Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: The Writer’s Journey

Goodbye, Mr. Bott: Reflections on an Unlikely Mentor

On the first day of ninth grade, I was dropped off at the wrong high school—an all-boys Jesuit academy called Fordham Prep—and through a series of tragicomical misunderstandings too complicated to explain here, wound up staying through graduation.

Up till that point, I’d been exclusively a New York City public-school kid, where I’d spent nine years as a reliably mediocre student.  In truth, my “C” average was deceptively flattering:  My overall GPA was given a crucial bump out of the “D”-level basement by the lone “A” I could be counted on to earn in my English classes.

Despite my subpar scholastic track record, however, when I advanced from elementary school to junior high, I was, in what can only be explained as an administrative error, placed in the city’s now-defunct SP program (“special progress”—essentially a gifted-and-talented curriculum), in which students completed three years of schooling—seventh, eighth, and ninth grade—in only two.  During that time, I took two years of Latin, algebra, biology—all before I ever set foot in high school.  I passed them all, too—painfully and often barely, but still.

And this was at a junior high school, I should add, that was at the time regarded by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood as a disgrace—an unfortunate but unavoidable way station between elementary school and high school.  (I wonder what Neil deGrasse Tyson, an alumnus, would have to say about that?)  Parents simply pinched their nostrils, registered their kids, and counted the days till they’d move on to the Bronx High School of Science or some other esteemed learning institution where their real education would resume in earnest after a two-year waste of time—an institution like, in my case, Fordham Prep.

 

THE “ZONE UNKNOWN”

When I wound up at the Prep’s doorstep, however, the syllabus I was handed looked alarmingly familiar:  introductory Latin; algebra; biology—I think you see where this is going.  The lion’s share of kids who attended the Prep were coming from the parochial school system, and Fordham’s curriculum was designed to pick up where that left off.  Trouble was, I’d left those courses in the dust already, but when I explained my predicament, the administrator—I’ve long since forgotten his name (or more likely just willfully repressed it)—got a look on his face like he’d just swallowed a lungful of bus exhaust and said, “But… that was public school?”

Indeed, this was a “fresh start”—one whereby Fordham would graciously overlook my plebeian origins, and that meant erasing all trace of them.  Good news:  None of it ever happened!  Admission to the Prep was a rarified privilege, I was assured, for which to be grateful.  Fordham Prep’s name, after all, was uttered almost exclusively in whispered, reverential tones—the Prep!—and the honor of attending was one most of its students had been anxiously anticipating since preschool.  It all meant nothing to me, though:  Six months earlier, I’d never even heard of the place.  This perhaps gave me a more sober—a more realistic—perspective on the school, even at fourteen years old, than my peers or their parents.

The Prep’s sterling reputation for academic excellence, I argued without success, was largely a product of skillful self-mythologizing.  Christ, how good a school could it have been, really?  After all, I got in!  Shouldn’t that have been the first red flag?  Bronx Science—a public high school—walked the walk:  They quite rightfully wanted nothing to do with me.

And my own dismal grades notwithstanding (though I did make the honor roll freshman year, but any idiot can ace a bunch of classes he’s already taken—and passed—before), there were some objectively intellectually challenged students at the Prep.  I was a longstanding public-school kid, and knew a knuckle-dragger when I saw one (I preferred their company, for the most part), and that place was wall-to-wall with them.  All of which prompts the question:  How did Fordham achieve—and sustain—such impeccable standing if they were admitting riffraff like yours truly?

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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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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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“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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