At Slate, Peter Suderman looks into the history of Blake Snyder's screenwriting manual Save the Cat!, whose beat-by-beat storytelling structure has, he says, become "a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it."
The difference between Save the Cat! and previously influential books like Syd Field's Screenplay and Robert McKee's Story is that Snyder's is a nuts-and-bolts how-to, laying out page by page where the ideal screenplay should be at any given moment. (Click here for a very funny parody of Snyder's "beat sheet.")
Field and McKee were obsessed with the theoretical underpinnings of storytelling. But Snyder's book is far more straightforward. And that's why it's conquered the big screen so thoroughly. Indeed, if you're on the lookout, you can find Snyder's beats, in the order he prescribes, executed more or less as Snyder instructs, in virtually every major release in theaters today.
Suderman doesn't really prove that the problem with formulaic Hollywood screenplays stems from Snyder's book; in fact, he doesn't even try. It's slightly terrifying to watch him tear through recent movies and show how they conform note-for-note to Snyder's structure. But he also points out that movies like Star Wars, Die Hard and The Matrix, all of which were written before Save the Cat! was published, fit the formula as well. Snyder may have mechanized the method, but he derived it from dozens of successful movies that came before, some of which are among the medium's acknowledged classics.
The true insidiousness of formula isn't that it results in Hollywood churning out piece after piece of virtually identically product -- that would be the case with or without Save the Cat! It's the way that formula acts as an undertow, pulling the audience comfortably along and whisking them past whatever superficial tweaks to convention the film might make on the surface. It's why it wouldn't matter if a major studio handed a female director the keys to a superhero franchise without making substantive changes to the script she's working from. The house always wins.
Read more: Save the Movie!