A while back, I posted what was intended to be the first in a series of analyses of films using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.
I’ve put off doing more since. Among the reasons are the fact that the second film I tried to apply the formula to was Cowboys and Aliens, which I found difficult to classify at a crucial part, and Casino Royale, which I thought did some interesting things with its structure when I looked at it analytically. (I intend to analyse Casino Royale, but want to do a few more examples of the ‘classic’ style of beat sheet first.)
The next film I analyse will be a comedy – Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy.
When writing I felt like I was being a bit humourless looking at a comedy in this way, particularly one with a style so OTT. But the structure is still there, and is quite easy to spot, which I think proves that even bold, silly films like this need to have a decent structure to function as a story.
Spoilers for the last issue of Amazing Spiderman – #700.
The most recent issue of Amazing Spiderman, #700 was released on Boxing Day, and had caused controversy beforehand when the contents were leaked.
At the beginning of the current story arc, Doctor Octopus was close to dying from cancer. (Which I think is a good thing itself – I think it gives a sense of heft to a fantastical world.) This doesn’t stop him from being a menace to Spiderman, however, managing to switch bodies with Peter Parker, planning to steal his life.
Switching bodies is a relatively common trope in long-running sci-fi/fantasy/comics, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate SG1, Red Dwarf, The X-Files and four of the five Star Treks having used the idea.
As commonly happens with this type of story, the hero spends the majority of the story trying to get back to his own life, while the villain causes chaos in the hero’s life. But this time there was a very uncommon twist – Peter Parker fails to get back into his body, and dies in Doc Ock’s body.
You may be aware of the Bechdel test. If you’re not, it’s a pretty straight forward idea – it’s a form of criticism, primarily of movies but which can be applied to any other form of fiction. To pass the test, the story must
Include at least two women,
Who have at least one conversation,
About something other than a man or men.
The Bechdel Test isn’t an in depth test of how feminist or misogynist a piece of fiction is. But it’s a simple way to measure if female characters are seen, and have their own problems and personalities, rather than just being defined through their relationships to the male characters.
I bring this up, as I’ve recently come across two similar tests.
This is intended to serve as my introduction to the Insecure Writers’ Support Group – a group ran by Alex J. Cavanaugh over on Blogspot, to give other writers and would-be writers the support we need to get past our debilitating and often idiotic insecurities.
I’ve written a few times in the past few weeks about my often irrational insecurities, so it’s something that definitely makes sense to me.
I’ve wanted to write fiction as long as I can remember, and even started writing a few scifi epics when I was a kid. Even back then, I don’t think I was great at keeping my focus all the way to the end. Though it may be because back then my plans had the habit of expanding much faster than I could write – as a writer’s hint, the other way round works better.
Somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten into the habit of beating myself up when the quality of my writing doesn’t meet the standards I want.
The characters don’t ring true. I’ve not set the scene properly. The plot doesn’t make sense.
While all of these are valid problems that need to be fixed (or compensated for with other strengths) for a long time I’ve allowed them to paralyse me. For instance, I’ve had an idea for a series of space opera short stories that I keep abandoning, and a sitcom pilot script that I’ve returned to again and again but never finished.
I’ve written a few short things of course. There’s a couple of thousand-ish word short stories here on my blog (under Read My Fiction); flash fiction; and short things for various competitions. There’s even been a couple of times I’ve started to write a novel chapter by chapter. My hope was that, by not being weighed down by the theoretical potential of the stories I’ve invested a lot of time and emotional effort into, I’d feel freer to write what came to mind.
Unfortunately, this idea didn’t really work out.
I’m much better at plotting than I am at actually writing, using formats like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet and the like, and a piece of software called Anthemion Storylines to plot out a fairly detailed story structure. (If you’ve ever seen stories plotted using a series of post-it notes, or little pieces of paper attached to string, that’s basically what Storylines is. But it has the added benefit that the notes don’t fall off the wall.)
I’d even been using a character building idea to put together a detailed picture of each of my main characters.
So by November, I had a detailed story arc to follow, and I knew a lot about my characters, ready to use NaNoWriMo to get this thing finished.
Though the plan was in place, I actually waited until November 4th before starting. Because, as I’ve detailed above, I’m an idiot.
But, I got underway, finding the time to write, sometimes as much as 3,000 words in a single sitting. For those with more consistent writing habits that may not seem like a big deal, but to me it is.
I got close to the end of the first draft, over 20,000 words, after three weeks, but left it another week before going back to finish it off. That instinct inside of me, that says all my cool ideas should be left alone in case I ruin them, just wasn’t giving up.
But, at the weekend, I returned, adding the few more details needed to the end. I then went through, rewriting what I’d done, and finding myself pleasantly surprised at the quality of what I’d written.
I now have a 28,000 word short-story, and I think it’s pretty decent. There’s a central mystery-action story, character conflicts, betrayal and deceit, enemies being forced to work together, moral dilemmas, a dramatic confrontation at the end.
I don’t want to get big-headed, but I think this story’s pretty decent.
It’s something that infringes on a number of copyrights, so it won’t be publishable, but it’s good to at least have written a coherent story from start to finish.
However, I actually think that this may be the longest piece of fiction I’ve written from start to finish for over a decade, so I’m pretty chuffed about that.
Once I find the time, I’m pretty upbeat about the next story.
PS To anyone from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group who’s found their way here – I may be away from my desk for a large part of Wednesday. Apologies if I don’t get round to reading many other posts on the day, but I promise I’ll read and comment on the blogs of anyone who posts here!
Blake Snyder wrote an influential plotting guide, Save The Cat, which contains his famous Beat Sheet.
Tim Stout, himself a writer of a how-to guide on writing graphic novels, has put a condensed version of the Beat Sheet up on his blog, and I’m going to quote the whole thing:
Amongst the ways you can divide fiction writers are the division between those who like to plan their stories out beforehand, and those who like to make things up as they go along.
George RR Martin, the writer of the Song of Ice and Fire books which have recently been turned into the excellent Game of Thrones television series, describes this division as being between Architects and Gardeners.
The Architect plans things out in detail before starting, while the Gardener enjoys waiting to see what things look like, then decide where things will go.
It’s easy to see Architect writing style as stiff and uncreative. I’ve read writers who’d probably describe themselves as Gardeners who say that a lot of the fun of writing is seeing where the story will take them.
But when I try to write in this style, I either regret the choices I take with the story, or end up spending ages setting up a relationship or describing the working environment, or introducing the hero and villain, with no solid idea of what they’ll come into conflict over.
I’d definitely describe myself as an Architect.
As a result, I’m fascinated by story structure. I’m sure there’ll be people who see structure as the death of creativity. I’m pretty confident there’ll be some big name screenwriters of the 70s and 80s who see the arguments put forward by Robert McKee and similar prescriptivists as being responsible for the lack of creativity in modern blockbusters. (The truth is, of course, that it’s entirely Michael Bay’s fault.)
The best way I know of to achieve this is a term I’ve only heard of in the last year, ‘breaking the story’.
In essence, you start with the story that you want to tell. That could be a story from your own childhood, something in the news that struck you as fascinating, or just a bunch of characters you want to play around with.
You then ‘break the story’ to get across the things you want to say, the jokes you want to tell, in the best possible way. Story structures, if they work, are rough rules for when things should happen.
I’ll start with a really basic story structure, which you’re probably already aware of – the three-act structure.
In basic terms, the first act is where characters are introduced and a conflict arises. In the second act, things get worse and tensions rise, and the third act is where the finale and ending occur.
That probably sounds really obvious – if you’ve ever seen a film, read a book, or told a joke, you basically know all that. But I just used a basic example to demonstrate that structure and creativity aren’t necessarily opposed.
Anyway, the point of all this, is that one thing I intend to do more of soon is to reverse engineer existing stories, look at how others have approached the idea of structure.
I’ll look at Blake Snyder’s 15-part Beat Sheet & Dan Harmon’s Circles soon, and others not long after.
I’ve done a little of this before (though not on the blog) and I find it both interesting and useful to look at how other writers have structured their stories. So if anyone else reading this wants to join in and link to their own reverse-engineered story plans I’d be interested to take a look.