Thursday, November 10, 2011

A confession... and my thoughts on Save the Cat

First, a confession. I had originally planned to head to L.A. in January 2012. BUT – I’ve just had a month of unemployment, after going to two U.S. films festivals. Oops. March next year is now looking like a more realistic timeframe. But the dream is still alive – temporary unemployment will not stop me from hitting Hollywood in the near(ish) future!

After my experiment last month, I thought I’d review another book on screenwriting. There are many of them out there, but how many are any good? Next up is a classic – Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

A lot of people reckon Save the Cat promotes formulaic popcorn movies, and there is some truth in this. The late Mr Snyder himself admits in an early chapter that this is not a book for anyone interested in writing indie or arthouse films. This is a book on writing mainstream studio movies.

He insists that you should start by asking “What is it?” and nailing your film’s logline. Condense your idea into a logline and practice it on people until you’re sure that it’s a winner. Does your idea sound like something Joe Average will want to watch on Saturday night? Will it make him leave his sofa and pay for a cinema ticket and some overpriced snacks?

Snyder then goes through the “10 genres that every movie ever made can be categorized by”. These include Monster in the House (a horror genre), The Golden Fleece (usually used for adventure movies), etc. (I’ve tried to rack my brains and come up with a film that doesn’t fit one of his genres, but in vain. If you can, more power to you!) Hollywood tends to want something that’s “the same, only different!” and this chapter is all about defining your story and coming up with a fresh twist on an existing genre.

Next, make sure that you have the right hero for your story – and the right villain, who should be the hero’s perfect foil. Like Joseph Campbell, Snyder is big on Jungian archetypes – the wise mentor, the eager young man – and how to use these stock characters in your script. As many movie stars tend to be associated with certain types of roles, this can also help producers imagine your characters better. But as with the genres, Snyder emphasises how important it is to give the archetypes a new twist or angle.

The next two chapters are probably the most controversial – they involve “beating out” your movie by filling in a sheet of 15 beats (i.e. opening image, setting the scene, the call to action, the B-plot, “fun and games” which tends to be the first part of Act 2, etc). Once you have defined your 15 beats, you then outline the movie using index cards and “build” your story of approximately 40 scenes.

When you’re sure that you’ve built the perfect outline, then and only then do you start writing the script.

Snyder has been accused of making scriptwriting formulaic - and I’m sure a lot of writers were horrified to see a script reduced down to nuts and bolts like this. BUT, I do think it’s essential when you’re starting out to have some sort of guiding structure, and this is exactly what you get from Snyder’s beat sheet. Also, from filling out the 40 scene cards, you get a clear idea of which acts are overloaded, which ones are too light and where you may be going wrong overall.

Laurence Kasdan said in Austin this year that he studied playwriting at college and that the 3-Act structure was therefore embedded in his brain. He doesn’t even have to think about it anymore. This is basically just a more cinematic version.

The bottom line: Save the Cat is well worth a read when you’re starting out in screenwriting, as it gives you all the structural basics you’re ever going to need. All this and he has great names for scriptwriting missteps, like “Too Much Marzipan” and “Watch out for That Glacier!” RIP Mr Snyder, you’ll be missed...


Steven Kogan said...

I've actually recently read Save The Cat, after hearing countless comrades extoll it as some kind of Bible, and I was honestly impressed. Not as wowed as I was when I read "The Devil's Guide to Hollywood," but wowed none the less.

What I loved more than anything is that Blake Snyder was entertaining in his presentation. Sure he was as patronizing and "oh, don't worry, I know best" as any other writer-on-writing, but he at least made it fun to read. I compare him most to Jenna Glatzer, who wrote "Outwitting Writer's Block," one of my favorite books of all time: a person who offers their advice without overtly suggesting that their way is the only way.

And no matter what Blake Snyder says, I LIKED Memento!

eilism said...

I agree - he gave some sugar with the screenwriting medicine! The film he really hated, of course, was Signs. Now, I do see where the problems lie, but for some reason I found that a very entertaining movie.

I haven't read Jenna Glatzer's book - must add that one to my list.