On Screenwriting Books, Cats, and Hitler’s Ghost

photo via yoyenata.com

photo via yoyenata.com

It took me 3 days to write my first feature-length screenplay, and most of that was at work in between phone calls and on my lunch breaks. As much as I’d like to say that it was a massive turd of a script, I would only be insulting turds.

My only knowledge at that point regarding screenplay writing came from watching movies and reading a book by Lloyd Kaufman called Make Your Own Damn Movie. In the chapter on screenwriting, Kaufman pretty much just says to write the damn script and make sure that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Kaufman is the man behind Troma Entertainment, and if you’ve ever seen The Toxic Avenger or any of Troma’s other, ahem, masterpieces, you’ll see that in fact all of their movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and not much more. And so Spin My Dreidel followed in their footsteps.

My movie, Spin My Dreidel, is a crime against humanity. I hear that Putin and Hitler’s ghost cuddle up every Saturday night with a bottle of wine and watch it together, and make out through most of the second act. There were funny moments, and the cast did a great job with the material. But it sucked--maybe not Pluto Nash suck but definitely more suck than Alien: Resurrection--and yet I couldn’t put my finger on why it sucked. I wasn’t concerned with the technical problems, which were themselves numerous– I just wanted to know why the hell the script didn’t work. Certainly there had to be more than just making sure the thing had a beginning, a middle, and end, right?

And so I went in search of answers. I started buying screenwriting books. Lots of screenwriting books. And I read them, then read them again, and again.

When I first came upon Bert Snyder’s Save the Cat, I became obsessed. It was the greatest thing ever – finally a book that walked you through each step of the writing process. He told you exactly what should happen and when. I went so far as to write a feature-length screenplay using his “beat-sheet” method. I think it’s a decent script, but it’s also one that I don’t love. The characters are great, it has some good action, some intense scenes, but I never got the ending where I was happy with it, and there was something about it that just didn't grab me.

Maybe it was the paint-by-number structure.

And that’s Save the Cat–it’s a paint-by-number screenwriting book. You need a scene like this on page 25. Put a scene with some reference to death on page 72. Act 3 needs to break on page 90. Now when I watch really crappy rom-com movies with my wife (because that’s what she likes, really terrible rom-com movies, while I have a weird obsession with really terrible super-low-budget horror movies), all I can see is the beats from Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Within the first 5 minutes someone will clearly state the theme of the movie. We’re 12 minutes in, time for the event that will shake up the protagonist world view. Now the protagonist will hem and haw about doing whatever they have to do to get the movie going, and now they’re going to relent and go on their journey or whatever, and on and on.

So I learned to loathe Save the Cat, but it turns out that my dislike for the book was unfair.  

Leaning the formula teaches you how to manipulate expectations. Once you learn the “rules” for standard movie fare, you understand what audiences expect, and this is where you attack. Lead the viewer down a path they think they know, and when they least expect it reveal that they haven’t been on the path that they thought they were on - they’re somewhere that they don’t recognize. Go all Oldboy on them. That’s why Save the Cat is worth reading. But I don’t recommend following his beat sheet unless you’re only writing movies for Katherine Heigl.

The books that I got the most from are Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting, and a book that isn't specifically about screenwriting but still an excellent source for any writer, Stephen King’s On Writing. On Writing teaches discipline and the basic elements of crafting a story and seeing it through. Syd Field teaches you that your movie should have a beginning, a middle, and end. Back to where I started.

Hemingway, a patron saint for writers, will scare you straight.

Hemingway, a patron saint for writers, will scare you straight.

It turns out that a book wasn’t going to solve the problems with Spin My Dreidel. Some of the problem was structure, but a lot of the problem was laziness. I wrote each scene like it’s own skit, nothing really connecting one scene to the next, nothing flowing, until it lethargically crawled to the end credits like a high school senior with a fake ID crawling his way to his front door after the first trip to a club that serves test-tube shots. Dreidel sucked because I wrote a terrible script.

I originally wrote a list of things that I learned from all of the screenwriting books that I’ve read. Things like ‘entertain me’, and ‘skip the boring shit’. But honestly, write whatever the hell you want. Remember that a screenplay isn’t written - it’s rewritten. Give your script the time that it deserves. I understand the impulse to rush through it and to get to the end, and that’s fine for a first draft. Hemingway said that the first draft of anything is shit, and it was true for him and it’s true for you. Once you have that draft finished, well, that’s when the writing really begins, when you have to kill your darlings and restructure every scene and question every line of dialogue.

The best advice that I can give you is this: write what you want, write it shitty, but don’t send it out into the world until you’ve crafted it into something worth sharing.

Now go write something. And entertain me, damn it.