I admit that this month's article is far more mean spirited than usual. It is just that every time I visit Amazon.com, or a book store of any kind, I am constantly confounded that young and developing screenwriters continue to, as they have for seven years, make a certain book on screenwriting the #1 seller. A book that has no right or reason to occupy that spot. Those of you who frequent this blog know how critical I am of most books on the market for being ineffective, inaccurate, or outmoded. However, there is only one book that I tell writers to avoid at all costs. The book I speak of is Save the Cat! by Blake Synder, a book so full of obvious inaccuracies, half-assed approaches, and pure unfiltered bullshit that following its advice will damage your development as a screenwriter. I have personally witnessed the negative effects of this book on hundreds to amateur screenplays. Blake Synder has unwittingly ruined an entire generation of would-be screenwriters.
You may wonder what is the harm of one little book. In any other field, there would be little problem at all. However, when beginning screenwriters make their first attempts to learn the craft, they often make the mistaken assumption that just because something has been published in a book, it is absolutely true and should be followed like holy scripture. Most of screenwriting books are based off of little more than the personal opinions of their authors, authors quite often of questionable expertise. As I have found in my own studies time and again, many times an author's bold statements turn out to be bullshit. Once false information has been ingested into a writer's mind and accepted as fact, it will take years to undo the damage.
As far as I can see, the only cause for Save the Cat's commercial success comes from a single chapter, Chapter 6, the “Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics.” This chapter contains a hodgepodge of eight unrelated commandments, each given a cutsie-poo nickname to keep them memorable, one of which is used for the book's bizarre title. (I love how at the beginning of the chapter, Synder admits that this chapter is the only reason he wrote the book, implying that the rest of it is little more than filler.) Though this makes the book unique to its competitors, these commandments are hardly groundbreaking, and far from original.
For those of you who have not read this book, and are still tempted to buy it, I am going to do you a favor. I am going to save you $19.99 by giving you Synder's eight cutsie-poo commandments right here in this article, communicated far clearer and more direct than Synder was capable. And I am not going to waste 22 pages to do it.
- “Save the Cat” - disregard entirely. Read THIS instead.
- “Pope in the Pool” - When giving dry and potentially boring expositional information, distract and/or entertain the audience by pairing the information with an interesting visual or action. This is an old trick, and quite an obvious one. (If we are going to name this, I prefer “Two Elephants Screwing,” a reference to a comment made by Humphrey Bogart on the set of the film Sahara. When asked to do a scene containing over a page of dull expositional dialogue, Bogart wryly suggested the director put two elephants screwing behind him, because that was the only way the scene would be interesting.)
- “Double Mumbo-jumbo” - One story should be built on one premise, and one premise alone. Don't make your story about civil rights and environmentalism. Don't have a zombie outbreak occur in the middle of a story about killer robots. Unalike premises mix like oil and water. Keep things focused.
- “Laying Pipe” - Don't wait too long to introduce the story's inciting incident. Until the inciting incident occurs, the conflict has not engaged and story action has not yet begun. This means there remains little conflict and little story movement.
- “Black Vet” - Not only should there be just one premise per story, but one gimmick per character. Don't make your protagonist and ex-cop AND an ex-priest, AND a former Olympic speed skater. That's just dumb. Pick one. Simplicity creates clarity. Clarity allows opportunity for stronger development.
- “Watch out for that Glacier!” - Conflict is only conflict when it is occurring here and now. Dramatic tension exists only when there is an immediate threat. Something that may happen down the road is not very threatening. Until that happens, characters are just standing around waiting for the conflict to arrive.
- “The Covenant of the Arc” - Characters undergo personal change in the course of the story. This is Screenwriting 101, people. I don't know why Snyder tries to put a special label on something so fundamental that it has been axiomatic to screencraft since its beginning. It is impossible that any human being could go through the extreme situations found in any movie and not come out the other end a changed person.
- “Keep the Press Out!” - You don't need Steven Spielberg to tell you this. The broader you make your story world, the less intimate it becomes. The less intimate it becomes, the harder it is for the audience to forge strong emotional bonds to characters. This also harms plot when it comes to films with a fantasy or sci-fi element. The more you expand the story into the wide real world, the harder it is for the audience to suspend their disbelief. Take a look at two movies about hostile aliens, Alien and Independence Day. One has a small, intimate setting with few characters. The other follows dozens of characters diffused all over a worldwide stage. Because of its intimacy, Alien is able to remain believable with few facts, and creates strong, genuine feelings of fear, dread, and compassion towards its characters. With Independence Day, the audience does not feel connected to any of its multiple protagonists, and its story logic often lapses into moments so difficult to believe they become silly. (This is actually way beyond the rather insignificant point Synder tries to make in this section. I did you the favor of smarting it up.)
That's it. That's the entire book right there. As for Synder's plot formula with its “15-point Beat Sheet,” forget about it. The approach is half-baked, simplistic beyond practical application, and built on logic riddled with more holes than a rural Utah stop sign. Plus, a lot of it is just bullshit. You'd be better off writing a screenplay from the Betty Crocker Cookbook.
As for the rest of the book, most is not even about writing a movie. It is about pitching a sellable idea for a movie. This may be useful for a producer or agent, but if you're a screenwriter, you will just learn to talk the talk, not walk the walk. This may help you get a script deal, but only once. Once it becomes clear to the buyer that you can't back up your salesmanship with competent writing, you will be labeled a fraud and a charlatan. Try selling another idea after that.