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REWIND, 2008: A Conversation with Blake Snyder, author of SAVE THE CAT!

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While I don’t recall how exactly I learned about Save the Cat!–a book marketed primarily to screenwriters–I’ll never forget reading it for the first time, that sense of “Oh, yes; this author has tapped into something new and fundamentally true about story.” That author, Blake Snyder, agreed to an interview with me for Writer Unboxed in 2008, and while you can read the whole thing here today, what you might not come away with are things that stand out in my memory about that conversation.

First, it was a conversation, and so I was able to hear Blake’s tone of voice, his kind and easy manner, his laughter. I didn’t include all of the times he thanked me for an insight or question, but he was genuinely grateful to be heard and humbled that his ideas were being explored seriously. He was also so generous with his time–time that was, unbeknownst to anyone, running short. When he passed away suddenly the following year at the age of 52, the wider writing community lost a guru and friend.

Fast forward to today: Blake’s Save the Cat! is known all over the world, referenced with the ease of a blue sky by writers everywhere, and is taught at the best film schools in the country.  (My son just completed film school at USC, and so I promise you it’s true!) Blake’s books and concepts live on, and in fact his franchise has thrived and grown and even been thoughtfully adapted for novelists via a book written by Jessica Brody (Save the Cat! Writes a Novel). I’m cheered to know that Blake’s ideas have become a meaningful legacy for writers of all stripes, and are behind countless completed, purchased, and successful stories–films and novels alike.

Later today, I’ll be back with a review of an extension of Blake’s legacy: an online course and a set of cards meant to help storytellers craft a narrative from first beat to last. But until then, I hope you’ll enjoy my vintage interview with the late, great Blake Snyder.

Interview with Blake Snyder

TW: In the first Save the Cat, you introduce the idea that every story falls into one of ten new genre categories–Monster in the House, Golden Fleece, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, Rites of Passage, Buddy Love, Whydunit, Fool Triumphant, Institutionalized or Superhero. How does your latest book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, expand on this concept? And in what other ways are the books different?

BS: In the first Save the Cat, I proposed that most well-structured stories fall into certain patterns. I pointed out fifteen points on the Blake Snyder beat sheet that I think are unique.

What I’m trying to get across is that there’s a function for every section of a story. As a writer myself, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it all out. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of success in selling scripts, and so breaking down the components of what makes any story work has always been my goal. That was the important thing in the first book.

The other important thing in the first book was the concept that there are ten story types. So what I wanted to do in the second book is basically prove my point, prove the case. In writing the second book, I wrote ten different chapters, each one about a different story type. I found five different examples of each story type and broke them out into the beats. It really is just proving the case.

TW: It did feel like a scientific proof, like we were peering into your personal notebook, what you’d worked out.

BS: The really nice part for me was that you always go into these adventures enthusiastically, that’s for sure. But I didn’t know the wonderful things that I personally would have light bulbs go off over my head for. There’s some stuff in the second book that just blew me away and I couldn’t wait to get out to people.

TW: Like what?

BS: Well, you look for these patterns—and I’m always big on finding patterns. You know, you figure out why things work. And when you discover a pattern, you go, “Oh, I see.” That’s in every one of these types of stories. So I found tons and tons of things in categorizing and putting these stories in different genres that were amazing. I was watching a lot of monster movies—I call them Monster in the House movies—and I suddenly go, “Wow, the same character in every one of these stories.” I call him the half-man. This is someone who’s had an interaction with the monster before and come away damaged, and they all die on page 75! And so when I was going through this I watched The Ring, and Brian Cox plays that half-man character (Richard Morgan), and he dies on page 75. When I saw I that I said, “Oh, it’s Robert Shaw (Quint) in Jaws, it’s Ian Holm (Ash) in Alien.” And there’s a purpose for it, there’s a reason for it, and if your story doesn’t have it, it’s less satisfying.

I had a blog recently on a problem the folks at Warner Brothers had selling a movie called Michael Clayton. They have George Clooney, like the biggest star in the world, but the initial release of Michael Clayton garnered only 20 million dollars in ticket sales. The reason is because they couldn’t get a handle on how to tell the public what it was. I didn’t see anything until later. I didn’t understand what it was, the ad campaign was confusing to me.

TW: After you saw it, were you able to put it in a category?

BS: Absolutely, and the patterns for what it is are all over it. This is a movie I put in a category called Institutionalized. Michael Clayton is about a man who’s a fixer for a law firm—it’s about a group, it’s about to join or not to join, to be a part of the tribe or not to be a part of the tribe is the question.

TW: Do you think if the publicists had had a firmer grasp on what it was, they would’ve had a more successful experience marketing it?

BS: Yes. Because I’ll tell you the trick to me is finding the PRIMAL in every story. What translates to us as cavemen—I hate to say that term—but what works and resonates for me. For me, whether or not to join a group is an old story; it’s one we carry around in our DNA.

TW: That’s very interesting. I think it’s also important to point out that as a writer—of screenplays, of novels—that you really do need to have a handle on these concepts before you take the next step. Because it trickles down, or trickles up, and someone needs to understand it in these primal terms in order for the greatest number of people possible “get it.”

BS: Absolutely right. And the thing with Michael Clayton, all the characters I talk about in the chapter on Institutionalized movies, they all appear. Tilda Swinton, who won the Oscar this year for best supporting actress, she’s the company man (Karen Crowder)—a character type that’s frequently into the company to the point they become sexless automatons. You see it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched). MAS*H in Robert Duvall (Maj. “Frank” Burns). The company man is so embedded in the company and group that they’ve completely lost their sense of self and their sense of individuality. And they represent, “Don’t go there,” to us. I wasn’t surprised when Phyllis won, because hers was such a primal character and she demonstrated what the risks of joining the group are. There she is, this archetype.

TW: You mentioned the Oscars. No Country for Old Men won for best picture and best adapted screenplay. Were you surprised by that, and what was your pick for winner?

BS: Well, I knew that that and Juno would win. They were the inside favorites for winning the Academy Award. It was clear that that was what was going to happen. To me, I think they were all great screenplays. The sad part of it is, a lot of people haven’t seen this movies. When people say, “I don’t go to the movies anymore, they just don’t hit me.” These are great stories, wonderfully told stories. But yeah, I wasn’t surprised and I think they’re well deserved. The Coen brothers have the snappiest dialogue in the business. If you have a problem with dialog or don’t know what I mean by “plain dialogue,” which is like, “Hi, how are you?,” go and see a Coen brothers movie. No one says “Hi, how are you?” They’ll figure out a unique way to say every line.

TW: What do you think made this novel by Cormac McCarthy so appealing to the Coen brothers?

BS: Well, if you look at it through their lens, it’s Fargo in the Southwest. I mean, it’s structured in exactly the same way! It’s Tommy Lee Jones’ story (Ed Tom Bell), just like it’s Marge Gunderson’s story—you know, Frances McDormand in Fargo. It’s the same. You know, it just has a Southwest twang. So I think they knew how to tell the story, and they’ve been there before. It also bears a big resemblance to Blood Simple, their first real big movie.

TW: What do you think are the necessary ingredients in determining if a novel is adaptable for the big screen?

BS: Oh, that’s such a great question. Well, you know, biography and adaptation of novels and short stories, articles, even newspapers…the idea can come from anywhere, but it has to be able to stand alone as movie. And that means, the key skill to have is the ability to cut stuff out and build on the stuff that is movie-like. You know, Urban Cowboy was based on an article in New York Magazine. We had a bunch of short stories that were turned into film. What everyone’s looking for is just what we were talking about before: What’s the PRIMAL? What about this resonates for us cavemen? You know, A Beautiful Mind is a great example; the idea of losing your mind and losing touch with your loved one, is a modern notion but it’s strangely primal. The thing that’s most compelling about A Beautiful Mind is the aspect that he’s losing his wife, he’s losing his relationship. That’s what we’re always looking for.

TW: The nugget of universal truth.

BS: Yeah, exactly.

TW: You mentioned in your book that “high concept” is pretty much an out-of-fashion term in Hollywood. But is it fair to say that while the term may be out of fashion, having a high-concept screenplay is not and probably never will be?

BS: Absolutely correct, and I think this is more and more the case. I’m always bemused when I go to film festivals and there’s a well-deserved and lovely rebellious streak with young filmmakers—as it always should be. And I love it. The idea that “We’re abandoning Hollywood and it won’t be like this for us” is incorrect. You are going to have to get attention for your film. Even more difficult to do now than in the past.

This might seem off topic, but I went to England last year and there was a thing on the Internet where the BBC had listings of 100 unsigned rock bands. You could go onto the BBC website and listen to a couple of songs from these unsigned rock bands. So, there’s 100 of them and there’s like 300 songs, at least. What am I listening for as I drop the needle on each one of these bands, hoping to find something of note? What am I looking for? I’m looking for a hook. I’m looking for something that’s going to make someone want to keep listening. And that’s what we have to do as writers, too. If you think the analogy is off, you are one of 100 unsigned bands. Why should I listen to you versus the other 99? You’ve got to somehow get my attention.

I preach that the silver bullet for screenwriters now is high concept, low budget. Look at Lars and the Real Girl. To me, that’s perfect. High concept, low budget. A guy who falls in love with a mannequin. Immediately you say to yourself, okay, how does that work? But you know that’s not a movie that’s going to cost 50 or 60 million dollars to make. Juno is another real good example: great primal story—Scarlet Letter in a small town.

The problem is that we’re writers. We think, “Of course you should listen to me and be interested in my art!” But don’t neglect your responsibility to be welcoming. You have to have the courtesy to invite me to your party. Invite me. That’s what it is.

TW: Do you think it’s a mistake for a novelist to try to adapt his/her own novel? Why? What might be the common pitfalls?

BS: I very often hear ideas from writers that are clearly not meant to be movies; they are clearly novels. And I say to them, “Write the novel.” I think the upside of where we are is there are so many opportunities for writers now and so many ways to get work read and produced. I vote that you get your novel published. A producer like Scott Rudin, who was the producer for No Country for Old Men—his stock in trade is haunting publishing houses. He’s finding books and getting them turned into movies—even unsolicited manuscripts in smaller publishing houses. They are looking for stories everywhere. And it helps to have somebody else to go first. If somebody took the time and money to buy your book and publish it—even a small run of 1,000 copies—someone else took the chance first. It puts you into a category that makes it easier for you to sell your story to the movies.

TW: A gold star, previously awarded.

BS: Yeah, yeah. When you do that, just get the first draft as part of your contract when you sell the rights to your novel. Write into that contract that you get first crack at turning it into a script.

TW: That’s interesting. I don’t know that a lot of people would think to do that.

BS: Oh, it’s a must. The way it is now for arbitration—the WGA’s rules for how they assign credits—they give a much greater percentage of credit to the first writer. My friend Tracey Jackson just adapted the Shopaholic books. I think she was the first writer on that project and because of that she carved out for herself a credit. So be the first draft writer for the screenplay.

TW: Rumor has it that it’s easier to win a million through the state lottery than sell a script in Hollywood. Is that true? And what are the latest statistics on the number of screenplays purchased in Hollywood vs. the number actually produced?

BS: Fifty-thousand scripts were registered with The Writers Guild of America (WGA) last year. Maybe 200 sold.

TW: And how many of those are actually produced?

BS: Um, ten of those.

TW: Wow. And what’s the going rate for selling a screenplay today?

BS: The average deal for a spec for a first-time writer is what we like to call three-against-five, which is $300,000 for the script against $500,000 total. You get $300,000 upfront. Then on the first day of production, they assign credits and based on whether you have a shared credit or a total credit, you’ll get a portion of the remaining $200,000. If you get full credit, you get the full amount. In terms of, will lightning strike for you, um…?

TW: Go buy a lottery ticket?

BS: No, no. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but read Save the Cat. You know, you want your odds to increase? If your goal it to sell a script, you must follow the steps. I’ve sold thirteen spec scripts in my career. I’ve sold a couple of million dollar screenplays. I’ve had good luck at this. But it’s also understanding the formula.

TW: Formula—let’s talk about that. How is the formula or template for screenplays you’ve created in Save the Cat different from other templates you might find in other books on screenwriting?

BS: Well, it gets us back to the second book and the conversation about genre. I’m all about increasing your odds, but it’s not necessarily about just the commerce. The reason you sell your script is because you’re writing a satisfying story—I can’t stress that enough. Worrying about selling out or selling to the marketplace or trying to figure out what the marketplace wants… What it is about is that you have an idea, and I want you to find the sizzle behind that idea—it’d be great if it’s interesting to anybody but you—and executed in a way that resonates. And it all speaks to the kinds of things we were talking about earlier: primal, does a caveman understand it?

That is not an insult, that is a key question.

If you have a script with the word “wedding” in the title, your odds have just increased. Why is that? Well, check around the world. Everyone knows what a wedding is; it’s a primal circumstance, a rite of passage that everyone understands. You’ve increased your odds, not by being commercial, but by being a good storyteller, by writing a story that more people might be interested in seeing. And that’s the goal. That’s commonsense that happens also to be commercially smart. Why would I want to make a $100,000,000 movie that would be interesting to only one person? I want to make a movie that the most people would be interested in seeing. Is that crass commercialism or is that formula? No.

I think what it is, is remembering the goal: to entertain and to reach people. And you can increase your odds if you think that way. No matter how much movies cost to make, you’re going to have to find an audience.

TW: Some stories are more primal than others, in my opinion. Is this related to how well movies sell? Are some movies more highly sought after than others because of how they tap into that base humanity?

BS: Yes, I have lots of evidence about this. Why was the first Die Hard the best Die Hard? Why has every other Die Hard that’s followed been less successful? Well, it’s because the first Die Hard was “a cop visits his estranged wife in Los Angeles and her building is taken over by terrorists.” What “dies hard” is love for his wife. That’s what the movie’s about. It’s about an average street cop who’s lost his wife to the sophistication of expense accounts and gulf-stream jets, who gets her back. Now, that sends chills through me because it’s a story I understand. You’ve lost your love and now you want her back. Well, that’s why all the other Die Hards didn’t work. Once you’ve saved your wife once, it’s hard to save her again. It’s why sequels are hard. I tell students, the story you’re telling me is the most important thing that ever happened to the hero of your story. So, how can you do that twice? It’s difficult. It’s difficult. The sagas are ones that usually work out the best—The Godfather, Alien, The Terminator. These are chapters in the most important thing that ever happened in your life.

TW: One of my favorite lines in Save the Cat! is this: “By taking it all back as far as possible, by drawing the bow back to its very quivering end point, the flight of the arrow is its strongest, longest and best.” I love that. Can you tell us a little about what you mean by that and why it’s important for all storytellers to do this?

BS: This is such a great question. I think this is a key storytelling skill. I will reference the movie Romancing the Stone. We meet Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder) and she’s this bestselling romance novelist who lives in her apartment in New York, has this very vivid imaginary life and never leaves. She has no social life; she sits there with her books and her cat and she doesn’t do anything. When the knock on the door comes and the message arrives saying “You’re sister’s been kidnapped. Come to South America to save her,” whereby she goes on the adventure and meets the dream lover realized, Michael Douglas (Jack T. Colton)—who turns out to be slightly different from her imagined perfect man, but beautifully so—that journey would’ve been lot less satisfying if we meet Kathleen Turner and she’s dating, she has a social life, she’s in society, she’s not lonely or isolated. The bravery that it takes for the real character in the movie to make the leap makes the adventure bigger, and it mostly makes her transformation bigger.

All stories are about transformation. Jim Carey in the movie Liar, Liar starts the movie as a liar (Fletcher Reede). Not a fibber. Not occasionally telling that little white lie. He’s a LIAR! And by the end of the movie, he’s not. So, what happened?

You want that journey to be opposite. You want that person to start back, as far back as possible, with lots and lots of problems. The first person I ask when people start telling me about their hero is, “What’s the problem? Why do we need to send them on the most important adventure that ever happens in their lives?” It’s to change them, and that’s why we want to see these stories. It goes back to the divine. You know, all stories are about transformation and transformation is about rebirth. The old way of life has got to die, and you’ve got to find a new way to live. And we can hear that story forever. Your job is to make that person go as far back as possible, so the journey is the biggest. And it can be engineered. The wonderful part about all of this is these are little tricks and techniques that just make the story better that are learnable. You do the math on your story, you check the math when you’re done, you check to make sure these things are in there, you will tell a better story. These are learnable things. I learned them. I’m not a rocket scientist. I just am interested in telling better stories.

TW: Is it a sure sign of a problem if your story doesn’t translate to beats—specifically the beats laid out in the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet?

73e13b5d7c1a507697eca7c759fe23d9-525x283BS: Again, we are tracking change. I think the big breakthrough in Save the Cat that most writers have responded to, is that I sort of cracked Act 2. The beats that I laid out in Act 2 for what is required have really helped writers. You know, the Syd Field method that I grew up with, that was genius when I read it, was that there were three-act structures and there’s a “break into Act 2” on page 25 of a 110-page screenplay, and there’s a similar “break into Act 3” on page 85. That’s all I had growing up. There’s a lot of empty space between 25 and 85. All it is is tracking transformation, tracking change. If you have a story that’s not falling into this pattern, yes, it’s worrisome. And, again, I love writers. I love the bullhead in writers. I was one. I love the rebellious spirit. You may say, “My story’s different,” and I say, “No, it’s not.” But the really good writers…

Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you look at those movies, they are beautiful, and they follow the beat, beat for beat. So, even avant-garde storytelling has to satisfy.

TW: Let’s talk about your ten genre categories (Monster in the House, Golden Fleece, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, Rites of Passage, Buddy Love, Whydunit, Fool Triumphant, Institutionalized or Superhero). Why are your ten genre tags better than traditional ones, like sci-fi, romantic comedy and drama?

BS: Oh, that’s easy. If you say you’re writing a sci-fi movie, it doesn’t tell me anything. If you say you’re writing a western, I’ll go, “That’s nice, but what is it?” I can name westerns that fall into each of my ten genre categories. And that is more specific. I think that’s what I’m really driving at here. What I love is that since the book’s been out, I’ve been getting questions from writers like, “I have this pitch, and I can’t decide if it’s an Out of the Bottle or something else.” The truth of it is, that’s exactly the discussion you should be having. That’s exactly how you should get to the what the heart of your story is. If you tell me it’s a western, I can’t help you. All I know is that it’s set in the old west.

TW: So your categories get to the heart of what the primal experience is where the others are general.

BS: That’s true. Yeah. And again, truth be told, there’s only one story. The other great discovery I had when writing this book was that it’s all getting us to a place of divine intervention. Whether it’s Die Hard or sci fi or anything else. The core essence is that we’re touched by something greater than ourselves. My personal mission is talking about storytelling, telling the tools so that anybody can use them, because if you can get to the essence of what your story is about, you have a greater appreciation for what your mission in life is. It’s a divine calling, your mission in life. And all of these stories are about essentially, at some point in the story, a moment of clarity for a character where they realize they’ve been touched by something remarkable. It’s why you’re telling the story and it’s why we need to hear it. Because we all need that.

TW: Do any of the genres you’ve identified tug at people more than others, or are they all equally capable of doing that?

BS: I think they’re all equally capable of doing that, and one of the reasons that I carved them out that way was to say one was not better than the other. We love magic movies, called Out of the Bottle movies. Are they any better than rite-of-passage stories, which are the most human?

TW: But, as you point out in your book, rite of passage is also the least tied to tradition in storytelling.

BS: True. It is a modern concept to have the angst of growing up, the angst of divorce. Within those stories again you find the primal part, the part that touches us as human beings. In each of these we’re looking for the primal—what gets out attention?

TW: Do you think your genre tags can be applied to novels?

BS: I’ve been doing a lot of work lately with romance writers, which I love. These guys are so positive and enthusiastic and goal-oriented. What we keep talking about is Buddy Love—the category that shows “my life changed because I met another.” That’s at the core of all love stories. You know, “I was transformed by something divine. Love. I found the one person in the universe who understands me exactly as I want to be understood.” What’s great about the romance writer’s world is that there are so many different ways to tell that story. They’ve come up with a million new categories of genre and type, and yet they all boil down to “my life changed because I met another,” Buddy Love. I think if you look at any great successful book, it’ll fall into one of these categories. The Bourne Identity is Dude With A Problem. The Da Vinci Code is a Golden Fleece, a quest that turns out not to be what we thought it was. So absolutely, stories are stories whether they’re books or movies.

TW: Do you recommend that people use YOUR genre tags in a pitch as opposed to the more general, common tags, like romantic comedy, drama, etc… Do you think they’ll be understood?

BS: More and more, they are. I’m very pleased to report that I now hear back from lots of writers who say they’ve gone to meetings at studios and the executive will turn to them and say, “Well, you know, I think we need a better Save the Cat moment here.” Which, I just love! And that goes for the genres, too. I’m going to give a talk at Disney Animation in March, and they’ve asked me to come in and discuss my genre types and discuss the little idiosyncrasies every one has. So would I recommend you pitch something as a Golden Fleece? Not yet! But it’s getting there. It’s all about common sense. It’s all about putting yourself in the shoes of the person listening to your story. You don’t need to have technical lingo to, in a common sense way, tell what your story is about. If you hit the primal story, they’ll get it.

TW: So even if they can’t yet say that it’s a Golden Fleece, they can still find a movie from that primal genre tag and refer to that for sake of comparison.

BS: Exactly right. If someone had said that Michael Clayton was basically “Network with lawyers,” I would’ve gone, “Oh, okay.”

TW: You mentioned Save the Cat, and I know you weren’t referring to only the title of the book. You have a great list of the Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics in your book, including such gems as Pope in the Pool! Can these be applied to novelists?

BS: Oh, I think so. Pope in the Pool is a way you can bury exposition. You know, how are you going to get information across that the audience needs to know in a way that isn’t boring? You know, the best way to do it is to distract them with other stuff happening. You know, you are being shot at by bad guys while saying the clues to the movie or the story. Much more interesting! On the run, grabbing a taxicab, being shot at. “You mean to say” “Yes!” Slam, drive, squeal of wheels. “He said that?” “Absolutely!” Bang, bang! Instead of sitting there in a coffee shop and spilling your guts.

TW: I’ve read that all kitchen scenes should be eliminated from storytelling and that no one should ever drink tea.

BS: Exactly! And one of the heaviest of those was The Da Vinci Code, which really points to the problem of adaptation—which we’ve talked about—and the problem of information. I think the book The Da Vinci Code worked far better than the movie. Because really it wasn’t a story, it was a documentary. It was a fleshed-out slim story surrounding a theory about history. The theory was fascinating, held together by a very tiny little story. The flaws became apparent when you saw the movie. You saw lots of talking head scenes and flashbacks. She’s standing at the side of Jesus? Oh, I see. As a read, it’s much better, because it’s very intellectual.

TW: In the exercise section of your book, you challenge your readers to identify or create a new genre and tell them that if they find something you might possibly include it in upcoming editions of your book. Have you received any well-rounded possibilities and been tempted to include them in your genre category list?

BS: Surprisingly, no. Very few have suggested things. I’m still looking. Usually they will pitch something that is an adjunct to an existing genre but falls into a definite type. That’s why I did the ten genres. I really tried to carve out big chunks of category for each one.

TW: Now at the end of your book you have this little tag-on called “What about Ghost.” That movie does seem to be an almost quilted selection of various genres, but still it works and falls into Why Done It more solidly than anything else. Is it a bad idea in general—though maybe Ghost is the exception to the rule—to blend genre this way? Will a story be less saleable if it doesn’t stick to the format of a single genre?

BS: I think at the end of the day, most stories are one thing. I think this is particularly true for movies but it could be a general thing, too. I think, as cavemen, we can only handle one moral to the story at a time. Ghost is a good example because it is indeed a blend of many things, and I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with blending story types together. One of the things I’m toying with is the idea of making a list of movies and showing how they’re combinations of two or three types. Bottom line, usually they’re still just one story with one main thrust. It’s good for the writer, too. What are you trying to say? It’s tough to write a good story. I had a conversation with a reporter the other day, and we were talking about Memento and Atonement. I don’t know if you’ve seen Atonement…

TW: Not yet, but it’s on my Netflix list.

BS: Well, I won’t ruin the story for you, but there’s a sleight of hand at the end where the writer kind of pulls the rug out from under you, saying that the story you’ve just seen isn’t really the story. And, to me, you don’t need that stuff. You have plenty to play with, it’s just basic storytelling that’s just rich, rich, rich. You don’t have to wow us with your avant-garde approach. There’s plenty to work with using the basic color scheme. Plenty. And changing the nature of the story doesn’t necessarily make it better.

TW: But don’t be afraid to dip your brush into interesting things if it’s not going to mess with the general structure.

BS: Right. I’d be crazy to say don’t try it. I’ve tried it all. Mixing genres and trying different things, all of it. It’s part of every writer’s skill set. You’ve got to experiment. But at the end of the day, if you can wring out a great story from one of these ten genres, it will be plenty satisfying.

TW: And probably more likely to be successful?

BS: I think so, yeah.

TW: Which genre do people write screenplays in the most, in your experience, and which do you wish they’d write in more?

BS: I think Monster in the House is probably the most popular, and there’s always need for a scary movie. But Rite of Passage is the one that impresses the most people and the ones that often lead to Academy Awards. I personally really gravitate to Institutionalized. Groups are very interesting, and it’s always wonderful to jump from character to character in a group setting. Superhero is one of my favorite genres, too. For instance, the mano y mano with the superhero and his counter-nemesis that I point out in chapter 10 of the book is fascinating. That was another aha! for me. The superhero is a divine character. He’s always the one who is offered something, like Russell Crowe in Gladiator is offered to be emperor, and he says, “No, I really want to go home and be with my family.” He’s a special person who knows the risks and challenges of being special and takes that seriously. Whereas the nemesis, his counterpoint— Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator (Commodus)—has a self-will that runs riot. “I’m going to make my world come around to me. I am special and I’m going to show you I am.” And tragedy inevitably results. And they all have these same characteristics. I was watching in Gladiator the problem of self-will and taking over the world. All the nemeses have “my little plan.” It results in Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator…midway through the movie he starts to get headaches, and I thought that was beautiful. Of course he gets headaches.

It wasn’t until after I finished writing Save the Cat that I watched the movie Casino Royale, the James Bond film. James Bond is a classic divine being. And there, his nemesis, this gambler guy who has a plan for taking over the world, thinks he’s special. And what’s his little defect? He works at it so hard while sitting there playing poker that his eye literally bleeds. And I thought, “Well, of course it does.” Absolutely. That’s what the nemesis character is! To me, these are such beautiful repeating patterns. Why do we need to show that? Well, we need to show that it’s better to be in sync with God than not.

TW: I don’t know about you, but I think Casino Royale is the best Bond film yet.

BS: Oh, thank you. Me, too.

TW: I loved it. Why do you think it worked so well?

BS: Oh, it’s because of those very reasons. You know, I like to say that the Superhero character succeeds because he has pure faith. James Bond jumps across buildings and finds a pier for his feet to land on. He doesn’t hesitate, because he knows he’s on a mission, and it’s a divine mission. And so he knows he cannot fail.

TW: I wonder too if it’s a little of the flight of the arrow idea we discussed. In this movie, we really see it; the arrow has been pulled all the way back, so we appreciate the journey.

BS: Yep. Yes, it’s the genesis story and it never was told. I totally agree. And he’s the best Bond ever. And if you look at the original character drawn in the book, this Bond matches up better than any other.

TW: You say that one of the key elements of a successful film is that a story should surpass our expectations for the movie’s familiar genre. Do you have any tips for spinning your story out of the realm of the ordinary?

BS: Yes. The problem with all this is you’ll see successful movies that don’t follow these things, and you’ll think you can get by without it. I went to see Jumper this weekend; it’s a sci-fi movie and it’s just flat as can be. They did not get into a B story, they did not get into a theme and they did not get into a transformation. If I were the studio executive, I would’ve said, “Where’s the story?” Lots of stuff happens, but there’s no story. I think what lifts story beyond the average, is attention to the moment of clarity…that divine moment that the hero recognizes that the hero’s been transformed.

TW: Isn’t that exactly where the satisfaction for the viewer comes from?

BS: It is the only place satisfaction comes from. And the truth is, we can put up with almost anything as long as we have that moment at the end. When Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic), after saving Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson) from that little watery prison on a sinking ship is put back on the lifeboat with her mother—that’s a defining moment. There’s Billy Zane (Caledon Hockley) on deck and there’s Leonardo DiCaprio. She’s been given her old life back and she can go back to her frightened mother and her frightened world, but she chooses not to. She had a moment of clarity. Why? How’s it reinforced? Well, earlier in the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio had said “Make each day count.” That is the lesson that Kate will take away from this movie. “My life has changed from having met another”—Buddy Love, that’s the definition—is realized. It’s a divine moment. When she jumps back onboard to be with Leonardo DiCaprio she’s saying, “I would rather spend one day—even my last day—with the love of my life than a thousand days of a lifeless future.” This is not the same girl who got on the ship. And that’s what we came for.

TW: That’s why that movie won so many awards.

BS: Yes. Yes. And it was primal as hell. That’s what we’re looking for.

TW: What guides your process when you sit down to write a screenplay? Is it the nugget for a story? Or do you think about the genre that you’d like to write in?

BS: It’s a process of a flash of an idea. I have notebooks full of loglines and pitches. My real inspiration comes when I tell somebody an idea and they go, “Whew!” That’s enough for me, usually, to say the idea has value. The ideas I keep to myself and think they’re so good I can’t even let them of my mouth because someone might steal it or the magic might get away from me if I speak about it—when I finally tell someone…the minute the words leave my mouth I think, “Wow, this sucks!”

TW: That’s not what I expected you to say!

BS: It’s really true! The ones I tend to hold in are the ones that aren’t all that good.

TW: Circling back to loglines…The first time I read your first book, SAVE THE CAT, I blogged about it and something you wrote: that the number one thing a logline must have, the single most important element, is irony. Can you tell us why it’s so important? And do you think it’s just as important for the novelist as it is for the screenwriter?

0-525x290.jpegBS: Yes. Irony is the hook. We talked about 100 unsigned bands; you’re looking for combinations of notes you’ve never heard before. That’s irony and surprise. It’s freshness. You’ve broken the cliché, you’ve grabbed out attention. That works for everybody. In a bookstore, you pick up a book and read the back cover to see what it’s about. Is the story primal? Does it do something different that we’ve never seen before? That is the art. It’s a step-by-step process. The way Save the Cat’s laid out is, I hope the process is foolproof. I say throughout the book, “If you haven’t satisfied this demand with your story, don’t go any further.”

TW: Right. Stop right there. Step away from the typewriter!

BS: Right, and I’m not kidding! I have so many writer friends who’ll say, “I’ve written over 300 screenplays and I haven’t sold one yet.” And I’ll ask what they’re working on and they can’t tell me. I tell them to go back to the starting line and figure out a good logline, a good hook. Otherwise they’re just repeating the problem and all the work and effort they’re putting into it will go nowhere. Being hard-working and wanting it badly isn’t enough. Be smart.

TW: You also say that you must be able to see an entire movie in a logline. Can you explain what you mean by that?

BS: Yes, this is when you know you have a great story idea. I think it’s called a compelling mental image, an image that blooms in your mind. You pitch your movie idea and the person you’re pitching to says, “Oooh, you can do this with it” and “Oooh, you can do that!” They’re already chipping in and helping you with your idea, because the concept is so compelling that they have to, you know? And if the concept isn’t compelling? Well, this is why Hollywood gets wrapped up and makes so many mistakes. I’m George Clooney, I’m Steven Spielberg, you’re going to come see my movie. No, we’re not. Not unless we feel we must. Some do it right. If you pitch me, “Street cop goes and visits his estranged wife in Los Angeles and her building is taken over by terrorists” (that’s the left turn by the way, that’s the irony, because you don’t expect this to happen when you visit your estranged wife), the compelling mental images are evident. You’ve set me up with the concept and told me where it takes place. Based on that logline, there’s going to be a scene in an elevator shaft. I’m going to see someone swinging from a fire hose. Those are the tools you’ve presented. That’s what you’ve given me. Street smart, street cop.

TW: You were interviewed for an article in The Vancouver Sun several months back, and the headline was, “Want to be a screenwriter? Just learn the story formula. And once you’ve done that, Hollywood’s Blake Snyder says, learn how to hide it.” Can you tell us why it’s important to hide it once you’ve settled on a formula?

BS: These are such great questions. I really appreciate it. Yeah, what we’re talking about are tricks, we’re talking about craft. My favorite phrase is “Force it.” We talk about taking the character all the way back. You can engineer that. You can load a character up with problems on purpose and make their journey bigger. So, often, knowing these things, knowing where the beats are and knowing what has to happen on what page, when you execute that, very often, the seams show because they’re a little too precise—page 25, bang this happens, page 55, bang this happens, page 75, bang that happens. That tends to be mechanical. So your job is to, like any artist, learn how to know the structure and hide it. You know, if you’re an artist, you can show depth by going from light to darkness on a person’s face. There’s a little dot of white on their nose and it recedes into darker and darker shades. Make the dot a little less like a dot. Blend it in. That’s what we’re talking about. If you see a dot on someone’s nose in a painting, it glares, you say, “This is artifice. It’s not real. It’s an artist showing me something.” But if it’s blended in, it’s natural, and you forget about technique. I think that’s the job.

TW: Any final thoughts?

BS: Getting back to the 50,000 screenplays that were registered last year, I don’t want yours moldering away in a file somewhere. I want it to have life. The way to give it life is to satisfy these sort of commonsensical demands. So often we fall in love with the smell of the rain on the road at dawn. We get inspired to write for all kinds of nutty reasons. But just because it’s inspiration doesn’t mean it’s right. Follow along with commonsense etiquette. Convince me I should be interested in your idea. Okay, so you’ve got something special, a moment you love. You saw a rainbow and want to describe it to me. Just play fair. Tell me something that I want to hear. Invite me to see the rainbow with you. Convince me that my life will be better because I’ve seen it.


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh (she/her) co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress, and orchestrates the WU UnConference. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub). Learn more on her website.


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