Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Indiana Jones

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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This Counts, That Does Not: On Canonicity in Media Franchises

It may surprise you to learn this, but the events of Star Wars never actually happened—the majority of them, anyway.  I mean that sincerely—not for a minute should that be interpreted as snide or condescending.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

In 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars trilogy to a close with Return of the Jedi (oh, those bygone days when movie franchises actually reached—wait for it—a conclusive resolution).  Throughout the eighties, the series lived on by way of a pair of made-for-television Ewok movies and the Saturday-morning cartoons Droids and Ewoks, which continued to stoke interest in the franchise—and its lucrative action-figure line… for a while.  But by the end of the decade, with no new big-screen productions to energize the fan base, Star Wars had resigned its position at the top of the pop-cultural hierarchy.

George Lucas looks to the horizon

Lucas, who had always been a forward-thinking businessman as much as he was a visionary filmmaker (he negotiated a reduced fee for writing and directing the original Star Wars in return for ownership of sequel and merchandising rights, which the studio deemed worthless and was only too happy to relinquish), had plans to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a prequel trilogy that had been part of his grand design when he was developing the earlier films—hence the reason, in case you never thought to ask, they are numbered Episodes IV through VI.  Even though the prequels themselves were some years off—production on The Phantom Menace wouldn’t commence until 1997—he began laying the groundwork to return Star Wars to its lofty place in the cultural consciousness by commissioning science-fiction author Timothy Zahn to write a trio of novels set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi—what later became commonly known as “the Thrawn trilogy” (named for its chief antagonist).

The books were released successively in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (my best friend Chip and I couldn’t get down to the local bookstore fast enough to buy a copy of each upon publication, though being a year older, he got to read them first); they were New York Times bestsellers that not only got their intended job done—reigniting public interest in a dormant media franchise—but also led to an endless, ongoing series of novels that explored every facet of the Star Wars galaxy:  No character or event was too small to be the focus of its own story.  Thus, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was born.  Han and Leia had twins!  Luke got married!  Chewbacca sacrificed himself for the Solos’ son Anakin!  A universe of stories, far beyond the contained narrative arc of the classic trilogy, took on a life of its own and captured the imagination of a generation that invested itself in the ongoing space opera collectively known as Star Warsa vast, complex continuity that Lucasfilm maintained with curatorial oversight to prevent inconsistencies and contradictions in the expansive mythos, which comprised movies, books, comics, TV shows, RPGs, and video games.

The Force awakens? For many fans, it never went dormant

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, however, they had their own ambitious plans to expand the franchise, and didn’t want to be tied down to every addenda in the extensive mythology.  And just like that, everything other than the feature films and then-current Clone Wars animated series was “retconned”—still commercially available, mind you, under the new “Legends” banner, but henceforth declared noncanonical.  This was an outrage to many of the longtime fans who considered these “expanded universe” adventures sacrosanct—who’d invested time, money, and interest in the world-building fictions of the Star Wars continuity that had been undone with the stroke of a hand.  Some of their favorite stories were now apocrypha, whereas the much-derided prequels, on the other hand, were still canonically official.  Where was the justice—the sense—in that?

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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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This Is 40: On the Goals I’ve yet to Attain and All the Friends I Haven’t Made

“The future disappears into memory

With only a moment between

Forever dwells in that moment

Hope is what remains to be seen”

—“The Garden,” from Clockwork Angels (2012); lyrics by Neil Peart

2112, the trippy sci-fi concept album and breakout opus from enduring Canadian prog-rock band Rush, turns forty this month.  The music of Rush has had a profound influence on my own art and worldview, so the occasion of 2112’s anniversary—and what’s an anniversary but an acknowledgment of the future’s disappearance into memory?—is one I am compelled to observe with no small degree of private rumination (meaning I won’t bore you with it here).

Rush 2112

Consider for a moment, though, some other things turning forty this year, in no particular order:  Richard Donner’s horror classic The Omen.   Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  Apple, Inc.  NASA’s first Mars landing.  Ebola.  The laser printer.  The Toronto Blue Jays.  The Muppet Show.  The Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something…

Ah, yes—me.

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On Tap: What to Watch This Saint Patrick’s Day

I grew up an Irish Catholic kid in an Irish Catholic Bronx neighborhood, the northern half of which was so heavily populated with off-the-boat immigrants, in fact, brogues were commonplace.  I spent half my childhood in the bars along Broadway while Dad and I were ostensibly out “running errands,” and it was only upon the unforeseen revelation of his alcohol addiction when I was eleven that all those afternoons spent in the company of middle-aged men with apparently nowhere else to be but some dim, smoky watering hole under the intermittent rattling of the el tracks took on new, illuminating context.

While in college, I worked at an Irish deli on Mosholu Avenue for a married couple, a former cop and housewife with grown children, who eventually sold the business and retired to—you guessed it—Ireland.  (Wish I knew whatever became of them.)  Scenes from the Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt IRA thriller The Devil’s Own were filmed at a nearby neighborhood bar (a friend of mine even took video footage from his apartment window of Pitt exiting the establishment), presumably for the kind of authenticity no amount of Hollywood set dressing can properly replicate.

Most people I know genuinely hate the sound of bagpipes—was it Frank McCourt who said they sound like dying cats?—but, for me, they are a reminder of my own heritage and upbringing; I recall the muffled wail of them every Saint Patrick’s Day from behind the door of 2C, the apartment in our building occupied by my dad’s best friend, when we’d come home through the second-floor service entrance adjacent to the garage.

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Book Review: “The Multiverse of Max Tovey”

Disclaimer:  I was furnished with an unsolicited advance copy of The Multiverse of Max Tovey by the publisher in exchange for a candid, unpaid appraisal.

Superhero, one of Blake Snyder’s ten narrative models, accounts for so much more than the four-color fantasies of costumed crime-fighters.  These stories are, at their most fundamental, about a special someone—“Not quite human nor quite god” (Blake Snyder, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, [Studio City:  Michael Wiese Productions, 2007], 249)—endowed with extraordinary powers, with which comes the unwanted burden of extraordinary responsibility, who inadvertently provokes jealousy or disdain from us commoners, typically a nemesis that seeks to exploit the superhero’s Achilles heel (and they all have one).  These are the tales of Superman and Lex Luthor, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Neo and Agent Smith, Dracula and Van Helsing, Simba and Scar, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham.  “Real-life Superheroes” the likes of Jackie Robinson in 42 and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game also fit the bill, as do small-screen saviors Jack Bauer (24) and Olivia Pope (Scandal).

At its most emotionally elemental, Snyder sums up the genre as such:  “It’s not easy being special” (ibid.).

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Imaginations on Fire: Rush’s Geddy Lee on Artistic Originality

“When I feel the powerful visions/Their fire has made alive/I wish I had that instinct—/I wish I had that drive”

—“Mission” from Hold Your Fire (1987); lyrics by Neil Peart

Two things have grown considerably in the fifteen or so years that I’ve been a screenwriter:  the volume of material in my portfolio, and, correspondingly, my confidence in my creative skills.

With so many screenplays under my belt (I’ve lost count at this point), as well as two novels I’m readying for publication next year, I can look over my body of work and see the influences from—the echoes of—artists that inspired me in my formative years.  I was in high school when I realized that the same wondrous mind was responsible for both Star Wars and Indiana Jones—who the hell was blessed with that kind of imagination?!—and spent a considerable portion of my adolescence studying the screenplays and biographies of George Lucas (those resources, mind you, were not easily available online at that time).  One of my early stories during that period, long before fan fiction found a thriving forum on the Internet, was titled “Indiana Jones and the River Styx.”  When my novels are published, I’ll cite specific influences that helped shape them here on the blog.

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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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Attack of the Clones: Why Hollywood’s Creative Approach Is in Need of a Reboot

I had no context to recognize this at the time, but I came of age in a golden era of fantasy cinema.  Some of my earliest theatrical experiences included Superman II (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), and Back to the Future (1985).  Movies like those were made, by and large, by a generation of filmmakers—notably but not exclusively Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—that had been raised on the sci-fi and fantasy offerings of 1950s B-movies and comics, and later became the first students to major in cinema studies and filmmaking; when that formal training was fused with their pulp passions, the contemporary blockbuster was born:  first with Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977), and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Superman:  The Movie (1978) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Goonies (1985).  That cornucopia of imaginative fantasy—hardly an all-encompassing list, by the way—was my first exposure to the movies.  Is it any wonder I was hooked for life?

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To Survive and Thrive: Strategic Genre Switches in “The Hunger Games”

You sensed it right from the start:  The familiar plot machinations of The Hunger Games series weren’t there to comfort us (in their perversely dystopian way) in the latest theatrical entry, Mockingjay, Part 1.  The world and characters were the same, sure, yet we found ourselves, like the protagonist herself, immediately disoriented in this third go-round; nothing about this adventure, for us or for her, could be deemed business as usual.

So, what changed?

I’ve written a great deal about how indispensable I find Blake Snyder’s ten story models, but have offered little thus far in the way of illustration.  The Hunger Games series, a powerhouse big-studio franchise if ever there was one, provides an object lesson in two distinct types of Save the Cat! genres.

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