Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Blake Snyder

“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

“Something bad has happened…”

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"Victor Chigorin was seated..."

Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.

Among novelists and screenwriters, there’s a piece of conventional wisdom that says that exposition should be buried in a place where the audience is least likely to notice it. In Save the Cat—which, for better or worse, has become the most influential screenwriting book ever published—the late Blake Snyder calls this principle The Pope in the Pool:

Mike Cheda told me about a script he once read called The Plot to Kill the Pope, by George Englund, which did a very smart thing. It’s basically a thriller. And the scene where we learn the details of the vital backstory goes like this: Representatives visit the Pope at the Vatican. And guess where the meeting takes place? The Vatican pool. There, the Pope, in his bathing suit, swims back and forth while the exposition unfolds. We, the audience, aren’t even listening, I’m guessing. We’re thinking: “I didn’t know the Vatican had a pool?!” And look, the Pope’s not wearing his Pope clothes, he’s…he’s…in his bathing suit!” And before you can say “Where’s my miter?” the scene’s over.

Snyder’s logic isn’t necessarily hard to understand. There are two assumptions here: 1) Exposition is deadly to drama. 2) It’s only there at all so the nitpicking spoilsports in the audience won’t be able to go back and point out obvious holes in the story. Better, then, to stick it someplace where the reader and viewer aren’t even listening, as Snyder puts it so bluntly. While I agree with the first point, the second is more problematic. If the story can be understood and appreciated without the audience registering certain pieces of information, it’s probably best to cut it altogether, rather than trying to camouflage it with a flashy piece of action in the foreground. And if the information is important, then it doesn’t make sense to hide it where it can’t be heard. In L.A. Confidential, which is one of my favorite movies and screenplays of all time, the entire plot is explained in fifteen seconds while Bud and Ed are dangling the district attorney out his office window. It’s a great scene, and it succeeds beautifully in burying the exposition, but it takes several viewings to even pay attention to what poor Ellis Lowe is saying.

"Something bad has happened..."

You could argue, of course, that the details don’t matter, and that it’s more important to get Bud and Ed on their way to their final appointment at the Victory Motel. As with most writing tricks, though, this one is double-edged: it allows us to slip past purely expository elements of the story, but by hiding them away where they can’t even serve their basic functional role, they can seem all the more useless. A better solution is to convey exposition in a form where the information itself is delivered in a vivid fashion. I’ve said before that this explains the popularity of autopsy scenes, which are a reliable, if hoary, way of feeding the audience backstory that would be hard to take in any other setting. (Between CSI and Hannibal, Laurence Fishburne has practically made a second career out of nodding sagely in the morgue.) A rule of thumb I’ve found useful is that if expository dialogue could be transferred to a different location without any change—if, for instance, you could bring the pope out of the pool and stick him in St. Peter’s Church with every line intact—the words themselves should probably be rewritten. And readers these days are savvy enough to recognize when they’re being asked to wait patiently while the story lays pipe, even if they’re being distracted by a gunfight.

Another approach, which I use in Chapter 32 of City of Exiles, is to insert exposition at a point in the story when the reader is naturally curious about the resolution of some other development. At the end of the previous chapter, Wolfe’s car explodes as she’s driving out of Belmarsh, but I wait for one more scene, in which Powell has an important but essentially static conversation with Victor Chigorin, before circling back to clarify her fate. This kind of thing can’t be pushed too far, and I was careful to make the interstitial material as short as possible, but within limits, it works—although it carries certain pitfalls as well. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the central character fears that he has broken the most delicate part of his male anatomy after relieving himself in subzero temperatures. McEwan waits a long time before enlightening us as to the extent of the damage, and while it’s true that the intervening pages fly by, I’d find it hard to tell you anything about what happens there. It ends up being wasted space, which outweighs any gain in momentum or satisfaction from the delayed punchline. It’s fine if you want to give us a pope in a pool, but it’s not fair to ask the reader to swim laps for no reason…

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2014 at 9:30 am

The likability fallacy, revisited

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Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on Game of Thrones

Last year, I wrote a post on what I then saw as the fallacy that characters in stories ought to be likable. My argument, which I still mostly believe, is that characters need to be interesting—or, even better, that they take logical actions in response to the vivid situations in which they find themselves—and that if a protagonist isn’t engaging, it’s less a problem of sympathy than a symptom that something is going wrong elsewhere in the story. In the meantime, however, I’ve found myself backing away slightly from my initial hard stance. I’m still a little wary of likability, partially because it’s one of those notes, along with raising the stakes, that can never be wrong, which means that you’re likely to get it from readers who aren’t writers themselves. But since it’s a note that I expect to receive for the rest of my life, I’ve decided to work my around to a more nuanced version of what I’ve said here before. Likability may not be essential, but it’s a smart baseline from which to begin. All things being equal, I’d rather have a protagonist that the reader liked and admired than otherwise, so it makes more sense to start with that assumption and inch away from it as necessary.

In other words, likability belongs to the short list of best practices in fiction, rules that can be broken when the story demands it, but followed whenever you’re in doubt. The problem with likability, of course, is that it’s an inherently slippery concept. Unlike such guidelines as providing your characters with a clear sequence of objectives, which works as an unambiguous test, a character’s likability is a very subjective thing, with a wide range of potential interpretation, and it leads to confusion even among capable storytellers if they’re unable to distance themselves from the material. We may like or take an interest in our own characters, but it can be hard to know how others will react, even when the potential issues are obvious. (Witness the recent kerfuffle on Game of Thrones, which continues to position Jaime Lannister as a likable rogue despite a despicable act, not present in the original books, that the show’s creators don’t seem to have thought through until it was too late.) Likability makes me nervous because it’s an emergent property, arising from many small choices and decisions along the way, and you often don’t know what you’ve got until you’re done.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

Still, that’s true of anything in fiction, and it’s still possible for writers to influence the outcome with smart choices. I got to thinking about this after reading a provocative piece by the economist Russ Roberts in Politico, in which he argues that Frank Underwood—the manipulative, borderline psychopathic politician played by Kevin Spacey on House of Cards—is a Democrat for shrewd narrative reasons:

I think [series creator Beau] Willimon made Underwood a Democrat because he wanted us to like him…The show wouldn’t work if he were totally despicable. And for a lot of viewers, that means he can’t be a Republican. Because for some significant number of Netflix viewers, Republicans are automatically despicable in a way that Democrats can never be.

Roberts, for the record, is a passionate proponent of small government (and also a published novelist) who sounds a little like Aaron Sorkin’s Ainsley Hayes when he makes his case against federal spending for education and the poor. His piece is intended as a wakeup call for Republicans to regain the moral high ground, but it indirectly points to how canny House of Cards, for all its flaws, can be. Underwood can be a liar, a manipulator, and worse, but we’d turn against him at once if he were, say, a racist—or a conservative.

In other words, likability doesn’t seem all that different from anything else in writing: you start from a principle of doing no harm, follow the rules you know, and don’t make things any harder on yourself than they need to be. Of course, if that was the only way we proceeded, we’d end up with a lot of formulaic fiction, and in practice, the process is more of a spiral than a straight line, homing in gradually on the center we’re trying to find. (Contrary to what I may have implied above, by the way, there are plenty of rules out there for constructing likable protagonists, from the list of good and bad character flaws on TV Tropes to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide how useful they are.) But I suppose I’ve come around to the realization that likability, as muddled a concept as it might be, is something that a writer needs to take seriously, especially if it inspires other elements in the story to snap into focus. It can’t be taken in isolation, and if you force it, the reader or viewer will naturally resist. If it’s lacking, the real problem may be somewhere else entirely. But yes, it’s important. Which doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2014 at 9:37 am

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