If you missed parts 1 and 2 of my conversation with Blake Snyder, the brilliant storytelling/screenwriting analyst and author of Save the Cat and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, do yourself a favor and catch up: click HERE and then HERE. In this final segment of our discussion, we talk about the storyteller’s “flight of the arrow,” lifting your story beyond the average, why Blake’s favorite phrase is “force it,” why you should be able to see your whole story in your pitch and more. Enjoy!
Interview with Blake Snyder: Part 3
TW: One of my favorite lines in Save the Cat! is this: “By taking it all back as far as possible, by drawing the bow back to its very quivering end point, the flight of the arrow is its strongest, longest and best.” I love that. Can you tell us a little about what you mean by that and why it’s important for all storytellers to do this?
BS: This is such a great question. I think this is a key storytelling skill. I will reference the movie Romancing the Stone. We meet Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder) and she’s this bestselling romance novelist who lives in her apartment in New York, has this very vivid imaginary life and never leaves. She has no social life; she sits there with her books and her cat and she doesn’t do anything. When the knock on the door comes and the message arrives saying “You’re sister’s been kidnapped. Come to South America to save her,” whereby she goes on the adventure and meets the dream lover realized, Michael Douglas (Jack T. Colton)—who turns out to be slightly different from her imagined perfect man, but beautifully so—that journey would’ve been lot less satisfying if we meet Kathleen Turner and she’s dating, she has a social life, she’s in society, she’s not lonely or isolated. The bravery that it takes for the real character in the movie to make the leap makes the adventure bigger, and it mostly makes her transformation bigger.
All stories are about transformation. Jim Carey in the movie Liar, Liar starts the movie as a liar (Fletcher Reede). Not a fibber. Not occasionally telling that little white lie. He’s a LIAR! And by the end of the movie, he’s not. So, what happened?
You want that journey to be opposite. You want that person to start back, as far back as possible, with lots and lots of problems. The first person I ask when people start telling me about their hero is, “What’s the problem? Why do we need to send them on the most important adventure that ever happens in their lives?” It’s to change them, and that’s why we want to see these stories. It goes back to the divine. You know, all stories are about transformation and transformation is about rebirth. The old way of life has got to die, and you’ve got to find a new way to live. And we can hear that story forever. Your job is to make that person go as far back as possible, so the journey is the biggest. And it can be engineered. The wonderful part about all of this is these are little tricks and techniques that just make the story better that are learnable. You do the math on your story, you check the math when you’re done, you check to make sure these things are in there, you will tell a better story. These are learnable things. I learned them. I’m not a rocket scientist. I just am interested in telling better stories.
TW: Is it a sure sign of a problem if your story doesn’t translate to beats—specifically the beats laid out in the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet?
BS: Again, we are tracking change. I think the big breakthrough in Save the Cat that most writers have responded to, is that I sort of cracked Act 2. The beats that I laid out in Act 2 for what is required have really helped writers. You know, the Syd Field method that I grew up with, that was genius when I read it, was that there were three-act structures and there’s a “break into Act 2” on page 25 of a 110-page screenplay, and there’s a similar “break into Act 3” on page 85. That’s all I had growing up. There’s a lot of empty space between 25 and 85. All it is is tracking transformation, tracking change. If you have a story that’s not falling into this pattern, yes, it’s worrisome. And, again, I love writers. I love the bullhead in writers. I was one. I love the rebellious spirit. You may say, “My story’s different,” and I say, “No, it’s not.” But the really good writers…
Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you look at those movies, they are beautiful, and they follow the beat, beat for beat. So, even avant-garde storytelling has to satisfy.
TW: You say that one of the key elements of a successful film is that a story should surpass our expectations for the movie’s familiar genre. Do you have any tips for spinning your story out of the realm of the ordinary?
BS: Yes. The problem with all this is you’ll see successful movies that don’t follow these things, and you’ll think you can get by without it. I went to see Jumper this weekend; it’s a sci-fi movie and it’s just flat as can be. They did not get into a B story, they did not get into a theme and they did not get into a transformation. If I were the studio executive, I would’ve said, “Where’s the story?” Lots of stuff happens, but there’s no story. I think what lifts story beyond the average, is attention to the moment of clarity…that divine moment that the hero recognizes that the hero’s been transformed.
TW: Isn’t that exactly where the satisfaction for the viewer comes from?
BS: It is the only place satisfaction comes from. And the truth is, we can put up with almost anything as long as we have that moment at the end. When Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic), after saving Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson) from that little watery prison on a sinking ship is put back on the lifeboat with her mother—that’s a defining moment. There’s Billy Zane (Caledon Hockley) on deck and there’s Leonardo DiCaprio. She’s been given her old life back and she can go back to her frightened mother and her frightened world, but she chooses not to. She had a moment of clarity. Why? How’s it reinforced? Well, earlier in the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio had said “Make each day count.” That is the lesson that Kate will take away from this movie. “My life has changed from having met another”—Buddy Love, that’s the definition—is realized. It’s a divine moment. When she jumps back onboard to be with Leonardo DiCaprio she’s saying, “I would rather spend one day—even my last day—with the love of my life than a thousand days of a lifeless future.” This is not the same girl who got on the ship. And that’s what we came for.
TW: That’s why that movie won so many awards.
BS: Yes. Yes. And it was primal as hell. That’s what we’re looking for.
TW: What guides your process when you sit down to write a screenplay? Is it the nugget for a story? Or do you think about the genre that you’d like to write in?
BS: It’s a process of a flash of an idea. I have notebooks full of loglines and pitches. My real inspiration comes when I tell somebody an idea and they go, “Whew!” That’s enough for me, usually, to say the idea has value. The ideas I keep to myself and think they’re so good I can’t even let them of my mouth because someone might steal it or the magic might get away from me if I speak about it—when I finally tell someone…the minute the words leave my mouth I think, “Wow, this sucks!”
TW: That’s not what I expected you to say!
BS: It’s really true! The ones I tend to hold in are the ones that aren’t all that good.
TW: You were interviewed for an article in The Vancouver Sun several months back, and the headline was, “Want to be a screenwriter? Just learn the story formula. And once you’ve done that, Hollywood’s Blake Snyder says, learn how to hide it.” Can you tell us why it’s important to hide it once you’ve settled on a formula?
BS: These are such great questions. I really appreciate it. Yeah, what we’re talking about are tricks, we’re talking about craft. My favorite phrase is “Force it.” We talk about taking the character all the way back. You can engineer that. You can load a character up with problems on purpose and make their journey bigger. So, often, knowing these things, knowing where the beats are and knowing what has to happen on what page, when you execute that, very often, the seams show because they’re a little too precise—page 25, bang this happens, page 55, bang this happens, page 75, bang that happens. That tends to be mechanical. So your job is to, like any artist, learn how to know the structure and hide it. You know, if you’re an artist, you can show depth by going from light to darkness on a person’s face. There’s a little dot of white on their nose and it recedes into darker and darker shades. Make the dot a little less like a dot. Blend it in. That’s what we’re talking about. If you see a dot on someone’s nose in a painting, it glares, you say, “This is artifice. It’s not real. It’s an artist showing me something.” But if it’s blended in, it’s natural, and you forget about technique. I think that’s the job.
TW: I blogged about your book the first time I read it, which had to have been about a year ago, and something that you wrote in it: that the number one thing a logline must have, the single most important element, is irony. Can you tell us why it’s so important? And do you think it’s just as important for the novelist as it is for the screenwriter?
BS: Yes. Irony is the hook. We talked about 100 unsigned bands; you’re looking for combinations of notes you’ve never heard before. That’s irony and surprise. It’s freshness. You’ve broken the cliché, you’ve grabbed out attention. That works for everybody. In a bookstore, you pick up a book and read the back cover to see what it’s about. Is the story primal? Does it do something different that we’ve never seen before? That is the art. It’s a step by step process. The way Save the Cat’s laid out is, I hope the process is foolproof. I say throughout the book, “If you haven’t satisfied this demand with your story, don’t go any further.”
TW: Right. Stop right there. Step away from the typewriter!
BS: Right, and I’m not kidding! I have so many writer friends who’ll say, “I’ve written over 300 screenplays and I haven’t sold one yet.” And I’ll ask what they’re working on and they can’t tell me. I tell them to go back to the starting line and figure out a good logline, a good hook. Otherwise they’re just repeating the problem and all the work and effort they’re putting into it will go nowhere. Being hard working and wanting it badly isn’t enough. Be smart.
TW: You also say that you must be able to see an entire movie in a logline. Can you explain what you mean by that?
BS: Yes, this is when you know you have a great story idea. I think it’s called a compelling mental image, an image that blooms in your mind. You pitch your movie idea and the person you’re pitching to says, “Oooh, you can do this with it” and “Oooh, you can do that!” They’re already chipping in and helping you with your idea, because the concept is so compelling that they have to, you know? And if the concept isn’t compelling? Well, this is why Hollywood gets wrapped up and makes so many mistakes. I’m George Clooney, I’m Steven Spielberg, you’re going to come see my movie. No, we’re not. Not unless we feel we must. Some do it right. If you pitch me, “Street cop goes and visits his estranged wife in Los Angeles and her building is taken over by terrorists” (that’s the left turn by the way, that’s the irony, because you don’t expect this to happen when you visit your estranged wife), the compelling mental images are evident. You’ve set me up with the concept and told me where it takes place. Based on that logline, there’s going to be a scene in an elevator shaft. I’m going to see someone swinging from a fire hose. Those are the tools you’ve presented. That’s what you’ve given me. Street smart, street cop.
TW: Any final thoughts?
BS: Getting back to the 50,000 screenplays that were registered last year, I don’t want yours moldering away in a file somewhere. I want it to have life. The way to give it life is to satisfy these sort of commonsensical demands. So often we fall in love with the smell of the rain on the road at dawn. We get inspired to write for all kinds of nutty reasons. But just because it’s inspiration doesn’t mean it’s right. Follow along with commonsense etiquette. Convince me I should be interested in your idea. Okay, so you’ve got something special, a moment you love. You saw a rainbow and want to describe it to me. Just play fair. Tell me something that I want to hear. Invite me to see the rainbow with you. Convince me that my life will be better because I’ve seen it.
Thanks so much, Blake, for such a generous interview! Folks, don’t forget to check out Blake’s books, Save the Cat and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies for a more in-depth look at his unique storytelling strategies. Write on, all.