This past Saturday my dear friend Melissa had her beautiful baby, and I had my crazy-fun bachelorette party in DC.
Unfortunately, this turn of events meant Melissa couldn’t be at my bachelorette party, although that would have been sort of awesome, and I think there should be a Hangover -style movie in which one of the girls at a bachelorette party is pregnant and starts giving birth at the male strip club… not that we went to a male strip club or anything like that.
Anyway, this post isn’t really about my bachelorette party (which was fun and included karaoke and margaritas and mani-pedis, and lots of laughter). This is (sort of) about Save the Cat by screenwriter Blake Snyder, which I read in its entirety on the plane to DC.
I’d been hearing about Save the Cat for years. It’s actually about how to write movies, but it applies to storytelling in general and can be helpful for novelists who are struggling with plot. It also contained some pieces of advice that were surprising/interesting, as they went against what I’m used to hearing.
For example, when I was getting my MFA, I was taught that fiction should be character-driven, not plot-driven. In fact, plot almost seems like a dirty word in some circles. Literary writing, many people assume, doesn’t pull cheap tricks like plot to keep their readers engaged. Come up with you characters first, MFA professors suggest, and let them decide what to do. Which can work… but it can also lead to stories without much page-turning power.
Snyder, on the other hand, says he rarely begins writing with the character in mind. Come up with your idea and write your perfect logline, he says, then decide what type of person would fit that story best. Who needs this adventure or lesson the most? Who would have the biggest emotional journey in this situation? He’s not suggesting you slap some flat characters into a complex plot. He wants you to create complex characters who will best compliment the idea you have in mind.
And I like this suggestion. Maybe it doesn’t work for every book. Maybe some books need to be character-driven. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coming up with a great idea, a great scene, a great plot, and then deciding what sorts of people would make it work best.
Let’s take my bachelorette movie, for example, which I’m going to call Just Wanna Have Fun. My basic idea is that it’s a comedy of errors about a bachelorette party in which things go hilariously wrong. I have exactly one scene in my head: one of the girls, who is funny already because she’s enormously pregnant, goes into labor at the male strip club. (Maybe they’re snowed in there or something and can’t get to the hospital.) The bride has no choice but to help her friend give birth, assisted by some of the strippers. Hilarious.
That’s the basic idea. Now it’s time for the characters. Let’s think. The main character is obviously the bride. So who should she be? She could be timid or conservative or Type A, and this night is about getting her to let loose. But no. I don’t think there’s enough of a lesson to be learned there.
So maybe she’s a total party girl, or at least she was a party girl for a long time who always said the point of life was having fun, and even though she’s now in her thirties and about to settle down with a man she loves, she’s nervous about losing what she thinks is her identity. She’s not sure if she has what it takes for the whole marriage-and-kids thing.
And maybe this crazy night ends up revealing that there is more to her identity than partying, and that she is ready to let go of her party-persona and move on to the next phase of her life. Maybe, when she helps deliver her friend’s baby, she realizes that she’s more responsible and nurturing that she thought, and that she does (eventually) want to be a mom.
This situation is ripe with irony, which is one of Blake Snyder’s recommendations for a good story premise. The examples he gives: A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists. – Die Hard and A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend. — Pretty Woman. Ain’t it ironic?
So let’s do this Save the Cat style and first write a logline or one-sentence pitch for Just Wanna Have Fun. (By the way, you have to do this for novels just as much as movies. You must be able to tell people — agents, editors, publicists — what your book is about in thirty seconds or less.)
A one-sentence summary for a novel usually contains a character or two, the conflict or goal, what’s at stake, and the action the characters will take (see Rachelle Gardener’s post on the subject). Nathan Bransford’s template for this: “When [opening conflict] happens to [character(s)], they must [overcome conflict] to [complete their quest].”
So my logline for Just Wanna Have Fun might be: When party girl Lacy gets cold feet about her upcoming wedding, she throws herself the wildest bachelorette party ever…even though her best friend is nearly nine months pregnant.
I came up with this logline in five minutes, so it’s not the best. I’d probably work on it for a while: brainstorm more about the specific conflict and goal, think about the best and most concise way to encapsulate the whole story. But for now I like it. It summarizes the basic problem (cold feet) and the action Lacy is going to take to solve it (go wild). And it contains irony for sure — a bachelorette party with a pregnant best friend in tow.
And now, with an idea of the journey Lacy is going to take in one night — from unsure to ready-to-commit — I can start to flesh her out with more detail and make her a complex character. I can also start to brainstorm about her best friend, as well as the other women at the bachelorette party — who will act as foils to our bride-to-be.
Of course, this is all just hypothetical. I’m not actually going to write a screenplay (or novel) for Just Wanna Have Fun … or will I???