Staying On The Horse

I went to film school at USC, and even though almost all of my classes dealt with movie making, we only took two screenwriting classes.

On a technical level, these classes covered Aristotle’s Three-Act-Structure and not much else.  The professors would just tell us to write a certain number of pages before the next class and then send us on our way.

As a result, most of our scripts sucked… and not because of a lack of talent… a girl in one of my screenwriting classes is now a senior writer for Mad Men.

One of my screenwriting professors was a television writer named Paul Wolff, and his entire philosophy of screenwriting was simply the phrase “Stay On The Horse”, which struck me as dubious in its simplicity.

I was craving structure, rules, theory… anything really, that would allow me to become a better writer.

But I got, “Stay On The Horse.”

I rationalized that Paul’s morsel of philosophy might work for sitcoms (maybe), but it couldn’t possibly work for feature film scripts.

A few years out of school, I decided to try writing movie screenplays.  I picked up Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” books, and instantly fell in love with them.  The Save The Cat books detailed the exact scientific formula for crafting perfect screenplays — 15 beats, 40 scenes, 110 pages, and you’re done.

The core of the Save The Cat method is the “Beat Sheet” — the 15 specific story developments that add up to a properly plotted movie.  Essentially, the Beat Sheet was a glorified outline.

Using what I had learned, I crafted an amazing outline that hit the Save The Cat beats perfectly.  By following this outline, I busted out a script in no time…

… and it wasn’t very good.

No worries.  This is all part of the process.

For my next project, I adapted a novel.  130 pages later, script was done…

… and it had the same problems as the first.

These scripts weren’t bad, but something was off in both of them.  The characters were hollow, their motivations didn’t seem authentic.  Scenes raced by, but didn’t feel connected.

And then I realized what the problem was.  I didn’t stay on the horse.

What Paul meant by that phrase was that you had to let a story develop naturally, without forcing it.  Staying on the horse also meant that you had to make sure your characters were dynamic people who had authentic motivations that kept them acting in ways that were worth watching.

Both of the scripts I had written using the Save The Cat Beat Sheet suffered from the same failings:  I was so concerned with hitting the proper beats that I didn’t develop the kind of characters who would strive to reach those points in organic or satisfying ways.

The bigger problem was that I would create cool moments inside the scripts that were connected by implausible plot developments.  Everyone would end up in the right place for the Big Moment, but how they got there wouldn’t make sense, or worse, would be boring.

The solution:  Stay On The Horse — Keep your characters moving in truthful and organic ways.  If your story runs out of momentum, it’s because the problems your protagonists are facing aren’t challenging enough.  Go back earlier and ramp up the difficulty, then make your characters struggle to overcome these problems.

Want an example?  I’ll give you my favorite:  At the beginning of the Matrix, Morpheus has already located Neo, and the Agents have already established a Mole.  Instant momentum.  More importantly, the Matrix hits a point when the momentum of the plot becomes self-sustaining — When Neo goes to meet the Oracle the Agents’ ambush has already been set.  For the rest of the movie, every scene that follows is the logical and organic result of the characters we already know behaving truthfully.  Even though the Matrix clocks in at a hefty 136 minutes, it never feels slow because it Stays On The Horse.

Want an example of when a movie has Fallen Off The Horse?  There are too many to count.  Basically, if you have ever been watching a movie and thought to yourself, “What’s going on here?” or, “What’s this leading towards?” — You’re watching a movie that has fallen off the horse.

This recently happened for me when I was watching Hugo.  The movie looked great, and the characters were interesting, but about 45 minutes in, all I could think was, “What’s going on?”,  “What do these people even want?”  and, “What’s the point?”.  Hugo has a neat ending that ties up the story nicely, but by that point, I didn’t care.

Stay On The Horse.

As for the “Save The Cat”  books, they are delightful to read, and quite insightful for many reasons.  To be honest, “Why didn’t we learn this in film school?” was a thought I had over and over again while reading them.  More importantly, the “Save The Cat” method gives you an excellent way to figure out what is missing from or isn’t working in a completed draft.

But now that I’ve written a couple scripts, my advice about the “Save The Cat” method, and writing Outlines in general is this:

Outlines are an important roadmap for a script.  But an Outline isn’t a story.  Craft your story first — then go back and use an Outline to figure out where it’s weak.

Right now I’m working on the “short story” version of my next screenplay.  It starts with “Once upon a time”…  And it already feels richer and more compelling than anything I’ve ever laid out as part of a sterile outline.

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