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.)