I love (good) books on screenwriting, because of all the available guides to writing fiction, these focus most squarely on the primacy of story; first the forest, then the trees. Last week a fortunate weblink led me to Save the Cat, 2005, a brief but idea packed gem of a book by Blake Synder (1957 – 2009).
Snyder was a successful screenwriter and a respected teacher who began his career in movies doing voice-overs for his father at the age of eight. By his own admission, when he started writing for movies, he had only a vague idea of structure. Discovering Syd Field’s Screenplay was a revelation: “truly career-saving,” Snyder says, but there were still gaps in his sense of movie architecture. Snyder developed the methods he presents in this book in response. Because he spun things in an unusual way, and uses his own terms for concepts that may have become overly familiar, his methods move the imagination in fresh ways.
The title of his book, for instance, is a code for his belief in the primacy of creating characters we want to follow. In the opening scenes of older movies, the protagonist often did something nice – like saving a cat – to bond with the audience, a step contemporary movies often skip in favor of showing a lead who is hip, slick, and cool. Snyder cites this as the cause of failures of several recent films.
His approach is top down. He begins with the log line and the title, and demands that the writer polish them before moving on, because they are a touchstone for writing the script itself as well as a key selling point. This single sentence and title, when well crafted, reveal what the movie’s about, its genre, the lead characters, and (ideally) pique curiosity. Snyder gives examples like: “A cop comes to L.A. to to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists – Die Hard.”
Snyder then suggests we do something that few writers ever dream of – pitch the concept to strangers. He would literally pick people out in a Starbucks line, and say, “Excuse me, I’m working on a movie concept, and I wonder if I could get your feedback.” Since he lived in L.A., the answer was often yes, but he challenges us to do the same wherever we are.
He moves through ever increasing levels of detail as he takes the reader through the development of the script, and one thing I really appreciated was his in-depth knowledge of stories:
“Jaws is just a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the Minatour or even the dragon-slayer tales of the Middle Ages. Superman is just a modern Hercules. Road Trip is just an update of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – isn’t it? To not know the roots of the story you’re trying to create, either from the last 100 years of movie storytelling or the last thousand, is to not honor the traditions and fundamental goals of your job.”
Though Blake Snyder died suddenly in 2009, a website serves as a blog on his methods, and offers a bulletin board as well as classes geared to both screenplays and novels. http://www.blakesnyder.com/
I’m sure this is old news to the screenwriters who read this blog. If so, pass it along to your novelist friends; it seems we don’t get out often enough.