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The Book Which Might Have Ruined Screenwriting
Did it? Well maybe...
This is my review of ‘Save The Cat’, a classic book on screenwriting. You might wonder why I’m paying attention to a screenwriting book from 2005. It’s because this is one of the most influential works in all of movies, often being accused of destroying the entire industry. Did it? Well, maybe. I’ll explain.
(I might start putting ‘might’ in all the titles of my nuanced takes as a nod to how hopelessly anti-clickbait they are. Maybe they’ll stand out by not trying to stand out.)
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If someone told you that there was a book on screenwriting which the whole industry had started slavishly following to the point of drowning out alternative approaches you might imagine it was some dense academic tome, with lots of intellectual takes on abstract important topics. In that case you would be very surprised to read this book (or listen to it as I did). It is in most ways a fairly typical book on screenwriting (and yes I’ve read a bunch of them). The author is a bit ADHD and all over the place, with the book being mostly a bunch of little self-contained thoughts and vignettes. His classifications of the different types of stories aren’t even comparable, with some being about characters and others being about story arc. His explanations of screenwriting gimmicks ramble instead of being nicely organized into a list. I’m all in favor of books which are a collection of life hacks instead of a one big coherent thesis. Readers are a lot more likely to get something out of reading such things. But if that’s what you’re doing you should lean into it and do it right.
That said, the individual thoughts are really great. For example, he says for your screenplay you should be able to finish ‘It’s about a guy who…’ meaning that you should have a clear explanation of who the main character is and what the conflict is which can be presented in the trailers and give potential audience members a reason to see your movie. (Yes the phrasing was a bit overly gendered even at the time it was written, but this review isn’t about that.) He also explains the basic concept of a love story: The characters meet, hate each other, go on an adventure together, and in the process fall in love. Note that they go on an adventure together, not that the male lead goes on an adventure with the female lead tagging along and in the end she offers herself up as a reward for his success. (That’s my commentary, not the author’s. Most movie romances are unconvincing and awful.) There are many other thoughts like this which I won’t cover here. If you want them you should go read the book. The point for this review is that they’re quite good and uncontroversial.
(A bit of an aside: The author talks about his struggles writing dialogue which isn’t all in his voice, and says he compensates by giving the characters particular verbal tics. That’s a bit of a cheesy crutch to use, but in general if the actors can’t improvise new dialogue which accomplishes the same stuff as the original script then the original dialogue was too clever and fragile. If I were writing a screenplay today I’d use a chatbot to help rewrite character dialogue in their own voices instead of my own very distinctive one.)
So where’s the problem? This sounds all very useful and unproblematic so far. Ironically the reason for the book’s wild success and controversy is in the bit of structure which it does advocate, a rather specific formula for 15 beats, 40 scenes, an A and a B story, and a few other structure elements. The author made this for himself to cope with his own being all over the place and offered it up to help other screenwriters, who often get into the business because they’re good at word vomit and really need help with structure.
This is similar to the advice which I’ve given screenwriters about their work process. Writing a screenplay and writing a software project by yourself are surprisingly similar exercises. They both involve an output which you’re directly typing out yourself, and both require that you self-motivate, set goals, and reach milestones. My own advice is considerably more onerous. Start with the conflict and its resolution. Have beats and a scene list, but also a list of all the important events in each scene. List every important piece of information which comes up and what depends on it and make sure it’s referenced at least three times before that. Make a list of all characters and give them fleshed out backstories. Once you’ve got that done then you’re ready to start writing dialogue. Some people find this approach suffocating. If you’re like that it’s fine to word vomit out a first draft, but once you’re done with that go back and retroactively do all your prep work properly. Expect your first draft to be thoroughly shredded and mined for individual ideas, scenes, and snippets of dialogue but likely almost unrecognizable by the end. If it’s any consolation the technical requirements of human language text are a total joke compared to software engineering and having to do the sort of prep work advocated above is an actual vacation by comparison.
What’s a bit different with the advice in Save The Cat is that it’s a bit more proscriptive, giving almost minute-by-minute timing of how the outline should work. Has this squeezed the creativity out of screenwriting and made them all the same? Well, no, this isn’t as stifling as it sounds. The structural elements are presented abstractly enough that you can generally tell whatever story you want within them, and while for any given script the needs of its internal logic would probably best be served by violating the structure in a few places the damage done by not having that flexibility is never catastrophic. Don’t get me wrong, there is damage done here. For example, if you’ve ever wondered why movies these days don’t simply end after the climax and instead have the characters spend a while ruminating about how the events have changed their lives it’s because the formula says so. But the fault of this lies at the feet of the screenwriting industry writ large, who are so bad at structure that they can’t seem to write more than one book on the subject. (Feel free to leave angry comments mentioning specific books which allegedly do just that. They unfortunately are nowhere near as popular.)
Where the proscriptions of Save The Cat really are ruinous to screenwriting are in the cheesy morals it requires everywhere. For example in the story type ‘Monster In The House’ he says explains the horror trope that there should be a monster, in a house which the characters are stuck in and can’t leave, which is great so far but then he throws in that the characters should have committed some sin to cause the monster to appear. Huh? That’s rarely how anything like monsters appears in real life, and the sheer meaninglessness and unfairness of who’s targeted can be a big part of the story arc. He also talks about ‘the love story’ in every script. Because you simply can’t have a story without one apparently? On top of everything you’re trying to get done in the 90 minutes available you have to jam that in there?
But the worst proscription is the assertion that there must be character development of all the good characters, making the events result in them being different and better people by the end. This is ridiculous. It’s a massive violation of ‘show, don’t tell’. If your screenplay is that great demonstrate it don’t have the characters lecture the camera about it at the end. Most stressful events result in people being shell-shocked, not better, and especially minor characters might find the events to be downright routine or just not be very impacted by them. If character development is a natural part of the story arc then great, but artificially shoving it in everywhere makes movies formulaic and dumb.
The author explains where this requirement comes from, but doesn’t seem to understand how insane it is. He says that many A-list actors will read the first and last 10 pages of a script and skip it if they don’t see character development. So what? Screw the actors! This is a movie production, not an A-list actor employment program. There’s an unlimited supply of very talented out of work actors in Hollywood who would be happy to play any paying role which becomes available. If you have good character, dialogue, and conflict they’ll have plenty to work with. It gets even worse than that: The author describes a screenplay which he thought was great but had the fatal flaw that there was only one character who could play the lead. Huh? Not only do you need an A-list lead, but they need to be playing their typecast role. Maybe someone should come up with a skill which would allow other people to play the same role. You might call it… acting?
The author doesn’t explain where this all comes from, he simply takes it for granted, but I’ll now explain. The way Hollywood productions get funded is they pull together an actor, a lead, and a script, then go around pitching it to potential investors. If everything goes well they’ll find some rich person who wants to brag to their friends about how they made a movie or a some low level biz dev person who’s willing to give away a million dollars of their employer’s money so they personally can have lunch with the lead. Humans are starfuckers. Such investors rarely get a penny in returns. This is where most of the money in movies comes from, with real sales being secondary. The movies which rely on actual sales are those franchise productions you hate and the studios keep in house. I don’t have any solutions for this, but if you want to make it as a screenwriter it’s a reality you should be aware of.
So has Save The Cat ruined screenwriting? Well, maybe. The cheesy formulaic bullshit I explained above has most definitely ruined screenwriting, but where Save The Cat should be blamed for it is a bit of an academic question which would require a lot more research to answer. At least some of the problems long predate it, and the author seems so oblivious to them that it’s unclear which problems he’s inventing and which he’s simply amplifying. To the author’s credit he doesn’t once even mention a torture interrogation scene, much less put in a requirement for one. Where the proscription to include that in every movie comes from I have no idea. Personally, I’d like to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was simply documenting a bunch of Things Everybody Knows and not inventing any of them. Hollywood’s role as the mouthpiece of a propaganda machine is the responsibility of the industry as a whole and can’t be blamed on one silly little book.
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