Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dedicated to Blake Snyder

Howdy writing fiends, all three of you :-)

We're back with a new installment of blogging for edification. Today we're going to be talking about Blake Snyder. He passed away on Aug 6, 2009 and we need to talk about his works and perhaps his effect on writing and writers. I have only read his TOCs - bless you Amazon - but his theories seem to "not be what they are portrayed as." Reading through the TOC and beginning of the insightful Save the Cat Goes to the Movies I can see that the meat is definitely there and it's more like Trottier than any "gurus."
I tend to shy away from those types of books because screenwriters are competing as BFA and MFAs - Shane Black wasn't sitting in his garage - so it's a REQUIREMENT that I only read material that would be in the Tisch or USC curriculum - hey you can find the books they use, I recommend David Bordwell. Though that's not to say that the Trubys and Snyders, etc don't have something to offer any level screenwriter - it always helps to look at things through the eyes of others. We will also take the movies we have written or are in the process of writing and add them to the list - hey we need to make sure that we actually wrote a movie.

But at any rate in his theory he espouses the concept of abstracting - that should be familiar - stories into ten distinct categories. We will list and analyze them and hopefully convince people to buy it. The theory and the book. Note that I won't be reproducing the book or any parts but will look at each type theoretically from our point of view.

Monster in the House - movies where the behavior or actions of the heroes "allow the evil" in. He gives Alien and Fatal Attraction as examples - two totally disparate but amazingly similar movies. They do emphasize the life-threatening nature of "the Monster." You can even use the same cinematic progression (structure) to locate "plot points."

Inciting incident

Alien - the beacon hits the Nostromo, they land on the planet

Fatal Attraction - Alex spots Dan, they flirt and have sex


Alien - Cain explodes at dinner

Fatal Attraction - Alex begins stalking

And so forth. The key is that these movie require graphic violence and even death. Threats to the supporting characters is a prerequisite (Alien had the whole crew except Ripley - you also have to establish the "thinker" who usually survives). In the case of Fatal Attraction, Beth is actually representing the thinker as Ash and Dan are paralleled as the "conduit of the monster." The separation then becomes the ferocity of the monster and the accidental nature of Dan's indiscretion. They are also paralleled by the small confines of home and work and the communication with "the higher power." For Alien it was Mother\The Company and Fatal Attraction touted the "hands tied" police. Fatal Attraction can even call itself a thriller while Alien is pure horror but the "Monster still gets in." Next up is:

Golden Fleece
- These involve perilous journeys to receive important artifacts. Movies such Jason and the Argonauts, Saving
Private Ryan and many others fit this mold. This is the clearest path to the true "Hero's Journey" as it is usually forced on an anti-hero. War films are well-suited to this as are police actions. Even movies like Witness are ultimately Golden Fleece films though it's a "soul-finding" exercise more so than a quest for the physical. We refer you to our Flexible four act structure.

Though this structure works for all films, it's most prevalent in Golden Fleece stories as they always involve "life-threats" to the protag and his allies. As you can see this abstraction doesn't mold to exact points of time but instead uses the linearity of progression to allow for fluctuations in "page numbers." This allows for more spontaneous sequence placement while maintaining structural consistency.

Out of the Bottle - Snyder describes this as the movie with magical\fantastic occurrences. Ones such as Cocoon which even mixed the alien interaction vein with the magical healing vein. This type leaves no stone unturned in possibilities for cinematic drama. Referring back to the chart we can see that it actually changes the "names" of the sections:

I. At home or work becomes "Introduce the magic or mysterious visitor"

II. Start of decision becomes "Sucked in by necessity"

III. Meeting with allies becomes "Searching for mentor"

IV. In the thick of things actually stays the same as it is the beginning of the third act (in four act structure) and is always where the protagonist should be in the start of the last half of the film.

Semantically, the rest of the sections do remain the same though dramatic license is nearly required. My take: Future Glory.

Dude With a Problem - The "Cat Design" here revolves around the "innocent in trouble." Since we're talking movies here the innocent usually knows how to use a gun - and may have three or four on his person at any given time. Movies like Die Hard fit this mold. James Bond may be a stretch but how long will it take for the workings of Dr. No to actually trickle up to MI5 agents? My particular cinematic homage to this type would have to be Ties that Bind. I'm already a contradiction so conventional wisdom be damned. These movies are best done with 80% physical conflict as they are the "urban action movie," usually replete with exploding buildings and flipped police cars.

Off-duty law enforcement officials are fodder for this type, mainly because they, ummm, probably have more than one gun... though a resourceful UPS guy may be a match for a bad guy with flaws - wait the bad guy can have flaws? This self-edification stuff is enlightening. No wonder people sell this kind of stuff. I do accept beer and cigarettes. :-)

Rites of Passage - Halfway there in the TOC and already a wealth of good information. Oops, maybe I shouldn't say that. :-) Anyway, next up is the transition movie that may also be called the negative character arc - for most of the movie. You know the person whose life is in danger due to drugs and stuff. Sandra Bullock did a great job at being a pathetic user in 28 Days. These movies are usually "Oscar-fodder" (wow we finally found a phrase where even the word fodder can't make it sound bad) like Rachel Getting Married or worst case Leaving Las Vegas. These are usually character or perhaps even case studies about the fragility of the human condition and echoes the theory "most people are a bad day away from ruin." Maybe I just came up with it but it's rooted in the paycheck thing.
It enables fare as varied as Falling Down and The Bucket List or my modicum of effort (read:fricking humility) Spiral. People do fall down and have a strong reaction to their own mortality. It makes for great cinema but not so great a life. I guess it's a case of "art shouldn't imitate life shouldn't imitate art."

This definitely requires a "massage" of the hero's journey but the triumph of the human spirit is always a hero's journey, whether it's the story of a recovering addict, manic, bulimic, workaholic. Hmm, why do all of those end in "ICK?" A consequence of the language perhaps.

Well, that's it. I'd suggest you get the book and

Keep Writing as Writing is the Revealing of the Soul


Rob:-] said...

I met Blake five years ago on the vendor floor at SxSW and bought his first book, Save the Cat. Still haven't written anything so I better get the new one:)

What's your take on why so many movies have so much violence in them? Life and death ... it's the ultimate what's-at-stake ... I get that. I just don't think it has to be that way to be entertaining.

It's kind of like a stand-up comic using shock words to get a laugh ... it works but will only take you so far.

Christian H. said...

Violence is a rather interesting cinematic phenomenon. It works so well because it's something that people won't easily "mimic."

Violence can often be a reveal of emotion from the person perpetrating it.

Sometimes it's the payoff of an "abused" character. True also that sometimes it's violence for violence's sake but if you read some of my older posts about sex you can understand why violence can get a PG but sex can't.

ChristopherR2D2 said...

Nice breakdown Christian,

I think the life and death stake works because it's unquestionably universal ... unless you're Nicholas Flamel. :)

I'm looking forward to the release of the third book.

Check out this post I wrote about Writing a Screenplay with the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet -

Christian H. said...

I looked at the Beat Sheet method and kind of stole some of it's ideas, but I have a specific method that has worked well thus far.