Netflix has changed the incentives for watching bad films. With a monthly flat fee, they encourage you to take a chance on movies you’ve never heard of, even if they turn out to suck, which they usually do. More than that, it makes it easy to stack them up against good and great films. It’s hard to articulate what makes the difference between them.
A stark example: you watch the movie version of Dear White People followed immediately by the TV version. They have the same story, and the same setting, but Netflix’s investment allowed the creator to hire a full writing staff, who delivered. Scenes which dragged a little in the movie now pop off the screen. The supporting characters in the film had low impact, but rewritten for the series, even in some cases played by the same actors, they electrify you. What made the difference?
You can’t explain it. But you wish you could, so you look up screenwriting books in the library catalogue and get hold of the first one available, David Mamet’s Bambi Versus Godzilla.
Which turns out to be a collection of essays composed out of aphorisms. Reading it, you feel you’re in an East Village bar, listening respectfully while the great man holds court. It’s hard to follow the points he’s making, and the next morning only one of them sticks in your memory: “the ending of a story must be both surprising and inevitable”. You start trying to measure films against that standard.
Next, you try William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. It combines the story of a writer’s education in Hollywood business with sardonic and droll pen-portraits of industry archetypes. The main function of a screenwriter, you learn, is to produce a script which a bankable star will want to act in. A producer’s job is to pay for it, based on confidence in the movie’s predicted success, which in turn is based on nothing.
Its guidance on what separates a good script from a bad one is more elusive. You rewatch Goldman's Princess Bride and compare it to the made-for-TV Disney movies that fill out the Netflix back catalogue. Could the difference between them lie in the quality of the witticisms? “This is so dull,” your partner says at one point. “Life is pain,” you reply without taking your eyes off the screen, “and anyone who says differently is selling you something.”
At least, watching Castaway for the first time, you’re able to put a finger on why the film feels so long. The movie’s not about the changed relationship with Helen Hunt, and it’s not about the best friend whose wife dies or whatever, so all those scenes should be cut. It’s mainly about the tricks Tom Hanks uses to survive, plus his relationship with his job. “I don’t think it’s possible to fix one of the most successful motion pictures of all time, sweetheart,” your partner responds.
You’re a fan of Community and someone tells you that its creator wrote a legendary guide to story structure which explains everything. You read Story Circles in ten minutes, then re-read it. The theory is so simple: a desire, leading to a threshold crossed, things lost as anything inessential is burned away, a protagonist getting what they need (which is often not what they wanted) and returning home, transformed. A circular journey from daylight, into the subconscious, and back out to the starting point. You find yourself doodling clockwise arrows on napkins at lunch and on notepads in work meetings. The pure mechanics of a story.
Now you feel ready to look at Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat!. It has a reputation as “Joseph Campbell For Dummies, For Dummies”, which turns out to be well deserved. Snyder’s writing style is not far from the Disney comedies he made his money from: broad, unapologetically oafish, and readable by a 12 year old. (“This isn’t fun any more,” your partner is saying.) He likes straightforward films with wide appeal, and he’s flummoxed—and clearly irritated—by the box-office success of Memento. (“Are you even listening to me?” your partner is asking.) Even the story behind the book’s title turns out to be deliciously inane. Snyder likes the first act of a movie to include a “save the cat” moment, where the hero does something like rescuing a cat from a tree, showing himself to be a nice guy. So that we root for this dude. (“Goodbye and fuck you,” you partner calls down the hall before the door slams.) And the assumed gender of the hero is no accident, because Snyder is unthinkingly phallocentric in a way that would have seemed awkward on publication in 2005, and today leaves you continually wincing.
Snyder teaches that the logline, meaning the one-sentence summary of a movie's plot, has a crucial element: irony. For example:
A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists (Die Hard)
A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend (Pretty Woman)
"I think both of these loglines fairly reek of irony," he adds. Don't they just?
The Blake Snyder Story Beats—a reusable formula for narrative structure—is a variation of the hero’s journey that’s instantly recognisable, particularly for its heavy emphasis on an All Is Lost moment right before the final resolution. One unexpected quirk is the story beat with the pretentious title of The Theme Stated. Early in a move, Snyder wants a character to literally say the main question of the movie out loud. Later that week, you enjoy watching Battle Of The Sexes but exactly five minutes in from the opening titles, Billie-Jean King turns to someone and says “I want to show that women can play tennis as well as men”. It gives you a queasy feeling.
Save The Cat! surprises you all the same with its level of respect for the audience. A movie should have a good answer to the ten dollar question: what is this film about? More particularly, why should we pay ten bucks to see it? If you can’t come up with a clear answer in one sentence, then stop wasting our time. In Snyder's words, "it's just good manners".
By now you recognise the hero’s journey structure all the time, when it’s executed perfectly (Chef), when it’s predictable and dull (Ready Player One), and even when it’s played with and elaborated on (The Force Awakens). But the structures you’re seeing all look two-dimensional, thin. The stories in Community itself are unrecognisable as neat circles. They form loops, tangled nets, and layers folding back over themselves. How do they work?
Finally you meet Linda Aaronson. Her 21st Century Screenplay is intended as a textbook, but it’s stylishly written and you find yourself reading it cover to cover. It explains the standard story structure, but also shows how it can go wrong (low stakes; disturbance comes too late; disturbance is not significant enough; single story beat repeated; etc). Even better, the second half of the book is about more sophisticated story structures: interleaved flashbacks, multi-protagonist ensemble stories, parallel narratives. You feel more and more confident in analysing each new movie you see.
Now, you spend most evenings on the couch watching movies on Netflix, then discussing their strengths and weaknesses with your new partner, a fellow enthusiast. When you’re at work and your boss tells you that every successful pitch tells a story, you smile smugly. You feel like you’re watching movies on three different levels at once. You see how they work, you notice when they work well, and you enjoy debating how you’d fix them. Everything has fallen nicely into place.
As you drift off to sleep, you reflect on the last few months. Is there anything you should have done differently? You feel a nagging sense that your new partner kind of arrived out of the blue quite late, which feels unearned. But the main thing is that it would be great if you could have been somehow a bit more likeable.
Thank you for reading this far. If you know of other good books on scriptdoctoring, please hit me up on Twitter or via email. Thanks to Stephen Gregg for inspiration. The cover photo is by Yiran Ding on Unsplash.