Tag Archives: screenwriting books

‘Story’ Versus ‘Save the Cat’ – Screenwriting Book Review by Phil Lowe

I can’t claim to have read every book on screenwriting (I don’t suffer from procrastination quite that badly) but I’ve done my fair share, and these two hardy perennials are the books I return to most often when I’m stuck or needing a compass to navigate through a rewrite.

story vs save the cat screenwriting book reviewLike good scripts, they are a mix of the original and the familiar. Both, in their way, are shining examples of “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” “But which is better?” you can’t help asking. And I have to answer: it depends. They are both written by opinionated and provocative individuals, fiery pulpit preachers of The One True Way. Both are dealing, one way or another, with the Three Act Structure; each finds a very different way into it.

Story is the book which made me want to write fiction again after ten years in the world of business writing. A colleague lent it to me after a conversation about the design of team exercises. I read it and, like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, the scales fell from my eyes. I thought: “finally, after all these years, I get it – I see why I’ve never managed to plot effectively.”

It is a dense and thorough tome. Don’t enter without a distress flare and your eight favourite records. Lose yourself in it and you will emerge days later, dusty, bloody and gasping for air, your head ringing with phrases like “The Negation of the Negation” and “Extra-personal conflict”. Then, as the dust settles, you are left with simple, elegant ways of thinking about character and story construction – like the idea that story is driven by the gap between what a character expects to happen and what actually does happen. It’s a principle that applies not only to action, but dialogue as well (watch any episode of Eastenders to see how they make the dialogue crackle through each character giving the answer the other doesn’t expect).

Story is so thorough, though, it can put you off. Every time I look at those wheel diagrams of how to use minor characters to show the protagonist’s qualities, I find myself getting one of my headaches and I despair of ever being able to write anything vaguely well constructed. But if you go in with a “cherry picking” mindset, you can’t lose, so rich is it in nuggets.

So Story sounds like the complete package – surely the only book you’d need? Well…

At the beginning of a school holiday, my head teacher wife asked, in that casual way she does, “Are you busy over the next couple of weeks?” Five minutes later, I had “nomineered” to write an original school play for a cast of forty from scratch and have it ready to go at the beginning of the following term. This was no time for “The Negation of the Negation” – I reached instinctively for Save The Cat.

If McKee is the great academic of screenwriting theory, then Snyder is its ultimate pragmatist. Unashamedly populist where McKee is bombastic, his book eschews “Archplot” and “The spine of unconscious desire” for “The Pope In the Pool” and “Bad Guys Close In”. His adherence to box office takings as the ultimate measure of a film’s success will rile many (where McKee idolises Casablanca and Chinatown, here we kneel before Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality). But this is not a man who wants to be seen as deep and intellectual – we are talking, after all, of the writer of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Put your prejudices aside, and you will find his legendary “beat sheet” a lifesaver if you want to generate coherent plot quickly. He enables you to step back and see the arc of your story with stunning simplicity, where McKee can make your head spin. His material on creating titles and premises by looking for the irony in your idea is a great thought starter, and like McKee he reminds us that story is as much about character as plot – which is where the title phrase comes in (I won’t spoil it for you).

If you go back to McKee after Snyder, you will find not only more subtlety but a more inclusive approach. Snyder sits Memento atop his demonology (It doesn’t follow his beat sheet and it didn’t make money), where McKee would happily include it in his “Antiplot” category. For Snyder, it’s not worth writing if it doesn’t fit; for McKee, everything fits somewhere.

If you can’t face buying both, which should you buy? Tough question: you can’t pick up Story and use it straight out of the box in the same way as Save The Cat! – but on the flipside, Story has more richness. If I had to come off the fence (while still keeping one buttock on it), I’d say go for Story if you’re rewriting and want to give your work a thorough stress test; but if you’re staring at a blank page and want to get the juices flowing, Save The Cat will probably unstick you the fastest.

Before you regard either as a panacea, though, consider: ultimately, both authors remind us why screenwriting is so ballsaching: both, in their own way, acknowledge that while there is a formula we must follow, we must somehow follow it without being formulaic. Sadly, you will not find the answer to the latter quest in any screenwriting book.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist. He originally trained and worked as an actor and has a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com

Book Review: The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television

Guest blog by screenwriter Heather Wallace-Brown.

When I first decided to steal my thoughts from out of the ether to place them onto paper, upsetting the minimalistic look of my front room was the furthest thing from my mind. I’d heard people speaking about this screenwriting book and that screenwriting book, read of authors whose names appeared to be right up there with God and Shakespeare. It seemed as if to be a part of this screenwriters’ club I needed to get purchasing. I bought my first screenwriting book and read it like a novel. Before long, I’d heard of another book. And then another. Followed by…yet another. I didn’t care. I had to have them all. Soon my bookshelf was groaning from the sheer weight of all these screenwriting titles and I had little choice but to purchase another bookshelf. But just before I caught the tram out to IKEA, I opened up Amazon to purchase something quite unrelated to scriptwriting and up popped a book I hadn’t requested yet came in as recommended. (I ain’t runnin’ coz I just know you is gonna find me).

The Insider's Guide to Writing For TelevisionIt took less than thirty seconds to purchase, “The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television” by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker. I had no plans on writing for television but I had once spoken to Julian and he seemed like a nice enough bloke and not only that, this nifty little page turner turned out to be the best I’ve ever read on the subject.

Divided into two halves, Part One of the book is written by Julian Friedmann. Here, he not only explains how to write for television along with tipping you on how to transform yourself from naïve-greener to a hard-nosed negotiator, he also stresses the importance of research and networking, along with presentation and where to submit your work. Does one need an agent? You’re going to have to read the book to find out.

The second half of the book is by Christopher Walker. Here, you find yourself neck deep in a world of rich information as you discover the art in creating a story. He also offers tips on how to kidnap the audience’s attention, guides you on formatting and structuring, genres, writing good dialogue, giving birth to great characters and writing synopses and treatments. TV or Film, it really doesn’t matter the size of the screen you choose to write, as the information found in both sections of the book translates well for either.

This neat little book with its bright coloured cover proved a Holy Grail for me during the early hours of one Friday night/Saturday morning. I shall never forget how it helped me in negotiating an option for my script, as well as helping me to sound like a writer who had been in the business since the Great Flood. Believe me, if I can understand the legal jargon then anyone can.

And as for purchasing that extra bookshelf? I decided to throw out all the other screenwriting books instead.

Heather Wallace-Brown is a screenwriter who splits her day between being a student of psychotherapy and working on what she hopes will be her second option; a 3-part supernatural thriller for tv.

 

Essential Reading for Screenwriters – and then some more…

Also well worth a read:

Writing Television Drama by Nicholas Gibbs

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant

The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J Michael Straczynski

Essential Reading for Screenwriters:

Poetics by Aristotle

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Story by Robert McKee

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapeter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker

 

Essential Reading for Screenwriters

Here’s my recommendations:

Poetics by Aristotle

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Story by Robert McKee

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapeter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker

If you know of others that have really helped you, let us know by adding a comment.