Where’s the Irony?
I am feverishly writing away my third Cat! book. It’s called Save the Cat! Strikes Back and subtitled More Trouble for Screenwriters To Get In To… And Out Of.
I am really having a ball. I’m incorporating everything I’ve learned in and out of the workshops, and via our email interactions, in the past few years. Working with writers and seeing the same problems crop up again and again allows me to see how we all make the same mistakes.
One thing that Save the Cat! is best known for, and no other screenwriting book really discusses, is “the idea.” That may be because I have always been “the poster guy,” the writer who loves concept and to whom other writers come to see if they have anything, and if not how can they put it in their idea.
What is your pitch, your logline, your encapsulation of the brand new movie idea that you love?
And how can we communicate that to the listener or reader of our pitch or logline without losing them?
We see it! We’re excited! We are inspired!
Why aren’t they?
In my new book I discuss the Three Things That Don’t Grab Me about your idea, because believe it or not, when I hear your pitch (and I’ve emailed back to thousands of you — often within 15 minutes!), the ones that don’t work fall into three very distinct types.
Among the deficiencies in an idea that doesn’t grab me is No Stakes — basically there is nothing riding on this story for your hero. Another is Tone. If I can’t tell if your idea is a drama or a comedy, trouble! Many times I have written back to a writer saying:” Ha! Hilarious idea!” only to be told it’s a searing drama. Oops! But believe it or not, that’s not my fault, that’s yours. If you aren’t indicating somehow what the tone of this idea is, you have fallen short.
The fix of an idea that doesn’t grab me — comedy or drama — almost always is to find the “irony” of it. What gets our attention, what is the “hook,” the “sizzle” of an idea? What’s “ironic” about Erin Brockovich is not the plot, which finds a crusader exposing the wrongs of a powerful company, but the fact that the person doing the crusading is the very last person on Earth who would be called to this duty. Irony is not only the “sizzle,” it hints at the transformation of the hero, and the size of the challenge as well.
Your idea is the same.
Where’s the irony of your idea? That’s not only what gets our attention, but what hints at a story about a hero that changes. These can all be indicated in your pitch or logline, little clues that give us a clue about what’s in your fevered imagination.
And saying it, right up front, grabbing our attention and luring us in for more, is the first step in inviting me into the darkness of your air-conditioned movie theater and finding a center seat in anticipation of a great experience!
P.S. I am loving the entries in our latest contest! If you want to check out some truly great writing, and some fevered — but hilarious — imaginations, check out “Spinoff: The Contest” Comments. Keep ’em coming! Can’t wait to give out the prizes for this very fun competition. Congratulations to all!
- Andy Brown
Bring on the book, Blake! We love the others!
This is straight up feedback. I hope it is taken with a grain of salt, as I know it is hard to read tone in these comment things. I like your books, have seen you speak, and in general, just like your personality and take on the whole business of screenwriting.
One of the things that I, personally, think is missing from your books (and most books on screenwriting in general) is an indepth look at genre. I bring this up, because I think you are touching upon how genre effects a screenplay in this blog topic.
I know Save The Cat! creates a whole bunch of “new” genres that describe “types of story.” However, they avoid what genre truly is. I think this is because, genre really isn’t about story, plot, or character. Genre is a reflection of the audience. It’s the fine line between giving the audience what they want and pandering.
Each genre has its given expectation. And the audience WANTS those expectations to not only be met, but to be exceeded. There is a power in genre, that I am not sure most people grasp.
The truly scary thing, is Hollywood is begging for genre films, but this new up and coming, smart, savvy generation of “How to”-screenwrite-book-reading readers and execs don’t understand, that within certain genres you can it is okay to sacrifice elements that would otherwise completely ruin a similar premise in a different genre.
Take TRUE LIES as an example. The plot is the same recycled, terrorists steal nuclear weapons and hold a city hostage. What makes it different is the hook of the family relationship and the James Cameron huge action pieces.
The chase that starts with Harry being tailed and going into the bathroom — that ends with him trying to jump a horse from rooftop to rooftop is 10 PAGES and ultimately doesn’t add any new information, move the plot forward, or really give us any new insight on the character. It’s just an incredible action sequence (that is also incredibly appropriate for both the character and plot, even though it doesn’t move anything forward).
And the movie would suffer without it. That sequence is incredible — for an action junky.
In a way, genre is comparing all movies throughout the history or cinema and asking whether this is something new and exciting within the genre itself? Does it satisfy the audience expectation, while giving something that seems new and fresh?
In all honesty, I think that understanding of genre is more important to movies than story, character, structure, or plot.
Great comment, James! But this is why “action” doesn’t help describe what story a writer is trying to tell. I wrote Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies to give writers a guide to where to go next for the idea they are working on and give them a whole new set of movies to look at they might not have thought about. If you are writing what would traditionally be called a “heist” movie, it’s great to check out the classics, Rififi, Bob Le Flambeur etc. And if it is a true “heist” you will want to satisfy audience expectation — and take it the next step to make that fresh. But if you are writing a “heist” story, which I put in the category of “Golden Fleece” I would also suggest you look at “sports”” films (Hoosiers) or “road movies” (Private Ryan) and you will find the same dynamics. Look at the leader’s “team” in these categories, each team member has a “special skill” and usually one the hero lacks, but by the end he has learned from them, and absorbed their virtues — that’s why we’re really telling the story! True Lies is just Mrs. and Mrs. Smith which is just…. Lethal Weapon! They’re at core love stories, and why I put them in the “Buddy Love” category; the fact that there are also action set pieces is just part of how the two “lovers” get together. For Cameron’s superb horse chase you cite, Mel Gibson’s leap with a jumper as a horrified Danny Glover looks on, is just as off the wall fun (or was at the time), but it services the love story’s theme and point: “My life changed for having met another.” Me, I’m not only a screenwriter — and play one on TV! — I am an English major with a theology minor from Georgetown University, but my main goal is practical and why I think Save the Cat! is so helpful to writers. I say: “How can we help you tell your story in a fresh way?” One way is to break up your pre-conceived notions about “genre” and get to essence of what the story really is. If we can shake it up like that, and throw you a few curve balls about the story you’re writing, all kinds of new, fresh stuff will appear in your screenplay and make it more like to wow execs… and audiences!
When it comes to screenwriting, this is one of my favorite topics. The idea itself. I don’t think any other literary art focuses more attention and energy on the actual premise or idea of the story… than screenwriting. How many times have I had a mediocre idea but was determined to write the thing anyway (mostly because I thought I knew how I could make it work regardless) only to find myself either unable to finish it, or unable to get anyone to read it because the premise itself wasn’t captivating enough.
It’s really where it all starts. The idea has to be good enough that an exec can tell his/her boss the idea over the phone while they’re trying to get their kids ready for school and they’ll still want to read the script. Or when they go around the table during story meetings… it’s YOUR idea that makes everyone go “wow, that sounds cool.”
It doesn’t matter how well-written the thing is, if no one wants to read it, you’ve almost wasted all that time writing it! This realization was a watershed moment for me personally, and now I don’t write a single slug line until I know my idea is going to wow ’em.
New book sounds amazing, Blake.
When can we expect it?
“True Lies is just Mrs. and Mrs. Smith which is just…. Lethal Weapon! They’re at core love stories, and why I put them in the “Buddy Love” category; the fact that there are also action set pieces is just part of how the two “lovers” get together.”
But you are also including movies like, SOME LIKE IT HOT, in the category of “Buddy Love,” which clearly has a different audience than Lethal Weapon and MR. AND MRS. SMITH.
That’s the difference between genre.
The difference between STORY, you go great depth into, and I think it is very insightful. I’d just like to see more on the topic of genre.
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Holy epiphany, Batman. Great one, Blake! “Irony is the “sizzle,” that hints at the transformation of the hero.” Thanks.