It’s impossible to say what makes a film great. Useless to prescribe any rules, since often the best films break them anyway. A more helpful discussion, then, might be to talk about what makes a film bad — and what can be done about it (this is the helpful part).
Lately we’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s classic book on screenwriting, Save the Cat!, to see what lessons a major Hollywood screenwriter offers independent filmmakers like ourselves. One of the most useful sections comes toward the end, when Snyder discusses common story problems and what he suggests writers do about them. Even though we’re not particularly interested in writing the next Hollywood blockbuster, these tips were surprisingly great and helped clarify some story fundamentals in our minds. So we thought we’d share them.
If your story is struggling and you’re not sure why, see if one of these fixes might solve the problem.
Snyder says one of the most common problems in any story is a passive hero. Circumstances move her forward, rather than the other way around. A hero can come in all forms, but the one thing she can’t be is passive. Passive heroes are boring. Uncompelling. We don’t want to watch them. In fact, Snyder goes so far as to say that a passive hero is, by definition, not a hero at all.
Snyder offers this guide to help identify passive heroes and get them moving again.
Is your hero’s goal clearly stated in the set-up? Is what your hero wants obvious to you and to the audience? If not, or if you don’t know what your hero’s goal is, figure it out. And make sure that goal is spoken aloud and restated in action and words throughout the story.
Do clues of what to do next just come to your hero or does he seek them out? If it all happens too easily for your hero, something is wrong. Your hero cannot be handed his destiny, he must work for it at every step.
Is your hero active or passive? If the latter, you have a problem. Everything your hero does has to spring from his burning desire and his deeply held need to achieve his goal.
Do other characters tell your hero what to do or does he tell them? Here’s a great rule of thumb: A hero never asks questions! The hero knows and others around him look to him for answers, not the other way around. If you see a lot of question marks in the hero’s dialogue, there’s a problem.
If your story is being revealed primarily through dialogue, that’s probably bad. “You’ve forgotten that your characters don’t serve you,” Snyder writes. “They serve themselves. They should walk into each scene with their own goals and say what’s on their minds, not yours.” We think this is true even in a documentary. Usually it’s the things the subject isn’t saying — the silences and the pauses — that reveal the most about them. Snyder: “As in Life, character is revealed by action taken, not by words spoken.”
Snyder comes from a world where films have good guys and bad guys. His advice is to always make the bad guy badder. Most of us don’t make films with “bad guys,” but the spirit of the advice can still apply: Give your hero something difficult to overcome. Make the conflict more…conflicty. Raise the stakes. It’s not very interesting to watch a film about someone who isn’t fighting against something. That old trope is true: conflict reveals character. If your film lacks significant conflict, it’s probably going to lack character too.
If the plot of your film sounds something like this: “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened,” your story is probably not that interesting. A good story is not just about events moving forward; it’s about events accelerating, getting more complicated. Snyder calls this: turn, turn, turn. “The basis of the ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ rule is: The plot doesn’t just move ahead, it spins and intensifies as it goes,” Snyder writes. “More must be revealed along every step of the plot about your characters and what all this action means.”
This idea is echoed in advice from South Park writer and creator, Trey Parker: “What should happen between every beat (in your story) is the word therefore or but.” And it’s further expanded in this piece by Tony Zhou, part of his excellent series Every Frame a Painting.
As viewers, we demand a lot from films. That old cliché used to describe amazing films — “I laughed! I cried!” — that’s true. We want stories to evoke emotion within us, and the more emotions the better. A common problem with films, especially short films, is they can be emotionally monotone. They are heavy. Or funny. Or sexy. Or clever. But rarely are they much more than that, and this lack of emotional diversity can make a film feel incomplete. While it might not be possible to include every emotion in a five-minute film, it is possible to include more than one. Make us laugh, make us cringe, make us frustrated. These are the things all great stories have been made of from the beginning of time.
Speaking of the beginning of time, the final (and perhaps most important) question Snyder suggests you ask yourself about your story is: “Is this primal? Would a caveman understand?” A good story connects with us at our deepest level, which is why the greatest stories have lasted thousands of years and will last thousands more. If your story doesn’t resonate on a very primal level — if it doesn’t contain an idea or emotion that everyone understands — it might not be worth telling.
Snyder gives these examples:
Die Hard: The desire to save one’s family Home Alone: The desire to protect one’s home Sleepless in Seattle: The desire to find a mate Gladiator: The desire to exact revenge Titanic: The desire to survive
Everyone understands these desires, whether they live in the jungle or just teleported here from the 12th century BC. “You may think your story is about something more ‘sophisticated’ than this,” Snyder writes. “It’s not. At its core it must be about something that resonates at a caveman level.”
Storytelling truths are both universal and incredibly easy to forget. It seems like every time we start working on a new project, we have to learn them all over again. We have to remind ourselves what stories are all about and what makes them worth watching. So if you’re in that same boat, don’t panic. Hopefully you found the fixes above as helpful as we did. And if you want more of them, check out Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat!