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Day 14: Come Ups, A Save the Cat Comparison, Part 1

Before starting, you may want to download the script excerpts below:

The Journey completes its second week with a look inside the writing process. We'll be looking at roughly the first 10 pages of my screenplay Come Ups, comparing the first draft to the second draft with the Save the Cat paradigm applied. Save the Cat is a unique methodology for outlining a screenplay using specific plot points or beats on prescribed pages. This system was developed by the late Blake Snyder and allows you to plot your screenplay in a moment-to-moment fashion within the larger 3-act structure utilized by virtually every Hollywood movie. For a deeper explanation of Save the Cat, check out the Day 13 blog. If you are already familiar with the program, you may want to download the two different versions of Come Ups posted above so you can do a side-by-side comparison and follow along with the explanation below.

Before we begin, let me comment on the title. I hate it. Unfortunately, at this time it is the only thing I have come up with (no pun intended). A come up is someone who is taking a step up in his or her social or financial status. The nerdy kid who is suddenly befriended by the cool kids has had a come up. The struggling waitress who wins the lottery has had a good come up. It's more of a street term and as such is apropos to the characters of the story. Most people, however, are not familiar with the term, and it just doesn't sound like a good movie title. So for now, it's just a working title. Please do not bombard me with messages telling what a terrible title it is. I know.

Meanwhile, back at the Cat. . .

I wrote the rough draft of Come Ups in the summer of 2009 and over the next year completed the first draft. I did a couple of readings, including one in NY with professional actors, and received generally favorable responses. I knew I had some good elements and characters, but something kept nagging me about the script. The overall story felt draggy. The forward progression was sluggish, and the reading of the script felt very different from hearing it out loud. Since I knew agents and producers would be reading the script and not hearing it, I understood it would need rewrites if it were going to have a chance at being picked up. I just didn't know what those rewrites might be. So I shelved it. Flash forward several years, and with a little more writing experience under my belt, to where I began experimenting with the Save the Cat method. I seemed to be having good results with Save the Cat, and I wondered what would happen if I applied that paradigm to one of my existing works. What changes would result?

Come Ups seemed a perfect script to try that on, so I pulled it off the shelf and began work. I'm about halfway through the script and so far I have been pleased with the results. Part of the improvements have been due to the restructuring dictated by Save the Cat and the others are simply because I'm a better writer 6 years later. But is it a good script? For now, I believe it is a much better read, but only time will provide the complete answer to that question. And I'm still working on it. So let's have a look at the changes that have already taken place and how they compare to what was originally written.

The first thing Mr. Snyder asks for in his list of 15 beats is the Opening Image, that first shot the audience will see on screen. The Opening Image is what will define the tone, mood and style of the film. It can give you a sense of what to expect from the movie without a word being said. It can introduce your main character or give a snapshot of what life is like in this world before the action of the movie starts. What it should be is memorable. I think it's safe to say I failed to do any of those things on my first attempt.

In the original version of Come Ups, I began with a shot of hands wrapping and stacking money. It did sort of set a mood. We get the idea that something illicit may be going on, but it's not a particularly memorable moment. The issue lay in the fact that I wasn't trying to set up the movie per se, but rather a montage for the opening credits. There was a sort of story going on. We see two sets of people getting ready to come to a meeting. One group has money; the other has drugs. The problem is we don't really know who these two groups are, and it became difficult, for a reader anyway, to keep the two groups distinct. The second issue is it takes a full page to accomplish this montage. That's a whole minute of screen time without diving into the story. I was more concerned with giving the credits a background that hinted at the story. Lesson 1: Don't write the credit sequence! It's not the writer's job. The writer tells the story. They'll figure out the credits later. It's in vogue to put the credits at the end of a film these days. If you write a credit sequence, you've just wasted valuable real estate that could have been used to tell your story.

Opening Image Opening Image

Original Draft STC Draft

In the Save the Cat (STC) version, I dumped the credit montage and created a more definitive opening moment. The new opening establishes the story in Florida. It's hot, steamy, and desolate. The unsuspecting armadillo makes a fateful decision to step into the roadway This will immediately put an audience on edge as they don't want to see the animal hurt. The armadillo is also symbolic of the characters in the story who step into a situation without realizing the danger. All this is set up in about 1/8 of a page, mere seconds of screen time compared to the full minute of the original version where nothing had been setup except some people were going to a possibly illicit meeting.

The very next shot is of the open briefcase of money. Anytime you see some carrying around a briefcase of money, you know they are up to no good. This takes us directly into the Set Up section of STC. Mr. Snyder moves from the Opening Image to Theme, but since the theme is contained in the set up, I'll get to that when it rolls around.

The Set Up is where you introduce your main characters, the world they live in and some exposition regarding the various relationships. Mr. Snyder says it is a snapshot of the world the characters inhabit before the main action of the story begins. This is all accomplished in the first 10 pages of your script. In the original version of Come Ups, we meet Reydel at the end of the montage at his house. Nothing really happens here. He looks at the money and heads to his car. There is no real story telling here. The scene exists as a way of getting Reydel out of the montage and into his car so we can finally start the story. Only we don't. On pages 2 and 3, we meet Angel, a local youth and wannabe gangsta. We do learn some backstory on Angel and get a hint of what Reydel does for a living, but there is not a lot of forward progression in the scene. Why? Because I needed a place to introduce Angel. He's a character that shows up in the second act, and I felt I needed to establish him early on. The problem with doing it here is I am spending two pages introducing a character that won't appear again for an hour instead of introducing my other main characters, their relationships and their world. I'm up to page 4 already, and I haven't really started the story.

By contrast, the STC version has us in the car with Reydel and his brother on the way to the meet 15 seconds after the movie starts. Within four lines of dialogue the character of Hiram is introduced. We don't know who he is yet, but we learn quickly that he's not somebody to be messed with. Just ask poor Vicente. We also learn that Reydel and Almandeto are getting a chance to make a come up. The money will be flowing soon, they just need to get through this meeting and. . .WHAM! Just when you were starting to forget about that armadillo, he's road kill. We've paid off on the opening shot, introduced two of our main characters and established that violence is to be expected. All in just one minute. Compare that to the 4 minutes of the original where nothing impactful has really happened. Same story, just lower stakes.

By page 2 in the STC version, we have arrived at the wooded glade. This happens at the bottom of 4 in the original. In the first attempt at the scene, it serves primarily as a blocking point. I needed to get Reydel out of his car, so Almandeto could continue on alone. No real story here. In the revised version, the glade scene allows Reydel to meet his crew, we see some of the jocular relationships that exist between these men. Reydel lays out his plan for the meet. This is all part of Mr. Snyder's Set Up, so that it can be torn apart at the Catalyst moment. This has all been accomplished in just under 3 pages, whereas it took until page 5 in the original.

We meet our hero characters on page 5 of the original, but the same scene starts at the bottom of page 3 in the STC version. Both scenes establish relationships between Grady, Shep and Tyler, but the tension developed with Tyler is dissipated quickly in the original when the discussion turns to Shep and Tyler's father and his prized-possession. This is wasted space on a character that is not in the film and does not play a strong emotional part in their lives. It can be cut and is in the revised version. This is also where we get Mr. Snyder's Theme plot point. He calls for it on page 5, and there it is right at the top of the page. "Everything's got a price. Worth it or not."

In the original version, not only is it not on page 5, it doesn't exist anywhere in the first 10 pages. It was a plot point that was just ignored. It does come up finally in Act 2, but that's a bit late to be letting the audience know what the theme is.

Next we find a scene with Darryl and his cohorts. In the original, this comes 6 pages after they were introduced in the montage. Who are they again? Not quite sure and they certainly don't tell us. In the new version, this scene serves as their introduction. It's not much longer than the original, but it sets up Darryl as expecting trouble at the meet and possibly even hoping for it. He's a bad dude.

Reydel's plan is set into motion when Darryl passes the wannabe drug lord on the road. This happens on page 5 in the STC version, a full two minutes earlier than originally written. In the original, we also get some extraneous information from Almandeto when he tells Juan and Esteban that Darryl is on his way. We already know this. It is not necessary information and can be excised. Look for little moments like this throughout your script where you relay information that was stated just seconds earlier. It's redundant and takes up real estate.

We return to the lake and get some backstory on Grady and his military experience. This information will be used later at the act break. It is a good example of how set up should work. There is also building frustration with Tyler, separating the older men emotionally from their younger companion. The version of the scene in the original is 2.25 pages long however, whereas in the revised script it's just 1.5 pages. Same info told more judiciously.

Shifting back to the cabin, Darryl arrives and we get another hint at the ominous Hiram in the revised version, but there is no mention of him in the original until late in the scene, page 12 to be precise. That's 4 pages or 4 minutes later than in the revised version. Far too long to go without a mention of Hiram. The more Hiram can be teased, the more anticipation is built for his eventual arrival. It's all part of Mr. Snyder's Set Up beat.

On page 11 of the original script we get what I call the "Uh-oh" moment. This is not in Mr. Snyder's beat plan, but I think it is an important point. It's where we learn that things are about to go wrong. It builds tension and anticipation of the Catalyst moment. This moment is occurs when Darryl demands additional payment from Almandeto and won't let him speak with Hiram. Uh-oh, thing are about to go bad. In the STC version this moment happens 2 pages earlier.

Now that everybody has been introduced, the world established, the theme stated and the uh-oh moment has occurred, it's time to shake things up a bit. This is the moment for the Catalyst to happen, the inciting incident that will alter the world for all involved. In Come Ups that moment occurs when Grady, Shep and Tyler hear the gunshots from their boat. They are not directly involved in the shooting, but the world has definitely changed. They are simply not aware of what the ramifications of that change are. All they know is that a peaceful day of fishing has been shattered. What they do next will change their world. It will be dramatically less changed if they simply slip away in the boat, but they don't. They will choose to investigate.

In the original version the Catalyst happens on page 12, precisely where Mr. Snyder says it should happen. In the STC version it comes on page 10, two pages earlier than Mr. Snyder calls for. Now last night I explained that the first act beats were essentially immutable; they are carved in stone. Now, I'm fudging on that. I think I can bend the rules slightly here because the Catalyst moment is a soft moment. It is not a hard shift in the world that one would normally expect to happen at this point. It is also a precursor to a larger moment that will happen in just 4 pages, a moment that will inexorably alter the lives of these characters. To shift that first moment back to page 12 also pushes the larger moment downstream. That would be detrimental to the script as it encroaches on the upcoming debate and the act break. To shift that larger moment forward to page 12 would push the smaller moment earlier into the Set Up, also not an ideal situation. Because that first moment is a softer catalyst, I think it will work if happens just a little early. It also buys us a little time for that second, harder and more monumental incident, allowing it to come just two pages after Mr. Snyder says it should. This is a case of knowing the rules allows me to bend them. Ever so slightly. At least that's my justification. The workshop reading should allow me to know if this will work the way I anticipate.

And those are the first 10 pages. By following the Save the Cat method, I replaced a confusing and dramatically slow montage with a memorable Opening Image of an armadillo stepping into the path of disaster. That shot is paid off immediately after introducing one of main characters and revealing him to be involved in some type of illicit activity. Through the Set Up, I introduced the other main characters, eliminated others that weren't necessary to the story yet, teased my villain, and focused on the backstory (exposition) and relationships of the characters instead of worrying about the blocking and getting them from point A to point B. I added a Theme on page that didn't previously exist, and built tension to the Catalyst through an 'uh-oh' moment before finally shifting the world that the characters inhabit with the gun battle. Save the Cat gave me the generalities of structure on which to build my story, but it was up to me to fill in the particulars. I had a lot of the elements already down on paper, but to fit them to the structure required some rewriting. Overall, I think it made the opening moments more concise, amped the stakes, built tension, accelerated the forward progression of the story and made for an eminently more enjoyable read. An interesting side note is that the original script had 23 scenes with the montage, whereas the STC revised version had only 13 scenes.

Tomorrow, I will chart the journey through the second 10 pages. Until then, you should look at your own script and see how applying the STC paradigm would change your story and what those results might look like.

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