A “team” goes down a long “road” in search of an important “prize.”
These are the key elements of the movie genre that Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books call the “Golden Fleece.” Inspired by The Odyssey, such stories track progress over time and/or space toward a distant goal.
Finding Nemo. The Wizard of Oz. Rocky. Argo. 12 Years a Slave.
Of Blake’s ten types of stories, this is probably the most diverse, and the closest to being a “catch-all” for stories that might not fit any of the other genres. (And I think it’s really important/helpful to make sure your script really fits at least one of them fully.)
Golden Fleece also has maybe the widest variety between its five subgenres, as outlined in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. The focus can be on everything from sports victory, to heists, to war, to “buddies on a quest,” to solo odysseys of celebrities wrestling with drug problems. What do these all have in common?
I would say “the long journey” or “the prize at the end,” but really, you could say that every great story is about a long journey in pursuit of some sort of prize. Isn’t a “Whydunit” a journey toward the “prize” of catching the killer? Or a “Buddy Love” about the “prize” of making a relationship work?
In a way, that’s true. So in movie ideas that don’t have that clear goal that fits another genre, but there is a goal, I turn to this genre to see if there’s a match. And the five very distinct subgenres Blake identified helps us to assess that:
1. Buddy Fleece
In some movies, there is a clear physical journey from one place to the next. The classic “road” movie. These are pretty clear-cut. From Thelma and Louise to Little Miss Sunshine to National Lampoon’s Vacation, a group of people are headed from point A to point B, and meet a lot of obstacles, conflicts and complications along the way, to the point where it’s in doubt that they will ever get to where they’re going. (Whether that’s merely a physical place, or a life situation, or something less clearly defined, but still transformative.)
The key is that the audience, at the beginning, understands and relates to what this journey is for, and what the main character (and others on the journey) hope to get out of it. Sometimes just reaching the other end is the end of the story, especially when it’s about getting “home,” as in Planes Trains and Automobiles. Or sometimes it’s what they hope to find at the end of the road, which may or may not solve their problems, but they won’t know until they get there. As in Philomena.
In other movies, the “prize” isn’t the destination itself, but something else that they’re forced to travel around a lot, in order to eventually find. As in The Hangover. Or This is Spinal Tap.
2. Epic Fleece
In this second category, the stakes are substantially higher, as in “life and death.” Physical battles become the “problems along the way,” as in Saving Private Ryan, Star Wars or 3:10 to Yuma. Again there is a lot of movement around from place to place, in pursuit of the eventual prize at the end.
3. Sports Fleece
Here there is little or no traveling from place to place at all, and the “road” is more figurative. An unlikely team (or sometimes an individual with others supporting) tries to pull off an underdog victory in a game that means everything — to their sense of themselves and place in the world. (The stakes of the game itself often isn’t as important as what it means to them personally.) We see this in The Bad News Bears, Cool Runnings or Rudy. I can also stretch this concept to encompass movies that are about competition, but not exactly on the playing field — such as Jerry Maguire, Stand and Deliver and School of Rock. This subgenre, like the next one, is more limited and specific.
4. Caper Fleece
These are essentially about a heist (or sometimes a breakout, or other “caper”). We root for those doing the heisting because, though they might be criminals, they’re not as bad as who they’re trying to “fleece,” who has it coming — such that it’s almost a victimless crime. As in The Sting or Oceans Eleven. I think Pulp Fiction (Bruce Willis’s story) and Reservoir Dogs also fit into this category, as do Inception and Argo.
5. Solo Fleece
In this final subgenre, there’s no team at all, but simply a single character on a long road, where there is one big unanswered question or challenge to their life, that we want to see resolved. Of all the fifty subgenres, this one is probably best for movies that try to chronicle the span of a whole lifetime, or a large chunk of it. The key is the nature of the problem we want to see resolved. It has to always be front and center. 12 Years a Slave is a great example, but also lower stakes movies like Walk the Line, Ray and Capote, as well as The World According to Garp, The Shawshank Redemption and The Pursuit of Happiness.
Keys to the Golden Fleece
I think the one thing that holds all these diverse movies together, across five subgenres, is the idea of a life-changing “prize” that we’re waiting to see reached. What they’re trying to get to has to have massive stakes. It has to be an easy-to-identify-with problem. We have to feel that if they reach it, all will be right with their world, and they will be healed and happy, at long last. And if they don’t, well, that’s unthinkable. All will seem truly lost.
That’s the biggest error I see in scripts that writers feel are “Fleeces”: there might be a journey, a road, a team, and some sense of a prize, but it’s hard to see how that prize is so important that one should base a whole movie on it. It’s not life-changing enough. It won’t transform everything. It may give the character a sense of pride and success, but if it’s not a big enough change to their (currently unacceptable) inner and outer circumstances, the audience might not care that much.
As Blake Snyder liked to say, movies are “Transformation Machines.” A character’s life and/or way of being must be really at stake, in a primal, fundamental way — where this journey is necessary, urgent, pressing, and, of course, extremely difficult. They must really get beaten up along the way. But emerge, at the end, changed for the better.
This is the second in my series of articles on how to work with these ten genres. See my first article, on “Rite of Passage” here.
For my next post, I have votes for “Institutionalized” and “Dude with a Problem.” Does anyone want to ask for any others?
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.