GIVE ME THE SAME THING… ONLY DIFFERENT!
Studying screenwriting as a way to improve my novel has been amazingly helpful. After all, a movie is just a story put on film. Lots of films are adapted from books; why not go the other direction and allow film structure to inform the novel?
Blake Snyder’s point in chapter two of Save the Cat is that you have to put a fresh spin on an old idea. It won’t be cliché, if you know what tradition you are writing in. Your goal is to give it a twist to make it new. “The point is to be well-versed in the language, rhythm, and goals of the genre…. learn its rules and find what’s essential.”
Know your genre. WHAT IS IT… MOST LIKE?
Snyder categorizes movies into ten different genres, but they aren’t the “standard genre types, such as Romantic Comedy, Epic, or Biography — because those names don’t really tell me anything about what the story is.”
He focuses instead on story structure, or core story types. And he argues pretty convincingly that every movie out there falls into one of these ten categories. Maybe every novel doesn’t, because novels can do things like interior monologues, descriptions of setting, and commentary, that films rarely (if ever) indulge in. But studying stories is always time well spent.
Here are the ten genres. Does your story fit into one of them? If so, could your project benefit from watching some related movies? Pop some popcorn and pick out a few!
•Monster in the House
The “house” is any confined space. Characters are trapped, feel smothered, with no escape. Sin is committed. The monster is revealed, kills the sinners, spares the heroes. Lots of “run and hide” sequences.
Jaws, Scream, Alien.
The quest myth, where the hero goes in search of one thing and finds another, usually himself. Road movies, heist movies fit into this category, where the scenes are somewhat episodic because the theme is less linear and more concerned with internal growth.
The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Jason and the Argonauts, Ocean’s Eleven.
•Out of the Bottle
The wish fulfillment genre. It can feature a magical genie, or not. The point is the main guy we like gets his wish and the story covers what happens next. In the end a moral ties a nice neat bow around the package.
Bruce Almighty, Flubber.
The reverse of this category is the comeuppance tale, in which a guy we don’t like all that much gets what’s coming to him, proves he has some redeeming qualities, and eventually triumphs. There must be a Save the Cat scene early on, or else you risk losing your audience at the outset.
Groundhog Day, Freaky Friday.
•Dude with a Problem
“An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.” The story starts off with an ordinary day in the life of the regular Joe which quickly turns catastrophic as the problem is revealed. You’ll need really bad villains, insurmountable problems, and an ingenious way for our supposedly ordinary guy to outsmart the enemies and save the day.
Die Hard, Titanic, Schindler’s List.
•Rites of Passage
Coming of age, midlife crises, dealing with the death of a loved one— these are all rites of passage. “In a good Rites of Passage tale, everybody’s in on ‘the joke’ except the person going through it,” and the story charts “the hero’s grudging acceptance of the forces of nature that he cannot control or comprehend, and the victory comes with the hero’s ability to ultimately smile.”
Ordinary People, Pretty in Pink, Lost in Translation.
Buddy stories can be about two guys, two girls, two fish, a boy and his dog, lovers. The story often starts with the two hating each other, but during their adventure together find they need each other, which they also hate. The All Is Lost moment is when we think they are calling it quits, but in the end they realize they’re better together. Love wins.
“The buddy movie was invented by a screenwriter who realized that his hero had no one to react to. There was just this big, empty space where interior monologue and description is found in fiction.”
Dumb and Dumber, Notting Hill, Rain Man.
Detective stories, social dramas, dark heart kinds of tales that ask not just who did this, but why did it happen? The story explores something so evil we could not imagine it being possible, then turns the question back on ourselves: what am I capable of?
Snyder reckons Chinatown is the best example of the whydunit Hollywood has to offer. “It’s one of those movies that you can see a thousand times and drive deeper into smaller and smaller rooms of the Nautilus shell with each viewing.” I haven’t seen it, but it sounds worthwhile.
Citizen Kane, Rear Window, Fargo, Minority Report.
•The Fool Triumphant
An underestimated underdog proves to be wiser than the establishment and more capable than he at first appears. With determination and a bit of luck, he saves the day, wins the girl, and becomes an unlikely hero.
Forrest Gump, Legally Blonde, Aladdin.
These stories draw attention to groups, families, institutions like the military. Often the hero is a newcomer with whom the audience can identify, and there is a secondary character who is more experienced and helps the virgin newbie (and us) learn the ropes.
The group is often portrayed as crazy in some way, yet people are loyal to the group and willing to sacrifice themselves to a certain extent. There’s a survival element, and “each has a breakout character whose role is to expose the group goal as a fraud.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, Top Gun, Office Space.
Exactly the opposite of Dude With a Problem: extraordinary person faces the ordinary world. We can never totally identify with the superhero, but we can all identify with being misunderstood. The writer often makes the superhero sympathetic and relatable by stressing the flip side of being a genius/superhuman/god. They have problems, too.
X-Men, A Beautiful Mind, Gulliver’s Travels, The Matrix.
As I finished writing this post, I found a PDF on Blake Snyder’s website called Save The Cat Goes to the Movies! At a Glance that lists hundreds of movies by category. Not only that, each category is broken down into five sub-genres, so you can really narrow down what type of story you’re writing and find similar movies to watch.