Why Screenplays Suck

Save the Cat!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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Why Screenplays Suck

  1. Yeah. How can anyone writing an article like that not know Syd Field? I was in film school in 1990 at USC, and Field was a friggin’ textbook. (Yup, I know, I’m a weirdo; film school, military school, hippie school, time spent hitching; the ’90s were a long decade for me.)

    You’re exactly right that producers get the scripts they want. I’m sure clever writers come up with great scripts all the damn time, and can’t rouse any interest. It makes me all the more amazed that Tom McCarthy gets movies financed. I think he’s my favorite modern moviemaker (Alexander Payne is a close second, good stuff but his best scripts are adapted from novels.) Maybe he has compromising photos or something.

    I watch pretty much exclusively documentaries and TV shows these days, but random rec time (I’m so loopy from an emergency fill-in shift at work screwing up my sleep schedule that I might be typing on an al-Queda recruitment site, for all I know):

    Two movies with the actor John Hawkes stuck out for me in the last few years as being believably human, not screenplays based on other screenplays. One, "Winter’s Bone," was about a young girl trying to survive in Appalachia after her dad is killed by low-rent thugs. It’s got a real feeling for the region; it’s not "look at the goofy locals, they’re so cinematic" stuff. Like if "Harlan County" were made today, but with the unions dead and all hope lost. Not as bleak as that last sentence sounds; the girl and her family do pull through in the end.

    "The Sessions" is about a polio sufferer with an iron lung who sees a "sex surrogate" to lose his virginity. Wow, that sentence sounds bleak, too (I’m so tired.) Just a sweetheart of a movie, though. It’s rated "R" but has such a healthy, frank view of sexuality and its emotional complications that if I spotted my curious kid watching it at night on HBO, I’d quietly back away, wait and answer any possible questions the next day, and be happy they were seeing something so good. It’d be rated "PG-13" or the equivalent in a saner country.

    John Hawkes . . . he good!

  2. @JMF – Yeah, I’ve liked John Hawkes for a long time. I was first really taken with him in [i]Perfect Storm[/i]. And, of course, I loved him as Sol Star on [i]Deadwood[/i]. There is something very real about him on the screen.

    I’m not exactly sure why it came to mind, but have you seen David Morse in [i]The Slaughter Rule[/i]? Morse is fantastic in it, but what is most amazing about the film is how messy the emotions are. It is a great example of how narrative art can be real and dramatic.

  3. On my list, now. Never seen Morse, or I’ve seen him and didn’t know who he is, but I always like recs . . .

    One guy I’m following is the weird-looking Danish actor Mads Mikkelson. (Basically, I met cool Danes, and I have a love affair with all of them, especially since the brightest ones loathe anti-Muslim, pro-privatization stupidity currently going on in Denmark. They are sadly the minority, but I still love ’em.)

    Mikkelson is Hannibal Lecter in an American network TV series about Hannibal Lecter, for those intrigued by such things. I really enjoyed him as a liberal physician hired to keep the mad Danish king under control in "A Royal Affair." He plays a guy walking a fine edge, knowing that his access to power gives him the ability to convince Mad King to institute populist reforms. Also, that he’s pissing off the entrenched nobility and his shield of being Mad King’s doctor could collapse at any minute, because, ya know, the king’s a loony.

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