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In my last blog, I talked about the first three beats of Blake Snyder’s screenplay road map and applied them to the films Ordinary People and Minority Report. Today we’re moving on to the next three: “The Catalyst”, “The Debate” and “Break into Two”.

Blake Snyder’s fourth beat is called the CATALYST and it comes on page 12. Not to be confused with its more extreme cousin, “Break into Two”, the Catalyst is the first problem our protagonist encounters that makes them realize a big life change is going to be coming soon. It’s similar to what Syd Field referred to as an “inciting incident” — it’s the engine that drives the conflict of the script’s first act.

“Telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, news that you have three days to live, the knock at the door, the messenger. In the set-up you, the screenwriter, have told us what the world is like and now in the catalyst moment you knock it all down. Boom!”

— Blake Snyder

ORDINARY PEOPLE:   At min. 15, Conrad wakes from yet another nightmare about the drowning death of his brother. He’s had enough of the sleepless nights and aimless days at school and he goes to see Dr. Berger for the first time. This is going to set in motion the series of delicate events that will change Conrad’s family life forever and is the Catalyst.

Only three minutes off from Snyder’s beat sheet — not bad. At min. 12, Conrad actually calls Berger to set up an appointment, but he chickens out at the last moment and it’s not until min. 15 that he is so sick of sleepless nights that he goes to therapy.


MINORITY REPORT:   At min. 28, John is shown the images of a drowning woman by Agatha, the female precog. This is the first hint that something’s off with the system we’ve just been taken through for the past 28 minutes. We’re thrown for two loops. One, is that the precog gets proactive in her wading pool, grabbing John’s hand and making the audience jump. Then she shows him an image from an old murder that, when he goes to research it, is missing from the files.

So, as usual, M.R. is behind the Blake Snyder beat sheet — this time by a good 16 minutes. Something’s amiss, and John’s digging up the past is the “catalyst” for future events to begin unfolding. Snyder says page 12. Minority Report does it at 28. Of course, on page 12 of Minority Report, we’re still finishing off the opening action sequence. So, pacing wise, one can make the excuse that the film’s balance is still intact. And there’s the Speilberg excuse again — when you can hold an audience’s attention as well as he does, you can make your first act go long also.

Blake Snyder’s fifth beat is called the DEBATE (pages 12-25).

“The debate section is just that — a debate. It’s the last chance for the hero to say: This is crazy. And we need him or her to realize that. Should I go? Dare I go? Sure, it’s dangerous out there, but what’s my choice? Stay here?” — Blake Snyder

At other times, Blake Snyder has described this beat as the debate the hero has with himself/herself about whether or not things can continue the way they have been progressing. Can the status quo hold or does action need to be taken?

ORDINARY PEOPLE:    There is a healthy debate that goes on from minutes 17 to 32 about the role or psychiatry both in general, and in terms of Conrad. First, Conrad feels out Dr. Berger at their first session and Dr. Berger asks him to commit to sessions at the expense of Conrad’s swim meets. Beth is very uncomfortable with the idea of family business being discussed outside the home. She makes this clear to Calvin after she overhears him discussing Conrad’s therapy with a friend. And, at minute 24, Beth and Cal have a discussion about whether or not to go to London over Christmas. Beth thinks it would be good for them all to get away. Calvin argues that Conrad’s just started seeing his therapist and the process shouldn’t be interrupted.  Even Conrad’s nosey swimming instructor gives his two cents about his distrust of psychotherapy.

All of this constitutes “Debate” over what direction Conrad will take in the second act. Should he deal with his problems through a therapist or should he just get over it on his own. As Beth puts it to Cal: “Don’t indulge him.”

MINORITY REPORT:    At min. 34, John goes to his superior and mentor, Lamar, to tell him that he’s found a dozen missing precog visions. Lamar uses this interaction to stress to John that they are in danger of losing control of precrime and that he should be wary of Danny, the federal investigator watching their actions.

I’d argue that this scene is the “Debate” because it comes after the “Catalyst” but before the “Break Into Two” and serves the function of reminding both John and the audience what the current stakes are and where future dangers might come from.  John goes to Lamar’s house, seeming like he’s asking the question “Something bad is going to happen but I’m not sure where it’s originating”. Lamar throws John off track by dismissing his concerns about the missing precog visions and refocuses John on Danny. When John is accused of a future murder on page 38, he assumes he’s being set up by Danny and runs with that premise for the first half of the film, partly due to his conversation with Lamar.

It’s a short debate section compared to most, but perhaps mysteries of this type have a shorter debate because, unlike other genres, their protagonist doesn’t know what’s going on — that’s the mystery part. They are continuously discovering what they are in the middle of, so there isn’t just one, Act I moment of the sort Snyder is talking about where the hero thinks over the situation and then decides: Alright, I’ll make the journey!

BREAK INTO TWO is the sixth beat and comes on page 25. It is more commonly known as Plot Point I, and is one of the oldest discussed beats in screenplays. Few screenwriting books fail to mention this golden oldie and it common knowledge always puts it between pages 25 and 35.

“The act break is the moment where we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and proceed into a world that is the upside down version of that, its antithesis. But because these two worlds are so diestinct, the act of actually stepping into Act Two must be definite.” — Blake Snyder

ORDINARY PEOPLE:  At min. 32, Conrad has his first real session with Dr. Berger. After stating during his earlier session that he might not come back, we see that he has made a choice to continue with Berger, this time discussing his life to a small degree. He looks and feels like hell and floats the notion that maybe he needs pills. Dr. Berger proves himself to Conrad to be the real deal by rejecting that idea and focusing more on what’s at the root of Conrad’s mental state.

Their relationship begins to be formed at min. 32 and the way Conrad perceives his problems will change from this point on.  It’s subtle but it’s there. At this moment, Conrad begins his long internal journey towards self-acceptance and forgiveness. While Snyder insists on “Break into Two” being on page 25, dramas tend to have late second acts so I’ll let it slide if you will.


MINORITY REPORT:  This is an easy call. At min. 38, John goes to work, deciphering a new, future murder. The problem is that the killer in the precog’s vision is John. Bummer. This forces John to hightail it out of the building and embark on his getaway. He’s now a wanted man and the chase scene that follows punctuates the idea that things have quickly turned desperate.

His world is upside down. The cop is now the criminal. His coworkers are now his hunters, his parking spot is, no doubt, reassigned…etc. From here on out, John’s goal is to get his life back to where it was in Act I — (or so he thinks. All protagonists yearn for their status quo back, but they really need things to change. Act II is tough love in disguise).

Stay tuned for heart-stopping analysis of “Save the Cat’s” next three beats and thanks for reading!

— Benjamin




Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! gets a little more detailed than most manuals about what should happen minute-for-minute in a compelling film. Today we’re going to look at the first three BEATS, or mini-acts, he has identified within all good screenplays. These beats are described in Blake Snyder’s BEAT SHEET, and are laid out in the last post. I’m using the sheet myself to help keep me on track with the screenplay I’m currently writing. While it doesn’t write the script for you, it does make you feel less alone during what is an otherwise solitary process.

I’m going to be applying this system to two films that could not be further apart in style and tone (though both, coincidently, deal with the same theme — the death of a child). ORDINARY PEOPLE (screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the Novel by Judith Guest), and  MINORITY REPORT (screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick), seem worlds apart, but lets see if they both adhere to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. Maybe we’ll stump Save the Cat! Maybe we’ll find that it’s right on the nose. Maybe somewhere in-between…

His first Beat Snyder calls the OPENING IMAGE, and happens on page 1.  Here’s what he has to say about it:

“The very first impression of what a movie is — its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film — are all found in the opening image….”  — Blake Snyder

ORDINARY PEOPLE:  The opening image of the film is an establishing shot of a lake.  It appears completely serene. The camera pulls back and we move through peaceful vignettes of autumn trees and the manicured lawns of upper-class neighborhoods.

So far, so good. That lake that fills the first frame of the movie is where, we find out later, the inciting incident of the film took place — it’s where Conrad’s brother drowned, leaving his family in the broken state we find them in at the start of the film. But for now, much like Conrad’s  family, it has the appearance of serenity.  At page one of this script, we cannot imagine the raging storm simmering beneath each of the family member’s icey veneers, or the lake’s ability to kill. Score one for the Beat Sheet!

MINORITY REPORT: The film opens with a barrage of blurred and warped images depicting a murder. The theme of “Eyes” is prominent — there are multiple shots of eye balls and glasses and a child’s paper mask of Abraham Lincoln having its eye holes cut out.

The film certainly gets to the point — the movie’s going to be about murders and seeing; can one believe what they are seeing? — so BAM!  Start with a murder and shots of eyes. Spielberg may not always be subtle, but he is effective. It also foreshadows a creepy scene later in which Tom Cruise has his eyes removed. Another score for the Beat Sheet.

The second beat is called THEME STATED and occurs around page 5.

“…someone (usually not the main character) will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie. “Be careful what you wish for,” this person will say or “Pride goeth before a fall” or “Family is more important than money.” It won’t be this obvious, it will be conversational, an offhand remark that the main character doesn’t quite get at the moment — but which will have far-reaching and meaningful impact later. This statement is the movie’s thematic premise.”  — Blake Snyder

ORDINARY PEOPLE:  Dr. Berger tells Conrad, “I’ll be straight with you, okay? I’m not big on control.” (page 19)

Well, while I agree with Snyder that the Theme Stated moment works well in most films, I’m willing to let this subtle film off the hook a bit. The portrayal of Conrad is just too naturalistic for this moment to be played out the way it would be in the average Hollywood film.The closest moment I can find to the Theme Stated beat Snyder intends comes at minute 19. Conrad has his first visit with his therapist, Dr. Berger. When asked what he hopes to accomplish with therapy, Conrad says he wants to have more control over himself so everyone can stop worrying about him (he had attempted suicide after his brother died in front of him during a boating accident). Berger responds with “I’ll be straight with you, okay? I’m not big on control.”

This sums-up the message of the film. It’s only when Conrad and his father, Cal, start to open up, cast aside their facades of normality and lose control of their emotions that they can really start to deal with the tragedy they’ve suffered. Whereas Beth, Conrad’s cold mother, will insist on continuing to play the part of the woman in control — and it will lead to her estrangement from her family.

A little off their Snyder Beat Sheet. I like the Theme Stated idea. But I’m not sure page 5 is where is needs to be.

MINORITY REPORT: “Careful, chief. You dig up the past, all you get is dirty.”

After one of the pre-cogs shows John an old murder for unknown reasons, he begins investigating its origins. The gate keeper of the old murder records tells him the quote above. This comes at minute 33, and is a central theme of the movie. The more he digs, the more disturbing details come out about his part in a crooked system.  I don’t know, Blake.  Maybe your page 5 estimate’s a little strict. It seems to me that both these movies wait until after the set-up to throw a little dogma at our hero. There’s an earlier contender, at minute 16, where John’s blind drug dealer tells him “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed-man is king.” But while this old saying can refer to many aspects of the film, it doesn’t serve to warn John of, or direct him towards, the challenges he will face later on in the story.

This is What I Imagine Lasik Surgery is Like

This Is What I Imagine Lasik Eye Surgery Is Like

My own preference for the Theme Stated moment is to place it anywhere in Act I that it fits. As long as it shows-up before the downward spiral of Act II begins, the line will resonate.

The third beat is the SET-UP (it’s less a beat than a rounding-out of beats 1 and 2, along with some other plot points that should be included within  pages 1-10).

“The set-up is the place where I make sure I’ve introduced or hinted at introducing every character in the A story. Watch any good movie and see. Within the first 10 minutes you meet or reference them all. “

“This is the place to stick the SIX THINGS THAT NEED FIXING. This is my phrase, six is an arbitrary number, that stands for the laundry list you must show — repeat SHOW — the audience of what is missing in the hero’s life. Like little time bombs, these SIX THINGS THAT NEED FIXING, these character tics and flaws, will be exploded later in the script, turned on their heads and cured. They will become running gags and call-backs. ”  — Blake Snyder

ORDINARY PEOPLE:  In the first ten minutes, every character in the A story is there for roll call, along with most of the B story characters. Conrad, his parents and Dr. Berger all have lines, along with Conrad’s friends and his future love interest, Jeannine.

That’s just like the Beat Sheet says.

And the SIX THINGS THAT NEED FIXING: Conrad wakes-up at night from nightmares. He’s aloof with his friends and family. Cal wants him to talk to a therapist but Conrad’s resistant. He’s not eating and looks like hell. Cal worries about his son constantly. He also seems to notice on some level that Beth is disengaged from her son. Beth is impatient with Conrad’s lethargy and just wants him to start acting normal again. Lastly, Conrad clearly has a crush on Jeannine but is shy around her.

That’s six things. And all of the main characters have been introduced. Another win for the Beat Sheet.

"I have several problems that need fixing..."

MINORITY REPORT:  In the first ten minutes, we meet John, Agatha the pre-cog, Danny from the Justice dept., and John’s police buddies.

But we don’t meet Lamar, John’s mentor and, as it turns out, nemesis until min 21. Nor do we see his ex-wife until min 20. Both of these characters become very important to the story. But I’m starting to find, as I continue conducting this test, that Minority Report is a stretched out film. As we’ll discuss in the next post, it doesn’t even get to Act II until min 38.

SIX THINGS THAT NEED FIXIN’: John has not gotten over the kidnapping and presumed death of his son. As a result, he has lost his marriage and developed a bad addiction to what look like futuristic, asthma inhalers. He runs a special unit of the police called precrime that arrests people for murders they will, but have yet to, commit — which feels icky, karmically speaking. The Justice Department, feeling icky about it as well, has sent a representative to investigate the unit and possibly take away it away from John.  His drug addiction may be used as evidence against him when the Justice Department makes their move.

All of the above problems happen in the first twenty minutes, not ten.  As mentioned before, this is a slow moving movie — add ten minutes to almost every beat and it seems like you’ll be on track. But Speilberg deserves a pass after so much solid work — let’s not forget, he brought 1941 to the world, among other less known fare.

In the next post, we’ll apply the next three beats to our two test films and subject Blake Snyder to harsh scrutiny for rules he most likely meant for us to take with a grain of salt. Should be fun…

Also, check out my Screenplay Tip of the Day at my other blog: screenplaytips.wordpress.com


SAVE THE CAT


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THE BOOK

SAVE THE CAT!

by Blake Snyder

WHY THIS BOOK?

Not only is it one of the hottest new manuals on screenwriting — it also dares to break down scripts into fifteen mini-acts and insists that all good, Hollywood films contain these acts. It’s a bold assumption, and Snyder backs it up impressively with fifty examples in his follow-up, SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES. The recent and untimely death of Snyder has robbed Hollywood of a much needed pragmatist whose inventive, storytelling vocabulary should urgently supplant the industry dinosaurs still in circulation.

WHAT’S IN IT

If you’re going to spend the next several months of your life painting a detailed, beautifully composed picture, any painting teacher worth listening to will tell you that the first step is to compose your picture in a sketch. Then, transfer the sketch to the canvas. Once you’re sure the picture fits the canvas just right, and the focal points are strategically placed where they will have the highest, visual impact, only then do you start painting. If you have no sketch and just start painting at a random spot on the canvas, working outwards to the edges, most likely you’ll do a lot of erasing. You’ll find that things you wanted to include won’t fit into the composition, so you’ll be forced to paint over areas you’ve already spent a lot of time perfecting. Or, worse yet, you won’t paint over those areas because you’ve fallen in love with your work — even at the expense of the literal, bigger picture.

This is all, of course, an exhaustive metaphor to illustrate Blake Snyder’s take on writing. Too many young writers don’t feel that structure is as important as content, taking it so far as to rebel against structure with the belief that it hinders content. The resulting piles of lovely dialogue with nowhere to go is an avoidable waste of time!  Don’t get specific with beautiful, memorable lines and poetic prose until you know what you’re writing!  Structure is the unsung and beleaguered hero of all commercial film and television writing. Without it, movies and TV shows sag and bore.

blake-snyder

The Late Blake Snyder

I never appreciated structure until I started reading screenplays. You don’t have to read many before you start to divide scripts into one of two categories, and these categories are not good/bad, strong concept/weak concept, realistic/unrealistic. No, I’m talking about structured/unstructured. And the amount of well-structured scripts are SO SPARSE that when one shows-up, all the other elements barely seem to matter. Once the underlying structure is in place, it’s easy to improve even the worst offenses of the script. Bad dialogue? No problem, we can fix that. Holes in the plot? We’ll explain them away. Not funny enough? We’ll punch up the jokes. As long as the structure is there, you know you’ve got a picture that works at its core. What about fixing a weak protagonist?  Well…that’s a trick question. If your structure is strong, your protagonist is well written — and vise versa. Here’s why.

Save the Cat lays out 15 min-acts that should be adhered to in a well structured script.  Each of these acts twists and turns the story, always pushing the protagonist forward, even when dealing him/her setbacks.  Try subjecting any flatly written character of yours to Blake Snyder’s 15 mini-acts and their personality will be forced into existence.  Or, try the opposite. Make-up a well rounded character and subject the 15 mini-acts to that character and the script will start to write itself.   The essence of every film is an explanation of a character’s strengths and weaknesses, followed by a series of tests specifically designed to challenge those unique strengths and weaknesses.  This series of tests is the structure of the script; know your hero and they will insist on a certain structure with which to reveal their traits. OR, know your genre’s structure and it will insist on a certain type of hero with which to tell its story.

SCREENWRITING SECRETS

Save the Cat! has plenty!  Here’s Snyder’s patented Beat-Sheet that serves as a template for all scripts, broken into 15, named mini-acts (with their page numbers). Throughout the week, I’ll be breaking down a film using these beats to illustrate how it works.

1. Opening Image (1)

2. Theme Stated (5)

3. Set-Up (1-10)

4. Catalyst (12)

5. Debate (12-25)

6. Break into Two (25)

7. B Story (30)

8. Fun and Games (30-55)

9. Midpoint (55)

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)

11. All Is Lost (75)

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)

13. Break into Three (85)

14. Finale (85-110)

15. Final Image (110)

Snyder also breaks down all films into Ten Categories that explain the type of story, rather than the genre. Simply saying one is writing a Western doesn’t really explain what kind of story that particular Western is telling. Here’s his ten types of movies which I’ll also be covering this week (with some brief examples):

1. Monster in the House (Jaws, Alien, Fetal Attraction, the Exorcist)

2. Golden Fleece (Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, Ocean’s Eleven and most “heist movies”)

3. Out of the Bottle (Liar, Liar, Freaky Friday, Big, Groundhog Day)

4. Dude with a Problem (Die Hard, Vertigo, Schindler’s List) — there’s a great idea for a triple feature, all you movie theaters owners!

5. Rites of Passage (Ordinary People, the Hustler, the Accidental Tourist, Terms of Endearment)

6. Buddy Love (Rain Man, Dumb and Dumber, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bringing Up Baby, E.T.)

7. Whydunit (Chinatown, Citizen Kane, J.F.K., All the President’s Men)

8. The Fool Triumphant (the Jerk, Forrest Gump, Dave, Being There)

9. Institutionalized (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, M*A*S*H, the Godfather, Mean Girls, the Shawshank Redemption)

10. Superhero (Superman, Gladiator, Robocop, the Talented Mr. Ripley, A Beautiful Mind)

I’ll also be discussing some of his terms for movie moments such as “Pope in the Pool”, which is his shorthanded way of saying that a character’s conveying boring information while doing an action (taken from a scene in a movie where the Pope is swimming during a lengthy bit of exposition), thereby masking the banality of the scene.

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Swimmer Courtney Pope...in the pool

IN CONCLUSION

What structural nay-sayers fail to understand, is that structure does not equal formula. Save the Cat offers writers a sort of freedom by building their jail cell for them. Because ALL writing requires one sort of jail cell or another — the worlds we create are finite (unless you’re Tolkien)  so that we can focus on our story. And, alright, I lied; the most important element isn’t Structure — it’s Story. Structure comes in second place, and most writers aren’t nearly as good at structure as they are with Concepts. By supplying the jail cell, Snyder lets the writer put more of their energy into playing with their concept in a predefined work space. There is nothing more liberating than boundaries and no reason to reinvent the wheel every time you have an idea for a film. Snyder supplies the walls and insures that no one writes twenty pages on the history of Elven mead. Structure doesn’t stifle creativity — it is the sign posts that keep you on the subconscious road of the audience’s mind.

dancingmacbear

There's a Tap Dancing Alien in that Bear Costume

Like it or not, humans expect certain things from a story. As long as you give them those time-tested story beats, you’re free to write whatever else you’d like. But respect the audience enough to acknowledge that there is a reason E.T. was a universal hit while Mac and Me wallows in three minute portions on YouTube for our amusement (check out the McDonalds dance sequence — it’s insane).

SHOULD YOU READ IT?     RECOMMEND

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for an explanation of Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, along with further discussion of his ideas. And feel free to leave your own thoughts in the “Comments” section!

– Benjamin

According to Sy Field’s book, Screenplay, Plot Point 2 should occur on page 90 of a 120 page screenplay.  Plot Point 2 is the event at the end of ACT II that causes the story to spiral toward its inevitable climax and ending.  Of course, not all scripts are 120 pages. If your script is 100 pages — which is a good length these days for a spec script — your Plot Point II should be somewhere around page 80. In other words, it should occur just before the last 20% of you film gets underway.128993736357875114

Notice that in good P.P.II’s, the protagonist’s choice to change the direction of the story is based on their TRUE SELF being brought to the surface. This truth may be a change from who they were at the start of the film, or it may be the self that was always there, now taken to an extreme. In either case, this moment is the culmination of the entire film up to this point; the protagonist has changed as much as he/she is going to. From this moment on, their true self will take action, knocking down the pins set-up in Acts I and II. Here are some fine examples of Plot Point 2 moments throughout movie history.

DO THE RIGHT THING: PLOT POINT II is the moment Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out (those are names) march into Sal’s Famous Pizzeria with Public Enemy (that’s a rap group) blaring, and demand that they get some brothers up on the wall of fame. This action forces everyone to figuratively show their hands. Pushed too far, the racially tolerant Sal calls Buggin’ Out a nigger and destroys the radio with a baseball bat, leading to the deepest resentments of all of the film’s characters boiling over into the climax. Radio tries to strangle Sal. The white cops kill Radio. Mookie (that’s also a name), stuck between loyalty to Sal (his employer) and his black friends, makes the choice to throw the trash can through Sal’s window, starting a riot. So much cathartic, urban violence, and all because of a powerful, Plot Point II.

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BACK TO THE FUTURE: I love when a movie has several characters working together to create PPII. Marty has two goals that constitute the climax: he needs his parents to kiss at the school dance, and he needs to drive the Delorian at 88 miles per hour as it connects with the Doc’s wire just as lightening strikes.

One of Three Plot Point II's

One of Three Plot Point II's

To achieve these goals, all the heroes need to be the best versions of themselves and overcome their fears. PLOT POINT II is when George punches out Biff (he’s never stood up to Biff before). It’s also when Marty agrees to play with the band when their guitar player gets hurt (Marty failed to get the gig at his own school dance in 1985). It’s also when Doc goes out into the real world to rig his lightening rod plan (the Doc’s spent his life cooped-up in his house, inventing stuff with no real word applications — until now).

Another Plot Point II

Another Plot Point II

Once all these Plot Point IIs have occurred within several minutes of each other, the climaxes of the kiss and Marty racing his car towards the lightening bolt can play out freely. But I don’t know what Plot Point accounts for the sequels.

Plot Point II

Another Plot Point II

FARGO:  This subtle film has subtle Plot Points and it may not be immediately obvious that PLOT POINT II is when, just before Marge leaves Minneapolis, she learns that Mike, the old school friend she had lunch with, was lying about his wife dying of cancer — he was never even married. This reminder to Marge that seemingly nice people lie, leads her to go back and requestion Jerry at the dealership once more. This leads to the climax, as Jerry flees the interview and Marge stumbles upon the kidnappers (one of them more put together than the other).

Plot Point II

Plot Point II

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: It comes rather late in this film and is a bit of an odd duck. After many ups and downs, Indiana loses the Ark and Marion to the Nazis. But he hitches a ride on the top of a submarine (don’t submarines dive?) and ends-up on the island where the bad guys are going to have their extra-special, grand Ark opening event! PLOT POINT II is the moment Indy gets hold of a bazooka and threatens to blow-up the Ark. Belloq, the silver-tongued villian that he is, reminds Indy of his true self — he’d rather be captured than destroy such a holy and historical storage container.

Plot Point II

Plot Point II

By giving-up, Indy puts himself into a situation where he can witness the opening of the Ark. But at the last moment, he tells Marion to shut her eyes — the scientist exposes his inner faith that something supernatural and terrible will occur — and this saves Indy and Marion while the deus ex Ark pulls a deus ex machina.  Like I said, it’s an odd duck, where the hero exposes both sides of himself at different moments, but it’s worth looking at. For some reason, it sort of works — as if the film is saying that even Indiana Jones can’t defeat every Nazi — he needs a little help from man upstairs (and I don’t mean George Lucas — that guy gets too much credit for this movie as it is).

You may want to try identifying Plot Point IIs in your favorite movies, or in your own scripts. It will constitute fun if you are a serious writer and have nothing — and I mean nothing — better to do on a Friday night.

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for another tip from Screenplay that I’ll be discussing. And feel free to leave your own thoughts in the “Comments” section!

– Benjamin

According to Syd Field’s book Screenplay, it is on page 25 that the first Plot Point should occur. And he’s right. It works. Here’s a few examples of page 25 moments through movie history…

CASABLANCA, min. 25: Ilsa and Victor Laszlo enter Rick’s bar for the first time. Up until this point, Rick has continually pointed out to others that he sticks his neck out for no one — his goal is to merely stay out of trouble. He seems unfazed by others, be they Nazi Majors, Police Captains or beautiful women. But when Ilsa and Rick’s eyes lock at min 25, we know the stakes have been raised — he might stick his neck out for this one. This Plot Point ushers us into ACT II, where he will cease merely existing and CHOOSE to seduce Ilsa away from Victor — he’ll stick his neck out now, but only to pursue selfish desires. The second Plot Point, at the start of ACT III, will be the moment Rick springs his plan to get Ilsa and Victor onto a plane into action and he becomes the opposite of what he was at the beginning. Not only has he been reborn as a man who will stick his neck out, he’ll stick it out for a cause bigger than himself or Ilsa.

Minute 25
Minute 25

SOME LIKE IT HOT, min 25:  We learn of Joe and Jerry’s choice to flee town with the all-women band by cutting to them, in drag, on the train platform. Up to that point, they’d been exhausting every other option to avoid being rubbed-out by the mob.  With nothing left to lose, they CHOOSE to leave Chicago, and their dignity, behind. It’s also at minute 25 that we first see Marilyn Monroe as she boards the train, and the camera gives her a head-to-toe goings-over that lets us know, in the language of cinema, that her intellect is respected above all else.

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Minute 25

THE GRADUATE, min 25:  Ben calls Mrs. Robinson and invites her to a hotel. Back at minute 12, she had tried to seduce him (in a scene you may have seen referenced several thousand times). But he resists her smokey, smokey charms because…well…it would turn future, family dinners into etiquette nightmares. But then her gin-soaked husband lectures Ben about making the most of his youth — playing the field, and so on — and his parents throw him the world’s lamest, birthday, pool-party. Seeing the adults around him trapped in a lifestyle he’s not eager to embrace, he CHOOSES to call Mrs. Robinson at minute 25 as a way of procrastinating his own perceived decent into his parent’s stolid existence (see: dictionary definition of “passive-aggressive”).

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MORE EXAMPLES…

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, min 25:  Indiana Jones walks into Marion’s bar, gaining the world’s worst sidekick and the bronze medallion that leads him to the Ark. But first they have a Casablanca moment with the genders reversed — he left her and now she’s the drunk with a bar — “Of all the Mongolian gin joints in the world, he had to walk into mine.”Raiders_of_the_Lost_Ark_1

GROUNDHOG DAY, min 25: Phil wakes-up to “I Got You Babe” for the third time. He’s already lived the same day over again once, but at minute 25, he realizes this problem isn’t going away. He CHOOSES to stop going through the motions and actively changes his behavior. He refuses to cover Punxsuntawney Phil and begins his journey of…doing stuff without consequences…

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On page 25, your character should make a CHOICE that changes the direction of the story and sends it on an irreversible journey towards the film’s climax. Some films have this moment happen at minute 27 or 29, and that’s fine. But in your script, discipline yourself and make Readers, Agents and Producers know you’ve got a handle on your story by sticking Plot Point One on good ol’ 25.

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for another tip from Screenplay that I’ll be discussing. And feel free to leave your own thoughts in the “Comments” section!

— Benjamin

This screenwriting tip comes from this week’s book, Screenplay by Syd Field:

A lot of people don’t believe that you need to have an ending before you start writing. “My characters,” people say, “will determine the ending.” Or, “My ending grows out of my story.” Or, “I’ll know my ending when I get to it.” Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. At least not in a screenplay. Why? Because you have only about 110 pages to tell your story. That’s not a lot of pages to be able to tell your story the way you want to tell it. THE ENDING IS THE FIRST THING YOU MUST KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGIN WRITING.  Why?  Everything is related in the screenplay, as it is in life. You don’t have to know the specific details of your ending when you sit down to write your screenplay, but you have to know what happens and how it affects the characters.” — Syd Field

I couldn’t agree more with this idea. Screenplays are stories. Stories convey morals and ideas. Morals and ideas are conveyed by showing the RESULTS of actions chosen by a protagonist at the start of a story. If you don’t know where your story is going, then you don’t REALLY KNOW what your story is about. Why would I want to read a story whose author had such a weak grasp of their own ideas that they didn’t even know what they wanted to say when they sat down to write? Great scripts contain echoes of early dialog and actions in their climax — everything that’s come before culminates in an ending that is the thesis of the film.

Take the nearly perfect film “BROADCAST NEWS”.

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One of the first scenes shows Jane, the protagonist, giving a speech to her fellow journalist about the dangers of entertainment passing for news.  To make her point, she shows them a clip from the evening news that’s embarrassingly lowbrow and the audience of journalists gets way too into it. She chastises them…

JANE: I know it’s good film. I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news!

By the end of the film, she has succumb to the charms of Tom, a handsome but empty-headed anchor. And when she confesses to her best friend Aaron that she may be in love with Tom, he gives her a speech that perfectly mirrors the one she gave at the opening of the film…

Aaron: I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone so please don’t take it the wrong way when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.

When James L. Brooks sat down to write this classic screenplay, he didn’t just start writing stuff that happens to Jane and hope he’d stumble upon a brilliant turn of plot. No. He decided that he would write the story of a principled woman who would be seduced by mediocrity. And at the end, she would have to decide to give up her love for her principles. HE KNEW THE END.  And once he knew the end, how would he start his story? By having her state the very principles she would later be tempted to throw away.

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for another tip from Screenplay that I’ll be discussing. And feel free to leave your own thoughts in the “Comments” section!

— Benjamin

screenplay

THE BOOK

SCREENPLAY: The Foundations of Screenwriting

by SYD FIELD

WHY THIS BOOK?

This is the foundation of the canon; the one on every insecure screenwriter’s bookshelf (including mine) that announces “Not only am I a real writer — I swear ! — I’m also schooled in the classics.” It’s only fitting that this be the first book I break down. Field wrote “Screenplay” in 1979. It was the first book devoted entirely to the art of screenwriting, and it made key distinctions between that form of writing and all others. Up to that point, no one had given the art of filmmaking enough respect to bother analyzing what made screenplays tick. Back in film school it was required reading and I skimmed it to the point that I could reference its main points on a test. But having now written several screenplays myself, and having read piles of scripts for agents and producers, I’m curious to see if there are deeper, more complex ideas in this book that’s now been whittled down in the minds of most film students to the introduction of the three-act concept.

WHAT’S IN IT

First off, let me commend Syd Field for figuring out the three-act-screenplay structure. It’s a good start in the quest to demystify the workings of good films, and it’s the jumping-off point for many, far superior books on screenwriting (it’s also deluded thousands of agents and producers into thinking they have a voice in the creative process). But reading Screenplay in 2009 to learn to write a screenplay is akin to reading Beowulf while preparing to write video game code. Struggling to get through its 300 + pages, I started to feel badly for the author — he was doing the best he could with very little precedent to work from. In desperation for respectability and sources, he quotes everyone from Cat Stevens to Henry James to Joseph Campell, with an occasional, desperate invocation of the New World Dictionary.  Like so many procrastinated thesis papers I wrote in college, Field’s book contains a couple of good points that are propped-up with unstructured ideas he restates over and over and mixes with random trivia.   He keeps jumping from one iconic film to the next and it’s hard to keep his points straight — I get it; “Chinatown” is a great film. But it’s not the film to use as an example when you’re teaching a new writer how to structure a screenplay! Nor is “Annie Hall”! To remain relevant, he’s also added a few “newer” films to the modern edition such as “Seabiscuit” and “Cold Mountain” — film titles I don’t tend to hear getting tossed around by writers I respect.

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Syd Field doesn’t write his book like a screenwriter. His approach to dissecting the structural elements of screenplays, while ground-breaking, reads academically. Experienced scriptwriters will gain the insight reading “Screenplay” that seasoned novelists will have reading “Shrunk and White”, i.e., it contains the fundamentals, but it’s not going to help you compose a great piece of writing. His patented “inciting incident” (the idea that screenplays begin with an event that ushers the protagonist into the main story) is about as helpful as mentioning that every complete sentence contains a verb.  Any writer with a speck of talent is already going to instinctually know that these sorts of elements are part of a successful film, and anyone who doesn’t shouldn’t be writing to begin with.

SCREENWRITING SECRETS

Well…Syd Field’s screenwriting secrets stopped being secrets around 1982 and are now closer to dogma. But they’re still nifty to know. When I first learned about Field’s THREE ACT STRUCTURE in film school, it was a revelation. From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of watching the time counter on the VCR hit 25 minutes, just as a movie’s first plot point is revealed. It’s still a thrilling feeling to hit that magic page count when writing — a feeling that you’re on the right path. But “Screenplay” could be cut down to a 50 page manual.

THE THREE-ACT-STRUCTURE IN A NUTSHELL…

A script’s FIRST ACT has 25 pages, during which we learn about our hero, their desires, and the world in which they inhabit.Around page 25, PLOT POINT #1 occurs. This is an event that either happens to the hero, or it’s a choice made by them, that leads them into a new reality where they go after what they desire. The SECOND ACT is usually about 60 pages long and is all about the protagonist encountering numerous obstacles in the way of their goal. Around page 90, PLOT POINT #2 occurs. This is a final choice made by the hero to make one last push to achieve their goal. The last twenty to thirty pages that follow constitute the THIRD ACT — the climax of the film — during which the hero succeeds or fails.  That’s it!  Pretty simple, right?  Now try doing it.

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IN CONCLUSION

Screenplay feels more analytical than tutorial. It gives film studies professors and hollywood producers the terminology to speak coherenly about parts of a film, but the book doesn’t take too many steps towards helping the actual screenwriters, who are up late at night, searching for a way out of a narrative hole they’ve dug for themselves somewhere in Act 2 (as I knock him, I use the very system he devised). And while it does have some fine ideas about how to write characters and scenes, many others have done so much better. Still, if all that “Screenplay” ends-up giving the world is the three-act-concept, then it’s done enough.

SHOULD YOU READ IT?     WEAK CONSIDER