Here’s a Friday Question that warrants an entire post.
It’s from Tastes Like Chicken:
Could you comment on this story from Slate.com about why so many Hollywood movies these days (like it never happened in the past, but still ...) seem to resemble each other? His argument is that it's because everybody these days is using the same 15-beat structure from the book "Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. True?
There have always been books that propose templates for structuring screenplays. And that’s not a bad thing, per se.
One common mistake would-be screenwriters make is they just start writing their script without a good outline. And more often than not they find themselves going in circles, painting themselves into corners, or realize they’re on page 150 already and have yet to introduce the love interest – and it's a romantic comedy.
You need dramatic structure. You need a beginning, middle, and end. You need things to happen. You need conflict. You need a theme. You need character development. A number of these books provide it. Syd Field’s is the de facto standard.
But the danger is turning every original idea into a paint-by-the-numbers landscape.
And the greater danger is that producers and studios rely on these templates as if they were the Ten Commandments. Why? Because most of them can’t write themselves. Yet once they read these books or go to Robert McKee’s seminar they think they’re experts in story structure. There’s nothing more dangerous than an executive who knows nothing about writing but thinks he/she is an expert.
And every note tried to turn every screenplay into CASABLANCA (McKee spends an entire day breaking down CASABLANCA – one of his signature schticks).
Now I have nothing against writing seminars. I hold one myself. But mine is hands-on not two days of lectures, and my students are encouraged to be creative, not follow a set of rules.
The new rage is this SAVE THE CAT book. And here the author, Blake Snyder, takes story structure to a new level. Instead of just three acts, and mid-points, etc. he has fifteen specific beats that must occur in the exact order. Each beat has a purpose (i.e. state the theme) and the book even goes so far as to tell you what page in your screenplay each beat must occur.
Lots of Hollywood movies follow this and the result is you, the audience, get a subliminal feeling that you’ve seen the movie already even though you haven’t. From GANGSTER SQUAD to the new STAR TREK this template is being slavishly followed. So to answer your question -- true.
Writing can’t be programmed into a computer. There is no fifteen point magic formula for turning out art. Screenwriters should familiarize themselves with these methods and use them as a good starting point, but then allow yourself the freedom to deviate, to challenge yourself to be original and surprising.
What do producers and studio executives tell young writers they’re looking for most when they read spec screenplays? A fresh, unique, exciting voice. Something distinctive that separates your script from the others. Well, how do you do that when your primary concern is structuring your script just like everyone else’s?
Besides, for my money, the key to a great screenplay is not plot it’s character. Find an amazing character. Give him a wondrous journey or a herculean task. Put him in a world we haven’t seen. Fill it with fifteen great ideas, not fifteen beats. Or twenty great ideas… or nine. The number isn’t important. You’re not solving an Algebra problem.
KILL THE CAT. SAVE YOURSELF.