Monday, May 28, 2012

The best writing advice ever

I've been meaning to do this post for a really long time--it's about the best writing advice book I've ever read. Seriously, it changed how I look at plot. I'd been putting off the post because I wasn't sure what I wanted to say other than it's freaking fantastic. But  last week on Twitter I noticed Roni Loren had scored a guest post on the actual website for this book because she talks about it so much. She was the one who alerted me to it in the first place! And I knew it was time.

I'm talking about Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This book is written for screenwriters but applies to novelists. Essentially, Blake gives us a logical way to look at the drama of a plot and keep your story on track. I don't do anything now without "beating it out"-- that's the lingo for what happens to you after you read this book.

The essence of Save the Cat is Snyder's Beat Sheet, which is 15 points along your story that keeps your "beats" in line. You can take a look at sample beat sheets here. But where they really start making sense is when you watch well-written movies. Well-written movies almost always follow the 15 beats to the T. (Or B, if you will.) Some of the best movies with good, solid beats are:
  • Star Wars
  • Beverly Hills Cop (thanks to commenter Handy Man Handy Woman!)
  • Ocean's Eleven (2001 version)
  • Die Hard
  • When Harry Met Sally (my  personal fav, and this is a great example)

You can take a look at beat sheets for a bunch of different movies at the Screenwriting Wiki, which is dedicated to using Snyder's beats for movies. You can also get Snyder's follow up book, Save the Cat at the Movies, which is well worth it.

One of the things Save the Cat does for you is help you keep going when you've hit sticking points, and it helps you climb out of plotting holes, too. It also (for me, anyway) ensures that you have an interesting story as opposed to good bits with saggy parts--or even slightly saggy parts.

After you read Save the Cat and start understanding how the 15 beats hold up the structure of a story, you'll start noticing the beats in every story you read. Or the lack of them in some cases, I'm sure.

One of the things I wanted to address with this post (you see why I avoided it? Already it's long because I knew I'd be gushing over the book in general!) is that in Snyder's 15 beats, the first four consist of:

1. Opening Image (really applies mostly to films but can easily adapt to the first few lines of a novel)
2. The set up
3. The theme
4. The catalyst

According to Snyder you've got 15-20 pages of set up before you get to the catalyst. And while that's a completely fine way to do it, in novels you often have the catalyst right in the opening chapter. It's also called the Inciting Incident (which author Janice Hardy wrote about for me last year here). You don't have to let 50 pages go by before you get to your catalyst/inciting incident. Sometimes you can do it right up front. But as Janice said in her post, you need to do it somewhere in the first 30-50 pages.

Snyder elaborates on this point in his follow up book, Save the Cat Strikes Back, which is equally wonderful as Save the Cat and Movies. (Get them all, just do it now.) He says some catalysts need what he calls a "double-bump." This is where the protagonist needs an extra shove to move forward. He used Star Wars as an example (original version/episode 4). Luke's catalyst for action is the message he sees from Princess Leia projecting out of R2-D2. She brings news of the plans and the rebel action. The two droids then lead Luke to Obi-Wan, who tells him his father was a Jedi Knight. All of this is great, and should propel Luke to leave Tatooine and join the Rebel Alliance, but it doesn't. He won't leave his aunt and uncle. So George Lucas uses the "double bump" of killing off Luke's aunt and uncle (nicely tied into the rebel thing; the Empire does the killing). Once Luke sees that his home and family is gone, NOW he's ready to act. He's been double-bumped.

Once you start understanding how the beats work and what they apply to, you'll notice them in every story you read.

Have you read Save the Cat? Has it worked for you? If you haven't read it, will you read it now?


Matthew MacNish said...

I'm actually reading it right now, and it's great! The opening section about all the pitching hasn't been all that useful for me, but once he gets into plot, it's perfect.

Diane Henders said...

I bought it last year, and it was definitely worth the read. :-)

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Absolutely love it...I get a little distressed when I don't think things are fitting in quite right, beat-wise, but it really helped me "get it" more than any other plotting workshop (although quite a few have been very helpful!).

I also love to drive my family crazy when we watch movies..."that's the 'Save the Cat' moment. That's the 'Pope in the Pool' moment..."

Did anyone besides me notice that in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, that Daniel Craig actually saved a cat?

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

How interesting! I just read Save the Cat last week, and it FINALLY helped me on my quest to figure out story structure. Then, a couple of days ago, hubby and I watched Beverly Hills Cop, and I filled in the sheet. GREAT movie to watch for this, too.

Your list of movies says: Star Wars...but I don't see any others listed. Could you tell me what the other movies are? Thanks!

Sierra Godfrey said...

Glad you all love it! Thanks for the comments!

Handy, thanks for the reminder to fill in that list. Oops! It's corrected :) And pick up a copy of Save the Cat goes to the Movies and it lists a TON.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

Yes, I'll get Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. I've seen When Harry Met Sally a million times, but now that I'm studying story structure, I'll have to watch it again.

Meghan Ward said...

I know how much you love this book. I need to check it out and to add it to my list of recommended writing books - which reminds me that it's time I updated and reposted that list!

Cathryn Leigh said...

Okay Okay I'll go buy myself a copy of Save the Cat... And the follow up book I guess, might as well get them all at once right? *grins*

I bet I could really use the beat sheet for straigtening out my trilogy plotting...
Can you layre beats? So you have a set of beats that's for the individual stroy and then an over all set that happens trhought the trilogy? (does that make any sense at all - or am I really make this more complex than it needs to be?)

:} Cathryn

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