Attempting to “Save the Cat” Part 1: Some Thoughts on Blake Snyder’s Screenwriting Bible

I once heard the title, Save the Cat!, bandied about at a writing symposium, and once or twice in various writing groups on Facebook. I had never given screenwriting much thought, but the general wisdom said this book transcended movies and had a lot to teach writers about commercial fiction. It slipped my mind until I got some feedback about a problem with pacing in No Rest for the Wicked. The editor recommended I read Blake Snyder’s book to help me iron out the problems.

Intrigued, this time I picked it up immediately. And I didn’t put it down until I’d read it cover to cover.

What Does “Commercial Fiction” Mean?

There are LOTS of genres. Some of them correspond to age groups, some of them correspond to themes, and some of the correspond to the amount of violence and sex involved. The term “commercial fiction” isn’t so much a genre as it is an umbrella term that covers popular reading material. Even though scholars rarely give speculative fiction and romance writers enough credit. They aren’t creating “literary” fiction, so the academics aren’t interested even though some of the most innovative and imaginative stories come from these traditions.

During a meet and greet with Steampunk author Gail Carriger during Steampunk World’s Fair this year, she spoke for a while about this term. She proudly wears the moniker of “commercial fiction writer” because to her, this simply means her goal is to write things that the general public want to read. And this is a very worthy goal.

So, I put aside any fear that I might be “selling out” somehow, and decided to open myself up to Snyder’s advice.

Formulaic? Or a “Recipe for Success?”

It’s a fact: humans love stories. Sharing information and tales of our day out on the hunt or gathering the food to get through the dry season meant survival in our early history. And we are still captivating by a good story today.

But just because we love stories, doesn’t mean we will love all stories equally. As anyone who has ever botched the punchline of a joke will confirm, it’s all about how you tell it. There are so many elements of timing, repetition, building tension, delivering on promises, and any number of other tools in a writer’s toolbox that can make or break a book.

And as unpoetic as it is to say, if people don’t like one book you write, why would they decide to try the next one? They don’t even need to be able to say why they didn’t like your book. That’s not the burden of the reader; that’s something only the author can tease out.

I am sure for many, Snyder’s approach seems far too cookie cutter. He tells you, sometimes down to the page, when certain beats and reversals should occur. It’s important to remember though that he isn’t saying that you can’t write a story that follows a different path, only that this sort of pattern and trajectory has proven itself to grip readers and leave them wanting more at the end of the day.

Super Structure

One of the most astonishing things to me about comparing my outline of my piece to Snyder’s recommendations is how often what I had already written aligned with what he said. This seemed to strengthen the idea that there was something innately motivating about the structure I was naturally following. And the places where my betas and potential editors had found problems were ALWAYS the places where things didn’t match up.

Looking over the recommended structure also showed me that No Rest for the Wicked as a novella wasn’t really the complete story I thought it was. When I started to toy with the idea of making it a novel instead, I found that things fell neatly into place. The order of my chapters didn’t change, but I did find places where I needed to expand on the action in order to deliver a big enough pay off to leave the reader satisfied.

What’s Next?

No that I have finished this latest iteration of No Rest for the Wicked, I started work on the next Mistress of None book. I haven’t decided on a title yet, but the pre-writing is being aided in no small part by Mr. Snyder’s sound advice.

I decided to write a series of posts about my experience using his methods from the start of a project, and hopefully help other people escape any of the hidden traps I come upon. So, check back soon for more on my writing journey using Save the Cat! as my guide.

Don’t Just Settle for “Said”

Luckily for authors, there are many different conventions for writing dialog. Unluckily for many readers, a lot of authors don’t take advantage of the whole spectrum! This can lead to repetition, which can turn into distracted or bored readers who start skipping these lines that you have painstakingly written.

We’ve all slogged through things like this before:

“I don’t want to go to the picnic,” her husband said, petulantly.
“It’ll be at the lake,” she said.
He brightened suddenly and said, “I guess I will get to do some fishing after all!”

As you can see, even though I added an adverb (petulantly) to the first instance and changed the structure in the last sentence, it is still reading as redundant and boring.

Alternatives

So what’s a writer to do? The simplest solution is to just substitute a synonym for “said” some of the of the time. Note I said some of the time. Like any approach, it can be overdone, so don’t run off and start find/replacing all of your ‘saids’ right away. (For best dialog, you’ll probably end up deleting at least half of them anyway and replacing them with action tags, but let’s focus on using alternative dialog words for now.)

The English language is incredibly rich, and there are tons of different ways to express feeling, volume, and intent through a variety of words devoted to speech. Let’s try that little exchange between husband and wife again with some synonyms, shall we?

“I don’t want to go to the picnic,” her husband groused.
“It’ll be at the lake,” she reminded him.
He suddenly brightened, exclaiming, “I guess I’ll get some fishing done after all!”

Now isn’t that a WHOLE lot more interesting?

Synonyms for Said

5599beb16842f92c6f5794655098f74eHere is a list that I have created for my own reference, but I’d love to hear more suggestions in the comments if you have any! There is wiggle room here, of course, because a person could groan loudly if you want them to, but I thought some type of division would be helpful.

Loud– shouted, exclaimed, bellowed, screeched, blustered, hollered, wailed, barked, yelped, howled, cried, shrieked, cheered, roared, trumpeted, squawked, yowled, railed, spouted, hooted, ranted, spewed

  • Example 1: “I’m innocent!” he bellowed
  • Example 2: He bellowed, “I’m innocent!”

Quiet– mumbled, murmured, whispered, squeaked, growled, groaned, moaned, whimpered, wheezed, panted, hissed, grunted

  • Example 1: “I didn’t think we would make it,” she wheezed.

Emphatic, but not necessarily raising one’s voice– groused, grumped, sulked, pronounced, demanded, whined, blurted, declared, clucked, fussed, trilled, yammered, snarled, complained, scolded, protested, fussed, fumed, snapped, spewed, spat

  • Example 1: “Those canapes are for the guests, Margaret,” my mother scolded. “Leave them alone.”
  • Example 2: “But there are so many!” I complained. “They won’t eat them all.”

You may have noticed I did not include any of what I call processional dialog tags, such as began, continued, replied, etc. I will devote another post to these in the future, because they require different punctuation and considerations. I also didn’t include any action tags for the same reason. So come back soon for more examples of dialog soon!

Are There Any NEW Ideas?

In this day and age of the “next big reboot” and the never-ending string of sequels, I found myself wondering if there was anything new under the sun. According to the panelists at the Writer’s Symposium at GenCon 2016, the answer is a resounding “NO.”

Not what you were expecting? Me neither.

The general consensus was that no matter what creators do, their work will resonate with something that came before simply because so very much has come before. The trick, then, is not to struggle to come up with something truly unique, but to find ways to give the impression of newness to your readers. Writers should use the filter of their own experiences to add depth and idiosyncrasies to their stories and characters. The newness is in the details that a good writer can bring to the same-old, same-old.

Remember, ideas are not the same as plots.

You could give 100 writers the same idea as a starting point and you would still get 100 different stories. You could even give 100 writers the same first chapter and set of characters and there would be a huge variety of tales to be spun. I’ve talked to a few writers who have gotten discouraged because they read a blurb in a bookstore and think “Oh no! That is the book that I’m writing!” But there is no way that other person’s imagination would put the same characters in the same string of situations and resolutions. Our imaginations are just too big for that.

They say the devil is in the details, and so is your own unique voice. Sure, people talk about “voice” when it comes to word choices or the particular flare of characters or prose, but the author’s true voice is in the answers to her own questions. Writing a novel is like having a long string of decisions to make, and each writer is going to make different decisions that then ricochet off and create another set of decisions and so on. Asking yourself “what’s the next question I need to answer?” gets you to those details that makes your world and your work unique.

Everything Old is New Again

The more traditional notion of voice applies as well. If you can take an old trope and tell it from a different point of view, put it in a different setting which in turn alters the language, add or subtract descriptions to change the ambiance or some other alteration of the tone, these will also aid the feeling of newness. Coming up with something unique doesn’t mean you can’t write what you love, it just means you need to find a way to make what you love YOURS.

Some people might find the idea that there truly is nothing “new” under the sun discouraging, but personally, I find it liberating. If I don’t have to spend the energy worrying that my story ideas aren’t totally unique, it frees my mind to concentrate instead on making all of those tiny decisions that will make my work special. No one can tell your stories better than you because they are YOUR stories. Own it.

Seeing Rejection From The Other Side

This post about the Collaborative Writing Challenge originally ran on For Whom The Gear Turns in 2016. But with several weeks of the project behind me, this still rings true!

For Whom the Gear Turns

rejection-meme-2

Hiya Gearheads!

The CWC’s Steampunk collaboration, Army of Brass, is underway and I got to make my first selection this week. Five writers sent me five very different chapters, and I had a blast reading them all. But then, the moment of truth. I could only choose one, and then I had to write rejection letters to the other authors and it has really made me think a lot about this notion of “rejection.”

My only parameter as the coordinator is to “choose the chapter that moves the story along the best,” but best is one of the most subjective words in the English language! In our case, being grammatically perfect definitely isn’t our focus, and every chapter that is chosen goes through a round of editing before it moves on, but I also know that as a student of the English language I will have to make a conscious effort…

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Dressing Up Description: Harness the Power of “Loud”

I had a hard time finding an image to go along with this post because obviously “loud” is something experienced through our ears. So how can you get your readers to “hear” loud using only the written word?

One answer is to focus on how loudness makes people feel in different situations. Any migraine sufferer can tell you that something doesn’t need to be loud to feel that way to a person. For instance, if your characters are having a contemplative moment of silence, any sort of disturbance is going to feel loud, even if it is a happy sound like laughter. If people are startled by a noise they may curse, stand, spill a drink, or make some other sudden and disruptive sound or movement.

On the other hand, if you’ve got people in the middle of a death metal concert, loudness would be an important part of the experience. The thud of the base in your chest and the feeling of being totally absorbed in the sound could feel liberating, or to the uninitiated it could add to a feeling of claustrophobia. Loud kids are usually happy kids, but a dog that is making a lot of noise is probably pretty agitated. If a person is both happy and loud, they could be described as ebullient, but a loud and angry crying jag is called keaning. It’s all about the feelings.

Alternatives

Sometimes, you just need a good synonym or simile and varying your word choices will help to keep the interest of both yourself and your readers.

Loud adjectives: thunderous, cacophonous, sonorous, vociferous, clamorous, blaring, deafening, piercing, ear-piercing/ear-shattering/earth-shattering, powerful, forceful, lusty, forte, insistent, vehement, emphatic, urgent, noisy

Loud nouns: clang, ping, thwack, whack, slap, whoosh, boom, beep, blast, explosion, wail, cacophony, clamor, clangor, clatter, clash, crash, crunch, hoot, peal, racket, roar, snap, thunk, honk, din

Combine anything from list one and list two, and you’ve got a pretty exciting way of saying “loud”! Thunderous boom, forceful clang, urgent wail, the list goes one!

And sometimes you want to show that a character is speaking at a high volume without ever using the word loud. I’ve got an even longer list of synonyms in this post, but here are a few I came up with to show someone is making a lot of sound while speaking with resorting to “she said loudly.”

Synonyms for speaking/emoting loudly: cry, crow, shout, call, scream, whoop, guffaw, howl, screech, wail, erupt, explode, shriek

A great way to loosen the old gray matter up if you are having trouble deciding how to express “loudness” while you are writing is to do a little brainstorming. Take a few minutes and see how many different loud things you can think of, or use the list below to get your mind moving.

  • Basically all trucks (tow truck, garbage truck, fire truck, etc) and farm equipment
  • Stereos, speakers, feedback from instruments or a microphone
  • Waves crashing, something hitting water from a great height
  • Barking/howling dogs, mewling cats, hungry guinea pigs
  • Air passing by your ears during free fall
  • Large engines like airplanes or trains
  • Children playing/children crying
  • Sirens, car horns, and school bells
  • Heavy things hitting each other
  • Structures or trees falling
  • Hand guns and other weapons
  • A death rattle
  • Power tools
  • Fire
  • And don’t forget, the silence of absence can also feel loud if you are used to the happy sounds of a full house

Looking for more ways to Dress up Description? Check out my post about the color red.

 

 

 

Motivation Can Take Many Forms… Like a Gallery of Memes!

I first published this gallery over at the blog for my pen-persona, For Whom The Gear Turns, but this seems like a perfect place to share them as well. Different writers needs different sorts of encouragement; some people thrive on positivity, while others needs more of a kick in the rear. Hopefully you’ll find something here that speaks to you!

Dressing up Description: Harness the Power of ‘Red’

color-meanings-symbolism-chart-red

Personally, I absolutely LOVE to write long descriptions of places and events, but I know that for many this can be a slog. It’s difficult to translate what you see in your mind into words on the page, not to mention writers are expected to do so in an interesting way that engages and informs the audience to boot! And even if you feel like description comes naturally to you, it is easy to fall into the trap of cliches and redundancy if you don’t watch out.

Take the color red, for instance. There are tons of red things in this world, but by far the most common thing that is referenced in descriptions is blood. I am sure you have come upon this before while reading, and I read enough fiction that it has become a pet peeve of mine. On the one hand, it is totally understandable that we would feel moved by this particular simile because of the importance of blood to the functioning of our bodies and its automatic visceral response. On the other hand, been there, done that.

Alternatives

I gave myself a few minutes to brainstorm, and I came up with a list of things that are red that aren’t blood. These sorts of little bursts of brainstorming can be really helpful to keep you in a writerly mindset even if you don’t have a chance to sit down and write anything with a story.

Feel free to use any of these in your own writing, your readers will thank you!

  • raspberries, apples, tomatoes, strawberries, cherries, currants, grapes
  • merlot, cabernet, burgundy, port, sangria and any other variety of red wine
  • cardinals, a robin’s breast, a rooster’s comb
  • taillights, police lights, and Christmas lights
  • lipstick, rouge, and fingernail polish
  • roses, geraniums, tulips, poppies
  • stop signs and stop lights
  • clown’s noses and shoes
  • rubies, garnets, and agate
  • lady bugs and ants
  • fire trucks
  • sunburn
  • bricks
  • clay

If you feel like having a little adventure, take a trip to a big hardware store and look at the paint chips. The folks who name paint colors have a hard job, and they have a lot of creative solutions.

Unwilling to leave the couch? No problem! There are also some wonderful charts online to help you pick the exact shade of red and how to express it. I like this one, but there are a lot of others out there with more of the spectrum from pink to purple represented.

color-thesaurus-correct-names-red-shades

Examples

Here are a couple of idioms that have become cliches, and alternate ways to express the same idea using synonyms and similes.

‘Going red in the face’
She did not smile at his joke, but he could tell by the ruby burst on her cheeks that she had heard it.

‘Seeing red’
His anger boiled to the surface and flashed bright and unexpected like taillights on an empty highway.

‘Red-head’
 I couldn’t help but stare at the woman who entered the room. Her hair, a cascade of mahogany shot through with a garnet sheen, flowed over her narrow shoulders and nearly to the floor.

Just for Fun

In the comments or on your own, pick something that is red and describe it without ever using the word. See how many different ways you can find, even if it gets a little complicated or goofy. This is just about stretching yourself as a writer, so take chances!