Combine Fifteen Beats, Simmer, Serves Ten Million Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-07-20 14:00:00 No comments

What killed Hollywood? Recipe-based screenwriting, as codified in guidelines that were sold not only to screenwriters but to producers and financiers:

Hollywood and Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat! - Slate Magazine

In Save the Cat!, [Snyder] stresses that his beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting. Maybe that’s what Snyder intended. But that’s not how it turned out. In practice, Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. Movies big and small stick closely to his beats and page counts. Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.

The reason these type-by-numbers templates are hard to dismiss outright is not just because they work — if by "work" you mean they provide a formulaic way to create popular entertainment which sells. It's that there is more than a little truth to the idea that a story has to follow a pattern of some kind.

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It's not that stories don't need structure; the fact they have structure is what allows us to call them stories. It's that people too often confuse the mere presence of a structure, or the presence of elements that comprise the structure, with elements worth talking about in the first place. But when your job is to get people to part with their $12 and sit in the theater for two hours, the mere semblance of a deep story can often do the job even when the whole thing evaporates from mind barely before you're back to your car.

The biggest reason Save The Cat-style templates are such an affliction is because they have become the entire ecosystem for thinking about, funding, making, and appreciating movies. We don't just write scripts with Snyder's book at our elbow. It's a whole way of movie life. Seminars for writing scripts the Snyder way are attended by everyone from the studio readers to the producers who hear an assembly line of pitches. Anything that isn't presented, or conceived of, within the beat structure is simply dismissed. Eventually, people stop thinking outside that box altogether, and the most we can expect from big-budget filmmaking is minor and tepid variations on the blockbuster formula.

This problem doesn't limit itself to pop culture, either. Highbrow (middlebrow, really) culture is rife with the misconception that all it takes is the evocation or invocation of certain totemistic conceits to have profundity. I once read a criticism of a 700-plus page novel whose ostensible subject was race relations, and the critic boiled down the book's argument to "we are all the same, so get over it already". And as with the movies, there's a parallel ecosystem for creating, distributing, praising, and building reader's acceptance for such books — one that begins in college-level writing courses and bursts into its fullest and most revolting flower in the pages of journals like McSweeney's.

Once upon a time, the whole point of analyzing a story structurally was largely academic. It was not about creating the next generation of authors in the image of what had come before, but allowing the next generation of authors to learn from history and draw their own conclusions about what could come next. The same with the movies: you learned about the movies by working on them, or by watching a lot of them. And yes, one can create perfectly functional clones of existing movies by turning them into a succession of identifiable ingredients, but that's a little like assuming the best way to whip up a gourmet meal is to make a die-stamp of it and press one out of tofu.

Tags: Hollywood movies screenwriting storytelling