Tag Archives: save the cat

I Can’t Just “Watch Movies” Anymore


It’s no great secret that being a writer — well, being an artist at all, but specifically being somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about storytelling — warps the way you see the world a bit. In fact, part of my general unease of late centers on the fact that the real world functions so very decidedly unlike a story.

Still, it’s hard to help how you think, and while I’m hairline-deep in the editing process trying to make my drivel readable and coherent (a task that seems more in need of a blowtorch than a laptop most days), I can’t help seeing story everywhere I look. They say that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; but what does that mean when every problem you see looks like it could be solved with a bit of narrative restructuring?

Anyway: my wife and I are sitting down last night watching Wonder, one of those feel-good movies designed to play on your heartstrings at the expense of a satisfying narrative. (See also: Parenthood, This is Us, or any other contemporary drama starring a big cast with a troubled family and scored with the sounds of a sweet, sweet soulful acoustic guitar. My wife will give me heck for not liking the movie. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just don’t feel satisfied by it. Emotions are not my thing since I’m basically a robot in a skin-suit. But it was fine. HONEY IT WAS FINE.) And, as we’re watching, in my head I’m silently going down the list.

Call to action: check.

Meeting the mentor: check.

Crossing the threshold: check.

(What? This is how I watch movies now.)

And we get to the final third of the movie, and — no big spoiler here — the family dog gets sick, gets taken to the vet, and dies. (Okay, spoiler-for-everything alert — if the family pet is shown to be exceptionally adorable or loyal in the first act, it will die by the third act. Call it Chekhov’s Canine.) I jump up from the couch, pointing like Sherlock Holmes discovering the crime-solving clue, and shout “THE WHIFF OF DEATH!”

See, I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and I know that there comes a moment toward the second half of the story where somebody or something close to the hero dies, reminding the hero of their mortality and spurring them to make the change necessary for the resolution of the central conflict. Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” and for whatever reason, I forgot about it, or wasn’t expecting to see it in this movie, or maybe it’s vacation so we were a couple of adult beverages in and I got a little enthusiastic. Anyway, the moment dropped like a a blue whale falling through the stratosphere and I HAD TO POINT IT OUT TO SOMEBODY.

My wife is unimpressed. She’s puzzled, and a little affronted, since she’s in her feelings watching the dad come home, sad-faced and apologetic, to deliver the bad news to the kids. It’s kind of a bolt-from-the-blue moment in the story. The dog isn’t really relevant to the narrative at all. But I saw it — and SEE it — for what it is: a cattle prod up the posterior of the protagonist to get him hustling into the final third of the movie. I try explaining this to her with lots of full-bodied gesticulation and noises about character development and guttural grunting. “THE WHIFF OF DEATH,” I exclaim again, both hands flung out toward the TV in a can’t-you-see-it gesture.

“Yeah,” she says. “The dog died. It’s sad.”

Which is right, too, I guess.

I have no idea how the movie ended; writing was so much on my brain by that point that I had to stop watching in favor of jotting down several book-saving ideas that I had failed to write down earlier in the day because I am an idiot.

Just kidding: (spoiler alert!) everything works out okay for the kid in the end, and everybody in the kid’s orbit learns some important lessons about life. See? It’s uplifting, and not at all like real life!

Now to figure out what we’re going to “watch” tonight.

 


Thunderstruck


When you hear something that matters, you know it. It’s a shock to the system, 1.21 gigawatts right down the ol’ fluxcapacitor. You feel supercharged, empowered, motivated.

I’m working my way through Save the Cat!, (something in me rebels against punctuating a comma right after an exclamation, but Save the Cat! is the title, so there you are), a tiny tome — giddy guidebook, prognosticating pamphlet — on screenplay writing.

Which is to say, on story writing. Snyder focuses on film, but film is just one storytelling medium among multitudes, and I’ve yet to see anything in the book that wouldn’t fly for novels, plays, games, perhaps roleplay with that special someone. It’s all gold, and I’m only 40 pages in.

The book is less bespectacled-professor-reading-from-a-musty-tome and more Morpheus-pulling-back-the-veil-of-reality. “Here’s a story,” the book says. “Look at it, see it, yes, it’s about these things, sure. But look closer. Strip away the trappings and look at what it is behind the mask.” Rather in the vein of Campbell’s monomyth, or Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, Save the Cat! is about archetyping, codifying, categorizing. Once you know the categories and the tropes that your story plays to, you can then maneuver more expertly within them; becoming the Han Solo to your own personal Kessel run.

Anyway. I’m finding it useful to take it just a few pages per day, so that I can marinate on the chapter I’ve just read without getting inundated trying to process too much at once (which is my fancy way of saying it’s my toilet reader of the moment). And today’s pages were all about making sure that your protagonist is the right kind of protagonist for your story.

Ka-BLAM. Thunderbolts and lightning (very very frightening [and yeah, that lyric has always bothered me, THUNDER DOESN’T COME IN BOLTS]). Just like that, I see why my trunked novel failed — my protagonist was all wrong. Or rather, all wrong for that story. The realization was like opening up a corpse for the autopsy and finding the spleen where the heart should be, the lungs crammed in behind the bladder, the leg-bone connected to the neck-bone.

Right pieces, wrong arrangement.

And while the current project isn’t exactly a stunning specimen of anatomical narrative perfection, it seems like most of the current appendages are at least in reasonable places for the phylum. Whether that’s by accident or because I grew a little between novel #2 and #3 is for fate to decide, but needless to say, this story doesn’t feel broken the way the last one did.

All of which is to say that I heartily endorse this book, as I’ve mentioned at least once before.

Save the Cat, read this book.

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. I misread the prompt, but by the time I went back, I didn’t feel like starting over, so rather than getting a word that starts with “oc”, you get a word that contains “oc”. Deal with it!


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