- Karen Frost
Things I've Learned from Writing a Movie Script
My wife doesn't understand how I write books. I tell her it's like this: Michaelangelo, that great Renaissance sculptor and artist, looked at a block of marble and, with his artistic eye, saw the sculpture inside of it. All it took was him carefully chiseling away the stone around it to reveal the image he'd seen. It's like it was always there, it just needed him to reveal it. I, on the other hand, look at a block of marble and have no idea what's inside. I can only find that out once I start chiseling. Then, somewhere along the way but normally toward the end, the hidden form reveals itself, a pleasant surprise to both myself and readers.
I know. This is a TERRIBLE way to write books. I should be writing out outlines and story arcs and character sketches before I even write the first word of a novel. It's not just that I shouldn't be surprised by anything that happens; it's that I should understand ideas like climax and denouement and where they should fall in the pacing of the book to maximize impact. In order to create a masterful, well-structured book, I need to see the story AND know how the plot points string together. But...I can't do that because I have no idea what is going to happen in my books until the words write themselves. How can I plan plot points when I don't know what those points are? See the problem? My wife doesn't, and after a long fight about it, we had to agree to disagree.
A few months ago, an actress friend in LA (see how casually I said that?) suggested I read "Save the Cat," by Blake Snyder. Apparently it's considered the "must read," holy Bible for how to write a movie script. Curious and up for some learning, I read it. Honestly, it's a good book. It's short and easy to understand, with clear instructions and suggestions for would-be screenwriters. Inspired, I decided to give script writing a try and go through the steps of writing a movie. Enter "The Ace of Spades," a thriller-horror in the "murder party" sub-genre. (Yes, "murder party" is a thing and I love that name because it 100% describes what's happening in my movie.)
I'm in love with "The Ace of Spades," but that's a story for another time. In any case, writing the outline for this movie--I haven't even written the script itself yet!--has taught me a lot about structuring a fictional story; things that probably would have been really freaking helpful when writing my first six novels and that I certainly would have learned if I'd taken even a single course on creative writing any time in high school or college. But the most useful thing I learned was the 15 "beat" structure that exists for movies. You might not realize it when watching a movie, but intrinsically, they all follow a similar formula. Events or moments or scenes happen in a certain order every time (except for the movie "Memento," which Snyder hates). These key plot moments include things such as the "all is lost" moment, the catalyst that spurs the protagonist onto a new path, and the moment of sacrifice (or not).
Again, and I cannot stress this enough, I don't have any formal training in creative writing, but I'm willing to bet that these pivotal moments exist in some form and in the same order in every book as well. Storytelling for an audience transcends the medium. Writing the script for "The Ace of Spades," therefore, I realized that I could use the exact same beats for my books... Or rather, I could in theory. Can I do it in practice? I honestly don't know. That requires turning myself into Michaelangelo and seeing what's in the marble before I land the first chisel blow. If I can do it, I'm pretty sure I'll write a much better book. If not, well, someone has to write poorly structured books, right?