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Complications Ensue:
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Friday, December 25, 2009

I've been learning to play Beatles songs on the guitar.

The first thing you learn about Beatles songs is they're hard. By the time the Beatles were really into writing their own songs, they'd been playing for years, eight hours a day, at basement clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool. They really, really knew their instruments. They'll run you through a whole mess of arcane chords, fast.

For example, in "Hello, Goodbye," just the first line of the chorus, "Hello, hello, hello," runs you through:

C C/B Am Asus2/G

(I promise there's a screenwriting moral to this story, but bear with me through some guitar info.)

C and A minor are perfectly normal chords. You'll see them all the time.

C/B is a split chord. You don't see split chords that often, but some people like them. (Elton John does some nice things with a progression of split chords in "Your Song," going Am to Am / F# to Am / G.) Basically a split chord is an ordinary chord with one note changed, meaning you put your spare finger somewhere.

Suspended chords are pretty rare. You might see an A suspended 4, say, in "Lola," but you'd remember it. But taking a suspended chord and then splitting it so it's A suspended 2nd over G is practically unheard of.

So what's going on?

The odd thing about the Beatles is they were practically untutored. They learned to play guitar from fooling around with their guitars while listening to records, and occasionally from friends. They didn't have music classes. They didn't go to Juilliard, or whatever it is young music prodigies go to in England. I'm told Paul McCartney couldn't read music until after he quit the Beatles.

No one who knows music theory is likely to produce an Asus2/G. Musically, it's a very complicated chord.

But let's look at the fingering. Here's your C chord:

Your 1st finger is on the first fret of the B string. Second finger is on the 2nd fret of the D string. Third finger is on the 3rd fret of the A string.

Now C/B;

All you have to do is take off the first finger and you've got C/B. (Okay, technically you strum your low E string, while in the C chord you skip the low E string.)

Now, A minor:

This is the same as the C chord, except you take your 3rd finger off the 3rd fret of the A string and put it on the 2nd fret of the G string. (C - Am is a very common chord progression for this reason.)

Now let's look at that ridiculous Asus2/G:

Oh. That's not very hard, is it? You just take off your first and third fingers entirely, and leave your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of the D string.

Not all the Beatles' arcane chords are this easy. But what I'm seeing a lot is chord progressions where you're taking a common chord and then taking a finger off, or sliding one finger down or up one fret.

For example, in "You Won't See Me," in the line:

Time after time, you refuse to even listen

The chords are D6 Dm6 A

D6 is just a basic D chord with the second finger lifted. Here's a D:

Here's a D6:

You can go D6 to Dm6 easily by sliding one finger down on the high E string.

(It's actually easier if you put your 1st finger on the 1st fret of high E, 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of high E, and 3rd finger on the 2nd fret of the G. That makes D6, but if you lift off your second finger you go straight to Dm6 without having to move anything.)

Okay, so what is going on?

Simply, the Beatles are fooling around with their guitars. They are sliding their fingers up and down the frets, trying to hear something new. They are taking fingers off of ordinary chords to make chords that no well-tutored guitarist would make. They "don't know any better." So they're coming up with something incredibly fresh.

Now what is the frakking screenwriting lesson?

Thanks for bearing with me.

There is a whole bunch of theory of screenplay structure. Some of my friends, for example, are fond of the late Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" method of structuring screenplays. It is a pretty foolproof way to write a coherent, well-structured, commercial screenplay. Blake Snyder wrote a couple of successful movies, and got paid a lot of money to write others that didn't get made, and he analyzed a bunch of even more successful movies. I used the "Save the Cat" method once to try to figure out where a beat sheet of mine was going wrong.

You can write a movie that's fun and enjoyable, and if your characters are fresh and your dialogue is snappy, you can sell it and get it made, and entertain a lot of people. But you're not going to surprise too many people using the "Save the Cat" method.

How do you surprise people?

By fooling with your guitar.

I don't recommend people use the "Save the Cat" method. I recommend people use the "telling your story" method. That consists of telling your movie's story, over and over again, to as many people as you can stand to. I recommend not writing anything down until you've told your story out loud, without notes, to at least ten people, none of whom are screenwriters.

When you tell your story out loud, without notes, you will, first of all, hear it yourself in a way that you never will if you write it down. You will hear what works and doesn't work. When you can't remember what comes next, you'll discover what doesn't make sense. When you're boring yourself, you'll know what's tiresome. You'll see your audience's immediate reaction, too. When you're on the right track, they're intently listening. When their eyes glaze over, you haven't grabbed them.

And best of all, you'll find yourself making up better stuff as you go along. Just like John Lennon, playing a D chord and wondering, "What if I take off this finger? Okay, what if I slide this finger over here? Yes, that is better."

This method involves a lot of carnage. You'll try out story ideas, and some will lead you off into the woods, even though they sounded good at the time. You'll come up with something that sounds fun and then realize it's ridiculous.

In musical terms, you'll try out chord progressions and most of them will sound terrible. But some of them will sound good, even though it would take a musicologist pages to explain why.

As you refine your story, you'll wind up with a story full of transitions between familiar chords like B7 --

and unheard of chords like E7sus4 that no one else is playing. It will sound fresher than your friend's story, which faithfully and competently follows the "Save the Cat" method. And no one hearing your story will notice that all you did was lift off three out of four of your fingers:

There are shortcuts in screenwriting. They lead to hack work. I respect hack work, because hack work is competent work, and sometimes that's all you have time for.

But there are no shortcuts to fresh screenwriting. You can't write ALL THAT JAZZ or ANNIE HALL using "Save the Cat." Or even FORREST GUMP or HARD DAY'S NIGHT. You have to try out things no one has done before.

But that's much more fun that writing to someone else's structure. Even if it's harder.

And you get to be the Beatles.



Frankly I can't guarantee you can write ALL THAT JAZZ or ANNIE HALL onlyby telling your story out loud. They're pretty complicated, and the segues aren't logical so much as emotional.

I think you do it by telling the various stories out loud and then moving bits of them around until they seem right to you. And then doing it again in the editing room.

But you could start writing them by telling the stories in them. And you'd never be able to come up with them using Syd Field or Save The Cat.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:14 PM  

Without extending your metaphor, may I suggest that you play C/B by scooching your third finger down to the second fret of the A string? Leaving the C bass intact and replacing the higher C note with a B natural gives you a Cmaj7. To my ears, C/B has a kind of marching descent, while Cmaj7 is dreamy and ethereal.

A chord followed by a slash followed by another note indicates that the bass note is different from the root of the chord. C/B suggests a descending bass line -- check out "For No One."

And thanks for an encouraging post for me; I have a story kicking around that I'm still not at all sure how to tell, no matter how many cats I save.

By Blogger Josh K-sky, at 2:23 AM  


this is a great post.

that is all.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 9:47 AM  

I think baught a save-the-cat book on someone's recommendation and became disgusted that I wasted good money. Same thing goes for Robert McKee's "Story". I find that these "gurus" aren't the most insightful or wise people on the planet, instead what they've done is take bits and peices of theories from one of the first "gurus"(Syd Field), and weave it into (very obvious) patterns they recognize in a few films. They then spit out these theories as though they are the blueprints for storytelling.

The best book I recommend is the "complete screenwriter's manual". It's only about format(ie syntax) and style of screenwriting. The storytelling and structure is completely left to the storyteller.

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 10:34 PM  

"This is the same as the C chord, except you take your 3rd finger off the 3rd fret of the A string and put it on the 2nd fret of the G string. (C - Am is a very common chord progression for this reason.)"

If I may, thats not the reason this progression is so common. :) It's very common regardless of the instrument, simply because Am is the minor relative of C. :)

JamaicanInToronto I think you misunderstand McKee. Whenever I see a film that sucks, 90% of the time if I think of his "principles", they would have made the movie a lot better. :)

By Blogger Nino Mojo, at 12:19 AM  

I enjoyed listening to this post.

By Blogger wcdixon, at 11:28 AM  

Btw, On piano I play that same part C, C/B, C/A (which is really an Aminor7 I guess) then C/G. Then it goes to an F and then an A flat. Don't know if that's right or not, just how I learned it.

By Blogger Mef, at 1:10 PM  

I think this is how most wannabe bands have always worked. I certainly played the piano that way.

Still only one band succeeded to reach the Zenith the way the Beatles did.

By Blogger Karel, at 10:54 PM  

Hey alex,

as a guitar player/screenwriter i loved yer post. another great example is "things we said today." Pretty simple verse progression to start where paul is going am/em in the verse. and then WHAMMO in the chorus it goes to a Cadd9 for this very jazzy chord which seems totally out of place for a rock album. it's almost like a small glimmer of where the beatles were headed in the middle of the hard day's night craziness.
thx alex!

By Blogger toplocker, at 4:25 PM  

Interesting in terms of communicating the story to others, as that is the first principle of Save the Cat. Pitch your stories. Pitch them again. Then again. THEN ... when the pitch is on track ... beat them out and write them.

So, the method that you do not recommend is actually the method that your recommend. Funny world.

By Blogger princess scribe, at 5:45 PM  

This post 'struck a chord' (haha...?) with me. Wanted to respond to it..too much for comments though.

Something of a counter argument posted at our blog.

Really enjoyed your take on it, though. Really thought provoking.

By Blogger Scripted Wit, at 7:17 PM  

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