Thursday, March 21, 2013

PBC Discussion: Save the Cat!

Note: I find myself with TWO 3rd-Wednesday blogging commitments. How does this happen?  Anyway, I've put up my Kid-Lit Blog Hop contribution already, and this one's only a little late.


Time again for the monthly Progressive Book Club discussion.  This month's book was Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, by Blake Snyder.

For the record, I have no intention of writing screenplays, and some of what he has to say doesn't really apply to my writing.  But I figured a) the club is reading it, so what the heck, and b) good writing is good writing, and I can probably learn something.  Here are some of the things I learned.

Lesson 1: The one-line description.  What he calls the log-line, what we book writers call the pitch, or the description.  Snyder makes a very good point: if you make that log-line sharp, catch the irony and the spirit of the story in one sentence, then the story you write will be much better.  This is an interesting thought since as a writer of books, I tend to write the book and then think about the pitch, whereas he is advocating coming up with the logline before you ever start drafting the script.  But I can see his point: know where you're going before you start.  And now I wonder if I can put more work into those summaries and improve either my books or my sales.

Lesson 2: the old bromide of there being only 7 stories in the world.  Snyder breaks all movies into about 7 archetypes, which is both reductive and instructive.  Some pretty radically different stories of all genres fall into each type.  Worth thinking about, though here I feel that the demands of the movies lead to plot lines that are too simplistic for books.  Still: never hurts to ask yourself what basic story you are telling.

Lesson 3: thank all the gods I write novels, not movies.  Because what he says about having to write the movies for basically a single demographic ("youth-obsessed LA") is probably true for movies, not to mention a whole lot of other restrictions.  But books are for all ages.  The take-away, though, is that you need to keep the audience in mind while writing.  What appeals most to me might not fly so well with the 10-year-olds.

The middle of Snyder's book moves into very movie-specific advice about structure and writing, and (as I have no intention of writing screenplays now or probably ever, since I don't even watch movies much) I started reading faster and skimming bits.  I am, however, contemplating if a greater attention to structure might not be a good thing when writing novels, too.  I dodged that question with The Ninja Librarian  and Return to Skunk Corners,  because they are really just short story collections with a hint of a story arc (okay, more than a hint, especially in the second book).  But my coming projects are more traditional novels and require a rational structure.  Snyder's "beats" and story boards might make the writing process smoother and faster.

I remain glad that there is more flexibility in writing novels than writing movies, though.  On the one hand, the cards-on-a-board plotting system he lays out sounds really great.  Actually, it looks a lot like the way I used to outline and write essays at University.  On the other hand: I'm a seat-of-the-pants kind of person, especially when writing fiction.  I've already discussed my troubled relationship with outlines.  It might be fun to experiment with his approach sometime, though.

Lesson 4: I found still more food for thought in Snyder's discussion of editing the script, and how to pinpoint certain problems.  I'm still not sure if his reductive-feeling approach is quite right for novels, but some parts seem worth considering, including the question about the growth and change of the lead character, and also making sure the hero (protagonist in the world of books) actually leads--rather than having things just sort of come to her (NB: Snyder always says "he" about the hero, and I get the feeling that his heroes may in fact be all male.  As are most in Hollywood.  I hate that).  I'll be taking a look at Murder Stalks the PTA  with some of these things in mind, and probably simplifying the storyline a bit, and getting rid of some stray bits that aren't cleaned up in the end, and double-checking that the heroine, JJ, is actually doing things to make stuff happen (though I'm also thinking about the hapless hero question.  Not  someone who goes out after stuff, but someone who just has to deal with all the unwanted stuff that comes his way).

Lesson 5: A final area where I found his ruminations helpful was a discussion of how to differentiate characters, especially minor characters.  In the movie, it's an easy visual clue, which he shortcuts as "a limp and an eye patch."  But I'm now thinking about how to do that in a novel, as well.  And the issue of being sure each has a unique voice comes up as well--and I may experiment with the exaggerated features he describes using in one script as a means of doing this.

The final chapter is about marketing the script.  All I can say is, I want NOTHING to do with Hollywood.  Never.  And I am really glad that we humble novelists have a venue that doesn't require the luck and/or self-marketing needed to get an agent there, because no way could I do that.  In the end, I take two things away from this book: a small collection of tips that may improve my writing, and a firm decision to stay far away from the film industry.

Now I need to go finish repairing my bicycling, so when the rain stops I can ride.  (Final note: I ended up riding in the rain to go get more parts.  I'm pretty sure that means something.)


  1. I really enjoyed the plot break-down, because as someone who strays often from an outline, it helps for me to at least have some idea of where I want my story to end up. I found Snyder's Beat Sheet closely resembles the makeup of a novel in Bell's Plot and Structure, and have combined my notes from those two resources in what I refer to as my "master plan". It's really helped me to fill in the blanks when I get too lost and forget what I'm supposed to be doing, haha! :)

    1. I guess I found it a little too structured. I DO usually have an idea where the story ends up, and actually lay out a bit, at some point, how to get there, but t seemed a bit over the top for my style.

  2. I like your honest discussion, and yay, I'm so pleased you equate script lingo to what we already know, eg. logline=pitch. Beat sheet=outline (and plot points). Your thoughts, as a panser, on the beat sheet are most interesting.

    There's a lot of good stuff in that little book, but I found it a mixed bag... as are the reviews (which is a good thing).

    1. Yeah, Erica, I felt at times like I was reading the anti-me, with every bit laid out before you start to write! But I bet I could use that beat sheet, or the Board, to good advantage when revising. I already am in the habit of doing my most detailed outline after I write the book :D

  3. I'm glad I don't write for films and I'm glad you read this book for me!

    Interesting thought on plots and complexity differences between film and books. I can't remember how I ended up at a blog called terribleminds this week, but he had a 25 variations on the plot blog which was both helpful and very funny. Not for pre-YA as he uses a lot of bad language, in fact I think there's a pre-loading warning.

    And I sometimes find myself blogging twice in a day to meet these pesky commitments too :)

    Jemima at Jemima's blog

  4. You might have found yourself at Terribleminds thanks to me. I really love Chuck's advice, though I must agree--not for the younger set, or anyone offended by oodles of gratuitous (though generally imaginative) foul language!

    I can't help feeling that movies are perforce somewhat reductive, because of the limits on time. Consider how 6 or 7 hours of Lord of the Rings movies STILL left immense amounts of stuff out! I guess the question for us, is: does the plot still follow the same arc?

  5. good thorough review. i agree, most of his advice was pretty easy to relate to writing novels. i learned a lot!

  6. Rebecca...what a FANTASTIC post! This was so thorough and laid out the skeleton of the book so well that anyone would want to read it to better their writing skills. So...taking that extra day was beneficial! I really loved this. And it makes me want to read the book more and more (still haven't gotten to it).

    Chuck Sambuchino (Writer's Digest contributor and agent) had a contest on absurd loglines one time. It was fun, but also the first time I heard of them. Have you ever seen "The Holiday," with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet? Cameron was a trailer producer for movies, and her life played out in loglines.

    Hey...just a suggestion. It took me forever to link to your site. On your comments, there was no link, and your picture that took me to your Gravatar profile did not have a link to your site. And when I googled "Library Ninja" it took me to another person's site who uses that name. Finally, I went "Duh...let me go to the PBC list and get to her that way."

    But it made me want to tell you that it's hard for your readers to access you. I'm trying to get all that squared away for myself, too. Get my Google+ page to link to my blog, my Facebook page, my Twitter, etc. I made an page and that links to my blog, plus gives a way for people to email me.

    Again, GREAT post! So glad to have you with the PBC. I'm planning a book giveaway for the June discussion—look for details coming soon. And...sorry so late getting here!

  7. ML, thanks!

    Yes, I only recently discovered that what you say about the links. I've started using a link in my signature line, and somehow failed to consider I could edit that Google+ page thing so it shows what I want :p

  8. Here's another question: I set up a Google + page but find no way to link to my blog (even though it's a Blogger, i.e. Google, blog. Sigh). Do I just make an "about me" page in the "add pages" thing and go with that?

    I am not even sure how to find, let alone edit, that Gravatar profile.

    Sigh. Social media is going to be the death of me!


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