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