Sunday, August 15, 2010


(Related article: How to Save $19.99)
Over the past decade, Blake Snyder's “Save the Cat” has been the world's best selling instructional book on screenwriting. Go to and type “screenwriting” in the books section and “Save the Cat” will always come up at the top of the search list. But in my opinion, this book has been the biggest detriment to the community of aspiring screenwriters in decades. If I had my way, every copy would be cleared from the shelves. If I ever hear another screenwriter wanna-be using the phrase “save the cat” as if it were an actual term of the craft I will personally take his or her copy of the book and make them eat it.

My problem with this book is that Snyder has taken all the over-emphasized, often short-sighted terms, theories, and rules preached by the various screenwriting “gurus” over the years, and has diluted then down into a collection of cutely-named cliches. The result has been an entire generation of aspiring young screenwriters who believe that they can create an audience-pleasing screenplay by simply connecting the dots and covering all the bases. Though they may follow these “rules” exactly, their work still stands little potential of ever becoming real produced films because their superficial knowledge and assembly-line approach creates nothing but weak, formulaic shells, inadvertently soulless hackwork because these writers have not been given the deep-down under the surface knowledge about the craft of storytelling necessary to create works of real merit. They are never given the real information on just exactly what a cinematic story is, how it works, and why it works. Synder's outside-in approach creates nothing but pretty facades. They look fine on the surface, but are hollow underneath

Forgive this opening rant. The target of this article is not Blake Synder's book in its entirety (that would take too long, and probably not necessary. Hopefully the readers of this blog have grown out of a beginner's book like this anyway). Instead, I want to debunk the idea that Synder names his book after. Synder suggests that in the setup of every story, we should see the protagonist have a “save the cat” moment. By this he means that the audience should see the hero doing something nice, something that the audience would approve of, such as saving a cat stuck in a tree. This is so that we can that the hero is a “nice guy.” Supposedly wedging in such a moment will create audience sympathy, or empathy, or whatever the hell you want to call it. Either way, he seems to suggest that the only way to make an audience get behind a character is to make him “likeable,” in a nice kitty-petting sort of way.

I began thinking on this subject the other day as I was reading a spec script penned by an aspiring writer. The story's protagonist was supposed to be a sort of financial/Wall Street/investment badass. He is the James Bond of investment firms, able to flip on the world news and instantly understand how turmoil and misfortune around the world can be easily exploited for millions of dollars. And exploit them he does. However, he is “above” the trapping of the rich a successful. He's so good at making money it bores him. He has no interest in the booze, drugs, and women that his coworkers revel in. Seems like a nice anti-hero, right? A person who has a lot of room in himself to grow and branch out to become a better person.

But then, I get to an abrupt and completely disconnected scene where this detached badass is sweetly teaching math to underprivileged children as a unpaid volunteer. It was at this moment that I KNEW that this writer had “Save the Cat” sitting on his bookshelf. This “pet the kitty” scene did not help the script. Quite the contrary. Not only was its content irrelevant to the rest of the story, but it actually served to undercut the character. Everything the writer put into this scene completely contradicted the character traits that the writer had already worked to establish. Instead of a clearly defined character, he became a confused middling mush. Instead of have a clear path for his character arc, it became blurred and unclear whether he should have one at all. The writer didn't need to show that his protagonist is a “nice guy.” He is not SUPPOSED to be a nice guy. He is an exploiter. No one can be a “nice” exploiter. He is a man begging to be taught a life lesson through the conflict of story events and to grow into a better human being because of it.

Let me ask a question: Just what is so wrong about having a FLAWED character in the first place? A character whom we in the audience with the collective moral judgment we bring with us to the theater cannot completely approve of? A character who has ugly black smudges on their soul that can only be awakened to their wrongs and purge those black marks clean by having their life being thrown into chaos and fighting the struggle of their lives to grow into a better person? Isn't this what a character arc is supposed to be all about? Isn't this what STORIES are supposed to be all about? Who among us in the audience do not have black spots on our own souls? How many of us are not incomplete persons ourselves, ashamed of our shortcomings, and held back in life by our flaws? And who among us who has ever watched a film and not felt on a deep subconscious level uplifted and inspired by vicariously watching another flawed person, a person even more flawed than ourselves, find redemption on the screen? Now let me ask you, who the hell is going to say that the people in the audience will not identify with these “unlikeable” characters? Whose eyes would you yourself feel more inclined to identify with? A character we can share a secret affinity through our own weaknesses and insecurities? Or some goody-goody kitty-petter who has no real need for the catharsis of character growth?

I have had the privilege of getting to know Lew Hunter, the Chairman Emeritus of the UCLA Screenwriting program. Several months ago, I was thumbing through his book Screenwriting 434, a collection of his wisdom from his years of teaching the craft, and found this little nugget buried in the back:

We do not need to “like the people.” We need to understand the people.

This was found in his chapter on dealing with the business of being a professional writer. (My wager is that Lew became so exasperated throughout his career with receiving notes from network suits about whether a character is “likeable” or not, that he chose to make a special note of it). However, I immediately wrote his words down on a post-it note and put it by my computer, where it remains today, because I recognized its truth went far beyond its context. In movies as in life, we do not have to like everybody. But as long as we can understand them, who they are and why they act the way they do, we will still care.

Books on screenwriting need to stop talking about “sympathetic” characters. Many books, on the other hand, explicitly argue against sympathy and emphasize the importance of making character “empathic.” But I think both terms should be eliminated. For one, most aspiring writers can't seem to understand the difference between the two. It's not their fault. It's hard for ANYONE to really tell the difference! Don't believe me? I have here Webster's New World Dictionary. Here is their definitions.

sympathy [Greek syn- together, -pathos feeling] 1. sameness of feeling. 2. mutual liking or understanding. 3. ability to share another's ideas, emotions, etc.

empathy [Greek. em- in, -pathos feeling] 1. ability to share another's ideas, thoughts, or feelings.

Hold up! Am I seeing things or do both sympathy and empathy have the exact same definition?! No wonder there is so much confusion! “Character empathy” has always been such an abstract concept to define that, no matter how hard the script gurus try, most writers remain unsure. Plenty aim to hit this so-called empathetic character but end up swerving left into the sympathetic. And this problem gets worse when we take into account that modern English given “sympathy” the connotation of either a feeling of pity, or a feeling of sweet emotions. And from this we get writers who feel compelled to have their characters save cats.

But “pity” or “sweet feelings,” are certainly not necessary for an audience to get behind a main character. Really, they do not care if a character is “sympathetic,” or “empathetic,” or if the character is a “nice guy.” What they want, and need, is a character they can RESPECT! We the audience will get behind a character, support him, and even love him despite of all his ugly flaws and unsympathetic traits as long as there is something about the person that we can respect. Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane harbors plenty of unsympathetic characteristics and commits many actions worthy of disapproval. But we still love him. Why? Because we can respect him. We respect his guts, his leadership ability, his charm and charisma. Hannibal Lecter could be the the most detestable human being ever to live on the screen. Yet we love him because there are still things about him we can respect, such as his intellect, his exquisite tastes, or his ability to size a person up in seconds. Our financial badass who leads the spec script discussed earlier has qualities that show potential for the audience's respect. He is brilliant and resourceful, and he has the personal strength to not get sucked down into the vices that can come with money and power. We do not need to see him acting all cuddly and cute with disadvantaged kids for us to get behind him.

The worthiness for audience respect as the most important trait for a protagonist to possess. The reasons for this are quite clear. When an audience enters a story's world, they look for a person they can latch on to. They need someone they can identify with, someone whose eyes they will see the story's world through, someone through whom they can have a vicarious emotional experience. However, they are by no means looking for someone who is “just like them.” How many movies have you ever seen with a protagonist who was exactly like you? To enjoy a story, the audience needs someone who will be their guide in this unfamiliar story world. In short, they need someone to be their LEADER. What the audience needs out of a main character are traits that make the audience comfortable enough with them to trust this character to lead them into the story and not be disappointed.

Think about it, for what reason would you choose to follow someone into danger? Or rather, what qualities would like to have in your mayor, governor, or president? Would you follow someone because they seem like a really nice person? Or because they have qualities that you can respect and trust as your leader?

The ability to garner audience respect is the dividing line that separates a hero the audience will love from a villain they will hate. How many movies have we seen where the hero is a thief, a killer, a con man, a blood-sucking vampire, or a beast from hell? What makes these unlikely characters “heroic”? We still consider these people heroes in spite of their immoral activities because they still possess other character traits that earn our respect. You will find in many movies that the hero and the villain are the same type of person. It is just that one has something a little more that makes them worthy of our respect- and affection- and the other one does not.

But, of course, there's always a chance you'll create a character whose only respectable trait IS that he rescues cats stuck in trees. However, I have faith that you can all be a little more creative than that.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

HOW TO WRITE A STORY: A Character-First Understanding

Story comes from character. Not the other way around. This is a golden concept every writer must learn if he or she ever wishes to create stories that connect with their audiences.

There seems to be two approaches to the Hollywood screenplay: those where the storyteller begins with a character and then creates a story around that character's needs, and those which someone first comes up with a “cool concept” and then later dumps in a bunch of people to carry it out. The stories invented in the latter concept-first, outside-in manner invariably wind up with characters who are flat, stereotypical, and emotionally superficial. This is because these characters are wholly defined by the function they play in relation to an already-constructed plot, rather than the internal needs, emotions, and impulses that make them distinctively human. “Concept-first” characters are little more than warm bodies used to connect the story’s dots. This is why most of them cannot help but become – to one degree or another – stereotypes. Quite often these human beings are defined solely by their occupation. How many movies have we seen with a police officer as the protagonist, even though the movie it is not a police drama? How many scientists have we seen in movies that have nothing to do with science? How many generic reporters, lawyers, and businessmen have we seen littered through the thousands upon thousands average-to-subpar movies throughout the years?

A true story begins with the creation of a character-

 -a character with a strong INTERNAL NEED.

The “internal need” is something important missing from the character’s life- whether the character realizes it or not. It is the thing that keeps the protagonist from being a complete, emotionally satisfied human being. It could be a need for self-worth (Rocky), a need to grow up and learn your place in the universe (Luke in Star Wars), a need to recognize and appreciate the value of family and home (Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). This need could be anything- as long as it is 1. authentically human, and 2. strong enough to influence the character's behavior. The storyteller performs his/her craft by first inventing a character with this need... and then placing the character into a dramatic situation where he or she is FORCED to pursue that need.

Robert McKee presents a concept from Renaissance philosophy in his seminal book “STORY” known as of the “Mind Worm.”
“Suppose a creature had the power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual completely – dreams, fears, strengths, weaknesses. Suppose that this Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. It could create a specific happening geared to the unique nature of that person that would trigger a one of a kind adventure, a quest that would force him to the limit, to live his deepest and fullest. Whether a tragedy or fulfillment, this quest would reveal his humanity absolutely.”
It would be hard to find a better way to describe the creation of a character-centered story then the Mind Worm. However, I am going to give it a shot.

I prefer to think of the storyteller as the god of his or her story's world. The storyteller has absolute control, absolute power, and absolute knowledge over every single thing within that world. As the creator of the protagonist, the storyteller knows him or her down the smallest detail; the storyteller-god knows the character's strengths, and more importantly, knows his or her weaknesses. The storyteller-god is a benevolent god. He or she wishes the character to rise above his or her flaws and become a better, happier person. The storyteller-god knows exactly what the character needs in order to do this. However, the storyteller must be malevolent, even cruel in the methods he or she uses to bring this change about. After all, this great personal need cannot be simply given to the character. It must be earned. So, like the Olympian gods of mythology, the storyteller inflicts a drastic change upon the protagonist’s world. Conflicts and overwhelming problems rise up to meet the character. This is all a test, one designed specifically for the purpose of giving the protagonist exactly what he or she needs through struggle and conflict. This way, the adventure causes the character to grow into a fuller, better person. However, though the protagonist did not chose to go on this adventure, the success of failure is in the protagonist's hands. The protagonist can either gain the need and find victory, or refuse the need and meet ignominious defeat.

A character's struggle for his or her internal need must not to be confused with the Story Spine. The Story Spine is made up of the physical actions we literally see the protagonist take on screen. The Story Spine follows character's struggle against an external conflict through physical action after a tangible goal. The Story Spine represents the storyteller-god's test. The character's pursuit of his or her inner need is an internal struggle- a non-literal journey of change from a flawed, incomplete human being to a better, more complete person at the story's end. This secondary journey is known as the CHARACTER ARC. 

The Story Spine and Character Arc are not two separate, divided lines of action. They are instead simultaneous journeys that not only interconnect and influence each other, but are dependent on each other for success.

To explain: in any given story, a character's personal traits influence how that character reacts to the situations presented by the Story Spine. A character's negative traits (lack of self-esteem, a bad attitude, an inability to connect with others, etc) will have a limiting effect on the character's success. As long as the character continues to have such traits, all of the story's obstacles cannot be overcome and the character will never reach his or her final goal. However, as the protagonist struggles against the Story Spine’s conflicts, these events cause a gradual and cumulative force that encourages the character to change internally. External conflict forces the protagonist to rise to the occasion and improve their flawed selves. As a character begins to change, he or she becomes better equipped to handle the conflicts he or she faces. Now new and improved, the protagonist gains the ability to overcome all obstacles, reach the story's goal, and complete the Story Spine.

To understand this better, it is necessary to look further into just where the “internal need” comes from, and how story events force character change to occur.

If we look at any protagonist, we will find that all characters possess two types of personality traits: CONSTANT traits, and traits that undergo CHANGE.

CONSTANT traits are traits a character possesses at the beginning of the story and maintain through the story's end. These traits are usually positive or neutral in nature, many of which are found beneficial to the character’s struggle. Examples would be James Bond's cool confidence in the face of danger, John McClane's sarcastic sense of irony, or Rick's strong silent nature in Casablanca. These traits make up the items in the character's personal toolbox – they are how the character has gotten what he or she needs in the past and how he or she will continue get what he or she needs in the future. These traits help define a character from your average, nondescript stranger, and will not change, simply because there is no need for them to change.

Then we have traits that undergo CHANGE. This is the stuff character arcs are made of. At the beginning of most stories (I should say all stories, but there will always be exceptions to every rule) the protagonist owns a collection of negative traits – traits that create adverse effects on the person's life. These negative traits are usually related, a bundle of traits that originate from a single, psychological FATAL FLAW. For example, if a character is flawed deep down by an unwillingness to connect with other people, this flaw will manifest itself as a collection of observable traits such as reclusiveness, loneliness, bitterness, or coarse and unfriendly behaviors toward others. If character's fatal flaw is a fear of taking chances in life, this will result in timidness, indecisiveness, or a hard time dealing with people who see him as dull, weak, or cowardly.

A character’s fatal flaw blocks the way to his or her internal need. To become happy and healthy, the character must learn to abandon the flaw and become its opposite. Once this happens, all the negative traits that impede the character's life will reverse one by one and the door will open to success and a greater well-being.

However, there is the most important thing to be realized about character change: the character's fatal flaw is always his or her OWN DAMN FAULT. Unlike a character's constant traits, negative traits are not the result of the real, physical world as it exists around the the character – but rather the result of the character's flawed PERCEPTION of the world.

Most therapists will agree that a majority of the emotional problems they see every day come not from their patients' actual reality, but from a false perception the patient has created of reality. Negative past experiences cause human beings to develop false sets of beliefs about their world, which in turn have negative effects on their behavior. A depressed person may in reality have plenty of friends, yet for whatever reason he honestly believes everyone hates him. A person suffering suffering a nervous breakdown may feel that her world is filled with insurmountable problems, yet in objective reality, this is not true.

In story, a character's fatal flaw comes from a deficiency in the way they view their world and their place within in. Casablanca's Rick (Humphrey Bogart) treats everyone with a cold, self-centered detachment because he has been led to believe that if he allows himself to care about someone, he will get hurt. The Matrix's Neo (Keanu Reeves) is reluctant to become humanity’s savior because he honestly believes he is an insignificant person. Goodfellas's Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) digs himself deeper and deeper into the world of organized crime because he refuses to see the truth about a life that can only end in violence and betrayal. But all of these problems are just in the character's heads.

So, here is how Character Arc works:

At the beginning of a story, a character's ability is limited by a defective view of themselves and/or the world around them. When that character comes face-to-face with a Story Problem and the conflict that comes with it, that character is FORCED to reevaluate this view. Pressured by the conflict, the character chooses to CHANGE. He or she then conforms to a more positive, truthful perception of his or her universe. Through this change, the character is able to overcome the Story Problem and bring the story to an end.

The whole of “plotting” - and by extension, the whole of “storytelling” - is simply finding a course of events that causes this change to happen.

Story comes from character.