Save The Cat!

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Since Kameron Hurley recommended it, I read Save The Cat! – a succinct little book on screenwriting.  Which I’d recommend, for certain values of “recommend.”
The thing is, it’s written by Blake Snyder, who has all of two credits to his name in the “screenwriting” business.  On the other hand, he sold an amazing twelve screenplays on spec, often getting studios into bidding wars – which, of course, being Hollywood, they promptly spent millions to purchase and did nothing with.  His biggest credit is a little comedy you may recall entitled “Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot!”…
…a Sylvester Stallone movie that was notoriously bad.  In fact, unlaughably so.  It won awards as the worst movie of the year.
But hey!  That’s so much better than the written talent of Syd Field, who didn’t have any major movies.  And he’s the acknowledged master of the screenplay.
Thing is, Blake is mondo arrogant, discussing his rules as though they were the laws of fucking physics… but on one level, he’s right.  He’s gotten way further than most screenwriters ever did.  And are his screenplays masterpieces?  Fuck no.  But they’re more likely to sell than some eclectic film; if you’re looking to maximize your chances of success, well, most Hollywood guys aren’t going to want to rest a million bucks on some nobody’s experiment.  No, they want formulas, and when Blake hammers home that you have your turn on page 25 and no further, he’s absolutely right.
For selling.
Quality’s a different matter.
That’s the eternal struggle in writing – you can probably make a nice living churning out very predictable stories that are satisfying on some level but never magnificent.  Or you can shoot for magnificent and probably never succeed, but if you do then you’ll have figured out a rhythm that works for you.  I mean, William Goldman is an enormously successful screenwriter who doubtlessly knows the rules, and utilizes them, but he doesn’t fetishize them in the way that Blake does.  And his stuff is distinctly different.
But if you’re starting from scratch, what’s your best bet to make a living at this?  Probably Blake.  And what he touts is salable, commercial, and not at all very good… but it’s satisfying in a sort of hot dog way, where it ain’t fine cuisine but it’ll pass a Sunday afternoon if you’re not too picky.
I dunno.  I’m looking at how my latest novel draft hits the notes, and I’m glad to find out that it actually is on-beat for a lot of them.  Which makes the novel stronger, in a way.  But if I wrote the novel to fit the formula, I’m pretty sure it’d be a crappy novel. That doesn’t make Blake’s advice any good, but you have to remember that his greatest creation was a B-movie that nobody much liked.
Is that his fault?  The director, the actors, the producer all had a hand in it.  But he sold to the type of director, producer, and actors who were yearning for his predictable ends.
He also made millions.
So was he a success or not?

1 Comment

  1. Mishell Baker
    Sep 15, 2013

    Writing to the formula doesn’t make a story crap. This myth persists for a good reason though: too many writers manage to sell formulaic crap because the suits buying screenplays look solely FOR the formula. They have no ability to evaluate what the formula -contains-. They hit page 10, page 25, page 50, page 75, and if they see the beats they’re looking for, they give it a big A+ and start throwing money at it.
    People in Hollywood are largely (and justifiably) terrified of losing their jobs, and so they look for known quantities to “justify” an expense. They need something quantifiable they can point to, so they can’t be blamed if the movie tanks. “But look! It had the whole checklist! It had everything YOU told me to look for! Not my fault!”
    This does not mean all those crappy movies are the -fault- of the formula. Assuming we’re talking about the same formula (I haven’t read this guy’s book ) you can fill the formula with whatever you want. (For a less-dogmatic but equally effective version of “the formula” see Michael Hauge, Writing Screenplays That Sell).
    The formula doesn’t tell you what to write, it just tells you the best order to put things in. Any plot that isn’t completely out-there to the point of alienating most readers is going to have these moments built into it anyway. All the formula does is show you an optimal place to put them so the story feels “balanced” to the reader on a subconscious level.
    The formula is the coathanger. It keeps your story-clothes in a nice, presentable shape. But you can hang a ripped T-shirt or a cocktail dress on it. Your choice.

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