Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Save the Cat!

I recently finished reading the Save the Cat! trilogy of books by Blake Snyder called: Save the Cat!, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, and Save the Cat! Strikes Back. These are advice books geared toward writing movie scripts but I have found them very informative in helping my novel and short story writing.

I don't even know where to begin to describe all the new epiphanies they gave me, but I'll start with this one simple thing: All stories are about transformation. Maybe this is old hat for some of you, but I have a tendency to think of interesting situations and then throw some characters in to see how they do without any thought of what it will do for the character. Yeah, sometimes I accidentally do get some kind of a character arc going, but it has mainly been hit or miss. I talked more about this in my last blog entry when I discussed character arcs.

The most useful thing I got out of it was what he calls the "Blake Snyder Beat Sheet". It's where he breaks movie plots down into 15 beats, or plot points, that virtually every successful movie follows in some form or another. What he does in Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies is apply his beat sheet to 50 popular Hollywood movies to show how this is true. That was very useful to me, since I learn best by example than with pure theory. You can download a copy of his beat sheet (among other things) at blakesnyder.com under the "tools" tab.

For fun, I tried it with a few movies I've seen recently: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (with Jim Carrey), The Santa Clause (with Tim Allen), and Avatar (with really tall blue dudes). Sure enough, it worked. It also opened my eyes to deeper meanings in the movies that I didn't see when I just sat and passively watched. It made me realize that I need to incorporate some of these elements into my own writing.

What are those elements, you may ask? First off, that the character needs to change from the beginning to the end of the story. Also, a story, in order to resonate with us more, needs to have some kind of theme that is stated near the beginning.

I could go on and on about several other little things I learned. Maybe I'll save some of those for future blogs. The bottom line, though, is that if you want to gain more insights into your writing and story telling, you must read at least the first Save the Cat! book. I wish I'd learned about it earlier in my writing career.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Character Arcs, I Get It! . . . I think

This week, I've had an epiphany (isn't that such a cool word?). For the last several years, and more recently from my writing group, I've kept hearing about the need for character arcs. Well, I think I finally get it! (okay, so I'm a little slow)

I think one stumbling block I've had before this new realization is the old saying: character + problem = story. It's a very simple formula, and I like things that are simple (I'm very simple-minded), but I've come to the conclusion that this formula is too simple. True, it works, but what is it that makes a story stand out and stick with us? What makes a story great? I think I know the answer now, though as I continue to learn of this concept, that might change.

It's taken a combination of things to help me learn this. Most recently, my writing group (with Bryan Beus and Steven Gashler, thanks guys) have been asking me what my characters' arcs are. I always had the brilliant answer of, "Idunno." Wasn't it just good enough that my character was stuck into some insurmountable situation and we get to see them figure a way out? Well, it does work to create a "fun" story, and there are plenty of books and movies that follow this formula. But is it even necessary to make some kind of philosophical statement, too? Probably not, but isn't it also nice to write a story that sticks with people and causes them to want to read more of what you have? Most definitely. And we do this with the arcs.

Lately, during my morning exercise bike routine, I've been rewatching my Babylon 5 DVDs. This series has always stood out to me and until now I didn't quite know why. Actually, a couple of episodes I've recently watched stood out as good and bad examples of what I mean. In season 4, there was an episode called "Intersections in Real Time." It's where Captain Sheridan is being held prisoner. To make a long story short, the end of the episode finished with him in the exact same position he had started. I let out an audible groan when it was over. I couldn't believe I had sat through (actually, I pedaled) that whole thing. What a waste of time!

Towards the beginning of Season 5, there was another episode called, "The Long Night of Londo Mollari." I groaned as it started. This episode did not have any fancy explosions or high excitement.We got to spend most of the episode inside the dying brain of Londo. How boring could that be? It actually ended up being a great episode. Why? Because Londo made a journey and came to the other end of it a changed person.

Another reason I think I've always gravitated toward simple "character with problem" stories is because most of our television series do this. Characters might make a small arc during one episode, but by the next week they were all reset back to square one. Very seldom do we see series characters learn and change. That is why a couple of my favorite shows have been Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space 9. I could go on about this, but I won't for now.

Now, the third thing that has helped me on my quest to understand this is the Save the Cat! series of books by Blake Snyder. I'll do another blog about this later, but in Blake's beat sheet (outlining) method, he builds in the concept of character change. He points out that what resonates with the audience is not only the A story (plot - the sequence of events) but also a B story that contains some form of spiritual lesson. I'll probably go into this more in my next blog.

Okay, so now the old formula is all messed up. Since I really like formulas, though, I've been trying to come up with a new one. How about this: Character (from beginning of story) divided by Situation That Forces Change equals Character (at end of story). Or, more succinctly: CharB / Change = CharE. Hmm, maybe it needs to be inserted into the quadratic formula somehow.

So, what I think I've learned is that stories are not about fancy worlds or great action sequences, though those are fun, but they are about exploring the human condition in order to see how people learn and grow. I'd appreciate any thoughts others have on this, and other "formulas" for fiction. I'm not sold on my formula being the right one, but it's a place to start. Please feel free to leave a comment.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What's Happenin'

Here I am. I'm back. First off, I know this is late notice, but I have a book signing Saturday, December 4th at Confetti Books and Antiques in Spanish Fork from 10 to 2. If you haven't been there and you're in the neighborhood, you should check it out some time. They have a lot of rare items that you won't find anywhere else.

I have finished the third draft of Time Gangsters. Now, I want to start submitting it this month and see where it goes. Also, I'm doing several short stories for fun and for anthologies. One is a sort of super hero story that is kind of gloom and doom. Another is a new Myrick adventure called "The Crypt of the Undead Sorcerer and Other Vacation Spots". I need to come up with a third and keep it under 5000 words, but I haven't come up with anything yet.

Oh, and December 11th, I'll be playing up in Salt Lake with Randy Mundy and the Mundy Mourning Blues Band. I don't know the details yet, but check back here or on my web page for more info later if you're interested.