The Story Spine
I am deep into writing my third Cat! book, titled Save the Cat! Strikes Back. This is the “troubleshooting” Cat! — the one with the most information for fixing any aspect of your script… or career! Writing Cat! 3 also gives me a chance to add what I’ve learned teaching the Cat! method in the past three years, and for that I am ever grateful — because I keep learning new tricks every time I stand in front of a writer’s group and give a talk.
I was in Vancouver this weekend for a quick one-day event and wow! what a great bunch of writers. I feel like we finally have the beginnings of a “hit ’em again harder” Cat! writer’s group in B.C. that will get in there and fight to make their scripts the best. I will be posting more details about who will be running the group and how to contact them. Meantime, my thanks to Vancouver’s best education source for creators of all kinds, Biz Books, and their own Cat! for putting together such a great event.
One of the things we discussed this weekend is the most basic need in good story craft, and one I am right in the middle of writing about in STC! 3 — namely, finding the “spine” of the story. And once again, by talking about it, I learned something new Saturday.
In the first Save the Cat! I propose that every good tale hits the 15 beats of my beat sheet, the infamous BS2! But I now propose further that Step One of any story breaking adventure must begin with only three of those points: The Opening Image, The Final Image, and The Midpoint.
These three points block out what your story will be.
How does this movie begin and how does it end? That’s the key to finding the Opening Image and the Final Image. It’s what I call “snipping the ends” of the story… and it couldn’t be more vital. After coming up with the idea and logline for your script, answering this question is the next step.
In the beginnning of Liar Liar, Jim Carrey is a liar; by the end he’s not. What happened? In the Opening Image of Sleepless in Seattle Tom Hanks and his son are burying his dead wife; in the Final Image, Tom and his son walk off with Meg Ryan. Wow! Something big went on there, a complete reversal! This drastic change, these opposites MUST be huge, upside down, night and day differences. It’s a difference that we need as an audience to be in there — otherwise why invest in the hero’s journey?
As to the Midpoint, this continues to be the nerve center of any script for me, with more and more “things” adding to its mystique. If you can crack the Midpoint, you’ve cracked the story. Just look at all the things that happen there: It’s where there’s either a “false victory” or a “false defeat”; it’s where the “stakes are raised” and “time clocks” appear; it’s where the Bad Guys learn the Good Guy’s secret (Die Hard) or his whereabouts (Witness, E.T.); it’s where the boy and girl kiss for the first time (Sex at 60!); where big parties and events announce the hero getting “everything he thought he wanted” (Bruce Almighty) or in the event of a “false defeat,” take that same totality away (Legally Blonde — remember Elle Woods in her bunny ears?)
And it is EVER thus: be it indie, big budget blockbuster or sitcom — crack the midpoint, crack the story.
Those three points constitute the “spine” and must be addressed first. On Saturday I realized that this is something we will likely add to our software, too. Perhaps it is a three-point beat sheet that precedes the 15 Beats, yet one more failsafe to stop writers from moving on until they vet the way they are creating their story. After coming up with the killer idea, breaking out these three points guarantees success.
I can’t wait to continue sharing ideas in the Cat! books to come. Everywhere I go to bring this easy method to writers who want to win in this, the greatest time ever to be a writer with a vision! With more opportunity than has ever been available before, how can we fail?!
So long as we keep on our mission — good stories, well told — we too will win every time.
- Jason Arnopp
Good stuff, sir, which every screenwriter should probably be bearing in mind. This is my first Blake Snyder internet page, and I shall be investigating many more.
I think it’s crucial to have that transformative beat in the middle of the script because that can sometimes be the moment in the theatre when the audience is looking at their watches.
And you’re right about the midpoint being mystical. Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s subtle (but no less powerful). It’s one of the trickier beats for me to figure out, but once I do I find my story begins to gel and I have more confidence going forward.
Boy, I can’t wait for Save the Cat 3! Soon the subtitle of the first book will read: “The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need… plus a few others.”
- Joe Cawley
Sound advice, Blake… as always.
As you say, to support a killer story, it’s essential to start with a strong BEAM (Beginning, End And Midpoint).
Looking forward to the next part of your trilogy.
I realize this is off topic, but is anyone having issues the past few days accessing the FORUM? It keeps crashing on me.
- Graham Jones
great points! You know, after reading around 25 screenwriting books in the last year, it is becoming more and more clear that almost all of them miss the points that are most crucial to the beginning screenwriter or even seasoned screenwriter who is starting a new script — how to create and give form to the initial idea, and how to make it grow in a way that ties the threads of the characters to the threads of the story.
Your book is the best I’ve seen at going from log line to finished story, and this blog post about the spine of the story is also very helpful…
Further to this, what I would love to see is a lot more of how to set up character types that create the most conflict and most compelling story. Robert McKee’s “Story” gives an excellent high-level treatment of this, but I haven’t seen anything on the lower level aspects of how to drum up these character relationships.
For instance, I’ve heard the writers of Shrek say that the whole movie was about accepting yourself as you are, and each of the four main characters was set up early in the writing process with defining characteristics that reflected opposing aspects of this theme. Because their disposition was set up this way at the beginning, it not only created instant opportunities for conflict, but any conflict reflected and propelled the theme. Also, story points and scenes were easier to create because they knew what arcs they needed for the main characters, and they just had to create the scenes and story points that would advance these arcs.
Pilar Alessandra apparently teaches about this in one of her classes, as I saw an excerpt in a promotional video. However, I have yet to see a lower-level treatment of this concept in book form. In your “Save the Cat” book, you have a great treatment on creating the hero, and then go into beating out the story. To me, I think crafting the characters that will be counterpoints to the hero and defining how they will conflict with each other (hopefully around the theme) would be a very helpful intermediary step in between coming up with the hero and beating out the story.
- Sarah Beach
Dang, Blake! No sooner do you say this, than I realize I forgot a crucial point about my hero’s character development in the script I started this evening. Fortunately only a couple of scenes have been written so far. But your point about the mid-point is making me go back and check myself! Heh.
But I like the Three Point Start.
(Oh, and maybe you should subtitle the original Save the Cat! “the FIRST screenwriting book you will always need”! )
- Doug Miller
The three-point starting line up is pure genius! What better way can there be to map out your story, especially when combined with the BS2 and all your other great advice? It’s like zooming in on your story, seeing first the big picture then the smaller and smaller details. It almost makes it easy…
- Salvador Rubio
Nice idea, Blake! Just an idea: what if this 3-beat pre-beatsheet is used to build the logline? In some ways, these 3 beats must be present in the logline to make it work.
I mean that we usually describe the opening image in the logline (people waking up in a spaceship), the midpoint (a killer alien is set loose in the spaceship) and the final image, which we usually don’t deliver -for suspense reasons (one survivor plus cat sleeping in the spaceship).
It’s interesting to note, though, that we usually deliver also the catalyst in the logline, so a formula for a logline could be: Opening Image + Catalyst + Midpoint + (final image, which we don’t tell unless the producer asks us, and that’s a good sign in a pitch :) ).
So roughly it would be something like: A bunch of space truckers wake up in their spaceship (OI), when attending to a sos signal (catalyst) they end up delivering a killer alien on board (MP), [until the alien kills all of them but one, which flees safe with a cat] (CI).
I’ll work on this! Sounds promising.
I think that’s close, Salvador, but isn’t the concept enough? If you’ve already locked your logline, the three point plot is the way to chart change in the hero. To use your example, we start Sigourney in Alien isolated from the crew, a follower of rules, a little cold, at Midpoint stakes are raised when the monster she warned everyone about pops out of John Hurt’s chest, the “false victory” of thinking the monster is dead is over, and the “time clock” of needing to kill this thing before it morphs further begins. By the end, when Sigourney is the lone surivivor, she has had her “save the cat” moment that shows her growth as a human being; she’s not a sterile rule follower, she has grown for the journey. To me, if you plot these things out up front, you know the “spine” of the story — the transformation of the hero from + to – or – to + due to this adventure.
Die Hard: First image: Plane landing if you want to take it literally. Nervous McClane in the plane seat with smug air traveler next to him if you take the first real scene.
Midpoint: McClane alerts the outside world to what’s going on inside Nakatomi Towers by throwing the corpse of a terrorist onto Carl’s police squad car.
Final image: McClane and Holly climb aboard the limo and are driven home, while the cleanup operations at Nakatomi Plaza continue.
Not the three beats which outline the entire story, I would venture…
Howzabout Inciting incident/midpoint/climax as Three Crucial Beats?
Are we talking about the transformation of the main character or the plot?
McClane changes with regards to his wife & marriage, because when the chips are really down and he thinks he’s not going to make it, he discovers the truth about his real deepest feelings about his wife and gains insight in his own mistakes. So in that respect, there is a before/after quality to the beginning and the ending even though when the film opens we don’t yet know the marriage is strained – that only becomes clear in the limo ride with Arville (sp?).
However, ask anyone what Die Hard is about and the answer will be along the lines of ‘it’s about one guy who has to take on twelve deadly terrorists in a hi-tech building’. Not ‘it’s about a cop who is ruining his marriage because of his selfishness and becomes aware of how wrong he is during a battle with a dozen terrorists’. Inciting incident, midpoint and climax DO give you that main spine. In this case, Opening image, midpoint and final image give you the arc of the main subplot (personal life of McClane). Though what I consider the midpoint (letting the cops know about the hostage crisis) doesn’t necessarily add to this arc.
It does constitute a False Victory, because after the fun and games (McClane alone against the entire terrorist bunch), he finally gets the word out so help is on the way (LAPD and later on FBI). He thinks his part of the job is done (and there’s a part in the movie where McClane sits out some of the action), but he’s wrong. Not only are the LAPD incapable of overcoming the villains, they actually help them achieve their goal by bringing in the Feds (who are essential to getting the vaults open).
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I agree with you on finding the three points to hang your ‘clothesline’ of scenes on. Finding those points, I feel, helps writers know what they are writing ‘to’ and where they need to go. I feel writers who do not work to find the opening and the final image as well as the midpoint end up putting out of steam halfway through BECAUSE they didn’t isolate the center midpoint beat.
What I find almost as vital as that is the opposite beat in the All Is Lost section you detail in your books. That opposite mirror beat is so important. The more I write looking at your text and the more movies I watch I can now clearly see that rise and fall in a story and the importance of that mirrored ‘false defeat and/or ‘false victory’ beat.
Good luck getting past your midway point in Cat #3! Can’t wait to read it (and hey — come see us in NYC again soon!).
P.S. I would love to read your experiences with writers in how they found those opening and closing images, as well as the midway beat — how they stayed open to finding it, emotionally, and how it related to their discovery and exploration of theme…