Erik Bork is best known for his work as a writer-producer on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon – for which he won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards. He teaches screenwriting for UCLA Extension and National University’s MFA Program, and was rated “Cream of the Crop” in Creative Screenwriting’s “The Best Script Analysts and Consultants.” You can check out his free “Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand,” and contact him through his website at Flyingwrestler.com. Follow Erik on Twitter: @flyingwrestler
Ever since an established producer recommended I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, I’ve found it to be an essential tool, both for my own writing, and for the writers I’ve worked with as a consultant. I think its “Beat Sheet” is great for structuring a story – and that it builds on paradigms that have come before in a fun and very practical way. But the thing I like most about it are the ten “genres.” With names like “Fool Triumphant,” “Institutionalized,” and “Dude with a Problem,” they have completely redefined how I looked at types of movies and stories, in a way that I think can be really helpful to writers. In contrast to standard generic terms such as “comedy,” “drama” and “thriller,” these story templates can give real substantive assistance in figuring out what kind of story you’re trying to tell – and making sure its premise and overall arc fit within a particular type of narrative that has been proven to be successful.
I know, it sounds at first like a formula – and we writers are quick to be skeptical and rebellious against something that seems like it could lead to cliched writing. I’m with you on that. But when I looked at the vast variety of movie examples that Snyder fit into these ten genres, I realized how flexible and wide-ranging this system was. It inspired me to realize that I have favorites in virtually every one of the genres, and got me thinking about my next project in terms of which genre it might fall into – which helped greatly in turning it into a compelling and commercial premise. I would go so far as to say that I’m hard-pressed to think of a successful movie or novel I have loved that can’t be clearly seen as occupying one of these ten genres.
I think we as writers tend to become interested in an idea for a story that has some elements that attract us, but often it doesn’t add up to a premise that has the potential to compel and entertain a large audience (and move our careers forward). Simply put, not every movie idea is a workable commercial concept – in fact, most ideas behind scripts that I read aren’t, in my judgment – and I think it’s no coincidence that they also usually don’t clearly fit one of the Save the Cat genres.
What I’ve also found is that even writers who are familiar with (and trying to work with) these ten types can use some help with interpreting and applying what I believe Snyder was trying to say with them. So this becomes a large part of what I do when I evaluate an idea – I run it through the filter of these genres to determine what kind of story it’s “trying to be” – then help the writer (assuming they agree) make it really become that.
So I have a few tips below based on this work. My first and most important tip is this: PICK ONE! Yes, there is some crossover between the genres, and certainly a “love story” (for example) can commonly become a “B Story” to some other type of movie. But I think it’s a big mistake to take elements from various genres and try to fit them together. I think that defeats the whole purpose. In my opinion, if you want to write a movie that will grab professional readers and eventually audiences, really fulfilling one of these genres – with your own unique vision and variation, of which there are infinite possibilities – is the way to go. I think if you look at the most successful writers and movies, that is what they have done (whether consciously or unconsciously).
What these genres really speak to, I think, is the main issue professional readers have with most scripts. That issue usually has to do with these basic questions: “Do the main character’s problem, desire, goal and plan add up to something clear, compelling, believable, entertaining, and relatable? Is it big enough, with enough in the way, and growing difficulty and stakes over the course of the story, to an exciting climax? And is it told through the subjective perspective of a main character with some sort of inner journey, which reaches a satisfying resolution?” In my humble opinion, fulfilling the requirements of one of these ten “genres” provide a great start to making sure your story does that.
And so, without further preamble, here are my tips on working with seven of the most popular genres:
1. DUDE WITH A PROBLEM – Every story, in essence, is about a “dude with a problem.” But this particular genre dictates a certain type of problem: one that is life-or-death and immediate, that must be solved through some sort of physical battle, right now. The whole movie is essentially a chronicle of that battle (which might consist of a series of mini-battles). Think Die Hard, Bourne Identity, Misery, 2012, or Apollo 13.
2. GOLDEN FLEECE – This often seems to be the “catch-all” genre when no other will fit. But it, too, has its own specific requirements that must be met for it to really work. The key is that the main character’s “team” is chasing a very clear and definable “prize” that seems unreachably hard. You’ll know the movie is over, because they’ve achieved the prize, or not. Often, I find in scripts purporting to be a “Fleece” that the “prize” is unclear, or not big or challenging enough, and the journey toward achieving it thus not as compelling as it could be. Think The Bad News Bears, Finding Nemo, Saving Private Ryan, Ocean’s Eleven, or Cast Away.
3. BUDDY LOVE – All movies have relationships with problems. But it’s not a “Buddy Love” unless the main problem of the movie has to do with a key relationship that seems essential to the main character, which is threatened by something. “Will they or won’t they end up together?” is the central question of the movie, and the main issue that is explored throughout. Think The Black Stallion, Starsky and Hutch, Pretty Woman, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or An Officer and a Gentleman.
4. INSTITUTIONALIZED – Just because a story takes place at an “institution” of some sort, does not make it fit this genre. And the “institution” does not have to be literal. The question is whether there is a group with its own rules and norms that the main character is exploring the costs and benefits of membership in – and ultimately deciding whether they want to be a part of it or not. It’s about deciding who they want to be in relationship to it, and the risks and reward of same. Think Full Metal Jacket, Goodfellas, Office Space, The Devil Wears Prada, or Crash.
5. RITES OF PASSAGE – Similarly, just because a character is going through some sort of rite of passage (in the generic sense) does not mean it meats the criteria for this genre. The key here is that it is a relatable life problem (like adolescence, divorce, mid-life, loss of a loved one, or addiction), which the main character is avoiding by chasing something else. They are clearly on a wrong road, as they spend most of the movie in pursuit of some challenging goal that is entertaining to watch, but not ultimately going to work out well. Finally, they’re left having to face life after all, hopefully having learned something in the process. Think 10, The War of the Roses, Ordinary People, Trainspotting, or American Pie.
6. SUPERHERO – The key here is a nemesis and problem that is seemingly bigger than they are. It’s never compelling watching amazing people (real-life or made up) succeeding over and over again. Good stories are always about characters being pressed to their limits and overmatched – in hell, essentially – until the very end. (I cannot say this strongly enough. Stories are about dealing with big problems that only get worse when you try to deal with them. So are scenes, most of the time. This is the main issue that I work with on almost every story – making sure it’s a compelling problem that is big enough, hard enough, and complicated enough to take a whole movie to solve.) Think Erin Brockovich, the Harry Potter series, The Matrix, Gladiator or Spider-Man.
7. OUT OF THE BOTTLE – The “magical” catalyst should cause complications and challenges that never would’ve been there without it. Again, they make the hero’s life harder, in ways that demand to be solved. Usually, it’s easier for readers to swallow if the magic emerges from some sort of relatable, semi-explainable place (i.e. not too arbitrary or contrived) like a carnival wish machine, an electrical storm, or some established mythology like genies or witchcraft. And the magic should go away or be resolved in the end, with the character back to an essentially “normal life,” where they’ve grown in some way. Think Big, Aladdin, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar or Field of Dreams.