This may seem an odd thing to say, but I recently discovered that my novel, “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” is a better book than I thought it was – and I thought it was pretty damn good.
Last month when we were at the Jambalaya Writers Conference, one of the presenters mentioned a book that he had found very useful in plotting. It’s “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder. It’s about writing screenplays, not novels, but there’s an awful lot of good advice about story and how to make it work that can be applied to novels.
“Save the Cat” is a rather calculated view, one might even say cynical. It’s not about just writing a movie, or even a “great movie,” whatever that is. It’s about how to write a successful movie, successful by Hollywood standards.
But there’s a lot of craft that goes into making a successful movie, and what’s wrong with commercial success? There’s a lot to be said for a movie that people want to see. You, as a writer, have a story to tell. Don’t you want to tell it to as many people as you can?
You may rebel at the notion of there being rules. You, after all, are an artist. Rules don’t apply to artists. Snyder acknowledges this and says you can write any kind of story you want, any way you want. But if you want it to have success in the marketplace, you have to recognize there are things that work and things that don’t.
At the very least, you ought to have an idea what the rules are, so you can enjoy breaking them all the more. But if you don’t understand why they work, you aren’t doing yourself any favor.
Anyway, that’s the gist of “Save the Cat,” (Save the Cat, by the way, is one of his rules for screenplay writing and it’s a good one. But it’s not what I’m writing about here. Buy the book.) A lot of what he has to say about screen writing applies equally to writing novels. It’s all about finding the most effective way to tell a story.
In talking about structure, Snyder says the opening scene and image are the first taste the audience (or reader) gets in discovering the world you’ve created. It’s usually a glimpse of that world before the chaos of the story knocks it all apart. And the ending scene, after the story has been resolved, shows a glimpse of the new world going forward, how the character and the world have been changed by the action that has taken place. (And if there is no change, there is no story. That’s maybe the most important thing to remember as a writer, whatever your medium.) So the opening and closing scene are sort of a question and answer, telling the reader in shorthand what the story is about.
“They are bookends,” Snyder says. “Because a good screenplay is about change, these two scenes are a way to make clear how that change takes place in your movie. The opening and final images should be opposites, a plus and a minus, showing change so dramatic it documents the emotional upheaval that the movie represents.”
And if you have read “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” (and if you haven’t, why not?) you may recall that I have those bookends, although I never thought about it that way at the time or did it on purpose. Both the opening and closing scenes take place at a table. In the first scene Chrissie is with her family in Hampton, Va., celebrating her 13th birthday. “She’s become a woman!” her father exults. The final scene takes place at a table in Roadtown, Tortola. Chrissie is surrounded by the family she’s created at sea. And when she says she needs to get into a pair of honest trousers because the dress she’s forced to wear is driving her crazy, Charlie slaps her on the back and says … Well, he says what he says. Don’t want any more spoilers than that. When I wrote it, I thought it was a good line. I didn’t realize at the time it wasn’t just a good line. It was a summing up of what story is about.
Now, I had never heard of the notion of the bookend scenes. Wasn’t aware that’s what I had done. But I sure did. The opening and closing scenes are perfect bookends, the closing scene echoes the opening scene in a way I had never even thought about, they are mirror images, neatly encapsulating the the change Chrissie has undergone through her voyage.
It’s not anything readers will notice, hell, I didn’t and I wrote the darn thing. Maybe one in ten thousand would get it, and that one’s probably a college English major. (And oh, please, may I have ten thousand readers. Please.) But it really makes the story work, it’s the cap that makes you sit back with a sigh of contentment, even if you aren’t really aware of the technical thing that brought about that feeling of completeness. In retrospect, I can’t think of any other way the story could have ended that would have worked as well.
Something to think about. NOT, I would add, to obsess about. Trying to force a story into a formula isn’t going to feel right. But at the very least, when you’re writing you should keep in mind “what is this story about?” and focus on taking the reader along on your main character’s journey. A journey has a beginning and an end, and those opening and closing scenes are your chance to make that journey complete and memorable.
(One amusing note. “Save the Cat” was published in 2005, and the subtitle is, “The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need.” Since then there have been two sequels … which you apparently don’t need. Still it’s a good book, and if you’re looking for something to help with a writing problem, especially if you’re trying your hand at screenwriting, I’d recommend it.)