Blake Snyder’s Fun and Games
Have you heard of Blake Snyder? He was a screenwriter and writer of several terrific books about screenwriting (tragically he died in 2009 at fifty-one) including Save The Cat! (23 printings so far) and Save the Cat Goes To The Movies. Highly recommended.
Blake Snyder was famous for his “beat sheet.” This was his original, funny, idiosyncratic (and very insightful) way of breaking down a story into its constituent elements. There are fifteen beats in the Blake Snyder beat sheet, starting with “Opening Image” and continuing through “Set-up,” “Catalyst,” “B Story,” “Bad Guys Close In,” “Dark Night of the Soul,” etc.
Number Eight is “Fun and Games.”
Here [writes Blake] we forget plot and enjoy “set pieces” and “trailer moments” and revel in the “promise of the premise.”
The Fun and Games part of the story, according to Blake Snyder, begins around the start of Act Two in a movie (for books, say simply “the middle”) and can continue most of the way to Act Three.
What exactly are Fun and Games?
They’re what we go to a specific movie (or read a specific book) for.
We go to a Terminator movie to see Arnold Schwarzenegger destroy things. We go to a Hitchcock flick for the scares and the Icy Blonde in Jeopardy scenes. We read Philip Roth for upscale Jewish angst (and sex) and we pick up Malcolm Gladwell for quirky but profound insights into common but often-overlooked phenomena.
The Fun and Games of a historical romance are the bodice-ripping love scenes. The Fun and Games of a musical are the songs. The Fun and Games of a French restaurant are the gorgeous veggies, the meats and fish roasted with pounds of butter, and the impeccable complementary wines.
A case could be made that the plot of any novel or drama or epic saga, back as far as Beowulf and the Iliad, is nothing grander than a vehicle to deliver the Fun and Games.
And that the writer’s first job, before the application of any and all literary pretensions, is simply to make the Fun and Games work.
Consider Begin Again, the Keira Knightley-Mark Ruffalo-Adam Levine movie I was talking about in a post a couple of weeks ago. Begin Again is (more or less) a musical. The Fun and Games are the songs. Writer-director John Carney had, I don’t know, eight or ten tunes that he had to weave into the story. I’d be very surprised if he didn’t sit down with a notebook and ask himself:
1. How am I going to work each of these songs into the film?
2. Which characters sing them? And why?
3. How can I make each song serve and advance the story?
4. How can I make each song serve the story differently from every other?
5. In what order do I put the songs?
In other words, John Carney began with the Fun and Games. His task was to make them work in the story.
I gotta say, he did a tremendous job. For one song he had Keira Knightley, sitting alone at night in a New York apartment, open her laptop and watch a private video of herself singing for Adam Levine (her boyfriend in the movie) a song she had just written, asking him if he liked it, if he thought it was a good song. Tone of scene: wistful, romantic. Message: she loves him.
In another scene, Carney had Adam Levine play back a song for Keira on his iPhone (a song he had just written during a week out of town.) Twist: Keira realizes as she’s listening to the song that Adam wrote it for another girl. Upshot: she slaps his face and bolts.
What made the task of integrating these Fun and Games particularly daunting for John Carney was that only one or two of the songs had lyrics that referred overtly to what was happening in the moment in the story. They weren’t like “Willkommen” or “What I Did For Love.” They were just generic love songs, like you’d find on any album.
Why am I bringing all this up? I’m flashing back to last week’s post, Learning the Craft. In that post I suggested that it would be a tremendously helpful exercise for all of us to ask ourselves, “What is our craft? What are our strengths as writers? What is unique to us stylistically, thematically, dramatically?”
Same for Fun and Games.
What are our Fun and Games? Even if we’re as-yet unpublished. Even if we’ve only written one story, or just part of a story. What would a reader pick up our book for? What boring parts would she page through to get to the “good parts?”
What are our “good parts?”
The reason I suggest his exercise is because most of us have no idea what our Fun and Games are. I didn’t for years.
If someone were plunking down money to buy a book by you, what would they be buying it to get? What scenes or moments would they want to see? A certain kind of love scene? A trademark type of action or suspense? Are they licking their chops to read your brilliant excursus on American foreign policy? Are they seeking your insights on the evolution of women’s political consciousness in the 1970s?
It’s tremendously helpful to know the answers, to know what our Fun and Games are, because:
1. They tell us what our strengths are.
2. They identify what’s fun for us, what types of scenes we gravitate to.
3. They provide insight into what themes preoccupy us. (Our Fun and Games will instinctively support our themes, consciously or unconsciously.)
4. They help us answer the question, “Why do we write?”
5. They give us insight into who we are, long-term, in the sense of our evolving journey as artists and as human beings.
6. And they help us understand what issues are preoccupying us now, today, in this immediate moment of our lives.
What are your “trailer moments?” What are your “set-pieces?”
What are your Fun and Games?
[P.S. Check out Blake Snyder. Well worth reading.]
Hi Steve, great post as usual, and amazingly timely and helpful. I’m sitting at my laptop right now taking a quick break from a round of editing. I’ve been ragging on myself pretty hard for dragging on a section of character action and dialog in a chapter that doesn’t really directly serve to thrust the plot forward. I’ve been assuming I need to cut and trim because, hey, that’s what you’re supposed to do right? But looking at it through this very helpful lens you’ve laid out, I’m realizing there’s a lot of my kind of Fun and Games in there. Still needs editing, but more in an effort to refine and draw out that unique stuff than to excise it entirely.
I’m curious, do you think that this insight of linking Mr Snyder’s Fun and Games component with your own exhortation for us to do the work of discovering what our craft is uniquely might help to explain the reason that some authors are able to successfully and enjoyably pull off things that common writing practice tells us not to do?
Perhaps those examples that I and others have held up of times when authors have “broken the rules and gotten away with it” should instead be seen as an invitation from the Muse for us to do our own difficult work to discover our unique avenue beyond the accepted lines of “what works”. So, less of a “see they get to do x, y, and z” and more “hmm, what part of my own voice do I need to trust more even if it doesn’t always fit conventional wisdom.”
As always, thanks for prompting me to think a little more deeply today.
Justin, I had not thought of that before but I think you’re right on target. I’m thinking of Henry Miller. A big part of his Fun and Games (for me anyway) was just the crazy rants that we would get off on. They’d have nothing to do with “plot” or “story ” but they were a huge part of the fun of reading a Henry Miller book.
Maybe that applies to you. Maybe some of these sections that you’re thinking about cutting are actually part of your Fun and Games. One of the great things about a novel, as opposed to a movie, is the writer can “get away with” non-plot, non-story, non-character riffs and rants that are just fun and interesting for their own sake.
Thanks for the great Comment!
Brilliant. Start with the Fun & Games, deliver ’em big, and build out from there.
I can do that.
Love it. This is one of those brilliant posts that applies to ALL forms of art, not just writing or movies. Dance to be sure, but also fine art. I will use this in my painting. Thanks so much!
You’ve introduced us to some interesting people over the years – I’d never heard of the late Blake Snyder, so thanks for that. I’m always intrigued when you borrow skills and advice from one form of writing and offer it as a fresh lens for us to look at with our own work. The “fun and games” piece is easy to lose track of when you’re lost in the angst – as always, thanks Steve!
Team Pressfield: How would Steve answer the question, “What are your Fun and Games”? Thx. j
A good one, Joe. Lemme think about that. Maybe grist for another Writing Wednesday.
Steve– You are scaring me. I’ve gone by the adage “Kill your darlings,” since my tough old friend and PhD advisor, Herrlee Creel, told me “Take your favorite passages, polish them up until they gleam, then cut them out. You’ll do yourself and your readers a world of good.”
Creel is all but forgotten now, but during WWII, he smuggled books out of China on the Trans-Siberian railroad. In his day he wrote NYT best sellers on Chinese philosophy. Back in the 60’s he was considered to be among the greatest scholars of classic Confucianism, Taoism, and pre-Han Chinese history. Chinese scholars came to him to discuss bronze inscriptions.
I even follow this advice writing emails.
Have I been cutting my “fun and games” all these years?
I hate to say it, Marvin, but “Maybe … “
I think you over estimate my darlings…
I’m redoing my web site and this article has given me a shift in thinking of how I want to show up. There is a lightness in presentation emerging. Thanks
Now I understand why some chapters are written with a smile and others with a frown.
Thanks for this, Steve. It’s awesome stuff, as usual.
I remember reading the transcripts from the initial story meeting and spitballing session for Raiders of the Lost Ark amd being struck by how much time Lucas and Spielberg (and Kasdan) spent on set pieces and “trailer moments”. In other words, a lot of their spitballing was around “Fun and Games.”
Back when I first read the transcripts, it felt odd to see these guys preoccupied with this stuff more than with Plot Proper. Now it feels like “of course,” especially in light of this blog post. Of course they’re going to focus on the world their trying to create and delivering the goods with fun and games.
What I think sets them (and Hitchcock) apart, I think, is not just that they deliver the fun and games, but that they make that stuff also work to reveal character, establish theme, move the story forward, etc. Sure, Indie has a bullwhip and that leads to all sorts of cool stuff and memorable scenes. But it also helps them to develop Indie as a character. It’s kind of like your lesson from the Porno Director or having the song not just be a song but move the story forward at the same time.
There also seems like a cool overlap between The Craft and Our Craft in that these two legendary directors were very consciously trying to place what they were doing within the context of film history — in context of The Craft. But they knew what they wanted in terms of fun and games — they knew Their Craft. Very cool.
Thanks for another awesome post!
I love Blake Snyder! His books have been helpful during my outline phase. Of course, it makes sense you’d recommend him. Thanks for making me re-think my “fun n games.” I may have glossed over it too quickly.
For what it’s worth, I echo the endorsement of Blake Snyder. “Save the Cat” is a very useful book. Fun and Games may also be seen as the essence of the narrative art, right? As you say, from the first stories, we are drawn to the story. If we want philosophy, we read philosophy. If we want an experience, we read a story – a narrative in whatever form – and draw the philosophy, the theme, therefrom. A post worth at least a second read. Thanks.
I was taken by this article to my screenplay again and went hunting for fun and even a few games – so thanks for that Steve.
Another take on ‘Saving the Cat” is offered by the rather excellent teacher, Peter Russell.
What he says is another facet on the story prism.
Lately Shawn was writing that there are no book or ressource that lists conventions of specific genres. I actually think that Save the Cat (both original book + goes to the movies) are about conventions of specific story stypes that Snyder has identifies.
On a side note, I also think that “Seven Basic Plots” is about conventions as well.
Thanks for bringing this author to your blog!
What with Story Grid, Beat Sheet, Contours software for writing – I think I am looking for a unified theory – maybe that could be a topic of a novel or film.
And of course you have Robert McKee’s tome – and then there is the Hero’s Journey.
I feel madness coming on.
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