Save the Cat, Marvel Movies, Scorsese and Coppola

Due to travel and a wee bit of exhaustion, I broke the #blogtober chain. I wondered how long I could go, posting something every day. It turns out one solid car trip is enough to break the run.

But that’s okay! I’m not doing NaNoWiMo this year. I’ve got too much other stuff going on. All good things. That means I have more time this year to be active here, so hopefully I won’t disappear for months on end like I have before.

As I mentioned, I spent a good chunk of the day driving from LA to Sacramento. I finished the audio book I started when I drove down to LA on Thursday, and then I listened to music and thought about writing and the book I just listened to.

The audio book was Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. A lot of people rave about it online, and I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. Now that Snyder’s book is in my brain, I have a lot of thoughts I want to share.

Save the Cat – A Summary

Save the Cat is directed towards screenplay writers, spending time not only getting into the nuts and bolts of writing a screenplay, but also touching on the business side of it. The author makes bold claims about how the methods and rules described in the book are the difference between a screenplay being successful or failing in obscurity. Snyder describes success in financial terms, and is very clear that writers should focus on the bottom line more than following their heart. They will still make art, as long as they follow the rules and don’t paint outside the lines.

The term “save the cat” is itself one of the rules described in the book. It refers to a moment in the screenplay where the protagonist does something likable, making it easier for the audience to engage with them. They can save a cat, show mercy to a criminal thug that brought their son to a baseball game, or engage in a conversation about French cheeseburgers before doing a bunch of gun murder.

There are other rules in Save the Cat which I thought were interesting. Pope in the Pool, Too Much Rope, Black Vet… these were all great tips which have direct application in other forms of writing.

Save the Cat – My Reaction

I think the book has a lot of value. I recommend other writers read it, even if you’re like me and have no desire to write a screenplay. I know Save the Cat Writes a Novel exists, but I heard it’s not as good as the original. I may give it a try later when my to-be-read pile is a little thinner.

That said, I had some problems with Save the Cat. For starters, Blake Snyder took issue with movies like Memento and Unbreakable, movies which don’t easily fit within structure described in the book. He also bashed Signs, but I thought that was fair. A movie he didn’t mention is the original Rocky, which would have been ruined by his three act structure methodology.

The overall attitude of Save the Cat is that success is measured in dollars, and if you want to be a successful writer, you must adhere to the structure laid out in the book. The structure is rigid enough that it describes the number and placement of scenes, the emotional curves, and the overall journey of any story. It’s rigid, mechanical, and guarantees that the movie goer is going to get the same basic movie experience every time.

Novels are different, but like I said, I see people online applying the terminology and methods of Save the Cat to novels, and it makes my teeth hurt. I think something is lost. It’s exactly the same as telling a musician they can only write songs using the same four chords.

Four chord songs are extremely popular and successful, but it’s not the only way to write music. The three act structure is handy and reliable, but it’s not the only way to write a screenplay. It is definitely not the only way to write a novel.

Scorsese, Coppola, and The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Recently, Martin Scorsese said that the Marvel movies were not cinema. Francis Ford Coppola joined Scorsese in admonishing the films, going a step further and calling them despicable.

Some people may agree with them. A lot of people disagree. Emotions can run hot because these are very popular movies. If you don’t like Marvel Movies, we can still be friends, but I’m of the opinion that these are some of the finest experiences I’ve enjoyed at the theater for the last decade, and I respectfully disagree with the legendary directors disparaging the MCU.

But let’s take a step back and put this in context. Let’s break apart some of these Marvel movies and examine their structure. Actually, let’s be a little bit lazy and let the more educated and eloquent Lindsey Ellis break it down for us. In the following video, she breaks down 3 act structure and includes Iron Man as one of her examples.

Let’s also listen to Michael from Lessons of the Screenplay’s video, which dedicates the entire run time to analyzing the structure of Marvel movies.

Both of those videos are excellent. If you don’t have time to watch them now, watch them later. They’re worth it.

In the mean time, accept my word when I say that Marvel employs the three act structure, adhering strictly with the rules Blake Snyder describes in Save the Cat.

The Paradox Spelled Out

In case you missed it, here is what I’ve said so far:

  1. I don’t like reflexively applying the three act structure to stories
  2. Scorsese and Coppola don’t like Marvel movies
  3. I LOVE Marvel movies
  4. The Marvel movies successfully use the three act structure as if they’re trying to replace all their toilet paper with dollar bills

Am I being inconsistent?

On the surface it looks that way, but I don’t think so. What turns me off of Save the Cat isn’t the content, it’s the attitude that it is the only way. That attitude is backed up and supported by individuals in the writing community. I don’t actually have a problem with the three act structure itself. I have a problem with the inflexibility surrounding it.

When I constructed the outline for Synthetic Dreams, I used a three act structure as a framework! And as the story has grown, I’ve broken away from the structure a little, organically allowing the novel to take its own form. The tension has escalated in the third act, dropped off, then escalated again. There have been two scenes that could be described as “whiff of death” moments.

And it’s fine. For one thing, I’m not writing a screenplay. For another, I’m not writing a screenplay, so we shouldn’t strictly apply screenplay rules to my novel. If it ever gets adapted to a movie, we’ll have a different conversation about how my story will be adapted.

But let’s get back to Scorsese and Coppola. Are they criticizing the three act structure the way I am?

No, they’re not. Many of their movies, especially Coppola, adhere to a three act structure.

So what are they bitching about? The spectacle? The big budget action thrillers based on pop culture media?

If that’s what their pointing at, Coppola is a hypocrite. The Godfather movies were exactly that, in their time. Moderate budget films based on books that were popular.

Are the Marvel Movies Cinema?

I honestly don’t know what Scorsese and Coppola are saying. They’re geniuses, and they’re entitled to their opinion. It seems like they’re saying that cinema should teach. That the movie goer should leave the theater having gained something.

From Tony Stark, we learned about taking responsibility. We learned that we are more than the legacy we inherited, and that we need to rise up out of the mud when we’ve been knocked down. We learned that sometimes doing the right thing comes with a cost. We saw a man conflicted, dealing with grief and loss, falling into his more base humanity and losing one of his closest friends as a result. In the final movie, after escaping the fight and having a taste of the happy ending he deserved, he walks away from retirement, puts on the suit on last time, and gives his life to save the world, fulfilling the promise of his story laid out across ten years of cinema.

That’s just one of dozens of characters that have compelling character arcs across multiple movies. From Steve Rogers, we start with someone that seems to already have it together, their physical body becoming as perfect as their morality and integrity. But then we see him challenged, force to put down naivety and make difficult choices. Can he just be a soldier when the organization he’s fighting asks him to do wrong? Can he be the man he wants to be without leaving his friends behind? In the end, to be a complete person, he must lay down a little bit of what makes him The Perfect Soldier and simply be The Good Man that the doctor saw in him when he was first chosen. It’s then that he becomes worthy to lift Mjolnir. It’s then that he decides he is worthy enough of the life he always wanted, full of love and joy with the woman that fell in love with him before he became a living Adonis.

This is cinema. This is story. These are characters that we can love and learn from. And thanks to Marvel, we can have a damned fine time doing it.

Parting Thoughts

I want to reiterate that I do not have a problem with the three act structure anymore than I have a problem with four chord songs. Media made with these structures in mind can still move me. And sometimes, I am inspired to make my own stories that adhere to this structure.

One of the jobs of the creature is to be true to the characters, and speak truth through the characters. Truth, in this case, is not the same as facts, and it may not be the truth according to the author. An optimistic writer can include a nihilistic protagonist, and the truth of the character is different the truth of the person that created them.

If you find yourself forcing a character to act against their truth in order to adhere to the three act structure, you are probably doing something wrong. Characters are the story. The three structure is just one of many delivery mechanisms.