I love Blake Snyder’s storytelling book, Save the Cat! I would say that it is a must-read for all storytellers, but I’m not sure every storyteller would necessarily understand it. The patterns Snyder identifies are much more subtle than one may think when considering only the examples he provides. A good reader would attempt to analyze films and stories on his own and look at how stories that are vastly different actually follow similar inherent structures. That is, Snyder is not identifying arbitrary trends found in modern stories, he’s uncovering much deeper foundations that dwell naturally in the ways we humans process, relate to, and understand stories. If you read his book as simply a how-to guide for writing a formulaic blockbuster, which you can, you’re completely missing the point.
In Save the Cat!, [Snyder] stresses that his beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting.
Maybe that’s what Snyder intended. But that’s not how it turned out. In practice, Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. Movies big and small stick closely to his beats and page counts. Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.
And whose fault is that? It’s the fault of lazy screenwriters, uncaring directors, and cowardly producers. It’s not Snyder’s fault that a lazy screenwriter takes his beat sheet as a formula and ignores the countless possibilities he has to express each beat in an infinite variety ways. It’s not Snyder’s fault that directors accept the word of these lazy screenwriters. It’s not Snyder’s fault that producers fund these projects, relying on a “formula” to generate a hit.
I don’t think this article is necessarily trying to blame Snyder; my point is simply that blaming Snyder is nonsense.
I found the above mentioned article on author Nathan Bransford’s blog, where he writes:
Save the Cat! doesn’t just offer suggestions on structure, it literally says what needs to happen on specific pages, from the opening image that sets up the protagonist’s problems to the false victory at 90 minutes to the closing image, which mirrors the opening image.
It sounds like Bransford is commenting on a book he either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood. Snyder does not “literally say what needs to happen on specific pages.” He gives guideline page numbers for a 110-page screenplay based on where a beat should hit within a film’s overall structure, the page numbers naturally correlating to the time at which a beat would appear in a film. If any beat is out of place in this structure, the story will risk feeling slow or rushed or both. Good screenwriters and directors should naturally be aware of how their creative decisions affect story pacing, so I fail to see how giving page numbers is some horrible sin that dares to stifle creativity.
Furthermore, the “opening image” beat has less to do with setting up the “protagonist’s problems” and more to do with setting up the story’s tone and mood. Read the book, pages 72 to 73. Most storytellers naturally understand that the opening of a story will set up audience expectations, so delivering an “opening image” that promises a different sort of story than the one planning to be told will naturally risk alienating readers.
That the opening image and closing image should reflect each other should also be understood naturally, as the end of story will relate to its beginning in some way, either providing a great contrast or a more literal reflection. “And the story starts again…”
Lastly, Snyder’s beats have nothing at all to do with guaranteeing success. It is very easy to follow the beats and still create garbage. But just as the sound of a toilet flushing will never suddenly be considered a beautiful symphony, no purposeful shunning and avoidance of Snyder’s beats will result in a surprise success. Snyder’s beats are not arbitrary; they are ingrained in human psychology. That a “formula” becomes recognizable in some big-budget modern films is entirely the fault of the artists working in the industry. It’s still an art after all.
ETA: I think Steven Spielberg’s fears about the film industry imploding has less to do with big budget films becoming formulaic and more to do with the marketplace for big budget films becoming overly saturated. But I don’t know how the money flow goes in such a big budget industry.