Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“What are you willing to do?”

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"Without another word..."

Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 24. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the books on writing I’ve read, the one that fills me with the most mixed feelings is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Everything about it, from its title to its cover art to the fact that its late author’s only two produced scripts were Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check, seems designed to fill any thinking writer with dread. And the hate it inspires isn’t entirely unjustified. If every film released by a major studio these days seems to follow exactly the same structure, with a false crisis followed by a real crisis and so on down the line, it’s because writers are encouraged to follow Snyder’s beat sheet as closely as possible. It’s hard to see this as anything but bad for those of us who crave more interesting movies. And yet—and this is a third-act twist of its own—the book contains gems of genuinely useful advice. The number of reliable storytelling tricks in any medium can be counted on two hands, and Snyder provides a good four or five of them, even if he gives them insufferable names. The admonition to save the cat, for instance, is really a way of thinking about likability: if you show the protagonist doing something admirable early on, we’re more likely to follow him down the story’s darker paths. Snyder says, without irony: “They don’t put it into movies anymore.” Now, it’s in pretty much every movie, and the book’s most lasting impact may have been to wire this idea into the head of every aspiring screenwriter.

What I find particularly fascinating is that these scenes now pop up even in weird, unclassifiable movies that otherwise don’t seem to have much of an interest in conventional screenplay structure. Blackhat, for example, introduces Chris Hemsworth’s jailed hacker with a scene in which he’s admonished for breaking into the prison network and filling the commissary accounts of his fellow inmates with money. We’re meant to think of him as a technological badass—he carried out the hack using a stolen phone—with a good guy’s heart, and even if it doesn’t totally land, it sustains us ever so slightly throughout the rest of the movie, which turns Hemsworth into the taciturn, emotionally implosive hero that Michael Mann finds hard to resist. Similarly, in the new season of True Detective, we first see Colin Farrell’s character dropping his son off at school with a pep talk, followed by the line: “See you in two weeks.” A divorced cop with a kid he loves is one of the hoariest tropes of all, but again, it keeps us on board, even when Farrell shows some paternal love by beating a bully’s father to a pulp. Without that small moment at the beginning, we wouldn’t have much reason to feel invested in him at all. In other respects, Blackhat and True Detective don’t feel like products of the Snyder school: for all their flaws, neither is just a link from the sausage factory. But both Mann and Nick Pizzolatto know a good trick when they see one.

"What are you willing to do?"

In fact, as counterintuitive as it might seem, you could say that an unconventional narrative is in greater need of a few good, cheap tricks than a more standard story. A film that makes great demands on its audience’s attention span or tolerance of complexity benefits from a few self-contained anchor points, and the nice thing about Snyder’s tips is that they exist in isolation from the real business at hand. You could think of saving the cat as the minimum effective dose for establishing a character’s likability. Mann has better things to do than to set Hemsworth up as a nice guy, so he slots in one fairly obvious scene and moves on. Whether or not it works—and a lot of viewers would say it doesn’t—is less important than the idea that a movie that resists formula benefits from inserting standard elements whenever they won’t detract from the whole. (For proof, look no further than L.A. Confidential, which I think is one of the best scripts of all time: it’s practically an anthology of tricks that brilliantly get the job done.) Most great artists, from Shakespeare on down, do this intuitively: the distinctive thing about screenwriting, in which writers tend to romanticize themselves as guns for hire, is that it tries to turn it into an industrial process, a readymade part that can be dropped in more or less intact whenever it’s required. And if the result works, that’s all the justification it needs.

I was reminded of this when I revisited Chapter 24 of Eternal Empire. When I wrote it, I don’t think I’d read Snyder’s book, but this chapter is as good an illustration as I can imagine of one of his other tips. Here’s how he puts it:

The problem of making antiheroes likable, or heroes of a comeuppance tale likable enough to root for, can also be finessed…When you have a semi-bad guy as your hero—just make his antagonist worse!

All three of my novels return to this well repeatedly, since their central character, Ilya Severin, is far from a conventionally likable lead: he’s a former hit man who kills in cold blood more than once in the course of the series. Yet he works as an engaging character, mostly because he’s always up against someone even scarier. Sharkovsky in The Icon Thief, Karvonen in City of Exiles, and Vasylenko in Eternal Empire were all conceived as antagonists who would make Ilya look better by comparison, and it’s rarely more explicit than it is here, when Vasylenko kills not one but two people—an innocent hostage and one of his own men. It’s a little excessive, maybe, but when I look back at it, it’s clear that I needed two bodies to get my point across. Nobody is safe, whether you’re a bystander or a member of the inner circle, and the scene propels Ilya, and the reader, into the next phase of the story. Because as bad as his situation looks now, it’s going to get worse very soon…

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2015 at 10:17 am

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