The Flowers of Failure

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaac-cat-slicePart Two

A Practical Approach

Segment 13:

A Blueprint:

A big part of me doesn’t want to include this segment. The most valuable parts of this essay are any parts BUT this part, yet I know this is the part of the essay likely to be the most scrutinized—no matter what I do. This is owed to the fact that I am throwing up a significant challenge to the Snyderian Beat Sheet.

I hope it will be understood that the most significant thing I am challenging is the relevance of “Beat Sheets” in general. I do think my ideas on blueprints are clearer than his, but I also feel that’s a little like saying mud is clearer than dirt. In the end I will argue that “Beat Sheets” [as an idea] are severely limited. Use them when you first start out, but abandon them as soon as you get a rough idea of your completed story. I believe “Beat Sheets” should be relegated to the brainstorming and first draft section of the creative process. Beyond that, they are usually more harmful than helpful. (98)

With that ringing endorsement taken care of, we can now talk about:

Your Story’s Skeleton – Three Acts?

I often use the three act terminology myself because it is useful as a tool in talking about screenplays. I italicize the most important words in that last sentence because I am trying to draw attention to the fact that the “Three Act” terminology isn’t useful for writing screenplays, it’s only useful for discussing them.

If you write your script determined to have three acts then, with complete certainty, I can tell you two facts about your script:

1. There is some sort of readily apparent reversal in the protagonist’s fortunes around pages 25-30.
2. There is another readily apparent reversal in the protagonist’s fortunes around pages 85-90.

This is the sum of what it means to write a screenplay according to the idea that the script should have three acts. (99)

Now, if you were to tell me that you had written your script according to Mr. Snyder’s suggestions, (100) I could also tell you a string of [15] things about the page numbers in your script. Like, for instance, there will be a “whiff of death” on page 75. As I’ve mentioned in the footnotes several times already, I learned a lot from Mr. Snyder’s books, but the idea that there has to be a “whiff of death” on page 75 of every good screenplay that ever gets written is… absolutely ridiculous.

What I think Mr. Snyder [and the rest] are getting at when they come up with these page numbers on which certain things have to happen in order for a script to be good is the much, much, finer fact that we already talked about in part one:

The graph of any good story has peaks and valleys.

The glorified name of these peaks and valleys is: Reversals. (101) Every good story has to have a minimum number of these. They are what keep an audience member on the edge of her seat. Mr. Snyder is right to elevate them to such high status because they are what keeps a story going. But, has anyone ever really looked at the calculus the providers of “beat sheets” use to justify their formula. I’ll give you a minute to think about that one…

They look at successful movies that adhere to their formula. And the successful movies that don’t adhere to their formula? They are either ignored or, they don’t count. If I may be bold enough to criticize these formula guru’s on philosophical grounds, they are trying to justify their methods by grossly misusing inductive reasoning.

In order to show something with as wide a berth as “the best way to write a good screenplay” was contained within the formula a specific guru might provide, you would need to run a thousand movies [that vast ranges of people thought were good] against the formula. A truly monumental undertaking. If the formula panned out 900 times or so, I’d be willing to grant there was a great deal of certainty that the guru had stumbled onto something—quite by accident.

Instead we get 5 or 10 movies that fit the formula? (102)

Or, do we?

If I remember my guru’s correctly I think we get 5 or 10 movies that fit the formula in a piecemeal way. Movie X has formula piece Y on page K. Movie Z has formula piece L on page R, and so on. I hate to be the one to point it out, but this means any formula justified in this piecemeal way is [from the rules of inductive logic] very weak. And weak, inductive arguments are not that likely to be true. The guru’s, Mr. Snyder included, have spent a lot of time, money, and marketing on something which isn’t that likely to be true. Useful, yes [for brainstorming]. True… not a chance.

If you get the sense that I’m being hard on Mr. Snyder [and he can stand in for all the rest of the script template gurus], you are right. SAVE THE CAT! makes an implicit promise that its 15 beats tell you something serious and legitimate about Story Structure. Writers who buy Mr. Snyder’s books end up talking a great deal about these beats. You’ll find an active discussion of one of these beats on almost any screenwriting forum whenever you chance to look. This is a sad state of affairs because [as is the case with this essay], the template section of Cat is the least useful section in the entire book. As an example: I [a person who has spent way too much time on screenwriting websites] have personally seen and participated in dozens of discussions of individual instances of My Snyder’s beats; I have yet to see or participate in a single discussion of his Six Things That Need Fixing rule. In my opinion, that one rule is more useful to setting up a successful script than half of the beats combined.

We are left with a world in which all of the good tips that fill up The Cat books (103) have been excised in favor of the eminence of the beats. Unfortunately for us writers, these beats were never satisfactorily shown to be true in the first place [and are just so much arbitrary nonsense in the second place].

I think I have done an adequate job in this segment of addressing why I believe The Gurus piecemeal approach to illustrating their templates is, necessarily, flawed. I am satisfied enough with my argumentation to move on to the more important question:

Why does every screenwriting template feel [mostly] arbitrary?

Look, here is a real simple truth about any structural template for how to write a story you’ll ever read: each bullet point in the template is a place where the template author is recommending that you put a reversal into your story. The fact that we humans feel it is even possible to make a story template arises from the fact that we humans know (104) that every good story has more than a handful of these reversals.

The problem is that our knowledge is ridiculously vague. For instance, we know [clearly] that we need more than a handful, but does that mean six… or is it closer to fifteen [completely vague]. We also know [clearly] what the overall effect of the correct number of reversals drawn in the proper way is: the reader finishes reading and recommends the script.

It is out of the juxtaposition of what we know clearly with what we know imprecisely that the How to Write a Great Screenplay book market emerges. An “expert” with a laptop and a lot of free time sits down and invents fancy names for a few reversals, arbitrarily assigns page numbers by which you have to insert the story events which are equal to the fancy new terms into your story, searches around for ten or so movies that collectively demonstrate the fancy new terms, and then watches with ever widening eyes as… the royalty checks roll in.

I’m here to tell you something all previous gurus have been afraid [because of those royalty checks] to say out loud.

There is no template for how to write a great screenplay. At least, there isn’t one that amounts to a paint by page numbers.

I can tell you that “solving” your screenplay is going to require a lot of hard work, planning, and most of all, revision. If your screenplay is Great, the following three qualities will be abundantly clear to even a casual reader or viewer:

1. The main character has an arc.
2. The arc illustrates the truth in the theme.
3. The graph of your story has peaks and valleys.

I think the books of most gurus are good for allowing your script to satisfy Criterion One. I think this book is extremely useful for helping you satisfy one and two. If I am honest, though, I know that what we all really want is a heuristic for three. Toward that end, let’s take a second pass at:

A Blueprint for Your Script:

1. Establish the Mystery (page 7)
2. The Impediment (page 22)
3. A Partial Key (page 37)
4. False Victory (page 52)
5. Destined to Lose (page 67)
6. The Complete Key (page 82)
7. Final Victory (page 97)
8. Fade Out (page 105)

Act Breakdown by Page Numbers:

1. Act One – Pages 1-22
2. Act Two – Pages 23-82
3. Act Three – Pages 83-105

The first thing to notice about this blueprint is that I am advocating another reduction in the preferred page length. Mr. Field says 120. Mr. Snyder says 110. And Mr. Barish recommends 105. My decision to endorse 105 as the “proper” length of a screenplay is indebted to the fact that every script I’ve ever read that was between 110 and 120 pages had scenes that could be cut without disturbing the story. Scripts in the 90-100 page range [usually] have scenes that feel rushed. That leaves a sweet spot between 101 and 109 from which arithmetic dictates, 105 is “proper”. (105)

The other thing that is immediately clear is that my blueprint owes some debt to the sequence approach. You could look at my ideas as arranging scripts into the following sequences instead of acts:

Sequence Map: Version One:

Sequence 1: Pages 1-7 (standard story set-up)
Sequence 2: Pages 8-22 (introduction of reason for why protagonist isn’t suitable)
Sequence 3: Pages 23-37 (search for [and location of] an advantage)
Sequence 4: Pages 38-52 (advantage pressed to a false victory)
Sequence 5: Pages 53-67 (antagonist defeats the advantage)
Sequence 6: Pages 68-82 (despair unveils a better advantage)
Sequence 7: Pages 83-97 (the better advantage is mastered and deployed)
Sequence 8: Pages 98-105 (victory and resolution)

As I’ve been ironing out my thoughts on structure, I’ve found myself using the idea of sequences more than the [currently preferred] Acts. One reason is because the sequences naturally contain within them the Acts, but the much more important reason is that thinking of a script as a collection of eight sequences seems to get at the Core Idea of Story Structure:

In order to generate reader momentum your script must have regularly occurring reversals.

I’ve not read any good sequence theorists [just scripts written in the format]. This is good because it allows me to think objectively about how some aspects of sequence practice ended up in my blueprint without my knowing any sequence theory. I’ve decided that thinking of a story as a collection of discrete packets of information [15 page sequences] requires that the graph of that story’s plot points naturally adopt an undulating look.

Let’s take another look at our sequence map with one small revision:

Sequence Map: Version Two:

Sequence 1.5: Pages 1-7 (standard story set-up)
Sequence 2: Pages 8-22 (introduction of mystery- reason protagonist isn’t suitable)
Sequence 3: Pages 23-37 (search for [and location of] an advantage)
Sequence 4: Pages 38-52 (advantage pressed to a false victory)
Sequence 5: Pages 53-67 (antagonist defeats the advantage)
Sequence 6: Pages 68-82 (despair unveils a better advantage)
Sequence 7: Pages 83-97 (the better advantage is mastered and deployed)
Sequence 1.5: Pages 98-105 (victory and resolution)

In this iteration of the map, we see a total of seven 15 page sequences with one that wraps around the entire story. I love this imagery because it makes the idea of story a completed geometric circle. What is begun in the first half-sequence is finished in the final half-sequence.

The flowers of victory were grown from the seeds of failure.

Thinking of scripts as a Seven Sequence Circle allows us writers to see what is fundamental about a Great Story: the protagonist has within her everything she needs to defeat her antagonist from the very first scene of her story, she just doesn’t know how to access her gifts. The six sequences which cut the first sequence into equal halves are meant to teach her how to get that access. Only after she has gained that knowledge can she complete her story.

I felt this point was worth making because of the geometric symmetry. However, when I refer to the “sequence map” in ensuing discussions I will be referring to version one [unless otherwise stated].


98 If I thought this essay would enjoy wide readership, I’d do away with this introduction. Since we are “among friends” I have decided to keep it. Every word is true. Maybe we friends can effect a paradigm shift.

99 Syd Field would say I’m being a bit uncharitable, but I am only talking about the meaning of the words “three acts” as they relate to screenplays.

100 I will also note here AGAIN that I think you should read Mr. Snyder’s books on screenwriting. I did.

101 I will use reveals and reversals to mean the same thing: a change in the story. Normally [when I am being consistent with myself] I use reveal when talking about a story from the audience’s perspective and reversal when talking about it from the writer’s perspective.

102 Mr. Snyder does take a minute to FULLY analyze Miss Congeniality according to his rubric as the conclusion to this section of his book. This amounts to a review of Miss Congeniality and it is a decent review. OTHER THAN this one complete review we are given snippets from a host of successful movies that illustrate one or two of the beats in isolation. Occasionally, Mr. Snyder even eschews using a successful movie to make his points and, instead, substitutes one of HIS scripts.

103 And also make them worth your time in reading. Have I said that enough yet? You can’t be a serious screenwriter unless you know and understand how to use Mr. Snyder’s wonderful, books on the craft of screenwriting.

104 I suspect that our knowledge here is of the categorically Kantian variety. Unfortunately for my hunch, these pages are not the appropriate place to indulge [as yet] unpolished ideas.

105 There is a natural way in which this means that I am pushing the “act breaks” forward in your story, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean I shouldn’t call attention to it.


4 responses to “The Flowers of Failure

  1. This is an interesting (and probably infinite) debate. I refer to my betters. Here is Father Milch, at the pulpit:

    He makes the argument that the good writer should “rest transparently in the spirit that gave you rise.” In essence, let faith guide your writing. Needless to say this is not a structural approach (unless God will put the structure inside you). In fact Milch thinks “structure” should probably go fuck itself.

    The problem is that you (royal) are not David Milch. You haven’t spent years studying and teaching literature. You haven’t had great American writers for mentors. You don’t have a photographic memory for Brothers Karamasov quotes that you can draw upon to clarify your particular struggles with writing/life/theuniverse. You haven’t entered other planes of existence through copious, should-have-been-fatal drug abuses. You’re kinda lame, infact.

    But there is hope, ye untalented and unwashed. Milch also says “writing is the same idea, over and over, with very good examples”
    I think he has contradicted himself because this is the essence of structure! Good structure is the act of ORGANIZING the same idea, over and over, with very good examples, in order to elicit (quoting Father Barish) RESONANCE in our reader.

    How do we organize the same idea? Through carefully calibrated, emotionally real and logically sound reversals. Each approaching the same idea from different angles (choices). That is your structure flow, however you arrive at it. And that, one can improve at.

    And btw, you will probably need to be able to structure your work in some detail before writing it if you want to pitch for OWAs in the world of most actual working screenwriters. So develop whatever structural framework one finds personally useful and have it.

  2. So I watched the video before the video about writers in which the discussion is of Kierkegaard. Really enjoyed the lyrical vs dialectical breakdown. I swear the lyrical description Kierkegaard gives is all Hamlet:

    “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
    king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”

    Very interesting discussion. Now, I will watch the clip about writers.

  3. I wanted to get to the longer video today, but my damnable day job just isn’t going to let me. I will have to postpone viewing until early next week.

    I hate fourth quarter :)

  4. Yeah he gets into the structural argument in the next video which is actually what I meant to post but my incompetence is your gain.

    Seems like your wheelhouse. When you’re finished you can come back and explain to the rest of us what exactly was said. And do it as if we were small children. Or dogs.

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