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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The Warrior Ethos

The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy,
but where are they.
—Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.

We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

From the Introduction by Steven Pressfield.

[The following is from chapter 12 of The Warrior Ethos:]

12. HOW THE SPARTANS BECAME THE SPARTANS

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture.

So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called "citizens," but "peers" or "equals."

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man's head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. "That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece," he declared, "and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect." The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. "Yes," he said, "and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup."

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted "common messes" of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. "Even horses and dogs who are fed together," observed Xenophon, "form bonds and become attached to one another."

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here's how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

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