Over the years I’ve read a lot of books on storytelling, screenwriting, the construction of a story for both novel and the big screen. Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces remains my personal favorite in terms of overall storytelling for any venue. Campbell understood Jungian archetypes and mythology like no one else. Robert McKee’s Story and anything by Syd Field tie for second place. But now, well, Save the Cat may become my all time favorite.
The author, Blake Snyder, is funny, irreverent, and puts forth his own ideas about the construction of a story. As a screenwriter who wrote on spec, he had the credentials to write this book. One of his early revelations is how he once came up with a title for a screenplay – Nuclear Family. But instead of writing about what most of us perceive as a “nuclear family,” – mom, dad, kids – he gave the phrase a wicked twist. Snyder’s logline: “A dysfunctional family goes camping on a nuclear dumpsite and wakes up the next morning with super powers.”
The script sold in a bidding war for $1 million to Spielberg. But as Snyder puts it: “It’s a movie I still want to see, if anyone’s listening.” Apparently the movie still hasn’t been made, but the sale probably raised Snyder’s visibility and definitely made him a millionaire.
His book is filled with stories like this, but also with really solid nuggets of information that any writer can use, study, experiment with. He presents his format and asks you, the reader, to sit down and watch a bunch of movies and identify the points he discusses. What fun, right? He also gives breakdowns of movies with which most of us are familiar and explains why those movies works – and why others in the same genre don’t work.
One genre he talks about made me laugh out loud. It’s the Dude With a Problem. Dude or gal, the idea the is the same. Ordinary dude/woman encounters extraordinary situation- (the sort of thing at which Stephen King excels). Here are Snyder’s examples for this genre:
“My wife’s building is taken over by terrorists with ponytails (Die Hard).
“Nazis start hauling away my Jewish friends (Schindler’s List)
“A robot from the future (with an accent!) comes and tells me he is here to kill me and my unborn child (The Terminator).
And he caps this with: “And these, my friends, are problems. Big primal problems.”
After reading the first 50 pages or so of the book, I returned to Inktip and revised my logline for Black Water. It initially read: A mother will do anything to find her abducted daughter, even follow the kidnapper 50 years back in time.
Now it reads: A mother follows her daughter’s kidnapper back 50 years in time and must find her before the portal closes, trapping them both in 1968.
The actual novel is more complex, with multiple viewpoints. But this logline, I think, captures the heart of the story, provides the bigger emotional picture – and the stakes.
I was checking out Snyder’s website and was sorry to discover that he died in 2009, at the age of 52.