Tasty Morsels for Writers
Key example movies in this book made me want to hurl pointy objects at the screen when I saw them. I haven’t succumbed to this urge to inflict criminal damage at my local multiplex (yet), but it remains an attractive fantasy.
It may be true that Miss Congeniality and Elf made good money at the box office, but you know what? If I’m going to sacrifice my work and family time to write, I’m going to write about something slightly more meaningful and less demeaning than whether a Hollywood star pretending to be a badly written FBI agent looks smoking hot in a beauty pageant. And if my goal is to make money but to hate what I’m doing, I will get a job in corporate law.
At first, I slogged through these painful examples because the book was recommended to me, and the explanations of the beats were concise. The name-dropping was annoying, but not atypical for this kind of book.
Then I hit the part that really made me question why I was taking advice from this guy. It’s the part where he goes off on a tangent to complain about the film Memento because it did not follow his One True Structure, in which he asserts repeatedly that any argument it had any value is wrong because ‘guess how much it made’ and ‘I know how much money Memento made.’
I didn’t even like Memento. I thought it was gimmicky and overrated. But by the time the author was done trashing it, the only thing I was convinced of is that I never want to watch a movie written by Mr Snyder. This is a man who armours his bravado with more bravado, and name-drops so defensively he might as well be firing bullets. His screenplays might be perfectly structured, but it was hard to imagine they would not be shallow and inane.
Sadly, this is appears to be the case.
Mr Snyder has only two screenplay credits to his name. After reading his book and writing most of this review, I looked them up. I flicked to the review by Roger Ebert of the first one. It says, and I am not making this up:
“Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” is one of those movies so dimwitted, so utterly lacking in even the smallest morsel of redeeming value, that you stare at the screen in stunned disbelief.
It is moronic beyond comprehension, an exercise in desperation during which even Sylvester Stallone, a repository of self-confidence, seems to be disheartened.
Ebert goes on to say:
There isn’t a laugh in this movie. Not a single one, and believe me, I was looking.
He gave it half a star.
Maybe Mr Snyder’s other film would fare better? Marketed as ‘If you loved Home Alone, you’ll love Blank Check!’ it was not off to a good start, but not quite as bad a start as the Austin Chronicle gave it:
“Blank check” must be what these filmmakers had when they made this movie. Not that it reeks of extravagance in its workmanship, this movie simply reeks. With an unbelievable premise, Blank Check does little to fill out its bare bones structure. … More than the execution, the script itself is the major problem. … Perhaps the movie’s implausibilities would be more acceptable if they were presented with a lighter touch that allowed for more character and plot developments rather than resting on its meager high-conceptual laurels.
The reviewer gave it one star.
Mr Snyder himself may well be a nice guy, and I appreciate that he’s put himself out there and shared his particular method for constructing a screenplay (which is basically the 3-Act structure plus detailed instructions about how to lay out index cards) but this is highly unlikely to be the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.
In addition to his breakdown of the structure, he provides some tools of varying usefulness. The titular ‘Save the Cat’ stands for one of the author’s ‘Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics’ (I wish I was making that up and the quotation marks denoted sarcasm, but it is a quote from the book and the author is deadly serious), namely that your story must have a hero and a villain and the hero must be more sympathetic than the villain. By this criterion, basically every Stanley Kubrick film ever ought not to exist, including the ones based on books by Stephen King and Vladimir Nabokov.
Mr Snyder’s method is so prescriptive that if you followed it as a novelist, you’d end up with a novella. It has too many beats for a short story, and not enough for most novels. Of course he is not purporting to give advice for novellists. But I think the advice is possibly too prescriptive even for film. Mr Snyder says movies that deviate from this will tank miserably at the box office because they have ‘too much pipe’. I can only assume he’s unfamiliar with James Cameron’s body of work. And while it’s true that a producer is unlikely to fund an amateur screenwriter’s three hour epic, I suspect the limitation has more to do with film industry economics than whether it is possible to tell a longer or shorter story which can keep an audience engaged.
But I did get something out of Save the Cat. And what I got is this:
The 3 Act Structure, by itself, does not make a good movie. This is not to say it makes a bad one, but many books on screenwriting focus on structure to the exclusion of all else, as though reverse-engineering a successful film and showing it follows the 3 Act Structure proves that this is what makes a story work.
As Mr Snyder’s resume shows, it also makes for some godawful ones.
The structure proposed in Save the Cat is solid. Not original, but solid and safe, like a house in a gated community where strict covenants ensure that each street gives you déjà vu for the street that came before. Mr Snyder is a sensible builder who can deliver you such a house, but he does not promise you quality fixtures and fittings, and he certainly is not an architect. His book will not teach you how to create innovative spaces or incorporate new technologies. It won’t teach you how you can play with light and shade for effect, or design an experience to influence or even transform a visitor. His houses won’t help people question their assumptions, change their behaviours, or heal their wounds. You might think crafting engaging dialogue, and conveying narrative through images are skills a screenwriter might want to polish.
Maybe this gap between what makes an entertaining experience and the lure of the predictable checklist is why Hollywood is floundering. No one gets excited about the repetitive crap they churn out the way that people cannot wait to get the next episode of Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad, or Orange is the New Black. Some of these shows follow conventional structures in episodes, but they also mix things up. In the case of Game of Thrones, this is literally an adaptation of a book series that was written to be ‘unfilmable’ by a Hollywood screenwriter who was frustrated with the exact philosophy espoused by this book.
All the structure in the world is not going to save writing that is painfully dull, predictable, and shallow. I want more than regurgitated jokes and lacklustre stereotypes. I want movies that surprise me, that give me experiences and insights that make me think – hey, that’s so cool, I never thought of that before.
I suspect that the unspoken truth is that prescriptive guides like Save the Cat gain traction because they create a checklist of measurable, predictable goals which can soothe the nerves of an investor, not because they guarantee good movies. This is why ticking these boxes gets your script sold. So the value of this book (possibly its sole value) is that it gives you a better idea of how to pitch your script as a ‘safe bet’ for an investor. This is certainly a handy thing to know, so long as you know it for what it is.