Pride and Prejudice - The STORY GRID edition - Annotated by SHAWN COYNE

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Female Carries the Mystery

By Steven Pressfield
Published: October 18, 2017

 

I’m re-reading one of my favorite books on writing, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Goes To the Movies.

Blake Snyder (who died tragically at age 51 in 2009) was a screenwriter who did a lot of thinking about what makes a story work and what makes it not work. His first book, Save the Cat!, is a classic.

Bogey and Bacall in "The Big Sleep"

Bogey and Bacall in “The Big Sleep”

One of Blake Snyder’s writer-friendly inventions is what he called “BS2,” the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.

The beat sheet broke a story—any story from the Iliad to La La Land—down into about sixteen “beats,” e.g. Opening Image, Theme Stated, Catalyst, Break into Two, etc.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the light of my ongoing “Reports from the Trenches” struggles.

I’m asking myself,

What am I learning through this process of rebuilding a story that has crashed?

How can I help others in the same straits?

What’s the Big Takeaway?

When you and I say that we “write instinctively,” what we mean is we trust our gut. That’s how we shape and flesh out our story. We might feel something like, “The story should be told by Character X, and not in memory but in the present.” Or, “Something’s missing in the middle. We need more with Characters Y and Z.”

What Blake Snyder was trying to do with his Beat Sheet (and what any good editor does, or what I myself am trying to do now with my Trenches project) is to formulize that process. Blake read a million novels and watched a million movies, and he concluded that the ones that work all follow certain timeless story principles or guidelines.

Sean Young in "Blade Runner" 1982

Sean Young in “Blade Runner” 1982

All stories that work have a similar shape, Blake believed. The specific one you or I might be working on at the moment will have its own unique shape. But it will cohere, in pretty predictable fashion, around the perennial “beats” of a narrative structure that has existed since our days of telling stories around the fire in the cave.

I agree.

Every story fits into a genre and every genre has conventions.

Here’s one I learned (I never knew this before) over the past five and half months beating my head against the wall on my police procedural/supernatural thriller.

 

            The female carries the mystery.

 

(Sara Paretsky’s wonderful V.I. Warshawski notwithstanding, I’m speaking in the old-school idiom where the detective—Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Rick Deckard—is a male.)

The above convention helped me enormously in reworking the story I was stuck on. I applied it and it worked.

What exactly do I mean by “the female carries the mystery?”

I mean that in a traditional detective story (which is what a police procedural is, even it’s set in the future like Blade Runner or Blade Runner 2049), the detective protagonist is usually following three threads as he drives the narrative forward:

 

  1. Solve the crime/bring the villain to justice.
  2. Unravel some inner personal conflict of his own.
  3. Unearth the secret(s) of the female lead, with whom he has become emotionally involved.

 

There’s always a woman, and the woman always has a secret.

Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown.

Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon.

Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling) in Farewell, My Lovely.

The female can be a femme fatale or a damsel in distress.

Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep.

But the bottom line for the male detective/cop/lover is

 

Unravel the woman’s secret (“She’s my sister, she’s my daughter!”) and you solve the crime.

 

What I’m trying to say is that genre matters.

Conventions count.

Ryan Gosling in "Blade Runner 2049"

Ryan Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049”

The story principles that work in other stories will work in yours and mine too.

And

 

Maybe the reason ours is not working is that we’re either violating a convention or we don’t even know it exists and so we’ve left it out.

 

I like the way Blake Snyder thinks because he looks to timeless storytelling principles and tries not to ignore them or to blow them off but to respect them and enlist them in our own story’s cause.

I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 yet, but for sure the female’s secret in the 1982 original (Rachel [Sean Young] is a replicant and in desperate need of help because of that) is central to that plot and to Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) actions throughout.


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ADDITIONAL READING » ALEXANDER THE GREAT

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Anabasis of Alexander

by Arrian

Same book as The Campaigns of Alexander, different title, from the Loeb Classical Library (in two volumes), translated by another top scholar, P.A. Brunt. Not as contemporary a read as de Selincourt’s but very much the real deal.

Campaigns of Alexander, The

by Arrian

This is the Penguin paperback, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, with an intro by J.R. Hamilton, one of the best Alexander scholars. It’s the most readable and really gives you a sense of what all the fuss is about.

Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army

by Engels, Donald

Military men say that amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. If so, this book is pure pro. Engels explores such questions as, “How many mules can carry how many pounds for how many miles at what speed before they completely crap out?” I love this stuff.

Generalship of Alexander the Great, The

by Fuller, J.F.C.

Shrewd insights into how Alexander fought and how his principles fit into the broader picture of warfare over the centuries. By one of the greatest military historians of our time or any other.

Alexander the Great

by Hammond, N.G.L.

I just like Hammond’s re-imagining of Alexander. His speculations ring true to me.

Genius of Alexander the Great, The

by Hammond, N.G.L.

I just like Hammond’s re-imagining of Alexander. His speculations ring true to me.

Life of Alexander the Great, The

by Plutarch

Under thirty pages, but crammed with anecdotes and insights, from a far greater writer than Arrian or Curtius. But skewed, too, in its own way. Great stuff.

History of Alexander

by Quintus Curtius (Loeb Library, translated by J.C. Rolfe)

Along with the Alexander sections of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, this is the other main ancient source. Interesting how the same incidents are narrated from wholly different points of view, new material added, crucial stuff left out. You can see why it’s so hard to get a handle on the real Alexander.

Persian Boy, The

by Renault, Mary

Without The Persian Boy and Fire From Heaven, I wouldn’t be writing at all. These novels of Alexander inspired me years ago when I first read them—and they still read great today. Mary Renault also wrote an interesting non-fiction book, The Nature of Alexander.

Fire from Heaven

by Renault, Mary

Without The Persian Boy and Fire From Heaven, I wouldn’t be writing at all. These novels of Alexander inspired me years ago when I first read them—and they still read great today. Mary Renault also wrote an interesting non-fiction book, The Nature of Alexander.

Nature of Alexander, The

by Renault, Mary

Without The Persian Boy and Fire From Heaven, I wouldn’t be writing at all. These novels of Alexander inspired me years ago when I first read them—and they still read great today. Mary Renault also wrote an interesting non-fiction book, The Nature of Alexander.

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