Ace alerted me to a new piece by Peter Suderman over at Slate titled Save the Movie! I’m going to blockquote Suderman’s introduction because he says this well and I can’t explain it in a briefer form than he does.
If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).
It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula–one
that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when
in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret
process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer
Up to this point I was nodding along. There is a formula that explains why so many summer blockbusters seems so much alike. But the next paragraph is, well, not quite right.
The formula didn’t come from a mad scientist. Instead it came from a screenplay guidebook, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. In the book, author Blake Snyder, a successful spec screenwriter
who became an influential screenplay guru, preaches a variant on the
basic three-act structure that has dominated blockbuster filmmaking
since the late 1970s.
I haven’t read Save the Cat! but Suderman explains that it breaks down screenplay structure into 15 elements that happen at specific points in the story. On looking at the list, I immediately recognized many of its elements. The same general outline was available in another book for screenwriters published back in 1992.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (now in its 3rd edition) lays out a series of 12 steps which define “mythic structure” present in many films. These steps are given different titles than the ones used in Save the Cat! but there are obvious overlaps.
I won’t belabor this too much but what Save the Cat! calls the “catalyst” Vogler labels the “call to adventure.” What one book labels “debate” the other calls “refusal of the call” in either case it’s a portion of the script where the main character hesitates before the “break into act 2” or alternatively “crossing the threshold.”
From there the similarity is less exact but still the beats have clear similarities. There is a midpoint when the hero faces a big challenge followed by villains closing in or what Vogler calls “danger of losing
the treasure again.”
Then we have a 2nd act break which Suderman describes as “A “Eureka!” moment that gives the hero the strength to keep going–and provides the key to success in Act III.” In the 2nd edition of Vogler’s book he writes “The Road Back is a turning point…it may cause a change in the aim of the story…The propellant that boosts the story out of the depths of the Special World may be a new development or piece of information.” Again, these aren’t identical but you can see how a “Eureka moment” is consistent with “a new development or piece of information” that changes the aim of the story.
The point is not that Save the Cat! is wrong about the outline only that there was fairly widespread awareness of these steps long before Save the Cat! appeared in 2005. In fact, Vogler makes clear that his book is based substantially on the ideas of Joseph Campbell, specifically his Hero with a Thousand Faces which was published in 1949.
A young director named George Lucas self-consciously borrowed ideas from Campbell in the 1970s and turned a story that had been rejected by every studio in Hollywood (save one) into the biggest blockbuster of its era. Screenwriters have been relying on Campbell’s monomyth ever since.