My Favorite Plotting Book EVER* (*Contains Cats)

It was September 2006 and Ihad  just moved to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t have much money, no car and my job hadn’t commenced yet, so I basically knew no one. I spent most of my days wandering around Downtown Disney, tracing a path which always ended up in the Virgin Megastore on Westside (which is no longer there, sadly). Upstairs there were magazines, a bookstore, and a cafe: the perfect place for me. The bookstore wasn’t the kind where you could walk in with a book you wanted in mind and find it there on the shelf, though; this place was more of a let’s go in with an open mind and see what we find type of place.

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One day I found Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Synder and started to flip through it. Not only did it make me laugh, standing there in the aisle, but it also explained story in a way I could understand, and used examples from movies I was familiar with to show that like it or not—and done consciously or not—all the movies that leave us feeling really satisfied, that have us walking back out into the light after seeing it in the movie theatre and saying to our friend, ‘That was really good, wasn’t it?”, adhere in some way to these principles.

Even though I shouldn’t have been spending any money at all, I just had to buy the book so I could take it back to my crappy little apartment and read the rest.

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Have I shown you this before? This was my crappy Orlando apartment (the one I shared with partying Russians who never locked the front door). I believe that’s called 80s Office Chic. 

Which is where I discovered that this screenwriting book is amazing for plotting commercial fiction.

It’s even more amazing if you’re asked for a chapter-by-chapter outline, as I once was, before I’d even written a word of the book.

Need a one-page synopsis? Or your entire book down pared down to just three paragraphs? Whip out Save the Cat!, flip to the beat sheet page (my copy now just falls open there) and fill in a sentence—one sentence—for each of the fifteen beats. Divide into three, jazz up a bit and there you go: your one-page synopsis.

And if you can’t fill in a sentence for each of those fifteen beats? Then your structure might have a weak spot. There’s room to improve.

Putting The Fun Back Into Story

If you’ve read Story by Robert McKee, Save the Cat! is like that only in a language you’ll understand and a length that won’t fry your brain. Save the Cat! is actually a fun read, and something you’ll return to again and again. The book isn’t that thick, even. Story is just too much for me. I can’t take it all in. It also seems to squeeze all the fun out of it, every last drop, until it just gets so technical and nit-bitty that it can only leave you feeling totally overwhelmed (I think).

Another thing I love about Snyder’s books is that he assumes you know what you’re doing. He takes it for granted that idea, characters, etc. are all already there. His beat sheet is more of a test, something you can lay down over the story you already have to check it for structural integrity, for weak spots and holes.

Now, yes, I am aware that I’m supposed to be writing books, not screenplays. But if you write commercial fiction, there is no real difference between you and a screenwriter in terms of the plot beats you should aim to hit. Only the novelist, I think, faces a much deeper, wider and darker chasm (100,000 words) than the screenwriter does (120 pages) and so if there’s help out there, why not take it? Especially when most of us have a great idea for a beginning, a vague idea for an end, a cast of characters and not much else.

How are you going to fill in the middle, eh?

‘Story Structure’ Does NOT Equal ‘Formula’

Let’s just take a moment here to address those of you whose teeth are already grinding and eyes are already a-rolling at the thought of doing anything to our work other than letting it run free and wild across the blank pages of Pretentious Meadow. A beat sheet isn’t about writing to a formula. This is about the elements of story which, if you’ll recall, is what all this is supposed to be about in the first place.

For example, let’s say that I came rushing up to you, breathless, and said, “Oh my god, you will not believe what’s just happened to me. I was sitting in traffic, right? Waiting for the light to turn red. Next thing I know this guy comes running up to my window and starts pounding on the glass!”

And then I abruptly stop talking.

What would be your reaction?

Wouldn’t it be to ask, “Yeah, and? What happened then?”

Because every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I clearly left out the ending of my traffic tale. Therefore, it doesn’t sit right with you. You know it’s missing something. You knew it as soon as you heard it, because you’re wired for story. So you have a natural, human reaction to hearing the beginning and middle of a story: you look for the end.

This is exactly what Save the Cat! and other “plotting” books, devices and advice is all about. The only difference is that they go much deeper than the basics of beginning, middle and end. For instance, Snyder can break a story into two halves (Opening Image <- Midpoint -> Final Image), four quarters (Act I, Act II Part 1, Act II Part 2, Act II) or fifteen by way of his famous beat sheet (see the first Save the Cat! book for this).

But you can just take what you want or need, and leave the rest. For example, when planning my current WIP I thought of the story like this:

  • Half way through is the “midpoint”, where the hero does something that means he can never return to his “Before” life, a point of no return
  • Act II up until the midpoint is all about the hero being proactive, moving into a new life (without committing to it)
  • Act II after the midpoint is all about the hero resisting the (inevitable and permanent) change that’s up ahead
  • Act I is the “Before” or Old World, where if the hero keeps doing what he’s doing, life will be pretty sucky
  • Act III is the hero deciding to move into his “After” or New World, and settling there
  • At each turn (end of Act I, midpoint, end of Act II) there’s a significant stakes raise, greater than the one before.

My constant re-reading of Save the Cat! helped me fill in all the other bits as I went along, but when you’re first faced with the question Is this idea enough for a novel?, being able to figure out if your story has a beginning, middle and end can save you a lot of staring-out-the-window time.

I’ve mentioned this book before, but I wanted to post about it again because I recently re-read the other two books in the series, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat! Strikes Back, and remembered just how wonderful they are. Tragically Snyder passed away suddenly at the age of just 51 before Strikes Back had even hit the shelves, but not before he’d become famous (and appreciated!) in screenwriting circles and was traveling all over the world to help other writers with their scripts.

So if you’re struggling, give Save the Cat! a chance and see what it can do for you. At the very least, it’ll make you giggle.

Find Save the Cat! on Amazon and visit Blake Snyder’s website here.

The 100 Best Movies Challenge

It’s Friday! So let’s set aside the self-publishing stuff for a second and do something fun.

On Wednesday Nathan Bransford posted his personal list of 100 Favorite Movies and challenged others to do the same. Now as you all know I never met a procrastination activity I didn’t like, and I love movies as much as I love books (well, almost…), so today I’m posting my list.

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One hundred movies sounds like a lot, and will seem like a lot when you first start trying to think of all your favorite films. You’ll enlist the help of friends and family, look up Best Picture nominees on Wikipedia and frantically browse your DVD collection. But soon you’ll be saying, “Oh! How could I forget that?” and “But what about—?’ and “I feel like there was something else amazing he was in too…” and then suddenly you’re up to 149, you need to start whittling them down and you’ve Argo in twice because you’ve Ben Affleck on the brain.

Now I’ve cheated ever so slightly with mine because I’ve counted series like Toy Story and the first two Home Alones as one entry, but so what? It’s my list! I’ve also picked my favorite movies, many of which would never have had a shot at Best Picture, so don’t hate me for loving Spacecamp. Or Dirty Dancing. Or 17 Again.

I also know I’ve left some out and will think of them as soon as I click the Publish button on this post…

(Yeah. There’s a chance I’m over-thinking this.)

Okay, so here we go. 1-10 are my all-time favorite movies, but 11-100 are in no particular order.

(Yep. Definitely over-thinking this.)

My 100 favorite movies of all time are (I think!):

  1. Jurassic Park
  2. Contact
  3. Apollo 13
  4. American Beauty
  5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  6. Adaptation
  7. The Truman Show
  8. Stranger Than Fiction
  9. The Departed
  10. The Usual Suspects
  11. Primal Fear
  12. Spacecamp
  13. The Silence of the Lambs
  14. Wall-E
  15. The Lives of Others
  16. The Secret in Their Eyes
  17. The Shawshank Redemption
  18. 17 Again
  19. The Terminal
  20. The Mist
  21. Catch Me If You Can
  22. Any Given Sunday
  23. Contagion
  24. Elf
  25. Dirty Dancing
  26. The Town
  27. Return to Oz
  28. Office Space
  29. The Cable Guy
  30. Midnight in Paris
  31. Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
  32. Best in Show
  33. The Devil’s Advocate
  34. Thank You For Smoking
  35. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy
  36. Seven
  37. Jaws
  38. Forrest Gump
  39. Cast Away
  40. Schindler’s List
  41. The Toy Stories
  42. Independence Day
  43. Armageddon
  44. The Sixth Sense
  45. Fight Club
  46. Gladiator
  47. The Insider
  48. Training Day
  49. Amelie
  50. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  51. Titantic
  52. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
  53. Bicentennial Man
  54. Mission Impossible
  55. Tropic Thunder
  56. Misery
  57. 1408
  58. Inside Man
  59. The Game
  60. A Perfect Murder
  61. Jagged Edge
  62. The Life of David Gale
  63. Cinema Paradiso
  64. Minority Report
  65. The River Wild
  66. Twister
  67. The Informant!
  68. Zoolander
  69. The Other Guys
  70. All The President’s Men
  71. The Others
  72. Bridesmaids
  73. Arlington Road
  74. The Vanishing
  75. Pretty Woman
  76. Argo
  77. The Reader
  78. The Remains of the Day
  79. Quiz Show
  80. Jerry Maguire
  81. Good Will Hunting
  82. Speed
  83. Closer
  84. Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil
  85. Clueless
  86. The Wedding Singer
  87. The Holiday
  88. The TV Set
  89. For Your Consideration
  90. Senna
  91. In The Shadow of the Moon
  92. The Hangover
  93. Bad Santa
  94. Supersize Me
  95. The Hoax
  96. Grizzly Man
  97. Recount
  98. Stepbrothers
  99. Kiss The Girls
  100. I Love You, Philip Morris.

Agree? Disagree? Never going to trust me again because I love Return to Oz? (Guess what? I DON’T CARE. It’s amazing.) Or have you spotted a glaring omission? And don’t say The Godfather II, because even though it’s like the greatest movie ever made, it’s not a favorite of mine, really. Ditto for 2001. And Apocalypse Now? I’d rather Tropic Thunder any day. And I know many people have a scary obsession with The Princess Bride—I like it, yes, but it’s not one of my favorites. Also not a fan of anything Star Warred, Star Trekked or Lord of The Ringed.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below, or read Nathan’s list here.

Have a good weekend!

UPDATE: It’s happened: I remembered others! Here are a few that I didn’t think of when I was compiling the list: A Few Good Men, The September Issue, Easy A, The Cutting Edge, Enchanted, Top Gun (hello? HOW could I’ve forgotten that? I love that movie…), The Social Network and Superbad. Not sure if they’d have squeezed their way into my Top 100 but alas, we’ll never know (because I’m not starting this again!).