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Though I hold bachelor’s degrees in both film and English, most of what I learned about screenwriting—and fiction writing in general—came in the form of a decade-long “crash course” at the School of Hard Knocks (admission is easy; tuition’s a killer). Reading and writing screenplays was the first critical step—I consciously studied formatting and unconsciously absorbed form—but gazing at a painting no more demystifies the esoteric art of illustration than listening repeatedly to a song uncloaks the “magic” of musical composition. Command of craft in any art form, writing included, demands discipline—the skilled use of tools that can be summoned at will—and for that, I turned to the many, many screenwriting how-to books that seem to have flooded the marketplace since the Nineties.
But, why spend time reading about writing when the best way to improve is “practice, practice, practice,” right? After all, many folks—including, in no small numbers, pro screenwriters—have dismissed the merits of so-called “screenwriting bibles” and “gurus,” and, indeed, few of them bring any new insights to the conversation. But, the practice of deconstructing the principles of literature and drama goes at least as far back as 335 BCE with Poetics—a respected and lasting treatise on literary theory by any metric—and, as Aristotle seems to have suspected, the meticulous study of narrative patterns and mythic archetypes offers a foundation for the codification of techniques—the building blocks of craft.
CAMPBELL AND VOGLER: MAPPING THE HERO’S JOURNEY
With screenwriting manuals their own cottage industry at this point, who pioneered the modern trend of comparative analysis? Mythologist Joseph Campbell identified the fundamental narrative patterns of what he dubbed the “monomyth”—the “Hero’s Journey” stages evident in narrative traditions that span thousands of years and cultures—in his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a tome that achieved particular relevance in contemporary Hollywood when George Lucas cited its influence in the structure of his Star Wars saga.
In the 1990s, a development executive by the name of Christopher Vogler would devote a book of his own to illustrate how Campbell’s schema was reflected in Hollywood movies across every genre—and could be consciously applied to the development of screenplays—in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. By delineating character archetypes and demonstrating the stages of the Hero’s Journey as they appear in contemporary movies as diverse as Titanic, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, and Star Wars, Vogler illustrated that the underlying mythic patterns present in Homer and the Holy Bible were sufficiently durable to have survived into the complex world of the twentieth century, and sufficiently resonant to continue to serve as the structural foundation for the era’s predominant form of entertainment: cinematic storytelling.
Critics of the Campbell/Vogler paradigm—as well as shortsighted creative execs who mistakenly assume upon reading it that they’ve stumbled upon the “magic formula” for blockbuster storytelling—have misinterpreted the Hero’s Journey model as a cookie-cutter template for the commercialized mass-production of an ostensibly creative product. Here’s why that doesn’t wash: The doctrines presented in Campbell and Vogler’s works are more of a theoretical exercise than a set of practical tools; they are thought-provoking principles but not readily applicable methodologies. It would behoove any writer to be familiar with the monomyth, with the implicit acknowledgment that every story is different and demands a customized approach, same as a physician is required to have a grasp of gross anatomy, even as he recognizes each patient is different and will require personalized treatment.
What makes most of the screenwriting manuals published since the popularization of the Hero’s Journey so redundant and useless is that all they have to offer is regurgitated (and often renamed) theory; they fail to take the next step forward and forge specific, practical tools out of anecdotal doctrine. Two screenwriters, however, independently rose to the challenge…
SNYDER: GENRES DECLASSIFIED—AND CLASSIFIED ANEW
In 2005, produced screenwriter Blake Snyder made the Hero’s Journey model yet more accessible in his unpretentious, reader-friendly manual Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need: Portentous, academic terms from the Vogler paradigm like “Crossing the First Threshold,” “Test, Allies, Enemies,” and “Approach to the Inmost Cave” were rechristened as “Break into Two,” “Fun and Games,” and “Midpoint,” respectively, and organized in the form of a “beat sheet”—a handy, easy-to-use tool for laying down the macrostructural bones of a story. Though the names of the stages—or “beats,” in screenwriting parlance—somewhat differ from Campbell to Vogler to Snyder, their underlying narrative function remains very much the same across all models. The difference with Save the Cat! is subtle but crucial: Snyder’s approach reifies concept into appliance.
His revamping of the “beat sheet” aside, Snyder’s chief innovation—and his most valuable contribution to the screenwriter’s toolbox—was the classification of ten distinct story “genres,” each with its own set of long-established conventions and narrative requirements: Monster in the House; Golden Fleece; Out of the Bottle; Dude with a Problem; Rites of Passage; Buddy Love; Whydunit; Fool Triumphant; Institutionalized; Superhero. (It is a testament to Snyder’s plainspoken approach that you can begin to imagine the particular precepts of each of those categories merely from their names alone.) In conference rooms and coffee shops throughout Hollywood, an inordinate amount of development time is spent comparing your movie with what’s come before: “It’s like The Hangover meets Transformers!” Creatively stifling though that can sometimes seem, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the practice—drawing from precedent can be extremely helpful and a tremendous source of confidence as you develop your premise—but one must take cues from the proper cinematic antecedents: If you are writing a Golden Fleece, for instance, you don’t want to look to Die Hard (a Dude with a Problem) as an exemplar—you’d be better off analyzing Indiana Jones. The ten different story types each have markedly different requirements—and correspondingly different audience expectations—and a writer needs to know with certainty upon which a given premise is expected to deliver, which is where Snyder’s cogent categories prove an indispensible tool.
Recently, I developed a Monster in the House screenplay whereby I would field all sorts of well-meaning notes from creative execs to “make it like Armageddon” or “make it like District 9,” to which I would politely and confidently respond, “Those examples don’t really apply; you are comparing apples with oranges since this is a Monster in the House, and those are Dudes with a Problem.” Save the Cat! offers tools that, if nothing else, help one weed out misguided advice and make an intelligent case against it; for the genre categories alone, it should be required reading for all screenwriters, producers, directors, and development executives. (Though, as I indicated about The Writer’s Journey above, many of the latter have perused the book without ever ruminating on it, digesting it, or putting it into practice, and subsequently felt empowered to speak with full authority on matters of storytelling, were it only that easy; I believe that this unfortunate usage—the misapplication of storytelling tools—has spurred the backlash against “how-to” methodologies in the professional screenwriting community. Storytelling is an acquired skill set that requires years to master, like the practices of law and medicine, and getting comfortable with the tools of the trade is part of that perennial apprenticeship; I recommend spending time “trying them out” via the deconstruction of several dozen of your favorite films before applying them to your own writing.) In the months ahead, I will relay experiences from my own upcoming projects in which I used Snyder’s tools to eschew “artistic intuition”—I’m certain I don’t have a drop—in favor of taking a methodical approach to developing a premise into a fully realized story that takes best advantage of the time-honored conventions of its particular genre.
FREEMAN: THE SECRETS OF CHARACTERIZATION
So, Snyder has structure and genre conventions covered, but what about character? So far as I know, only one scholar has effectively decoded the techniques of characterization: how a character is imbued with a unique voice and worldview that makes him different from the trillions of fictional creations that preceded him; how empathy is evoked for said character by the artful deployment of advanced writing methods that function outside the cognizance of the audience; how the plot pushes him through his transformational arc to create an emotionally fulfilling storytelling experience.
In his brilliant Beyond Structure workshop, screenwriter David Freeman teaches that fictional characters are composed of a handful of distinct, consistent, and identifiable facets that govern their actions, reactions, decisions, and dialogue—and, like Snyder did for structure with his elegant “beat sheet,” Freeman offers a simple-yet-revolutionary tool to “map” your characters before you start writing them (which I won’t discuss in detail out of respect for his intellectual property). Conversely, utilizing Freeman’s unique methods, any preexisting character can be deconstructed in order to understand, at a glance, what makes him tick (no lengthy biographies augmented with copious and unnecessary details required). This powerful tool is of particular interest to me, and I will be relying upon it in blog posts to come to reverse-engineer some truly memorable characters from film, television, literature, and even pop music! I’ll identify the deliberate method at work behind what often seems like nothing more than arbitrary personality choices on the part of the writer, and I invite you to challenge me to deconstruct any character—contemporary or classic, hero or villain, cinematic or literary—and we can marvel together at the artful use of technique employed in the creation of each. (Tell me some of your favorites in the Comments below.)
A CELEBRATION OF CRAFT
So, what would I recommend to aspiring fiction writers? The School of Hard Knocks offers an infinitely broad curriculum—take the word of an alumnus—but there’s no need to be enrolled interminably: Study Campbell/Vogler for mythic structure, Snyder for genre, Freeman for characters (among the many other virtues of his workshop, which is, at present, the only venue to learn them—his teachings aren’t available in a published format). Even intermediate and advanced writers would do themselves a favor by exercising a refresher in the theories and methods of these visionary instructors. “Intuition” is for those without the courage to master craft; a tool isn’t a good or bad thing per se—it’s all about the skill of the artist who wields it. We’re all inspired by great works of art, but I think you’ll find that the instructive and often illuminating study of craft can be its own fulfilling reward, too. I’m glad you’ve joined me for the celebration.