Data-mining for Screenplays


‘“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” – Andy Warhol

I had planned to continue discussing the story of Jorinda and Joringel from the Brothers Grimm, but a pair of articles I saw on successive days suggested a compelling interlude.  We’ll return to the forest shortly.

The first article, “Big data,” outlines ways that new software and methods can identify structures in parts of the oceans of data that retailers and governments have not been able to access before.  Everyone knows that advertisers target us based on our Facebook likes.  Now there are ways to do the same with the photographs we post and other aspects of our online behavior.  New algorithms find new patterns in all our activities, online and off.  This includes the movies we pay to watch.

The second article appeared in the May 5 New York Times, “Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data.” In it, Brooks Barnes writes about Vinny Bruzzese, a highly paid script consultant, who charges up to $20,000 for a sophisticated analysis of a screenplay in terms of past box office performance.  Bruzzese, a former statistics professor, can tell you which sort of demons do best in horror films and warn you that bowling alley scenes are a hallmark of low-grossing movies.

Though Bruzzese’s services are still too taboo for most movie people to cop to, Barnes says studios have hired him to analyze at least 100 scripts, including an early version of Oz the Great and Powerful.  Meanwhile, Scott Steindorff, who produced The Lincoln Lawyer said, “Everyone is going to be doing this soon.  The only people who are resistant are the writers.”

“This is my worst nightmare,” says Ol Parker, who wrote the script for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  “It’s the enemy of creativity…It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”

I wonder if there is a greater nightmare lurking for writers like Parker – not just computer driven analysis, but computer driven generation of screenplays?  I’m certain it’s possible.

First of all, interactive online books have been around for some time.  Secondly, I’ve seen how this works in the field of computer graphics.  My day job involved microchip design automation, starting over 15 years ago – chips helping to draw the next generation of chips.  But what really convinces me that elements of screenplays could be synthesized is a computer generated astrological profile I ordered on whim last winter.

I plugged in my birthdate, place, time and, paid $50.  Sixty seconds later, I was reading a 20 page, Jungian-style analysis of my natal chart, that was uncanny in describing my relationship with parents, among other things.  It’s not that hard to understand how it is possible.  The Sun in Aquarius, at one degree, forty-four minutes, in the second house, has a defined meaning.  Assemble text to match the possibilities, and the rest is just number crunching.  A literary outline would have fewer data points.

Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench, for those who remember Clue.

Or this.  Pick your genre – teenage slasher movie.  Choose setting (urban, suburban, rural).  Choose decade.  Chose your villain (insane human, mutant, supernatural creature).  Choose your hero (I’ll go with brainy nerd who has a congenital limp and can’t get a date for the prom).  Choose the hair color of a cheerleader he will rescue.  Finally, pick a screenplay structure (Save the Cat), add any notes, and hit send.  A few minutes later, you’ve got your outline and pitch, with no hint of a bowling scene.

Oh brave new world!  Andy Warhol saw it coming 50 years ago when he said, “Some day everybody will just think what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems to be what is happening.” 

The alternative is simple too – we keep our day jobs and write all the damn bowling scenes we want to.  Life is to short to let someone else dictate our demons.  As my computer generated horoscope said: “You need to face your fear of the world’s criticism, and your tendency to sabotage your creative efforts out of a deep need to be approved of by society.”

Feel free to borrow that bit of advice whenever you want to.

Save the Cat Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder: a book review

Save the cat2

What do these movies have in common: Alien, Fatal Attraction, and Godzilla? How about these: Star Wars, The Bad News Bears, and Lord of the Rings?  The first trio belong to the genre that Blake Snyder called “Monster in the House.”  The second set are “Golden Fleece” films in Snyder’s terminology.

He assigned distinctive genre names to help us think about films in a different manner and see connections we might miss with more familiar and less specific tags.  Some of the names came from Snyder’s love of the roots of our story traditions.  The Golden Fleece, for example, was the object of Jason’s quest in the myth of the Argonauts, while Theseus and the Minotaur is a “monster in the house” tale that is thousands of years old.

Snyder described his approach in Save the Cat, where he presented his top-down approach to writing a movie script, from idea to logline to pitch to outline to finished screenplay.  He presented a model of 10 movie genres and 15 critical plot points.  Save the Cat Goes to the Movies rounds out these concepts with detailed discussions of 50 well known and well respected movies – a valuable addition.  Here’s an example:

“Monster in the House” stories have three three key elements, a monster, a house, and a sin. The monster often has seemingly “supernatural” powers: Jaws is an uber-shark, while insanity lends a lot of power to human monsters.  The house may be a literal house, a spaceship, a town, or a planet, as long as escape from the monster is not an option. The sin is often greed (closing the beaches would hurt the tourist economy) or lust in a teenage slasher film. In the case of Victor Frankenstein and the atomic tests that spawned Godzilla, it is scientific hubris.  Sometimes ignorance is the “sin.”


“Golden Fleece” movies are quest stories that span the millennia between Homer’s Odyssey and Bob Hope road movies.    The elements Snyder identifies are a road, a team, and a prize.  These movies run the gamut from comic (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to deadly serious (Saving Private Ryan), but in every case, winning the prize is less important to the story than the lessons the (surviving) team members learn.

road movie

In my previous post, I discussed Snyder’s “Fool Triumphant” genre.  His remaining seven categories also reveal unexpected similarities between movies where we don’t expect to find them.  It is also illuminating to look for his plot points in our favorite films.  Some of them are familiar through the names he assigns – “The bad guys close in,” “All is lost,” “Dark night of the soul.”  Others require explanation, which this second book in the Cat series provides.

A map is not a territory, as an outline is not the gripping story our hearts and minds crave.  That doesn’t mean a map isn’t useful in helping us reach our destination.  Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Goes to the Movies is a useful and stimulating map to help us navigate the wilderness of a stack of blank paper.

More about Dummlings and Fools

Fool Tarot of Marseilles

In an earlier post, Tales of the Dummling, (January, 2013) I discussed a theme from folklore, and specifically from The Brothers Grimm, which has long intrigued me.  In this story type, the youngest of three brothers, whom everyone else considers a fool, triumphs because of virtues like honesty, compassion, and attention to the present moment.

I mentioned Forrest Gump, 1994, as a recent movie version of the theme, and several readers were quick to point out that Being There, 1979, with Peter Sellers also fits the type.  I’m currently reading an excellent book on screenplays, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, by Blake Snyder (1957-2009) that widens the scope of this kind of movie by calling the genre, “The Fool Triumphant.”  This shift allows us to see the connections between many other types of tales where innocence and virtue are rewarded.

Save the cat2

I reviewed Snyder’s first book on screenwriting, Save The Cat, in January, 2012.  I expect to write a review of this book after I finish, but first I want to focus on Snyder’s words about films with “fools” as heroes.

Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, 1963

Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, 1963

He lists three key elements:

  1. The “fool” is someone with skills or powers that are overlooked or unnoticed by everyone except (sometimes) an antagonist who resents the fool’s success.  Example:  Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies.
  2. The fool is foolish to an establishment that opposes him or her.  In Snyder’s words, “while he does not set out to do anything but live his life, it’s usually the establishment that’s exposed as the real fool in the equation.  Have no fear, our unlikely hero won’t become a part of the system – or want to!”
  3. Finally, Snyder says, a “transmutation” occurs for the fool.   Sometimes this involves a change of name, as when Chance the gardener becomes Chauncey Gardner in Being There.  It may be a change of life circumstance, like Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin.  It may involve gender swapping as in Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire.  The fool’s mission may change as it does in Legally Blonde, where Reese Witherspoon first enrolls in Harvard law to win back her fiancé, but then discovers that law is her true calling.
Reese Witherspoon for the defense in "Legally Blonde"

Reese Witherspoon for the defense in “Legally Blonde”

Blake Snyder identifies sub-genres in stories about the wisdom of foolishness.  “Political Fool” movies include Being There, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Princess Diaries.  Films like Tootsie, Miss Congeniality, and Some Like it Hot are grouped together as “Undercover Fool” stories.  Forest Gump and Zelig are “Society Fool” movies.


In addition to Legally Blonde, “Fool Out of Water” movies include Stripes, Beverly Hills Cop, and Crocodile Dundee.

Snyder is aware of the deep roots of these stories.  The fool “has a bead on the truth,” he says, whether it’s Shakespeare’s Puck, saying, “Lord what fools these mortals be,” or Forrest Gump, who “can find a whole universe sitting on a bench waiting for a bus.” In discussing Gump, Snyder suggests that ultimately, the fool opens our minds and our hearts to spiritual wisdom.

I thought of an 11th century Buddhist master, Tilopa, who lived as an itinerant sesame seed grinder.  A thousand years later, people still study his teachings, which are very complex in one sense, but can also be boiled down to these “six words of advice:”

  1. Let go of what has passed.
  2. Let go of what may come.
  3. Let go of what is happening now.
  4. Don’t try to figure anything out.
  5. Don’t try to make anything happen.
  6. Relax, right now, and rest.

Clearly such wisdom lies beyond the reach of anyone but a fool!

Dark Shadows – A Movie Review

I expected to like this movie. I wanted to like this movie.  At the theater, I tried to like this movie, but I couldn’t pull it off.

Dark Shadows was a gothic soap opera that ran from 1966 – 1971.  As a child, Johnny Depp wanted to be Barnabas Collins, a 200 year old vampire.  He got his wish, but sadly, not even a cast with Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, and Alice Cooper can save a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Comedy blends well with horror – think of Young Frankenstein or Ghostbusters – but Dark Shadows blows it at several crucial points.  In one scene, the vampire seeks out a group of wide-eyed hippies.  He asks them about love and romance and then slaughters them – after we get to like them.  That’s a bush-league scripting error!  A screenplay can kill people we care for, but it cannot do so and hope to remain funny.  The rest of the comic riffs fall flat after this.

I bonded more with the hippies than with the characters I was supposed to care about.  The brave orphan, the confused adolescent girl, and the etherial love interest remain distant and two dimensional.  Barnabas never charms in the manner of Captain Jack Sparrow.

The love scene between Barnabas and the witch attempts to be wild and kinky but doesn’t get beyond the special effects.  The final battle is won by a ghostly deus-ex-machina.  The vampire wiggles his fingers, signifying hypnosis, and a mob of cops and townspeople do his bidding.  The plot is full of holes and unanswered questions.

We were in the mood for a gothic movie, and now I wish we had chosen The Raven.  Dark Shadows ends with a lead-in to a sequel which I do not intend to see.  Save your money on this one.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder: A Book Review

I love (good) books on screenwriting, because of all the available guides to writing fiction, these focus most squarely on the primacy of story; first the forest, then the trees.  Last week a fortunate weblink led me to Save the Cat, 2005, a brief but idea packed gem of a book by Blake Synder (1957 – 2009).

Snyder was a successful screenwriter and a respected teacher who began his career in movies doing voice-overs for his father at the age of eight.  By his own admission, when he started writing for movies, he had only a vague idea of structure.  Discovering Syd Field’s Screenplay was a revelation:  “truly career-saving,” Snyder says, but there were still gaps in his sense of movie architecture.  Snyder developed the methods he presents in this book in response.  Because he spun things in an unusual way, and uses his own terms for concepts that may have become overly familiar, his methods move the imagination in fresh ways.

Blake Snyder 1957-2009

The title of his book, for instance, is a code for his belief in the primacy of creating characters we want to follow.  In the opening scenes of older movies, the protagonist often did something nice – like saving a cat – to bond with the audience, a step contemporary movies often skip in favor of showing a lead who is hip, slick, and cool.  Snyder cites this as the cause of failures of several recent films.

His approach is top down.  He begins with the log line and the title, and demands that the writer polish them before moving on, because they are a touchstone for writing the script itself as well as a key selling point.  This single sentence and title, when well crafted, reveal what the movie’s about, its genre, the lead characters, and (ideally) pique curiosity.  Snyder gives examples like:  “A cop comes to L.A. to to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists – Die Hard.”

Snyder then suggests we do something that few writers ever dream of – pitch the concept to strangers.  He would literally pick people out in a Starbucks line, and say, “Excuse me, I’m working on a movie concept, and I wonder if I could get your feedback.”  Since he lived in L.A., the answer was often yes, but he challenges us to do the same wherever we are.

He moves through ever increasing levels of detail as he takes the reader through the development of the script, and one thing I really appreciated was his in-depth knowledge of stories:

“Jaws is just a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the Minatour or even the dragon-slayer tales of the Middle Ages.  Superman is just a modern Hercules.  Road Trip is just an update of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – isn’t it?  To not know the roots of the story you’re trying to create, either from the last 100 years of movie storytelling or the last thousand, is to not honor the traditions and fundamental goals of your job.”

Though Blake Snyder died suddenly in 2009, a website serves as a blog on his methods, and offers a bulletin board as well as classes geared to both screenplays and novels.

I’m sure this is old news to the screenwriters who read this blog.  If so, pass it along to your novelist friends; it seems we don’t get out often enough.

Structure in Folktales, continued

Red Riding Hood, by Gustave Dore

In my last post, I said I was going to review some folktales to see if any conventions of the “three act structure,” used in contemporary fiction and cinema, apply.  Lest I be accused of hubris, I did not say I was going to be systematic about this.  My qualifications are simply a lifetime of love for this stuff.  Here are a few random observations.

The first thing I noticed – and I should have expected this – was the apples and oranges nature of my comparison between long fiction and short, between modern novels and screenplays and the kinds of tales you find in Grimm and other folklore collections.

Some longer epics do mesh with the three act structure.  In Homer’s Iliad, plot point #1 is Paris taking Helen to Troy, and plot point #2 is the Trojans wheeling the horse into the city – this is how the 2004 movie, Troy, is structured too.  It seems the three act structure only really fits longer fiction.  This leads to the question of whether the concepts apply to short fiction at all and to folktales in particular.

Every one of the folktales I reviewed has what Syd Fields called, an “inciting incident,” an event or situation that sets the action in motion.  The king is sick, the princess is missing, a dragon is loose on the land.  Often this is right where the tale begins, without any other preamble.

In terms of the major plot points, most of the folktales I looked at only have one.  Some have two and a few do not have any.  Are there any plot points, in the sense of a major crossroad, in the tale of Red Riding Hood?  Not really.  The unfortunate girl obeys her mother – “Take this basket to grandmother” – and events roll on to their unfortunate conclusion.

Cinderella has a single plot point.  The fairy godmother asks, “Do you want to go to the ball?”  When Cinderella says yes, her happy fate unrolls like destiny.

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

Another common folktale set up has just one decision point:  three brothers or three sisters set off on quest.  Each of them meets an “insignificant” or repellant creature as they set out.  The older siblings are arrogant and come to an unfortunate end.  The younger sibling behaves with respect, and the creature’s advice and boons are key to fulfilling the quest and often finding love and riches as well.

A Grimm’s fairytale, “The Water of Life,” is a good example.  The king is sick and only the water of life will heal him.  Two brothers set out, but disparage an “ugly little dwarf” who offers advice.  They wind up stuck – literally – in a mountain pass.  The youngest brother, who is open to help, receives it in abundance, both for the immediate quest and in overcoming the treachery of his brothers later on.  Although the action is rather complex, the only real decision the brothers face is whether or not to befriend the little man at the side of the road.  That choice determines their fate.

Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble

Some stories with two plot points echo the three act structure.  An example is, “The Pedlar of Swaffham,” which I discussed here a year ago:  A poor pedlar in the English village of Swaffham dreams he will find gold if he travels to London Bridge.  Unlike most people who do not act on their dreams, he decides to go (plot point #1).  He spends three days waiting fruitlessly.  His decision to stick it out, to believe in his dream, is the second key plot point and is rewarded when a shopkeeper asks what he’s doing.  When the pedlar tells him, the shopkeeper says dreams are a lot of foolishness:  “Why just last night I dreamed of a bag of gold under the peddlar’s oak in the village of Swaffham, wherever that is, but you don’t see me running all over the countryside, do you?” 

A story like this seems so modern in it’s emphasis on trusting oneself and following dreams, it may be surprising to know that Rumi recorded the first version 900 years ago.  In other variations, the poor man travels to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Krakow.  Still, in conforming (sort of) to the three act structure, “The Pedlar of Swaffham” is the exception and not the rule.


Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  How long the sections are and how we move between them is the province of structure.  If you’ve ever heard a good storyteller, you’ve seen them adjust the pacing to match the mood of the audience.  You’ve seen gesture, expression, and silence used to enhance the tale in ways a written transcription can never capture.

It’s easier to gain an intuitive sense of how to tell a story aloud than to write one, and easier to structure a short story than a novel or screenplay.  Some people may gain a sense of how to structure a novel by reading them, but for the rest of us, constructions like the three act structure form a useful skeleton to build a story.  It isn’t the secret of what makes a novel or movie compelling, but I find it a useful bridge to that destination.

In a similar way, structure alone does not explain the magic in my favorite folktales.  For that I will have to slow down and consider each one more closely.  And there is a topic for more than one future post!

Puss In Boots by Gustave Dore

Structure in Folktales

I found a great post on story and movie structure on one of the blogs I follow, Albert Berg’s Unsanity Files.

Despite Mr. Berg’s caution that discussions of structure has been known to cause some Californian’s heads to explode, I suffered no ill effects (well, maybe a facial tic or two, but I’m still perfectly normal…honest!).

Actually, I credit a Californian, Syd Field, a hugely influential teacher of screenwriting, with formalizing the three act structure as we know it in movies and novels.  You hear Field’s book, Screenplay, recommended at writer’s workshops and conferences.  It is one of the best references I know on plot and structure. For anyone interested in writing, the “Three Act Structure” is required learning.  Even to rebel against it, you need to know what it is. Here is a simple diagram:

This, of course, is a variation on Aristotle’s observation that every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  In modern usage, it has become more formal than that.  The length of the acts in movies and in books is not arbitrary:  it’s 25%, 50%, 25% by default.  These numbers are sometimes even spelled out in screenplay contracts, and they are quoted in numerous other books on writing.

In a similar way, the plot points are not just ordinary troubles:   they are sometimes called, “doorways of no return.”  Examples of Plot Point 1, the first doorway, are when Luke leaves with Obiwan, when Frodo agrees to carry the ring, and when Louise pulls the trigger.  After a character steps through the first doorway, plot point #1, their old lives are gone, no longer an option.  Plot point two is when the last battle is joined.  When Frodo and Sam gaze down into Mordor, they still have an option to cut and run.  That choice disappears once they continue.   Once they reach the valley, their only options are victory or death.

If you know the running time and have a watch, you can spot these plot points occurring right on time in recent movies.  One thing I like to do, because I love old films, is try to see when and if they occur in the classics on TCM.  I watched for this recently as I viewed Lost Horizon, and sure enough, this structure was there.  I’ve come to the realization before, that Syd Field was not creating something new, as much as clarifying and codifying something successful screenwriters had already been using because because it works.

Which finally brings me around to the point of this post:

I was paging through some Google search results on “three act structure” and saw one author claim it was “fundamental to storytelling.”  As someone who spent 20 years in the Sacramento Storyteller’s Guild, I thought, “Wait a minute.  If you want to get ‘fundamental’ you aren’t going to do it with written fiction.  Fundamental storytelling means our worldwide oral tradition.

You find it in collections of folklore, the older the better:  in epics and fireside tales and sacred stories from all cultures:  in recordings of storytellers from library archives or recent storytelling festivals.

It also means stories we can hear at this years Tellabration, a day of storytelling that will happen around the world this year on November, 19.

What I am going to do is informally browse and listen to some of my favorite folktales to see what relationship they may or may not have to the three act structure as it has evolved in our literary and cinematic arenas.

We know that every story has a beginning, middle, and end – if it doesn’t, it may be a vignette or a character portrait, but it is not a story. We also know that the progression of folklore and myth tends to be “simple” rather than “complex.” In other words, you aren’t going to find a lot of twists and reversals.

What else?  That is what I am going to explore for next time.

Summer Writing Contests

It seems like the “contest scene” picks up steam during the second half of the year.  I know there are round-the-calendar listings, but I tend to jot the URL’s on postIt notes and lose them, so I mostly wait for the listings to come to me.  Here’s one from the Gotham Writer’s workshop: (contest listings near the bottom of the newsletter).

Of note is the Zoetrope All-Story Short Fiction contest:  5000 word limit, all genres, $15 entry fee, multiple entries fine, prizes of $1000, $500, $250, and the top ten entries will be considered for representation by several literary agencies.  The deadline is Oct. 3, 2011.

There is also a contest for train stories between 2,000 and 20,000 words long.  There are two contests for non-fiction, one for screenplays.  In celebration of the 1950’s Sci-Fi Magazine, Galaxy there’s a contest for novellas between 15,000 and 20,000 words in length to be published in ebook format.

Unfortunately, some of the deadlines have passed, and others are only good through July 4, but there will certainly be more opportunities, especially for writers who like short fiction.  I’ve read several articles saying that while some of the print magazines that featured short fiction have folded, others are popping up in online form.  Let’s hope so.  This is something to watch.