The little story engine that could

This recent Slate article [Save the movie!] suggests that an over-reliance on the beat sheet from Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” books is ruining Hollywood movies, but I think it’s completely wrong. The problem with dull blockbusters isn’t that they are following Snyder’s beat sheet — it’s that they aren’t following it.

I admit, when I read the first book, I was a bit skeptical. Sure, the dumb “family comedies” that Snyder was talking about, and that represent what he himself liked to write, follow that formula to the letter — I had observed this ages ago. And I certainly believed he was giving good advice for people seeking to write spec scripts, where we can assume a studio executive will flip to a particular page, hunt for the “correct” element, and toss the script aside if it isn’t found.

But good movies, especially movies in their final form after editing and rewrites, those were surely more varied… weren’t they?

(break for length)

Then I read his second book, where he uses his beat sheet to dissect a number of different movies in a number of different genres, including highly regarded and original works like Being There and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Some of these movies pushed the edges of his formula, usually by having more going on than his formula calls for — more themes, or more than one choice that could be said to start act two.

Then, after reading his dissection of Saw, which I had recently watched, I had a nightmare where that Jigsaw guy came after me. I thought it was funny that watching the movie didn’t give me nightmares, but reading a detailed dissection of its story structure did. (Note: I don’t actually mind having nightmares. In fact, I think the best part of being stressed out enough to have nightmares is the nightmares themselves.)

Obviously my subconscious mind thought Snyder was on to something. The beat sheet pattern started to jump out everywhere, and I found myself using it to talk about movies (and books) I liked as well as talking about movies that I thought had failed.

I started to think that maybe this formula becomes so obvious in something like Elf or Legally Blonde (two “family comedies” he examines that I thought were okay) because they are otherwise so simple. Unlike suspense or horror, the family comedy genre has very little natural and inevitable narrative drive. This forces the story engine to work harder — so hard that you can actually hear it chugging along.

But in a different kind of movie, the same engine is at work — purring along, not even noticed until you go looking for it.

Consider: the movie I have seen recently that hit Snyder’s beats with the greatest precision was Hitchcock, an enjoyable movie about the filming of Psycho. (Hitchcock also had a clear pass on the Bechdel Test. I think somebody was taking notes.)

But Psycho itself — that brilliant groundbreaker, still shocking today, and released long before Snyder’s book — surely Psycho could never be understood using his beat sheet?

Why, yes. As a matter of fact, it can.

Strong opening image: a pan over the city and in through a window on a couple getting dressed after an afternoon quickie. Strong closing image: Anthony Perkins-as-Mother staring dementedly into the camera, as Mother’s dessicated face is almost subliminally superimposed over his own. Do those form a bookend that tells us the arc of the story? Of course they do. We journeyed from a sexy noir thriller to a weird psychological horror story.

Next we have a quick setup of the main conflict of the first part of the story, as Janet Leigh and her boyfriend discuss their relationship, kept clandestine for monetary reasons. (Theme expressed: Janet wants them to get married, boyfriend makes a crack about making love in the living room with “mother’s picture turned to the wall.” Yeah, that’s the theme all right, but you’d never know it on first viewing…)

Next we have the catalyst: a smug, wealthy Texan who gives Leigh a huge bundle of cash to deposit in the bank and practically dares her to steal it, rubbing her nose in the fact that his wealthy daughter has “never had an unhappy day in her life.” (Which could also be a statement of theme — that’s what I meant about good movies having more going on.)

A brief internal debate, and Leigh steals the money, starting act two and a tense, sometimes darkly hilarious “fun and games” section as she discovers that she probably doesn’t have the nerve it takes to be a criminal.

When she spends the night at a motel and meets Norman Bates, the twitchy young proprietor, they have a conversation that prompts her to decide to return the money. This is the midpoint turn — the rest of the movie is obviously going to be about the complications that happen when she tries to get herself out of the trouble she’s gotten herself into.

Then she’s murdered.

The shower scene? THAT was the midpoint twist. Fooled you!

Now our protagonist is Norman Bates, as he tries to cover up the crime his “mother” committed. The “bad guys” close in on him — except, the bad guys are actually the good guys: a detective, and Janet Leigh’s sister and boyfriend. Our strangely divided loyalties create intriguing tension: do we want Norman to succeed in covering up the crime or not?

The all is lost moment, from Norman’s point of view, is the moment the crime is solved — that memorable scene when the sister discovers Mother’s preserved corpse (Snyder’s “whiff of death”) and screams, as a swinging light bulb illuminates the horrific visage. After that, the climax comes swiftly. Now that we’ve seen Mother, the boyfriend subdues the knife-wielding Norman with no trouble, almost as if his power has been broken.

We have a somewhat overlong sequence of falling action as the psychiatrist explains Norman’s pathology, which some argue is the weak spot of an otherwise brilliant film. Then, a creepy moment with Norman/Mother, and that excellent final image.

Does Psycho follow the formula rigidly? No… not rigidly, mostly because his formula as expressed doesn’t allow for a shift in who the protagonist is. But you can still understand it using the formula, and you could still use the formula to build a similarly original, but solid movie. That’s because his formula is really about the emotional notes and conflicts that a story needs to hit in order to feel like a satisfying story.

One of the reasons Psycho is such a great movie is the way it sets up a noir thriller and delivers a horror story. But that wouldn’t work at all if the movie didn’t fit perfectly into a well-understood noir template prior to the midpoint. The shock of the shower scene isn’t just the cinematic brutality of the scene itself, it’s the shock of having the story change gears so completely. It changes gears, but doesn’t stop rolling forward. That’s the genius of Psycho.

Now, to the Slate article.

If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).

It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.

But only the hoplessness and disarray is actually part of Snyder’s formula (the “all is lost” moment right before the climax), and I am pretty hard-pressed to think of a movie that doesn’t have a moment like that. A dressing-down from a mentor? Not in Snyder’s book. A villain getting caught on purpose? Not in Snyder’s book. Those are specific instances of plot, not generalized story beats. And if you can’t tell the difference between a plot point and a story beat, then you probably need to read a few more screenwriting how-to books (or attend Clarion West, which was where I first started to understand the difference between plot and story).

Instead of a broad overview of how a screen story fits together, his book broke down the three-act structure into a detailed “beat sheet”: 15 key story “beats”—pivotal events that have to happen—and then gave each of those beats a name and a screenplay page number. Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder’s guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula.

Well, yeah. That sounds so rigid and uncreative, when you put it like that. But if people actually followed his beat sheet, we wouldn’t have action movies with pointless extended climaxes (Star Trek: Into Darkness) or dull first acts that slide vaguely into dull second acts (Oblivion). We certainly wouldn’t have a world where all action movies are two and a half hours long.

People who give writing advice for novels and short stories often express variations of this: of course a genius can break “the rules” (whatever you think “the rules” are). Are you a genius? Really? Are you SURE? Maybe you should try following the rules first… because most of the time, if you can’t be a genius within the rules, you probably can’t be a genius without the rules either.

Consider poetry. The sonnet is a pretty rigid formula, isn’t it? But do we complain that sonnets are less creative than free verse?

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.

HAHAHA, what? The world of original screenwriting as we know it? As I know it, it’s already a nearly impossible world to get into, and was when Snyder wrote his books. Also, if movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Psycho can be shown to fit his formula, I am pretty sure his formula is not what is threatening original screenwriting.

Yet once you know the formula, the seams begin to show. Movies all start to seem the same, and many scenes start to feel forced and arbitrary, like screenplay Mad Libs. Why does Kirk get dressed down for irresponsibility by Admiral Pike early in Star Trek Into Darkness? Because someone had to deliver the theme to the main character. Why does Gina Carano’s sidekick character defect to the villain’s team for no reason whatsoever almost exactly three-quarters of the way through Fast & Furious 6? Because it’s the all-is-lost moment, so everything needs to be in shambles for the heroes.

This is exactly what I was talking about above, when I mentioned the straining story engine. If you’re writing a screenplay, and you add a whole scene with no other purpose than to allow somebody to deliver what you think is the theme? You’re doing it wrong. If you just can’t seem to work it into the story in a natural way, IT’S PROBABLY NOT REALLY THE THEME.

And that is the problem with Star Trek: Into Darkness. The teaser section establishes that Kirk will break the prime directive all to hell in order to save Spock, and asks the question: what would Spock break to save Kirk? Then it never answers that question. Spock doesn’t have to break anything to save Kirk. So the movie doesn’t end up telling a satisfying story — there’s no shape to it. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. Sometimes entertaining stuff, but still.

Star Trek failed artistically because it DIDN’T follow Snyder’s formula. Not because it did.