Blog the Cat, Chapter Six – Common Sense Rules


Blog the cat screenwriting index.

Well, since it’s Saturday, we’re back to my chapter-by-chapter reviews of Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book ‘Save the Cat.’

As we move on through Blake Snyder’s book, this chapter is a little bit less structured than the first five. I also found it much less hard-and-fast than its title, ‘The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics’ suggested. But then, I tend to side with the school of thought exemplified by the line, “The only rule of writing is: there are no rules.”

And also, as much as Blake goes on about wanting credit for his ‘snappy rules and ironclad laws’, he doesn’t even lay them out as instructions or warnings. There’s details about how to handle each one, but more than anything, this chapter is laid out as an in-depth glossary, so I’ll cover it on the same basis.

Item 1: Save the Cat

I was already familiar with this tidbit from discussions of Blake’s principles around the time of Script Frenzy last year – and it came up in the introduction as well, since it’s the origin of the title.

What is it? The thing that the hero has to do when the audience meets him, so that they like him and want him to win.

Good or bad thing? Good, in fact, required according to Blake.

Examples given:
Pulp Fiction – When Vince and Jules first appear, they’re having a silly discussion about the names of McDonalds hamburgers in France. This makes us like them because they’re funny, and somewhat childlike, even though they’re hit men on their way to go kill someone.

Pulp Fiction alternate example – before the antagonist, Marsellus, appears on screen, we’re told a story of how he threw one of his underlings out the window, because the underling rubbed Marsellus’ wife’s feet. This is a way to reinforce your STC moment, if you think that the heroes are unlikeable, then making the antagonist much worse can help the audience root for the hero.

Aladdin – Even though Aladdin is a thief, after he steals food in the first scene and runs away from the palace guards – he sees some kids who are hungrier than he is and gives his spoils away to them.

What do I think? I approve of this guideline, in general. (See above regarding ‘there are no rules.’) The Princess Bride is also a good example of the reinforcement principle, I think – the heroes include a merciless pirate and two outlaw mercenaries, one of whom is a drunk set on planning a revenge murder. But the main antagonist is a lying schemer who picked a pretty girl to marry just so that her death would give him an opportunity to declare war on the country next door, and his henchman is a cowardly backstabber who’s greatest ambition is to write the definitive book on torture. See how that works now?

Item 2: The Pope in the Pool

What is it? Any way of distracting the audience from the fact that exposition is happening, but not so much that they don’t pay any attention at all to the exposition. Ideally involves putting the exposition into a funny or surprising context.

Good or bad thing? Definitely good.

Examples given:
The Plot to Kill the Pope – (Trope namer, as tvtropes.com would say.) Exposition takes place on the deck of the Vatican pool while His Holiness is swimming laps. Distraction element is basically surprise at the totally unexpected setting: “I didn’t know that the Vatican had a pool! Look the Pope’s in swimming trunks.” and so on.

Drips – The two main characters have an ice tea drinking contest before being taken to the lair of the Bad Guy where he explains the plan. Throughout the exposition, they’re too afraid to ask if they can go to the bathroom, so they are holding it in comically.

Austin Powers – There’s actually a character named Basil Exposition. I think that that says it all.

What do I think? I think that I need to learn how to do this better – it’s a great idea, and not one that I’ve been following intentionally so far.

Item 3: Double Mumbo Jumbo

What is it? Putting two different pieces of ‘magic’ (meaning anything that is outside the ordinary) into the same movie.

Good or bad thing? According to Blake, very bad. (See my comments below.)

Examples given:
Spiderman – Peter Parker gets his Spidey abilities by being bitten by a spider. Norman Osborne becomes the powerful and insane Green Goblin through a lab experiment gone wrong.

Signs – something about aliens and God.

What do I think? I think that it’s an idea with some merit, but I’m not entirely convinced, particularly the ‘Spiderman’ example. Now, Blake does say that he gives the DMJ rule a bit of a pass in connection with comic book adaptations. I’m not sure if that’s the only reason I liked ‘Spiderman’ enough to not only see it in the theater, but rent it on DVD, and see it when it first showed on prime-time TV. I mean, it’s not like I was a big Spiderman comics fan.

But to me, I guess I was willing to buy into the entire comics world as a single ‘piece’ of Mumbo Jumbo, more or less. I mean, in a superhero-type movie, whether or not it’s an adaptation of a real comic book, you need to have a super-powered hero, a super-powered villain to oppose him, and an origin story for each of them. They can have the same origin story, or close enough of a one that they both get explicitly covered under the same piece of Mumbo Jumbo, such as Fantastic Four, which tweaked its source material somewhat to have the bad guy in the same space accident as the four heroes, or Iron Man, in which the bad guy stole a suit of the hero’s super-powered armor.

In Spiderman, though, the origin stories are seperate, yet set up as somewhat parallel. I could believe that both of them were happening in the same world, especially as they both had the same sort of ‘the science of life is stranger than we can imagine’ feel to them. Now, if Spidey’s enemy had literally had magical powers, or been a super-advanced android, I might not have thought that it worked so well.

Item 4: Laying Pipe

What is it? The setup in a movie that is required before we can get to the inciting incident.

Good or bad thing? Somewhat bad – okay in small quantities, and pretty much required, but ‘laying too much pipe’ is a bad thing.

Examples given:
Minority report – We need to be shown how the future crime stuff works (which isn’t a simple concept to get across,) the main character’s personal life, and the mentor who we don’t entirely trust, before getting to the incidint incident of the hero being pegged as a future criminal himself.

Along Came Polly – We see the hero marrying his first wife, going on their honeymoon, and catching her with the scuba instructor, just to establish that he’s a risk-averse divorcee, before setting up the main plot of him falling in love with a crazy girl.

What do I think? Again, I think that it’s a good rule of thumb, but it’s hard to know how much pipe is too much, and a lot of really good stories really do take some pipe to lay. ‘Serenity’ is a good example of this, though one of the reason that the inciting incident is so late in that script is that Joss distracts the audience from all of the pipe laying by puttings some fun and games up in the first reel.

Item 5: Black Vet / Too much Marzipan

What is it? Trying to squeeze too much into a concept or premise, especially with wordplay.

Good or bad thing? Very bad.

Examples given:
Black Vet – Trope namer, a spoof TV promo from SNL, featuring an African/American veterinarian who was also an army veteran.

Lefty – An idea that Blake and another writer were working on about a blacklisted communist Private Eye in the 1950s. The partner also wanted to make the hero a left-handed boxer.

What do I think? I agree that this sort of thing isn’t good, but I don’t really see the point. Maybe I don’t tend to pull this sort of thing, or maybe I don’t recognize it when I do.

Item 6: Watch out for that Glacier!

What is it? The bad guys or implacable disaster closing in on the heroes – much too slowly.

Good or bad thing? Bad.

Examples given:
Dante’s Peak: A volcano that’s gonna blow any minute… or maybe not. Nobody believes it’s going to blow anyway.

Outbreak: Super-ebola virus heading our way, again, not that quickly.

What do I think? A good maxim to bear in mind.

Item 7: The Covenant of the Arc.

What is it? This is one that really is written as a rule, and not a glossary entry, really. The rule is this: “Every character in the movie must change their lives because of what happens – except maybe the bad guys.”

Good or bad thing? Good, if you don’t break the covenant.

Example given:
Pretty woman – Hero, heroine, mentor, best friend, are touched and transformed by the love story. Jason Alexander ends up exactly where he started.

What do I think? This can be a tough one, but yeah, I believe in it. (Most of the time, at least.)

Item 8: Keep the press out

What is it? Again, a rule. Don’t bring the media into the story, especially in a movie with a fantastic premise that would generally be considered newsworthy. Doing this would destroy the sense of disbelief in the premise, it breaks the fourth wall and brings the audience out of the story.

Examples given:
Nuclear Family – a script about a family of four getting superpowers by camping on a radioactive dump site. (Some of the setup seems very like ‘No Ordinary Family’, with some of the powers juggled among the family members.) Steven Spielberg said to not have any of the characters interviewed by the papers.

ET – Spielberg’s reason given for the above, the script where he worked this out for himself.

Signs counterexample – Blake argues that having the main characters check CNN and find out that the aliens are all over the world makes the story smaller and matter less.

What do I think? I’m really not sure about this one. I can’t really follow the line of reasoning – maybe I should rewatch ET and force myself to sit through Signs, for comparison. It also seems to me like this idea is getting outdated at the least. Maybe in the early eighties that was believable. With ‘press’ becoming more ubiquitous, and a finer line between it and the public these days, it seems unbelievable to keep them out of these stories wholesale, and I can think of a lot of cases where they’re used effectively… maybe not that many in feature films, (though Iron Man does spring to mind,) but definitely in TV series – what I’ve caught so far of the V remake, for instance. (It’s a show that does have some writing problems, but using the press is not one of them.)

Exercises:

Out of the four examples, I’m going to bow out of two of them, since one is really a challenge to defend ‘Signs’, which I haven’t seen and don’t particularly think I’d like, and one is a mission to fix ‘Spiderman’, which I don’t think need fixing and I think I’ve said a few words in its defense under Item 3.

Exercise 6.1: Name an unlikable movie hero. Did the creators of the movie do anything to deal with this? What could they have done?

Thomas Anderson/Neo in The Matrix. I think that he’s an intriguing character, and somewhat cool once he starts to take charge of the situation, but I don’t particularly like him. Throughout the movie, I was more curious about what was happening to him than really rooting for him – though I suppose that worked out alright.
I’m not sure what a good ‘save the cat’ moment would have been for the Matrix – maybe some small way that Thomas could have helped somebody out at the party before he met Trinity. But that could have stepped on the emotional mood. Hmm… I’m somewhat stumped. Maybe the Wachowski brothers were too?

Exercise 6.2: Find examples of Pope in the Pool in 2 other movies. Does burying the exposition hurt or enhance your understanding of what’s going on in the plot?

Lisa’s ‘An Irritating Truth’ presentation in The Simpsons movie uses trademark Simpsons humor and the conflict of Lisa trying to nag the other townspeople who don’t want to listen, to cover the exposition that it’s laying down. Quite effective, especially when even dim Mayor Quimby repeats the basic point at the end, once it’s been drilled through his skull.

Spiderman also had a pretty good Pope in the Pool scene right before Osborne becomes the Goblin – his assistant is trying to argue him out of doing the experiment on himself as he’s setting it up, and Osborne explains why things are so desperate for him – which lays out a lot of the Green Goblin’s early crimes. You absorb all of this, but at the same time the viewer is distracted by all the cool-looking science stuff, and wondering exactly how badly this experiment is going to end for him.

See you again soon!

4 Responses to Blog the Cat, Chapter Six – Common Sense Rules

  1. onceupona says:

    Hullo Crusader! popped in from Rachael’s list to say hello!By the way I subscribed to your blog and am commenting as ‘onceupona’ because that is my WordPress blog but I write at http://conch-to-be.blogspot.com/ and that is how you’ll find me on Rachael’s list! Cheers! Danette

    Like

  2. Zan Marie says:

    Hi, Chris
    I’m a crusader checking out everyone’s sites. See you around.

    Like

  3. Wow very interesting post. A lot of work went into this. I don’t write novels where this would be useful, but it is food for thought none-the-less. Catherine

    Like

  4. Manuel Royal says:

    Interesting post, Chris. (And, cool blog in general.)

    We all have our own approaches. I disagree strongly about character arcs being a requirement; not every good story involves a profound change in the protagonist. Some movies are character studies; the protagonist is essentially the same at the end as at the beginning, but it’s still time well spent. In private-eye movies, for instance, the main character is generally pretty consistent (maybe because the literary source material is so often an episodic series of novels).

    I’ve seen several people use “Spiderman” (2002) as an example of Blake Snyder’s “beat sheet”; I think it’s actually a good counterexample. Yes, all the listed elements are there, but not in the order given on the (best known version of) the “beat sheet”, and not at the prescribed time. For instance, the set-up and catalyst happen well before the main theme of the movie is ever stated (though we do get a couple of motifs). The B-story is introduced about five seconds into the movie. And so on. I’m using a beat sheet to help organize my current project, but also feel free to mix it up a bit.

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