Thursday Reviews: Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, The Civil War: A Narrative – Volume 2 by Shelby Foote, Time’s Fugitive by Jennette Marie Powell

Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

Blake Snyder

A friend of mine sent this one when I dove into reworking Holland Bay. At the time, I was reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which I reviewed here recently. Journey, which is also geared toward screenwriting, is more academic in tone. It’s Joseph Campbell distilled for the layman who wants to plot better. Save the Cat is the Cliff’s Notes version with an attitude. The difference here is that Blake Snyder is interested in selling scripts.

I will have to admit the first chapter almost turned me off. It was almost a commandment to sell out (not a term I’m overly fond of to begin with, since selling out is usually judged by someone not entitled to an opinion on the matter and an undeserved sense of entitlement. I digress.) But I pressed on. Where as Vogler talked about phases of the hero’s journey, Snyder simply breaks that down into beats – moments each well-written movie should have. He breaks down “high concept” (a much-abused and misunderstood term) as a means of distilling a story for the writer before the pitch is made. He shows the beats: The setup, “the bad guys close in,” and so on. He also comes up with techniques to get around necessary evils, like expository dialog. He calls one technique “the Pope in the pool,” citing the example of a movie where the expos was handled by a scene at the Vatican where the Pope is swimming in a pool while several cardinals talk to him.

There are a couple of big fails in this book as well. In citing his “immutable rules of movie physics,” he gives us two that don’t quite jibe. He’s right when he says there should only be one kind of magic in a movie. In other words, don’t have aliens and vampires in the same story. But then he cites the original Spiderman move for having a superhero and a supervillain in the same film. Therefore it failed. Except it didn’t. Most people I know have seen that movie several times, the second one even more than the first. It’s a superhero movie. Of course, it’s going to have a supervillain. Very bad example. He also cites Spielberg’s rule of never using the press in a movie, despite several films we’ve seen over the years doing just that to great effect (Robocop anyone?). That’s not an unbreakable rule. That’s a stylistic decision.

Over all, though, it sums up an approach to plotting I found invaluable. I can’t see them using this for The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, or Deadwood, but those are unconventional television series. Where movies that follow this pattern succeed is when they use it to get people’s attention. When you can’t do that, don’t bother being avant garde or unconventional. If no one’s paying attention, you’re whistling in the woods. One must, as Snyder says, learn the rules before one can break them.

The Civil War: A Narrative – Volume 2

Shelby Foote

When last we left our intrepid Union army, they had just had their lunch handed to them at Fredericksburg. Now they were turning the tide in the West by prying the Mississippi River from Confederate hands foot by agonizing foot. Good thing, too, because the Rebel hoard was fairly kicking their butts. Abraham Lincoln had gone through five generals over the Army of the Potomac, which spent most of the Civil War within earshot of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. It’s kind of like watching your favorite football team choke against teams they should have beat. How bad was it? Robert E. Lee was wondering why he hadn’t had to surrender yet. I’m not making that up.

But the Army of the Potomac was a decidedly eastern army. In the west, you had generals like US Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and even Napoleon wannabes like William Rosecrans and political generals like Benjamin Butler. But even at their most timid, these generals were aggressive. If you pushed them back or destroyed them in one battle, they’d just come back meaner, bigger, and tougher in the next. And Grant was a patient man, pouring over maps quietly, then throwing everything he had at the enemy. And if the enemy would not oblige him by surrendering, he wasn’t above a siege.

It is when Chattanooga is taken, then the siege against it broken by Grant that Lincoln finally finds the man who could end the war. By now, the South is divided. Emancipation, while still abhorrent to most in the South, is openly discussed below the Mason-Dixon line, and Sherman has an itch to burn Atlanta to the ground.

Foote makes this all a human drama. We see the foibles that caused the tide to turn in the second act, how Lincoln might have been letting politics get too much in the way of the war effort, and how Jefferson Davis started to lose hope before Grant even showed up on the Rappahannock River.

Time’s Fugitive

Jennette Marie Powell

When last we left our intrepid time travelers, Tony Solomon and Violet Sinclair, they had just decided they would, in fact, give dating a try. Tony ended up divorced (largely through an accidental warp back in time) and Violet… Without giving too much away, she has no clue who she is or what she had done in another time.

But all that’s neither here nor there on page 1. Tony likes this cute IT worker who doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood model of beauty and uses swear words better suited for a 1930’s movie.  Then we get to page 2, and men with lasers come out. Sure, this is a romance, but it’s also a science fantasy novel. Men with nasty hardware are a great way to get a reader’s attention.

So who are these guys? And who is this Saturn Society that Tony is convinced is out to get him? And why, if some of them consider him a criminal, are others in the society trying to help him? And while we’re at it, why does Tony’s boss, the mysterious Keith Lynch keep turning up at odd times. Literally odd times, like on the banks of Ohio’s Great Miami River before there were any Miami Indians to name it after? It’s a romp through time – 1959, the Ft. Ancient era of the Ohio River Valley, the end of the Great Depression, and even 1976 (which Powell depicts every bit as tackily as I remember it. Even Jimmy Carter shows up on television.)

Tony’s suspicions about Violet do start to wear a bit thin once we’re into the book. There were a couple of times I wanted to grab him by the lapels and go, “Seriously, dude? Are you that frackin’ paranoid?” Eventually, as both Tony and Violet are put through the wringer, this starts to balance out. The second half of the novel literally had me on the edge of my seat, which is kind of embarrassing when you’re reading at work.

A bit of serendipity (probably due to boning up for last week’s Deep Purple post): While starting this, I ran across the Blackmore’s Night version of Rainbow’s “Street of Dreams,” sung by Candice Night (aka Mrs. Blackmore.) Aside from liking this version better than the original (because, hey, Ritchie had 24 years to tinker with it with three different bands), this cover struck me as being about Violet. With her memory prior to six years before the novel’s start all but gone, she’s struck by her familiarity with Tony. So with a female singer doing this classic song, it attached itself in my mind to Violet. (Unfortunately, there’s no video of the Candice Night-only version, or I’d post it.)

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Reviews: Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, The Civil War: A Narrative – Volume 2 by Shelby Foote, Time’s Fugitive by Jennette Marie Powell

  1. Thanks for these reviews. I’ve read (and plan to re-read) Catton’s Civil War history, but now I’m going to have to get Foote’s as well.

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