My favorite thing about Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat screenwriting books is his theory that successful movies tend to each fall within one of ten specific types of stories. These ten “genres” can be a hugely helpful tool for screenwriters at the all-important concept stage. In fact, I suggest writers figure out which of these types of stories they’re writing first, before they get past logline or basic premise.
But here’s the thing — most ideas writers bring to me for scripts (and the scripts they’ve written from these ideas) don’t quite meet the criteria for any of the genres. And that tends to be their chief problem. Maybe the stakes aren’t high enough, the story goal isn’t hard enough, the main character isn’t active enough or losing enough in the middle, or maybe there isn’t even a consistent main character.
All of which would not be a problem if an appropriate genre were understood and committed to.
It’s not easy and automatic that any movie idea will fit one of these types. One has to work to make sure what they’re proposing has all the elements necessary. And that requires a clear understanding of them. In my experience, most writers might have briefly read about these genres, but haven’t immersed themselves in them, and aren’t able to convincingly demonstrate how their idea really fits one of them.
And so a lot of what I do is explain how I think each of these story types work, looking at examples of successful movies, and we work together to identify the best genre choice, and make sure the story really fulfills its criteria.
So let me present what I’ve learned about and focus on, for each genre, starting with…
Rite of Passage
The “Rite of Passage” script is about a character trying to get through the pain of a universally relatable life stage. Save the Cat Goes to the Movies breaks each genre into five subgenres, and these go a long way toward helping a writer understand the genre. The five “passages” that he noticed successful “ROP” scripts sprung from were:
The main character of an ROP is struggling with one of these, and in the opening ten pages, their status quo life is dramatized in such a way that we can feel and relate to the pain they’re in, and see how it is inextricably tied to that particular life stage. It’s important that this pain not be so hugely specific to them that it goes far outside what most people can relate to, as central elements of that stage. So if your main character is an adolescent, but their pain is really about the fact that both of their parents were just murdered in front of them, then their problem isn’t the life stage, and it’s not an ROP. Their problem is the murder.
So here’s what the normal, relatable pain of each stage looks like:
Mid-life: “Is that all there is?” The main character is no longer officially a “young” adult, and their life seems stagnant. Maybe they’re married, with kids, a mortgage, and a decent job, but that doesn’t fulfill or excite them anymore. They crave meaning, stimulation, adventure. Or maybe they’ve reached mid-life, and life hasn’t turned out how they wanted it to. They lack the things one is supposed to have by this point.
Separation: The main character has just gone through, or is now going through, a break-up, and finds themselves, in the script’s first act, single and alone. So there’s the grieving. The self-pity. The sense of being unable to live without the person who dumped them. The fear and loathing about being single. Or maybe the freedom and excitement of being single, but it’s colored by pain. Always, it’s about pain. They’re on the rebound. They’re raw. They’re vulnerable.
Death: Similar to “Separation,” this can be about losing someone and not being able to easily get over it. Or it could be about one’s own approaching mortality.
Addiction: Maybe this isn’t as universal as the other four, but most of us have seen addiction and had some form of it, even if it’s not super serious. In the movie version, it’s serious enough to be the main problem of their life.
Adolescence: “Nobody understands me or loves me.” These movies are about the pain of not belonging, and not being able to be popular, especially with desired romantic partners. Parents can’t or won’t help. One feels a prisoner in their boring existence, not sure who they’re going to be, not sure who they really are, but feeling everything super deeply. When people talk about a “coming of age” story, it’s usually one of these.
Each of the five stages is characterized by a kind of pain we can mostly all relate to, or have seen in our lives. It’s universal to people in the particular “passage.” And the main character wants to escape that pain.
Now here’s the key: they identify a goal or approach that they think will fix what ails them, and they chase and/or wrestle with it throughout the movie.
And it’s the wrong way to deal with this life stage.
What they’re doing is trying to self-medicate. They can’t face the pain of their situation anymore. And this goal or approach seems like a way out.
But it never is. In the end, it doesn’t lead to what they want. They might fail at their goal, and be disappointed. Or reach it, but it’s unfulfilling. And they have to face the pain of the life stage, head-on. Typically they’ve learned a lesson in the process, and can do so with more maturity now. And we can sense that soon, if not right now, they’ll get past the pain. By accepting it and going through it, perhaps with more perspective than they had before.
This wrong goal can be winning over, and/or making a relationship work with a member of the opposite sex, as in 10, Superbad, My Best Friend’s Wedding, An Education or Her. This is probably the most common ROP goal. In some separation passages, it can be a revenge plot, as in The First Wives Club or The War of the Roses. It can involve a massive lifestyle change, as in Sunset Boulevard or Lost in America. Or the main character might not have a clear goal, but a big specific problem, and is struggling with their life circumstances in not the most healthy way, as in Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting, or most Addiction Passages — where the addiction is the problem, and they can’t seem to overcome it. (Though they might also have an external additional goal, like a relationship with Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon.)
As in any genre, the main character must be actively involved in trying to get what they want, or in struggling with their problem, and things must be complicating in the process. As Save the Cat’s story structure tool, the “beat sheet” teaches, this usually builds to an “all is lost” crisis late in Act Two, and a “final battle” over the goal in Act Three.
But somewhere in this third act, the main character wakes up and realizes the “wrong way” isn’t going to cut it. And they’re going to have to make peace with that approach having not been the answer, and face their life without it.
Rite of Passage is the one genre where the audience doesn’t tend to agree with the main character’s approach or goal. They can sense that it’s the “wrong way.” But they can also understand why they would choose it. This is very important. Because you don’t want the audience judging the main character, looking down on them, disagreeing with them at every turn, not getting them, not liking them. They must essentially “become” the main character so that they are really emotionally engaged in the story. So they must be on the same team. They just know, in the end, that this isn’t the best way of dealing with this life problem.
The biggest issues I see in scripts that are trying to be Rites of Passage is that the situation isn’t all-consumingly difficult enough, relatable enough, high stakes enough. Actually I see this as the key issue in most genres, and most scripts. The difference here is that the main character’s obsession needs to be “wrong,” and they need to grow in the end. Another thing to be careful of is not mixing in other problems with higher stakes, because they will tend to take over the movie, in the audience’s mind. When done right, the pain of this life stage, and the one obsessive wrong road the main character is going down, is the whole movie.
I’m taking suggestions for which of the other nine genres to discuss next time!
So leave a comment if you have a request… or any questions/responses.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.