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Has Screenwriters’ Reliance on Story Structure Actually Ruined the Movies?

Save the Cat Blake Snyder story structureThanks to the wisdom of puppets, we recently learned how the hero’s journey is a quite prevalent story structure in many successful films. But does the hero’s journey story structure always work in movies? With the recent spate of summer blockbusters falling far short of expectations, pundits have searched for a common trend for their failure. A recent article from Slate has determined the repeated story structure of Hollywood films makes them all feel the same. More specifically, the article contends that Hollywood relies too heavily on the beat sheet from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat screenwriting book to tell its stories. Screenplays require structure, but are screenwriters relying too much on that structure to tell their stories? To make an original film today, maybe we shouldn’t save the cat.

In his recent article on Slate, Peter Suderman made the following argument for why so many studio films feel the same:

(Theme is stated) It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.

Suderman cleverly adopts Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet to organize his essay, and even points out how the beat sheet forced him to rearrange his essay’s content, omit certain passages and add new material just to service the assigned beats. Then again, the beat sheet isn’t designed for writing essays, so naturally he ran into some problems. For the uninitiated, Snyder’s book Save the Cat lays out 15 specific story beats that he argues every screenplay must have, and even goes so far as to determine on exactly which pages those beats must happen in a screenplay.

Personally, I acknowledge that I have used a version of Snyder’s beat sheet in the past when I have initially mapped out a story on notecards. Once I’ve beat out my story, I shift my focus to the hard work of writing the scenes. Those scenes may get rearranged or even omitted to serve the story. New scenes that were never part of the original beats may pop up because the story demands it. I don’t worry about which beats fall on which page of the screenplay because if I laid out a good structure at the beginning, the beats will fall into place in the screenplay where they belong – but you might not find my theme stated on page 5 (sorry).

Major story beats like the ones from Snyder’s Save the Cat provide an effective structure that has worked for several films because these beats — oddly similar to those found in Campbell’s hero’s journey or virtually any other guide on story structure — have worked for several long-form stories, not just movies.

Hitting these beats slavishly in a screenplay just to make sure you hit them on a specific page, though, leads to predictability. The most ironic part of the screenwriting process when following a beat sheet may be typing “an original screenplay by” on the script’s title page.

So, have screenwriters actually ruined recent movies by relying too heavily on a prescribed story structure like Snyder’s Save the Cat?

I argue no. Screenplays by their very nature require a very specific structure to tell a story that will unfold over 90-120 minutes on screen. Maybe the problem is audiences feel like the stories told within these structures have become unoriginal.

With this in mind, how can aspiring screenwriters use structure but still tell original stories? Here are my thoughts:

  • Create original characters: A well-structured story is important, but don’t forget to make your characters original and unique. Maybe your story seems familiar to an audience at first glance, but if your characters are truly original, their experiences and reactions to obstacles along the journey of your particular story should feel unique.
  • Be unexpected: You may be hitting your story beats right on schedule, but the world you create and how your protagonist navigates through those beats should be wholly original. Seen it before? Then find another way. In fact, find a dozen more ways. Surprise yourself, surprise your protagonist, and then maybe you’ll surprise your audience.
  • Rearrange the structure: Christopher Nolan, with the help of Jonathan Nolan’s short story, drew audiences in with his rearranged story structure in Memento. Charlie Kaufman subverts story structure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to create something completely original. Or, Kaufman simply turns to his imaginary twin brother in Adaptation to give the audience what they would typically expect in a wholly unexpected manner. In these examples, all of the story elements are there in these films, but they hit the audience at unexpected times and in unexpected ways (see “Be unexpected” above). You also may be surprised how you end up using a traditional story structure to make sure your rearranged structure still works as a movie.

Do you think Hollywood movies have become too reliant on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet? Do you have ideas on how screenwriters can use traditional story structures in new and exciting ways? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments.

Link: “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex – Save the Movie!” by Peter Suderman — Slate

[via Graham Linehan (@Glinner) -- Twitter]


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  • At some point, inevitably, you reach the jumping off point. It’s that point where you just take a giant leap of faith that the strange, scratchy little idea demanding attention just out of sight on the periphery of your vision, that’s the one you have to invest in. I always feel that way, you build a great foundation and then you just jump off. Save the Cat gives you that foundation. What you then do with it is entirely up to you but as a process it opens up so many creative avenues and helps navigate a path through what otherwise is a limitless sea of possibilities. And that was one of the most tortured metaphors this blog has ever seen.

    I use it. I like it. Am I a slave to it? Probably. But my work is better for it and as i learn I’ll learn to break it.

  • The reason many movies suck nowadays is because of simply that. They suck. They don’t rely too much on structure because if they did it would be a huge improvement. Movies like the Lone Ranger have a terrible structure and would have benefited greatly from a more traditional plot structure.

    Be that as it may, I detest Save the Cat and think it is a terrible book for anyone to learn screenwriting from. The guy was almost angrily pedantic about the specific things that HAD HAD HAD to happen on a very specific page. Um… the guy wrote Blank Check and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot… hardly the stuff of screenwriting legend.

    If you want a good read on screenwriting, read anything by William Goldman or John August. I would have once also said Elliott & Russio, but then Lone Ranger happened… so…

    • Actually, I take that back. The screenwriting blogs by Elliott & Russio are still good information and I would still recommend them.

      I just wish Elliott & Russio had re-read them before writing Lone Ranger. It might have served them better

      To be fair, I have no way of knowing how many of the problems with the film they were forced to write after being over-ruled by the Director or Producers. That does happen. I just can’t believe everyone at Disney was so surprised by that train wreck. You cast the star as the sidekick, not the titular character (a character most people have forgotten about btw), which gives the film a schizophrenic feeling. Are we supposed to follow the Lone Ranger or Tonto because the film itself can’t seem to make up its mind. Before one page was written they already had a disaster in the making.

      • Structure and narrative in Lone Ranger was just fine. Don’t get what people have such a problem with – the narrative is clear, it gives every character something to do and every single scene has a sense of urgency and importance. The only thing that I could argue would require toning down is their love for Rube Goldbergian devices, something that’s been in every single of their films.

      • Yeah…they should have killed off the Lone Ranger..made it
        a revenge film…called..Tonto The Hero.
        Depp would have won an oscar just like
        he did playing the Pirate.

        • Except, of course, Depp has never won any Oscar, ever, for any role. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve one but so far, he has zero Academy Awards for his mantle.

    • +1 for John August

    • I’m not going to make an impassioned defence of Save the Cat because it doesn’t need it. Take it or leave it. But attacking a guy who actually has had scripts made simply because you didn’t like those films is pathetically myopic. So much of the time the scripts that actually get made aren’t a writer’s best ones, the films often don’t even look like the film the writer even wrote. What’s worse is this pathetic argument that you have to be a successful screenwriter to know anything about screenwriting. When Rafael Nadal wins the French Open you don’t dismiss his coach for not having won a grand slam. It’s a stupid argument and it makes no sense.

      Anyone can take any piece of advice they like and if it works for them, great. There are no formulas that work all the time and the best you can hope for is a fresh set of ideas to view your own work through.

      Stupid stupid argument.

  • I agree with you Christopher.

    Without being exposed to concepts like Save The Cat or The Hero’s Journey, I doubt I would be working as a director today. I used to disregard Save The Cat out of fear of being unoriginal – but experience taught me that originality comes from better understanding all of your possible options and not from ignoring them.

    At the end of the day it’s just another tool for your toolbox. It’s your job as a creative to have the vision and to know when to use a screwdriver and when to use a hammer.

  • I just came here to say that this is the worst book I’ve ever read – not hyperbole. In it, Snyder praises Time Allen’s movies and criticizes films such as Memento. He is a moron who couldn’t write a Tim Allen movie.

  • I have a friend who worked in development at Disney said this about story structure and originality, “Anything you do WELL becomes original.” People mostly complain about carbon copy plots when they don’t work for them emotionally. How often do you complain about seeing too many cute baby animal gifs?

    I think more people say they use Save The Cat than actually do. What Save the Cat does for development teams is give them a vocabulary to explain why something is not working. If it doesn’t fit the mold and somehow works, fantastic. But how do you diagnose problems without a healthy story to compare against? Blake Snyders second book is just dozens of examples showing how genre relates to plot points and how the most successful films navigate both. The third book is a box of tools that helps you with sticking points in your script. I find the beat sheet no where near as valuable as the genre analysis. I am sad Blake died because I could use more of his tools.

    Blake Snyders Beat Sheet is a tool, and a very powerful one at that. I can say, “the third act conflict falls apart as there is no dark night of the soul” or “your A story’s resolution doesn’t tie into your B’story fun and games lessons”. The Beat Sheet will not write a good script for you and neither will any book on writing you ever read. If the tool helps, use it. If not, abandon it, but don’t be surprised when readers use the beat sheet to analyze your script. For me I feel it is the writers job to creatively hit those points so they are interesting because the points are actually how your characters grow.

    Many screenplays you wouldn’t think follow the beat sheet actually do including Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind and Little Miss Sunshine ( ) and some even say Memento follows the structure, though Snyder claimed it did not in his first book. (

  • Andreas Wappel on 07.25.13 @ 5:56AM

    well, it’s definitely one of the main reasons why american studio films, and sadly many independent films too, all look and feel the same.
    i am from europa, and one of our main film-landscapes’ strength is also our greatest weakness in the market, variety.
    hollywood apparently reinvents itself every 40-50 years in the form of a massive collapse (last time in the 70s, so brace yourselves;) and europan-film is constantly changing, living at the brink of chaos:)

  • There’s nothing wrong with hitting story beats so long as the beats in and of themselves are not formulaic.

  • Using traditional screenplay structure is incredibly condescending toward the audience. Someone who’s seen several films will know what is going to happen before it happens. Writing your movie as if that weren’t the case is failing to give the audience credit for being as smart as the writer is. You should write for the smartest possible audience. Otherwise you’re just making some cynical commodity for the drooling mouth-breathers you imagine to be the paying audience.

  • Buffaluffasaurus on 07.25.13 @ 8:32AM

    The problem is not the adherence to story beat sheets like Snyder’s, but the misapplication of them. Too many big Hollywood films tick all the boxes, but are structured around PLOT rather than CHARACTER. This means we hit all the major moments we are all expecting to, but they don’t feel organic and we as an audience don’t have emotional traction with the characters and their story.

    When a story is built entirely out of character, a beat sheet is a really good way of tracking the growth (or lack thereof) of your characters. You can cross check where major decisions need to be made that will pit the character against him/herself and their limitations in a way that maximises drama and the audience’s emotional buy in. But when you’ve got a film builts around EVENTS or SET PIECES (as many major action movies now are), it ends up feeling like the film is skipping through scenes by rote.

    Michael Hauge is the best screenwriting guru I’ve come across because all his structure and teaching is based around character. His classes and book have really helped me clarify the dramatic and emotional stakes of my screenplays in a way that feels more authentic, not less authentic.

    • What I have noticed recently is that most major hollywood tentpole movies are mostly a running series of gags weakly connecting one plot point to the next. They want something to make the audience laugh every minute or so whether it be a witty remark or a little slapstick etc. I noticed it throughout the whole of The Avengers because I sat next to a couple on their first date and the girl would laugh and then repeat out loud the line that made her laugh. I hope it was their last date. Maybe it is the youtube generation’s attention span after watching hours of cat videos.
      Say what you will about how awful Tranformers 3 was, but I laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of a few scenes (like Dutch going crazy or Shia Lebouff suddenly learning Parkour) and thought some of the CG was actually cool (I love slow motion robots destroying bulidings). Did the story as a whole move me? Absolutely not. But for some of my friends those funny scenes became their emotional experience and the reason they liked the movie.

      I get fatigued as the characters are not really growing, nothing makes sense, and nothing is really at stake but you cannot argue with how much money these movies make! That is what I see being the major screenwriting trend right now. If the audience really likes the characters it seems they will follow them anywhere, including into movies that do not make sense. Personally I live for moments like the ‘tears in rain’ scene from Bladerunner where character conflict and thematic conflict culminate in a completely surprising way that leaves you thinking about it for years to come.

    • You hit the nail on the head. I don’t know how many times this needs to be said before studios wake up and begin to eschew the heavy reliance on CGI for better character development. I guess as long as people continue paying exorbitant ticket prices for crap movies the studios will continue to churn them out.

      Look at Man of Steel… Way too long (as seems to be the trend with recent “action” films), VFX so copious and rushed that they have all the ‘wow’ factor sucked right out of them – and many of those looked cheesy to boot. The most emotionally effective scenes were the ones that actually showed relationships between the PEOPLE in the story… and half of those look as though they could have been shot wide open on a DSLR.

      I just caught the last half of Alien Vs Predator on TV last night. I remember when that movie was in development limbo and everyone was SO anxious for a resolution because the idea was so strong and the fan-scripted story had been well received. But you watch the movie and every single actor with the exception of Lance Henriksen was basically interchangeable. Call them doctors, archaeologists, marines – whatever. Throw ‘em in costumes, have them gaze at a blue screen with concerned and/or horrified looks on their faces. Then kill them off one by one and NOBODY GIVES A SH!T because the characters have never been imbued with any personality whatsoever. They probably hit all the appropriate story beats… but so what?

      • I actually watched part of a behind the scenes on Alien Vs. Predator where the director talked about how much he loved the claustrophobic feel of the original Alien and was recreating it for his film. That is when I realized that just because someone liked something about a movie does not mean they understand why it worked and it definitely does not mean they can recreate it.Ever since that moment I have been wary of anyone trying to sell their movie by listing comparable films. AVP was a pivotal moment for me.

        I am the same way with scripts now too. People can tell you, “its like the Godfather, it has the moment of truth like the Matrix, and it has action like a Jackie Chan film.” but in reality if its only support is how much other films meant to you it will be weak! That is why I think understanding structure of other films is so important. Sure it means I can predict most movies that are weakly plotted and say the lines before the characters do. Sure I usually leave the theater thinking of how I would have improved the script if I had free reign and tell my friends about it until they tell me to shut up. Sure it keeps me up at night when a brilliant film fails miserably because of terrible marketing. But that process is what I hope will allow me to fix those very problems with my own films.

  • I’m pleasantly surprised at the commentariat this morning – I have to agree with what others have said. It’s not these beats themselves that are the problem, or three-act structure in general, it’s how a lot of Hollywood movies have been using them lazily, having characters go against type or shoehorning in twists so that the script can hit the prescribed beats.

    I’d heartily recommend Xander Bennett’s blog and his book “Screenwriting Tips, You Hack” – tons of great practical advice from a seasoned professional reader on keeping stories and characters interesting and your screenplay moving and readable.

  • I was studying Campbell for my dissertation, then I went to his inspiration: Jung’s study of Collective Unconscious:
    Even if you try to ignore the story structures, or even if you have never heard of them, you know them since they are imprinted in your psyche/ dreams.
    Now I don’t complain over a conventional structure when its emotionally involving.

  • Keith Keppley on 07.25.13 @ 10:41AM

    As an academic researcher and an amateur film-maker, I agree with several of the comments above. While I agree that there have several awesome films, like Memento, that play with the structure of the film and go against the heroes’ journey, I don’t believe that should be the norm. I believe that there many screenwriters that can’t even do the traditional structure well, let alone possess the capabilities of playing with the structure. Having applied Jungian archetypes to film in my dissertation, I have found that today’s audience responds well to using traditional archetypes and the heroes’ journey. I think part of the problem is that technology, ego, and competition in the film industry have shifted attention away from the story and onto winning awards and making money, which isn’t totally the screenwriter’s fault.

  • the hero mono-myth can be refuted very easily as can three act structure with the same story. Romeo and Juliet. Its not about one hero its about two lovers (of different gender) its not about heroics its about love, fate and tragedy and its not got three acts its got five. The idea that all storys conform to some kind of principle is such a flimsy theory.

  • This is like the old Newton vs. Goethe color arguments, should we understand colors in terms of their spiritual philosophical artistic merits (romanticism) or scientifically and analytically (the enlightenment)? There is a great Yeats poem about this.

    Blake Snyder takes an art (screenwriting) and argues that it follows a scientific style formula. Lots of people aren’t going to like that and will be uncomfortable with getting into the neurology behind why people like and respond to stories. See the excellent books, Wired for Story, and The Story Wars. It seems like these things can’t be done scientifically.

    Art will always have to navigate the tension between scientific aesthetic tricks ( golden mean or rule of thirds anyone?) and the unexpectedness that makes great art. Problem is that when you really dig in, you find even being unexpected is part of the “science” of great art. The writing/story side of things won’t be any different. But isn’t that part of the tension that makes this work so interesting? Filmmaking is mystical, it’s like making magic, but it’s also extraordinarily technical and tied to technological progress.

  • The history of screenwriting in Hollywood show that playwrights, journalists and novelists (mostly pulp writers) wrote most of the great movies down the years without really a clue what cinema structure was. These men and women could tell great stories because they instinctively knew human character and could make them talk simply because they used the tools they learned from the newspapers headline, hardboiled themes or the stage play.
    Then real filmmakers arrived and transformed those stories into sequences, big ones. Six or seven sweeping sequences that gave a structure to the story the way a composer builds his symphony to a climax.
    Scorsese, Coppola and their heirs from Tarantino to Nolan do this, shapes their film in big sequences.
    Find 6 or 7 of them based very loosely if you like on Robert McKee’s Story set up, inciting incident, progressive complications 1 and 2, crisis, climax and resolution.
    Find your central relationship , genre(s), what the film is REALLY ABOUT fast and decide if you want to be a filmmaker making films or a screenwriter checking boxes.

    • Good points. I’ve often wondered if some of the problem with movies and their screenplays today are that many screenwriters now are not actually writers, or don’t appear to have any interest in being writers and learning the craft of writing in general that can be applied to any medium, as opposed to only the specifics of screenwriting.

    • Thank you Sir!

      Finally someone said it!

  • What I would really like to see are (more?) books on good films that don’t follow the old formulas and structures. There are like 15,000 books on the old traditional Hollywood story structure, and only one or two(?) on alternative structures. If you know some books that go outside the old formulas, please recommend them.

    I enjoy watching European and other world cinema more than Hollywood films nowadays because they just feel so much more fresh and original than the stuff that’s being made here. Some examples that I’ve watched recently are A Separation, The Kid with a Bike, and Rust and Bone. While I haven’t analyzed their structure to see if they follow the old formula(s?), you can just tell as you’re watching them and afterward that you’re watching something fairly new and original, which is a very exciting thing to experience in movies (perhaps the most exciting thing?). Compare to most Hollywood films where it’s mostly the same thing again, again, and again.

    If those films I mentioned do follow such formulas, perhaps the problem is that the Hollywood machine (and Hollywood-wannabe indies) is just stuck in a self-referential rut and is not applying the formulas in more creative ways. Or perhaps the problems are more of an economic nature: maybe they just need to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to make back their huge budgets plus profit. Unfortunately you can only push that so far, which may explain why things are falling apart right now.

    • I would suggest reading some of David Bordwell’s work. Narration in the Fiction Film might contain some of what you want.
      Incidentally Kristin Thompson wrote a much more rigorous analysis of Hollywood’s 4 act structure a few years before Snyder (Storytelling in the New Hollywood). It is quite similar to the basics of Snyder, but much less prescriptive.

  • FWIW, after a recent blog post on Billy Wilder, I decided to watch his “Apartment” (1960, Lemmon, MacLaine) and was immediately struck how the exposition part was taking close to half-hour with the “complication” not even showing up on time. His “Sabrina” plot is similarly structured, despite being based on a hit Broadway play.
    On the other hand, both of his movies move. They’re not boring. The Godfather, as being edited by Bob Evans, is in sixes and sevens with regard to the structure but each scene is just top class (even if it doesn’t make sense logically … like, as an example, the “”Leave the gun. Take the cannoli” murder).

    BTW, the popular cry 15 years ago was “all these movies lack the third act”. In the TV biz, the running joke in the 1990′s was “has anyone learned anything?”, which was a rip of many formulaic story lines where the show’s top star either administers (Cosby, Al Bundy) or is subjected (the Full House kids) to a sermon. At one point, the “Simpsons” had an episode where the family is gathered together and Marge asks something like, “So, what was the meaning of this?”. There’s a pause. Then Homer replies, “No meaning. Just a bunch of stuff happened”. Sometimes, a “bunch of stuff” works too.

    PS. Recently, THR got together a bunch of TV showrunners and most were pretty teed off at a TV story structure, where there’s a commercial every 10-12 minutes and the dramatic moments have to be written precisely around them. Plus, if you were doing A-B-C stories, they ALL have to follow these beats, so the basic formula is ~ first act – ABC; second BA; third AC; fourth AB/C and the TV execs want it like that in every episode.

    • Going by Kristin Thompson’s model most films going back to the silents are split into 4 more or less equal acts (and a short epilogue). So 30 minutes of setup is not that unusual for a 2 hours film

  • These days, the exposition takes place within 7-10 pages, the main plot is introduced around the 10th-12th, complications by the 20th, twist every 10 pages/minutes. Third act builds up with the maximum peril, that leads into the resolution with 5 minutes to go, followed by a short 2-3 minute epilogue. Top writers/directors are generally free to follow their own sequence but spec writers pretty much have to goose step to the prescribed rules.

  • Hollywood by nature is risk averse so the formulaic is something they thirst for. Anything unusual, like an unexpected character, or surprising plot turn, is to be feared . . . and feared deeply. This wasn’t always the case especially when studios were run by truly creative people who knew that creativity meant risk, albeit calculated risk. For me that means the 70′s as the last time creative people were in charge.

    I think one of the reasons it is the general state of affairs is because of the size of the budgets. The pressure has become so huge that risk averse becomes totally ingrained. And after recent highly publicised discussions ( about Hollywood imploding I’m almost looking forward to it. The studios need to implode to get them out of the rut they are in. A string of huge budget failures at the box office is likely, even from a statistical point of view. Once that happens and the budgets come down then I think Hollywood has a chance to reinvent itself.

    From a story structure perspective Hollywood is stuck in Ordinary World and is absolutely deaf to the Call To Adventure. But you know what, reality is hard to avoid. Hollywood might be Refusing the Call To Adventure but it will be dragged kicking and screaming into the Special World. It has no choice if it wants to remain the hero.

    • Agreed with everything you said (except the last paragraph because I didn’t understand it because I haven’t read the book :-). However, it seems like sometimes they just throw that risk aversion all out the window for some crazy reason and things go terribly wrong. Case in point being The Lone Ranger that someone already mentioned in this thread. Who in their right mind thought that that was going to be a viable franchise in 2013? As soon as I heard that they were making it I instantly knew I wasn’t going to watch it. A LOT of people must not have paid attention to their gut reaction on that one.

  • Remember “Cool Hand Luke?” Remember the George Kennedy character, Dragline? The inmate who took it upon himself to enforce the rules? It’s not writers who impose some sort of artificial orthodoxy, it’s generally a fresh decision-maker who went to one seminar or read one book and wants to know “where’s the ‘dark night of the soul’ that’s supposed to be on page 83?” or some other ridiculous cookie-cutter notion of what a screenplay should look like. Yeah, I’ve read all the books, but only because I HAVE TO in order to understand the jargon being slung so carelessly. It’s pretty scary. Writers and filmmakers are smart people, and smart people generally try to understand the rules, both written and unwritten, but the irony is that smart people are currently making the DUMBEST movies in film history because of this collective group-think.

  • Writing 5 feature, varied genre scripts before going through the MFA Screenwriting program at UCLA; where I wrote 4 more feature scripts and made short films on my own for the MFA itself, as well as writing 7 additional feature scripts on my own time, during that same 3 year MFA period…taught me one thing more than anything else: I”D BETTER LOVE writing more than anything or anyone else in the entire world.

    Even more so than directing.

    What did I learn in those 3 years of graduate film school…it’s about the work; not the relationships, the business and all the b.s you hear outa Hollywood…and all over the net. YOU MUST be willing to make great sacrifices in your personal life, if you really want to make ti as a writer and filmmaker.

    When no one is putting money on the table; and you’re working an 8-5 gig and stiill write every night…4-5 hrs; 8-10 hrs on Saturdays…you’re really only beginning…of a writing life.

    Slavishly folowing a BLAKE beat sheet will get you nowhere, because…everyone else is mostly doing iot, which means HWD READERS are reading the ssame of the same of the same of the…you get the point.

    But…watching all types of movies; reading all types of books, graphic novels; watching all types of tv ; writing and rewriting over and over again,…will get you closer to breaking through.

    All the great writers and directors, whose work has stodfd the test of time for decades — NEVER WENT TO FILM SCHOOL; many worked as crew members, and the directors who started off as…yeah, writers? They wrote. They wrote shit, over and over. none of them herad of Blake “whatever”

    If you’re buying these writing books to write that script which will magically get past all the gate keepers and sell for a mil? Go for it. write like everyone else is doing.


    I’ll write and direct my own way; cobble together my no budget 90 min., indie genre, visually driven feature for the global auds…with no stars; no attachments…just powerful genre story, auds can download for 2.00 a feature. Build up a global following through my branding of creating and distributing same media I love buying.
    as a fan in the first palce.

    • Wow, 16+ full feature scripts? That is a LOT of writing. Best of luck on your films!!!

      Your post also reminded me that actually having someone read your stuff and give you feedback is vastly more important than amorphous plot concepts taught by authors, professors or the denizens of the net.

    • Agreed Mark11. Whenever I see these piles of writing books all I can think about is how many failed careers they represent and how many once ambitious writers were turned into some Borg-ian mind collective by “following the rules.”

  • Understanding plot formats/structure is a basic job requirement for a writer, but don’t think that having your hands on a plot scheme will save you from having to face yourself, pathetic and alone, without outside help, and having to own up to what you actually know and feel all by yourself. (I’m addressing myself here!) I suspect we all have a tendency to hide behind the various plotting aids… or to think that it’s possible to do so.

    When I think of the novels and films that fascinate me the most, year after year, it’s not the plots I admire them for, but the richness of the characters and the lives evoked. And I think the only way for a writer to accomplish writing like that involves a long look at his/her own life.

    • There you go

    • Throw away all those how-to books….
      The writers from before this cottage industry
      sprung up never had them. And so never read them.

      The learned by following the masters who
      came before them. Not by reading mckee or cat books.

      • The “writers from before” relied on the ancient story structure theories by dudes like Aristotle. Of course, “Poetics” was written around 335 BC … which was before the era of blockbusters. And CGI.

        • Actually, treat Aristotle the way you would treat a modern book on screenwriting and plot structure: it’s no more than a thought-provoking departure point. But he got a lot of things wrong. Read the Greek tragedies themselves and you’ll see.

    • no…that is too insular and will dead end you.. research and look at other people’s lives.

      • I was trying to say that in the actual moment of writing/creating, I feel I am alone with what I have actually felt or witnessed myself. I have to be able to vouch for everything, even if it is a silly story. But yes, I have read lots, about everything.
        After getting a feel for the plot/story advice books out there, like McKee’s, the best method is to conduct your own study on the nuts and bolts of the novels/films that move you the most in order to figure out the mechanics of how and why they “move” you.

        I think you hit the nail on the head when you say “look at other people’s lives”. Plot awareness is basic and important but stories are at heart “telling an extraordinary life”. Trying to lead a worthwhile life and looking for inspiration in the extraordinary lives of others: that’s what stories were invented for in the first place.

  • I think a lot of these screenwriting books can actually be damaging to new writers.. It’s tempting to cling to their advice and follow it to the letter but these guys are more coaches than writers. Just like in sport getting the best manager or coach won’t by default make you a champ.

    Either learn by reading great screenplays or read a lot of screenwriting books and just take what feels right and what you understand.. Remembering that its all useless without your original thoughts and hard work.

    I don’t believe structure has ruined mainstream movies, I think it’s the ideas behind the movies and how fast they plow through the story. It’s like sitting in a Ferrari speeding through beautiful villages. The producers like most modern content makers today are terrified people will find their ride dull. I think the biggest problem is Cinema is losing itself as it tries to keep up with other forms of modern entertainment that are having their hey day.

    • @Ross – the problem with the coaching analogy (not that it’s totally off base) is that a coach gives you feedback. A book won’t.

      @Marc B. – an interesting musical comparison. Back in my LA days, I didn’t live too far from the Guitar Institute, which purported to teach the aspiring rockers the techniques that were in vogue at the time. If you wanted to learn the Eddie van Halen and the Steve Vai type licks, that place was golden. The problem is that it’s all the GI produced – guys who played like a poor man’s EvH and Vai. They had the notes but they were, for the most part, mediocre musicians. On the other hand, all classical musicians had teachers – from voice, to piano to brass, to strings, etc. Classical is a structured format. Solos you can wing.

      PS. One of the big influences on my writing was Steven Kloves and his first “Fabulous Baker Boys” draft (which ended up heavily rewritten before he was allowed to direct it). Kloves admitted to not being a “timeline sequence” guy but instead writing in sketches – a scene reflecting one emotion here, another there – and then assembling the final draft from the individual scenes (I believe Elliot’s and Rossio’s first Pirates was written somewhat similarly, i.e., not in sequence). Now, I am more of a linear writer but Kloves’ idea of writing the emotional captures that suited his characters development really helped me to understand that the story is not just about a sequence of events. Furthermore, when you follow this “emotional chain” idea, you can play with the characters a lot more along the way.

      Oh and I am happy that Kloves made a gazillion off the Harry Potter franchise, despite not having seen a single one of them.

  • The biggest problems with big Hollywood productions are that they rely on VFX to tell the story, not the script, not the plot, not the characters.

    Don’t have anything interesting to say? Well, just blow some sh-t up real good! Zack Snyder’s cynical reboot of Superman is a prime example. The director and screenwriters totally ignore the character of Clark Kent/Superman… the character really is an overgrown boyscout with a cape who tries his level best to do the moral thing in order to save Lois and the world from the bad guys while keeping the destruction at a minimum. That’s Superman. But that doesn’t put the youngster’s butts in the seats, so they fall back on destruction porn and violence for the sake of violence and killing for the sake of killing because it’s the easy way out.

    • Anyone with a camera could potentially make a film that focuses on characters. Only Hollywood has the resources to make a CGI extravaganza! At least they are playing to their unique strengths!

  • I think of this more in musical terms. Some musicians, like free form jazzbos, jam bands and noisy avant rockers can successfully pull off unstructured music that sounds good and has some level of popularity. But the more grounding and ability musicians have in technique and structure, the better they can work outside of those limitations to produce something innovative that doesn’t stink. Musicians with no grounding in this sound like a mess to all but a small number of hardcore aficionados, and even many of them will see through the artists who produce self-indulgent garbage because they have no talent or skill.

    At some point, film & video cameras became available to a lot of extremely innovative and talented film makers who did this in reverse. They played around with very impressionistic and loose elements and eventually learned to add elements of a formal structure to bring these seemingly divergent elements together into something cohesive and more traditional. If you are making films for fun and artistic expression, I don’t think it matters. If you are attempting to attract a wider audience, it’s beneficial to become proficient using fundamental elements of linear plot construction even if you eventually decide to be innovative and experimental with your film.

    • Great analogy! I had the same thought re: jazz and tangents within a framework. That’s kind of the point of the ‘beat sheet’ to me. It provides the framework that keeps the story on track regardless of how much mayhem you create within its confines.

  • August Anderson on 07.26.13 @ 3:43PM

    I think the best way to understand structure as examined by folks like Campbell or Snyder Mckee is this:

    You’re not trying to shoehorn your amazingly original and clever concept into their structure. You’re writing based on your ideas, and when you’ve created something your audience will follow and enjoy, it will have naturally fallen into a structure similar to what they describe.

    And there’s no way around it. Ever.

    There’s a reason Campbell’s research led him to his conclusions. Every story in history that has resonated with human beings (enough to stick around through the ages) has fallen into a similar structural form. When it comes to story, there’s no wheel to reinvent. Story is part of our DNA. And story is structure.

    I do agree, some people get too deconstructive and focused on micromanaging story elements. Do we always need certain specific elements (The goddess, or page-specific act outs)? No, definitely not. But the broad strokes will ALWAYS apply. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS. We can abstract them, but the structural form will always be there.

    So as a learning tool, as a way of seeing structure, they’re great. As a step-by-step guide for you to consciously cram your story into? Probably not gonna produce great work. But if you’re so new to writing that you feel you need that, you’re probably not producing great work (yet!) anyway. Eventually, you’ll start writing without the training wheels, and you’ll realize those instincts lead you right back to the Hero’s Journey.

    • August Anderson on 07.26.13 @ 3:45PM

      heh, meant Snyder and McKee. Although Snyder McKee sounds like he’d direct some dark, violent, vfx-heavy movies…

  • I recently watched “Dangerous Days” The 3-hour doc about the making of Blade Runner. They way that movie was chopped up on the cutting room floor for the original theatrical release is a perfect example of how structure has ruined Hollywood.

    • Even though it is one of my all time favorite movies I am going to guess that most things laying on the cutting room floor over the last 30 years are not Bladerunner :D.

      Though you are right that final edit is a big deal as for what gets put on screen. John Ford was notorious for not shooting any footage he didn’t want in the film (something like a 4:1 ratio) so editors and studios could NOT change his story. I think Hollywood has always been that way. I believe New Line Cinema was going to change the ending of se7en until morgan freeman and brad pitt refused to do publicity for the movie if they did.

      • The fact that it is Blade Runner is what makes it so appalling because it means that even if some crew creates a virtual masterpiece it’s still going to get fucked by Hollywood structure.

        Watching them chop it up in the doc was like watching Mozart get mixed with Nickelback. I lost all faith in Hollywood right then and there.

        • Hollywood doesn’t want your faith, it wants your money :D

          Studios have a very hard time with anything that does not fit into the mold especially something new and different. You will see this all the time in spec script development; often the very thing that made the spec work and got it some attention is what is edited out for being too different.

  • As a somewhat newly minted screen writer I feel Hollywood has put itself in a strong mold hole it can’t get itself out of..

    When studying I find it must be done this way with no deviation until you have reached a level of success it is said..I believe this constricts creative thinking especially Narrative Screenplays because life is not a beat sheet.

    I have not read Save The Cat.

    At this time I don’t have any ideas on how writers can use traditional structure to develop new and exciting ways to enhance stories and structure

  • I do believe Hollywood is relying on it too much. I see it mainly in comedies where they use it as a cookie cutter to plug in scenes rather than letting the story take the lead. As you said all scripts do contain these elements but they need to have flexibility with it. This being said it’s not the over-reliance on beat sheets that are ruining movies. It’s the sacrifice of integrity for the same of making money that ruins films. Example: Lord of the Rings was brilliant and all the changes they made were to serve the story. On the other hand we have the Hobbit where they took 1 book and stretched it into 3 films to milk it for all it’s worth and they added in an unneeded love triangle to try to get Twilight fans more interested. All for the sake of making money. That is what ruins films.

  • Well, the problem is simple. Joseph Campbell is a mythologist. He talked and wrote about mythic stories, which is to say, that fills 4 functions : psychologic, mystic, social and “scientific” or cosmogonic. You can write a movie that is not filling those 4 functions. The idea that the Hero’s Journey is inherent to every story is simply not true, for the simple reason that Joe didn’t write the Hero’s Journey to explain how to write a screenplay.

    So yes, the problem is Mr Vogler, Snyder and McKee. The exemple is always the same : in Star Wars, bla bla bla… But Star Wars is a very simplistic way to see the hero’s journey : every archetype is a different person. By always quoting Star Wars, Witness, etc… it’s hard to see how that scheme is flexible.

    And then again, Campbell is mythologist. He’s interested in the relationship between stories and pysche. Not by how to sell your script in 3 bulletpoint. It’s definitively more interesting to listen him for your own self development than for writing your script. Definitely.

    Rules are here for a reason : they’re great to start, but once you’ve understand what they’re here for, it’s more interesting to break away from them. And yes, I think that Vogler ruined Campbell’s work by making a how-to-write-your-stupid-screenplay-even-if-you-have-nothing-to-say-but-let’s-go-to-starbucks-and-pose-as-a-wannabee-screenwriter.

  • I think it comes down to the distinction of what it is you’re trying to write. It’s obviously not quite this simple but you can break it down as a question of if you’re writing a high-budget, high-grossing blockbuster, a piece of art, or a piece of art that also has commercial success. The typical blockbusters are going to continue sticking as close to the literal formula as possible as long as that formula keeps bringing in money; ‘art’ films can essentially do whatever they like for the sake of their art; and the holy grail of a film that is both critically and commercially successful seems to both present the story in an accessible way and at the same time – as Christopher writes – give us an alternative, unexpected aspect. That can be a Memento-esque restructuring, a particularly unusual set of characters, whatever you can think of.

  • Save The Cat and multiple other beat sheets, paradigms, etc. provide a false sense control. It’s paint by numbers. If you took that approach out of screenwriting, and applied it, say, to architecture, you’d end up with a document that states something like, every building must have 2 doors, 4 windows, a flat roof, 3 chimneys, etc. Um, not so. Every building must have foundations, walls, doors and a roof, and may have many other elements such as windows, chimneys, heating, cooling, etc. But how they are done, how many, where they are placed, what material is used, etc. is up to the creator. Same with screenplays. The first mistake of the beatsheet is that it assumes that all films are based on a story-level goal (e.g. James Bond films). Well, many films are based on questions (e.g. When Harry Met Sally, American Beauty), not goals. The 2nd mistake is that there are multiple examples that break these “rules,” e.g. the inciting incidents in Juno and Breakfast Club happen before the film even started and what exactly is the inciting incident in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off? The third mistake is that every story needs a different amount of context for the audience to track the characters and the story, so The Fighter (goal based story) has a long intro and The Hurt Locker (question based story) starts in the middle of it. And both are structurally solid. Every (good) story is and should be different. It needs to work, but how it works IS the creativity, and why it takes a long time to become a good screenwriter.

  • News just in.

    Stories need a beginning, a middle and an end. (Not necessarily in that order.)

    People who have studied the art of story telling have discovered that there are other elements essential to a story.

    Naming those essentials and explaining their nature is not a crime against art.

    But confusing essence with formula is.

    As I’m sure Snyder would agree, were he still with us.

  • Some of the greatest films of all time have followed a “Save the Cat” type format. Maybe not beat for beat but pretty close. Short Term 12, a wonderful indie film that everyone should check out, follows it almost exactly. Frankly, I think Syd Field’s “Screenplay” is a better place to start but Save the Cat is just fine as long as you realize that it’s a template and not the rule of law.

  • now days Hollywood looks like that old man who got famous with stories that were created in aleatory places but California, and is sick, about to die, but still trying to show that everything is alright and he still being above everybody else.. Nobody supports anymore unpleasant people going to LA trying to get famous without having a content, without having stories to tell or something else that would increase the level of culture of that city.
    that place don’t inspire creativity and I think maybe never did.
    Studios are running out of ideas and then recreating any old story that made success.
    people want to live well, comfortable, but good stories come up when you are out of your comfort zone. You gotta get out, get some time alone to think and creativity might come.
    So then you write your idea in a paper and in another time come back and start writing it. be original, doing your own shit that will tell if you are good or no, looking up for screenwriting that tells you what you HAVE to do, is just going to make you a good copyist.

  • Blockbuster films nowadays tend to be longer than before yet they don’t feel like they’re telling more or a better story, because most try to justify themselves.

    Superhero movies, for instance, always make an origin story for the characters, hero and villains. A third part (or more) of the movie, is used to tell that story, and the rest, to tell the actual story, that where the hero and villain fight. And the fights, they are long, spectacular, but they tell nothing. The fight consume a lot of time. So we have about 30-45 minutes of actual storytelling in a 120 minutes flick.

    The result: A boring, cgi-based film.

  • Paul Q. Merritt on 07.25.14 @ 6:16PM

    This was a read and some of the previous comments were equally good while others were less so as they tended to take pot shots at previous productions that only served to take away from the subject that the article was trying to introduce. A question that comes to my mind is how structure is not overused but why do we allow it to be misused? In conveying our meaning, we develop characters that we think or even know that audiences will like, traditionally this is the protagonist. Then we spend time developing characters that are not liked at all, again in traditional story telling this becomes the antagonist. That is all fine and good for a basic story and can be effectively managed into a script that sells brilliantly well at the box office and other digital markets.
    But if there is a fall off in returns of these simpler traditional stories maybe we should look at where the simplistic stories that fell short of the mark went wrong and compare them to the stories that went right. For instance, John Carter vs. Avengers. Avengers had a very significant financial backing from Marvel but also had a deep and rich literary trove from which to pull from in the form of the numerous movies that were previously produced by Marvel: Iron Man1 and 2 at that time, the first Thor, and if memory serves the first second Captain America movies. This was a serious commitment that audiences have learned to respect and trust in exchange for their dollars. Leading to a massive succes at the box office for Avengers. John Carter went virtually unnoticed as there was no real commitment to the storyline in trying to introduce a concept where a man might go to a desolate location that happens to be on another planet and runs into civilization where he is the “alien.” Very compelling stuff really, but also produced by a company that is known by than a few to be more than stingy in the production value they offer and it is easy to tell when they are being cheap with a new brand. Oddly enough this same company owns Marvel and I hope the leaders of this company have learned that when producing simpler storylines they can and will make money by the depth of the characters that stories are about.
    Thanks for reading, have a good one.

  • Brandon Freeman on 08.13.14 @ 12:56PM

    LOVE THIS. “Personally, I acknowledge that I have used a version of Snyder’s beat sheet in the past when I have initially mapped out a story on notecards. Once I’ve beat out my story, I shift my focus to the hard work of writing the scenes. Those scenes may get rearranged or even omitted to serve the story. New scenes that were never part of the original beats may pop up because the story demands it. I don’t worry about which beats fall on which page of the screenplay because if I laid out a good structure at the beginning, the beats will fall into place in the screenplay where they belong – but you might not find my theme stated on page 5 (sorry).”

    This is what I have done when employing the STC! method. And having done it once, I’ve moved on. It was good to get a feel for things I hadn’t noticed before. But there is so much more to discover…

  • I addressed this issue in a Script Magazine column last year ( The response was very interesting and often surprisingly hostile. All of art is about structure – but if I can easily see your structure, it isn’t art.

  • facts:

    1. story structure was around long before these screenwriting bs books. Film Noir as a genre is about as structured as we get, in its storytelling plot points as well as in its general aesthetic, yet “In a Lonely Place” is one of my all-time favorite movies? Why? the direction is spot on, the acting is electrifying, the setting is unique, the characters are believable and feel alive, but the structure of the story is absolutely STRUCTURED.

    2. it is more a due to a LACK OF CREATIVE IDEAS GETTING FUNDING then anything else really, or this dooming hollywood force making writers feel as though they have to shrink their ideas down and squeeze them into this conventional hollywood crap because, well “that’s all studios want”…..

    3. the hollywood ending ruined a lot. the 70s were great because of a lot of dark realistic stories with dramatic/complex undertones, now we have crap crap crap with simplistic crap sprinkled on top and non-realism pervades

    4. SEQUELS

    5. NETFLIX

    6. HBOGO

    7. TV


  • This article confuses “structure” with “formula”. They have nothing to do with one another. A formulaic book or film relies on an overused THEME and specific elements of structure. But a basic three-act structure, and variations of such, provide what most writers know is a platform upon which a story is established, reaches crescendo and climax, and is resolved. Without it, many an indie film has floundered. Good writing doesn’t need to rely at all on deviation from standard structure (in fact all inexperienced writers should be sticking to basic structure rules!) ; rather, it relies upon innovation in character, setting, conflict, motivation. All innovation can occur within a traditional structure or outside it.

    • agree.

      STRONG CHARACTERS ARE TODAY ***RARE***. PT ANDERSON is one of the only people today keeping them alive. Christ, even QT knows that captivating/strong cinema relies on charismatic interesting characters (even if i don’t love the majority of his movies from the past 20 years)