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 » CLASSICAL GREECE

Additional Reading: Classical Greece

Ambition to Rule, The

by Forde, Steven

Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.

Athenian Trireme, The

by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov

Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.

Education of Cyrus (aka the Cyropaedia), The

by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)

Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).

Histories, The

by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)

This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.

History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)

Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.

Indispensable Spartan Website, The

by Houston, Paul

My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”

Landmark Thucydides, The

by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)

A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.

Last Days of Socrates, The

by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)

Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.

On Sparta

by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)

The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.

Persian Expedition, The

by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)

Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.

Plutarch’s Lives

by Plutarch

Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.

Rise and Fall of Athens, The

by Plutarch

This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.

Spartan Army, The

by Lazenby, J.F.

Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.

Spartans, The

by Cartledge, Paul

Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.

Symposium, The

by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)

Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.

Trials from Classical Athens

by Carey, Christopher

Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.

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