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Did "Save the Cat" ruin movies (and novels)?

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Slate ran an article a few weeks back about the widespread use of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet (from “Save the Cat”). The author, Peter Suderman, argues that the overuse of Snyder’s formula for breaking the three-act structure into 15 story beats accounts for the boring sameness of recent blockbusters, and for their disappointing box-office returns. 

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/07/hollywood_and_blake_snyder_s_screenwriting_book_save_the_cat.html

While I don’t necessarily agree with his premise, it did get me thinking about my own use of the beat sheet. At the start of a project, I often use it to get a handle on the structure before detailing the plot, and I’ve always assumed that it allows for endless variation, at least for longer-form novels. I’m also reassured that Snyder’s framework is similar to Christopher Vogler’s in “The Writer’s Journey” and Joseph Campbell’s in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Both are storytelling luminaries who wrote well-respected books.

At times, though, I’ve had the nagging feeling that Snyder’s beat sheet is too prescriptive, especially the introduction of the B-plot and some of the later beats (the all-is-lost moment and the dark night of the soul). I’ve also wondered if the structure is visible. I’ve certainly experienced this “visibility” while watching movies. “Pacific Rim” is a recent case in point. I found myself counting off the beats as a way of measuring how much longer I had to endure the massive robots vs. mega-monsters thing.

On the other hand, “The Hunger Games” (both the movie and novel) used a similar structure and my attention never wavered. I suppose well-developed characters, who engage readers/viewers emotionally, and a well-crafted story go a long way toward making the structure invisible. But I still wonder whether readers are jaded by the pervasive use of the beat-sheet structure. Is the sameness mentioned in connection with movies also apparent in novels?

#1 - August 06, 2013, 02:16 PM

I found this article really interesting. I don't see enough movies to speak to that idea, but can say the one thing that really gets me excited about a novel at this point is when it's unique.
#2 - August 06, 2013, 07:05 PM

Know what you mean. I also get very excited when a novel or movie or TV show stands out as unique. I’m watching the TV miniseries, “Top of the Lake,” and everything about it sets it apart from the usual detective story. Its quirkiness shines.

For the novel, what I can’t work out is whether hanging bright and shiny new stuff on the same old framework makes a project seem too familiar to generate that kind of excitement.

So many people argue that the framework just delivers the story in the way we expect to receive it while still allowing each story to be unique. That makes sense to me. But then I read a novel and think, Okay, here comes the “all is lost moment.” Maybe I’m over-thinking this and it’s just the result of studying craft for so many years. I wouldn’t be the first to note that being a writer sort of ruins the reading experience!
#3 - August 07, 2013, 06:26 AM

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Fascinating thread.

I'm a big fan of Save the Cat. And while I've never used it to write a first draft or outline a novel, I was going to overlay the framework on my current WIP for revisions. That said, I know I'll think critically before forcing my story into Snyder's structure - especially because of several themes and story lines that run through my plot. 

I have to wonder if those of us who study plot and story structure regularly would tend to think about familiar frameworks - like the Hero's Journey -  in everything we read or watch. And that it's not necessarily that the structure is too prescriptive. It's just in our nature to think that way. Curious to hear what others have to say.
#4 - August 07, 2013, 06:57 AM
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I'm a huge fan of Save the Cat because it explained Story Structure in a way that I could understand. Having said that, it did ruin movies for me as I can see the structure so clearly. I'm following along, like yup, End of Act 1, Fun and Games, Subplot kick off, etc.

For novels, I use it as a loose framework in the initial draft so I'm not rambling, but then I abandon it in the revision and do what works for the story. I honestly don't see this tight structure in novels and I read quite a bit of kidlit and adult fiction.
#5 - August 07, 2013, 07:08 AM
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To me, the structure doesn't seem as tight in novels as it does in movies, either. I don't write screenplays so have no basis for quibbling with Snyder about how  necessary it is to make certain things appear on an exact PAGE. But I've been cautious from the get-go about applying what he says wholesale to novels. I prefer a strategy that seems both less rigid and more closely related to the novel form, such as Larry Brooks's Story Engineering.
#6 - August 07, 2013, 07:51 AM
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Are screenwriters becoming more rigid? I don't know. There will always be room for great books and movies, conventional or not. Learning about structure hasn't diminished by enjoyment of good movies or books. I once checked out Story by Robert McKee and could barely get through it (this was much earlier in my writing career and most likely I wasn't ready for it), but Save the Cat was not only enjoyable, but it dissected the movie as never before. I also enjoyed Save the Cat goes to the Movies. It's like music. I can appreciate a Missa Cantata by Mozart or Bach much more because I know its structure.

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#7 - August 07, 2013, 08:36 AM
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Interesting article. While plug and write formulas can create dull and predictable plot lines, structure is not necessarily the enemy.

A knowledge of structure and what 'works' is an essential part of learning the craft of writing. People have used certain structures, beats, plot points since the Greeks wrote plays. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock has an excellent series on writing picture books which analyzes structure and is a great aide to understanding how picture books work.

I think it is much like the art of painting. One has to know how to paint a recognizable image before one can throw away the rules and create an impressionist masterpiece. One believes Van Gogh could have painted realistic trees if he wanted to and his distortions were done on purpose. A writer needs to understand structure and how to create a 'formula' plot before jumping off to create his or her own original interpretation.

It is when screen writers or novelists don't develop their craft past the point of mirroring a set structure that it becomes an anchor destroying creativity. Hollywood fails us when it churns out mass-produced movies that have nothing more than mandatory beats.

I say learn the beats and then march to the beat of your own drummer.

rainchains
#8 - August 07, 2013, 09:10 AM

It's not prescriptive structure that makes a story bland. It's how that structure is filled in. You still need complex characters, engaging plots, etc. and Hollywood hasn't been delivering on that in its recent string of sequels.
#9 - August 07, 2013, 09:37 AM
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I feel like I'm still seeing pleasingly varied novel structures and plots.

As far as movies go, two I saw over the last 6 months seemed to follow this structure without losing the "save the cat" moment that made me like the characters anew (aka not relying on earlier movies to keep me liking them). I really enjoyed the Star Trek sequel and Iron Man 3. Yes, they were obvious and heavy-handed with their plotting (*****SPOILERS***** when Tony Stark tells Pepper she is everything to him and if he lost her he'd have nothing, or when Kirk died and Spock screamed his name then went on a rampage after Khan). In those movies I could see what was coming next but did I ever enjoy watching it. I think that's the big thing with me--even if the beats are predictable it's how they are pulled off that makes the story for me.

If those films had not kept the "save the cat" likeability of the characters, I might have found them boring or trite, like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies lost me.

I don't think STC is the be-all end-all but I do appreciate its formula when applied to this type of commercial, plot-driven story. I'd rather have characters I can hang my hat on with a tried-and-true plot, than inconsistent/boring/unrelatable characters in a plot I've never seen before.
#10 - August 07, 2013, 11:31 AM
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I say learn the beats and then march to the beat of your own drummer.


Well said, Rainchains.
Vijaya
#11 - August 07, 2013, 11:40 AM
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I know the end of a Seinfeld episode is always going to tie two seemingly unrelated plot points together in a wacky freeze frame, but I still enjoy it. The formula is comforting. I think if the story is entertaining and well-written, a familiar structure is not necessarily a problem.
#12 - August 07, 2013, 07:54 PM

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Very interesting article! As a moviegoer, I really appreciate movies that break the formula, such as 500 Days of Summer and Memento.
#13 - August 08, 2013, 02:41 PM
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