This is a replay post from a couple of years ago, but recent events have convinced me that it merits spotlighting again. My buddy J.J. Patrow did an excellent comparison that placed the screenwriting philosophies of several leading "gurus" side-by-side. One of these gurus was Blake Snyder, whose book Save the Cat was recently eviscerated in a Slate article that targeted it as the reason that Hollywood movies suck.
I detest linking to the article, but I need to pull out at least one excerpt.
When Snyder published his book in 2005, it was as if an explosion ripped through Hollywood. The book offered something previous screenplay guru tomes didn’t. Instead of a broad overview of how a screen story fits together, his book broke down the three-act structure into a detailed “beat sheet”: 15 key story “beats”—pivotal events that have to happen—and then gave each of those beats a name and a screenplay page number. Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder’s guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula.
The problem I have with blaming Save the Cat for all of this is that there really isn't anything new in that book. It might be presented differently, but Synder's overall philosophy isn't too dissimilar from storytelling tenants that have been around long before film itself. So without further ado, I'll turn the floor over to J.J. Patrow:
THE SAME OLD THREE ACTS
By J.J. Patrow
Although good screenwriting isn’t easy, it can be learned through study and practice. That’s what we’re taught to believe. And we must believe it because thousands of people have been inspired to learn the craft, generating a huge market for screenwriting lectures, classes, workshops, instructional videos, and how-to books. It has also generated just as many reader opinions about which screenwriting guru offers the best advice.
Some authors champion a paint-by-the-numbers approach. The “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” in Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder comes to mind. Other authors counter that step-by-step guides are misguided. In the introduction to The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay, by David Howard and Edward Mabley, Frank Daniel states that ”…the worst thing a book on screenwriting can do is to instill in the mind of the beginner writer a set of rules, regulations, formulas, prescriptions, and recipes.” (xix) And yet others choose the middle of the road. Andrew Horton writes in his book, Writing the Character Centers Screenplay, that writers should blaze new paths, but still “…pay attention to story and structure and other elements.” (2)
If there’s one reality that all how-to authors seem to agree on, however, it is that there is a saturation of screenplay books, but their work is worth your time and money. It’s special. Maybe this is true. But one should question if new screenwriting books are really fresh, seeing as most of them visit – or rather, revisit – how to construct the same old three-act story.
The generic construction of the “Hollywood Three-Part Screenplay” is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t require too much discussion. I don’t mean to imply that the nuances of screenplay writing are simple, but learning to recognize the essential building blocks of the Hollywood screenplay and their proper order is fairly basic. And this basic knowledge is what most screenplay books seek to impart. The result is that they end up parroting each other. Sure, the average author may bring a more accessible voice, a particular emphasis on character or genre, a unique set of details, or even a set of fresh terms for pre-existing structural components, but the meat of the subject goes unchanged.
Most authors of popular screenwriting books spend a lot of time discussing the three-act structure, which was thoroughly explored by Syd Field in the 1970s. Odds are he inspired them to write a how-to screenwriting book in the first place. And prior to Field there was already a well-documented tradition of the workings of three-act stories, which originated in mythology. These had been discussed for centuries and can be found in the writings of Aristotle to Joseph Campbell. So it is not a stretch to imagine that a lot of what screenwriting books offer is partly a review of earlier works.
To better explore this, it is helpful to visually demonstrate the way certain authors instruct their readers to write screenplays. Each offers an interesting take on storytelling and has plenty to offer, but they are clearly dipping into the same source. Indeed, before someone declares that the “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” is revolutionary, they should read Field or Campbell. Even Snyder suggests this in his introduction.
Aristotle presented the basic three-act structure in Poetics. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Joseph Campbell, having spent a lifetime studying mythology, noted similarities in the story structure of the classic hero journey in A Hero With A Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. He found that in most mythological stories there was a beginning (the Call to Adventure), a middle (the Road of Trials), and an end (The Return). George Lucas made great use of Campbell’s insights when writing Star Wars. And Stuart Voytilla, in his book Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythical Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films, outlined how the components of Campbell’s hero journey applied neatly into many Hollywood films.
Writing in the 1970s, Syd Field defined the essential components of the three-act screenplay as consisting of a set up, followed by a confrontation, and then a resolution. He also added additional story landmarks, such as the inciting incident. Whether he realized it or not, these landmarks fit quite neatly into Campbell’s model.
Blake Snyder, a fan of Campbell and Field, created a “Beat Sheet” that parrots those who came before him, though he uses his own terms. His placement of story landmarks, such as when to “show what needs to be changed,” is a variation on Campbell’s “Call to Adventure” and Field’s introduction points for the story’s “Situation” and “Premise.”
Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot, explores the character arc between the key three-act points, which he calls The Beginning: “Life As It Was,” The Middle: “Life Torn Apart,” and the end “Life as it Now.” Although quite detailed, these emotional markers are also in keeping with Campbell.
In his book, The 3rd Act, Drew Yanno explores the end of the film and how it relates to a question posed in the beginning, further complementing the works of his processors. He defines the three acts as the Question, the Debate, and the Answer.
When all the graphs are overlaid there are clearly similarities between each book.
Unfortunately, following this chart will not guarantee a blockbuster, but it will illustrate a point. Each of these how-to authors is not as different from each other as some might expect. Consider this the next time you read a new screenplay book and, when you sit down to write, remember the words of Robert McKee: “Your work needn’t be modeled after the “well-made” play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.” (Story, 3)
Note: I've long had problems getting Blogger to display images properly. For those of you who want these charts in their complete sizes you can download a zip file of them here.