Monday, August 16, 2010

Pitching the Catalyst

Blake Snyder is dead now, but the other day I listened to an interview he did shortly before he died. One of the things the interviewer asked was what mistakes he saw screenwriters making. In response, Blake said that he saw a lot of people making the mistake of pitching the catalyst rather than the fun and games. I could tell from the follow up questions that he interviewer didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but I listened with interest and thought to myself that he was absolutely right, patting myself on the back for not making that mistake. Then a few days later I opened a document in which I’d recorded what I saw as the logline for one of my stories. As it turns out, my clearly worded logline was the catalyst (inciting incident). So let’s say it’s an easy mistake to make.

If we pick on Where the Red Fern Grows again, the story is about a boy training two dogs to be championship quality hunting dogs. We’ll all agree that’s true and it turns out that that is exactly what happens in the fun-and-games section. The inciting incident is that Billy finds a magazine advertizing hunting dogs. If we pitch the story based on that, we would probably say that the story is about a boy who buys two hunting dogs. Blakes point is so what? Do I care that he bought two dogs? How is that different than if he bought two cats? In actual fact, it doesn’t matter whether he bought them or someone gave them to him. The story is about him training them.

It’s easy enough to figure out what a book like Where the Red Fern Grows is about, but it may be harder when it’s our own book. I saw a blog post by a literary agent claiming that she could tell what the book was about from the first thirty pages. I sure that what you’ll find is that she’s doing the very thing that Blake said not to do. She’s pitching the catalyst. But when we look at our own stories we may have a tendency to think about the catalyst. The idea for a book will often come to us in the form of a problem that needs to be solved. For example, Searching for Mom developed from the question of how a girl might go about setting her Dad up with a wife. Because that concept is so clear in our mind, we tend to think of it instead of what the book is actually about.

To keep from pitching the catalyst or the inciting incident, we need to turn our attention to the second quarter of the story. Whatever happens there is what we should be talking about. But you might be wondering what we should do if we look at that section and it does sound like a story we’d like to read or a story we think other people might like to read. In that case, you rewrite the story. At the very least you rewrite that section because your story is boring. Don’t waste your time sending queries until you have an interesting solution to the problem.