I’ve spent the past couple of weeks diving into several of the “how to write” books, podcasts, and tutorials I’ve picked up and/or bookmarked over the past year. I read Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and referenced Deborah Chester’s The Fantasy Fiction Formula for a novel I’m working on. I finished Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and read a few chapters of Stephen King’s Dance Macabre (I’ve read King’s On Writing multiple times). I started reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and despite its tagline (“the last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need”), I just ordered its two sequels.
I often compare writing to computers. To some people computers are simply magical boxes, but after you’ve worked on them for a while (and especially after you’ve assembled your first one), you quit seeing computers as a single unit and more as the collection of parts they really are. An empty computer case is little more than a paperweight, but once you’ve mounted a motherboard, added a processor and some RAM, connected a hard drive and run power to everything, you truly get a feel for how a computer works — how the components work together, and why each one is important.
And so it goes with writing, be it a novel or a screenplay. I’ve spent the past two years looking at stories, tearing them apart, and studying the pieces. One of the things we touched on again this week is the Hero’s Journey, a series of steps (or beats) that people have been using to tell stories for literally thousands of years. By studying centuries of stories, Joseph Campbell (in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces) gave each of those steps a name:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- The Road Back
- Resurrection Hero
- Return with Elixir
And while some of the titles for each part may sound a little dated, it’s not difficult to take a movie like Star Wars, or The Wizard of Oz, or The Matrix and just go down the list and check each one off. Cross the threshold, Neo, and pick one of these pills.
Additionally, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book proposes that there are, in fact, only ten different movie genres:
- MONSTER IN THE HOUSE: (Jurassic Park, the Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th )
- THE GOLDEN FLEECE: (Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Finding Nemo, Saving Private Ryan)
- OUT OF THE BOTTLE: (Bruce Almighty, The Mask, Groundhog Day, Aladdin)
- DUDE WITH A PROBLEM: (Die Hard, The Hunger Games, Titanic, The Terminator, Bourne Identity)
- RITES OF PASSAGE: (Bridesmaids, Trainspotting, 28 Days, When a Man Loves a Woman)
- BUDDY LOVE: (Starsky and Hutch, Pretty Woman, Mr & Mrs Smith, Finding Nemo, Thelma & Louise)
- WHYDUNIT: (Citizen Kane, Chinatown, Despicable Me, JFK, Mystic River)
- THE FOOL TRIUMPHANT: (Elf, Forrest Gump, Amadeus, The King’s Speech, The Pink Panther)
- INSTITUTIONALIZED: (Full Metal Jacket, Nine to Five, Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
- SUPERHERO: (Harry Potter, The Matrix, Gladiator, X-Men, Spider-Man, Frankenstein)
Since Snyder published his original list, JD Scruggs added five subgenres for each genre.
If you’re wondering if this overload of knowledge makes it more difficult to enjoy books and movies, the answer is… “kind of”. Today I read a book or watch a movie, I can’t help but peek under the hood and look for the parts. When will the protagonist accept the call and cross the threshold? What will be the major setback that occurs right before Act III begins? While the right side of my brain may be enjoying the narrative story that’s being told, the left, analytical side is always looking at the underlying structure.