A summary of some things I’m learning, and un-learning.
By Kalani Padilla
It’s 1935, late February, and the worst of winter is melting from the bones of Chicago, Illinois.
Kenneth C. T. Snyder, just barely brought into the world, has been abandoned by his father, leaving him, his mother, and his siblings to brave the Depression all alone. Despite how grimly the next decade or so progresses for the Snyders, Kenneth’s older sister Marge makes certain that their family grows up with a love for all things art. He would later tell his son stories about finding shelter with his family in a room just above a movie theater, feeling the rumble of the cinema below, and wishing he could just drill a hole into the floor of that dirty room and see the films with his own eyes.
This desire takes hold of Kenneth all his life, and he eventually makes the move to Los Angeles, California with his little son Blake. There, he becomes a well-known, reckoned-with producer of children’s television. Kenneth hires Blake at the age of 8 to voice act for one of his children’s programs…and promptly fires Blake after his voice grows out of the roles.
But Blake’s ambitions were not to be crushed—not with a father and mentor as tenacious as Ken. No, Blake Snyder instead finds great success as a writer for Disney, and publishes one of the most infamous books in the film industry: Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. In this book, Snyder does something no screenwriter before him ever dared to do: turn the art of screenwriting—the art of story—into a step-by-step formula. The formula consists of 15 major story “beats” that good screenplays tend to hit, and often hit down to the minute.
For 12 years since publishing the series, Snyder has been called an inspiration, a fraud, and everything outside and in-between. No matter what side you’re on, it’s hard to look at Hollywood’s films today, line them up with the beatsheet, and deny Snyder’s influence on the industry.
Snyder’s 15 beats have become a common language among the screenwriting students here at the LAFSC. We’re discovering that so many of the films we love follow/fit into a real formula. And that formula…works for us, too. I’ve studied it. Tested it. Can you imagine? A literal 15-step staircase to the “perfect” story. An answer. A structure.
Ah, I already hear disgruntled murmurs in the crowd. But hear me out.
I know many of us have an uncomfortable relationship with structure. We want to write something fresh that no one has ever read before. Something only we could write. We want to shock and wow our audiences and flip their worlds upside-down. But we’re also tired of making our own decisions, aren’t we? We want to be told what’s best. What works and what doesn’t. In my screenwriting class, I’m finding that good storytelling falls somewhere comfortingly in between. Artful stories require both anarchy and structure.
What I mean is this: Structure grants universality to individual artistic expression.
Structure allows me to take all those crazy ideas that are floating around like a cloud in my head, and turn them into something that other people can understand. It allows me to write every tiny thing on its own square of paper, and give it its own place on my bedroom wall. That same wall grants my roommate Natalie access those ideas so she can help me spot, and even NAME the problems so that I can work through them.
Jeremy Casper, our screenwriting professor, still takes great care to remind us that Snyder’s Beats are not the end-all be-all. “They’re just the pieces on the chessboard,” he says, “the rules everyone talks about that you have to know before you can break them.” And Snyder knew this. Snyder was a complex human, like you and me, with an intangible connection to his father and the world around him that he wanted to share. And how did he do that? He wrote about it in a way that others would understand.
This week, I plunge with uncharacteristic certainty into the enormous task of finishing a feature-length script in just two months.
Wish me luck.