Since moving to L.A., I’ve been doing a lot of L.A. things. I frequent taco trucks, hike up Runyon with the dog I refer to as my son, use my scarves as home décor, and wish death upon strangers when stuck in traffic. I’ve also been writing (or at least attempting to write) a screenplay. A friend suggested I read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, a straightforward screenwriting playbook and really the only one you’ll ever need.
When it comes to writing “manuals,” Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird will forever and always be my go-to writing bible. But every now and then I venture out into the unknown for a different perspective on what it means to be a writer. The same week I read Snyder’s manifesto, I read The Writing Life by Annie Dillard—because let’s not forget I’m still hanging onto those highfalutin literary dreams. While technically being in the same reference genre, they couldn’t be more different in tone and content. While Snyder lays down the law, Dillard gives you a rambling, poetic illustration of great writing, something to aspire to rather than a how-to.
Still, both of these books have an equally important purpose. Although writing a novel and a screenplay are two very different projects, you need to know the rules before you can break them. In literary writing, that means learning how to use a semicolon correctly before you can say “; to hell with it!” and start your short story with a lone, dangling semicolon. In screenwriting, that means learn the rules, play by the rules, and add a twist at the end that seems to defy the rules but doesn’t throw you off the beaten path completely—if you want to make money, of course.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
Dillard: “Few sights are so absurd as that of an inchworm leading its dimwit life… I often see an inchworm: it is a skinny bright green thing, pale and thin as a vein, an inch long, and apparently totally unfit for life in this world. It wears out its days in constant panic” (7). Making jabs at writers much? Or could she just be pointing out the futility of our existence? Either way, it’s a pretty sentence. And I like sentences.
Snyder: Other screenwriting manuals “are all so academic! So sterile. They treat the movies with waaaaaay too much awe and respect—they’re just movies!—and I think that gets in the way” (xii). Honestly, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s storytelling, not rocket surgery.
Dillard: Writing a book “is sufficiently difficult and complex that is engages all of your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip” (11). Or rather, let rip all you want, but remember to rein it in and slash most of it out when you’re done.
Working on a project with my editor.
Snyder: “You’re so involved in your scenes, you’re so jazzed about being able to tie in that symbolic motif from The Odyssey, you’ve got it all so mapped out, that you forget one simple thing: You can’t tell me what it’s about. You can’t get to the heart of the story in less than 10 minutes. Boy, are you screwed!” (4). I think this applies to pretty much all writing. If you don’t know what it’s about, whether it’s a log-line or the question that continues to gnaw at your soul, then it’s going to be hard to tell it well.
Dillard: “It takes years to write a book—between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant” (13). This makes me sigh with relief. I’ve lost a great deal of time and energy to my own self-doubt. Writing takes persistence, and still I expect to sit down at my desk and have genius pour out. Note to self: it doesn’t work that way.
Snyder: “I like Viki King’s book with the improbable title of How to Write a Movie In 21 Days. Improbable, yes, but I’ve done it—and sold the script I wrote, too” (xi). Okay, buddy.
Dillard: “A work in progress quickly becomes feral… You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room” (52). Again, writing is putting in the work day after day while fighting off the self-doubt demons and the paralyzing fear you will never amount to anything.
Snyder: “As long as I maintain the attitude that he next script will be my best yet, and keep being excited about the process, I know I can’t fail” (144). A little arrogance may be required to write anything.
Save the Cat and The Writing Life butt heads with their two very different approaches to writing. Ultimately, though, they offer this similar message: get shit done. Follow the rules, break the rules, take your time, or pound it out—either way you have to get something down, one word at a time.