Sunday, August 15, 2010

F@#% THE CAT!

(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 Amazon.com 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.

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