I recently read Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (on Amazon UK and US) and it was a good read. I assume the many other books about writing movies cover similar points but this seemed well done and useful.
Most Hollywood movies follow similar paths and it’s interesting to have that path spelled out. I had plenty of “Oh, of course, they do all do that” moments. The book doesn’t cover the details of writing a script, like structuring individual scenes, writing convincing characters, writing decent dialogue, etc, but is concerned with structuring the movie… all the stuff you may want to nail down before typing the first words.
This summary is my notes covering the main points, in case they’re useful or interesting to anyone else. Snyder refers to all the characters as “he”, “dude” and “guys”… I’ve just stuck with that.
1. What is it?
You need to be able to describe what the movie is about very briefly, one sentence. The “logline”, or “one-line”. The are four components a good logline should have:
- “Isn’t it ironic?” Something unexpected or intriguing. “The hook.” Makes you want to know more.
- “A compelling mental picture.” You can see the story, what might happen. You can probably guess the story’s duration (a single night? A weekend?) from it.
- “Audience and cost.” “A built-in sense of who it’s for and what it’s going to cost.”
- “A killer title.” “It says what it is.” Not too vague. Combines well with the logline.
Test your title and logline [and more?] on friends and strangers before you go any further. If they start to look bored, refine it for the next try.
2. Give me the same thing… only different!
What genre is your movie in? This can help you because you can figure out how other movies in your genre work. The ten genres Snyder uses:
Monster in the House. Jaws, Exorcist, Panic Room. A confided space, a “sin” is committed, a “monster” to avenge the sin. Then it’s “run and hide”.
Golden Fleece. Star Wars, Back to the Future, heist movies, road movies. Hero goes in search of one thing and discovers himself. Every step on the journey affects the hero. It’s not the incidents but what the hero learns from them that makes it work.
Out of the Bottle. Freaky Friday, Flubber, Liar Liar, Groundhog Day. Something appears to grant a wish to a Cinderella character, but eventually they realise magic isn’t everything. Or a comeuppance tale: someone needs to be taught a lesson (but their character must appear redeemable).
Dude with a Problem. Die Hard, Titanic, Schindler’s List, Terminator. Ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. The bad guy should be as bad as possible — more for hero to overcome.
Rites of Passage. 10, Ordinary People. Drugs, alcohol, puberty, mid-life crisis, old age, romantic break-up, grieving. Everyone except the hero knows what the problem is. Only experience can offer a solution.
Buddy Love. Dumb & Dumber, Rain Man, E.T., buddy cop movies, love stories. At first buddies hate each other, but adventure makes it clear they need each other. This leads to more conflict. An All Is Lost moment near the end breaks them up but they realise they need each other. Often one character is the hero and will do most of the changing.
Whydunit. Chinatown, JFK, The Insider, Citizen Kane. A surrogate on screen represents us, trying to work out why. We just be shocked by what we find, what people are capable of. “Are we this evil?”
The Fool Triumphant. Being There, Amadeus, The Jerk, and Chaplin etc. The underdog fool against bigger, more establishment, opponent. Fool often has an accomplice who can’t believe fool is getting away with it, and will be brunt of the slapstick.
Institutionalised. Animal House, MAS*H, “family” dramas like American Beauty and The Godfather. The pros and cons of putting the group ahead of ourselves. Often told from point-of-view of a newcomer.
Superhero. Batman, Dracula, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind. An extraordinary person in an ordinary world. Difficulty is how to make the hero sympathetic.
3. It’s about a guy who…
The audience needs to identify with a person. So the logline should also include:
- An adjective to describe the hero
- An adjective to describe the bad guy
- A compelling goal we identify with as human beings
You might not have the “who” when you start writing, just the movie idea. The “who” should serve the “what is it?” and make it work better.
The trick is to create heroes who:
- Offer the most conflict in that situation
- Have the longest way to go emotionally
- Are the most demographically pleasing
The stakes for the hero must be high, primal, basic.
Basic relationships for characters are good because the audience can relate to them: husband/wife, father/daughter, exes, etc.
Don’t write with particular actors in mind. Leave yourself room for casting. Write for a character archetype. A few examples:
Young man on the rise, dumb, plucky. Harold Lloyd, Adam Sandler, Ashton Kutcher.
Good girl tempted, pure, crazy. Doris Day, Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon.
Clever and resourceful child. Jackie Coogan, MacCauly Culkin. Or the evil opposite.
Sex goddess. Marilyn Monroe, Halle Berry.
Hunk. Clark Gable, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise.
Or, wounded soldier going back for a last redemptive mission, troubled sexpot, loveable fop, court jester, wise grandfather, etc.
If the movie is a biography of a real person who isn’t at all heroic maybe you need to tweak the facts, or find a different character to be the hero, “the way in”.
In an ensemble you’ll still have a hero, regardless of screen time. Who’s most likable, offers most conflict, comes the furthest?
Go back to the logline and change it to reflect what you’ve discovered about the hero.
4. Let’s beat it out!
Create a strong structure. “The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” has 15 beats. Numbers in parentheses are rough page numbers, assuming a 110-page script.
Opening Image (1). Sets the tone, mood and style. Often introduces the main character and their “before” state.
Theme State (5). Someone will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie, the thematic premise. An argument stated, and the rest of the film is the argument laid out, proving or disproving the statement.
Set-up (1-10). Introduce all the main characters. Introduce every character behaviour that will need to be addressed later on, that will need to change if the hero is to win. Introduce the things the hero needs, or need fixing, or are missing from their life (SHOW them). The world before the adventure starts. The thesis.
Catalyst (12). Something that arrives, a message, an event, that changes things. Bad news, but by the time the adventure is over, it’s what leads the hero to happiness. The first moment when something happens.
Debate (12-25). Hero thinks this is crazy. Should they go? Is it possible? How can they do it? It should ask a question of some kind.
Break into two (25). We leave the old world behind, into the antithesis. No later than page 25 (of a 110 page script). The hero must make the decision themselves to step into Act Two.
B story (30). A breather. A break from the A story. Carries the theme of the movie. Often “the love story”. Often a bunch of entirely new characters, maybe opposites to those from Act One.
Fun and games (30-55). Provides “the promise of the premise”. Not as concerned with forward progress. Lighter than the rest of the movie. Where many of the trailer’s moments are found. Set pieces. A break from the stakes of the story.
Midpoint (55). For the hero it seems like all is won or all is lost. Fun and games are over, back to the story.
Bad guys close in (55-75). Hardest to write. If all seemed won at the midpoint, now things start to go wrong. Dissent, doubt etc. disintegrate the hero’s team and the defeated bad guys/thing regroup and return. There is nowhere for the hero to go.
All is lost (75). The opposite of the midpoint in terms of an “up” or a “down”. A false defeat. It might seem like a total defeat. It can help to have something about death here. e.g. someone/something dies or thinks about death.
Dark night of the soul (75-85). Hero is hopeless, at their lowest point, no one to help them, no ideas.
Break into three (85). The solution is found. Thanks to characters in the B story, the conversations about the theme in the B story, the hero trying to find ways to beat the bad guys in the A story. The two stories meet and intertwine.
Finale (85-110). Act three. Lessons learned are applied, character tics are mastered, A and B stories end in triumph for the hero, the bad guys are dispatched (in ascending order), the old world is turned over, a new world is created.
Final image (110). The opposite of the opening image. Proof that change has occurred.
5. Building the perfect beast
The Board. Lots of index cards, or post-it notes, etc. Divide Board into four rows:
- Act One (p. 1-25)
- Act Two (p. 25-55)
- Act Two (p. 55-85)
- Act Three (p. 85-110)
You will use about 40 cards, each one a scene. E.g.:
INT. JOE’S APARTMENT - DAY
Mary tells Joe she wants a divorce.
Write cards for all the scenes you’ve already thought of and put them where you think they should go.
Now figure out the hinge points. Break Into 2 is usually easy, at the end of row 1. Do the Midpoint, at end of row 2. Then All Is Lost, the flip of the Midpoint. Then Break Into 3, at the end of row 3.
Some scenes (e.g. a chase, a montage) feel like several cards but should eventually be folded into a single card.
Colour-code each story, different colour for things like: each character’s story; story points related to theme; C, D and E stories.
Use about 9 or 10 cards per row.
Now add these symbols to each card: +/- and ><. The first is the emotional change that happens in the scene. Each scene should have a beginning, middle and end, and an emotional change must happen.
The second denotes conflict. The character(s) in the scene must have an obstacle in the way of what they want. Everyone has an agenda in the scene. What is it? How do these conflict? Who wins? Only one conflict per scene. E.g.:
INT. COFFEE SHOP - DAY
Bob confronts Helen about her secret.
+/- Bob starts out hopeful, ends up disappointed.
>< Bob wants to know secret; Helen can’t tell him.
6. The immutable laws of screenplay physics
Save the Cat. “The hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” If he’s not good, at least make him likeable. And make the bad guy worse.
The Pope in the Pool. If there’s exposition to deliver, do it in a scene that gives us something surprising, interesting, funny, entertaining, etc. to look at to distract the audience.
Double Mumbo Jumbo. You can only have one piece of magic per movie. E.g. not Spider-Man gets his powers from a spider and Green Goblin gets them from a chemical accident. Breaking the rules of the world.
Laying Pipe. Don’t have too much setting-up of the story, stretching out Act One. E.g. Minority Report takes 40 minutes to get to the hook: a detective discovers he is the criminal.
Black Vet a.k.a. Too Much Marzipan. Don’t get stuck on one idea and overdo it. A little goes a long way. “Black Vet: He’s a veteran and he’s a veterinarian!”
Watch Out for that Glacier! The bad guys/thing must be present danger. We don’t care about slowly encroaching danger. e.g. a maybe-about to erupt volcano (Dante’s Peak) or a slowly-approaching virus (Outbreak).
The Covenant of the Arc. Every single character except the bad guys must change over the course of the movie. If the story’s worth telling it must be life-changing.
Keep the Press Out! E.g. in E.T. no media arrive to report the alien. This keeps the story contained among the family and the block, between them and us. Unless your story is about the press, or a worldwide problem following characters around the world.
7. What’s wrong with this picture?
Once you’ve finished the script, put it aside for at least a week before returning to it. Some typical trouble spots:
The hero leads. Is your hero being dragged through the story? He should be proactive. Checklist:
- Is your hero’s goal clearly stated in the set-up?
- Do clues of what to do next just come to your hero or does he seek them out?
- Is your hero active or passive?
- Do other characters tell your hero what to do or does he tell them?
Talking the plot. Don’t have characters explain the backstory. Show, don’t tell.
Make the bad guy badder. The hero and bad guy are a matched set, of equal skill and strength, with the bad guy willing to go to any lengths to win. The bad guy should look impossible to beat. A strong bad guy will make the hero more heroic.
Turn, turn, turn. The plot shouldn’t just move ahead but should intensify as it goes. Faster, with more complexity. More must be revealed at every step, show how it affects the characters. “Show flaws, reveal treacheries, doubts, and fears of the heroes — and threats to them.”
The emotional colour wheel. Use all the emotions throughout the movie.
“Hi how are you I’m fine!” Every time a character speaks is a chance to show their past, inner demons, outlook on life, etc. If you cover up the character names on the script you should be able to tell characters apart from their dialogue.
Take a step back. You need to show characters changing, so you may need to take them back further at the start. E.g. your hero is happy and positive at the end? Then he must be different at the start, have as much room to change as possible.
A limp and an eyepatch. Every character, including minor ones, needs something memorable about them that helps them stick in the reader’s mind. A visual reminder.
Is it primal? At the root of everyone’s goal in the movie must be something primal. E.g. the desire to save one’s family (Die Hard), protect one’s home (Home Alone), find a mate (Sleepless in Seattle), exact revenge (Gladiator), survive (Titanic).