerge on the twittersphere. Everyone thanks us for finally making a movie that portrays Mexico in a positive light. That’s all you see on #NosotrosLosNobles… people claiming to love the movie. A huge interaction with our Facebook site, from all our fans….Not bad for my first movie.
However, I feel like I never figured out the story arc for the younger brother. I feel like I sped through the ending. I would’ve liked to take out the scenes that didn’t make it to the final cut, in a previous draft, and maybe just take two more pokes at a couple of rewrites to polish these things about the younger brother and a sharper ending. I mean, the ending is basically a videoclip with voice over. It was always written that way. But… you know… you’re always finding things…
TR: Gaz, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. You have my deepest congratulations. And thank you for participating in this interview. You’ve made the STC! method feel immediate, relatable, and profoundly relevant–like any of us can do it if we just keep at it. I hope many more of us join your club of success. And may your film continue to break records. Go Team STC!
Great news from writer/director Gaz Alazraki in this email from late March:
After 8 yrs of trying to write a decent script (and 8 different scripts), I discovered STC! and it changed my life! Blake’s ideas helped me focus my idea and got the writing to a point where I was able to raise a lot of interest from Warner Bros. and Fox in Mexico City. I shot Nosotros Los Nobles and edited it sticking very closely to the STC! principles.
Warner Bros and Fox both bid on the film, which is a comedy about a wealthy father who after realizing how spoiled his children are, decides to stage the bankruptcy and seizure of their properties, tricks them into thinking they’re fugitives, hides them in a poor house and makes them do something none of them had ever done before… Work!
Warner Bros was the winning bidder and began preparing the campaign in November 2012. Just as Sensei Blake wrote: “When the promise of the premise is clear, the Fun and Games will come through the campaign and sell the movie.”
We got great praise for a unique campaign, and out of 11 major critics in Mexico, we got 9 positive reviews, one mixed review, and one negative review—with praise like “The Return of The Comedy to Mexican Cinema,” “The Reconciliation between audiences and Mexican Cinema,” and ‘Finally, a movie that paints our society in a positive light.”
Here’s the tale of the numbers:
(Some context: we have a total of 5,000 screens in Mexico, and we are opening in the middle of Easter Break, which lasts for 2 weeks, fighting it out against Oz, Jack the Giant Killer, The Croods and G.I. Joe.)
The original release strategy was to do a limited release on March 22 (beginning of Easter Break) of 80 copies. We were to warm up the audience with some word of mouth, before our wide release of 320 copies on March 28… today (the day before Good Friday and Easter Week).
But the movie theaters asked us to bump up the number of copies for our pre-release from 80 to 150 copies. Our good scenario was to make $450,000 usd on the limited release weekend, but we made $1 million… the same amount Django made with 300 copies on opening weekend. A big amount of shows were sold out and many people weren’t able to see the film. We were #1 in our average per screen, more than doubling The Croods on its opening weekend.
So WB bumped up the number of copies to 450 screens (about the same amount that Jack Reacher had) for our Opening Weekend. But we made around another $200,000 usd on Monday, around another $200,000 usd on Tuesday, and by Wednesday the movie had made around a total of $1.6 million usd.
So WB decided to open with 650 copies. But with the interlock, we opened in 750 screens. That’s 90% of the country with at least 2 screens per cinema complex… on Easter Week.
Yesterday we opened to a Record Breaking $650,000 usd first day. It looks like by Monday we will be crowned 2nd place in the All-Time Live-Action Mexican Film openings.
And I will never get tired of saying that I owe all of this to….
… Save the Cat!
I even thank Blake Snyder on the credits…. ha!
So… Be proud of spreading the DaVinci Code of Screenwriting Wisdom, gentlemen.
Our guest blogger, Cynthia Ellingsen, started her career as a screenwriter, working with screenwriting partner Natalie Compagno. The two penned Modern Love and Three Card Monte, both optioned by Identity Film. Cynthia went on to write contemporary fiction for Penguin-Berkley. Her novels, Marriage Matters and The Whole Package, are represented for book-to-film by Jon Cassir at CAA.
As a contemporary fiction writer for Penguin-Berkley, I have two novels on the shelf. Marriage Matters, my latest, is the story of a mother, daughter, and grandmother who all get engaged at the same time and decide to share a wedding. CAA is currently shopping the film rights. The Whole Package, the story of three best friends who essentially open a male version of the restaurant Hooters, was released in 2011.
One thing I consistently hear from readers is: “When I read your books, I feel like I’m watching a movie. Do you imagine the movie when you write?”
The answer is a resounding yes, primarily because I plot out the rough draft of my novels using the assistance of Save the Cat!
Save the Cat! is the best title, isn’t it? It conjures up a bright red fire truck screaming towards an emergency and a rugged fireman – perhaps one that forgot to shave– leaping out of the truck and racing towards the scene.
But this scruffy superman is not carrying a ladder to help some kitten trapped in a tree. No, no. He’s waving the Blake Snyder beat sheet at some poor writer completely at odds with story structure.
Story structure is one of the most critical components in writing. When you have a strong story structure, your readers are more likely to trust in the story you’re going to tell. Why? Because story structure, especially of the Hollywood variety, is universally recognizable.
Don’t believe me? Well, I bet you’d recognize this:
A hero who desperately needs a change experiences a catalyst to make this change, but still debates the need to follow through. Eventually, the hero commits to making said change. Cue celebration with a B-story and rollicking fun and games section. At least, until the bad guys close in. Then, the hero loses everything and is forced to face down the dark night of the soul. The hero rises from the ashes, triumphant.
Isn’t that a great story?!
When you work with a set story structure, it’s so much easier to stay on track and figure out what, exactly, to write. Save the Cat! has helped me to revisit the power of story structure again and again. Whenever someone tells me they want to write a book or a screenplay but don’t know how, this is the first book I recommend.
Even though it doesn’t really come with a scruffy fireman.
Now, in the home stretch of a very exhilarating, trying, and humbling experience, I’m proud to be able to say that the film I devoted nearly two years of my life to—Dead Inside (aka The Evil Inside)—is on store shelves in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, has been garnering great press and reviews on such sites as Blogomatic3000, Aint it Cool News, and Nerd Reactor, has won multiple festival awards, and will be playing at 5 more prestigious festivals around the world at the end of this month. With its very hard-won attention and with the marketing skills of our sales agents at Bleiberg Entertainment, the great hope is that Dead Inside will be making a proud showing at the American Film Market next week.
(And then I’ll be able to celebrate as only I know how. Expect the coroner’s report to read: “died from a combination of relief, excessive Pringles consumption, and a lethal amount of video gaming. Witnesses report last words: “Hadouken!”)
But before the film found life and a shiny green light with the generous backing of 8 Silicon Valley Engineers, before we attached an experienced director, crewed up, and rolled camera—Dead Inside looked like this:
That’s right. Dead Inside is a Save the Cat! baby. The plot was beat out in a STC! Beat Sheet workshop in 2011. Its 40 pivotal scenes were mapped on the Save the Cat! software, and a massive amount of emotional support and mental fortitude was furnished by my fellow STC! writing buddies and my dear friend BJ Markel (HI, BJ!).
Here’s the original logline:
Six teenagers are confined to a home in which they encounter their own corpses as premonitions of their impending deaths. Before suspicion causes them to turn murderously against each other, they must decipher whether the visions represent the preventable or the inevitable, or something entirely more sinister.
But after my discerning STC! workshop classmates (lovingly) smacked me on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper for not establishing whose story it was, I gave my protagonist a stronger presence and the story transformed into its current on-screen incarnation, with this summary:
Sarah, a teen with a history of mental illness, has a jarring premonition of her friends’ impending deaths one night at a sleepover. As her houseguests begin to turn murderously against each other, Sarah must determine whether her visions represent the preventable or the inevitable… or something entirely more sinister.
If I’m making it seem like Dead Inside jumped from workshop to computer screen to silver screen in a few magical, lucky leaps, I apologize. It certainly didn’t, and I have the battle scars to prove it. And if you’re a screenwriter who has toyed with the idea of taking the reins in turning one of your scripts into an independent film, I’ve learned a thing or two that I would love to share with you, in case it makes it easier.
::Jennifer prepares to mount her high horse::
::High horse throws her off::
Fine. I’ll just preach from here. Where I’m sitting. In the mud.
But how’s my hair look?
1) Even if your script is for an independent film, make sure it has mass appeal.
My very first screenplay, written with no prior research or schooling, was based on my own experiences as an aspiring novelist in Los Angeles, living among aspiring actresses and models. It was entitled This is L.A, was 230 pages long, semi-autobiographical… and made me look like total a douche. That last detail was something that I didn’t realize immediately, or for a while. It took a rejection from UCLA’s screenwriting program, a director I admired telling me no one would want to watch a four hour-long movie about characters this pathetic (ouch), and finally – Blake Snyder explaining in his workshop that everyone thinks his or her own life story is screen worthy (but is often wrong) – before I finally loosened my deathgrip on the script. The feeling was akin to dropping a baby down a well and walking away.
There were a few screenplays and hundreds of rejections in between, but by the time I penned Dead Inside I made sure it was primal and thus has wide appeal: something Blake stresses. It’s a story about a lonely, bewitchingly pretty girl, trapped in an unsettling place with dangerous people, with murder most foul lurking around every corner.
Now, you can write an artsy, esoteric masterpiece, but good luck trying to keep the eyes of investors, sales agents, or distributors from glazing over after you’ve described your independent film as being “niche.” The “primal” element, I’ve been told, is why horror films generally do so well in the international film market, even without name actors. And with our first two big sales to date for Dead Inside being in the overseas market (thanks to the great folk at Bleiberg), I’m a believer.
2) Consider producing your own work.
This is not an invitation to take the script of yours that everyone hates, and say “Screw them! These people don’t recognize genius when they see it!”, and then to empty out your bank account and call up your unemployed film school buddy for a “great opportunity.” But if everyone (make sure to include impartial parties!) seems to love your script, you’re still looking at about six months to a year after you’ve mailed your query letters before an agent gets around to signing you, and who knows how many months or years after that before it gets bought by a studio. And then it’s anybody’s guess when or if ever it will actually be made into a movie.
So if you have a script in your back pocket that’s relatively low-budget and pretty well-liked, you might owe it to yourself to start putting your efforts into finding a producer or learning how to produce, reaching out to bankable directors or actors to attach to your project, and putting all of this together into a pretty package for investors to look at. Through conversations with more accomplished producers throughout the production of my movie, I was shocked—time and time again—at the caliber of directors and actors (some A-listers!) that could be attached to a project with the promise of just a $15,000 payday if the film was green lit, as long as they believed in the script.
For Dead Inside, though I had set things in motion with a script that our executive producers saw promise in, they only really had the confidence to invest after the script came back to them a second time with their requested story revisions… and a director with a solid track record and a soft commitment from a reputable sales agent attached.
3) And if you are thinking of producing your own independent film, you can get the ball rolling by producing something small first.
Believe me, it makes every stage a lot easier if you have a producing or writing success—even a small one—under your belt, simply for the fact that life is about chain reactions. Dead Inside is my first feature film, true. But a year before the possibility of making a full-blown movie was even a whisper of a kernel of a notion in my mind, I had gotten a group of acting school buddies together to help make a little parody short film called “Street Fighter High” that unexpectedly exploded all over the internet. I followed it up with its sequel, “Street Fighter High: The Musical,” which was just as silly as its predecessor and doubly popular.
For some reason that I’m enormously grateful for, people liked it. In fact, enough people liked it that Hollywood agents and managers started taking notice. And it was through one of these interested managers that I was introduced to Pearry Teo – the talented director who would eventually come to helm Dead Inside. During post production, when our amazing editor Danny Daneau was taking a few weeks to put together an assembly cut based on the director’s notes, I took the down time to write and produce another fan project for the web—“Batman: Death Wish”—which is today the second most viewed dramatic Batman short on YouTube. When it came time to reach out to press to promote Dead Inside, among the first websites to report on my movie were ones that had recently covered “Batman: Death Wish.” Other ways Dead Inside was helped along by the smaller projects I produced for the web: Matthew Mercer—our highest-profile cast member who is currently in the spotlight for voicing the title character in the new Resident Evil game—was someone I met and befriended when he volunteered to make a guest appearance on “Street Fighter High: The Musical.” And some of my most treasured consultants during production, who lent me their expertise and resources on more than one occasion, are my amazing friends at HD Films, whom I only had the fortune of meeting after they approached me to appear in their “Street Fighter” music video. Some of the hardest working crew members on the set of Dead Inside were (surprise!) the great guys and gals who had already worked with me on my web shorts.
So, basically, if you can produce a smaller project before embarking on the more challenging journey of a feature film, please do. You’ll be surprised by the benefits that can and will carry over when you need them. Nothing is for nothing.
That’s all, folks! If you found any of the above helpful or insightful, and if you happen to be in the UK, you would be doing me a great service if you rented or bought a copy of The Evil Inside (which is Dead Inside renamed for the international market) this Halloween. And if anyone out there would be so kind as to let your friendly neighborhood movie distributor know that we’re looking for a domestic buyer to bring Dead Inside to the American masses at AFM next week, there’s some major screenwriter karma points for you!
Until next time, kitties!
::Flies away on a broomstick. IN YOUR FACE, HIGH HORSE!::
Having spent most of her life in London, our guest blogger Sarah Alderson quit her job in the non-profit sector in 2009 and took off on a round-the-world trip with her husband and princess-obsessed daughter on a mission to find a new place to call home. After several months in India, Singapore, Australia, and the US, they settled in Bali where Sarah now spends her days writing by the pool and drinking lots of coconuts. She finished her first novel Hunting Lila (now in the early stages of film development) just before they left the UK, wrote the sequel on the beach in India, and had signed a two book deal with Simon & Schuster by the time they reached Bali. A third book, Fated, about a teenage demon slayer, which was written during their stay in California, was published in January 2012 by Simon Pulse (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Sarah is currently working on several screenplays as well as two further young adult novels – both thrillers – which are scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in 2013.
For more information on Sarah visit her website.
Before I had a brainwave and decided to become a writer (yeah, really) I had never written a thing creatively. OK, I wrote a lot of fundraising applications for work and those were mainly fictional but I digress… I never took a writing course, never read a book on how to write a novel, didn’t take a PHD in creative writing. My English teacher at school looked at me pityingly when I told her I was thinking of reading English at uni (I’m British – that’s how we say it).
But then, aged 30, having quit my job and on the cusp of travelling the world, I decided I needed a new job, because there was no way I was going to live off my husband (I am a feminist after all).
I decided (while swimming laps pondering my options) that I’d be a writer. I had no qualifications, other than the fact I had read a lot of books and watched a lot of TV, but I didn’t let that stop me. Three years on and I have three books published with Simon & Schuster, another two contracted (and written), a further two adult novels going out on submission next month and several screenplays under my belt.
My first novel has been optioned and is in the early stages of development. I’m on board as a screenwriter (though someone who’s been Oscar-nominated is actually doing the real draft).
So yeah, anyone tells you that you can’t be a writer – just ignore them. I’m proof that a load of naivete, a whole load of work ethic, and a belief in yourself can get you places.
When I had written six books I decided I wanted to write a screenplay so I asked around and was told to read Save the Cat! – the definitive guide to screenplay writing, according to one actress friend. I bought it and devoured it in a few hours. I used it to write my first screenplay, which I then submitted to agents. That was enough to get me signed on as a screenwriter on the adaptation of my first novel.
I then had to start working on my next novel and decided that I would use some of Blake’s techniques to see if they could be transferred to writing novels. I did some shaky calculations for page counts and then I drew a big beat sheet on my blackboard wall and started filling it in. And hey presto, it worked beautifully.
There are hundreds of ideas in the book but the key ones for me are:
Save the Cat!
Snyder talks about the importance of having a save-the-cat moment in a film. What he means is that your hero HAS to do something that immediately makes you like him or her – and he or she has to do it in the first chapter. Otherwise you end up with a book/film that fails to engage the reader/viewer and leaves them indifferent to the fate of your characters… disaster!
I’ve read plenty of books which fail, precisely because I don’t care about the central character – because he or she never saved the cat. Think about all the books you’ve hated and now think about whether you liked the main character. There’s usually a link.
State the Theme
Like every film, every book needs to have a theme, and that theme doesn’t need to be obviously stated but it should be there nonetheless. The theme of Fated is whether or not we have choice in life. You don’t need to provide an obvious answer but you should be clear what your theme is and invite your reader to contemplate it.
It’s really important that an event occurs in your book early on that turns everything on its head – that forces your hero to reassess everything and take action. That might sound really obvious, but lots of writers spend an age on fluffy description and developing characters and forget the plot part entirely. Bring in that catalyst and let it be the perfect catalyst for your particular character; it must challenge them and help them grow.
All Is Lost moment
Like every film, I think every book needs a moment where it looks like everything is lost, and so does Snyder. All great movies include this moment, where the hero is about to give up, is at his or her lowest ebb. I write thrillers so it’s a no brainer that my books also include this all is lost moment. It’s the point in Hunting Lila where (SPOILER) they get captured by Demos and his crew. It’s the point in Fated where Evie discovers who Lucas really is. The all is lost moment allows for a big finale come back scene and gives your readers an emotional roller coaster ride.
My final bit of advice to writers would be to never ever say “I can’t –”
It never crossed my mind once to say “I can’t.”
When faced with the seemingly impossible I have always asked, ‘How can I…?’
How can I get an agent?
How can I get this book optioned?
How can I get the best agent in LA to rep me?
I’ve always found my answer.
Master Cat! Jessica Brody’s fifth novel, which has been optioned for film by producer Jane Startz (Ella Enchanted, Tuck Everlasting), debuts on July 3. Here Jessica shares both her process and the Beat Sheet she developed before writing. And don’t miss the book trailer at the end of the blog!
Oftentimes I find that sharing finished beat sheets with writers can be misleading — especially if you’re just starting out with a new novel or screenplay and trying to implement the Save the Cat! method to your story for the first time. It can be overwhelming to read a completed beat sheet and think, “Oh crap! I have to come up with ALL of that before I can even start thinking about writing?”
I get this reaction a lot in my Save the Cat! Beat Sheet workshops. My students often feel overwhelmed and as a result, discouraged, by the thought of having to write a fully fleshed-out beat sheet right up front.
But in my experience, I’ve found this task to be nearly impossible. Most of the times, for me, I don’t really figure out what my story is about until I’m nearly done with the first draft and ready to tackle the revision. Because it’s not until I actually start writing the manuscript of my novel that I truly get to know my characters on a personal level. Trying to write a full-fledged beat sheet for your story before you’ve started writing is like committing to marry someone you met on the Internet when all you’ve seen is their online dating profile.
It’s important to note that the majority of beat sheets that are posted on BlakeSnyder.com and that are handed out in workshops are finished beat sheets. Meaning, they were most likely written after the movie or book has been released. So they’re based on a final FINAL draft of the screenplay or manuscript.
And while this can be helpful in studying story, I find that when you’re writing your own masterpiece, it helps to see a version of a beat sheet from before the writer started writing — the original framework of the story that the writer thought he/she wanted to tell, rather than just an analysis of the finished product. That’s why, in my workshops, I like to give my students a glimpse at one of my “before” beat sheets. Or in other words, the beat sheet I started with before I actually started writing the book. So they can see just how bare bones it is.
And I’d like to share the same with you here.
What you’ll notice from the following “before” beat sheet (which is what I try to reassure my students) is that I didn’t have a lot of detail figured out up front. This version actually includes some of the notes I wrote to myself where I needed to fill in holes. I only had a general idea. And that’s okay. The practice of creating a beat sheet to outline your story is used to help guide you. To make sure you’re on the right track. To keep you from going astray. And to make sure you have a compelling character arc. The beat sheet is meant to be a road map, and each beat, a landmark. You’re not meant to have the entire story and all its intricate details mapped out ahead of time. I don’t believe it’s possible.
So when you tackle your own beat sheet, remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. All beat sheets start off simple and grow from there (as evidenced below). Chances are, it will change as you write anyway.
Preliminary Beat Sheet for 52 Reasons to Hate My Father
Logline: A spoiled teen heiress, famous for her party-girl antics and tabloid headlines, is forced by her ever-absent, billionaire father to take on a different low-wage job every week for a year, if she wants to receive her trust fund.
Genre: Fool Triumphant
Opening Image: Lexington Larrabee has crashed her car after driving drunk. She’s in trouble… yet again. For Lexi there are no consequences for her actions.
Theme Stated: Quote at the beginning of the book: “Fathers be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do.” – John Mayer. Lexi is a product of her father. She’ll have to learn to rise above this… instead of blaming her problems on him. She’ll have to learn to love him… despite all the reasons she has to hate him.
Set-Up: Lexi is a screw up. Dad is distant. The Larrabee family you see in the news is not real. Everything is for show. They are filthy rich. Lexi has everything she could ever want… but her life is empty. Frivolous. Also set up that her 18th birthday is approaching when she will get her 25 million dollar trust fund. She thinks this will be her ticket to freedom from her family and most of all… her absent father.
Catalyst: Her dad’s lawyer, Bruce, presents the 52 jobs she’ll have to take on if she wants her trust fund.
Debate: Lexi tries to get out of it. Realizes she can’t. Her father threatens to cut her off is she doesn’t do it.
Break into 2: Lexi accepts her fate and agrees to do the jobs.
B Story: Lexi shows up for her first day of “work” to meet Luke, the annoying (yet kind of cute) college intern that her father assigned to keep tabs on her. They immediately despise each other. Luke had to work for everything he has in life so he hates Lexi for everything she’s been handed on a silver platter. And Lexi hates Luke because he’s an exact replica of her father. But eventually they will learn from each other and fall in love.
Fun and Games: Lexi starts the jobs. Maid service, super market, fast food restaurant, etc. She sucks at all of them and doesn’t try very hard. She does the bare minimum.
Midpoint: False defeat. Her life sucks. Her dad gets engaged to another bimbo. (Still need a stakes are raised moment… maybe she kisses Luke and then has a big fight with him? Or maybe she learns something about her father and why he is the way he is, making her realize there’s a bigger picture to be seen?)
Bad Guys Close In: Lexi meets Rolando and he shows her how to have fun at a job. She meets his family and learns that happiness is not about a job. Rolando suggests that maybe she should prove everyone wrong and be “good” at what she does. Instead of screwing it up. She starts to take the jobs more seriously. Also starts to develop feelings for Luke. Somehow she overhears a plot to destroy her father’s company, but doesn’t really realize what they’re talking about.
All Is Lost: Lexi hits rock bottom. (not sure how yet?) She somehow needs to quit the jobs and give in. Mendi (her ex) shows up and offers to whisk her away from all of this. As she leaves she gets in a huge fight with Luke, who tells her not to go. But she goes anyway.
Dark Night of the Soul: Lexi gets on a plane with Mendi, tries not to think about Luke. On the plane she reads an article about her dad’s upcoming merger that causes her to remember the plot she overheard to take over her dad’s company. Also realizes Mendi really is a jerk!
Break into 3: Lexi gets off the plane, just before it takes off. And vows to do what she never thought she would ever be able to do… save her father’s company (the job that took her father away from her for 18 years).
Finale: Lexi teams up with Luke to concoct the plan to save the company. (What is this plan?)
Final Image: Lexi has reconciled with her father and is together with Luke.
So eventually this simple, incomplete beat sheet turned into a novel that I’m excited to say releases next week! It took a lot of writing and rewriting but this is the roadmap that got me started. It’s all part of the creative process. You have to start somewhere. Think about that next time you sit down to write your own “before” beat sheet and don’t stress!
Also, check out the brand new book trailer for 52 Reason to Hate My Father:
Pick up your copy of the book on July 3!
Our guest blogger, Salva Rubio, is a Spanish author and screenwriter. After reading Save the Cat!, the first script he ever wrote, Saborafuego, was optioned, and he is currently hired to develop three more films. He has published essays, a comic book, and his first novel, Zingara: Finding Jim Morrison, was published on June 6. This is his story of how Blake Snyder and saving cats changed his life. Check his work and contact him at www.salvarubio.info — and welcome to our first ever bi-lingual post (see the pdf link below for the Spanish version)!
It was amazing, to say the least.
There was I, a young, inexperienced, aspiring screenwriter from Madrid (a place certainly FAR from anything L.A.-based), staring at my computer screen, and realizing he was coming to Spain.
He, of course, was Blake Snyder.
At that time, I had recently quit my bookselling job to devote myself full-time to writing, since I was determined to become a professional screenwriter. Not exactly a wise career move… since I only had written one script then! But I was full of energy, enthusiasm, and confidence. And I had a secret formula. Something that would allow me to become one of the pros! It was, of course, a book called Save the Cat!
A real how-to, written by a man called Blake Snyder, a working screenwriter who was boldly disclosing the secrets of his trade, sharing the key to the mysteries of scriptural knowledge and being unbelievably funny in the process. “It is easy,” those pages said, as if someone was stating a theme.
So, soon after reading the book I completed that first script, a culinary romantic comedy about a scientist woman who wants to change life and cooking in an old-fashioned, male-dominated restaurant.
I was so ready to hit the town with my script! And then it happened. Catalyst, I hear you say!
I just had logged into this site and my eyes couldn’t believe it: he was coming to Spain to teach a seminar? How come? Why? I mean… of all places, here? And even more: the seminar was to be held at a small, lost mountain city far enough from everywhere, called Vic. Too weird to be false!
Sure, at first I thought not to attend. I debated: I was unemployed and frankly penniless. It was crazy! But again… how could I not go? So armed with laptop, pen, and my STC! book, I broke into act two when I found myself in a distant mountain retreat, being almost the only Spanish citizen there, among other pupils from the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland, etc. Upside-down world!
And there we met the man. Someone whispered B-Story? Mentor I hear? He was tall, blond, and his eyes were childlike and pure. He always had a broad smile and innocent laughter to share. And he was so full of trust in us! He thought every one of our stories was fixable. But I secretly believed mine did not need any-fixing-at-all, Mr. American screenwriter!
The first days of the seminar were, as you can guess, purely fun and games: I felt I had it! But… It… well… maybe… It could be done better, after all. I started a bit defensively, feeling oh-so-confident that my story needed only minor changes. But then, in a mid-seminar dinner where I expressed those terms (quite a public outing), I gathered notes and I knew that my story was not working as I thought — and if I did not fix it, it would be the end of my only chance for success at writing for a living! (talk about raised stakes!)
So rewriting started in a frenzy, as the final day was approaching (tick! tick!), just as enemies closing down! Doubts were surrounding me, insecurities abounded, time was running out, and the day before the end of the seminar… I did not have a clue on how to fix it! All was lost! Nothing seemed to work anymore! Worse off than when I started!
Then, you can bet it, I even had a real dark night of the soul when I found myself alone in the main hall trying to get my story right before the seminar ended. There, alone at night and I found another thing that did not have a name then (maybe it was already on Blake’s mind?): it was later called the “shard of glass,” and mine was overconfidence. How could I remove it? I didn’t know yet…
But Theme came back in the voice of Blake as a Break into 3 revelation… And yes: “It was easy,” but it also took focus, discipline, and a positive attitude for the magic to happen… And the will to change, just what my character and I were lacking.
The next day, the pupils gathered, we stormed the conference hall, found the high board surprise, dug deep down and I executed my new 40-scene pitch. And it was… Done! Congratulations! We had graduated from the STC! school!
After that, it took me some years to make that writing career. It took a lot of work, yes, but it was also easy because I leared how to make it fun, just what Blake taught us.
Now I am a working screenwriter. I had my culinary comedy optioned and it is being developed (I still own the English remake rights, ahem) and I am currently hired for developing THREE feature films!
Finally, this past Wednesday (June 6, 2012) Editorial Santillana (one of the most important publishers in Spanish language worldwide, house of Guillermo del Toro, Stephenie Meyer, and Kate Morton) published my first novel, written from Blake’s teachings and entitled: Zingara: Finding Jim Morrison. It tells the story of a physically challenged teenager on his solo road trip quest for finding the one an only Lizard King when he traveled to Spain incognito back in ’71. (Film adaptation rights, anyone?)
And to top it off… I have been invited to showcase my story here, on Blake’s site. Full circle! Closing image!
As Blake said, every story is about transformation. Being transformed is easy, life takes care of it for you. But embracing transformation takes work. Your work.
Read Blake’s books! Attend the seminars! Embrace transformation for you and your script!
Then the “easy” part starts.
Hilary Weisman Graham is a screenwriter, Emmy-nominated TV producer, filmmaker, and the author of Reunited (Simon & Schuster – June 12, 2012), her debut young adult novel. You may recognize Hilary from her stint as a contestant on the 2007 Mark Burnett/Steven Spielberg-produced reality show On the Lot: The Search for America’s Next Great Director. Out of a pool of 12,000 submissions, Hilary made it onto the show as one of the 18 finalists and stayed in the competition until only nine contestants remained, making her the longest-standing female director. Visit Hilary at her website, her blog, her Facebook page, or on Twitter @HilaryGraham.
Any time I take on something new—be it screenwriting, motherhood, or writing my first novel—I’m consumed with a desperate need to orient myself in that endeavor, to educate myself Fodor’s Guide-style to the rules, customs, and currency of this uncharted world. I surround myself with teetering stacks of how-to books and trade magazines, fill my in-box with blog feeds and e-newsletters, and solicit the expertise of anyone willing to share it. Then, when my brain is reaching capacity, I toss out the bits of information that don’t resonate with me, keep the ones that do, and let the remainder of accumulated knowledge ferment into its own special concoction.
I had just begun to transition into this phase of my screenwriting career when I met Blake Snyder. Meeting Blake was part of my prize package for winning the 2008 Silver Screenwriting Contest (for my spec Freebird) and in the fall of that same year, Blake, Julie Gray, (who ran said screenwriting contest) and I spent a lovely evening at the Chateau Marmont, talking about our craft.
I read Save the Cat! a few days prior to my meeting with Blake, mostly because I was meeting Blake. And even though I was burnt out from the numerous how-to screenwriting books I’d just read, Save the Cat! was so funny, engaging, and practical that I was hooked right away.
Up until that point, I hadn’t done much outlining when it came to my scriptwriting, preferring the “seat of my pants” method to the hard labor of crafting a plot. But the spec I’d just written had been a torturous experience of taking wrong turn after wrong turn, until finally, with a bit of luck, I just so happened to stumble across the road that would get me where I needed to go. So, having been charmed both by Blake and his book, I decided to give the Save the Cat! method a try.
The very next screenplay I wrote (outlined meticulously, according to Blake’s beat sheet and index card system) was my first spec sale. After that, more sales followed, as well as a book deal for my debut young adult novel, Reunited, (Simon & Schuster) which comes out this June. I’m not implying that my writing career wouldn’t have taken off without Save the Cat!, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Clearly Save the Cat! has lots of wisdom to offer, but the most important lesson I learned was the one I needed most. Namely: dramatic structure exists for a reason and I had to accept that as the cold hard truth if I was ever going to move forward. I was the person Blake was addressing in Chapter One when he warns us that we’re deluding ourselves if we are setting out to create something truly original. “Sorry,” Blake says, cheekily slapping us back to reality. “Too late.”
Of course, this isn’t entirely true. As a writer, it is possible to experiment with structure, just as long as you’re aware that this choice will marginalize you as an art-house filmmaker, as opposed to a Hollywood screenwriter. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Being outside the mainstream is a valid and important creative pursuit, and a choice I myself made for the first decade of my career when I wrote, produced, and directed two decidedly left-of-center independent feature films. Sure, there was a place for my movies—the festival circuit, Europe, public television—but it was a much smaller market than allotted to films that adhered to the structural conventions of the genre.
Similarly, in the publishing world, there seem to be one or two novels each year that manage to eke out a name for themselves by employing some clever, “new” device, like Padgett Powell’s novel The Interrogative Mood, where every sentence is a question. But even in a quirky book like this, or in one of my unabashedly plot-less indie films, the lack of structure is actually a reference to the very structure it eschews, if only by its conspicuous absence.
These days, in the most recent iteration of my career (where I actually make my living as a writer) I’ve come to accept that I’m not reinventing the wheel when it comes to structure. But instead of fighting against the boundaries of my genres—screenwriting and young adult fiction—I’ve happily embraced them. Does that mean resorting to cliché? Not at all. It means finding opportunities for originality within the established structure. Creativity is fueled by constraints, and as writers, we must learn to honor them.
The new story I’m working on has got me thinking about this a lot lately. I’d call it a book or a movie (and I hope it ends up as both) but right now it’s not either. The thing I’m writing belongs to a medium so new it has yet to be defined. I’m talking about my latest obsession: enhanced e-books.
In fact, the genre is so brand-spanking new that the few enhanced e-books that do exist aren’t technically e-books at all—they’re apps—since current e-book technology doesn’t allow for interactivity. Of course, there are a handful of brilliant content creators out there, like the folks at Moonbot Studios (who won an Oscar for the film adaptation of their app “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”) who have begun to explore the full potential of this burgeoning new form.
And inside my head, I’m exploring the hell out of it—using my skills as both a writer and a filmmaker to think up stories that can be told best in an amalgamation of both disciplines, and with interactivity. Like all creative brainstorming sessions, this often is a joyous process. Other times, my desire to take part in the development of a new medium feels overwhelming. Enhanced e-books are so new, there’s no canon to reference, and the newsletters and podcasts I subscribe to are largely speculative. Then there’s the distribution question. Traditional book publishers don’t want to stick their necks out to produce something they’re not familiar with, and the Hollywood studios aren’t quite ready to accept that we’re moving towards a culture of tablet-based entertainment. So how do I ground myself in a world that doesn’t exist yet? By reminding myself of the questions Blake might ask.
Will this new format allow me to employ three-act structure? Will my story feature a hero with a primal urge? Will I want readers/viewers to root for my hero to overcome her obstacles and succeed? The answers to these questions seem obvious to me, even though my vision of the final product is still developing. Because as I learned from Save the Cat!— an enhanced e-book is really just the same as a book or a screenplay… only different.
Screenwriter, novelist, journalist, and editor Nancy Bilyeau is celebrating the success of her first novel, The Crown (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) and signing with Heide Lange of Sanford Greenburger Agency (Heide also represents bestselling authors Dan Brown and Brad Thor). O Magazine calls The Crown a “juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy and betrayal” and the book has spent several weeks at the top of Amazon.com’s list of hot historical mysteries.
Screenwriter and Master Cat! Alvaro Rodriguez (Machete) recently sat down with Nancy to talk about her road to writing and selling the novel (and getting it optioned as a film!) and how writers often approach structure in a very intuitive, almost osmotic way.
Al: In The Crown, an aristocratic young nun must find a legendary relic in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror in 16th century England. There’s the idea that heroes in novels and screenplays follow what Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey, but there’s a competing sense of an adventure that follows a feminine path, or a Heroine’s Journey, with a different set of steps or beats. Were you consciously guided by either pattern?
Nancy: I know the basics of Campbell but have never read any of his books. I find that reading books on plot or the journeys and archetypes found in many plots makes me nervous. I’m not sure why. I’ve read Save the Cat! but not many other books on writing. I’m an instinctual storyteller. It’s not the easiest way to go, but that is the way I’m wired. Someone who just read my second novel asked if I had a board covering a wall or a detailed chapter outline and I said: Neither. It’s all in my head. Now I have to qualify this by saying I’ve seen so many movies and read so many novels that I think unconsciously I’ve picked up the beats of the Hero’s—or Heroine’s—Journey. I often feel “This needs to happen now” or “Everyone will expect X to happen soon so I will do Y.”
Al: I completely agree. While I spend a lot of time thinking about the structure of a story before, during, and after writing it, I think we as writers have developed a kind of innate story sense from so much exposure to novels, plays, screenplays, and movies. It’s like we’ve absorbed the architecture and are free to play with the materials with which we choose to build. Do you think that plot grows from character or is the other way around?
Nancy: I love coming up with my plots. I could plot all day. Some people hate it—I don’t understand that. Sometimes I confess that I’ve shaped the characters to better serve my plot. But the main character of my historical thriller series, Joanna Stafford, to me she is alive. And in some chapters she “tells” me what she’s going to do or say in certain situations. I know that sounds hokey! But it’s what happens with her—she has earned that right as the heroine of my fiction world.
Al: When you first began writing The Crown, plotting or outlining, was there a particular scene you had in mind from the very beginning that you thought, “This has to be in the book”?
Nancy: Yes, when I started The Crown I really wanted to write my main character going to an execution. Originally that was going to be a two- or three-page kickoff to the novel, then I would jump into the main story, which takes place mostly in a mysterious Dominican Priory outside of London (a real place, one that I researched extensively). But I got so excited about my execution, which takes place in Smithfield, on the opposite end of London, that it just exploded into three chapters, and then the succeeding five chapters are about the fallout from my character going to this execution, which was a burning at the stake (and is based on a real event in May 1537). And then, well, I’ve always wanted to write a scene set in Stonehenge. And so I did one. I decided halfway through writing The Crown that I was going to really go for it. This would be a “big” story. And Stonehenge went in the pot. LOL.
Al: You’re under contract in England and Germany for a two-book deal, and The Crown has been optioned for development as a film. Did you originally conceive of the project as a multi-part story and did that effect the way you structured your plot?
Nancy: I always wanted to do this as a series. I’ve written the first two, and I have a one-sheeter on the third and ideas for two more after that. I seed in clues with the first book that pay off in the second. There’s even more set-up in the second book that will pay off in the third. See? I can’t help it. I use my screenwriter tools: set-up and payoff. Reversals. End-of-act hooks. In The Crown I set up an objective that my protagonist must achieve and then I threw a dozen things in her way. I also created (I hope) a very intelligent and devious antagonist in Bishop Stephen Gardiner. In my second novel, The Chalice, I have a couple of very formidable antagonists and I throw two dozen things in her way. And in both books she is on a clock.
Al: Writing period-set material requires the extra skill of verisimilitude, of making dialogue and description authentic. How research-heavy was this project?
Nancy: This is why it took me five years to finish The Crown. I was already a Tudor fanatic with a home library of about 20 books. But I needed to do a lot more research to make the book authentic and convincing. I chased down a lot of books and I traveled to England and I corresponded with historians and curators of certain places, like the Tower of London and Malmesbury Abbey. I found someone at the Dartford Borough Museum to answer my questions. I ran one passage by him and he said, “There wouldn’t have been any pine trees in Dartford in the 16th century.” Arggggh. I had the smell of pine needles in one sentence I was so fond of. But the pine trees came out.
Here’s the book trailer for The Crown:
Al: Along with your background in journalism and editing, you’ve been a Nicholl semifinalist twice and you’ve written and published your first novel, The Crown. Do you see these as separate skills and challenges or do they end up informing each other in some way?
Nancy: I definitely think they inform one another. For five years I was writing in three different mediums at the same time: magazine journalism, screenwriting, and fiction. I wouldn’t say that the craft of constructing a magazine story crosses over into the others except that I was trained as a reporter, and I use those skills to gather facts for my scripts and novels. But I almost felt I had to take off my nonfiction hat to succeed at coming up with stories. You have to be creative and resourceful when writing a magazine story but I wouldn’t say that you are using your imagination, exactly. That’s the mind muscle that has to work to write a script or novel. As for how the screenwriting and novel-writing influence each other, the answer is: For me, a lot. My novels are visual; I describe the light and space and texture that my characters move through, and I learned that in screenwriting. Specifically, in classes taught by screenwriter Max Adams, who is a mentor.
Our guest blogger, Rick DeMille, is a former missionary and former Marine who has worked in the computer industry and began writing a few years ago. His novel Hellfire has been published and he’s working feverishly on its sequel Coyote Midnight, along with a screenplay and more. He’s a member of the North Dallas Screenwriting Group and the Frisco Writers Group. His website and email address are below.
Writing is like life in reverse, at least that’s how it seems at times. We will look at what this means in a moment, but we can discover how to get things moving forward with just three letters – STC!
“Save the Cat!” works like a “Universal Law of Nature.” STC! applies just as well as “Newton’s First Law,” which states: “A body at rest tends to be a teenager, and will stay at rest until acted upon by an external force, usually a parent.” Maybe old Isaac didn’t say it that way, but I’m sure that’s what he meant.
It can even be as important as the “Law of Gravity,” that still unexplained attraction which holds the solar system and its planets together. STC! works like the gravity of writing, so for our purposes we can call it “Blake’s First Law.” This law states: “If you want to make sure every part of your story stays in its proper orbit, BEAT IT OUT.”
I can verify the truth of this law because I use it in my writing. A little less than two years ago, I was “forced” to write a novel. Forced, because I initially wrote only the first chapter, which was sent with a one-page synopsis to the Debut Dagger Awards, an international contest sponsored by the Crime Writers Association in London.
I sent in my entry, and went back to working on a screenplay, Dead on the Fourth of July. I beat out the story “Dead on the Fourth,” which is a requirement before I actually start writing any project. A few weeks later, Beat Sheet and several scenes complete, I got an email from Liz Clarke at the Crime Writer’s Association. My story was on their short list, it was one of 10 finalists.
My first thought was “Wow, this is fantastic.” My second thought was “What do I do now?” I had to decide whether to finish my screenplay, or try and turn one chapter of a novel into forty. The decision was made for me when I received a letter from an agent, saying he’d read a copy of my single chapter entry and now wanted to read my entire manuscript. Instead of writing him back, saying that he already had my entire manuscript, I began to feverishly apply “Blake’s First Law” to the novel.
Four months after that, I had a first draft. Six months and two rewrites later produced a contract with Cogito Medias. Last month Hellfire was published in eBook, with hardcover to follow.
I haven’t finished “Dead on the Fourth” yet, but I did enter the first 15 pages in the Writer’s Digest Script competition. And not only did I use the Beat Sheet to outline my story, I got help from the STC! software on something more basic.
The first thing you do when you start a new project is to give it a title. The help screen for the title says, “A title must nail the concept.”
My original title was “Common Good,” which fit very well with important scenes from the story. But, didn’t nail it. Dead on the Fourth of July nails it, because a young terrorist is going to detonate a massive bomb on the Fourth of July to avenge the death of his father, who was murdered years earlier on the Fourth of July. STC! to the rescue.
Dead on the Fourth of July was not only written in accordance with “Blake’s First Law,” it was actually named under the inspiration of STC! I finished my entry and sent it in, along with the required one-page synopsis. It placed 18th.
Clearly, STC! played a critical role in both projects, one a novel and the other a screenplay.
The logical next step then, when ”Hellfire the Novel” entered the publication pipeline, was to start on a sequel. I began work on Coyote Midnight, book two of the Travis Deacon series, as I began my war with the copy editor at Cogito to complete the final draft of Hellfire.
The method used in developing the sequel offers another example of how and why STC! is so essential to my writing process. And, it’s important to note that I use the whole “Save the Cat!” toolkit. I read Save the Cat! years ago, which forms the basis for the whole process. Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies offers even more specific guidance, and Save the Cat! Strikes Back provides even more. And I use the STC! software for almost everything I write. They are all unique tools for writers, not just screenwriters.
Oh, yeah, I promised to tell you why writing is like life in reverse. In life and learning, we begin with a problem and work to gather facts, in an effort to find the solution. Writers, on the other hand, often begin with a solution and a handful of facts, then labor relentlessly to craft them into a compelling problem – in three acts. “Blake’s First Law of Writing” gives us a framework which makes it easier to discover where and how those the facts fit in the solar system of our story.
STC! also came to the rescue as work on Coyote Midnight began. My first novel is a “Dude with a Problem” story, so it seemed logical that the sequel would be as well. As I started beating out the sequel, however, things didn’t fit. That forced me to refer back to the text books of writing physics. On page 169 of STC! Goes to the Movies the problem became clear.
As many of you know, one critically important page at the beginning of each chapter tells us how to recognize the genre of our story. Reviewing those pages revealed my error, Coyote Midnight is actually a “Whydunit,” not a DWAP. After this revelation, my writing followed its proper course. Using the STC! software and books as a guide, I successfully beat out the right story instead of trying to force the story into the wrong genre. It was a subtle difference, but an important one.
At this point, I’ve probably gone on a little too long. So, instead of explaining all the beats for Coyote Midnight, let’s end with something a little more important — something that played a huge part of my contest submissions.
There was a common factor in all my contest entries during this time. My novel was a finalist in the Debut Dagger Awards and later published. The screenplay Dead on the Fourth of July finished 18th in the Writer’s Digest competition. Both of those contests required a one-page synopsis.
Also, in order to test the story in Coyote Midnight, I adapted the first chapters into screenplay format and entered it into last years Writer’s Digest contest. Coyote Midnight finished 16th, even better than my entry the year before.
I am convinced that the synopses made a difference, and that the Beat Sheets are what made the synopses. The one-pager tells a judge, or any other reader, that there’s a story to go with the entry. It proves there’s a real story, a complete story, maybe even a compelling story to follow.
Each of my synopses were created by taking the beats and molding them together. Anyone who has a good Beat Sheet can make a good one-pager. A great Beat Sheet will be a great one-pager, so it’s VERY important that we make the best Beat Sheet possible.
The process for doing this is very simple. First, write a paragraph to introduce the back story and characters. Next write a second paragraph for Act 1 based on the Set-up, Catalyst, Debate, and Break into Two. Follow this with another paragraph for the first part of Act 2, including Fun and Games and the Midpoint, but ignoring the B Story. The next paragraph, Act 2 part 2 as you’ve probably figured out by now, includes the Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul, and Break into Three.
The final paragraph is the Beat Sheet Finale. At this point you can step away from the keyboard; your one-page synopsis is done. It’s amazing how much easier the one-pager becomes by using the Beat Sheets as opposed to walking mentally through the story and creating a synopsis from scratch.
This is an outline of the process I now use for almost all of my writing. If you have other questions or comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’d like to see the end result, Hellfire is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and many other eBookstores. It should also be available in hardcover this year. The Hellfire Website has links and a list of other sources. If you want to read the first chapter of Coyote Midnight, I have a link to it on my author’s site (www.rickardbdemille.com).
In conclusion, this blog is an introduction to “Blake’s First Law of Writing,” and how it has helped me as a writer. So, the next time you see an apple, don’t think of Isaac Newton… think of Blake Snyder.