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.