How Blake Snyder Saved the Adjective

My personal abrasion towards “formulas” and “writing rules” has been a little bit of a mystery. In my adulthood, I realized parts of it had to do with my parents’ tendency to be a little too free with advice and constructive criticism, often their impulsive ideas putting me into embarrassing situations. Anyone who has received advice—whether it be on writing, dating, parenting, travel, or auto repair—has found that not all opinions are helpful, some downright problematic.

In fact, I’ve started to realize that people often advocate for their biggest flaws. I often tell the story about the unpublished writer whose English came across as a second language due to his overwriting and perfectly proper grammar, and how he “reminded” me to never put a preposition at the end of a Facebook status so that I am practiced in perfect grammar for my actual work. I politely reminded him that his way of writing wasn’t for everyone, and not a style I was particularly interested in emulating. Just recently, a friend of mine, who is struggling with a man loudly rejecting any commitment to her, insisted that I should just start sleeping with someone (anyone) and that’s how you get feelings! Meanwhile, another friend’s mother-in-law was advising her not to feed her baby whenever it wanted, but instead give him a pacifier dipped in soda until the baby came around to her timeframe.

Blake Snyder was sort of the exception for me. I think, in part, it had to with a way he was introduced. I was working with a cowriter on a radio show we hope to produce next year and she pulled out Snyder’s Beat Sheet to outline from. This was not my normal way of going about things, but obviously, as there were two of us writing different episodes, we needed to get in on the general story before we could get started. As we filled in the beats, things became clearer to me, and all of the sudden, I realized it was exactly what I was looking for.

In many of my scripts (both play and novel) the characters are supposed to be funny with endearing connection to one another, but it never seemed to happen. I didn’t take the time from the plot to just have a fun moment. But where should a scene like that go?

Well, according to Snyder, page 30!

Blake Snyder was a screenwriter with, according to him, a good deal of script sells, some for millions of dollars. Only two of his movies were actually made—typical for the industry—but he believed himself to be great at knowing what Hollywood wants, and how to pitch it.

And I believe that.

For one thing, he immediately promotes to name your screenplay first; come up with a catchy title and then find a logline that goes with it. Script comes third to those things. Well, as I was reading Save the Cat, Snyder’s book on how to write a screenplay, I had several people ask me what it was about, some even saying, “Great title!” which was bizarre compared to most of the books I’ve read.

Since learning about the Beat Sheet last October, I’ve applied the lessons to most of my writing, in both editing and outlining. And regardless of the actual results, one of the nicest things about the “formula” is that I felt less overwhelmed. I understood how to keep the plot moving and had areas that I tended to ignore pointed out to me. In life, I avoid conflict as much as possible, being a pretty good smooth talker when it comes to difficult situations. It’s hard for me to have characters not understand where the other is coming from—or even just not care—and a lot of their logical discussions subtracted from the stakes and conflicts that could be there.

The Beat Sheet is an excellent way of putting emotional range in your manuscript as well as recognizing easy places to add in more conflict and, well, plot.

So I bought the book. I didn’t have people explain the Beat Sheet to me as well as I’d like, so I wanted to get it straight from the cat’s mouth. Unfortunately, the cat is more of a salesperson and less of a writer than I’d hope.

Snyder’s opening states that one reason he felt this book needed to be written was because most screenwriting advice is too formal and pretentious. He speaks like “real people” do, complete with a lot of exclamation points and some typographical errors.

Most importantly though, Snyder’s biggest “casual” way of talking is really the Trumpian-method and instilling credibility through confidence. Ever single one of his scripts is described, point blank, as “hilarious.” He constantly states how awesome his ideas are in a matter-of-fact sort of way. This in itself wouldn’t bother me, except that Snyder doesn’t seem to have a lot of taste.

The loglines he shows are of films that have been actually made, praising their qualities as examples. Not a single one of them stick with me. All of his own ideas tend to be pithy but unrelatable, campy, common denominator comedies that are only interesting because of the humor, not the plot, and not really the concept. But this is common. I read a lot about queries or pitches that succeed and what gets one person hot and bothered is not what gets another. And let’s face it, common denominator comedy sells. It’s most of what you see on the marquee, so I can’t disagree with his premise that, regardless of how I feel about them, this is what works in Hollywood.

The first time he lost me, however, was when he tried to show how changing character’s traits or situations could drastically lower the stakes in the movie.

“A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him.”

“In the example of The Retreat, again the adjectives come into play to tell us the writers most likely did it right… But let’s play around with the character to see other ways they could have gone with this same premise. What if the person going on the retreat is 65, has been at the company for 20 years, and is about to retire? Okay, so now it’s about a company “downsizing” its employees for real before they can collect their retirement benefits… No one will show up for that movie.”

Really? No one? Because that was the first time in 52 pages he’d talked about a movie that I actually was sort of interested in.

I like Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde, but for the most part, the vast majority of the films mentioned in the book sounded really dumb. Trying too hard, personality-less, and no hint of inspiration. Movies I would only go see because we wanted to do something and we showed up at the theatre to randomly pick what’s best for a large group. But, let’s be fair, that’s exactly what happened with Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde. It wasn’t their premises I was going after.

The book, which is mostly bossy and closed-minded, still had some good ideas. Selling a script and writing a good one are two totally different skillsets, and while I wish Snyder had been more honest about his ability to sell a script rather than write one (Both of his produced scripts, Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot! and Blank Check, as awesome as they sound, have lower than 14% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes), I think that using Save the Cat! as a guide to make your script more attractive is a good idea. These tips can contradict your inspiration and innovation, and what makes for a catchy title isn’t always going to be one that you, well, like, (Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot? Really?), but they don’t have to. They’re good ideas to apply in moderation.

He was right in what he said about loglines needing to contain irony. Give us a trait that makes your character likeable (with an adjective), and then tell us something unexpected about it. Hollywood unexpected and real-life unexpected not being the same thing. And also, yes, title matters. It just does.

Truth is, I think he knew what he was talking about, but he was so bent around the axel when it came to “fake it ‘til you make it,” he made himself come off as a little oblivious:

“The amazing Sheldon Bull and I wrote a hilarious comedy in 2004. What if the President’s [sic] helicopter goes down behind enemy lines? And what if he is forced to capture Osama Bin Laden—all by himself? … We even had a great title: Chickenhawk Down. And here’s why we did not sell that script: Because there are about two people who can play the part of the President. It’s the lead. And there really isn’t anyone out there who can “open” that movie. Tim Allen was our first choice. And… who else? What we had done was paint ourselves into a corner on casting. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s a great story.”

I mean, I’m no Hollywood producer, but something tells me that Tim Allen wasn’t the reason you couldn’t get that script sold.

When I pointed this out to my brother, he said, “It sounds like they came up with the title first and just wrote a script on that.”

Well, yes. As Snyder advocates.

My problem with the book, and most books of its kind, is that instead of really thoroughly discussing the pros and cons of their suggestions, the outcomes and whys, mentioning the goals they are targeting, he just states everything like facts and rules and hopes you won’t recognize his Impostor Syndrome coming through.

But when I mentioned that, people couldn’t understand why he would want to point out the flaws in his thinking. He’s trying to sell a book! How would it benefit him to do so?

First off, my point isn’t really about him. It’s that writing books need to be clear to people who tend to latch onto formulas and get scared about being whimsical or, even, themselves. These writers can be incredibly emotional when the time comes to “break the rules,” ironically, more so than those who fight writing techniques like DEFCON 1. I’ve been able to articulately explain my reasons for them breaking out of their mold far more efficiently to people who hate writing rules than to those who love them. The latter are more likely to end up in tears or literally screaming, “THAT’S NOT MY JOB!” to a modest suggestion. The biggest breakdowns I’ve had to deal with as a critique partner is always with people who like the rules and don’t want to hear that doing what they were supposed to didn’t work.

 Mostly though, you get cynical people like me and just by being clear the context in which the suggestion will work, I’m more likely to agree with you. Just telling me you’re hilarious and amazing isn’t going to do the trick. When you say, “[Double Mumbo Jumbo is] a rule you and I can’t break!” and use an example of how Gods and aliens don’t go together, or something else I don’t believe, you’re sort of persuading me to throw the kitty out with the bathwater. I’m old enough now to recognize the consequences of being like that, but many people, especially teenagers, are more likely to say, “That doesn’t really make sense,” and toss the entire idea. If you however, point out, “Here’s what happens when you do this,” rather than just telling me not to do it, I’m more likely to hear you out.

Some people need permission to do something unexpected. Others need to feel respected in order to listen. Bossing them around just makes them stop listening.

Mainly, there’s more than one way to save a cat, and I think that most writing advice needs to promote understanding of cause and effect rather than just telling you what to do. A lot of advice is bad, and I would hate to live in a world in which only Blake Snyder’s films got made.

The book tells you how to sell specific types of movies. Parts are applicable to other mediums and genres, but really, he’s telling you how to make your comedic film alluring to producers. As a book on writing, if you can ignore his businessman talk, his narrow-view of the world, and know to take it in moderation, I think that playing around with these ideas can help clarify for you how to make your work better. The ideas certainly have made me feel clearer headed. I’m just glad I heard about the concept before I actually read it. And I think, in the end, that’s what Blake Snyder was all about.

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