Aristotle Saves the Cat

Smart cat

I have 11 minutes of screenplay written for my adaptation of Desert Justice, a cop novel I recently completed. So far, writing it has been an amazing learning experience. I can already see how the novel needs to be reorganized.

I laid out a 110-minute beat sheet (see below) based on a chapter-by-chapter outline of the novel, and immediately saw that my novel’s opening was not the right place to start. Going through the beat sheet (a composite template I invented by combining generic plot points from Save the Cat and Aristotle’s Poetics), I had to extract only main characters and essential plot points, select the most dramatic and visual scenes, and ignore 95% of the narrative exposition. The result was an amazingly tight story, told in a better sequence than it was in the novel, and focusing more strongly on the arc of my main character.

I now believe that adapting a novel into a screenplay is the perfect way to improve the story structure. Enthusiastic as I am about the screenplay format, I have some ambivalence about how much of the story is left up to the audience’s imagination, or just left out altogether. For example, here is a random snippet from the novel that is presented by the third-person narrator and must be left out of the screenplay:

The men kept pull-over vests in the trunk, but rarely used them. It had been hard to get used to that, coming from patrol into detectives. Without Kevlar, a patrol officer feels like he’s walking around naked. But detectives are talkers, not shooters, and a bulky vest on civilian clothes makes you look like a turtle. Puts people off.

I could put those words into a character’s mouth and get them into the screenplay that way, but it would make poor dialog, and  besides, it’s not essential information to the plot. Later in the story the Kevlar vests play a role in a plot moment, but they can just appear from the trunk of the car without explanation. Here, the foreshadowing explanation just adds a little psychological coloring to the character. It’s that kind of nuance that makes novels enjoyable to write and to read, but a screenplay is strictly the vital amino acids, not the whole feast.

I’m realizing now that if you get the basics of the screenplay right, the novel it represents can be organized efficiently and effectively around those essentials. Unfortunately, it is not possible (for me) to write the screenplay first. I need the elbow-room the novel gives me to develop the characters in all their sprawling nuance before I can identify the essential elements of them, and of the story line. Maybe someday I’ll be so good I can sit down and from thin air, fill in my story points in column one of the template below.

Aristotle Saves the Cat: Beat Sheet Template

1 min = 1 page

My Story Points Main Beats Min Micro-Beats Purpose
Act 1: Opening Image 0 Status Quo (SQ) Est. MC’s world and character.
Hook 5 Show or tell the theme MC has a dominant trait and a hidden need (hamartia)
Inciting incident 10 Trigger event and… Disturbs the SQ, sets the plot in motion.
Reaction Story goal is set in reaction to trigger
15 Initial failure Initial actions fail, making things worse
Rubicon 20 Point of no return MC is way over his head, acts irreversibly, perhaps without realizing.
Act 2

 

30 Romantic story begins, often badly MC acts, often overconfident, and fails
35 MC is bewildered Each response creates the next obstacle
40 Stakes are raised MC is not aware of hamartia; can’t go back
45 Escalation MC is tested, fails.
Turning point begins 50 Some hope is seen. The romance develops A plan becomes possible.
55 Obstacles escalate Despite best efforts, plan fails
Midpoint 60 Obstacles get stronger Relationships break down
The Pit 65 Hope is dashed No other options
70 Things get worse Seemingly insurmountable obstacle arises
All is lost 75 MC is ruined Dark night of the soul; Despair
Rock Bottom 80 Complete Failure Only ashes left; MC gives up.
Critical Choice 85 MC takes a chance New plan based on Irrational decision goes against type
90 Confront the inner demons Overcomes hamartia with courage etc
Act 3 95 Climax confrontation White vs black hats.
100 Reversal Overcomes story obstacle
105 Resolution and catharsis MC epiphany and triumph (or noble death)
Final Image 110 Mirrors the opening image New SQ. Nothing will ever be the same

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