In the introduction to my indie film article series posted a few weeks ago, I mentioned using the Indie Film Academy podcast as a reference point for my articles. Despite that claim, I am venturing off script to start the series with an author who hasn’t made an appearance on the podcast. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! is a pretty popular screenwriting guide for many filmmakers. It’s simple, straightforward and chock-full of examples for reflecting on a screenwriter’s work. At the same time, it feels like the late Snyder believed his method to be the be-all and end-all for good scripts. It’s a little difficult to put full faith in his technique, especially when I come across multiple instances in Save the Cat! that are either objectively questionable or just outright inaccurate.
One case is his example focusing on the scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke returns home, only to find it’s been destroyed with his aunt and uncle presumed dead. Though, instead of referring to his aunt and uncle, Snyder makes the mistake of claiming they were Luke’s parents, something even casual Star Wars fans know is wrong. Another weird occurrence in the book is a mislead where Snyder begins to bring up Christopher Nolan’s Memento as an example, only to switch to Miss Congeniality, all the while smearing Memento in the process. Surely Snyder’s qualms with the movie (which I find to be great and a welcome piece in my own movie collection) must stem from some industry quarrel or possibly even a superiority complex he may have had, but bringing the film up only to trash it gives off an air of unprofessionalism that brings into question the efficacy of his technique. But I digress.
If Snyder brings anything to the table, it’s not necessarily how to tell a good story, but rather how to tell a viable one. He takes somewhat of a cookie-cutter approach to screenwriting. His advice is well suited for someone looking to write something they can pitch and sell to a Hollywood executive. Just looking at his examples proves that there isn’t anything inherently deep about the process in which he ascribes. His method revolves around the three-act screenplay, which has its advantages and disadvantages. In his words, deviating from his formula would tarnish the end product, yet by definition, it would make everything a writer creates formulaic. So, with a grain of salt, his advice is a good backbone for early stages of screenwriting or beginners looking to understand the craft itself.
To begin, Snyder emphasizes the importance of a good log line. A log line is essentially a one-sentence summary of what the story is about. A good log line will entail four things. First, it will be ironic. Irony is what hooks the person being pitched an idea. Giving a story a bit of irony is intriguing. The fact that Frodo, a lowly hobbit, is appointed to take the most powerful weapon in his world across Middle Earth to destroy it in The Lord of the Rings displays great irony. Viewers crave conflict and irony begets conflict.
The second thing a log line must have is a compelling mental picture. Someone should be able to imagine what might take place in your movie from the log line. The next characteristic will give a sense of audience and cost. Who is the target demographic? What is the setting? How can this be made? All these questions should be able to be answered in a log line. If you have a futuristic world with lots of new technology and characters, the movie’s budget will be costly. If you have a movie with limited locations and characters, it will be easier and cheaper to make. Finally, a good log line will have a killer title. It will not only tell what the movie is, it will do so in a clever way. A good log line and good titles are the one-two punch of presenting an idea for a script.
Another thing that a great log line should consider is its description of the hero and if need be, the villain. Putting a good adjective to describe characters in the log line will give others a more detailed understanding of the story. Describing the protagonist as humble, or risk-averse, or unrepentant tells us what the audience should expect their actions to be like going into the story, as well as how they can change throughout the script. Likewise, describing the villain gives a counterpoint to compare to the hero and their goals. The best heroes are the ones who bring the most conflict, have the greatest barriers to overcome and are usually demographically pleasing. Good empathetic heroes are ones who can be identified with, have a compelling reason to follow and whom viewers can learn from and believe deserve to win. In the end, the character’s goals are also the most captivating, if they are primal. Protecting loved ones, the fear of death and pining for the opposite sex are the most primitive goals there are. Because they are so primal, they strike a chord with broad audiences.
After the log line is well established, the next thing to do is to try and figure out what type of movie it will be. Snyder gives 10 different types of movies that fall into broad categories. Almost all movies will be defined by one of them. They are:
Monster in the House – Any movie where something is out to get the heroes. This could literally be a monster like in Alien or Gremlins, or it could be a person like any slasher movie ever made.
Golden Fleece – A movie that involves some sort of “on the road” expedition that is essentially a hero’s journey that involves some sort of internal growth. Movies that fall into this category are The Wizard of Oz and Due Date.
Out of the Bottle – Movies that emphasize a life-altering occurrence, as if a genie came out of the bottle to grant you a wish. It doesn’t have to be something mystical like Freaky Friday or Bruce Almighty. It can be as simple as a character winning the lottery. Whatever it is, even the most sympathetic characters shouldn’t spend the entire movie on easy street. The moral of the story is the payoff. Let the hero learn a lesson from their life-changing event.
Dude with a Problem – This type of film ranges from style and tone and is generally pretty broad. The main focus on this subgenre is that an ordinary guy or gal finds themselves under extraordinary circumstances. John Q is a good example. Denzel Washington’s character takes an emergency room hostage when his son can’t get a heart transplant exemplifies a dude with a problem. The more average the person, the bigger the challenge is.
Rites of Passage – These are the stories of changes and transitions in peoples’ lives, including a midlife crisis, a breakup and grieving stories. The hero’s journey will be an understanding of who they are when they cannot control the forces around them. The theme is always the same; sometimes we just have to give in to our humanity, because that’s just how life goes. Classics in this category include It’s a Wonderful Life and The Godfather.
Buddy Love – Typically, this is the quintessential buddy comedy, but Blake Snyder also includes the typical love story in this subgenre. This form of storytelling didn’t really become popular until the birth of cinema, since characters onscreen had to rely more on dialogue than those in other forms of fiction, who used interior monologue heavily. The point that love stories are intertwined with buddy movies becomes clearer if you consider them the same films, aside from one having sexual tension involved. Most often, one of the buddies is the hero of the story who will change the most by the end, while the other acts as a catalyst to that characters transformation and will do little changing themselves. Two of my favorites are Dumb & Dumber and Rain Man.
Why-dun-it – This is essentially a who-done-it. Though that’s not good enough to fulfill the story. The audience is interested in not only who did it, but why. Chinatown and JFK both create sense of an unraveling mystery, yet the motive for the crime is the icing on the cake. This story doesn’t focus on a hero as much as it focuses on the complexities of human nature that are revealed to be more heinous than we could have imagined. Ultimately, the viewer is tasked to play detective and come to a conclusion themselves with the clues they are given.
The Fool Triumphant – Some of the classics were this genre’s earliest stories in cinema. The silent era of film was abundant with comedic clowns such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The hero is just viewed by everyone as the village idiot, while in actuality, he is revealed to be the wisest among them. His or her ability is often overlooked and underestimated, and therefore they are given the chance to actually shine. Forrest Gump is an excellent example of a contemporary fool triumphant.
Institutionalized – These movies are about groups. Be it Animal House, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or even family dramas like American Beauty, these movies focus on characters being in a group dynamic with one another and at the same time a struggle for them not to lose their identity. Often, these tales are viewed through the eyes of a newcomer. It’s a chance to decide whose way is right and whose isn’t.
Superhero – Lastly, comes the Superhero movie. This genre isn’t limited to just the obvious, like Superman or Spider-Man. The Superhero category also encompasses films like Gladiator and Dracula. This movie is the opposite of Dude with a Problem. It is the tale of an extraordinary person in an ordinary world. The superheroes of the world are often misunderstood, despite their advantages. The leads are often sympathetic because they take on burdens that only they can.
From these 10 subgenres lies every movie from the dawn of cinema.
So, now that the who and what has been covered, the screenplay’s structure can be addressed. For Snyder, storytelling is best depicted in a very orderly fashion. Not only does he abide by the three-act structure used in most plays and screenplays, he divides the script into 15 distinct parts. Some are the length of a scene; others are larger sections of the movie altogether, and for Snyder, every one has a separate page number or numbers to find the “beat.”
We start with the opening image. At the beginning, the viewer will know the tone, mood and style of the film. Within the first five minutes, the theme will be clear. Afterward, the set-up will be what hooks the crowd. All the characters integral to the plot will be introduced and all the behaviors they exhibit will be brought back at another point in the movie. Now, to set things in motion, the catalyst emerges. This will be a life-changing event for the protagonist of the film. Without the catalyst, the audience will become antsy. The conclusion to Act 1 will pose a question for the hero that will cause them to make a choice.
Once the hero makes his or her choice, it’s out with the old world and in with the new one. The character’s transition will be definite. While the main story takes its first big change, the B-story surfaces to take a short break from everything that has happened. This section can sometimes bring in all-new characters to reflect the change in the protagonist’s life. From here, the tone becomes light. There is less concern for what is happening in the main storyline, as well. Yet, soon after, everything comes back into the fold. At the midpoint, the lead has usually either seemingly peaked or is at their low point. Either way, this is where the stakes are raised for them. Next is when the forces that be bring about dissent, jealousy or some other divide into the hero’s group. The downward spiral leads to an all-is-lost moment where the hero’s life is essentially in ruin. Many times the death of a friend, or even the hint of the hero’s own demise, will occur. But this is the darkness before the dawn. This is where the hero reaches deep down to give the final effort that will save them and those around them. Only after the protagonist has been beaten can they learn how to prevail.
In the final act, the hero begins to apply what he or she has learned to accomplish their goal. All of the bad guys will be thwarted in ascending order of rank. The foundation of the lead’s problem must be destroyed, the hero will triumph and true change will take place. If not, the audience may not be emotionally satisfied. Finally, the end will close on a final image. The final image must be opposite of the opening one. It will prove that change has occurred and the hero’s goals have truly been met.
That’s only Part One, though. Stick around for more on the craft of screenwriting with the rest of Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder later this summer, as well as other guides on the ins and outs of independent filmmaking.