Category Archives: Save the Cat


We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars;
Now all we do is look down and worry about our place in the dirt.


We saw Interstellar today.

It was as visually stunning as we hoped it would be, maybe not as science-y as we expected, and far more spiritual than any reviewers so far had let on.

Punk is an avid reader of all things pertaining to outer space. He says the effects were realistic, in keeping with what he’s read pertaining to worm holes and time warps. And my stomach actually dropped at one point, just like on a roller coaster! Kind of awesome to know a movie can achieve that.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer, but not by choice. He’s a former NASA pilot, “a pioneer and an explorer,” living in a bleak post-space-race semi-apocalypse in which crops are not only failing but becoming extinct. It’s only a matter of time before humankind will be wiped out.

Cooper’s daughter, Murphy, is a smart kid with a “ghost” in her room. Synopsis/mini-spoiler: she leads him to decipher a message that takes him on a mission to save the human race.

It’s interesting that the script speaks often of other beings, benevolent ones. Why are they helping us?

And the ghost. I thought more than once of the Holy Ghost of religious lore. No one ever mentions God or gods, but my mind was constantly going there. Even the dialogue regarding the topic of love was reminiscent of sermons I’ve heard about how “God is love.”

Names are also significant in the movie. Murphy is named after Murphy’s Law: what can happen will happen.

There are other overt references to things being named after people, too. My favorite was one of the explorers sent out ahead of Cooper called Mann. Mann is touted as brilliant and brave, “the reason we’re going out there.” What eventually becomes of him is an interesting commentary.

I can’t tell! Don’t want to ruin it!

Let’s just say Christopher Nolan has some hopeful ideas about the resilience of mankind and the possibilities of going beyond being mere caretakers of the earth.

I can’t watch a movie anymore without thinking of Save the Cat! Some parts of Interstellar don’t fully conform to Blake Snyder’s model. It’s long. The Pope in the pool comes late. It’s intense. The “Fun and Games” portion is little more than a deep breath before we get right back into the action. The final image isn’t a mirror image of the opening. It doesn’t matter. Other parts are spot on, particularly the “All is Lost” moments and the way the B story reflects and eventually meshes with the A story. It’s truly well done, so let’s just think of Interstellar as an exception that proves the rule.

I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining, emotional, intelligent film. Watch it in IMAX for the full visual effect, and plan to go out for stellar conversation (or maybe a bit of stargazing) afterwards.


Time to edit

After finishing my novel’s first draft in April, I set it aside for six months to fester marinate before editing. Today being October 1, I’m ready to resurrect the beast and start filing off its scaly edges.

These notes I wrote to myself back in the halcyon days of becoming la belle noveliste, based largely on my adaptation of the screenwriting strategy laid out in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Now that I’ve arrived on ye olde editing shore, it’s time to unpack.


Questions to ask AFTER FIRST DRAFT is complete

Does the thesis-antithesis-synthesis hold?
Thesis (marriage=prison) > Antithesis (single=freedom) > Synthesis (married AND free)

What were the 6(+) tics established in the Setup? Were they fixed?

Save the Cat: does MC do something early to make us like her?

Is there a good B story? How does it parallel the A story?

Who states the theme in Setup? Does it come up for discussion in the B story? How does the hero fight against the theme in the beginning? How does she incorporate the wisdom of the theme into her Finale solution (synthesis)?

Is there boring exposition? Pope in the pool: how can you “bury” the exposition? Bury, don’t bore!

Does the catalyst change life permanently? Does it thrust the hero into action?

Debate section MUST ask a question. Hero must answer.

Is the hero strong? Decisive? Does the hero move the story from Act 1 into Act 2?

Do you reach the FPP (first plot point) by page 25 (screenplay) or at minimum page 50 (novel)?

Is there a false victory?

Is there a false defeat?

What time clocks appear at the Midpoint?

Does time speed up from Midpoint on?

Who or what dies at the “All is Lost” moment? Does the hero fall completely at this point? (She should.)

Do the A story and B story intersect? In a cool way?

Five point finale: are all five points here?

  • Hero hatches plan to “storm the castle” and “rescue the princess”
  • Castle wall breached. Hero enters bad guys’ fort. Things appear to go according to plan.
  • Reach tower but “the princess” is not there. It’s a trap. Looks like bad guys win after all.
  • New plan. Dig down deep for the last ounce of strength our hero didn’t know she had.
  • Thinking on the fly, the hero discovers her best self, executes a new plan, and wins against all odds.

Is the final image a reverse of the opening image?

Does each character have a character arc?

Each character:

  • has a goal (or problem to solve)
  • is thwarted somehow
  • is at odds with others’ goals
  • his bad thing becomes a plus
  • his good thing becomes a negative
  • wants what someone else has, is, or does

Are B characters upside down versions of A characters?

Is B story bizarro version of world in Act 1?

Is there too much magic, too much of anything that is too unbelievable?

If any of this helps in your editing process, sweet. I’d love to hear about it! I’d also be much obliged if you have ideas or editing strategies to share.


Beat Sheet Mini

Beat Sheet for a Novel is the #1 post on this blog. Meaning it gets viewed every day, but is it helpful? Beats me.

In an effort to be useful, I thought I’d share my BEAT SHEET MINI. This is a quick fill in the blank beat sheet you can use to beat out any film, screenplay, or novel.

The (#s) are minute marks at which events happen. For example, the midpoint of a movie/screenplay occurs around minute/page 55.

Novels, being longer than screenplays, tend to stick to the script only for the first few beats— you get the opening image on page 1, a theme by page 5 or so, and you’re well into the set-up by page 10.

After this, books get more longwinded with each beat. No page 55 midpoints. We’d be disappointed if there were. But it just so happens in The Truth of Me (reviewed yesterday), a 114 page children’s book, the turning point comes in the last sentence on page 55. Patricia MacLachlan must be a Blake Snyder fan!

I use the BEAT SHEET MINI for two things:

  • As a bookmark, to keep track of key plot points of novels I read
  • As a mini-outline, for fleshing out a story idea I might write

Here’s the PDF:

Beat Sheet Mini

Let me know in the comments if and how you use it.

Six Tics to Fix

6 must be my lucky number lately.

I propose a toast to another great 6-pack, this one from Blake Snyder’s screenwriting bible, Save the Cat. The number 6 is arbitrary– make it 5, 9, or heck, 87 if you’re feelin’ ornery– but the idea is this:

In the setup to your story, introduce 6 problems that need to be solved by the finale.  The conflicts can be internal or external, and involve your main character. Other characters have their issues, too, which will overlap and interfere with your hero’s goals.

The dilemmas can be physical, metaphysical, philosophical, intellectual, serious, comical. Mild disagreements or all out war.


1. Tics. The story opens on a family arguing about what to do with their backyard. John wants to build a greenhouse. Jane’s thinking a fire pit. Jen and Jan are begging for a trampoline.

2. Tricks. The conflict develops or escalates throughout the story. John is a loner and doesn’t want Jane entertaining a bunch of tipsy women in his garden. Jane doesn’t appreciate John’s green thumb and insists he doesn’t need another mancave when he’s already got the basement. The kids are constantly jumping on the furniture in the living room, annoying the hell out of everyone.

3. Bricks. Add five more conflicts. I’m thinking one of each— wreak the whole spectrum of havoc on our hero. It’ll make him seem well-rounded.

Maybe John is your main character. He suspects his boss of shady dealings. He’s got a crush on one of Jane’s friends. He’s in a neck brace from when Jan and Jen jumped on his back. His orchids have aphids.

4. Fix. In the end it must be resolved. Maybe a meteor lands in their yard and leaves a crater and everyone agrees a swimming pool would be best. Whatever.

Mixed juice

Consider the classic struggles in storytelling.
Here are 6 (six again!):

  • man v. man
  • man v. self
  • man v. nature
  • man v. society
  • man v. God
  • good v. evil


Now grab a martini shaker, your six problems and some fancy glasses.

Depending on your genre and tone, the conflict cocktail you concoct can be anything from a harrowing tale of “from bad to worse” to a running gag that (hopefully) gets funnier the further you go along. Make John’s life a waking nightmare or a series of comic mishaps. I recommend 50% alcohol and not too sweet, but hey, you’re the story Mixologist here.

Drop that meteor on his prize orchid.

Then shake, not stir, your ingredients together and serve with salty snacks that keep readers glued to their barstools and drinking in your brilliance until last call.

Beat Sheet: To Have and Have Not

Cropped screenshot of Lauren Bacall, with Hoag...
Cropped screenshot of Lauren Bacall, with Hoagy Carmichael in the background playing piano, from the trailer for the film To Have and Have Not. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a looong beat sheet I wrote up for Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. It actually was made into a movie, sort of. I’ve never seen it, but it was the first film Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred in together.

I read Bacall’s biography when I was about 13 and my grandmother said I reminded her of the actress. I was fascinated by the whole “Golden Age of motion pictures” she— Bacall, not my grandmother— managed to break into.

Anyway, it’d be fun to see the film, although according to a few blurbs online, they changed so many things in the movie, it has almost nothing to do with Hemingway’s original story. So if anyone in Hollywood is reading, here’s a ‘new’ screenplay for ya.

This gives away the entire plot. Future To Have and Have Not readers beware!

1. Opening Image (1): p. 1 A guy walks into a bar. Havana, early morning, Pearl of SF Café. Harry Morgan narrating.

2. Theme Stated (5): The title “says what it is” – the haves and the have nots. But more than just money, it’s about what Harry has instead of it (integrity, smarts, a boat) and what the rich lack (happiness, sobriety, marital fidelity). There’s the irony.

3. Set-Up (1-10): First thing Harry says to 3 men waiting for him inside the café: “I can’t do it,” referring to smuggling Cubans to the US. It would mean a lot of money, but it’s illegal. P. 3: the 3 Cuban smugglers are shot in the street upon leaving the café, and Harry and his mate Eddy are ducking for cover behind the bar. By p. 4 Harry is back on his boat where his rich client, Wallace Johnson, is waiting to be taken swordfishing. By p. 5 he’s talking money with Johnson and getting the feeling he won’t be paid.

4. Catalyst (12): P. 11: Johnson, who has refused to follow Harry’s instructions on how to fish, loses Harry’s rod, reel and tackle. His livelihood. They haggle over Johnson’s responsibility to pay for it. Harry tries to be fair, but he has to get paid. Johnson finally agrees and they have a drink, but by p. 15, Harry learns the sickening truth. Johnson has skipped town.

5. Debate (12-25): Not much debate. Harry has a family to feed. He tells his mate, “I’ve got to carry something, Frankie. I’ve got to make some money.”
“You carry anything?”
“I can’t choose now.”
Frankie arranges a meeting with Mr. Sing, a Chinese smuggler, and Harry agrees. He’s spooked by a communique from the Cubans, but he’s made up his mind to do the Chinese job. When Harry takes 12 Chinese illegals onto his boat at midnight, he kills Mr. Sing, dumps the refugees in the middle of nowhere, and heads home to Key West. P. 41: Part Two, Fall. Harry’s running liquor, he’s been shot at, has to dump the stuff, gets caught.

6. Break into Two (25) P. 57: Part Three, Winter. Harry has lost an arm and his boat. He takes a job smuggling some Cuban revolutionaries from an unlikable lawyer, Bee-lips Robert Simmons. Steals his own boat, but it’s found by the Coast Guard.

7. B Story (30): p. 85. Chapter 15 introduces several tourists, three of whom are the B story key players: Richard and Helen Gordon and Professor MacWalsey. (This is a little late, maybe, for a screenplay.)

8. Fun and Games (30-55): A little of this came before the B story, with a love scene between Harry and his wife Marie. Another scene with Marie and their 3 girls.

9. Midpoint (55): Harry convinces Freddy, the bar own, to rent him his boat.

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): P. 98: The four Cuban radicals (from Break into Two) unexpectedly rob a bank and jump in the boat, pointing guns at Harry and his mate, Albert. Albert gets killed. Harry starts plotting how to get out of this mess. There’s a shoot-out. Harry is the only survivor, but he’s shot in the belly.
The story shifts back to the Gordons’ marriage issues. They’ve got money, but they’re both unhappy and unfaithful. They split, he goes to the bar to get drunk. It’s a rowdy scene with a bunch of Vets there. Professor MacWalsey, whom Helen Gordon has left Richard for, is there and the two men end up leaving together.

11. All Is Lost (75): P. 115 Harry is floating further out to sea. It appears no one will spot him, even though the boat is bright (“Frolic” !) green and white. He’s in and out of consciousness.

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): Chapter 24 (p. 146) is interesting. It’s a catalogue of those on board several yachts in the yacht basin, including Wallace Johnston from way back in chapter 1. He verbally abuses his friend Henry, who is a mooch but a valuable and entertaining friend who “postponed [Johnston’s] suicide by a matter of weeks if not months.”
Another yacht owner is a wealthy businessman who goes to bed in silk pyjamas but can’t sleep. He hasn’t paid his taxes and the IRS are onto him. He feels old. “He used to say that only suckers worried.” Now he’s worried and sleepless. This foreshadowing of Hemingway’s own suicide chilled me:

Some made the long drop from the apartment or the office window; some took it quietly in two-car garages with the motor running; some used the native tradition of the Colt or the Smith and Wesson; those well-constructed implements that end insomnia, terminate remorse, cure cancer, avoid bankruptcy, and blast an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of a finger; those admirable American instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback the mess they leave for relatives to clean up.

“A pleasant, dull and upright family” are on the next yacht. Hemingway is kind of sarcastic, presenting them as wholesome and wonderful and so pathetically boring. It’s kind of awesome how boring his writing is, illustrating how boring he finds this clean, upright way of life. “They are a happy family and all love each other.”
“So anyhow, they all sleep well and where did the money come from that they’re all so happy with and use so well and gracefully? …from selling something everybody uses by the millions…and the product’s really good. There are no suicides when money’s made that way.” No suicides, but no compelling stories either.
Another boat contains two poorly paid yet happy, adventurous Estonians writing “Sagas of Our Intrepid Voyagers” for the papers back home.
The final yacht houses “a professional son-in-law of the very rich and his mistress, the wife of that highly paid Hollywood director, John Hollis.” Talk about boring. Three and a half tedious pages of her looking at herself in the mirror, brushing her hair, trying to decide who’s sweeter, John or Eddie, deciding she is in fact the sweetest, and talking herself into taking a sleeping pill before finally lying down in such a way so as to not mar her face by resting it on the pillow.
And into this yacht basin the Coast Guard tows Harry Morgan.

13. Break into Three (85): (P. 143: This is actually before the dark night of the soul, and in fact may itself be the dark night of the soul if that whole thing is the finale. But I think the action is what makes the finale final.)
Harry’s boat is picked up. He’s barely alive, trying to speak.
“A man,” said Harry Morgan, very slowly. “Ain’t got no hasn’t got any can’t really isn’t any way out.”
To have or have not. It’s all the same.

14. Finale (85-110): Boat confiscated, sheriff taking stock of money and guns on board, Albert’s wife mourning, screaming at the dock, falls in the water.
Harry dies, Marie sees him at the hospital. Mourning, reminiscing.

15. Final Image (110):

Outside it was a lovely, cool, sub-tropical winter day and the palm branches were sawing in the light north wind. Some winter people rode by the house on bicycles. They were laughing. In the big yard of the house across the street a peacock squawked.
Through the window you could see the sea looking hard and new and blue in the winter light.
A large white yacht was coming into the harbor and seven miles out on the horizon you could see a tanker, small and neat in profile against the blue sea, hugging the reef as she made to the westward to keep from wasting fuel against the stream.

The hero dies!?! No happy Hollywood endings from Hemingway.

related: Beat Sheet for a novel