Even though the intended audience is aspiring screenwriters, anyone who needs to tell a story will find helpful advice and structure in this good and prescriptive book. When you go through the notes, come back to watch Save the Cat Interstellar Explained for an application of the principles from the book.
A logline summarizes a story that states the central conflict; it serves as a hook. A good logline has to contain four things:
- Irony: A newly married couple needs to spend a day with their four divorced parents at their homes. Example movie: Four Christmases.
- A compelling mental picture: You can “see” the movie just by reading the logline. Example: She’s the perfect woman until she has a drink. Example movie: Blind Date movie.
- Audience and cost: It has to be clear who the movie’s target audience is and how much it might cost to produce.
- Killer title must have irony and tell the tale: “Legally Blonde” is a great example. “For Love And Money” is a bad example because it’s too generic and doesn’t say anything. The title has to tell what the movie is about, like “Four Christmases.”
Don’t embrace cliches, but stay close to them. “Give us the same thing, but different.” To be able to avoid the cliche, you have to have a good understanding of previous movies, cultures, and genres.
- Monster in the house: Jaws, Alien, The Exorcist.
- Golden fleece: The quest movie, roadtrips. The name comes from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts because one goes to find something and finds oneself. Star Wars, Back to the Future, heist movies.
- Out of the bottle (genie granting a wish or a curse): Liar, Liar; Bruce almighty; Mask; Flubber; Love Potion No. 9.
- Dude with a problem: Die Hard, Titanic, Schindler’s List, The Terminator.
- Rights of passage: External hardships, life bringing challenges. Days of Wonder, When Man Loves a Woman, 28 days.
- Buddy love: Dumb and Dumber, Rain Man, love stories, cop buddy stories, Thelma and Louise, Finding Nemo, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.
- Why done it: Chinatown, JFK, The Insider, Citizens Kane, Mystic River.
- The fool triumphant: Forest Gump, Being There, Chaplin.
- Institutionalized: It’s all about a group and an attempt to challenge it. Family sagas are common here. M.A.S.H., One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, American Beauty, Godfather.
- Superhero: Dracula, Gladiator.
Who has to serve what is it (logline)
Imagine a movie about an adult who has to return to third grade again after getting caught by a speed trap in front of a school because a judge decided that would be a fitting punishment to learn some manners. Who is the best person to put in this situation? Someone who has yet to grow up. On the outside, they’re a successful business person, up for a promotion at work, designing violent video games for kids, but who has yet to learn the basics of being human. They need to go back to school but don’t know it yet.
The best heroes are those:
- Who offer the most conflict in the situation
- Have the longest way to go emotionally
- Are the most demographically pleasing
The last one is easy to mess up because we are too biased from our preferences and experiences.
What does a hero want? It has to be something primal, primal, primal. If it’s a promotion, it better be getting someone they love a needed operation that can be pain only with the promotion raise; if it’s a conflict, it better be a life-or-death showdown.
Casting. Write for an archetype, not an actor.
Become a slave to the logline. Iterate on it, even when you find the best hero for the story.
Instead of having just an idea and a few scenes in mind, lay out the key moments of a movie from start to end.
A full-length movie script usually has about 110 pages. It has three acts:
- Thesis: The documentation of the current world before the adventure starts.
- Antithesis: The opposite of the current world, usually when something unexpected happens and the hero starts the journey.
- Synthesis: The hero takes lessons learned and creates a new world.
Opening and closing images are critical. Unfortunately, some reviewers read only those and then make the call if they’re going to read more.
In the first five minutes of the movie, someone will pose a question to the main character, which is the movie’s theme. The question or comment is usually subtle, and the main character often doesn’t get how important this is going to be later. A too obvious example is, “Family is more important than money.” The author always has this theme on page 5.
The setup, pages 1 to 10. You have to grab the audience here or risk losing them. Introduce all main characters of the A story (the main story and plot of a movie), their flaws that need to be fixed, and the goal of the story.
Catalyst, page 12. Unexpected telegrams, getting fired, catching someone in bed with another. The world changes.
Debate, pages 12 to 25. The last chance for the hero to say, “This is crazy. Should I go or not?”
Break into act 2, page 25. The hero can’t be dragged from the thesis to the antithesis. Instead, they have to choose to make the jump. Luke Skywalker doesn’t wake up on Han Solo’s ship not knowing where he is; he decides to go on an adventure after his parents are killed.
B story on page 30. A slight rest from the A story, after the dramatic jump. The B story is often a love story. Many new characters are introduced here. The manicurist in Legally Blonde is a new character and a hidden love story.
Fun and games, pages 35 to 55. The promise of the premise, the place from which most clips are taken for the trailer. Dirty Harry gets a new partner—his mom. They go on a chase, but mom is driving, so it’s super slow and they stop at every traffic sign. Die Hard is when Bruce Willis first outwits the terrorists. Lighter in tone. Jim Carrey plays god in Bruce Almighty and Tobey Maguire tries out his Spiderman skills.
Midpoint, page 55. A place when the hero is at the (false) top or has hit the rock bottom (false defeat). Stakes are raised, fun and games are over.
Bad guys close in, pages 55 to 75. The hardest part to write for the author.
All is lost (false defeat), page 75. Obi Wan is killed in Star Wars, so what will Luke do now? The mentor’s death opens up a space in which the hero learns he has it in himself. It doesn’t mean someone has to die every time at this point, but a whiff of death helps; it can be a symbolic death. Heroes can contemplate death, like Will Farrell in the comedy Elf. It’s where the old way the hero has been thinking dies, and when the thesis and antithesis become the synthesis.
Dark night of the soul, pages 75 to 85. We must be beaten and know it to get the lesson.
Break into act 3, a solution at page 85. Thanks to all the characters in the B story and acceptance in the dark night of the soul, the hero finds a solution.
The finale, pages 85 to 110. This is where the A and B stories end in triumph, where the new world starts thanks to the hero. All the bad guys are dispatched, which is a prerequisite for the new world.
The final image, page 110. It’s the opposite of the opening image. It’s the proof that the transformation has occurred.
Building the perfect beast
Create a storyboard to visualize a movie. It’s easier to spot problems this way.
- Act 1 - pages 1 to 25
- Act 2 - pages 25 to 55
- Act 2 - pages 55 to 85
- Act 3 - pages 85 to 110
40 cards with one scene per card. Cards are stacked linearly in a row. The ends of the rows are the critical moments when a movie progresses from one act to another. An example card: “Mary tells John she wants a divorce.”
Get out as many cards from your mind to the board. Those are usually funny moments or main scenes for character reveals or movie ending. When all those are put on a board, you’ll realize that the board is mostly empty. Now the hard work starts.
Colorcoding, especially between A and B stories.
The storyboard shouldn’t be perfect before you start writing. Working on the storyboard too much has diminishing returns. One has to be ready to throw it away if better ideas and plots come up during writing.
The immutable laws of screenplay physics
Save the cat. The hero has to do something when we need him so that we like them and want them to win. Or, in more generic terms—the audience has to be in sync with the plight of the hero.
The Aladdin example. The source material makes him a thief and not likable. When screenwriters for Disney found this, they added an intro scene where Aladdin steals food and runs away from guards. When he escapes and wants to eat the food in an alley, he finds hungry kids. He decides to give them the food, and the audience immediately starts rooting for Aladdin.
An example that is not easy to pull off: Pulp Fiction. Travolta and Jackson are gangsters, but the director Tarantino makes them funny (the famous burger naming exchange) and naive.
Or if the hero is bad or damaged goods, make his enemy even worse.
The Pope in the pool. How to bury the backstory that’s critical for the audience to understand but not too interesting? The term comes from a movie that had agents come to the Pope tell him about the plot, but the Pope is in the Vatican in a pool in his bathing suit. That surprising setting completely takes attention from the length of the backstory.
Double mumble jumbo. You’re not allowed two magical moments in a movie. You can’t be abducted by aliens AND bitten by a vampire.
Laying pipe. When setting the context takes too much time out of a movie. The hook of The Minority Report, that the detective is a potential murderer, comes around minute 40, which is too late.
Black vet. The name comes from a show or movie where the star is a black veterinarian who is also a veteran. The phrase is used when trying to pile up several great ideas that it becomes too much. Simple is better.
Watch out for that glacier. When danger comes too slowly and inevitably. The danger must be a present danger for the people we care about. Examples: Dante’s Peak, Outbreak.
The covenant of the arc. Main characters and the hero have to change in the movie. The only people who don’t change are the bad guys. Growth and change are part of life. Rebirth in religious settings.
Keep the press out. If the press (in the movie) gets a hold of information, like finding out about a superpower or danger, it’s not great because the movie doesn’t feel as intimate as before, and it breaks the fourth wall between the audience and actors. The exception is if the press is a part of the story.
What’s wrong with this picture
When you finish your first draft, leave it for a few days. When you come back, you’ll realize it’s terrible. Below are common mistakes and advice.
An inactive hero. The hero is pushed through a story instead of driving it, clues come to him or her, the hero ask questions as opposed to knowing what needs to be done.
Talking the plot. When characters literally talk through the backstory and the plot because it has to be explained. It’s better to show and not tell. A husband can look at other women and be dismissive of his wife. That’s much faster and more realistic than them talking through how their counseling sessions are going.
Imbalance. The hero and the antagonist have to be of similar power. Give the edge to the bad guy to make it interesting.
Turn, turn, turn. The plot spins and intensifies. It has to go forward AND accelerate.
The emotional color wheel. The audience should experience many, if not all, emotions
Flat dialogue. Boring dialogue, sounding like everyday conversations. Especially bad if the characters all sound like the screenwriter. Each character has to have their way of speaking that will also reveal their character.
Take a step back. If the hero doesn’t develop through an entire journey, take the hero back as much as necessary so that they can make that journey in the movie. If the journey is already completed by the time the movie starts, it will be dull.
A limp and an eye patch. Minor characters need to be more memorable. We can help them stand out by giving them easily distinguishable traits or appearances. A limp and an eye patch are often too strong and obvious, but that’s the gist.
Is it primal? Does the story connect to more fundamental needs? Would a caveman understand it?