Thursday, March 6, 2008

Book Review: Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies

I will say at the outset that, if you are serious about screenwriting, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies (STC! 2) is a must-have book. Mind you, it's not the only one, but if you were an economist you wouldn't have just one book on math, right? In fact, I think that this second book in the STC! series is actually more of a must-buy than the first one--because of its unique approach. The original Save the Cat! is basic screenwriting theory. Chief among these is Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing, written decades ago, a rediscovery of the dramatic principles of Aristotle's Poetics. You might say that Egri was the founder of modern-day structuralism (although his book was about playwriting and many movies before him were highly structured). Among the latter-day authorities are Syd Field and Vicki King, whom Blake Synder acknowledges as his early mentors. Others include Robert McKee, Lew Hunter, Richard Walter, John Truby, and Linda Seger. And there are many, many, many more.

But STC! 2 stands out among this group because it comes at the subject from a unique direction. Rather than stating theory and then citing examples, this second how-to book of Snyder's rationalizes examples of successful genre movies to make some generalizations about what works in terms of capturing and holding an audience. The book is mostly examples rather than rules, not the other way around. Many readers will find this format more approachable, user-friendly, and easier to apply than the theory books.

The key concepts he derives, which are the same as in STC! 1 are genre, structure, and beats. Be cautioned that he redefines genre. Synder's take on genre is more like "theme," "predicament," or even "story engine." It's the dilemma that drives the story, but it is, in structural terms, a situation and not a story. For example, "a fish out of water" is a situation--"a fish out of water grows legs and survives" is a story. As to structure, he pretty much follows accepted practice, but he goes a step further by reducing the essential, compelling structure to just 15 beats, or plot points. That's powerful stuff.

So you won't find the traditional genres "action-adventure" or "romantic comedy" here. Synder swaps those for genre-predicaments like "Monster in the House" and "Dude with a Problem." He identifies ten of them as the engines of all hits. He then decomposes the plots of several blockbusters in each genre to show how that engine operates. His insights are fascinating because, without the distinction of genre as he defines it, you might assume that "Three Days of the Condor" and "Sleeping with the Enemy" are fundamentally different. By traditional definitions, one is a spy thriller and the other is a woman-jeopardy thriller. But in the gospel according to Blake, those two movies are twins. Knowing why will not only make you a better screenwriter but will also give you a better appreciation of the high art of crafting the blockbusters that almost never win the snob awards.

Taking Synder's distinction one step further, it should be possible to do a "Monster in the House" story in any of the traditional genres--action-adventure, horror, or even romantic comedy! Getting this basic idea will help you understand why "King Kong" owes so much to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (not one of Snyder's examples, but one I'm sure he'd acknowledge).

Do get this book if you are writing spec scripts. But if you are writing indies, proceed with caution--with any book of rules. Certainly the gurus will preach that the rules of structure can strengthen any story and that, at the very least, you should master the rules before you break them. True enough.

But you don't want to get so locked into a box of rules that you can't think outside of it. The goal in indies, in my humble opinion, should not be to make blockbusters on the cheap but to take risks and evolve the cinematic form in ways the studios won't.

I should disclose that I've met Blake Snyder, and he is as charming in person as he is engaging on the page. More important, he assured me that no cats were harmed in the making of his books!

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