The terrible writer who is directly responsible for every major movie being formulaic rubbish.
Although passing away in 2009, screenwriter Blake Snyder continues to be one of Hollywood’s most influential figures. Adored and praised widely by industry insiders, Blake’s work lends its name to a *ahem* ‘prestigious’ screenwriting competition, he has been posthumously honoured by the Writers’ Guild of America, and there are even tributes to him in the end credits of several movies around 2010.
The son of Emmy-award winning TV producer, Kenneth C.T. Snyder, Blake broke into feature film writing with the award-winning Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992). A true classic that currently holds a 4.3 rating on IMDb, an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been mocked endlessly by its star, Sylvester Stallone. Those awards? It picked up a handful of Golden Raspberry Awards.
Snyder would go on to pen one more movie. Along with Colby Carr, Snyder wrote 1994’s Blank Check: A family comedy produced by Walt Disney that opened at #3 at the US Box Office behind Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Getaway. It would later win the accolade of Buffalo News’ Worst Movie of the Year. Snyder never wrote another film… at least not any that were produced.
If you’re paying attention (and I don’t blame you if you’re not), you’ll have noticed that I opened this by declaring Snyder is one of the most influential figures in Hollywood, yet he’s responsible for two bad movies. How can it be that such a man wields such influence a decade after he died? Well, when Blake wasn’t writing terrible films, he was busy scribbling down his guide on how to write great ones – Save the Cat.
Along with David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, Save the Cat is one of the most highly-regarded and respected guides on the craft of screenwriting. It’s required reading in any number of film schools. It’s cited as the book budding screenwriters simply must own by a great number of producers. Trawl almost any aspiring screenwriter community, and there will be champions urging others to drop $10 on Save the Cat.
Personally, I wouldn’t trust somebody who has demonstrably failed to do their job correctly to write a how-to guide on how to do their job. It’d be like asking George W. Bush how we can ensure the stability of the Middle East for future generations and then doing exactly everything that muppet says. Nonetheless, despite the absurdity of it all, Save the Cat, first published in 2005, has become one of the biggest influences on a generation of writers, producers, directors, and studios.
Snyder uses the book to attack films he believes aren’t doing things right. He cites Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003) as an example of a flawed movie that isn’t following his tried and true structure. While I won’t dispute it’s not a great film, it holds a higher IMDb rating than either of his movies and made more money than both combined, just about.
What is this failed screenwriter’s magic formula for writing the greatest movies? Let’s start with the title – Save the Cat. Snyder evidently believes that all movie audiences are intellectually challenged bumpkins who sit in theatres scratching their heads and get confused over which hole the popcorn goes in. To counter the problem of drooling simpletons gawping at the creepy moving photograph in front of them, Snyder proposes that in the first few minutes of any film, the hero needs to do something noble and nice – they need to save the cat.
Obviously, this works because no evil person in history has ever had a fondness for animals, have they, Hitler? Of course, it doesn’t need to be an actual cat. You just need the hero to do something such as help an old lady across the street, stop an armed robbery with a pretzel, or anything a one-dimensional cackling villain would never think to do because it would take precious time away from moustache-twirling.
Whatever you do, though, make it obvious. Audiences are far too stupid to figure out that somebody is a villain or a hero without an overt display of characteristics associated with one or the other. There is no room for interpretation, moral ambiguity will make people’s heads hurt, and this is the clearest neon arrow you can point at somebody to say ‘root for this guy!’.
At what point in the original Ghostbusters did Peter Venkman ‘save the cat’? He’s introduced as an absolute dickhead who is electrocuting a college student because he’s hoping to abuse his power to cop off with another college student. He bullies Ray into taking out a mortgage to fund the Ghostbusters. His interest in helping Dana is purely driven by lust, and throughout the movie, he is sarcastic, ill-mannered, and kind of a twat. Despite not having the convenience of a signpost saying ‘cheer for this guy’, we end up cheering for this guy – despite all the reasons we shouldn’t – because he’s a well-written character, something that screenwriting guru Blake Synder evidently didn’t understand.
Snyder continues to offer his pearls of informative wisdom by discussing the structure of a great script. For some peculiar reason, Snyder thinks that you need to “break into [act] two” on page 20. Clearly, this means the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Deer Hunter is a shit one in Snyder’s estimations because it definitely does not do that. Blake even says that when he’s reading a script, he doesn’t start on the first page like a normal person. He jumps straight to page 20 to see if they’re breaking into two. If they’re not, he discards the script.
Screenplays don’t use written act breaks. Some teleplays do, and stageplays obviously, but not screenplays. Thus, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the script has transitioned to act two without the context of the previous nineteen pages.
This nonsense is all part of Snyder’s widely acclaimed ‘Beat Sheet’. The Beat Sheet is a near page by page breakdown of what should be happening and when. It’s a blueprint for a script. Such a thing should occur on page 5, another should happen on page 10, get to page 15 and do this and so on.
Hollywood loves formula, which is probably why it loves Snyder’s Beat Sheet. To be fair, storytelling has a structure, and a structure tends to have a formula. At the most basic level, a story needs three acts – the Beginning, Middle, and End. Within those acts, there are certain requirements to meet. You can’t have a beginning without establishing what’s going on. You should have rising action in the middle. And the end should be an end.
Snyder takes it further and in a very problematic way.
Movies are often likened to rollercoasters. “An adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster of action and sizzling sex!” or some similar shite is often used on promotional materials. So let’s use the rollercoaster analogy to explain why Snyder has ruined the art of storytelling in film. If you don’t like rollercoasters, you’ll probably get a bit bored here.
Our brains have one primary job – to keep us alive. When we go on a rollercoaster, we deliberately expose our brain to a massive amount of information that suggests we’re in immediate peril. The brain responds by filling our system with the adrenaline we’d need to get the fuck outta there and by triggering the fear response to try and convince us to get the fuck outta there. It has no concept of what a rollercoaster is, so it doesn’t really understand we can’t just vacate our seat without imperilling ourselves further, nor that we’re not in any real danger.
Imagine we’re at a magical theme park without queues. We have a fun time on a rollercoaster and immediately decide to go again. This time it won’t impact us as much. We might get a smaller rush of adrenaline and a more muted fear response. It’s not only because we remember it; it’s because the brain is figuring out the pattern.
By the fourth or fifth time, the brain has concluded that this poses no threat. It has identified a clear pattern, and providing that pattern remains consistent, it’s no longer going to bother treating this as an emergency. Sure, if the car detaches from the rail on round five, it’ll respond the way it initially did for the few moments of life we have left. But otherwise, it’s convinced there’s nothing to respond to because we’re not in any real danger. We don’t get the adrenaline hit. No fear response. It becomes tiresome to us.
Our brain looks for patterns in everything to build its own internal threat model and respond to it accordingly. If you’ve been mugged, your brain remembers the conditions you were in when it happened, and if it spots them again, it will immediately go into a high alert mode regardless of whether you’re in actual danger or not.
So when you watch a movie, and you accurately predict everything that’s about to happen before it happens – even the supposed twists – that’s your brain kinda taking the fun away because it’s got enough information to draw parallels between what it’s seen before and what it’s seeing now. It’s why jump scare-laden horror films lose effectiveness to horror fans. Your brain learns the tricks of writers and filmmakers and then sets about ruining everything for you. Because it knows when the jump scare is coming, it primes itself to not respond to it.
It is part of the reason nostalgia is so powerful. Those early experiences when we were still giving our brain something new to process far outshine the more recent ones when we really do feel like we’ve seen it all. And it is why Snyder’s lauded Beat Sheet is such a fucking problem.
Following this Beat Sheet is the epitome of production line writing. It inevitably grows stale because it’s nothing more than a pattern that doesn’t give the brain anything new to work with. The Beat Sheet is the product of a crap writer who never understood how the brain responds to a stimulus, and that’s probably why he was such a crap writer. You can’t be a successful storyteller if you’re incapable of emotionally investing people in that story. If you don’t understand how emotions work, you’ll never be able to do it, and you’ll end up writing Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check.
That studios, script analysts and the industry as a whole are so in love with the Beat Sheet bullshit is the reason that us old farts in our thirties are so jaded towards the output of the Hollywood crap factory. We had already seen the latest movies ten years ago, albeit with different titles.
But can it change? Not with Hollywood. Originality is a dirty word to studio executives who would rather spend $100m milking the fuck out of a pre-existing audience than a tenth of that on trying to build a new one. Remakes, reboots, comic books and the rest of it are the order of the day because anything else is considered too much of a risk. So they’ll continue to abide by failed screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet because the idea that there is a simple, one-size-fits-all structure to a massive Box Office return is comforting, and the unknown is a danger their brains want to shield them from.
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