Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

He Said, She Said: Lessons in (Buddy) Love

For as long as there’s been literary analysis, there has been an effort to determine just how many variations on plot there are, and to codify them accordingly.

Your high-school English teacher no doubt taught you that all conflict can be boiled down to four types:  “man versus man,” “man versus society,” “man versus nature,” “man versus himself.”  Remember that one?

French writer Georges Polti asserted there are Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (1916); more recently, English author Christopher Booker argued for Seven Basic Plots (2004).

For my money, none of them quite “cracked the code” until screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! identified ten types, or “genres,” and delineated the specific criteria (three apiece) that distinguish one from another—and they’re not what you’d think.  Rather than vague categorizations like “horror,” “comedy,” and “action,” Snyder classified his genres like so:

  1. Monster in the House (Alien, Jurassic World), the conventional requirements of which are Monster, House, Sin
  2. Golden Fleece (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mad Max:  Fury Road):  Road, Team, Prize
  3. Out of the Bottle (Mary Poppins, Groundhog Day):  Wish, Spell, Lesson
  4. Dude with a Problem (Die Hard, Gravity):  Innocent Hero, Sudden Event, Life-or-Death Battle
  5. Rites of Passage (Ordinary People, Her):  Life Problem, Wrong Way, Acceptance
  6. Buddy Love (more on this in a minute)
  7. Whydunit (Chinatown, Basic Instinct):  Detective, Secret, Dark Turn
  8. Fool Triumphant (Forrest Gump, Birdman):  Fool, Establishment, Transmutation
  9. Institutionalized (American Sniper, The Godfather):  Group, Choice, Sacrifice
  10. Superhero (The Dark Knight, The Imitation Game, Dracula):  Special Power, Nemesis, Curse

It would be impossible for me to overstate how crucial these categories are to the storyteller’s toolbox; I’ve spent years testing them against every story I encounter, and time and again I’ve found that all successful, classically structured narratives (meaning those in the Aristotelian–Joseph Campbell mold) definitively adhere to one of them.  (How these genre classifications apply to postnarrative works is a thornier issue, one that I am still studying.)  For writers looking to learn genre, there’s no better, more cogent system of codification than the one Snyder compiled.  I’ve written at length on this blog about its versatility, illustrating how it’s been used to subvert formulaic writing rather than enable it in long-running movie series like The Hunger Games and Rambo.

This week, I’ve published an exclusive article at Save the Cat! in which I elaborate on the narrative requirements of Buddy Love, a genre that can be further refined into five subcategories:  “Pet Love” (The Black Stallion), “Professional Love” (Lethal Weapon), “Rom-com Love” (When Harry Met Sally…), “Epic Love” (Titanic), and “Forbidden Love” (Brokeback Mountain).  I’ll illustrate what makes Buddy Love unlike other genres that happen to incorporate a romantic subplot, and conduct a thorough deconstruction of one of the most popular—and polarizing—recent examples of the BL story model:  Twilight (2008).

Please take a moment to read the article here, and feel free to leave a comment on either site—this one or that one; I will reply regardless.  I welcome your reactions.  And let love rule!

6 Comments

  1. Read both posts. Now, remember … I’m new to all of this, whereas you’re a seasoned pro who thinks about it a ton. But I’ll share my thoughts.

    First, what annoyed me most about “Twilight,” beyond the very secondary-feeling plot, was that this insipid, whiny and relatively plain girl garnered the fierce attention and jealousy of NOT ONE, but TWO very attractive supernatural beings. It was more than I could “suspend.”

    That said (and this is a question of interest, not debate), I wonder why Twilight would not fit into “Dude with a Problem,” where Bella is the “dude,” given the three criteria in that category. Thoughts?

    • Erik,

      Yeah, later in the series, they tried to foster something of a “love triangle” — that’s what all that “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” nonsense was about — but it never felt authentic; there was simply no romantic tension in that “three-hander” like the kind that played out in, say, Bridget Jones’s Diary. And the reason for that is because in order for there to be a true love triangle, the protagonist needs to be torn equally between competing suitors, and Bella simply never had eyes for Jacob — she was always steadfastly in love with Edward. Jacob may have very well been lookin’ for love with Bella, but she never returned his affections in that way — or even responded to his overtures — so there was zero suspense as to how that would be resolved. The Twilight series is a case study in poor storytelling choices — one after the other; I could devote an entire post to each novel/movie, but my objective isn’t to put it down so much as take it apart — to learn from it — and I hope “He Said, She Said” will inspire others to maybe pick up where I’ve left off in that regard.

      Why isn’t Twilight a Dude with a Problem? Good question. The Hunger Games, which is yet another YA novel told in first person, is unequivocally DWAP (something I illustrated in a previous post). Twilight doesn’t fit the criteria because the Life-or-Death Battle at the heart of a DWAP story has to kick in at the Inciting Incident (or Catalyst) — it can’t be a conflict that develops late in the second act, as is the case in Twilight. The Inciting Incident of Die Hard is when the terrorists seize control of the building — that’s the Problem that unexpectedly arises for our innocent Dude (Bruce Willis). In Gravity, it’s when the debris from the Russian satellite leaves Sandra Bullock stranded alone in outer space. Those problems — very much life-and-death scenarios — form the central conflict of their respective movies.

      Even in “Domestic Problem,” which is a subset of DWAP, the hero finds himself in deep shit right from the outset, whether it’s when Ben Affleck’s wife mysteriously disappears in Gone Girl (and the police start looking at him for the crime), or when Macaulay Culkin is left Home Alone to defend his house against a pair of burglars determined to get inside. Now, in both of those cases, the threats intensify substantially later, but there’s a direct causal relationship between the Inciting Incident (wife goes missing; kid left home alone) and the life-threatening trouble that follows, which is certainly not the case in Twilight.

      I’m very glad you brought this up, Erik, because it illustrates a point that I’ve been trying to make on this blog for some time: that storytelling techniques take study and practice to master. It can be perilously easy to misapply those conceptual tools — believe me, I know only too many creative execs who do it habitually — which is why I’ve made this forum available: so that writers looking to learn (and, ultimately, master) the kinds of codified principles that can enrich their work and skill set have a place to debate these issues in a supportive, constructive venue. Thanks, as always, for contributing to the discussion, my friend.

      Sean

      • Hey, Sean. Again, exploring and not arguing here … what if the Inciting Incident or Problem in “Twilight” is being faced with the reality of a supernatural world and a killer, which directly leads to that same supernatural world (if not individual) trying to kill her. Had Bella not met Edward and been introduced into the problem (the supernatural world of vampires, etc.), she would not have been in the life-threatening situation; so the catalyst, as seen this way, does lead to the life-threatening situation – albeit, perhaps, in poor fashion. It seems to me that, with poor storytelling or directing, the category may be muddy (go to extremes and consider “Plan 9 from Outer Space”). No?

        • Erik,

          One needn’t comb through half-assed B-movie titles to find examples of shoddy storytelling structure: Two big-studio movies (with big stars, to boot) that bombed big-time within just a few months of each other in ’13 and ’14 serve as perfect examples of what happens when your story doesn’t recognizably adhere to a definitive genre model.

          First you had Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin, which starts out as an Institutionalized (much like Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai), then becomes a Golden Fleece by the Midpoint. (Huh?) Then there was Winter’s Tale with Colin Farrell, which begins as a classically structured Buddy Love, only to switch — also around the Midpoint — to a full-on Superhero! (That was a point I addressed in my Hunger Games post.) In both of those cases, audiences were completely disoriented by the time the movie was over, because the filmmakers had set up one set of expectations (Institutionalized and Buddy Love, respectively)… and then delivered on another (Golden Fleece and Superhero). Even Robert Zemeckis, one of the finest filmmakers of all time (Back to the Future is a storytelling master class) fell into that trap with Flight, which, for all of its impressive ambition, couldn’t decide if it was Superhero or Rites of Passage. (For elaboration on that last point, please refer to Tom Reed’s outstanding analysis of Flight over at Save the Cat!)

          And certainly Twilight is muddled, as well, hence the reason it doesn’t really fulfill the requirements of BL, and yet, as I illustrated, can’t definitively be identified as another genre, either (like SH, MITH, OOTB, ROP, or DWAP). Ultimately, Twilight borrows a bit from all of those genres, and yet doesn’t serve as a satisfying specimen of any of them. Stephenie Meyer has said that Twilight was borne from a dream she had in which an average girl and sparkly vampire were “having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods.” Now, that’s not really a premise, it’s just a scene — and one might argue it isn’t even a scene so much as a setting for a scene (scenes are built on conflict and value change). And an entire novel (hell, four novels) got built around that slender conceptual nucleus without much consideration for genre (so far as I can tell), and genre is important to appraise beforehand because it informs the shape the story will take (i.e., the structural requirements) as well as the audience’s expectations (the conventional requirements). And, to be sure, a writer is obliged to satisfy those requirements (great writers do so artfully; bad ones turn out cliché). But, you can only deliver on — and, hopefully, subvert — those expectations if you’ve conditioned your audience properly from the outset, and that is accomplished by consciously choosing a genre and then adhering to it — “playing by the rules,” so to speak. And a lot of aspiring writers don’t want to hear from rules — they just want to dream up an idea and see it realized on paper — but there are parameters; there is form. Kristen Lamb said it best when she noted that there are countless variations on pizza, but, ultimately, a customer still has a set of expectations when he orders a pizza, no matter the variety, and he’s going to “know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza.”

          This is why I advocate mastery of Blake Snyder’s ten story models (to which he devotes an entire book, by the way, called Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies). I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read (from both novice and seasoned screenwriters) that fail to faithfully conform to the criteria of one particular genre. And I’ve gotten so much misguided feedback from producers and creative execs over the years, in which they suggest, for example, applying a Golden Fleece convention to a Monster in the House paradigm; for years I took that wrongheaded advice until I learned that the different story models are like apples and oranges, and you can’t just attempt to emulate what worked in some recent, successful movie if it’s from an incompatible genre. (Oh, God, the horrible notes I’ve gotten over the years to that effect!). Understanding that what works for one type of story won’t necessarily work for another was one of the most crucial evolutionary phases in my development as a writer. (That’s a subject I will elaborate upon in specific detail when my first set of novels are published.) That is why it is as important to study films that don’t work — and understand why that is — as much as it to look to the time-honored classics.

          In short — though it’s tragically far too late for that! — when a movie fails to satisfy, more often than not it’s a case of A) muddled genres or B) insufficient character arcs, and Twilight is guilty of both of those particular narrative transgressions.

          Sean

          • Sean, I always appreciate that time and thought you put into your replies (and, heck, the good grammar, as well). Learning a lot.

            I myself have never shut off a bad song, walked out of a theater during a terrible film or put down a crappy book. Why? For the same reasons you state above: there is as much to learn for the astute person from what doesn’t work as from what does.

            Well, kudos to the Twilight peeps for doing it wrong and making millions. We should all be so lucky!

          • I always appreciate your willingness to engage, Erik! And, yes, to give Twilight its due (as I did in the concluding section of my Save the Cat! article), it certainly did something right to have inspired four books, five movies, bestselling fan fiction, and legions of passionate devotees. No one has done a better job at deconstructing Twilight (and Harry Potter and The Hunger Games) than Christine Frazier at Better Novel Project. She feels — and I think she’s spot-on — that Twilight appealed to its tween fan base because the love story, such as it is, is kept very basic: Edward remains an uncomplicated nonpareil throughout the series, and Bella goes from ordinary, awkward schoolgirl to graceful, immortal superhero over the course of the saga without having to have sacrificed anything for that personal transformation. That’s a very adolescent — some might even suggest puerile — worldview, and doesn’t really resonate with anyone with even a scintilla of actual life experience. As a fantasy, I suppose it did its job, but I see no reason why fantasy can’t be used as a vehicle for speaking to children about some of life’s hard realities, as the stories of E. B. White (Charlotte’s Web), Steven Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), and even George Lucas did: Consider, for example, the hefty personal prices paid by Luke Skywalker on his epic journey from lowly farmhand to galactic savior. Fantasy can serve as an exercise in wish fulfillment without talking down to its audience or sugarcoating harsh realities; if anything that’s what the best fantasy does.

Leave a Reply

© 2017 Sean P Carlin

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: