Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Save the Cat (page 1 of 3)

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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Going Fishing: Classic Movies for the Summer Season

It’s the dog days of August here in L.A., and I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite summer flicks—the ones set in or somehow about the sunny season.  Like my St. Patrick’s Day compilation, this only reflects my personal preferences, not the Best Summer Movies Ever.  As a bonus, I’ve included each film’s Save the Cat! genre classification.

 

The ‘Burbs (1989)

Genre:  Whydunit (“Personal Whydunit”)

Burbs

It didn’t get a particularly warm critical or box-office reception upon initial release, but time has bestowed much-deserved cult status upon Joe Dante’s stylish, quotable horror-comedy, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Carrie Fisher.  Hanks is a Middle American suburbanite who begins to suspect, over the Memorial Day holiday, that the peculiar new neighbors on the block may in fact be satanic murderers.  Dante managed quite a tonal balancing act here in a movie that’s aged remarkably well, and the chemistry and comedic interplay among the cast is aces.  It’s the perfect movie to cozy up to with “a couple hundred beers” when, like Hanks’ hapless protagonist, you’ve opted for a holiday-weekend staycation.  The ‘Burbs is in some respects about the trouble we get into when we have too much free time on our hands—one of three movies on this list to tackle that subject, and all, oddly enough, co-starring Corey Feldman.

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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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A Los Angeles Crime Saga/A New York Love Story

Twenty years ago today, I went to the movies and the course of my life changed forevermore.

To be certain, that is not an intentionally provocative overstatement—it is simple fact.  The film was Michael Mann’s Heat, and the three hours I spent watching it that afternoon represent a temporal juncture, if you’ll permit the fanciful notion, between the me that was and the me I became thereafter.  Heat is not my all-time favorite movie—though it certainly ranks high on the list—but I’d be hard-pressed to think of one that carries more emotional weight for me.  I don’t even revisit it all that often; it’s a bit like a photo album that you cherish—that you’d be devastated to lose—yet seldom take down from that high shelf in the closet:  You needn’t thumb through it regularly to appreciate what it represents; you simply take solace from the knowledge that it’s up there, safe and sound—a mnemonic repository where nostalgia can be compartmentalized lest it keep you from the necessary and inevitable business of forward motion.

I did re-watch Heat, however, in preparation for this post, and it’s as searing and suspenseful as ever.  Maybe more so, in fact, as age and experience have allowed me to appreciate its emotional nuances and masterful storytelling in ways that were impossible in 1996.  (I also got a thrill out of recognizing many of its L.A. locations—places I’ve passed more times than I can count in the fourteen years I’ve lived out here—some of which have changed considerably in two decades, and some that are frozen in time.)  For those who may not remember, Heat was quite a big deal upon release for its on-screen pairing of two legendary thespians, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in what was essentially a grand-scale cops-and-robbers epic drawn from copious real-world research writer/director Mann had conducted over the course of his career.  By the nineties, action was already taking precedence over characterization—and that’s only worsened in the CGI era (I don’t care how many esteemed year-end top-ten lists they make, those Fast & Furious movies—all seven of them—are beyond dreadful)—but Heat stands, both then and now, as a testament to the power of old-school storytelling by a master of the craft:  It takes its time to bring us into its morally complex universe of deeply flawed, empathetic characters on their inevitable—and tragic—collision course with one another.  As a director, Mann’s stylistic flourishes have occasional tendency to date his films (he’s responsible, after all, for that pastel-infused Miami Vice aesthetic that defined the color palette of the eighties), but, save for perhaps a few oversized flip phones, Heat exists in a timeless world unto itself; to spend an afternoon there is to visit a Los Angeles unlike the one you can actually visit, and unlike the one you’ve seen in other movies.  Heat is, very simply, something spectacular to behold—every bit the classic both history and the culture have come to deem it.

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Solitary Consignment: A Christmas Story

Movies, it should come as no surprise to learn, were an absolutely critical part of my formative experience.  It wasn’t merely that my first exposure to them was during the wondrous Lucas/Spielberg heyday of the early eighties; no, we didn’t have a VCR in the household till the very end of that decade (like color TV, they were deemed by my parents to be “just a fad”), so seeing a movie meant going to the movies.  To this day, the very whiff of butter-steeped popcorn time-shifts me back to those magical days, like one that occurred precisely twenty-five years ago, when a little Christmas-themed film with absolutely no brand awareness or marquee stars whatsoever created an unforeseen sensation—it was the must-see movie of the season, and I was eager to oblige.

The perfect occasion to do so arose on one of those barren Saturday afternoons in New York—too cold to be outside for any length of time, too hard to hear yourself think over the hiss of the monolithic prewar radiator.  Well, it would’ve been perfect, anyway, if not for one small hiccup:  Nobody was around to join me.  I called everyone in the Rolodex (and that isn’t just an archaic figure of speech—these were the days of actual Rolodexes), but came up empty.  Where the hell was everybody?

There was no real precedent for this scenario.  There’d always been someone around to meet on short notice—that was the benefit of living in a building full of young families, after all.  Hell, my best friend, Chip, lived one flight below us, and was always available to team up to save the world with me by way of a spirited (read:  profane), two-player game of Contra.  But, not that afternoon.

My problems, it seemed, were rapidly compounding:  What was I going to do for the rest of the day?  Go to the movies by myself?  It was really only through pure desperation, having exhausted every other avenue, that I finally asked, “Why not?”

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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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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:

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Journey’s End: Rushkoff and the Collapse of Narrative

And now for something completely different:  How about a magic trick?

Think of your favorite story—book or movie.  (Hell, say it aloud, if you’re inclined—I can’t hear you.)  If you’ve got several candidates, just pick one quickly, at random.

Got one firmly in mind?

Betcha I can tell you how the plot unfolds.

Here goes:  The protagonist is faced with an unforeseen crisis that upends the status quo, and, after some initial resistance, accepts the call to adventure.  Through a series of trials and setbacks in which both allies and enemies are made, our hero finds the strength to rise to the challenge and, in doing so, achieves personal catharsis (what we in Hollywood call the “character arc”), returning once again to an ordinary state of affairs… a little bit wiser for his troubles.  The End.

How’d I do?

It’s a little general, I’ll grant you—I probably wouldn’t wow them in Vegas with that act—but, at your story’s most basic structural level, that pretty much sums it up, no?

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Company of Fools: The Genre of “Amadeus”

In a recent podcast, the custodians of Save the Cat! offered a very thin and unconvincing assessment of Birdman’s genre classification, the essence of which was this:  “Look—Michael Keaton’s got a Life Problem!  He goes about fixing it the Wrong Way!  Clearly this is a Rite of Passage!”

In a serendipitously timed blog post, I argued that Birdman is, in fact, a Fool Triumphant, and even held it up for comparison, like two perfectly aligned sketches on tracing paper backlit against a lamp, with a recent (and accurate) example of RoP, Jon Favreau’s Chef, as proof that those stories don’t share fundamental commonality with respect to their genre conventions.

Because that’s ultimately what distinguishes the codified narrative models of the late Blake Snyder from one another:  their conventional criteria—the requirements each particular genre is expected to deliver upon.  A golf cart and a city bus both have wheels and seats and a motor (i.e., a similar fundamental underlying structure), but you’d never mistake one for the other; you’d never expect one to perform the function of the other.

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