I read in Save the Cat! today that your needs to have something at stake, and what’s at stake needs to be primal – that is, something connected to survival or reproduction. He offers a number of “example ideas,” one of them being a company retreat in which people suddenly start getting murdered, as a means toward “downsizing” the company. He says that this is more compelling than playing pranks, which I guess, in this example, is true.
Naturally, I began looking at Charisma, and started asking questions about the stakes that my character has. The second act is about Charisma getting out of jail (or rather, getting acquitted) for a crime she didn’t commit – a primal stake, to be sure. We can all relate to a character in that situation, because if we were in jail for a crime we didn’t commit, we’d want the same thing.
But I’m afraid the stakes after that are a little weak – she tries to convince teachers to change her grades so she can stay in school. Much less compelling, in comparison to the drama that preceded it. Ultimately, this will prove to be a fruitful exercise and the villain will put her life (literally) on the line, which gets us back to the primal stakes (which have been appropriately raised), but I’m wondering whether this second half of the second act is too much of a back-pedal from what happened before it. Should this portion come earlier, maybe, so the stakes are raising linearly, rather than going up and down? Or is that dip a necessary component to the drama – it’s the valleys that make the hardest mountains to climb.
I’ve wondered before whether Snyder’s goals aren’t a little different from my own. And besides, how much can you trust his advice – according to IMDb he’s only had two movies made, one of which one a Razzie award for “Worst Screenplay,” and though he’s surely doctored dozens of others, that’s not exactly a gleaming resume. Maybe his attachment to the formula is part of the problem.
So I started looking at other movies for the hero’s primal urge. Movies I’m intimately familiar with that are also highly revered screenplays.
Aladdin – At the start, he just cares about finding food (survival) and getting the girl (reproduction). When he gets out of the cave, there is no more immediate threat to his survival, so he turns to reproduction, asking the genie for something that will get him the girl. Then he gets the girl … and gets captured, escapes … and realizes he needs to tell the truth to get the girl, gets ready to tell the truth … and then Jafar comes back, and he has to both survive and get Jasmine back. It’s an exhausting zig-zag of attention, but it’s important, because when we’re focusing on one, the other is always in the background waiting to rear its ugly head. The triumph of one always leads to the fall of the other, until the very end of the movie. So there’s lesson #1 – intentions can play off each other, as long as they climax simultaneously.
The Shawshank Redemption – Physical survival and escape from prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Sounds familiar. The physical threat of death dissipates very quickly, but the theme is more about emotional survival, and those stakes continue to get heightened. Lesson #2 – the survival doesn’t have to be physical, as long as the theme is consistent with that.
The Usual Suspects - Verbal is the hero, and he’s constantly trying to “survive” and “make it in the big world.” Lesson #3 – the survival can look like “making it,” as in “being successful” or “being famous.” The character would have to be someone who associates riches with survival, subconsciously if nothing else. Of course, this theme kind of turns on its head with the twist, but that doesn’t change the fundamental lesson at all.
The Silence of the Lambs – In all the interactions between Hannibal and Clarice there’s the sense of personal threat, as well as a hint of sexual tension. Of course, the sex will never be consummated, and Clarice says toward the end that he wouldn’t come after her, because, “He’d consider it rude,” but by that point it doesn’t matter because it’s not about her physical safety, it’s about saving someone’s life. So there’s lesson #4 – the survival doesn’t necessarily have to be the hero’s own – if her interest is in saving someone else. We simply must be made to care about that someone else, and our sympathies then move with the hero, whose job is to save that person.
Of course, all of these films carry something in common that we haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the subtleties that make a good movie great. The Usual Suspects was good, but those last five minutes made it the 21st best movie of all time, according to IMDb. The Silence of the Lambs was an outstanding screenplay, only made better by a pair of brilliant performances by our two stars – at every interaction between the two characters there’s a physical threat, but over time we realize that the threat is more internal than external – that he’s inside her head, and also inside ours. At every moment there’s a tantalizing sexuality there that just can’t be explained.
So here’s lesson #5: It’s all in the subtext. In the greatest movies ever made, the quality lies in what wasn’t said on screen. What the characters weren’t saying when they talked to each other. What we go away thinking about when we’re done.
And lesson #6: The urge to write a successful screenplay is primal.