Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Beyond Structure (page 1 of 2)

Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

With the Second World War looming, a daring archaeologist-adventurer is tasked by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant—a Biblical artifact of invincible power, lost for millennia in the desert sands of Egypt—before it can be acquired by the Nazis.

On Christmas Eve, an off-duty police officer is inadvertently ensnared in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse in an L.A. skyscraper when his wife’s office party is taken hostage by a dozen armed terrorists.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, a resort-island sheriff finds himself in deep water—literally—when his beach is stalked by an aggressive great white shark that won’t go away.

All of the above story concepts should sound familiar—that’s why I chose them.  Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Jaws are all popular—now classic—works of commercial cinema.  But they are also excellent exemplars of storytelling at their most basic, macrostructural levels, as demonstrated by the catchy summaries above, known in Hollywood as “the logline.”

When a single image, let alone a single sentence, imparts the essence of a story, the underlying concept is a powerful, primal one

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

The logline is a sales pitch:  In a single compact sentence, it conveys the protagonist (respectively:  the adventurous archaeologist; the off-duty cop; the beach-resort sheriff), the antagonist (the Nazis; the terrorists; the shark), the conflict and stakes (possession of the Ark for control of the world; the confined life-and-death struggle; the destruction of a man-eating leviathan), the setting (1930s Egypt; an L.A. skyscraper at Christmas; a summer resort), and the tone/genre (action/adventure; action-thriller; adventure/horror).  You can even reasonably glean the Save the Cat! category of each:

  • Raiders as Golden Fleece (Subgenre:  “Epic Fleece”)
  • Die Hard as Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
  • Jaws as Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

A cogent synopsis like any of the above allows a prospective buyer to “see” the creative vision for the movie, ideally triggering the three-word response every screenwriter longs to hear:  “Tell me more.”

Note what isn’t included in the logline:  The names of any of the characters.  Thematic concerns.  Emotional arcs.  Subplots.  Descriptions of particular set pieces.  That’s the “tell me more” stuff, and none of it is necessary—it is, in fact, needlessly extraneous—for the “elevator pitch,” so called for the brief window one has to hook to an exec before he steps off onto his floor (read:  loses interest).  The point of a logline is to communicate the story’s most fundamental aspects, and to capture what’s viscerally exciting about the premise.

I mean, if you’d never seen Raiders, Die Hard, or Jaws—if you knew nothing else about them other than the information contained in those loglines—you’d already have a sense of why these are, or could at least make for, gripping stories.  Pitch any one of them to a movie executive, and he can immediately envision the scenes—or at least the potential for them—suggested by the central premise.  Each one piques curiosity and, one step further, inspires the imagination.

The Raiders logline is so compelling because it takes (what was at the time) an arcane scholarly discipline, archaeology, and credibly applies it to an action-film archetype, typically the province of superspies like 007.  It also features historical elements that don’t seem like they should belong together—Nazis and Biblical relics—to envision something simultaneously smart and thrilling.

The Die Hard and Jaws loglines are exciting because they take their police-officer protagonists and essentially reduce them to “everyman” status (unlike Raiders, which features a specialist as its hero) by putting them in overwhelmingly harrowing situations that play to some of our most primal fears:  terrorism and sharks.  In short, they have that compelling What if? factor.

That’s how those stories got sold, and how the movies themselves got made.  We don’t need any information beyond what we get in those loglines to want to see the finished product.  As such, condensing a story to its logline is an absolutely essential skill for any screenwriter.

Let me amend that:  It is an essential skill for all storytellers, novelists included—perhaps especially.  And its applications are far broader than simply marketing.

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Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

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Saving the Cat from Itself: On Deconstructing “Game of Thrones” and a Troubling Pattern of Misanalysis

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):

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

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.

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Rendering a Verdict: Annalise Keating of “How to Get Away with Murder”

Spoiler Alert:  Plot points from the first season of How to Get Away with Murder discussed herein.

In the previous post, I touched briefly on the subject of character arcs.  An arc is the personal transformation or catharsis a character undergoes—almost always against his will—over the course of a story:  In fulfilling his obligation to get outlaw Russell Crowe on board the titular 3:10 to Yuma when everyone else bails on the dangerous endeavor, rancher Christian Bale learns at long last to have dignity; in the process of uncovering who framed him for murder in Minority Report, PreCrime detective Tom Cruise comes to terms with the devastating loss of his son some years earlier (excellent movies both).

Arcs are what give a story its emotional resonance.  Take Dirty Dancing:  It could’ve easily been one of a thousand 1980s teen-romance movies all but forgotten here in 2015.  But, it became a worldwide phenomenon—and lasting cinematic classic—because not one, not two, but five characters experience profound transformational arcs in that film:  Baby, Johnny, Penny, Lisa, and Mr. Houseman.  That’s rich storytelling—deceptively so.

Transformational arcs are designed to force a character to confront his so-called “fatal flaw”—a psychic wound that’s been haunting him, that’s been holding him back, since incited by some trauma in the backstory.  (So, in 3:10 to Yuma, the traumatic catalyst would be Bale’s shameful cowardice on the battlefield; in Minority Report, it was the unsolved kidnapping of Cruise’s son that led to his personal downward spiral).  There are exceptions to this design—Luke Skywalker, for instance, has a very powerful arc that spans three movies, no less, yet he bears no fatal flaw when we first meet him on Tatooine (for reasons we’ll perhaps discuss on another occasion)—but, by and large, protagonists typically suffer from some measure of psychic scarring that makes the events of the plot emotionally difficult for them, forcing personal growth in the process.

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“Birdman” Triumphant: A Genre Assessment of an Unconventional Narrative

I recently engaged in a friendly e-mail debate with a fellow Save the Cat! practitioner over which genre to classify this year’s Academy Award Best Picture recipient, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

Any guesses?

It’s a tough one.  Is it a Superhero story?  Protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton in a welcome return to leading-man stature) seems to display secret superpowers.  (And the film is called Birdman, which sounds vaguely superheroic—certainly no conceptually sillier than, say, Ant-Man.)

Is it an Institutionalized—a story about an accomplished actor transitioning from one institution (Hollywood stardom) to another (Broadway credibility)?

Maybe it’s a Golden Fleece, with the prize being a successful stage production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”?  Riggan has a lot invested in the show, after all, and Birdman details the tumultuous backstage events leading up to its anticipated premiere.

You could certainly make arguments for any of those, which only demonstrates just how tricky mastering Blake Snyder’s genre principles can be.

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Diversity on Television: Lessons in Characterization from “Jane the Virgin”

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.

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Final Repor(t) Card: A Character Assessment of “Stephen Colbert”

Stephen Colbert:  Great performance artist… or the greatest performance artist?

I ask that as someone who saw Spinal Tap play Carnegie Hall.  (Seriously.)  After popularizing the “mockumentary” format in 1984 with This Is Spinal Tap (and I don’t think anyone since has done it better, even in light of how fashionable the aesthetic has become among contemporary network sitcoms like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation), a strange thing happened:  fictitious bandmates Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) emerged from the movie’s contained narrative to play live concerts and sit down for talk-show interviews; they became altogether separate entertainers (and entities) from the actors who portrayed them (the wigs and British accents contributed to the seamless illusion), seldom speaking out of character (even on the DVD commentary track!), and the history of the group so painstakingly “documented” in This Is Spinal Tap came to serve as the band’s accepted background as they went on to forge, over the next several decades, a genuine history here in the real world, which includes the release of actual albums (1992’s Break Like the Wind and 2009’s Back from the Dead, the latter of which lost the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album to—wait for it—A Colbert Christmas:  The Greatest Gift of All!) to supplement their apocryphal discography.

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Who’s Laughing Now? Different Depictions of the Joker, Part 2

Last week, we looked at the Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman and analyzed his five traits:

  1. Criminally, murderously sociopathic
  2. Wickedly macabre sense of humor
  3. Grandiose/theatrical
  4. Artistic/aesthetic
  5. Egomaniacal

This interpretation somewhat varied from those that had come before it:  He was certainly more lethal than Cesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime from the old Adam West series, and artistic is such a singular Tim Burton peculiarity—a signature he left on the crazy-quilt mosaic that comprises the Joker in his ever-evolving mythic totality; in American Idol’s clichéd parlance, Burton “made it his own.”  His Joker shared an undeniable DNA strand with the arch-villain created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane in 1940, the one later personified by Romero in the sixties, as well as then-contemporary comic incarnations as envisioned by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Alan Moore (The Killing Joke), and Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum:  A Serious House on Serious Earth), despite the markedly different aesthetics within which each of those varied interpretations were realized.

Because where is the line drawn, really, between a reinterpretation and an altogether different character?  How does an artist (in a vocationally general sense) redefine a folkloric figure to reflect his own personal idiosyncrasies, the sociocultural conditions of the day, or both, while still working within the recognizable parameters of a time-honored fictional creation?

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Considering the Evidence: A Preliminary Ruling on Annalise Keating

Were you paying close attention for clues during last night’s anticipated series premiere of How to Get Away with Murder?  Did you manage to catch writer/creator Peter Nowalk’s object lesson in the simple art of murder?

It was easy enough to overlook.  After all, Nowalk skillfully introduced multiple characters and mysteries in short order, creating—and holding his viewers in—the kind of edge-of-your-seat suspense that is the hallmark of the Whydunit genre (so modified from “Whodunit” because who, per Blake Snyder, is merely a conventional formality and ephemeral revelation—it’s the why that gives us the lasting insight into the dark side of human nature we crave from these stories).  But, for students of the craft of screenwriting, consider yourself enrolled in How to Create a Fertile, Provocative Premise 101.

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A Survivalist’s Guide: The Continuing Relevance and Reinterpretation of Rambo

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.

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