What is a Cinderella story, anyway?

Linda Holmes examines what we mean when we talk about Cinderella:

There’s very little that’s common to every variant of the story, but in general, you have a mistreated young woman, forced to do menial work, either cast out or unloved by her family. She has an opportunity to marry well and escape her situation, but she gets that chance only after being mistaken for a higher-status person, so she has to get the man who may marry her to recognize her in her low-status form, which often happens either via a shoe that fits or some kind of food that she prepares.

Holmes notes that Marian Roalfe Cox had documented 345 variations of Cinderella — back in 1893.

Since then, we’ve come back to Cinderella repeatedly, making movies that retell the familiar story with small variations. The glass slipper can be a cell phone; animals may understand speech; the fairy godmother might be Da Vinci.

But in a broader sense, it often feels like Cinderella is the story of all overlooked, underappreciated protagonists:

If it’s just a rescue of a deserving underdog from an ordinary life and delivery to an extraordinary one, then The Little Mermaid is Cinderella, and Pretty Woman is Cinderella, and — to be honest? — Captain America is Cinderella. Lots of our current stories are. What is a fairy godmother, after all, that isn’t also present in the idea of being bitten by a spider and gaining the ability to climb buildings? What is that pumpkin coach but … the Batmobile?

(I was going to quibble with The Little Mermaid; she was already a princess from the start. But when you look at the story from when she shows up on land, it does track.)

To me, a useful delimiter for the modern Cinderella is the hero’s initial situation and values. “Have courage and be kind,” says the 2015 Disney Cinderella at least ten times in the film. By staying true to her mantra, she escapes her terrible plight and lives happily ever after. The new movie has pumpkin coaches and polymorphed mice, but to me it’s the hero’s journey from ashes to palace that most makes it Cinderella.

Hardy Boys, in outline form

Rebecca Onion looks at the typed outline for a Hardy Boys novel:

In this two-page outline for the 1927 Hardy Boys’ mystery The House on the Cliff, Edward Stratemeyer directed writer Leslie Macfarlane in the construction of the plot of the second book in the franchise’s original series. The book was officially published as the work of Franklin W. Dixon, a fictional author whose name appears on all of the Hardy Boys books.  

It’s fascinating to look at something so old yet so familiar. Most modern televison writing goes through an outline stage, at which point the studio and network sign off on the story — or send it back with notes.

TV outlines aren’t this rough, but they are similarly straightforward in their just-what-happens style. I find them hard to write, because my instinct is always to be fancy and clever. That’s not what outlines are for.

Based on what I read in Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric’s The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Macfarlane would have had a month to turn this outline into a book, for which he would be paid $100.

Rude Awakenings

As longtime readers know, I love me a supercut. This one by Roman Holiday explores the trope of characters sitting up in bed after a nightmare:

I love how the camera circles from left to right. I love that we don’t hear the screams. Stripped of context, it becomes clear what an artificial cinematic construct the wake-scream (or the sweaty wake-gasp) really is. Most people will never experience this kind of event in real life.

And yet: Movies are about extraordinary circumstances. Movies involve heroes taking a journey they’ll take exactly once. So on some level, the wake-scream is less a cliché than a signifier that yup, we’re in a movie, and we are headed on a specific kind of ride. That’s probably why we see them in the first act and not the third.

The Coyote Could Stop Any Time

Scriptnotes: Ep. 187

John and Craig take a look at the self-imposed rules behind the Road Runner cartoons, and how limiting one’s choices is different than following dogma.

Then it’s time for three new entrants in the Three Page Challenge, each presenting a range of issues to discuss.

Also this week, the dismal diversity numbers that don’t need exaggerative charts and how even produced screenwriters often live with precarious finances.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 3-13-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

The Rules (or, the Paradox of the Outlier)

Scriptnotes: Ep. 186

John and Craig discuss this year’s screenplay Oscar winners, including the success of Birdman’s outside-the-box approach and Graham Moore’s speech.

Craig asked Reddit’s r/screenwriting sub to collect a list of the so-called rules budding screenwriters are told to follow. From the rules of the page to the rules of the industry, John and Craig look at these commonly-cited rules one-by-one, discussing which ones have merit and which ones are better ignored.

All this, plus follow-up on Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity lawsuit.

Also, John has a new app in the App Store called Assembler. Find out more in the links below.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 3-10-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Malcolm Spellman, a Study in Heat

Scriptnotes: Ep. 185

Screenwriter Malcolm Spellman joins Craig and John to talk about his big break, blown opportunities, and getting momentum back. Now part of the smash hit Empire, he talks about the changes and challenges African-American writers face both on the small screen and the big screen.

Also this episode, we look at a review that credits the director with the screenwriter’s work and the role trailers play in shaping audience expectation. Plus the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Three Investigators, SNL and literally losing your voice.

Trivia: “A Study in Heat” was the name of the sandwich Malcolm ate after recording this episode.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 2-25-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.