Write This!

Blake Snyder says he has the ideas needed to make a screenplay a success

Fifty years ago, anybody with any intellectual ambition spent odd stolen hours writing the Great American Novel. Of course, the novels usually weren't so great, rarely got finished and almost never got published.

Today, everybody's working on a screenplay. These supposedly fabulous movie scripts rarely get finished and almost never get turned into movies. But that doesn't stop everybody from wanting to be a screenwriter.

"It looks easy," says screenwriter Blake Snyder. "And guess what? It is easy. My earliest inspiration was seeing movies that were not very good and thinking, I could do that."

Write a movie that was not very good? "No, I mean I could do better."

And so, over the past 20-some years, Snyder has written 78 scripts for TV and movies. Ignoring the pile of TV scripts he cranked out in the beginning--that's a situation with conditions rather different from those of Hollywood movies--Snyder has managed to make his living writing film scripts on spec. Only two of them have actually made it to the screen: the 1992 Sylvester Stallone comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and the 1994 Disney family comedy Blank Check. Neither movie grossed more than $30 million domestically, and both get appallingly low ratings from critics at rottentomatoes.com and from users at imdb.com. Nevertheless, the kid stays in the picture. Snyder has sold more than a dozen so-far unproduced scripts. He's making plenty from it. He lives in Beverly Hills. He knows how to pitch ideas that Hollywood moguls will pay good money for, even if they never get around to rolling film. People with big names return his calls. In Hollywood screenwriting terms, Blake Snyder is a success.

He thinks that if he can do it, anybody else can, too. Naturally, he's written a how-to book, and he conducts seminars on the subject. His tome, which has gone into five printings in its first year, is called Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. He'll be signing it at both Tucson Borders stores on Sunday, Aug. 20.

"Actually, it isn't quite the last book on screenwriting you'll ever need," Snyder admits. "I have a hit, so I'm doing a sequel, where I dissect 50 films made during the past 30 years and talk about what makes them work."

But what can make your embryonic film script work? Snyder has plenty of ideas, and he's the first to admit that they're all a matter of common sense rather than secrets of the unique genius that is Blake Snyder.

"I just demystify the process a little bit and show the magician's tricks so you aren't so overwhelmed or think this is something too mysterious for you to do," he says. "It is just a bunch of tricks and tools and little insights, opening up the back of the Swiss watch and seeing how the parts work."

Tucson's ScriptDoctor.com, Howard Allen, says, "There's a reason Snyder's book is the hottest-selling screenwriting book in the country right now. He knows a good screenplay and a good script sale start from the same place: a sentence that describes the story and why we want to see it ... at the same time.

"Snyder can entertain any Tucson movie buff by telling them why Movie A works, and Movie B does not. It's common sense, but that's not always easy to see when a filmmaker and friends are struggling to get the thing made," says Allen.

Now, Snyder's anatomy of a script that will sell is likely to annoy writers who obsess over individual creativity, innovation, experimentation, the artistry of it all. But what does Hollywood have to do with art? Why do you think they call it the film industry?

Snyder says that before you even write the words FADE IN at the top of your first page, you need to figure out a one-sentence summary of your story--which is about people, not ideas--and a killer title. Example: "A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife, and her office building is taken over by terrorists--Die Hard." Snyder insists that this so-called logline should also imply to a potential producer the movie's tone, target audience and rough cost.

From there, Snyder eventually gets to the nuts and bolts of structure, a three-act, 15-beat format that stretches from the opening image through such necessary phases as "fun and games" and "all is lost" to the very final image, which should somehow be a mirror of the first. This structure applies to all good movies, always, he insists.

But wait a minute. Last summer's box office was horrible, and this summer's is a little better but not spectacular. When the one movie star everybody is talking about is Al Gore, something's wrong with Hollywood. Isn't this perhaps a sign that moviegoers are tired of movies that follow all these formulas?

"The hue and cry against Hollywood is eternal," Snyder says. "But even indie films work this way. I just saw Little Miss Sunshine, the definition of an indie. But it's a textbook Golden Fleece story, and it follows my structure beat for beat. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind looks like it breaks all the rules, but it's a perfectly structured film. So is Open Water, about the couple that gets eaten by sharks. Minute by minute, you can track these movies on my beat sheet. These are satisfying stories, and satisfying stories follow rules, and the smart guys know that, whether they have a budget of $1 million or $100 million."

Snyder has highly detailed advice about other elements of pacing and character, and he can seem pretty doctrinaire. (For example, main characters who are not likable must be humanized up front, maybe by helping a cat that's stuck in a tree--hence the title of his book.) But although Snyder breaks all script ideas into a small number of genres (like "Golden Fleece"), he says he doesn't maintain a list of subjects that budding screenwriters should never, ever pitch if they hope to make a sale.

"My warning for years was you can't do pirate movies, because every example was poor, but then we got Pirates of the Caribbean. So that shows that the story is what counts, not the subject," he says.

Notoriously, what winds up on the screen is usually not exactly what the original writer put on paper. Why invest so much of yourself into something that you lose control of, assuming it even makes it to the screen? "Screenwriting is a proposal to do something further; it is not a finished product," he says. The best you can do is to hook up with a producer who understands your script and will assemble a team to make the best possible movie from it, even if it's not your words line for line.

And yes, Snyder uses his own system. He just finished a screenplay with his childhood friend Tracey Jackson in record time. "I flew to where she was staying in New York, and we wrote the script using my method in a week, 20 pages a day, and it's one of the best things either of us have ever written," he declares.

"I wrote 20 scripts before I made my first sale, and it took me that long, and even longer, to figure out these things that seem so obvious to me now. I want to give you shortcuts so you won't burn out, and so you'll have fun doing what you do. This is a sandbox you can play in. There's a lot of fun to be had working as a screenwriter, and you can succeed even if you're not living in Hollywood."

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