Saturday, 7 February 2015

Thoughts on Screenplay Structure and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat

I just finished reading Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, on the recommendation of my friend Tom (with whom I'm writing a screenplay), and because an author I knew back in London said he used it to check that his novels were hitting all their beats correctly. I'm also told that Save the Cat has become the de rigueur template for screenwriters, and JJ Abrams in particular swears by it (which might account for the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness - a sequence that stands out in that awful movie for being even more awful).

With this pedigree, I pretty much had to read it for myself. I did, however, stop off to read Screenplay by Syd Field first, since even the introduction of Save the Cat says to do that. So those two, plus Robert McKee's Story and Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, make four books I've now read about screenwriting.

I have to admit, despite that august company, there really is something to Save the Cat's methodology. A Hollywood screenplay is expected to be around 110 pages, divided into three acts and hitting some very specific beats. Save the Cat walks you through all of those, one by one, almost like painting by numbers - you have things like the opening image and the theme stated in Act One, fun & games and bad guys close in showing up in Act 2, and the final image closing off Act 3 and the rest of the movie.

The way Snyder (who died in 2009, aged 51) presents it, these are iron laws that studio executives are looking for in every script that crosses their desks, even if they don't use the exact same terminology he does. If they don't flip to page 75 and find the bad guys closing in, whatever that means in the context of your film, then it's back to the drawing board for you.

I think what appeals to me most about Save the Cat's structure is that there actually is a lot of room for interpretation within those guidelines. I'm convinced that the greatest creativity comes from limits being imposed on the artist, and seeing what the artist can do within those limits. This doesn't necessarily work in every context - superhero comics and rock music have each effectively been doing the exact same thing, within the same structures, for the better part of a century now - but it's also true that having no constraints at all can lead to some bad art. Just listen to some particularly indulgent freeform jazz or psychedelic jam sessions from 1960s hippie collectives for examples.

As an aside, you can see something similar in technology, where each advance is, ideally, a solution to an existing problem. The internal combustion engine, the solid fuel rocket and the atom bomb are all attempts to do something specific within the then-current constraints on technology - I once read something where a piece of technology was referred to as "a work-around, not technology", which made me want to scream back, "All technology is a work-around!"

Where Save the Cat runs into trouble - and the fault is not necessarily Snyder's - is when the structure becomes more prized than what you do within it. On the official Save the Cat website, there are a number of beat sheets in which contributors have put recent movies in the context of the book's structure.

I was eager to read the one for Guardians of the Galaxy. This is because I thought the movie was gibberish from start to finish, but I felt like I was missing something because everybody else liked it. The introduction to the Guardians beat sheet said the movie was well-structured, so I thought that seeing it broken down might make me appreciate it more.

Which turned out to be a big fat sack of wrong.

Seeing it divided up into Snyder's beats just made me appreciate more keenly how nonsensical each part of the film truly was. And yet the contributor was praising how well it fit into Save the Cat. Clearly there's something wrong there. The difference between a good screenplay and deceptively good one, then, is the difference between using the beat sheet as a guideline, and shoehorning your story into it.

I liked the book, though, and probably would recommend it, because it is useful to check your story against its beats to ensure that your second act doesn't drag, or that your first act adequately explains everything that's still to come.

My only other qualm, and I mention it here more for how amusing I found it, is the way Snyder takes issue with certain films, most notably Memento, which he calls a "low-performing arthouse gem". He evidently had issues with the way Memento was structured, and that there wasn't a likeable hero to be found (no scenes of cat-saving, you could say), although he never comes out and says what exactly bothers him.

It's just funny to me that the guy who wrote pillars of the Western cinematic canon like Blank Check and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot (his two produced movies) should take the time in his book to snipe so savagely at an early film by the director of Batman Begins, the Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar... More to the point, while Memento may have pulled in negligible box office, it probably got much better critical buzz than either of Snyder's movies - which is what's allowed Christopher Nolan to have the amazing career he's built for himself.

On the other hand, Snyder does a much better job of explaining exactly why Signs, by M Night Shyamalan, was so terrible, to the point that it's made me like that movie even less than I already did. So he clearly knew what he was talking about, if not batting 1.000 in his opinions. Which goes to show that everyone's fallible - even the guy who teamed up Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty.

Go figure.