20stl screambox bannerI’ve written before about how Blake Snyder changed my life. You can read the whole story here, but this is the short version: I wrote a script, read Save the Cat!, rewrote the script, sold it for a ton of money, and it got made. Killers was not a hit, and audience responses were mixed, but getting anything made in this crazy business is a triumph. And making something good? Well, that’s harder than ever.

A lot of people debate why. They blame the corporatization of Hollywood, the overloaded attention spans of modern day audiences, and recently some even point at teachers like Blake who give writers tools to help tell their stories. Some say the ironclad rules of screenwriting have stifled storytelling in Hollywood.

I disagree, and the reason is simple: there are no rules. Not really. What we really have are guidelines and principles on how to get what’s in our heads and hearts onto the page. Blake inspired me to really know what my story was about and then execute a version of it that would deliver on the promise of its premise. And the best part is, I’ve learned to use Blake’s teachings in all my work, not just screenwriting.

Some recent examples:

Last year, I was hired to co-write Video Palace, the first original fiction podcast from SHUDDER. My co-writer Ben Rock and I tackled a story created by the show’s creators Mike Monello and Nick Braccia, turning a 10-page pitch document into a 10-episode series that ran over three hours. The story involves a couple who receive a creepy video tape and set out to discover its sinister connection to the Video Palace, a legendary VHS store that burned down in the 90’s.

There was no beat sheet for anything like this, so we had to figure out how to break the story on our own. And as we began putting notecards on boards, we saw some familiar story beats emerge. There’s the end of Episode Two where our couple really commits to solving the mystery (Break into Two). The road trip to the small town where the Video Palace burned down offered plenty of creepy moments and was the perfect Midpoint to our story.

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And then in Episode Eight, the couple’s friend is gravely injured after helping them, their apartment is ransacked and all their evidence destroyed, and the stress of all this causes our main characters to split up. Ben and I always called this our All Is Lost episode, even pitching it that way to SHUDDER execs, who instantly understood what our narrative shorthand meant. I’m proud to say that Video Palace has been really well received with over 600 five-star reviews on iTunes.

Another example: Ben and I co-created the anthology horror/comedy web-series 20 Seconds To Live. The first season played nearly 20 web and film festivals, winning multiple awards including Best Web Series at the Nashville International Film Festival. Our show is a study in primal storytelling if there ever was one. Each episode features a new cast of characters and before you know it, a 20-second timer appears on-screen. When it reaches zero, someone dies! Trying to guess who gets it and how is most of the fun.

It was a unique challenge figuring out how to tell such simple stories and engage the audience quickly (most episodes are around two minutes long). We figured out what made a good episode, and in that structure, you can see a truncated version of Blake’s beat sheet. Every episode begins with a new set of characters (Set-Up) who are in the middle of some sort of problem (Break into Two). Before you know it, that timer counts down and then All Is Lost. We usually end with a comedic tag which doubles as a Third Act resolution. All in two minutes. You can check out our first season now and our second season drops beginning October 4 at 20SecondsToLive.com.

The point I’m trying to make is I love telling stories, and I love having tools at my disposal that are both powerful and flexible. It’s less about knowing exactly what’s going to happen on what page, and instead understanding that there’s a flow to good storytelling. We want to see a character, desperately in need of change, on a challenging journey that helps them transform into a better version of themselves. We also want a fascinating premise that delivers what it promises. And it really doesn’t matter what medium we work in.

I used what Blake taught me to write a big movie, a hit podcast, and an award-winning web-series. What will you use his tools for? I can’t wait to find out.