How to Tell a Story to Save the World 3Toby Litt

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This month I’m looking at two of the sacred monsters of Screenwriting Guruhood – Robert McKee (Story) and Blake Snyder (Save the Cat).

If you’d like to read what’s gone before, start here; if not, read on.

 

 

STORY:

SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING

 

ROBERT MCKEE

 

1997

 

Of all the screenwriting gurus, Robert McKee is the one I most respect. He constantly says, ‘I can only lead you so far – if you want to become great, you’ll have to go beyond what I can teach.’

Blake Snyder suggests that if you only follow his diktats, you’ll end up with a zinging and sellable script rather than  a script that any producer will have seen and been bored by a hundred times before (because so many others have followed his diktats).

McKee emphasises there’s a lot more to it than what twist happens on what page. He knows that if you want to make good work, you’re going to have to plunder your soul (even if you don’t believe you’ve got a soul).

The quote from him that welcomed you to his website, pre-Covid, used to read:

A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘the centre cannot hold.’[1]

This was beneath the banner headline: Write the Truth.

From this, you’d think he was the old guy at conference meetings at the Washington Post. And that’s probably not a bad way to imagine him. Of all the gurus, McKee is the one who suggests that the easiest thing might be to give up – but that there’s no shame in that.

Robert McKee mini-biog

Robert McKee was born in 1941 in Detroit, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, studying English Literature. All his youth, he was acting. After he graduated, he travelled to the National Theatre in England, where he studied Shakespeare at the Old Vic. After this he spent seven years as an actor on and off-Broadway. In 1979, he moved to Los Angeles and began working as a screenwriter. Here, he wrote spec scripts, eight of which were optioned but only one of which was made. He began offering his famous STORY Seminar class at the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1983. As his website says, “Since 1984, more than 100,000 students have taken McKee’s courses at various cities around the world.” (Toby Litt is one of them.)

McKee is much less monomyth than Christopher Vogler or John Yorke. He is prepared to examine all different kinds of story – and so he does discuss ensemble movies (Network, Nashville, Short Cuts), which he calls multiplot (or multiprotagonist). But his main division of films is into archplot, miniplot and antiplot.

Archplot would cover films written according to the guidance of Screenplay and The Writer’s Journey. Miniplot would cover a few of them, too, but is more art film. His examples of miniplot are Wild Strawberries, Paris, Texas and The Sacrifice. Antiplot – “predominantly European, and post-World War II” – would include Un Chien Andalou, Last Year at Marienbad, and A Zed & Two Noughts, but also Wayne’s World.

McKee doesn’t insist on Heroes and Heroism. He writes more often about “character” than the “main character”:

The function of CHARACTER is to bring to the story the qualities of characterisation necessary to convincingly act out the choices. Put simply, a character must be credible: young enough or old enough, strong or weak, worldly or naïve, educated or ignorant, generous or selfish, witty or dull, in the right proportions. Each must bring to the story the combination of qualities that allows an audience to believe that the character could and would do what he does.[2]

He prefers to call his main characters protagonists, rather than Heroes. “Generally, the protagonist is a single character.”[3] Consider how mild this sounds beside Vogler’s eternal insistence on triumphant individuality as the source of all stories. And McKee immediately follows up mildness with openness:

A story, however, could be driven by a duo, such as THELMA & LOUISE; a trio, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK; more, THE SEVEN SAMURAI or THE DIRTY DOZEN. In THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN an entire class of people, the proletariat, create a massive Plural-Protagonist.[4]

Isn’t this all we need? Isn’t this fair enough?

In some ways.

Yes, it leaves the door open for plural stories, but doesn’t exactly encourage them. It doesn’t see any reason why a story that de-emphasised individualism might not be a better one for us to tell.

Story came out in 1998. After that, the next two of our gurus – Snyder and Yorke (see you next time) – went straight back to insisting on Heroism and nothing but Heroism.

McKee can sound prescriptive, even dismissive, but it’s about generalities rather than specifics.

..the phrase “character-driven story” is redundant. All stories are “character-driven.” Event design and character design mirror each other. Character cannot be expressed in depth except through the design of story.[5]

(As an aside, I think McKee is the best writer of the five gurus, plus Campbell. There’s a bit of Emerson in him, and of Eliot and Auden, too. Sometimes he can outwasp Gore Vidal. His sentences are chunky as a welterweight; one with a good right hook. McKee has heft. He’s never feelgood. Where Vogler would give you a back rub and Snyder a pep talk, McKee would hand you a single malt.)

McKee makes it obvious that his sympathy lies with archplot rather than antiplot. The universe he wants to see on screen has coherence and meaning. He admires those who insist on nihilism or randomness, but he thinks they’re either charlatans or try-hards.

There’s no bigger picture for McKee – not a theological one. He’s secular, and a lot less dreamcatcher-in-the-breeze than the recent editions of Vogler. There’s no shame in giving up, he suggests, but there’s also no shame in writing a decent, honest cop drama.

In Story, McKee’s not supplying assembly instructions for a kit. You’re expected to carve your script out of raw matter, not screw it together with an Allen key. He is most concerned with structure and design, but that doesn’t mean he is unambitious. He does love an absolute. Here’s a run them (my italics):

Your character, indeed all characters, in the pursuit of any desire, at any moment in the story, will always take the minimum, conservative action from his point of view. All human beings always do. Humanity is fundamentally conservative, as indeed is all of nature. No organism ever expends more energy than necessary, risks anything it doesn’t have to, or takes any action unless it must. Why should it?[6]

This is wrong. For a start, it completely misses out camp, mischief, carnival, obsession. It also misses out altruism, self-sacrifice, political commitment and insanity. Look at RuPaul or James Joyce or Margaret Thatcher or Nelson Mandela and tell me again that ‘No organism ever expends more energy than necessary’. Humans are often excessive.

What McKee is pushing for here is to force the writer to construct a drama in which the protagonist doesn’t blithely go out looking for an adventure – circumstances must force them into extreme and therefore Heroic action.

Where the other gurus bring in Heroism through the front door, McKee brings it in the back. But his conservative view of humanity en masse is ultimately defeatist. Although he’s happy to see them acting together in old black and white movies, he’s got little sympathy for the proletariat. And he’s got no sympathy for idealists.

McKee’s attitude is a glamorised form of defeatism. And what he points out, through this, is that Hollywood undervalues tragedy. Tragedy is the great genre for both following and undermining the Hero’s journey (comedy and satire can do this, too).

Tragedy can demonstrate the appalling wounds an individual who sees themselves as Heroic can inflict upon the body politic. Implicit in the backgrounds of Macbeth or King Lear, envisaged offstage, are populations who suffer from being neglected, exploited and finally sent to war – because of the self-obsessed actions of their Kings. In both, the actions of the protagonist are so destructive as to seem to undermine the environment itself.

Macbeth causes a whole ecosystem, Birnam Wood, to be uprooted and put to use as an army’s camouflage. Shakespeare doesn’t just say ‘some trees’, he expresses it as if part of the map has got up and walked – like the Ents in Lord of the Rings.

King Lear, in a commonsense view, doesn’t cause the storm, but Shakespeare shows him directing it as if he were Zeus or, again anachronistically, as if he were William Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in some cosmic-cataclysmic symphony.

The microcosm becomes the macrocosm, and a single fucked-up head becomes a whole fucked-up universe.

 

 

SAVE THE CAT!

THE LAST BOOK ON SCREENWRITING YOU’LL EVER NEED

 

BLAKE SNYDER

 

2005

 

I don’t know if Syd Field and Blake Snyder ever got together, to talk about screenplays. Somehow, I doubt they would have got on. Where Field is laid back, Snyder is hysterically bullying.

Of all five screenwriting manuals, his reads most like a get rich quick scheme. According to the cover, it’s “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need”. And doesn’t that “Last” mean, close your mind, give up the search – follow no God but me?

Hey, Blake, don’t we have a choice in this matter?

No, you do not![7]

Sometimes, reading Screenplay, it’s as if Field had a timetravel glimpse of Save the Cat!, and is wryly taking it down:

I’ve noticed many people have a tendency to make a rule for everything.[8]

And even more on point:

You can’t make a screenplay following numbers as you do a drugstore painting.[9]

As we’ve already seen, Snyder is very big on numbers. Why?

..when I finally read and digested Field’s opus Screenplay, I knew I had found something completely career saving.

Oh! Three acts! Imagine that?

And yet, it was not enough. Like a swimmer in a vast ocean, there was a lot of open water between those two Act Breaks.

Viki King filled in a lot more of that open water for me in a book with the unlikely “Get Rich Quick” title of How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. And yet, even with midpoints and B stories, there was still way too much room to screw up.[10]

This is revealing. Snyder believes you can “screw up” a screenplay, rather than just write a bad one. What he means by this – and every line of Save the Cat! demonstrates it – is that there’s a right way to put together a script. Unlike McKee, he is giving you the assembly instructions. In which case, it’s hardly going to be a surprise if you end up building the same BILLY Bookcase as everyone else.

I’d say that Snyder’s own screen writing career demonstrates this. He puts together solid, uninspiring product. My edition boasts that he “continues to write screenplays, making his 13th sale in 2006”. Snyder sells his scripts, but he doesn’t get movies made – and the biggest movie that was made was Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. If you’d be happy with this kind of tantalising career, always almost, then Save the Cat! may be the book for you.

I’m sure Blake Snyder’s horse had better dental work than I do.

 

Blake Snyder Mini-biog

The biog of Blake Snyder on IMDb was put up by ‘Save the Cat! Enterprises’. And so it says that he was ‘Named “Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriter,’ when, in fact, Hollywoodlitsales.com only named him as ‘one of Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriters’. But, hey, not much difference, is there? With this level of finessing, it’s hard to know what else that’s online to take seriously. As far as I can tell, Snyder was born into the screen trade. His father, Kenneth C.T. Snyder was a TV producer for Roger Ramjet, Hot Wheels and other children’s shows. Here’s a Hollywood anecdote, ‘At the age of eight, Snyder was hired by his father as a voice talent for an animated special starring Sterling Holloway. Snyder continued doing children’s voices… until his voice changed and he was fired by his producer father.’ He took a B.A. in English at Georgetown University. In 1987, he went full time as a screenwriter. His first spec sale, for half a million dollars, was Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. That was a mere two years later.

Save the Cat! refers to ‘heroes’, lower case h. Snyder’s definition is negative. It’s not that there’s a tribe-saving quest that has to be undertaken, thereby creating a hero; it’s that a screenwriter should avoid making their hero inactive – because that will make their script worse.

What lays there like lox on a plate? Who can’t be bothered to get up out of his chair and go answer the door?[11] Why, the inactive hero, of course. And since the very definition of a hero is to be proactive, the inactive kind must not be a very good thing. Heroes seek, strive, and reach for the stars; they don’t wait for the phone to ring. So, if your hero is inactive, tell him to get off the dime![12]

Where Snyder is most different to Vogler is that he begins by looking to the actors – by which he means the stars – who will be available to play those parts. In a sub-section entitled, ‘CASTING FOR THE ROLE OF YOUR HERO’ he talks about the attitude a writer should adopt when creating a hero. He advises against writing a movie as a bespoke star vehicle (unless you’ve already got the commission). Instead, as he goes on to say –

..if you always remember to write for the archetype, and not the star, the casting will take care of itself.[13]

However, certain stars exist because they conform to certain archetypes:

..throughout cinema history… many of the big stars play one part really well. Think about Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Cary Grant. Now think about Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. It’s not because these are not good actors who can’t do more than one type of role, only that what makes movies work to a large degree is our need to be shown certain archetypes onscreen.[14]

To cap his argument, Snyder goes back to Campbell:

It’s the Jungian archetypes these actors represent that we’re interested in seeing… You don’t have to be Joseph Campbell to see that no matter who’s hot in Casting Call, the archetypes never change.[15]

Much of the time, Snyder is happy to delegate the reasons for stuff to other people and to concentrate on “Structure, Structure, Structure.” And so his observations about ensemble movies, and his examples, will be familiar to you from Story.

Your way into a biography has to pay attention to the same rules as any story: It has to be, first and foremost, about a guy who… we can root for.

Or at least understand.[16]

Ensemble pieces can offer the same dilemma for the screenwriter…

Who is this about, you keep asking, this piece with 12 characters, all with equal screen time?

One of the masters of the ensemble, Robert Altman, specializes in this. Nashville, Welcome to L.A., and Shortcuts offer crisscrossing character sketches with no central lead. But Altman would argue differently. The city of Nashville became the “star” of Nashville… Granted these are not classic hero’s tales, but Altman found his way in and stuck to it. And by creating a new kind of hero to root for, he was true to the moral he wanted to tell.

Altman, Altman, Altman. Snyder completely forgets what Field scrupulously records[17] – that the screenplay of Nashville was solely by Joan Tewkesbury. If anyone created “a new kind of hero to root for” it was her. It was the screenwriter, not the director. And this in a screenwriting manual!

Altman’s heroic centrality is overplayed throughout. On Welcome to L.A., Altman was neither writer nor director, he was producer. On Short Cuts (not Shortcuts) Altman was director but only co-writer, with Frank Barhydt. Could it be possible that the Altman movie was the work of other people more than Altman?

It’s no accident all five of these manuals I’m looking at were written by men – manly, no-bullshit men. Their aesthetic of screenwriting is profoundly macho. They expect, they demand, that the writing process itself be agonising. They love horror stories of overwork and self-cutting.

..it took seven – count ’em seven – drafts to get it right.[18]

David Mamet would be one of their heroes, and behind him, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. They’re unlikely to have postcards above their desks of Joan Didion and Muriel Spark. Perhaps it’s stereotyping, but it seems collectivism and ensemble work would be much more likely from five female screenwriting gurus.

Female gurus are harder to find – and this may be because female writers are (for many reasons) less likely to be taken as authority figures.

Some recent screenwriting manuals by women include Pilar Alessandra’s The Coffee Break Screenwriter, Linda Aronson’s The 21st Century Screenplay, Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique, Getting it Write by Lee Zahavi Jessup and Inside Story by Dara Marks. None of these, I would argue, offer a fundamentally different approach to screenwriting from a female perspective.

The closest to guru status is Linda Seger. Her Making a Good Script Great (Silman-James Press, 3rd edition, 2010) is regularly listed as one of the ‘classics’.

More to the point, in 1990 Maureen Murdock published a kind of answer song to Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey with The Heroine’s Journey. A more theoretical takedown of the guys comes in Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, which focuses on the less-than-heroic trajectories traced in children’s movies like A Bug’s Life and Bee Movie.

Joan Tewkesbury mini-biog

Joan Tewkesbury was born in Redlands, California, in 1936. Apart from Nashville, she also wrote Thieves Like Us for Robert Altman to take all the credit for. She is the author of Ebba and the Green Dresses of Olivia Gomez in a Time of Conflict and War. Since 1979, she has directed around nine TV dramas and series.

This isn’t to say that the macho guys agree. Of course not. There’s massive conflict between them (when they’re not nicking one another’s ideas).

But we’ll return to that next month.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://mckeestory.com/, last accessed 13 Mar 2020, 09:00

[2] Story, p 106.

[3] Story, p 136.

[4] Story, p 136.

[5] Story, p 107.

[6] Story, p 143.

[7] Save the Cat!, p 72.

[8] Screenplay, p 132.

[9] Screenplay, p 132.

[10] Save the Cat!, p69.

[11] Well, I’d say that would be McKee’s organism never taking any action unless it must.

[12] Save the Cat!, p 187.

[13] Save the Cat!, p 58.

[14] Save the Cat!, p 57.

[15] Save the Cat!, p 58-59.

[16] This is taking McKee’s distinction between a sympathetic and an empathetic hero. Story, p 141.

[17] On Screenplay, page 122-123.

[18] Save the Cat!, p 155.

 

Toby Litt has published novels, short story collections and comics. His most recent book is Patience, a novel. He runs the Creative Writing MFA at Birkbeck College, and blogs at www.tobylitt.com. He is a member of English Pen. When he is not writing, he likes sitting doing nothing.