The folks over at Save the Cat!, which does not include the program’s late innovator Blake Snyder, offered an object lesson last week on the misapplication of craft.
It’s common practice for Save the Cat! to break down a current or classic movie and illustrate how it conforms to a story’s fifteen major narrative “beats” as Snyder identified them (Blake himself published an entire book dedicated to this skill-building exercise, which I recommend—certainly over any of the recent analyses on the STC! blog). This is what a sample “beat sheet” (of my own authorship) would look like (click on it for a closer look):
Simple enough, right? The entire story summarized at its most basic, macrostructural level. That’s the kind of plot overview I’ll painstakingly compose before I begin Word One of my screenplay or novel, so I know the plot is always tracking in the right direction. It’s an indispensable application to help a writer “break the back” of his story, as well as an excellent learning tool: By reverse-engineering well-regarded movies, you can teach yourself the fundamentals of mythic structure. That is ostensibly the reason Save the Cat! offers sample deconstructions on a near-weekly basis.
Readers of this blog (I trust I’m not being quixotically presumptuous by my use of the plural form) have come to expect in-depth, long-form essays here, but today I’d like to try something different: I thought I’d offer brief commentary on three unrelated pop-cultural developments that are directly relevant to articles I posted this past summer.
In my analysis of the first season of How to Get Away with Murder, I concluded by asserting that series creator Peter Nowalk left himself little choice but to reconfigure protagonist Annalise Keating’s psychological profile (yet again) on account of how carelessly he exhausted her backstory in the initial fifteen-episode run. And, boy, he did not waste any time proving me correct.
Right in the season premiere, we learned (via one of several clunky pieces of exposition) that Annalise has a “wild-child” side (who knew?), and later we saw her partying the night away under the strobe lights of a dance club—with her students, no less!
No, sorry—that doesn’t play. Here’s why: It is a complete violation of one of her core traits (and a defense mechanism, at that)—“publicly composed and guarded.”
Considering the vastly improved representation of minorities on network TV this season—Empire, Black-ish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, How to Get Away with Murder—it isn’t altogether surprising that the most delightful, dynamic, dimensional character to grace the small screen at present has emerged from the freshman pack. What did catch me off guard, I’ll be big enough to admit, is that it was the least likely character on the last show I expected.
After nearly a decade of identity crisis, anemic ratings, and critical indifference, The CW, bastion of star-crossed supernatural romance and small-screen superheroics, scored its first Golden Globe win this season—for an adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela, no less: Jane the Virgin.
Jane offers something a little different than its Big Network counterparts—something harder to categorize: deftly written dramedy that concurrently satirizes and honors its telenovela heritage, complete with idiosyncratic flourishes like a whimsical narrator and on-screen text commentary. Some of its characters, like Jane’s father, telenovela superstar Rogelio de la Vega (portrayed by Mexican actor Jaime Camil), are as consciously absurd as the series’ plot twists. Yet in spite of his ostensible function as straight-faced comic relief, an analysis of Rogelio’s five traits shows him to be a case study in psychological complexity and originality.
Here I am—intrepid screenwriter—gearing up to embark on a dizzying new adventure in my writing career: my first full-length novel—a work of historical fiction (with supernatural twist, of course—the change in venue isn’t indicative of revamped storytelling sensibilities on my part!). In a plot convenience straight out of a first-draft screenplay, Writer’s Digest recently hosted a novel-writing conference here in Los Angeles; among the seminars offered was a “Historical Fiction Boot Camp”—taught by no less than bestselling author David Morrell, who introduced the world to Rambo in his inaugural novel, First Blood (1972). I’d have likely attended the workshop regardless, but given that on my most recent vacation I lazed on the beach and read three Morrell novels in a row, the happenstance of it all seemed too providential to dismiss.
Caught myself up on the first season of House of Cards this past weekend. I know, I know. But, better late than never, right? After all, isn’t that the advantage of on-demand viewing? Nowadays, a good series is always available to be discovered.
There are shows that I tune into and consciously try to like, and then there are those that win me over midway through their pilot episode without any premeditated cooperation on my part. House of Cards falls squarely in the latter category. It’s a classic Institutionalized story, which Blake Snyder defines as any tale about the “crazy” or self-destructive group dynamics of an institution—in this case, Congress. Washington is well-represented in political television drama at present, but I certainly haven’t seen a series in which power plays are an end unto themselves: The movers and shakers that populate House of Cards make no attempt to justify their self-serving agendas with hollow allegiances of fealty to the Republic. And protagonist Frank Underwood’s stylized, Shakespearean asides to camera—a tough trick to pull off (Kevin Spacey makes it look so natural, hence his consecutive Emmy nominations for the first two seasons)—lend an intimacy that endears the audience to a character with which we might not otherwise be predisposed to empathize. (He works for Congress, after all, and have you seen their approval numbers of late?) Like most serialized protagonists, Frank is comprised of five key traits; I’m eager to get on with the second season, so let’s take a quick look at them:
This is the first in a series of posts on characterization, in which I reverse-engineer a psychological profile for an established fictional character.
Four years ago, the clock ran out on 24, the groundbreaking “real-time” television drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as indefatigable counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer. A writer on Lost once told me how much he loved 24 for being such an immersive entertainment experience: It made him completely forget, as he watched it, that he was both a television scribe and a liberal! Indeed, the series remained so reliably entertaining throughout its initial eight-season run that its often outlandish plot twists never seemed to irrevocably strain the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, nor did its occasionally controversial depictions of both Muslims and the use of torture overshadow its legacy as an evolutionary pioneer in serialized television.