Blake Snyder is a true authority on both the craft of storytelling and the business savvy required to sell a screenplay in Hollywood. He’s personally written and sold dozens of scripts, including some million-dollar sales (Blank Check to Disney and Nuclear Family to Steven Spielberg). His avid love of movies created a strong drive in him to understand the ingredients for a successful story. He’s analyzed hundreds of films along the way, and now believes he’s not only landed on the key to great scriptwriting—including a new interpretation of genre—but has also unlocked each story type’s DNA. This information composes much of his 2005 publication, Save the Cat!, and all of what you’ll find in his 2007 publication, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies.
But can Snyder’s scriptwriting rules be applied to novels?
Snyder, who teaches workshops and speaks about his discoveries at universities and other prestigious venues worldwide, says YES. Great story, after all, is great story. Want to be enlightened? Grab a chair. Snyder is more than willing to let you in on a secret or five. This is the first part of our in-depth conversation. Enjoy!
Interview with Blake Snyder: Part 1
TW: In the first Save the Cat, you introduce the idea that every story falls into one of ten new genre categories–Monster in the House, Golden Fleece, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, Rites of Passage, Buddy Love, Whydunit, Fool Triumphant, Institutionalized or Superhero. How does your latest book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, expand on this concept? And in what other ways are the books different?
BS: In the first Save the Cat, I proposed that most well-structured stories fall into certain patterns. I pointed out fifteen points on the Blake Snyder beat sheet that I think are unique.
What I’m trying to get across is that there’s a function for every section of a story. As a writer myself, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it all out. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of success in selling scripts, and so breaking down the components of what makes any story work has always been my goal. That was the important thing in the first book.
The other important thing in the first book was the concept that there are ten story types. So what I wanted to do in the second book is basically prove my point, prove the case. In writing the second book, I wrote ten different chapters, each one about a different story type. I found five different examples of each story type and broke them out into the beats. It really is just proving the case.
TW: It did feel like a scientific proof, like we were peering into your personal notebook, what you’d worked out.
BS: The really nice part for me was that you always go into these adventures enthusiastically, that’s for sure. But I didn’t know the wonderful things that I personally would have light bulbs go off over my head for. There’s some stuff in the second book that just blew me away and I couldn’t wait to get out to people.
TW: Like what?
BS: Well, you look for these patterns—and I’m always big on finding patterns. You know, you figure out why things work. And when you discover a pattern, you go, “Oh, I see.” That’s in every one of these types of stories. So I found tons and tons of things in categorizing and putting these stories in different genres that were amazing. I was watching a lot of monster movies—I call them Monster in the House movies—and I suddenly go, “Wow, the same character in every one of these stories.” I call him the half-man. This is someone who’s had an interaction with the monster before and come away damaged, and they all die on page 75! And so when I was going through this I watched The Ring, and Brian Cox plays that half-man character (Richard Morgan), and he dies on page 75. When I saw I that I said, “Oh, it’s Robert Shaw (Quint) in Jaws, it’s Ian Holm (Ash) in Alien.” And there’s a purpose for it, there’s a reason for it, and if your story doesn’t have it, it’s less satisfying.
I had a blog recently on a problem the folks at Warner Brothers had selling a movie called Michael Clayton. They have George Clooney, like the biggest star in the world, but the initial release of Michael Clayton garnered only 20 million dollars in ticket sales. The reason is because they couldn’t get a handle on how to tell the public what it was. I didn’t see anything until later. I didn’t understand what it was, the ad campaign was confusing to me.
TW: After you saw it, were you able to put it in a category?
BS: Absolutely, and the patterns for what it is are all over it. This is a movie I put in a category called Institutionalized. Michael Clayton is about a man who’s a fixer for a law firm—it’s about a group, it’s about to join or not to join, to be a part of the tribe or not to be a part of the tribe is the question.
TW: Do you think if the publicists had had a firmer grasp on what it was, they would’ve had a more successful experience marketing it?
BS: Yes. Because I’ll tell you the trick to me is finding the PRIMAL in every story. What translates to us as cavemen—I hate to say that term—but what works and resonates for me. For me, whether or not to join a group is an old story; it’s one we carry around in our DNA.
TW: That’s very interesting. I think it’s also important to point out that as a writer—of screenplays, of novels—that you really do need to have a handle on these concepts before you take the next step. Because it trickles down, or trickles up, and someone needs to understand it in these primal terms in order for the greatest number of people possible “get it.”
BS: Absolutely right. And the thing with Michael Clayton, all the characters I talk about in the chapter on Institutionalized movies, they all appear. Tilda Swinton, who won the Oscar this year for best supporting actress, she’s the company man (Karen Crowder)—a character type that’s frequently into the company to the point they become sexless automatons. You see it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched). M*A*S*H in Robert Duvall (Maj. “Frank” Burns). The company man is so embedded in the company and group that they’ve completely lost their sense of self and their sense of individuality. And they represent, “Don’t go there,” to us. I wasn’t surprised when Phyllis won, because hers was such a primal character and she demonstrated what the risks of joining the group are. There she is, this archetype.
TW: You mentioned the Oscars. No Country for Old Men won for best picture and best adapted screenplay. Were you surprised by that, and what was your pick for winner?
BS: Well, I knew that that and Juno would win. They were the inside favorites for winning the Academy Award. It was clear that that was what was going to happen. To me, I think they were all great screenplays. The sad part of it is, a lot of people haven’t seen this movies. When people say, “I don’t go to the movies anymore, they just don’t hit me.” These are great stories, wonderfully told stories. But yeah, I wasn’t surprised and I think they’re well deserved. The Coen brothers have the snappiest dialogue in the business. If you have a problem with dialog or don’t know what I mean by “plain dialogue,” which is like, “Hi, how are you?,” go and see a Coen brothers movie. No one says “Hi, how are you?” They’ll figure out a unique way to say every line.
TW: What do you think made this novel by Cormac McCarthy so appealing to the Coen brothers?
BS: Well, if you look at it through their lens, it’s Fargo in the Southwest. I mean, it’s structured in exactly the same way! It’s Tommy Lee Jones’ story (Ed Tom Bell), just like it’s Marge Gunderson’s story—you know, Frances McDormand in Fargo. It’s the same. You know, it just has a Southwest twang. So I think they knew how to tell the story, and they’ve been there before. It also bears a big resemblance to Blood Simple, their first real big movie.
TW: What do you think are the necessary ingredients in determining if a novel is adaptable for the big screen?
BS: Oh, that’s such a great question. Well, you know, biography and adaptation of novels and short stories, articles, even newspapers…the idea can come from anywhere, but it has to be able to stand alone as movie. And that means, the key skill to have is the ability to cut stuff out and build on the stuff that is movie-like. You know, Urban Cowboy was based on an article in New York Magazine. We had a bunch of short stories that were turned into film. What everyone’s looking for is just what we were talking about before: What’s the PRIMAL? What about this resonates for us cavemen? You know, A Beautiful Mind is a great example; the idea of losing your mind and losing touch with your loved one, is a modern notion but it’s strangely primal. The thing that’s most compelling about A Beautiful Mind is the aspect that he’s losing his wife, he’s losing his relationship. That’s what we’re always looking for.
TW: The nugget of universal truth.
BS: Yeah, exactly.
TW: You mentioned in your book that “high concept” is pretty much an out-of-fashion term in Hollywood. But is it fair to say that while the term may be out of fashion, having a high-concept screenplay is not and probably never will be?
BS: Absolutely correct, and I think this is more and more the case. I’m always bemused when I go to film festivals and there’s a well-deserved and lovely rebellious streak with young filmmakers—as it always should be. And I love it. The idea that “We’re abandoning Hollywood and it won’t be like this for us” is incorrect. You are going to have to get attention for your film. Even more difficult to do now than in the past.
This might seem off topic, but I went to England last year and there was a thing on the Internet where the BBC had listings of 100 unsigned rock bands. You could go onto the BBC website and listen to a couple of songs from these unsigned rock bands. So, there’s 100 of them and there’s like 300 songs, at least. What am I listening for as I drop the needle on each one of these bands, hoping to find something of note? What am I looking for? I’m looking for a hook. I’m looking for something that’s going to make someone want to keep listening. And that’s what we have to do as writers, too. If you think the analogy is off, you are one of 100 unsigned bands. Why should I listen to you versus the other 99? You’ve got to somehow get my attention.
I preach that the silver bullet for screenwriters now is high concept, low budget. Look at Lars and the Real Girl. To me, that’s perfect. High concept, low budget. A guy who falls in love with a mannequin. Immediately you say to yourself, okay, how does that work? But you know that’s not a movie that’s going to cost 50 or 60 million dollars to make. Juno is another real good example: great primal story—Scarlet Letter in a small town.
The problem is that we’re writers. We think, “Of course you should listen to me and be interested in my art!” But don’t neglect your responsibility to be welcoming. You have to have the courtesy to invite me to your party. Invite me. That’s what it is.
TW: Do you think it’s a mistake for a novelist to try to adapt his/her own novel? Why? What might be the common pitfalls?
BS: I very often hear ideas from writers that are clearly not meant to be movies; they are clearly novels. And I say to them, “Write the novel.” I think the upside of where we are is there are so many opportunities for writers now and so many ways to get work read and produced. I vote that you get your novel published. A producer like Scott Rudin, who was the producer for No Country for Old Men—his stock in trade is haunting publishing houses. He’s finding books and getting them turned into movies—even unsolicited manuscripts in smaller publishing houses. They are looking for stories everywhere. And it helps to have somebody else to go first. If somebody took the time and money to buy your book and publish it—even a small run of 1,000 copies—someone else took the chance first. It puts you into a category that makes it easier for you to sell your story to the movies.
TW: A gold star, previously awarded.
BS: Yeah, yeah. When you do that, just get the first draft as part of your contract when you sell the rights to your novel. Write into that contract that you get first crack at turning it into a script.
TW: That’s interesting. I don’t know that a lot of people would think to do that.
BS: Oh, it’s a must. The way it is now for arbitration—the WGA’s rules for how they assign credits—they give a much greater percentage of credit to the first writer. My friend Tracey Jackson just adapted the Shopaholic books. I think she was the first writer on that project and because of that she carved out for herself a credit. So be the first draft writer for the screenplay.
TW: Rumor has it that it’s easier to win a million through the state lottery than sell a script in Hollywood. Is that true? And what are the latest statistics on the number of screenplays purchased in Hollywood vs. the number actually produced?
BS: Fifty-thousand scripts were registered with The Writers Guild of America (WGA) last year. Maybe 200 sold.
TW: And how many of those are actually produced?
BS: Um, ten of those.
TW: Wow. And what’s the going rate for selling a screenplay today?
BS: The average deal for a spec for a first-time writer is what we like to call three-against-five, which is $300,000 for the script against $500,000 total. You get $300,000 upfront. Then on the first day of production, they assign credits and based on whether you have a shared credit or a total credit, you’ll get a portion of the remaining $200,000. If you get full credit, you get the full amount. In terms of, will lightning strike for you, um…?
TW: Go buy a lottery ticket?
BS: No, no. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but read Save the Cat. You know, you want your odds to increase? If your goal it to sell a script, you must follow the steps. I’ve sold thirteen spec scripts in my career. I’ve sold a couple of million dollar screenplays. I’ve had good luck at this. But it’s also understanding the formula.
TW: Formula—let’s talk about that. How is the formula or template for screenplays you’ve created in Save the Cat different from other templates you might find in other books on screenwriting?
BS: Well, it gets us back to the second book and the conversation about genre. I’m all about increasing your odds, but it’s not necessarily about just the commerce. The reason you sell your script is because you’re writing a satisfying story—I can’t stress that enough. Worrying about selling out or selling to the marketplace or trying to figure out what the marketplace wants… What it is about is that you have an idea, and I want you to find the sizzle behind that idea—it’d be great if it’s interesting to anybody but you—and executed in a way that resonates. And it all speaks to the kinds of things we were talking about earlier: primal, does a caveman understand it?
That is not an insult, that is a key question.
If you have a script with the word “wedding” in the title, your odds have just increased. Why is that? Well, check around the world. Everyone knows what a wedding is; it’s a primal circumstance, a rite of passage that everyone understands. You’ve increased your odds, not by being commercial, but by being a good storyteller, by writing a story that more people might be interested in seeing. And that’s the goal. That’s commonsense that happens also to be commercially smart. Why would I want to make a $100,000,000 movie that would be interesting to only one person? I want to make a movie that the most people would be interested in seeing. Is that crass commercialism or is that formula? No.
I think what it is, is remembering the goal: to entertain and to reach people. And you can increase your odds if you think that way. No matter how much movies cost to make, you’re going to have to find an audience.
TW: Some stories are more primal than others, in my opinion. Is this related to how well movies sell? Are some movies more highly sought after than others because of how they tap into that base humanity?
BS: Yes, I have lots of evidence about this. Why was the first Die Hard the best Die Hard? Why has every other Die Hard that’s followed been less successful? Well, it’s because the first Die Hard was “a cop visits his estranged wife in Los Angeles and her building is taken over by terrorists.” What “dies hard” is love for his wife. That’s what the movie’s about. It’s about an average street cop who’s lost his wife to the sophistication of expense accounts and gulf-stream jets, who gets her back. Now, that sends chills through me because it’s a story I understand. You’ve lost your love and now you want her back. Well, that’s why all the other Die Hards didn’t work. Once you’ve saved your wife once, it’s hard to save her again. It’s why sequels are hard. I tell students, the story you’re telling me is the most important thing that ever happened to the hero of your story. So, how can you do that twice? It’s difficult. It’s difficult. The sagas are ones that usually work out the best—The Godfather, Alien, The Terminator. These are chapters in the most important thing that ever happened in your life.
Click HERE for part 2 of my interview with Blake Snyder, and get the inside scoop on a new generation of genre fiction tags that can help you define and sell your work!