I Miss Blake Snyder

August 16, 2009

Blake passed on August 4, and it’s taken me this long to settle down and gather my thoughts.

It’s been like gradually and gently working a poisoned dagger out of my kidney.

Blake Snyder
A few years ago, my dear ol’ Mom surprised me with a book about writing. I hadn’t asked for it or anything, and neither one of us knew the author. Mom had picked it up (I suspect) because it had a kitty on the cover. Mom’s a sucker for that sort of thing.

I flipped through it and realized that it was about movies, not novels.

I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter. I’ve never written a screenplay (although, since those days, I’ve read them). But I’ve noticed, at writing conferences, how often authors illustrate concepts of drama by referring to movies instead of novels.

Okay. I sat down and read Save the Cat, even though it was a “movie book” rather than a “how-to-write” book.

It blew me away — I realized that screenwriters knew a lot of things that authors didn’t. I saw that there was a science, a craft, to cinematic drama that was totally missing in written fiction. Novelists often see literature as an art to be approached viscerally, and while I have respect for this point of view, I knew that Blake Snyder and the screenwriters were on to something.

I used Blake Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” (a list of essential plot points found in any successful movie) to outline the novel I wrote for my first Nanowrimo attempt. I wrote a 77,000-word novel in 35 days and was hooked.

Blake Snyder, genius.

I would have met Blake at the Write on the Sound conference this October. I had dreams of interviewing him for this blog. Now, the staff and volunteers there are scrambling for a new keynote speaker, and the rest of us are just deeply, profoundly bummed.

Earlier this year, Blake created a Youtube profile and started to upload some wisdom. I’ll let him finish this post for me.

The Mystery Box

April 29, 2009

This is about one of my favorite keys for building suspense. It’s simple and applicable to any fiction — not just thrillers or mysteries — so go ahead and spice up your romance novel with it (I use it constantly in the science fiction novel I’m writing now).

I learned it, originally, from reading Dan Brown (don’t pooh-pooh Dan Brown just because he’s popular. His structure is brilliant). Go ahead and read any Dan Brown prologue. They’re all the same.

1. Somebody (usually the point-of-view character) bites the dust.
2. The reader is presented with a dazzling lack of information.

For example, in the opening paragraph of the prologue of Deception Point (my favorite Brown) we read:


“… and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.”

Okay, that’s like smacking the reader with an axe handle, and it takes a stinking dump on point-of-view, but notice what we know and what we don’t know. We know the character, arctic geologist Charles Brophy, is about to die. But we don’t know how. That word unnatural is troubling and suggestive. So we turn the page.

And that’s all we need to do.

On the next page, soldiers emerge from a landing helicopter and force Brophy at gunpoint to transmit an emergency message on his radio.

The first man handed him a note card with a few lines typed on it. “Transmit this message. Now.”
Brophy looked at the card. “I don’t understand. This information is incorrect. I didn’t–”
The man pressed his rifle hard against the geologist’s temple.
Brophy’s voice was shaking as he transmitted the bizarre message.

A few lines later, the soldiers take Brophy 4000 feet up in the helicopter and toss him out, “tumbling toward the chasms below.”

Prologue over. 500 words, tops. What don’t we know?

We don’t know who the soldiers were.
We don’t know what the message was.
We don’t know who the message was for.
We don’t know why Brophy was killed.

And it’s the lack of knowledge, the questions, that draw us to start Chapter One. Brown keeps it up, answering some questions… and always asking more, until — holy crap — we’ve read 140,000 words.

Let’s shift gears:

Ever watch Lost? If you haven’t, the first season is worth renting on DVD, just to see Brown’s technique done cinematically. The producer, J.J. Abrams, made sure to withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. It worked. Fans would watch episode after episode just hoping to find out what the monster is, or who the Others are, or what those darn numbers mean.

This works independently of character development. If you can also have characters your reader cares about, you amplify the obsession your readers will feel for your book exponentially.

I was feeding all this into the writing hopper in my skull when I stumbled across a TED talk by J.J. Abrams that laid out his thinking on the tactics of suspense (along with the evolution of special effects and other topics). He uses a metaphor — the Mystery Box — to make his point.

This is that TED talk.

— Steve

“Save the cat” scene in “Hang ‘Em High”

April 11, 2009

“Liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Blake Snyder is a screenwriter, not a novelist. But it turns out that screenwriters have learned a lot more about what makes a good movie — that lots of people want to see — than novelists have learned about what makes a good novel.

Hang Em High

The science of screenwriting is more advanced than the science of novel writing. We novelists have some catching up to do.

(If you’re planning to write a novel that no one wants to read, go ahead, suffer for your art. Meanwhile, Blake Snyder is keynoting Write on the Sound this year, a Northwest convention of primarily novelists.)

Blake coined the term save the cat scene. It’s easy, it’s quick, and connects the reader to your character, so the reader is willing to go along for the ride. “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”

Here’s a no-nonsense example I found. It’s in the first few seconds of the 1968 Clint Eastwood movie Hang ’em High (screenplay by Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg). In the movie, Clint (big shock) hunts down and blows away the dudes who wronged him. It’s a revenge movie — not an easy sell, unless we see some reason to believe that his character, Jed Cooper, is actually a good guy underneath it all, worth rooting for.

Here is that scene —