Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Save the Cat!

I read books on writing in much the way that other people idly flip on the television--it's a way to pass a few moments. Most of them are mediocre, Every so often one is quite good, but in general it's just a way for my conscious mind to muse about writing while my subconscious gets a little work done.

I don't, however, read many books on screenwriting. There are two reasons for this: 1) I'm not a screenwriter, and 2) most screenwriting books aren't even good enough to be classed as mediocre.

But there's one slim book on the topic that I keep encountering, Blake Snyder's slim little volume called Save the Cat! The book has enough buzz around it that I decided it was time to see if the buzz came from bees around honey or from flies around something a little less pleasant.

I found Save the Cat! to be one of the more stimulating reads I've had in a while--perhaps because Snyder's whole approach to constructing a story is the opposite of mine. (Mine is called "groping around in the dark," and I doubt that a book extolling my method would ever become very popular.)

You know those things called loglines--the one-line summaries and hooks that are supposed to convey the essence of a story idea? Snyder starts his projects with the logline. Yes, starts there, and shortly after polishes his elevator pitch (that short summary you can blurt out and hopefully catch people's attention). And he road-tests these by approaching strangers in places like the line at Starbucks and asking if he can take just a minute and run something by them--his theory being that if he can get a complete stranger interested in his pitch, then he's onto a story people will want to hear.

Fine, I said, that's how Hollywood works, and you have to be catchy if you want to sell a script.

But Snyder isn't polishing his pitch so he can buttonhole producers and sell them idea (though I'm sure that comes in useful alter on). Snyder is trying to pin down exactly what his story is about before he takes even the smallest step toward actually writing it. Once he has established this, he establishes a title that echoes the story, and then sets about deciding what kind of protagonist is best for that sort of story, what themes need to run through it and be reinforced...

And then he moves on to decide what category or genre he's writing in, becasue each has different kinds of rules. But Snyder has his own categories, which don't include "romantic comedy" or "police procedural." His categories are:

1) Monster in the House
2) Golden Fleece
3) Out of the Bottle
4) Dude with a Problem
5) Rites of Passage
6) Buddy Love
7) Whydunit
8) The Fool Triumphant
9) Institutionalized
10) Superhero

The list is deliberately provocative, and Snyder open his discussion by claiming that the category and therefore the story dynamics of Die Hard, Schindler's List, and Titanic are essentially the same. (Whether these categories are valid and useful, I'm not sure; but they certainly are an interesting change from the usual groupings.)

After running through category basics, Snyder then moves on to the usual screenwriting stuff--three-act structure, beats, color-coded index cards. It's not clear to me that any of this is really useful to a novelist; even a skimpy novel is usually far more complex and involves many more beats than a screenplay does. But Save the Cat! runs through these elements so adroitly and entertainly that you've finshed them long before you begin to sigh at the inapplicability of most of it.

Stephen King asserts that writing a novel is a process of uncovering a prexisting story, and uses the simile of a paleontonogist excavating a fossil--you don't know what you've got until you've freed it from the stone. Blake Snyder inhabits the other extreme of the spectrum, where concept comes first and the story is crafted around it.

I don't think I could write a story in that fashion. But it was fun thinking (and, yes, fantasizing)about an entire different way of working. Even if it's one I could never adopt.


Neil said...

Janet said...

His approach sounds very similar to the Snowflake method, which I am attempting right now, although I suspect I shall end up modifying it, cheating, and changing as I go. I'll let you know how it goes.

I really don't think I'd have the chutzpah to try it out on strangers in Starbucks though.

David Isaak said...

I'm on it, Neil!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, I took a look at the "Snowflake" jobber once when someone mentioned it on a forum.

Looked at it and said, Well. if I knew all that stuff already, the book would already be written!

Let me know how that goes for you.

Janet said...

David, it's actually going rather well. Mind you, I don't think the snowflake method is designed to create new ideas, but to organize and develop embryonic ones.

I've been stewing this plot for a while. It's a sequel to my first WIP, and I basically used a Hegelian dialectic for inspiration. A new status quo had been established (or at least started) by the end of WIP#1 (thesis), which meant opposition to the status quo arises (antithesis) and in this case from more than one direction, and the struggle to reconcile the two provides the inspiration for the plot.

I've got a brainstorming page in my notebook that lives in my purse, and on it I've noted the key players, their goals, possible actions and reactions. This has all been simmering on the backburner for a while, getting pulled out in quiet moments and mulled over on sleepless nights.

Today I identified the main events, how they flow from one to another, their order and what the protagonist has to do to try to re-establish order after each one.

So in essence, I've now done the first two levels of the snowflake: identifying the central conflict and its main constituent parts.

Now I've got to think through the major characters. This is harder than it looks, because all of them were minor characters in the first book, and the major characters from the first are now secondary at best.

I'm being a little more visual than the method calls for too. I've always liked brainstorming on a sheet of white paper. In this case, I laid out the main events about equidistant on the page and started scribbling in the things I could see happening before and after. Some of these had been floating around in my head for a while, but getting them on paper seemed to turn them into little sparks, which started other little fires and I've got plot bursting out all over the page now. :o) I'm getting excited, because it's now coming together for me. I might even be ready for NaNoWriMo at this rate.

Sorry for the long comment. But you asked...

Tim Stretton said...

The Snowflake never worked for me. I'd love to be the kind of writer who had everything--or at least most things--nailed down before I started. But I'm not, and sometimes the dead ends are the fun part.

Alis said...

I think one of the problems in pinning down the 'how to' aspects of the novel-writing game is that any given system only works to some extent - at least for me. I don't know what the snowflake is, but as for brainstorming, it's very useful. Yes, I'd use it at the beginning of a book but also for most scenes and whenever I get stuck. Even when I think I know what a scene is going to be about, letting my subconscious loose on it invariably shows me other things which should be going on too.
Loved the categories in the Cat book by the way - very intriguing!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Actually, your approach of spinning off the second novel as a refelction of the first sounds like a great road into the book--snowflake or not!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yeah, the dead ends can be where the novel really comes alive. I know a novelist whose main advice is to paint yourself into a corner, becasue that's where you'll find true originality.

On the other hnnd, I've painted myself into one or two I couldn't get out of.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

I agree. I have to come at things every way I can. Including, tragically, sometimes sitting down and thinking very hard. I hate that.

But my biggest problem is that I really don't know my story when I start. I discover it somewhere in the process. I think this is a fault in my imagination. I have to be seeing the world of the book in an obsessive and dreamlike way bfore anything interesting really begins to happen...

Janet said...

That's pretty much how I wrote the first one, and I found it a bit traumatic. I started outlining partway through, but I could only push it so far. I decided I would try the pre-planning this time. With any luck, it will shave months off the writing process.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

I'd love to preplan. Here's me preplanning:

[David with pad of paper in lap]


[David with pad of paper in lap]

[David with pad of paper in lap]


(Well, you get the picture.)

sexy said...