Outline -> Scenes

I’d finally figured out a long summary / synopsis of my story.  I felt like I had it all figured out.  I started to write, then I got stuck.

It turned out that my outline explained what was happening well, but I had not worked out how to tell that story solely through dramatic scenes.  There were some scene ideas that had sprung into my head fully-formed, and that was great, but often the outline gave more general explanations of why things were happening, or statements like “G & B meet and are attracted.  It is very romantic.”

These statements are functional in an outline, but then I sit down to write and think – what on earth are they going to do?  I don’t know.  All I know is that I don’t want it to be this:

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My latest task has been to convert the first half of my outline for book 1 into specific scenes, each allocated to a POV character, and so I have been giving some thought to this process.

What does a scene involve?

The difference between a clear scene and mere outlining of your plot is that a scene involves specific things visualised in a specific place, so that you could theoretically pick up a camera and film a scene, and you’d know where and what you were filming.

It is the how, what, where, and why of a moment unfolding in time.  It is the difference between ‘A & B meet’ (outline),  ‘A and B meet at an art gallery’ (the hint of a scene but still pretty much just outline), and ‘A is displaying her art at an avant-garde gallery opening in her last chance to get a break before she’s broke.  She finally get a patron,  and also meets B, who is posing as a work of ‘street art’ to get free canapés’ (scene).

Scenes have to accomplish more than be specific:

  • to be justified, they have to also involve a change that impacts the plot (if you write genre fiction, you will be advised to cut any scene which does not have this quality);
  • to be dramatic, they have to have stakes for the main character and involve a change that advantages or disadvantages the character;
  • they immerse you in the experience of being there by involving most of the five senses of the POV character and being limited to that character’s viewpoint and knowledge;
  • a mood / tone for the reader (eg. funny, scary, romantic, melancholy, exciting, eerie etc.);
  • they have a setting (time and place, sense of space, lighting, temperature, cultural context, significance to POV character); and
  • your characters arrive at the scene in a particular mood, in a particular state of physical health, wearing particular clothes, and with particular objectives (for their day/life, not because they realise they are in a scene, obviously).

Devising scenes to work together

It gets more complicated.  When you end up telling these scenes in order together, you want them to vary dramatically, visually, emotionally etc.  If you have some breathless action scenes, you’ll want to intersperse them with some scenes for everyone to catch their breath.  Your characters should have reversals of fortune – mix up the scenes where things go well and things go badly.  If you have multiple POV characters you want to make sure all of them stay in the story, that the timelines for their scenes make sense and fit together – that is to say, you’ll want to think about continuity.

You’ll probably want to include some early scenes that foreshadow later scenes so that your story builds in a purposeful way.  Hopefully your outline gave some thought to the general structure, but likely there’ll be some gaps, particularly in terms of what specifically happens to advance the subplots.

My process

I first sketched my scenes on Scrivener (which has recently been upgraded and now allows you to arrange your virtual index cards along different plot lines – I have done 3, one for each of my POV characters):

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Each of these ‘cards’ has a more detailed scene or notes attached to it.  I had a number of false starts where I developed some subplots that turned out to be overly complicated to illustrate some minor points.  I have a ‘plot heavy’ story where I’m trying to advance the stories of three main characters, so I needed to make sure that most of my scenes did double or triple duty.  I had to abandon some scene ideas which merely advanced a single aspect of the story.

I chucked down ideas I had for scenes which sounded interesting.  Then to devise the remaining scenes, I jotted down what situation the characters were at the start of this section of the story, and then what situation they were in at the end.  This gave me a bit of a road map of what I was aiming for.  I made notes of anything they had to accomplish in the middle, then I came up with ideas for specifically how they could accomplish those things that seemed en route from their starting situation to their end.  It took some trial and error.

Then I refined what I had on Scrivener by transferring summaries of each scene to physical index cards, fixing details as I went.  I laid these out in order (the colours indicate the POV character, and the shorter first column is a brief opening when the characters are younger):25443023_10157060748553569_328478798931880242_n-1.jpg

Next I blu-tacked these to the wall behind my computer, arranged chronologically and by character:25550480_10157063481503569_2559499043439235188_n-1.jpg

I then added smaller cards to note where the subplots appeared.  I colour coded these using washi tape (which is basically thin, decorative masking tape you can get in a variety of colours and patterns).  The cards with the yellow bands running along the top is a sort of uniting subplot around the family’s political situation.  Here is a close-up:

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The events on the cards take place over a couple of years.  This meant I would be going through changing scenes, and the characters would be ageing noticeably (being children), so I devised an impromptu calendar (numbered for the years of the current King’s reign) and made a little chart showing Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and how old each of my main characters are as the years turn:

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This then allowed me to quickly add notes tracking the season and how old the characters were in various scenes:

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The idea of laying it out like this is to help me easily see how the scenes fit together.  I can   consider each subplot separately and check it has a logical progression.  I can check continuity issues when I’m switching POVs and moving forward through time.  A novel is such a big project it can be easy to get lost in it, whereas here I can easily see where everything fits.  If I don’t get all these scenes written over the next couple of weeks, it gives me a clear map that can keep me on track even around all the other distractions of life.

Creating a 3 Act Structure from Scratch (Pt 2)

This is the second part of a ‘how to’ on creating your own outline with a 3 Act Structure. You can find the first part here, which dealt with getting started and creating Act 1.  In this part we are going to work out how to take your story to the midpoint.

Recap

To illustrate the process, we are creating an example story as we go along.  I don’t promise it’s a brilliant story, but it will illustrate the 3 Act Structure.

Previously, we created endearing bogan siblings, Sarah-Jane and Joe.

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe

For those of you who aren’t  Australian, fiction featuring endearing bogans is an Aussie Tradition, like Vegemite and the ritual sacrifices needed to appease drop bears.

We mapped out Act One.  In this Act, we decided we will learn about Sarah, a shy receptionist who fears creativity. But Sarah’s life gets shaken up when she finds out her brother Joe has terminal cancer.  They both need money.  Joe wants the money to win back the love of his estranged teenage son, who now lives with his cashed-up stepdad. Sarah wants the money to pay for some experimental new cancer treatment for Joe. Having discovered the Nobel prize for literature comes with a pretty substantial prize, they decide to write a novel together to win it.  How hard can it be?

We also know that by the end of our story, Sarah will have discovered her inner creativity, left her receptionist job to run her own cupcake business, and Joe will have passed away but Sarah will have come to terms with his death and have the novel to remember him by. We know that at the start of the novel, Sarah starts to bake because Joe’s sick and that’s what their mother used to do for them when they were sick. Her initial cupcake attempts are inedible.

Where to next?

What the 3 Act structure looks like

Let’s pause a moment to look at what we’re aiming for.

Here are the classic three acts set out in terms of the space they take up, showing where key events in our story should fall:

3 Act Structure So Far

We’ve got an idea of key events at the start, the end, and at about the 25% mark.

You will sometimes get advice that you must have key events in your story in the places specified or you will never get published / be rejected / crawl into a hole and die.  Is this true?

For novelists?  No.

The three act structure is an industry standard for screenwriting. Screenwriters are stuck with pretty rigid running times for their stories (about 100-130 minutes), and this spacing works for them. It gives them up to half an hour to establish and define the characters and central problem (Act 1), about an hour for fun and hijinks as those characters try to deal with the central problem (Act 2), and then up to half an hour for a finale and to wrap things up (Act 3).

For better or worse, novels are not restricted to 100-130 pages (which would be a novella), which gives you a variety of options for spacing your acts if you choose to use a three act structure. For example:

* tell your character’s whole life in 4 parts (childhood, youth, middle age, old age) with each part adhering to a mini 3 act structure;

* a stretching of the three act structure over 300-500 pages, with more complexity (subplots), leisurely detail, and/or intermediate challenges along the way;

* 30 pages or so at the start and end for the first and final act respectively, but a much longer and more complicated middle section;

* a first book which is in 3 acts, but which also doubles as most of the first act of a larger story, as the resolution of the first book raises a new problem which demands a particular course of action (typical structure of a trilogy).

Rather than sticking rigidly to the screenwriting formula, novelists can just take it as a starting point, then see what pacing feels right for their story. If the story is slowing down or getting boring, you either need to shorten that section, or add more complexity and moments of interest within the space you have. If things feel rushed, you either need to lengthen it and expand on some aspects what happen, or simplify what happens within the space.

But for now, let’s use the screenwriter’s structure as a guide to further develop our story.

Step 5

Identify some information you can withhold from the reader which prevents your character from initially seeing the true nature of the central problem.

You know how I said we had Act 1 worked out? I lied. But it was for a good reason, so bear with me.

In our story, Sarah-Jane knows the central problem she has to deal with from the outset, namely that her brother has cancer. Sure, she could still learn that it’s advancing a bit faster than she thought or something, but her fundamental understanding of the problem is pretty much correct.

This is not going to work.

What is supposed to happen at the midpoint of a 3 Act structure (that’s in the middle of Act 2), is that the character learns something which fundamentally changes the nature of the problem she’s facing. For example, Sarah-Jane could learn that Joe’s apparent cancer is actually the first stage of a contagious world-wide epidemic, and she actually has to save the world.

No one believes this is Sarah-Jane.
This is not Sarah-Jane and does not fit in our story.

That could be a midpoint for another story, but not this one. Here that would be ridiculous.

This is where people trying to plan a 3 Act structure come unstuck, because it’s very difficult to think of some fancy new interpretation of the problem that doesn’t completely derail your story. In mystery thrillers, the classic one is that you expose a double agent: the wise mentor your characters were relying on to guide them in solving the problem is secretly working for the enemy. Or dies. Neither of those ideas are going to work in this story either.

mr darcy proposes
Also not in our story. Sadly.

In Pride and Prejudice, rather than expose a secret enemy, the enemy is exposed as a love interest (but in a context where a happy relationship seems impossible).

A revelation that enmity is built on sexual tension is not uncommon for a midpoint, but I’m not keen on it for our story. Even Joe and Sarah-Jane aren’t that bogan.

So what then?

The problem is that we’re looking at this from the wrong angle, one where we assume we’ve got the Act 1 locked in. But our first act gives too much information too early.

What Sarah needs to discover at the midpoint is the true problem, which is that her brother is dying of cancer. The story should actually look like this:

3 Act Structure so far v2

Step 6

Develop a different reason for your character to commit to the course of action you decided on at the end of Act 1.

We now have to rejig Act 1. Sarah-Jane still needs to commit to writing the novel with her brother, but she has to do so for other reasons. Reasons that are compelling but a bit less intense than the real reason we’ll discover at the midpoint.

Because we have already spent some time developing our story, we have some substance to work with even if we take out the cancer. Her brother could still tell her he needs the money to repair the relationship with his estranged son, and that he needs Sarah-Jane’s help. It’s just that we’re going to have to come up with a different reason why she feels compelled to help him, because she no longer knows about the need to raise money for cancer treatment. Again, it’s conceivable that they could just be motivated by the money, but it’s more compelling if there’s an obvious price for failure.

muscle car crash
Uh-oh.

Perhaps Sarah owes Joe. Perhaps he let her borrow a customer’s fancy car to dash to the shops and she crashed it. He needs the prize money for the novel to pay back the loan he had to take out, and she needs to help him atone. In this version, the kick up the bum for Sarah is the car crash.

Now our story looks like this:

3 Act Structure so far v 3

You may wonder why we went to the trouble of developing Act 1 if we were just going to completely change it.

It’s true, you could have done the midpoint after Step 1. However, at least speaking for myself, I find the order I’ve used a more organic process for understanding the characters and how they would react. Do whatever works for you.

Step 7

Develop the first half of Act Two.

3 Act Structure v3 SA

At the start of this section, Joe and Sarah-Jane have committed to writing a novel together. Joe is doing it to win back his son’s love and to raise money to pay back a bank loan, Sarah-Jane to atone for crashing Joe’s car and to pay for the bank loan he had to take out. At the end of this section Sarah-Jane will discover that Joe has a more pressing need for the money than bank loan, and a more urgent need to impress his son, because he is dying of cancer.

This means this section needs to accomplish two things:

  • the characters should try (with limited resources / experience that lead to as many setbacks as successes) to achieve the goal they think they’re there to achieve; and
  • plant clues about the true nature of the problem that will be revealed at the midpoint.
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Knows she’s better than Sarah-Jane.

So, for example, on the first point Joe and Sarah might decide to enrol in a writing course, but it is full of upper middle class mummy bloggers who are snobby towards Joe and Sarah-Jane, leading to Sarah-Jane getting into fisticuffs with the head of the PTA in the parking lot, which ends up posted to Youtube. Not a resounding success. Although maybe they write it into their novel.

We know that Joe and Sarah-Jane’s novel is not going to win the Nobel prize, so we don’t need actually need them to believably be heading towards being great writers, just for them to share experiences which will develop their relationship. And in the writing class scenario you create stress on the characters to struggle and react.

With respect to the clues, you need to give the reader fair warning that All Is Not As It Seems, but you don’t want to make the answer obvious, so you need to encourage them towards one or more misinterpretations of those clues.

Maybe Joe’s acting oddly. Sneaking off. Sarah suspects that what he’s not telling her is that he’s on again with his ex, his son’s mother, who Sarah hates. She suspects he really wants the money to win his ex back, and that’s why he’s paying more attention to the sone too.

Mislead the reader early with a detail that supports this theory, eg. Sarah discovers two wine glasses, one with lipstick marks, in Joe’s bedroom. Joe ducks questions about them.

Sarah becomes more suspicious (she pops round for a surprise movie night when Joe said he’d be home and discovers Joe is out, then he lies about it, leading Sarah to wonder why he would lie to her unless it’s to cover up the one thing she’d object to, namely getting back with his ex), and eventually confronts him. He swears he’s not seeing the ex. He doesn’t tell her the real reason, though, which was that he was staying overnight at the hospital for cancer-related treatment. Later she finds out he definitely has seen his ex (not thinking about the fact he would see the mother of his child from time to time, or maybe he had a single drunken shag). She’s furious. She lays out all his erratic behaviour and the lies. Then we learn the real explanation is the cancer.

Given Sarah-Jane crashed his car, we’re going to have to make it believable that she’d be so furious without just being a busybody. So maybe the ex is Sarah’s childhood best friend who Sarah feels only used her to get close to her brother, and who then ditched Sarah’s friendship, and ultimately ditched her brother for an attractive psychiatrist twice her age. That’s an understandable reason for Sarah to worry about him seeing the ex, despite her need to make amends.

In this story, the unfolding mystery of Joe’s erratic behaviour provides the tension which will carry us through to the midpoint. In other stories, the mystery will be much more subtle and the tension will be created more through a sense of how the characters are progressing towards their chosen goal.

We now have a workable outline for the first half of our story.

Was this helpful?  Do you have any questions or suggestions?

I hope to get a chance to write up the next in this series of posts soon.

Creating a 3 Act Structure From Scratch (Pt 1)

mcgyverSo, you’ve heard of the 3 Act Structure.  Someone’s told you it’s a good idea.  Whether that’s true is another question.  For now, let’s look at what the 3 Act Structure is, and how you can use it to map out a story.

Usually when someone explains the 3 Act Structure, they do so by dissecting a familiar film or novel.  The problem with this approach is that it’s hard to replicate when creating your own story from scratch.  It’s like giving you a tour of NASA and then asking you to build your own rocket.

When it actually comes to writing your own story, you’re going to have to Macgyver it from two paperclips and some chewing gum you found stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

With that in mind, here’s the low-budget, built-from-the-ground-up process for cooking up three acts when starting from absolutely nothing.

You, at the end of this process. Also Sarah-Jane. But we'll get to that.
You, at the end of this process.  Or just eating delicious cake pops.  Also Sarah-Jane. We’ll get to her shortly.

Decide on a Story Concept This means you need a character, setting, conflict/struggle, and an angle.  Call it a logline, one sentence summary, or premise, if you like.  For example:

A shy girl from the suburbs struggles to write a novel in a month.

I’m going to use that because it’s simple, and I’m guessing most people reading this blog can relate.  If you want to develop a story concept you like better, and are not sure how to start, here’s a process you can step through.

Step 1

Picture your main character at the start and end of the story and ask: What’s changed?

Did she succeed in writing her novel?  Perhaps she’s changed internally?  Realised that she doesn’t need a novel to make her happy?  Or perhaps it’s the opposite.  Perhaps she didn’t realise how much she needed to write this novel, and it unlocks part of her she didn’t realise existed?

Perhaps it brought her new friends?  A new lover?

Maybe not.  Maybe you want to write a tragedy about how a writer was so obsessed with writing she failed to make the most of her last month with her cancer-stricken brother, and does not realise she’ll regret it until it’s too late.  Or maybe it’s a bittersweet story, one where they write the novel together, opening up to each other and finally leaving something precious to remember their time together.

The possibilities are endless.  You choose whether the ending will be happy or sad.  Victorious or tragic.  It doesn’t matter, just so long as something’s changed.

In fact, there actually have to be at least two changes:

1) an internal change for the main character, and

2) an external change of their situation.

The internal change means your character develops, that he or she has a Character Arc.  The external change means that stuff must happen.  Stuff Happening is what fills all those pages in the middle, and the Character Arc gives it the human interest factor.

Here’s what we might come up with for our premise, with internal matters marked with an (I) and external situation matters with an (E):

3 Act Structure Start EndNawww.

Identifying what changes between the start and the end of the novel already tells us heaps that we didn’t know about the main character, and identifies stuff that has to happen along the way.  She’ll have to start that cupcake business, her brother will probably need treatment, will probably get sicker, and at some point he’ll die, and there are going to be scenes of them writing together.

Structuring your story around changes to the main character ensures your story is character driven.  It’s different from just thinking of your plot as solving a problem (eg. there is a bomb and someone must defuse it before it destroys the city).

Step 2

Picture your character at the start of the story.  What is going to happen to kick them up the bum?

At polite dinner parties, this is known as the ‘inciting incident’ or the ‘opening event’, but here at Compulsive Writer we like to tell it like it is, and bum kicking is what it’s all about.

Sarah-Jane could go her whole life being the receptionist of Dullsville.  Your job is to be the Reality TV Producer who steps in with a challenge or opportunity that sets events in motion.

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Sarah-Jane, hating her boring corporate life

Like what, exactly?

Well, you could send in an alien invasion, or have her encounter a handsome bank robber who sweeps her off her feet.  These are undoubtedly events which will shake up her boring life, but they are not good choices because they have nothing to do with your planned story.  By all means, go the bank robber idea if you love it, but if so, go back to Step 1 and revise to identify changes that might come about as a result of a novel-length relationship with a bank robber.

A glaringly obvious choice here is that Sarah-Jane discovers her brother’s cancer is terminal.  Glaringly obvious to you, that is, not to the reader, as they do not have a copy of the outline that we wrote in Step 1.  All they get is: “Poor Sarah’s brother has cancer… what is she going to do?”

Kicking your character up the bum should happen early.  On the first page, if you like, but at least in the first few chapters.

Step 3

Brainstorm how your main character(s) will react to the inciting incident and why.

What would Sarah-Jane actually do?  We don’t know a lot about her yet.  We know she likes baking.  Maybe she’d soothe herself through a flurry of baking.

What else?  She’d probably visit her brother.  That’s good.  We need to bring him into the story early cause he’s a major character, and this is the time to flesh out the kind of people your key characters are and how they relate to each other.  Given that you really have two characters responding to the cancer situation, you might want to think about how their reactions could differ, as this will highlight their personalities and generate conflict.

For example, maybe Sarah-Jane is new-Agey and her brother wants trusted science only.  Or perhaps she wants him to go for one more round of chemo and he’s had enough.  Or maybe he’s a blokey bloke who doesn’t even like to think about doctors.

Picture your character’s house, living arrangements, wardrobe, job, and manner of speech.  What would fit with their different reactions to the cancer?  Alternatively, what do the places and characteristics you imagine tell you about the kind of reaction they’re likely to have?

Has something happened to them in the past that affects their reactions?  Don’t get distracted with random backstory, stick to incidents which changed your characters in a way that matters to the present dilemma.  For example, if Sarah-Jane is new-Agey thanks to a hipster ex she has not quite got over, that might be relevant, because it affects what solutions to the cancer problem she presents and why.  The fact Sarah-Jane had a cat named Blossom when she was six is probably not.

Think too about introducing other elements that will be important throughout the story – like the cupcake shop.  How will that start out?

Maybe Sarah starts baking in response to the cancer because that’s what their mother did for them when they were ill, and she wants to fill that mothering role for Joe (he has a name now).  She’s new at it, so maybe her baking is terrible.  How does Joe react to her rock-hard cupcakes?  To the ones where she accidentally grabs the salt and uses it in place of sugar?  Perhaps he builds her confidence and endears himself to the reader by unfailingly eating them without complaint, no matter how rubbish they are.

You can do your brainstorming by jotting down dot points, drawing mind-maps, bouncing ideas off a friend, writing snippets of scenes–whatever works for you.

Step 4

Decide how your character will resist, then commit to a particular course of action for dealing with the problem as they now understand it.

walterwhite
This solution is not for everyone.

Finding out about the cancer is a problem, but your characters can do anything about it, from moping in their rooms to jumping off a cliff.  Walter White chose to start manufacturing meth.

That’s not what Sarah-Jane and Joe are going to do, though, because becoming ruthless drug barons did not feature anywhere in our Step 1 vision.  (Remember, you can change your mind at any point, but you need to go back and revise Step 1 to fit etc).

Your notes for Step 1 are the clue which will lead you to the answer.  Our notes say that we want our characters to decide to write a novel together, and that somehow this will lead to a cupcake business.  All we have to do is work out why.  Why do any of these things in response to a cancer scare?  Why together?

Here’s a first option:

Joe, a mechanic, tells Sarah he wants to write a novel and he wants her to help him.  He can’t touch-type and she can.  Also he envisions her helping creatively.  Notwithstanding it’s the wish of her dying brother, she’s too underconfident about her creativity to like this idea.  Eventually she agrees, but maintains she’s strictly there to type and bring the cupcakes.

That commits Sarah to a course of action, one she feels daunted by, but to me this does not seem quite right.  There are a few problems: a) it’s too open-ended a challenge, there’s no way to really tell if she’s failing or succeeding, and b) it requires the characters to already have the insight to realise the novel will help them bond, which gives them less room to grow.

The course of action your character commits to should:

* be challenging

* have stakes (a price for failure)

Why?  Because then the reader can invest in caring about the problem and keep track of how well they’re doing, creating a sense of progression.

To add some stakes into our scenario, let’s say Joe’s writing the novel for a competition with $100k prize money (where is this writing competition and how can I enter?)

That’s a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s compelling.  Money’s just money unless you really need it, and what does Joe need it for?  To pay for something on his bucket-list? To raise money for treatment?  Hmmm…

Ok, here’s a second option, building in stakes and challenges ahead:

Joe, a mechanic, is estranged from a teenage son who now lives with his mother and her wealthy new partner.  He desperately wants to be able to pay for special things for his son before he passes away from cancer.  He has discovered that the Nobel prize for literature pays 8 million Swedish Krona, and is convinced he can win it.  How hard can it be to write a novel?  He wants his sister Sarah to help him, given her superior touch-typing skills.  For her part, Sarah also agrees the plan is feasible, but she doesn’t agree the money should go to her spoiled brat of a nephew.  She wants Joe to spend the money on a fancy new treatment for cancer available overseas.  She helps him in order to try and save his life.  Also, she insists on bringing him cupcakes, which she’s baking cause their Mum, who’s no longer with them, used to do this for them as kids when they were sick.  They’re terrible cupcakes, which she and Joe both know, but she feels obliged to keep doing it anyway.

Much better.  Although I’m starting to think that Sarah-Jane and Joe look more like this:

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe
Joe and Sarah-Jane, staying classy.

And that’s ok.  Your story can and will evolve through this planning process.  That’s half the fun!

Now we have a specific course of action and a specific price for failure. As you can see, the plan your characters come up with does not have to be a brilliant one, it just has to be convincing that they would choose it.  As a bonus, we already have some fodder for conflict between Joe and Sarah-Jane from the start.

Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve just got the bones of Act 1.

Let me know if anything was confusing or if you have any questions.  Comments always welcome!

Next Up: Midpoints, Why is Act Two So Long, and Other Important Questions.

Save the Cat: The Last Book on Writing Painfully Banal PG-13 Hollywood Comedies You’ll Ever Need

This book provides the perfect guide to writing movies I loathe.

Key example movies in this book made me want to hurl pointy objects at the screen when I saw them. I haven’t succumbed to this urge to inflict criminal damage at my local multiplex (yet), but it remains an attractive fantasy.

It may be true that Miss Congeniality and Elf made good money at the box office, but you know what? If I’m going to sacrifice my work and family time to write, I’m going to write about something slightly more meaningful and less demeaning than whether a Hollywood star pretending to be a badly written FBI agent looks smoking hot in a beauty pageant. And if my goal is to make money but to hate what I’m doing, I will get a job in corporate law.

At first, I slogged through these painful examples because the book was recommended to me, and the explanations of the beats were concise. The name-dropping was annoying, but not atypical for this kind of book.

Then I hit the part that really made me question why I was taking advice from this guy. It’s the part where he goes off on a tangent to complain about the film Memento because it did not follow his One True Structure, in which he asserts repeatedly that any argument it had any value is wrong because ‘guess how much it made’ and ‘I know how much money Memento made.’

I didn’t even like Memento. I thought it was gimmicky and overrated. But by the time the author was done trashing it, the only thing I was convinced of is that I never want to watch a movie written by Mr Snyder. This is a man who armours his bravado with more bravado, and name-drops so defensively he might as well be firing bullets. His screenplays might be perfectly structured, but it was hard to imagine they would not be shallow and inane.

Sadly, this is appears to be the case.

Mr Snyder has only two screenplay credits to his name. After reading his book and writing most of this review, I looked them up. I flicked to the review by Roger Ebert of the first one. It says, and I am not making this up:

“Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” is one of those movies so dimwitted, so utterly lacking in even the smallest morsel of redeeming value, that you stare at the screen in stunned disbelief.

It is moronic beyond comprehension, an exercise in desperation during which even Sylvester Stallone, a repository of self-confidence, seems to be disheartened.

Ebert goes on to say:

There isn’t a laugh in this movie. Not a single one, and believe me, I was looking.

He gave it half a star.

Maybe Mr Snyder’s other film would fare better? Marketed as ‘If you loved Home Alone, you’ll love Blank Check!’ it was not off to a good start, but not quite as bad a start as the Austin Chronicle gave it:

“Blank check” must be what these filmmakers had when they made this movie. Not that it reeks of extravagance in its workmanship, this movie simply reeks. With an unbelievable premise, Blank Check does little to fill out its bare bones structure. … More than the execution, the script itself is the major problem. … Perhaps the movie’s implausibilities would be more acceptable if they were presented with a lighter touch that allowed for more character and plot developments rather than resting on its meager high-conceptual laurels.

The reviewer gave it one star.

Mr Snyder himself may well be a nice guy, and I appreciate that he’s put himself out there and shared his particular method for constructing a screenplay (which is basically the 3-Act structure plus detailed instructions about how to lay out index cards) but this is highly unlikely to be the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.

In addition to his breakdown of the structure, he provides some tools of varying usefulness. The titular ‘Save the Cat’ stands for one of the author’s ‘Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics’ (I wish I was making that up and the quotation marks denoted sarcasm, but it is a quote from the book and the author is deadly serious), namely that your story must have a hero and a villain and the hero must be more sympathetic than the villain. By this criterion, basically every Stanley Kubrick film ever ought not to exist, including the ones based on books by Stephen King and Vladimir Nabokov.

Mr Snyder’s method is so prescriptive that if you followed it as a novelist, you’d end up with a novella. It has too many beats for a short story, and not enough for most novels. Of course he is not purporting to give advice for novellists. But I think the advice is possibly too prescriptive even for film. Mr Snyder says movies that deviate from this will tank miserably at the box office because they have ‘too much pipe’. I can only assume he’s unfamiliar with James Cameron’s body of work. And while it’s true that a producer is unlikely to fund an amateur screenwriter’s three hour epic, I suspect the limitation has more to do with film industry economics than whether it is possible to tell a longer or shorter story which can keep an audience engaged.

But I did get something out of Save the Cat. And what I got is this:

The 3 Act Structure, by itself, does not make a good movie. This is not to say it makes a bad one, but many books on screenwriting focus on structure to the exclusion of all else, as though reverse-engineering a successful film and showing it follows the 3 Act Structure proves that this is what makes a story work.

As Mr Snyder’s resume shows, it also makes for some godawful ones.

The structure proposed in Save the Cat is solid. Not original, but solid and safe, like a house in a gated community where strict covenants ensure that each street gives you déjà vu for the street that came before. Mr Snyder is a sensible builder who can deliver you such a house, but he does not promise you quality fixtures and fittings, and he certainly is not an architect. His book will not teach you how to create innovative spaces or incorporate new technologies. It won’t teach you how you can play with light and shade for effect, or design an experience to influence or even transform a visitor. His houses won’t help people question their assumptions, change their behaviours, or heal their wounds. You might think crafting engaging dialogue, and conveying narrative through images are skills a screenwriter might want to polish.

Maybe this gap between what makes an entertaining experience and the lure of the predictable checklist is why Hollywood is floundering. No one gets excited about the repetitive crap they churn out the way that people cannot wait to get the next episode of Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad, or Orange is the New Black. Some of these shows follow conventional structures in episodes, but they also mix things up. In the case of Game of Thrones, this is literally an adaptation of a book series that was written to be ‘unfilmable’ by a Hollywood screenwriter who was frustrated with the exact philosophy espoused by this book.

All the structure in the world is not going to save writing that is painfully dull, predictable, and shallow. I want more than regurgitated jokes and lacklustre stereotypes. I want movies that surprise me, that give me experiences and insights that make me think – hey, that’s so cool, I never thought of that before.

I suspect that the unspoken truth is that prescriptive guides like Save the Cat gain traction because they create a checklist of measurable, predictable goals which can soothe the nerves of an investor, not because they guarantee good movies. This is why ticking these boxes gets your script sold.  So the value of this book (possibly its sole value) is that it gives you a better idea of how to pitch your script as a ‘safe bet’ for an investor. This is certainly a handy thing to know, so long as you know it for what it is.

Is that scene working? Scene analysis template to the rescue! (now with bonus llamas)

printable writing tool imgYou know that feeling? When you have been staring at that scene for so long that all you see are words?

You know it needs improving, but you don’t know where to begin.

This is a process I’m using to help me get a grip on my scenes and their dramatic structure. I’m using it to analyse scenes I’ve already written, but you could also use it to plan out a scene before you write it.  Of course, if you are a pantser and planning makes you want to claw your eyes out, then this post is not for you… at least not until you get up to editing your story.

On the other hand, if you’re someone like me who likes processes, this is more fun than a weekend on a yacht with Chris Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence.*  There are even some handy printable templates at the end of this post.

* may not actually be more fun

The Basics

Firstly, I figure that in any scene, the drama revolves around 3 main questions:

1. what happens?

2. how do the characters feel about it?

3. where is it happening?

Sure, there are other details, but these seem to be the big points that guide the nature and feel of the scene.  Also, I feel that scenes that don’t work tend to have a mismatch of these elements, or are even missing some altogether.  Perhaps you’ve glossed over how a character would react or are unsure, or perhaps the reaction is disconnected from what’s happening.  The setting may be vague, disinteresting, or working against the atmosphere of the scene (talking head in a white room, anyone?).

I think all the key dramatic points of a scene can go under those headings… if your scene is already perfect.  If you are human, like me, you will need a place for one more thing:

4.  wait… what?

How come your characters can see in the pitch black?  Why don’t they just use the life raft?  Better remember to have them pick up a torch in an earlier scene if they need one here etc.  Sadly, scenes do not appear on the page fully thought through.  So you need somewhere to note up all your idiotic mistakes areas for improvement.

The Tool

Based on these thoughts, I developed a table and worked through one of my scenes:

TLT scene analysis

In case it’s not clear, the table has four columns: What happens, Internal Reactions, Setting, and Thoughts.  (‘Thoughts’ seemed better than ‘All the stupid mistakes I have made’).  I’ve lined up what happens with the relevant internal reactions and other notes, so it’s really easy to see whether they match up and whether there are any gaps.  For example, I realised that my character ‘D’ is told something momentous at one point in the scene and has no noticeable reaction.  Of course, in my head, I assumed she was shocked, but given she’s the POV character, the absence of a reaction reads as her being disinterested in the new information.

Tips!

1. Write the first thing that happens, then write the internal reactions of all the characters before you go on to the next thing that happens.  Otherwise, you won’t leave enough room, and you won’t see whether one is leading to the other.  (Unless you’re doing it on a computer, of course.)

2. Colour code your characters and their reactions.  This makes it easier to see if you’re paying attention to all the characters, and to pick out an individual character’s journey in the scene.  For example:sceneanalysisjoe

3. When doing your notes about the setting pay attention to practical details which may impact on the plot (eg. If your character needs to escape, does the room have a back door?  Is it locked?) but also atmospheric detail such as the space, mood, lighting, temperature, smell etc.

4. In the ‘internal reactions’ column, I found there were some key recurring kinds of reactions I wanted to highlight:

shifts: when a character makes an inner shift in belief or perspective, usually as part of their journey (eg. Shift: Joe previously thought someone else would fight the army of diabolical llamas.  He now understands he must fight back himself if he wants to survive.)

internal conflicts: when a character is wrestling with two competing goals and/or emotions (eg. Conflict: Joe knows he must kill the llamas but cannot forget his feelings for the cute llama he owned as a child.)

problems: when a character identifies a problem to solve or investigate (eg. If ‘what happened’ was that Joe discovered he was out of ammunition, in the ‘internal reactions’ I might note: Problem: What will he fight the llamas with now?)

Download Free Printable Templates

If you are handy with a pen and ruler, or know how to ‘insert a table’ in your word processing software of choice, you may wish to draw up your own table.  However, if you prefer to handwrite (and don’t want to redraw the table repeatedly), then here are some printable pdf Scene Analysis templates.

Because I am Australian, I originally did these in A4.  But because I’ve noticed web traffic tends to include lots of US / Canadian folks, here are some printable templates in US Letter as well (you’re welcome).  I’ve also included some printable instructions, in case it’s too cumbersome to come back to this page:

Scene Analysis thumbnailA4 Templates

Scene Analysis A4

Scene Analysis Sheet – Instructions A4

US Letter Templates

Scene Analysis US letter

Scene Analysis Sheet – Instructions US letter

Tell me your thoughts!

What did you think of this article?  Was it useful?  Do you have any tips or suggestions for other writers on how to analyse their scenes?  Please like or leave a comment!

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