RogerBW's Blog

Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder 31 October 2014

This highly influential book on screenwriting lays out a standard structure to which all saleable scripts should conform.

As you might expect from that summation, I approached this book in a spirit of "know your enemy". I find the jelly-mould sameness of most modern big-budget filmmaking tedious in the extreme, and for all I can understand why it happens (in a nutshell, the middle-aged men who hold the purse-strings don't like surprises) I've tended to want to think of scriptwriters and directors as people who would like to do better but are constrained by the production environment from doing so.

Anyone who reads and follows this book isn't trying to do better. But he is trying to sell, and that's rather the point: if you're a screenwriter, you're no more able to do something about the mess of modern filmmaking than I am, but you need to sell into that horrible system in order to pay the bills. And this book will indeed tell you how to do it. It's hard to get away from the idea that the main message is that you shouldn't try to write a masterpiece: you should just aim for something that'll sell.

Snyder doesn't seem to mind this very much, but I'm sure he'd have agreed (he died in 2009) that what he thought didn't matter either. This is very much a commercial book, not How to Write the Best Film Ever; in fact it's actively contemptuous of "artistic" filmmaking that isn't also commerial.

So that having been dealt with, and since I (and I trust you) have no Hollywood scriptwriting ambitions: is the book still interesting? Yes, fascinating, both for how most of its recommendations have become omnipresent in modern big-budget filmmaking and for the bits of advice that haven't been adopted wholesale.

One of those is in the title. The idea is that the protagonist should be presented, preferably early in the film, as a "good guy" so that the audience is rooting for him/her; the inspiration for the phrase is Ripley in Alien, pausing in her flight from the monster that's killed the rest of the crew to make sure the ship's cat is safe. While that's a cheap way of achieving the effects, I've seen rather a lot of films that fail to follow this advice, which end up giving the viewer no reason to cheer for the protagonist at all. So the hero's an unemployable manchild who spends his days playing video games and smoking weed? Why should I care whether he gets the girl?

But the rigid structuring, a simplified version of the Campbellian monomyth, is the real meat of this book, along with the page-number analysis (Snyder calls it a beat sheet, but doesn't go into the detail that beat analyses normally do; Hamlet's Hit Points is a better resource there). Every script must have a three-act structure; everything is set up in the first ten pages, the catalyst (Campbell's Call to Action) comes on page 12, the debate (Refusal of the Call) is on pages 12-25, the break into act two starts on page 25, page 30 introduces the B-story and so on. Half-way through, there must be a false moment, either "all seems lost" (but everything is going to be uphill from now on) or "all seems won" (but it's an illusory victory). It is, quite literally, writing by the numbers, and while I wouldn't claim that nothing worthwhile can escape from such a straitjacket I do think that slavish adherence to it produces an inferior and formulaic product.

It's a product that will sell, of course; Snyder's thesis is that that standard stories are the shape they are because they work in that shape, and messing around with this will lead to small audiences and commercial failure. And nothing else matters.

Similarly, Snyder insists that motivations must be primal ("something a caveman would understand"). I think this is probably the root of the trend in much recent film for making sure the hero has a personal stake: he can't just be an agent whose job is fighting terrorism, his wife's on the plane that's going to get blown up! It's not just that the bad guys stole his car, they killed the dog that was his dying wife's last present to him! And so on.

One of the most interesting sections for me was what Snyder calls "genre", but is actually a list of ten very broad categories of plot. For example, "Out of the Bottle" denotes a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which either a put-upon protagonist suddenly gets great power (Bruce Almighty, The Mask), or a nasty protagonist suddenly has his power removed in order to learn to be a better person (Freaky Friday, Groundhog Day).

Again, the writer is encouraged to stick with what's proven and commercial. Generic plots, rigid structure, even Jungian archetypes, help to keep the script and resultant film easily digestible and appealing to the mass audience as well as to studio executives.

The writing style is very informal, and if like me you detest the sort of person who oozes up to you, slides his arm round your shoulders, and sets off on a sales pitch disguised as a way for you to make your life better, you may well have problems with it as I did. Snyder's authorial voice personifies a Hollywood type, the sort who loves to talk about his amazing success even though his total lifetime script credits were two, for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) and Blank Cheque (1994), neither of them I think regarded as a cinematic classic. (He sold ten other scripts, but none of them was made into an actual film. But hey, he still got paid.)

Even though I came away from this book with a feeling of slime, I'm glad I read it. It conveniently breaks down much of what is wrong with the current Hollywood model of film production, told by an insider who clearly sees no problem with it.

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