Tag Archives: three-act structure

‘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

Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure by Xandria Horton

I agreed to take on this blog post with some trepidation. Why? Because, in my opinion, script structure is a hot potato of “How to…” blogging. It’s like religion; those who subscribe to a system will doggedly defend their beliefs, and “structure atheists” who insist that there is no structure in their stories won’t be tempted either.

Not only that, but structure is my personal nemesis. Of all the storytelling elements, it’s the one that can lurk under still waters of pithy dialogue, good characterisation and entertaining story in a script. It is often the problem when I delve into something that “isn’t quite working properly”. It’s the one that many writers find the least instinctive when working on their stories, and it’s taken me years of reading to get a handle on it. I feel like it’s time to settle the score on script structure.

There are many ways to skin (and Save) The Cat

Go to Google Image Search and type in “screenplay structure”; the various structure diagrams can look like something from a Dan Brown novel. This can give the impression that schools of thought on structure are vastly different. However, this simple but brilliant diagram by JT Velikovsky (himself the creator of StoryAlity, the result of his doctoral thesis into screenwriting) breaks down the terminology and templates used by different schools of thought on screenplay structure.

storyality - screenplay syntagms

It’s interesting, laid out visually, to see as many similarities as well as the differences. So are they worth reading if they’re all saying something similar? Absolutely.

Story gurus, or indeed any take on screenplay structure, show a ‘way in’ to storytelling. Although different gurus will have different emphases on certain aspects of story, or may have a different writing style, the more you read the more attuned you’ll be to how stories are crafted.

Making structure work for you

Another worry that newer writers have about structure is that it limits creativity. This needn’t be the case. Scott Myer’s brilliant blog Go Into The Story uses the pithy slogan “tools, not rules” to approach story structure – and I second that as a way of learning to love structure.

Structure helps provide both logic to the storytelling, and emotion in presenting events in a meaningful context. The key is that the structure must work to the premise / idea you want to tell, rather than letting the structure dictate the story.

Here are some ways in which films have made the structure work for their particular story:

Work your structure around your concept: Annie Hall and the Usual Suspects are structured by a character remembering events, meaning that relevant parts of story can be told out of order to intrigue – but not confuse – the audience. Four Weddings and a Funeral structures its story around the events of five ceremonies. Memento tells a story about memory in reverse segments from end to beginning, consistently undermining what we know of the characters with each reveal of what’s come before.

Moving the elements around: Brad Johnson’s article in ScriptMag magazine brilliantly illustrates this point, using two films that fit the necessary story moments in Act I, but execute them in very different ways. Back To The Future’s first act involves a lengthy set-up of Marty’s home, school and love life that exceeds the usual ‘rule’ of an early inciting incident (usually around page 10). However, when the Inciting Incident does come – the terrorists arrive to steal the plutonium from Marty and Doc Brown – both Marty and the story are ready within a couple of pages to make a quick leap to travel back in time and delve into Act II. The Hobbit, by contrast, has an early Inciting Incident – the dwarves and Gandalf arriving at Bilbo’s house – but a longer period of resistance (some critics say too long…) before Bilbo is ready to accept his journey. If you want to read more on this the article is here.

Is structure always to blame? Sometimes when something ‘feels wrong’ in a script, we think that the structure isn’t working in the story, when occasionally it can actually be structure’s way of showing you that there’s a better, cleverer way to deliver your story point. Whilst it’s still true that the structure should fit the story you want to tell in the majority of cases (see above), here’s a recent example of the reverse in practise:

A writer wanted to take a character on a long central journey, but wasn’t quite sure how to deliver the ending. After back and forth on some interesting ideas they’d come up with, we looked back at the structure of their first act, which was really strong, and how mirroring those beats in the final sequence would underline the character change. This helped the writer decide not only where they wanted the character to end up, but also to create a satisfying ending. Voila – an example of structure helping story!

Obviously this hasn’t even scratched the surface of structure in film and TV, so over the coming weeks Hayley, myself and other guest post writers will delve back into this and other topics for the Writer’s Toolbox series – articles you can use to improve your craft as a writer. Stay tuned…

But in the meantime, Joe William’s post gives some of the differences between writing for film and TV and touches on structure – check it out here.

Can You Teach Screenwriting?

 Guest Post by Anthony Povah

A few eyebrows were raised recently when Hanif Kureshi summed-up creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’ – especially given that he teaches one of them. Now, it’s not for me to argue with the revered novelist, but imagine if this attitude pervaded other professions:

“Yes, the brain tumour is perfectly operable… Dr. Smith will be performing the surgery. No… he didn’t go to medical school… thought it would constrict his creativity as a surgeon…”

class of uni studentsI know it’s a ludicrous example, but why would anyone serious about writing reject opportunities to learn? Now, I’m not suggesting everyone signs up for MAs in Creative Writing, and I get worried when I see courses called ’10 secrets to making it in Hollywood’. But to succeed, you need to be open-minded about creative writing courses and actively seek out opportunities to work with others.

There’s lots of options out there, so you should be able to find something that works for you. For me it’s short courses, and I recently completed a fantastic two-day workshop in Salford run by ex-Corrie storyliner Gill Creswell (www.storylining.co.uk).

Gill called day one “a Masters in a morning” and covered the fundamentals of story structure before sharing the framework TV execs use to deconstruct the three-act structure. To ‘bring it alive’, we then used it to analyse an episode of ITV drama ‘Mrs Biggs’.

In the afternoon, each participant was asked to pitch an idea for a short feature that we could develop as a group during day two. So, I pitched an existential drama set in a nursing home. I thought it was fantastic; the protagonist was an elderly lady struggling with the choice of carrying on living or taking her own life. Gill paused… gently demolished my idea with just three words – ‘who’s the antagonist?’ – and completed my lesson in structure.

We kicked off day two by voting for which idea to develop. Needless to say, mine wasn’t chosen – which was just as well as the one that won was excellent. We were then plunged into a day of group story development, building the feature scene-by-scene using the techniques learned on day one within a writers’ room environment.

Which brings me onto the most important thing I learned: if you want to succeed, you better learn to play nice with others. Regardless of medium, collaborative storylining is now the norm and in order to get produced, you’ll have to withstand the critical eye of other writers, producers and execs. So learn how they think and how to working collaboratively.

Luckily, there was a great mix of writers on my cohort: two published novelists, a playwright, a journalist, a screenwriter (myself) and a novice keen to learn about the writing process (indeed, we found that the techniques Gill taught apply equally to TV drama, soaps, features, novels or plays).

I had a fantastic two days. I love playing with other writers and more seriously, making contacts with people who can help develop my career. The atmosphere was fun and supportive; I got to work with some great people, learned a lot about structure and came away motivated to keep writing.

Writing can be a solitary pursuit, but becoming a successful writer – whatever your goals – isn’t. Checking out different techniques, sharing experiences and learning to work collaboratively is crucial to developing your career. So hunt out opportunities, then get out there and learn, share and grow.

About Anthony: Born in Liverpool, Anthony Povah has been an environmental campaigner, jewellery salesman, jazz musician and international arms dealer. He holds qualifications in economics, philosophy, management and the martial arts. This is all true. Anthony’s childhood love of writing was recently rekindled and he is currently looking for a studio to pick up his first TV drama series. He has completed several creative writing courses including ones led by Daragh Carville (Being Human, Smoke) and Gill Creswell (Coronation Street). Anthony is a client of Hayley McKenzie (Script Angel) and plans to complete a creative writing course run by the Open University later this year. He is married and lives in Lancashire.