There are an awful lot of books out there that claim to have the formula for screenwriting success. I've read more than a couple. And I've found that there's a gaping hole in the middle of that formula.
Ever since failed script man Syd Field realised that those that can't do, teach, and make a ton of money in the process, the film section of any decent bookshop has been filled to groaning with how-to's on the Golden Path to the Perfect Blockbuster. Now, there are certain benefits to reading one or two of these mighty tomes. If you're serious about selling a script, it has to be formatted according to certain rules–submission without these guidlelines in place marks you as an instant noob and will put you to the bottom of the slush pile, or more likely the bin.
The thing is, of course, that modern scriptwriting software takes care of most of that for you. From Final Draft to Celtx, to simple Markdown languages like Fountain, the formatting is sorted out automatically. As long as you have the wit to start your script with EXT. DAY. FOREST (if you have a budget) or INT. DAY. YOUR MATE'S LIVING ROOM (if you don't) then you're pretty much sorted on that front.
Which leads to the annoying question of what goes into the script. Heroes and heroines and conflict and adventure and romance and all that shit. Here's where the big guns come out with their formula to screenwriting success. The most pernicious of these has to be Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder, the man who brought you Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot! The book lays out the structure of the Hollywood movie in surgical detail, splitting it into story beats that are timed to the page. Inciting incident? Page 25. The betrayal of your lead character's friend? Page 90. If you wonder why most blockbusters feel the same these days, blame Snyder. The studios have enthusiastically adopted his blueprint as the only way their films should be constructed.
Why Save The Cat? Well, the one thing on which most books on scriptwriting agree (apart from the mind-bogglingly obvious stuff like Thou Shalt Tell A Compelling Story and There Shalt Be A Big Thing At Stake is this: audiences want to like your main character. They need to empathise with him (and yes, for the vast majority of movies, to the community's eternal shame, your main character will be male). In order to do that, they need a signifier of his all-round white-hattedness early in the film. He needs, in short, to do something noble. Pet a puppy. Play a little softball with the Little League team that practices down the road.
Save a cat from… something.
Now this is fine and dandy, but as with most formulas it only fits a certain model. And it ignores the elephant with the ugly suit and sunglasses in the middle of the room.
What if your lead character isn't supposed to be likeable?
A couple of recent releases show Save The Cat up as the path to generic pablum that it so clearly is, but it's a simple task to pile up the examples of great films that have bastards in the lead. I'm not talking anti-hero here, or lovable rogue. I'm talking flat out steal-your-girl-and-your-ride monsters. Most of Clint Eastwood's work, for example, from No-Name to Dirty Harry to the Growler in Gran Torino. Horror heroes are not exactly social workers. You're not, I hope, going to tell me that the hero of Dracula is Jonathan Harker. And I haven't even dipped my to toe into the cold waters of theatrical drama. Shakespeare's heroes, for example. Hamlet? Whiny, revenge-spurred nerd. Macbeth? Regicidal loon. Richard III? Nutbag on a stick. I can think of dozens more, and I bet you can as well.
But let us point ourselves back at January 2014. Martin Scorcese's controversial The Wolf Of Wall Street is kicking up fuss-storms across the crit-o-sphere for its faithful adaptation of the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, the trader in toxic stocks that unrepentantly bankrupted thousands of his clients in the quest for bigger and uglier profit. He starts off as an apologetic scumbag, and ends the film as an unapologetic scumbag with an awful lot of money. His excesses are inexcusable. Leonardo DiCaprio plays him with clownish brio and propulsive energy, but there is no sense that Belfort is anything but a nasty piece of work. This, to be fair, is just the latest example of a Scorcese trope. From Taxi Driver to The King Of Comedy to Goodfellas and beyond, his leads are not nice guys. You're not rooting for Jordon Belfort. You're willing the horrible little toerag to fail.
The model collapses even further when you look at the work of the Coen Brothers. Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is widely acknowledged as a poke at the Save The Cat framework. The main character is an obnoxious prick who spends large chunks of the movie trying to, quite literally, save his ex-girlfriend's cat. Llewyn is angry, prickly and doleful throughout (with good reason, but he's no ray of sunshine). Not your typical hero. The Coens have taken the notion of that “likeable” main character and twisted it by the ear until it screams. Look at Jeff Lebowski. Look at Anton Chigurh, ferchrissakes.
The idea of the vast panoply of modern film-making being tied to a one-size-fits-none template gies me a bad case of the yips. It seems that just as digital techniques are freeing writers and directors to tell their stories in new and innovative ways, there is a move to make those stories comply to a lumpen and ill-suited set of rules. One reason that I tagged Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity as my film of the year was because it eschews a traditional three act structure in favour of a more free-flowing approach. There is no reason to write your story in the way that Blake Snyder or Syd Field tell you to. There's equally no reason not to understand the structural underpinnings of a script, but don't get tied into thinking that there's only one way to analyse and interpret the way it's been built. It's all too easy for a critic to apply his or her pet theories to a script. Classics of the past are already being re-examined and their validity as decent scripts evaluated on the basis of whether or not they comply with Save The Cat. That's no way to treat fiction. Once critics start asking what the main character's Save The Cat moment is on a documentary, then it's game over.
It's simple, really. If you're reading books on writing instead of reading scripts, novels and plays and then writing your own, then you're wasting your time. Find the classic films that you love, hunt down the scripts and figure out why it is you love them so much. Why do you care about Wesley and Buttercup? Why are you rooting for John McClane instead of Hans Gruber? Don't rely on third parties to tell you why your heart swells when Luke looks out over the twin sunset of Tattooine. Figure it out for yourself and you're one step closer to writing a scene that will inspire the next generation.
There's a world of ideas out there. Don't lock them in a cage.