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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Female Carries the Mystery

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 18, 2017

 

I’m re-reading one of my favorite books on writing, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Goes To the Movies.

Blake Snyder (who died tragically at age 51 in 2009) was a screenwriter who did a lot of thinking about what makes a story work and what makes it not work. His first book, Save the Cat!, is a classic.

Bogey and Bacall in "The Big Sleep"

Bogey and Bacall in “The Big Sleep”

One of Blake Snyder’s writer-friendly inventions is what he called “BS2,” the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.

The beat sheet broke a story—any story from the Iliad to La La Land—down into about sixteen “beats,” e.g. Opening Image, Theme Stated, Catalyst, Break into Two, etc.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the light of my ongoing “Reports from the Trenches” struggles.

I’m asking myself,

What am I learning through this process of rebuilding a story that has crashed?

How can I help others in the same straits?

What’s the Big Takeaway?

When you and I say that we “write instinctively,” what we mean is we trust our gut. That’s how we shape and flesh out our story. We might feel something like, “The story should be told by Character X, and not in memory but in the present.” Or, “Something’s missing in the middle. We need more with Characters Y and Z.”

What Blake Snyder was trying to do with his Beat Sheet (and what any good editor does, or what I myself am trying to do now with my Trenches project) is to formulize that process. Blake read a million novels and watched a million movies, and he concluded that the ones that work all follow certain timeless story principles or guidelines.

Sean Young in "Blade Runner" 1982

Sean Young in “Blade Runner” 1982

All stories that work have a similar shape, Blake believed. The specific one you or I might be working on at the moment will have its own unique shape. But it will cohere, in pretty predictable fashion, around the perennial “beats” of a narrative structure that has existed since our days of telling stories around the fire in the cave.

I agree.

Every story fits into a genre and every genre has conventions.

Here’s one I learned (I never knew this before) over the past five and half months beating my head against the wall on my police procedural/supernatural thriller.

 

            The female carries the mystery.

 

(Sara Paretsky’s wonderful V.I. Warshawski notwithstanding, I’m speaking in the old-school idiom where the detective—Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Rick Deckard—is a male.)

The above convention helped me enormously in reworking the story I was stuck on. I applied it and it worked.

What exactly do I mean by “the female carries the mystery?”

I mean that in a traditional detective story (which is what a police procedural is, even it’s set in the future like Blade Runner or Blade Runner 2049), the detective protagonist is usually following three threads as he drives the narrative forward:

 

  1. Solve the crime/bring the villain to justice.
  2. Unravel some inner personal conflict of his own.
  3. Unearth the secret(s) of the female lead, with whom he has become emotionally involved.

 

There’s always a woman, and the woman always has a secret.

Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown.

Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon.

Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling) in Farewell, My Lovely.

The female can be a femme fatale or a damsel in distress.

Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep.

But the bottom line for the male detective/cop/lover is

 

Unravel the woman’s secret (“She’s my sister, she’s my daughter!”) and you solve the crime.

 

What I’m trying to say is that genre matters.

Conventions count.

Ryan Gosling in "Blade Runner 2049"

Ryan Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049”

The story principles that work in other stories will work in yours and mine too.

And

 

Maybe the reason ours is not working is that we’re either violating a convention or we don’t even know it exists and so we’ve left it out.

 

I like the way Blake Snyder thinks because he looks to timeless storytelling principles and tries not to ignore them or to blow them off but to respect them and enlist them in our own story’s cause.

I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 yet, but for sure the female’s secret in the 1982 original (Rachel [Sean Young] is a replicant and in desperate need of help because of that) is central to that plot and to Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) actions throughout.

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Giving Myself Some Props

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 11, 2017

 

Okay, it’s done.

Today I wrap Draft #14 of the project that’s been kicking my butt and send it in to Shawn.

Jurgen Prochnow as the skipper in "Das Boot"

Jurgen Prochnow as the skipper in “Das Boot”

Will it fly? We’ll see. But for the moment (a short moment), my job becomes about self-validation, i.e. giving myself some props.

These “Reports from the Trenches” have been going on now for five and a half months. That means I’ve been rewriting a crashed-and-burned manuscript for that long.

 

Good job, Steve! Whatever happens, you have risen to the occasion. You have performed like a pro. You did not crap out (okay, maybe you whined and sniveled a little) and you did not go into the tank. Half a warm beer for you!

 

But seriously …

Who else is gonna give you and me a pat on the back if we don’t do it ourselves? Our spouse maybe. Our agent. A good friend or two.

Their kind words are valid and much appreciated.

But the thing is … they don’t know. They can’t really. The only one who really knows is you and me.

Remember the training sequence in the first Rocky? With the theme music, “Flying High Now,” in the background as Rocky completes his final sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum? That was great. It was stirring. You had to love it.

But in the real word, what would’ve happened was Rocky would have gone from there to a preliminary bout, stepped into the ring, and been kayoed in the first round by some ham-and-egg fighter that nobody, including Rocky, had every heard of.

THEN the real work would’ve started.

Back to gulping those six raw eggs at four-thirty on a freezing winter morning. Back to jogging through the flower market, racing along the wharf, and punching frozen sides of beef in Pauly’s meat locker.

Do it all again, the second time. Without the theme music.

Can you do that? Have you done it? I take my hat off to you. That thankless, glamourless passage is the difference between being an amateur and being a pro.

Rocky woulda done it. And you and I would too.

It may seem silly to give ourselves kudos. It may seem vain and even a little preposterous. But this, like the work itself, is the difference between being an amateur and being a pro.

One of my favorite scenes in a movie (and the source of the “half a warm beer” reference) comes from Wolfgang Petersen’s great submarine film, Das Boot. Have you seen it? About a German U-boat in WWII? A young war correspondent (meant to be the audience’s window into the film) is just joining the seasoned crew of a submarine about to put out to sea. The sub has been refitting in port for several weeks; the crew has been laboring non-stop; the at-sea shakedown has been completed … the vessel is ready to set forth. The crew assembles on deck. A young lieutenant serves as a guide and escort to the correspondent. The captain, played by Jurgen Prochnow, finally appears.

 

                                                YOUNG LIEUTENANT

(to correspondent)

Now comes the speech.

 

The skipper steps up before the men.

 

CAPTAIN

Now, men. Everything set?

 

The crew shouts “Yes, sir.” The captain smiles, nods, and turns to board the vessel.

 

YOUNG LIEUTENANT

(to correspondent)

Some speech, huh?

 

And he too hustles off to board the sub.

 

That’s my idea of self-validation. Between you-and-me and you-and-me.

We know.

We understand.

It’s enough.

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Tricks of the Trade, #11

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 4, 2017

 

The theme of the past months’ “Reports from the Trenches” has been

 

       How can we resuscitate our story after it crashes?

 

This is no easy issue, as all of us know. It feels to me, being in the middle of the process right now, like I’m grabbing my story by the belt, turning it upside-down and shaking it till all the loose change tumbles out of its pockets.

Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in "Chinatown"

Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in “Chinatown”

We’re trying to get our story to give up its secrets.

To spill its guts.

To sing like a canary.

Here’s a trick that sometimes works:

 

        Bring the story back to where it started.

 

In other words, circle back at the end to a character from the beginning. Or a setting. Or a mood or a phrase or a thought.

Remember the opening of Chinatown? Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes is meeting in his office with a client named Curly (Burt Young), who happens to be a skipjack fisherman working out of San Pedro. Jake shows Curly surveillance photos of Curly’s wife, cheating with another man. Curly breaks down, clutching in tears at Jake’s window blinds.

 

CURLY

She’s just no good!

 

JAKE

Curly, go easy on the Venetian blinds, will ya?. I just had ’em

installed last week.

 

The scene ends with Curly apologizing to Jake for not being able to pay his bill. Curly exits. We think the scene’s purpose was just to introduce Jake and his world as an L.A. private detective.

Cut to the movie’s final reel. Jake is now trying to save another client, the glamorous but desperately troubled Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her daughter Katherine from the clutches of her dastardly father, Noah Cross (John Huston.)

To whom does Jake turn for help?

Curly.

(We have not seen Curly in the movie at all since that opening scene.)

To settle his arrears with Jake, Curly agrees to take Evelyn and Katherine aboard his fishing boat and help them flee by sea to Ensenada. The attempt ends in tragedy of course, but the circling back of the story from Curly-at-the-start to Curly-at-the-finish is a nice piece of (almost) closure.

And this doubling-back maintains the movie’s image system of water (the dam, the dry L.A. River, the Oak Pass Reservoir where Hollis Mulwray is drowned and Jake almost loses his nose, et cetera et cetera around the villain Noah Cross’s corrupt scheme of bringing irrigation water to Los Angeles toward the end of making it into a world-class city.)

In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962 and one of my all-time faves), the protagonist and narrator Binx Bolling describes this same doubling-back phenomenon from a different and very interesting perspective:

 

A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.

 

Binx loves movies. He observes than when he sees an old film, say, twenty years after he saw it in its original release, the interval of time between the viewings becomes unified and heightened.

That’s what happens to our readers, yours and mine, if we can pull off this trick in our stories.

At the risk of becoming long-winded, consider the following hypothetical:

You and I are writing a book about King Arthur.

Excalibur in the Stone. Is there some way we can circle back to this?

Excalibur in the Stone. Is there some way we can circle back to this?

Early on, we have the scene of the young Arthur drawing the sword from the stone. Great scene. Destiny. The idea of “the chosen one,” etc.

Now, four hundred pages later, we’ve reached the part where Arthur’s kingship has turned sterile and empty. Lancelot has betrayed him. Guinevere has proved untrue. The Round Table has fallen apart.

Arthur, in despair, accompanied by only a handful of his last royal retainers, trudges through a dark wood in winter.

We’re stuck, you and I.

We’ve lost our story.

But wait …

Is there some way we can “double back?” Can we somehow return to some scene or moment or character that went before—and thereby re-energize our story?

 

Arthur and his men enter a clearing. The sun is setting. A cold wind rips through the forest. The prospect of an endless, bitterly cold night looms. Suddenly …

Arthur senses something familiar in the clearing.

OMG, this is the site of the Stone!

The stone from which Arthur drew the sword so many years ago.

The place looks terrible. Gone to seed, overgrown, neglected. But this is the place, all right.

Arthur dismounts, crosses expectantly to the Stone …

 

See what I mean? We can play this scene five different ways and every one of them works.

The doubling back of Stone Then to Stone Now creates a “repetition,” within whose spell the intervening years cohere, for good or ill. And from that cohesion can arise insight, a twist in the story, a fresh resolve.

Suppose, in our Arthur story, the despondent king steps to the Stone, hoping for some flash of magic.

But the Stone is silent.

Inert.

It’s just another ordinary rock.

We have reached our hero’s All Is Lost moment.

What epiphany can possibly follow?

Perhaps Arthur, from the depths of despair, senses that his challenge is to keep on struggling for the good and the true even in the absence of destiny, with no support except that which he can generate from his own resources.

That ain’t bad.

That’s a scene.

It works.

In fact it turns the whole story.

And we, the writers, got to it by using a trick.

We asked ourselves, “How can I double back and make the story circle around to some place or moment or character from which it began?”

[I tried this, by the way, in the book I’m wrestling with now. It didn’t work. I couldn’t find a ‘double-back’ that made sense.

[That’s okay too. Not every trick works every time.

[Perhaps my destiny is to struggle on, supported only by my own resources.

[Or perhaps the Stone retains its magic, subtly nudging me to that seemingly hard but actually liberating and empowering Epiphanal Moment.]

 

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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