I was on Slate this morning, and I saw a link to another article asking the question, “Why Does Every Movie Released These Days Feel Exactly the Same?” I had to click. For one thing, I thought I already knew. The link brought me to an article by Peter Suderman, Save the Movie! Its thesis is that movies (or summer blockbusters, at least) were killed by Blake Snyder’s screenwriting how-to book, Save the Cat! Unlike other screenwriting books, Snyder provides 15 plot points (Snyder apparently calls them “beats.”) for a film script and the page numbers on which they should occur. According to Suderman, all the blockbusters now use this formula.
The biggest problem with this analysis is that Suderman seems to think that Snyder is doing something different from other screenwriting gurus like Syd Field. I’ve read a couple of these kinds of books; this is exactly what they all preach. Snyder is only different in that he provided a handy list with page numbers. For example, the 11th beat is the “all is lost” moment. Syd Field may not say (as does Snyder) that it ought to go on page number 75, but he does say that it goes at the end of the second act. And that, my friends, is exactly the same thing.
All that Snyder has done is to derive the details of script structure given the three act structure. A write needs to use the first act to set things up. He needs something to happen that propels the story into the second act. He needs all the trials of the second act to lead to a point where all looks hopeless to set up the third act. (In a tragedy, it is the opposite: he needs a point that looks like the hero might just pull it out.) He needs the hero to figure out a way forward that pushes towards the conclusion. There is nothing new here. It is all standard dramatic structure. And it is notable that Snyder’s list contains far less detail about the second act than the other two—just as in the other screenwriting handbooks.
We’re not just talking action films either. Consider, for example, quite a fine film, The Verdict. It was written by David Mamet, who is generally considered a great writer. I wouldn’t go that far, but there is no question that he is a highly accomplished playwright with a good sense of drama. Of course, he wasn’t using Snyder’s list, since the script was written about the time that Snyder was in college. Mamet was just doing what script writers have done for hundreds of years.
The problem with any list of plot elements is that we humans are really good at finding patterns, even where none exist. I remember in one of the screenwriting books I read, the author claimed that anything could be put in a three act structure. As an example, he presented the joke, “Take my wife… Please!” I forget the reasoning, perhaps because I thought it was lame. If anything, it is a two act structure. But the main thing is that if you work hard enough, you can find three acts or 15 beats in anything at all.
Suderman is right that screenwriting in modern Hollywood films is all technique and little creativity. (For a good parody of this, see Adaptation.) It is also true that it is mostly geared toward adolescent men. And it is sexist, homophobic, and many other things that the culture claims to be beyond. But that has been the case for a very long time. It isn’t the formula that is making the scripts bad. It works the other way around. Producers require bad, formulaic scripts. Snyder comes out with yet another book that says, “This is what everyone is doing.” Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the screenwriting team that brought us Star Trek Into Darkness) have been writing trite, formulaic action films since before Snyder wrote his book. It really isn’t Snyder’s fault that Hollywood screenwriting is bad and getting worse.