Wednesday, December 30, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 9 – The End of Act Two

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

In my last entry in my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) we were approaching the end of Act Two. E.T. and Elliot were sick and the government had just moved in and taken over the house.

The next few scenes of the movie show the government men isolating the house and setting up a medical lab. They are designed to feel oppressive and scary. This is everything Elliot feared would happen. Though not much advances in the plot here, these scenes are important for setting tone and mood. In a noteworthy counterpoint, though, we finally see Keys’ face. In this scene he’s going to become a more sympathetic character. Kind of a version of Elliot but grown up.

This sequence does not really have a lot of plot twists. Instead it’s all about maximizing the emotional impact. Very little dialogue is needed, nor is there much exposition. That’s because everything has been set up earlier. We’ve reached the point in the movie where all that groundwork is going to be paid off. This allows the movie to now focus solely on hitting us emotionally.

The scene in the impromptu medical lab starts with Elliot’s (and by extension, E.T.’s) reaction to what’s going on. Elliot shouts, “you’re scaring him,” and later, “leave him alone. I can take care of him.” When Keys talks to Elliot, Elliot at first doesn’t want to tell him what the communicator does. Elliot says, “he came to me.” These lines, in very simple, straightforward ways, are paying off the character arc that’s been developing. Finally Elliot explains what the communicator is and tells Keys that E.T. needs to go home.

At its core this is an extended scene of suspense. We watch E.T. slowly deteriorating; hoping E.T.’s people will arrive in time to save him. The references to the communicator give us that hope, but as the scene goes along it looks less and less likely the outcome will be positive.

Here’s where the doctors and scientists become useful. We can track E.T.’s deterioration through their dialogue and actions. Nurses first call out that E.T.’s temperature is dropping. A little later they shout that his blood pressure is dropping. Toward the end of the scene they note that E.T.’s blood pressure is bottoming out, and finally, in case anybody missed it, someone actually says, “we’re losing E.T.” It’s all to dramatize the ticking clock.

In the middle of this E.T. separates psychically from Elliot. Again the medical equipment helps show this: we’ve been watching an EEG monitor with parallel waves for both of them, but suddenly E.T.’s diverges. Elliot doesn’t have to explain what’s going on in cumbersome, on-the-nose dialogue. He can simply reach out to E.T. and say, “stay.” He also calls back the line, “I’ll be right here,” from the beginning of Act Two. This line serves as a symbol of Elliot’s loyalty throughout the film.

There’s also a nice bit with Mike. As things are going badly he goes to sit in the little nest E.T. had made in the closet. Character behavior is the best way to show emotion without being heavy handed. Mike’s behavior tells us exactly how he’s feeling. He goes to the closet because he wants to be close to E.T.

Mike falls asleep in the closet and awakes to see E.T.’s flowers die before his eyes. Hey, another payoff! Because the movie set up the flowers earlier, it can now use them to show E.T.’s approaching death.

The act ends with the doctors frantically trying to resuscitate E.T. while the kids watch and cry. It’s all emotion. But structurally this is the moment of Elliot’s biggest failure. It appears E.T. has died. Elliot could not save him. Sometimes the end of Act Two is referred to as the "All is Lost" moment. It sure looks that way here.

And then we’re into Act Three.

Monday, December 28, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 8 – The Halloween Sequence

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

We’ve now reached the second half of Act II in my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). This is the Halloween sequence. What’s interesting is that in most movies this sequence is kind of slow and quiet. Often we deal with subplots, give the audience some time to catch their breath after the midpoint, and perhaps recap the situation in case anybody’s lost. Though E.T. does a little of all of these, this sequence is actually one of the most action packed outside of the third act. Just goes to show that each story is a unique animal.

Last time I mentioned a couple scenes of preparation leading up to this sequence. The movie continues with another scene of preparation where we see Elliot and Gertie putting on make-up as Elliot makes sure Gertie understands the plan. This is another use of scenes of preparation: if we know the characters’ plan we can tell if it’s going well or not. E.T. disguises this exposition a bit by having Elliot not trust the young Gertie, which gives him an excuse to recap.

The mission is to sneak E.T. out of the house disguised as Gertie so he and Elliot can set up E.T.’s radio and call for help. Mary becomes an obstacle here – they must get E.T. past her, thus the need for the ruse to have E.T. pretend to be Gertie in a ghost costume. This obstacle adds some drama and tension to the scene. And remember Halloween was advertised way back in the dinner table scene in Act One, so the idea that they can use costumes to overcome this challenge seems clever rather than convenient.

The movie makes this a brief but tense scene of suspense. Mary wants to take the kids’ picture in costume. Several things threaten to undo their charade: E.T. thinks Michael’s fake wound is real, he says “thank you” when Mary compliments their costumes and he falls when the camera flashes. But in the end Michael and Elliot manage to overcome all of these challenges.

There is some more fun and games with the premise here relating to E.T. not understanding Halloween – E.T. trying to heal Michael’s fake wound and shouting “home, home” when he sees a kid in a Yoda costume. We also get another ticking clock – Mary orders the kids to be back by an hour after sunset. Michael reiterates this deadline when Elliot and E.T. prepare to head for the woods. It’s a deadline Elliot will of course fail to make.

Now there are several intercutting storylines. We see Elliot and E.T. going to the woods and making the radio. There is the scene where E.T. makes Elliot’s bike fly. It’s a wonderful bit of magic that maintains the uplifting, joyous tone of the film. Tone is a subtle and important concept often overlooked by screenwriters. Remember, this is supposed to be a positive transformative experience for Elliot. As we’re moving into the more traumatic part of the movie it’s nice to be reminded of the pluses Elliot gets from knowing E.T. It also serves as preparation-in-opposition…make the character happy before delivering the bad news.

This is intercut with Mary getting more and more worried as the kids miss the deadline for returning home. And when Mary leaves to go look for them, we see Keys and his government men enter the house and search it. Danger is coming. The tension and suspense are ramping up.

Meanwhile, back in the woods, Elliot can’t get E.T. to leave his radio and come home. E.T. indicates to Elliot that he is getting sick. Elliot then tries to convince E.T. to stay with him, promising to protect him. He tells E.T. they can “grow up together.” Elliot, getting desperate, is revealing his true inner feelings. I find at this stage in movies there is often a scene where the main character finally confesses their real emotions. We also see the pull between what Elliot wants and what he knows he has to do…a crucial element of coming of age.

Note that in the mythology structure we’re in the “innermost cave.” The escape from the house and building of the radio is a “supreme ordeal” that will allow Elliot to “seize the elixir” that will allow him to finally succeed. In this movie the elixir is contacting E.T.’s alien pals. Often neither the character nor the audience knows that the elixir has been seized. The true nature of the elixir is hidden at this point. But it is the character’s emotional growth – in this case Elliot standing up and taking charge – that leads to them getting the elixir.

When Elliot wakes up the next morning, E.T. is gone. The movie cuts to the house where Mary is talking to the police. Elliot returns, looking sick. He tells Mike he has to find E.T. When Mike takes off on his bike, he realizes a car is following him and has to lose them. Elliot is getting sick, E.T. is lost and the government is about to pounce. Things are not going well as we build to the Act Two break.

Mike finds E.T. passed out in a stream and brings him back. Things have gotten out of hand. So Mike finally brings Mary up and shows her E.T. Elliot tells her that he and E.T. are “sick…I think we’re dying.” The movie is ratcheting up the stakes. This is now life and death, not just for E.T. but for Elliot. Unfortunately, Mary reacts just as they feared she would – she is disgusted by E.T. and drags the kids away. And at that moment the government men seize the house.

Things are spinning out of control as we move into the final sequence of Act Two and build toward the turning point.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 7 – The Midpoint

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

We’re now into Act Two in my scene-by-scene analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). In this next section we’re going to see some more of the “fun and games” that often happens in the first half of Act Two, but we’re also going to start building to the midpoint. I’ll then look carefully at the midpoint, which spins the plot into a new direction.

We pick up the story with Elliot and Michael going to school the day after Elliot has faked being sick. There’s a brief bus stop scene where one of Michael’s friends mentions the word “extra-terrestrial” which will give E.T. his name. (Notice how Elliot’s name begins and ends with the letters E and T…a nifty little metaphorical connection between the two.) There’s also a cute girl who says hi to Elliot – a plant that will be paid off shortly.

Then we go to another brief scene back at the house where Mary hears something in Elliot’s room and goes to investigate. She almost finds E.T., but he hides by blending into a pile of stuffed animals. Just a little reminder of the risk of discovery.

Next we have a sequence where we intercut Elliot at school and E.T. exploring the house. E.T. tries beer and gets drunk, which causes Elliot to get drunk in school. In response to things E.T. sees on T.V., Elliot rescues frogs that are going to be dissected and kisses the cute girl we saw at the bus stop. This is primarily fun and games – the filmmakers are exploring the slapstick humor potential of the psychic connection between Elliot and E.T. This is called "milking" their premise.

But there are also several important things that happen subtly in these scenes to help the story along. First, there are plants for upcoming sequences – one notable example is the “Speak and Spell” game E.T. will use to build his radio. We also see E.T. getting the idea to build a radio from a long distance commercial and a Buck Rogers cartoon. Showing how E.T. comes up with his plan makes it feel organic and helps the plot flow from one sequence to the next.

The scene also slips in several little thematic bits. We have, of course, the reinforcement of the psychic connection. We also get Elliot’s first kiss. Though this isn’t really a big part of the plot or character arc, it does have nice resonance with the coming-of-age theme. I also noted when Elliot said, “save him,” while he’s looking at the frog after he gets a psychic impulse from E.T. This establishes Elliot’s need to save E.T. At this particular moment he’s transferred that need to the frogs – but then E.T. kind of looks like a frog!

Mary comes home and we get more slapstick humor as Gertie tries to introduce her to E.T. but she’s too preoccupied to notice the alien in the same room. Again, not an important plot point, but remember this movie’s supposed to be fun! The important thing that does happen in this scene is E.T. first speaks. Gertie then teaches him a few words, such as “phone,” that will be important for him to convey his plan.

Elliot and Michael return home and we see what I mark as the midpoint of the movie: E.T. explains, using the comic strip, his plan to phone home. Elliot responds, “and they’ll come.” The story has spun in a new direction – there’s now a plan Elliot needs to execute.

But that’s not all. We follow this up with the scene where Michael and Elliot are looking for material to build the radio in the garage. Elliot asks what kinds of things Michael thinks E.T. will need to make his device and Michael responds that Elliot is the genius; he’s the one with “absolute power.” In addition to calling back the earlier line this is a test on Elliot’s coming-of-age journey. He wanted to be in charge and now he has to deal with the responsibility of that.

This scene also shows Elliot and Michael reminiscing about when their father lived with them, which provides some good context for Elliot’s journey toward manhood. It reinforces Elliot's feelings of abandonment and the challenge of maintaining his relationship with his father from a distance. In the resolution of the movie we're going to see Elliot dealing with these issues when he has to bid E.T. goodbye and accept that it's the right thing even if he doesn't like it.

Another important point introduced in this scene is the idea that E.T. is getting sick. Michael comments that E.T. doesn’t look good (first we’ve heard that), and Elliot responds, “we’re fine,” ominously hinting that Elliot’s health is now dependent on E.T.’s. Meanwhile, we see the government van outside with its electronic listening equipment. The government men overhear the conversation.

The movie has just introduced two ticking clocks into the story. Elliot needs to help get E.T. home but he doesn’t have unlimited time to do it. He has to accomplish his goal before E.T. gets too sick and before Keys and his men capture E.T. The suspense has just been ratcheted up – a great thing to do at the midpoint.

In the next scene Mary reads a section of Peter Pan to Gertie in one room (the part about believing in fairies, a nice thematic complement to Elliot’s belief in E.T.), while E.T. builds the radio in the adjoining room. In this scene we see E.T.’s healing powers demonstrated when Elliot cuts his finger, and plant the word “ouch” which will be paid off in the climax. We also hear E.T.’s breathing getting raspy and see the flowers beginning to wilt – again affirming the stakes and the ticking clock.

The scene in the garage and the scene where E.T. builds the radio are scenes of preparation for the big Halloween sequence. We’re setting up the stakes – what could happen if the radio doesn’t work. In the second scene, Elliot insists, “it’s going to work!” We can see how anxious he is and sense how important this is to him. Scenes of preparation are often used to touch base with our characters’ emotions. These scenes also help us transition from the midpoint into the next section of the movie.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 6 – The Beginning of Act Two

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

We now come to Act Two in my scene-by-scene analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). The beginning of Act Two is often the “fun and games” part of the movie where we explore all the fun angles of the premise. It’s also the time in the mythology structure where our hero is learning about the special world. We’ll see both of those things in this section of E.T.

We start with Mike arriving home. Elliot decides to show him E.T. We get a callback to an earlier line when Elliot demands “absolute power” from Mike.

I particularly noticed how this scene starts with some very mundane dialogue from Mike. He’s talking about another kid getting a high score on the Asteroids video game. This is a nifty example of “preparation in opposition.” Often writers use this technique to heighten an extremely sad or extremely happy event. If you’re going to deliver bad news to a character, get them in a good mood first and the news will hit even harder. E.T. often uses this technique to heighten our sense of wonder by preparing us with very mundane scenes just before something magical and alien is about to happen.

Mike is introduced to E.T., then immediately Gertie bursts in. She begins screaming and just then Mary comes home. These elements add some obstacles to the scene to give us conflict and therefore drama. Elliot is most interested in proving E.T. exists to Mike, the one who most mocked him. But he doesn’t want Mary to find out about E.T. So throwing Gertie and Mary into the scene complicates Elliot’s goal.

Once the immediate threat from Mary is overcome, Mike and Elliot have to convince Gertie not to tell on them. Here is a small example of “alternative tactics.” Elliot first tells Gertie adults can’t see E.T. (to which she responds, “give me a break”). When that doesn’t work he and Mike resort to threatening her doll. Having a character attempt to solve a problem unsuccessfully a few times gives a scene some back and forth.

It seems to me a lot of this scene is about Elliot taking charge, something he hasn’t been able to do up until now. And near the end of the scene Elliot declares, “I’m keeping him,” referring to E.T. Elliot finally has something important that’s just his.

Then we get a quick reminder of the bigger threat: a shot of Keys and his men looking down on the suburbs.

And we’re back to Elliot’s room for more interaction between E.T. and the kids. Now that the movie has defined who the allies are (Elliot, E.T., Michael and Gertie) and who the enemies are (Mary and Keys), the kids begin to learn more about the special world of E.T.

First, they focus on what E.T. is and where he comes from. In order to show that he comes from outer space, E.T. levitates some clay balls to form a solar system. This is particularly important because it’s defining E.T.’s powers. Later on in this scene he brings the dying flowers Gertie brought back to life (a “plant” that will pay off in Act Three – and sorry for the unavoidable pun!). We now know E.T. can levitate and heal. These are all the powers he will ever really have.

By setting up all of E.T.’s special abilities at this point in the movie we don’t feel cheated when he wields them in more critical moments. Imagine how you would react if E.T. suddenly shot lasers out of his eyes during the escape in Act Three. It would just feel wrong. But when he levitates the bikes we don’t question it because we know levitation is one of his powers.

(I’d like to point out something at this juncture: despite the presence of an alien, E.T. is not really a science fiction movie. It’s a fantasy. E.T.’s powers aren’t explained in any way scientifically. He’s so far advanced he can just do things that are like magic to us. Real science fiction bases the fantastical elements on real technology projected out into the future. I’ve noticed that when Spielberg tackles “science fiction” it’s most often this more magical fantasy approach.)

Finally we are reminded of the threat of Keys yet again. E.T. gets upset, Michael asks what’s wrong and Elliot says “something scary.” He goes outside and hears Keys and his men in the wilderness behind the house. They’re getting closer. It’s fun and games for now, but it’s not going to stay that way!

Monday, December 14, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 5 – The Dinner Table Scene and End of Act I

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

I left off my scene-by-scene analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) with the scene where Elliot first sees E.T. The next scene is Elliot going up into the woods to search for the alien where he tosses Reese’s Pieces candy about as a lure. This candy will become an important object with multiple payoffs through the rest of this sequence. At the end of the scene Elliot spots Keys looking for clues in the grass. Elliot hides from him, and then sneaks away. Instinctively he understands that Keys is potentially dangerous.

Next we have the dinner table scene. I want to spend some time on this scene because I think it’s excellent. In terms of its story purpose this is a purely expository scene. The plot doesn’t advance at all here but we learn important information and set up concepts that will be used later in the movie. Yet the scene is one of the most memorable in the early part of the movie – a rarity for a scene of exposition!

Let’s look at what the scene accomplishes:

1) It advertises Halloween. The kids talk about what costumes they’re going to wear. Halloween will be the backdrop for a major arc of action in the middle of the movie. This reference subtly points us toward upcoming events, helping grease the forward momentum of the story. Also, since the audience has been told Halloween is approaching, when the kids use their costumes to sneak E.T. out of the house it doesn’t feel too “convenient.” If there was no mention of Halloween until that scene, the timing might feel a little coincidental. I’m sure this was entirely intentional on the part of Ms. Mathison.

2) It sets up the family backstory. In this scene we learn that Mary has recently been divorced and their father has a new girlfriend. This is handled beautifully in subtext. When Elliot protests that his father would believe him about seeing an alien, Mary suggests he call his father. Elliot says he can’t because dad is in Mexico “with Sally.” Mary tries to change the subject to hide her pain, but in the end of the scene says, “he hates Mexico.” Michael gets mad at Elliot for hurting their Mom’s feelings. Without ever using the words “divorce” or “girlfriend” we completely understand the family history.

3) It establishes the danger. When Mary tells Elliot that if he sees the creature again he should call her and they’ll get someone to take it away Elliot protests that they’ll do a lobotomy or something on it. This spells out why Elliot later hides E.T. and what the danger is if they’re caught. We’re establishing the fear part of the hope-and-fear equation.

4) It introduces Gertie. She mostly just repeats what other people say, adding in a little comic relief. By showing her so unsophisticated and childish, she doesn’t threaten Elliot’s standing as our most sympathetic character.

5) The “penis breath” line. Instead of getting mad, Mary laughs. More insight into her character.

What’s the key to achieving all this exposition in an interesting scene? It seems to me the answer is conflict. It’s not new conflict – the heart of the scene is Elliot protesting again that he’s seen something amazing and nobody believing him.

But this conflict is used to motivate the expository dialogue. The Halloween discussion is first but leads nicely into this topic when Michael teases Elliot by suggesting he go as a goblin. This conflict causes the absent father to come up and gives Elliot reason to express his fear of contacting the authorities. Everything is said to justify arguments about what Elliot has seen and whether it’s real rather than characters simply saying things to inform the audience.

Think about the bad version of this scene. Mary would start crying at the table, Michael would ask what’s wrong, and Mary would say she’s learned her ex-husband went on vacation with his new girlfriend. I see that kind of on-the-nose, unmotivated dialogue in tons of bad scripts.

After this scene we have E.T. finding Elliot staked out in the back yard in the middle of the night. E.T. brings a handful of Reese’s pieces, which is their first point of connection. (Paying off that candy!) Elliot lures E.T. up into his room where they begin to communicate when E.T. mimics Elliot’s movements. Finally both get tired and fall asleep. This mirroring hints at the impending psychic connection.

This is followed by a reminder of the threat. We see Keys and his compatriots searching in the woods with lights and beeping machinery. Keys finds a stash of Reese’s pieces. The movie is really making use of that candy. This kind of planting and payoff early in the movie builds audience trust that what they're seeing is important and will come into play later.

Next we have the scene where Elliot fakes being sick to stay home from school. We get some nice planting in this scene. We see Michael back the car out of the garage and accidentally skid past the end of the driveway. Michael’s poor driving skills will be paid off in Act Three when he has to drive the van.

Once Elliot is left alone with E.T., he begins to show the alien his world. We are also introduced to things like the hiding place in the closet among the stuffed animals and how easily E.T. is scared (when the dog tries to come into the room). When Elliot goes down to get some food for E.T., he tells him “I’ll be right here,” a line that will be echoed in the finale. Notice how much is planted in these early scenes. Planting and paying off objects, ideas and dialogue helps tie the movie together.

Finally the act ends when E.T. scares himself by opening the umbrella and that causes Elliot to jump downstairs at the refrigerator where he drops the milk. We realize that the boy and the alien share a psychic connection. Their fates are now intertwined. It is the point of no return. Elliot must help E.T. or suffer the consequences. And I think it is important to note that this moment is conveyed visually, through behavior, not through some kind of expository dialogue such as, “I feel like I’m psychically connected to this little alien.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 4 – The First Sequence

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

I’m going to continue my in-depth analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) by looking closely at the first sequence. I know I indicated I’d be discussing character next, but I think I’m going to hold off on that until after I’ve examined the movie sequence by sequence.

The opening shot of a movie is really important. It sets the tone and draws the audience in. It’s very important to consider the opening image when you’re writing your script. Much like in a movie, the first page of a script sets a tone in the reader’s mind.

The opening shot of E.T. is a starry night sky, which hints at the elements of wonder and outer space that are such a big part of this movie. We then tilt down to a woods and cut to the alien space ship in a clearing.

It’s crucial if you have something fantastic like aliens in your story that you introduce them early. In the first ten minutes or so we’re learning what the world of the movie is. If during this time you tell us aliens exist in this world, we believe it. But if you tell us this is the world as we know it and then introduce aliens in the middle of the movie, your movie will seem silly.

These opening scenes take care to show the aliens as non-threatening. They are small compared to the towering trees and they are shown gathering plants. We are also introduced to the aliens' heartlights and see how they are connected psychically when all the heartlights come on simultaneously. We don’t ever get a good look at the aliens in these scenes – they are kept in shadow and mist. This saves the reveal of what E.T. looks like for a better moment.

One of the shots shows E.T. looking out over the glittering lights of the suburbs. It suggests the same kind of wonder of the shot of the night sky. This and the fact that the aliens are kid size helps connect E.T. and Elliot.

Suddenly, humans arrive, roaring up in cars in a very threatening way. E.T. is separated from his friends who flee back to the ship. The first human we see is Keys. We don’t see his face but are given a close-up of his jangling ring of keys. The script I have (which is most likely a hybrid of the shooting script and a transcript) makes a big deal out of how threatening the sound of these jangling keys should be. This sets Keys out as the "hero villain" or the representative of the group of men chasing E.T. If your antagonists are a group, it's a good idea to set one apart as the primary representative of this group.

I love the way Keys is portrayed. He remains faceless but is given an identifying characteristic so we will be able to track him. The big ring of keys suggests adult bureaucracy and authority and by keeping the more human characteristics like his face hidden, he seems threatening. This is important to build tension early since he will turn out to be a fairly sympathetic guy in the end.

This bit ends with E.T. getting left behind, which is the domino that sets the story in motion.

We then move into Elliot’s house and are introduced to the key characters. We see Michael playing a role playing game with several friends. The mundane and very realistic teen dialogue grounds us in the real world after the mysterious alien opening.

We are introduced to our main character, Elliot, as an outsider in his own home. He wants to play with the older boys but can’t get their attention. Michael comments that they have to let him play for their mother. We see Elliot as an underdog, struggling for recognition. This gives him room to grow in what is a coming-of-age story and builds audience identification because we always sympathize with the underdog. I think it’s significant that throughout the movie Elliot doesn’t seem to have any friends his own age.

There is a subtle plant here as well. Elliot appeals to Michael to be allowed to play (thus singling Michael out as Elliot’s brother). Michael then refers to another boy and says Elliot will have to ask him as he is game master and therefore has “absolute power.” This absolute power phrase will be paid off later when Elliot demands that Michael give him absolute power before he reveals E.T.

Elliot goes out to wait for the pizza delivery – the price he must pay to play with the older boys. We’re then introduced to Mary, the mother of the family. She’s dancing to the radio as she cleans, and we see one of Michael’s friends make a motion to touch her butt. This introduces her as a younger, more fun, sexier character than many suburban moms. We also see through the next few scenes that she’s not really that good at enforcing discipline as the kids often ignore her commands.

These character introductions are crucial because these first impressions shape our idea of who these people are. As writers it’s important to consider how you want the audience to view your characters and craft an appropriate intro.

As Elliot returns from collecting the pizza, he hears something in the back yard and goes to investigate. This is where he throws the ball into the shed and it is thrown back out. He then runs in fear to the house. I think this is a great scene because throwing a baseball is a playful pastime. When E.T. throws the ball it’s almost like an invitation to play. But Elliot is too scared to engage yet. There are many other ways the filmmakers might have let Elliot know something was in the shed, but most would have been much more frightening.

Elliot runs into the house to tell the others. Here we see again that nobody takes him seriously. As soon as he says, “nobody go out there” the older boys immediately head outside. Upon finding E.T.’s tracks Michael explains it away as a coyote. Nobody respects Elliot’s concern.

Which is why when Elliot hears noises at two in the morning he goes to investigate by himself. This is where he goes into the garden behind the house, follows E.T.’s tracks, and finally sees E.T. for the first time. Both of them scream and E.T. flees. This is the catalyst of the movie. Elliot now knows that what he saw is no coyote.

The sequence ends with Elliot looking after the fleeing alien in wonder. I think this is important to keep us from becoming too afraid of E.T. This is not a horror movie after all!

So to summarize, this first sequence has effectively introduced us to most of the major characters (Gertie being the big exception probably because she’s even younger and smaller than Elliot and they didn’t want that to weaken his introduction as the underdog of the family); established that aliens exist but that otherwise this world is very much our world; and introduced the main tension by showing E.T. getting stranded and his first encounters with Elliot.

We the audience are now sympathetic to both Elliot and E.T. We wonder what will happen to E.T. and are worried about the scary men pursuing him. And we expect (partly because of our familiarity with story conventions) that these two underdogs will be forming a bond.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 3 – The Mythology Structure

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

This post I’m going to analyze the mythology structure in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). I think of the mythology structure (often referred to as “the hero’s journey”) as a character based approach to story building. Elliot is the hero of E.T., so as I look for the stages of the journey I will be looking for how they affect Elliot’s character. It may be useful to note at this point that E.T. is a story about a coming of age journey.

The Stages of the Journey:

Inciting Incident: E.T. is stranded. This is the incident that will lead to Elliot’s journey.

Call to Adventure: E.T. throws the ball out of the shed. This is an invitation from E.T., an invitation for Elliot to embark on an adventure. And how does Elliot respond?

Resisting the Call: Elliot responds by fleeing from the shed to get help. He doesn’t accept E.T.’s invitation.

Accepting the Call: However, Elliot’s family and friends don’t believe him. This changes the situation. When Elliot hears strange sounds late at night in the field behind his house, he goes to investigate, thus accepting the call to adventure.

Allies and Enemies: The allies and enemies stage works its way throughout Act I. We meet Michael and Gertie, Elliot’s primary allies. We meet Michael’s friends who will become minor allies. Elliot sees Keys (the name in the script for Peter Coyote’s character) looking for E.T. up in the woods. And we have Mary, his mom, who functions both as an ally and an enemy at various times.

Entering the Special World: Elliot lures E.T. into the house. The special world in this case is the world of aliens. Though Elliot hasn’t physically left his normal, suburban location and lifestyle, that world becomes something entirely different when Elliot introduces E.T. into it. This is a good example of the normal and special worlds being defined by the character’s experience of life rather than physical location.

Meeting the Mentor: E.T. is the primary mentor for Elliot. He is going to help Elliot become more mature.

Visiting the Oracle: I don’t really see an oracle scene in E.T.

Innermost Cave: Elliot enters the innermost cave – the deepest part of the special world – when his psychic connection with E.T. begins to affect his life. This is shown when E.T. gets drunk and it causes Elliot to be drunk at school. The implications are made clear a few scenes later when Michael notes that E.T. isn’t looking so good and Elliot responds, “we’re fine.” At this point Elliot’s relationship to the alien is as deep as it will ever be.

Supreme Ordeal: In this metaphorical Innermost Cave Elliot faces the Supreme Ordeal of sneaking E.T. out of the house and up to the mountain to build his radio on Halloween.

Seizing the Elixir: The “elixir” Elliot needs to save E.T. is the call for help. By succeeding at the Supreme Ordeal and completing the radio, the rescue that will allow Elliot to ultimately win is set in motion. Neither he nor the audience knows whether the call has been heard, but it’s common that we don’t realize the character has their metaphorical elixir until much later in the movie.

Death and Resurrection: Pretty obviously E.T.’s apparent death and resurrection. And importantly, when E.T. appears to die the psychic connection with Elliot is severed. A part of Elliot has died. But the new character born out of that is now capable of meeting challenges on his own.

Return to the Normal World: When Elliot separates from E.T. he returns to the normal world in the sense that he is now a regular suburban kid again.

Final Conflict: Sneaking E.T. out of the house again – but this time with government agents all around – and getting him to his rescue ship.

Master of Both Worlds: Elliot has saved E.T. (thus mastering the special world) and won the respect and faith of his family that he craved in Act One (thus mastering the normal world).

Character Archetypes:

Hero: Elliot

Shadow: Keys – a serious adult with little evident personality for most of the movie…who turns out to be more like Elliot than we would have guessed.

Shape Shifter: Mary (mom) – she’s on Elliot’s side in life, but she is also part of the adult world who cannot be trusted with knowledge of E.T. Ultimately she tries to defend Elliot from the government and is swayed to his point of view.

Trickster: Gertie. Elliot’s little sister mostly serves as comic relief.

Mentor: E.T. E.T. prompts Elliot to become more mature and helps him on the way.

Herald & Oracle: You could call E.T. a herald but he really serves more as a mentor. There aren’t really strong Herald and Oracle archetypes in the movie.

Threshold Guardians: Mary frequently serves this purpose. Elliot and his siblings often have to hide E.T. from her or get by her to move to the next stage – most obviously on Halloween. On a smaller lever you could call Michael a threshold guardian early on when he requires Elliot to prove E.T.’s existence. And Keys and the government men are sort of Threshold guardians at the end when they have to escape the house.

I’ll continue with the analysis of E.T. in the next post. Soon I’m going to start delving into a sequence by sequence study of the movie.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 2 – Three-Act Structure

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial)

Okay, I’m going to begin my analysis of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) with a breakdown of the three-act structure. I’ll note the rough times the various beats of the structure occur. The times will exclude the minute and a half of opening credits that run over a black background (so if you’re looking for these times on your DVD player, you’ll need to add 1:30 to the running time). Note the total running time of the theatrical release, minus these credits, is about 1:49:00.

Main Character: The main character is Elliot. I’ll deal more with his character in a later post.

Prologue: There is short prologue where we see the aliens gathering plants (though in shadow), the arrival of the government men and the hurried departure of the aliens. You could reasonably argue that this really isn’t a prologue since the movie would suffer greatly without it. I’m considering it a prologue for structural purposes since the story would still be understandable if you just started with Elliot at home.

Domino: E.T. is left behind (0:06:00). This puts our story in motion but it doesn’t rise to the level of Catalyst because we don’t have our main character yet. Note that the domino occurs during the prologue, which is not unheard of.

Catalyst: Elliot sees E.T. (0:13:00) and nobody believes him. I chose the moment where Elliot goes into the wilderness behind his house and actually sees E.T., though you could argue for the moment when Elliot discovers something is in the shed (which occurs at about ten minutes in). However in the shed scene Elliot doesn’t know what he’s encountered and everyone agrees something was in there. When he sees E.T. Elliot knows he’s dealing with something abnormal (he thinks it’s a goblin at first) and everyone discounts this knowledge. Elliot now has a problem.

Main Tension: “Can Elliot save E.T.?” Elliot’s problem isn’t entirely clear to him at the catalyst, but we, the audience, have enough information to begin to grasp it since we know E.T. has been left behind and we’ve seen his pursuers. We also now realize that Elliot is going to get involved with the lost little alien. (I’ll discuss the main tension more when I discuss Elliot’s character.)

Act One Break: I’m going to say it’s the moment when E.T. opens the umbrella, gets scared, and Elliot feels the same fear even though he’s downstairs at the refrigerator. (0:29:30). The obvious alternative is when Elliot brings E.T. home (which occurs at about 0:22:30). But the moment with the umbrella is when we first see the psychic connection between E.T. and Elliot. This gives us a nice “point of no return.” We now know Elliot can’t walk away from this relationship. His fate is intertwined with the alien.

It’s important to note in these breakdowns that it isn’t necessary to pick an exact frame of film where the beat occurs. Sometimes an entire scene several minutes long constitutes an act break or catalyst. Perhaps with E.T. it’s most useful to think of the group of scenes where Elliot brings E.T. home, communicates with him, and becomes connected to him as the end of Act One. Act Two then begins when Elliot starts figuring out what he’s going to do with his new friend.

Midpoint: “E.T. phone home” (0:54:00). E.T. has concocted a plan to build a communicator to call for help. With his newly acquired handful of words, he explains to Elliot his plan: “E.T. phone home.” Elliot’s response is, “and they’ll come.” They’ve now found a potential way to save E.T. Remember, the midpoint should mirror the resolution, so if the movie ends happily, the midpoint should be a successful moment.

Also tied into this beat is a scene quickly after where the listening truck patrolling the neighborhood overhears Elliot and his brother talking about E.T. The government is closing in, upping the stakes. And perhaps even more important we then learn that E.T. is starting to get sick from being out of his environment. The stakes have been raised even more.

This strikes me as a smart way to handle the Midpoint. You have the upbeat element but along with it an increase in the stakes to keep the tension high.

Notice also how this midpoint successfully spins the story in a new direction. The first half of Act Two was Elliot learning about E.T. while keeping him hidden. Now we have a new plan of action, a clearer goal, and increasing danger.

Act Two Break: E.T. “dies” and Elliot’s psychic link with him is broken (1:25:00). The moment of biggest failure, all seems lost.

Epiphany (A.K.A. the twist): Elliot discovers E.T. is not really dead and that his people have returned for him (1:32:30). Elliot now sees the route to success. But there are still major obstacles in his way. He must get E.T. out of the house and past all the cops and government people outside – a tall order for a young boy.

Resolution: Elliot gets E.T. to his ship. E.T. says goodbye and goes home. Elliot has saved E.T. A bittersweet but ultimately happy ending.

And there you have the three-act structure of E.T. In the next couple of posts I’ll look at the characters and at the mythology structure. One thing I might note, I have no particular expertise in this movie. I am studying it and trying to figure it out as I do these posts – and hope to learn something myself in the process!

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Depth Analysis: E.T. - Part One

I'm going to try something a little different for the next month or so. I want to do an in-depth analysis of the story structure, characters and scene work of one movie. In each post I'll analyze how that movie uses one or two of the techniques I've covered in this blog.

The movie I've chosen for this purpose is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial written by Melissa Mathison.

I picked this particular movie for several reasons. First, I wanted a movie that was popular but also creatively respected. Second, I wanted a movie that succeeded at least in part because of its writing (not in spite of its writing). And I wanted an original screenplay as opposed to something based on pre-existing material. Plus, E.T. has stood the test of's still popular twenty-seven years after its release. The one downside is it's not a particularly recent movie, but I think its enduring popularity makes up for that.

I'm not going to start the analysis yet to give you a chance to watch the movie again if you like (I suspect most of my readers have probably seen it, but if you haven't here's a great excuse). I'll just note some of the facts about the movie: E.T. is a family film with light adventure and sci-fi elements. It was released in 1982 and grossed almost $350 million in its first run. It was nominated for a best screenplay Academy Award. And (as you may know) it was directed by Steven Spielberg.

(Please note: I'll analyze the original theatrical release version, not the revised cut re-released in 2002...though I might mention some of the differences in terms of the effect of editing decisions and the original script.)

Next week I'll begin the analysis with a break down of E.T.'s three-act structure. If this goes well I'll do it every few months with a different movie, trying to cross genres and types. So let me know if you like it!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


(Spoilers: Halloween, Aliens, Star Wars, Children of Men, The Hangover)

Last post I talked about suspense. This post I want to discuss what is in some ways the opposite side of the same coin: surprise.

Suspense builds tension through anticipation. The audience knows what could be coming and watches to see if the character can avoid it. With surprise the audience is caught completely off guard by the event. Surprise gives you a big bang in one moment of a scene where suspense gives you impact throughout the scene. Good movies tend to use both techniques to great effect.

The most obvious examples of surprise are when things jump out at the audience unexpectedly in a horror movie. It’s the old cliché…we think the killer’s dead, the character relaxes, and then BAM – Michael Myers jumps up from behind the couch in Halloween (screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill).

There’s a similar example in the opening scene from Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby). A terrorist bomb goes off at a completely unexpected moment, causing the audience to jump out of their seat – and immediately engaging us with the story in a very visceral way.

Surprise isn't just used to startle or scare the audience. Remember the scene in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) where Alan walks into the bathroom, starts to urinate, then hears a growl? He looks over to see a tiger lounging on the bathroom floor. Surprising and hilarious.

Effective surprise often requires balancing two competing needs. Naturally, the audience must not see the event coming or it won’t be a surprise. However, the event must be believable or the audience won’t buy it – you’ll lose them instead of drawing them deeper into the story. So often you have to plant the surprise but distract the audience from both the plant and the surprise itself.

For example, there’s a great surprise moment at the end of Star Wars (written by George Lucas): Han Solo sweeps in from out of nowhere to blast some pesky tie fighters just before they can shoot down Luke’s X-wing in the Death Star trench. It’s surprising because we’ve been told Han Solo has left to pay off the price on his head. But we believe it because throughout the movie Han has been impulsive, and we’ve seen the growing bond of friendship and duty that has grown inside of him. We believe he’s the kind of guy who might change his mind and race back to help.

Another example I like is at the ending of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron). We think Ripley and Bishop have made it safely back to their ship. Bishop apologizes for appearing to abandon Ripley and she assures him he did well. Then there’s a drip of acid…and suddenly an alien tail spikes through Bishop’s chest, tearing him in half. Mama Alien climbs out of the landing gear of the drop ship.

This is a more elegant version of “the killer’s not really dead.” It’s set up in an earlier scene when we see the drop ship’s landing gear get tangled in a bunch of debris on a platform near where we know the Mama Alien is lurking. At the time, we don’t think much of it, but it gives us a logical explanation for how the alien got where it was.

This moment also demonstrates another good surprise technique: preparation in opposition. The Mama Alien attack comes in the midst of a calm scene where two characters who have been fighting are making peace. The audience is lulled into relaxing, thinking the action is over. If Mama Alien had attacked when they were in the middle of an alien nest it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

Preparation in Opposition can also be used to heighten emotional impact. If a character is going to get bad news, deliver it in a scene where they’re exceptionally happy, and vice versa. This is why the cliché developed that whenever a cop is going to die he’s always two weeks from retirement.

Not every surprise requires preparation in opposition or a disguised plant, but they do need to be unexpected yet believable. There’s a screenwriting axiom: coincidence that works against your main character is okay, but coincidence that works in his favor is unacceptable.

Surprise is especially important in mystery, farce and horror. Those genres rely on unexpected twists and turns that keep the audience off balance. Good surprises puncture any sense the audience may have that they know what’s coming.

As long as you play by the rules surprise can make your scripts seem unpredictable in a good way.

Friday, November 13, 2009


(Spoilers: The Hangover, Children of Men)

I have a secret screenwriting weapon. It’s called suspense. You’ve probably heard the old saying that drama is conflict. True, but I think it's equally true that drama is suspense.

Suspense draws the audience into the movie and builds tension, putting them on the edge of their seat. It creates an intense response that when done well will make people passionate about a script or movie. A good suspense scene will drive readers nuts – and they won’t even know why.

Let's start with defining what suspense is. Suspense is the anticipation of a potential impending disaster for a character we care about. Tension builds as the disaster approaches and the audience wonders whether the character will be able to avoid it or not. There’s a will-it-or-won’t-it-happen aspect to suspense scenes that distinguishes them from action scenes.

For some reason nobody outside of thriller writers really talks about suspense much. But all genres need suspense.

Can the hero make it to the wedding to stop his true love from marrying someone else? That’s suspense. And it’s a common scene in both romantic comedies and romantic dramas.

Remember the scene in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) when the guys have to get the tiger back to Mike Tyson’s mansion? That’s suspense. Good broad comedies are full of suspense scenes.

How about in The Matrix (written by Andy and Larry Wachowski) when Neo and company find they are trapped in a walled off building due to Cypher’s betrayal with agents closing in? They have to climb down inside the walls without being heard in order to escape. Suspense.

So how do we craft a good suspense scene?

As I mentioned, the key element of suspense is a potential impending disaster. This disaster must be clear to the audience and it must affect a character we care about. In the tiger scenes in The Hangover, the impending disaster is Mike Tyson beating the crap out of our loveable goofballs if they don’t get the tiger back to his place.

Now our characters set about attempting to avoid the disaster. We increase the suspense by throwing ever-greater obstacles in the characters’ path. As they overcome each one, a bigger one appears. We want a roller coaster effect – highs as well as lows. So the characters seem to get closer to their goal only to suddenly find themselves farther away.

In the scene in The Matrix our heroes cleverly climb into the wet wall to avoid detection. It appears they might make it out of the trap. But it's dusty in the wall. One character's foot slips, sending a cascade of dust into another's face. Which leads to a sneeze and the jig is up.

It’s important to take your time in a suspense scene. Usually in screenwriting we want to keep the pace up, keep the story rocketing forward. But you can’t get the audience to go from comfortably munching their popcorn to sitting on the edge of their seat, fingers dug into the armrests, in a few seconds. Tension needs time to build. However, tension doesn’t increase if the character is just kind of hanging out. The idea is to continually ratchet up the tension by gradual degrees as the scene progresses.

Another useful tool to build suspense is the “ticking clock” which I covered in my last post. The impending disaster doesn’t seem threatening unless it’s actually imminent. Put a time limit on your character to solve their problem. In The Hangover Mike Tyson doesn’t tell the buddies to bring the tiger back whenever they feel like it. He gives them a deadline. As that deadline approaches tension increases.

Let’s look at a good suspense scene in Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby). Theo, Kee and Miriam are at a supposed safe house when in the middle of the night Theo overhears the resistance leaders planning to kill him in the morning and hold Kee for their own purposes. Theo finds Kee and Miriam and they try to sneak out of the house.

First, there is a ticking clock – it’s near dawn. They don’t have much time to escape unnoticed. Theo’s in such a hurry he doesn’t even stop to get shoes.

They sneak outside and look for a car with keys in it. They are almost discovered by guards (an obstacle). Theo disables one car and they get in another. But it won’t start (another obstacle). So he pushes it until it’s rolling down the hill. But this alerts the guards and the chase is on.

They reach the bottom of the hill and the car comes to a stop in a big mud puddle. Shoeless Theo has to get out and push so they can jump-start it. The first attempt fails as the bad guys are closing in. Finally they get the car started and escape just in the nick of time.

Notice how the tension in the scene builds to the final escape. There are ups and downs, but as the trio makes their way to freedom, the obstacles and the risk of capture increase. And that causes the tension in the audience to increase. When they finally escape we breathe a big sigh of relief.

(For another example of great suspense, read my post on a submarine scene form The Abyss.)

Note that it’s important to suspense that the audience know what’s going on. They have to see the disaster coming in order to be anxious about it. The opposite of that is surprise. Both are useful tools and particularly powerful when combined in a scene. I’ll talk more about surprise in my next post.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ticking Clocks

(Very minor spoilers: Alien, Aliens, High Noon, Almost Famous, Notorious, Little Miss Sunshine, Silence of the Lambs.)

“Ticking Clock” is a screenwriting term that refers to some kind of time limit on a story arc. It can be used for a scene, a sequence or the whole movie. The most obvious (and fairly cliché) example is a bomb with a countdown timer on it. The hero has to defuse the bomb before that timer gets to zero!

We can see plenty of similar examples in a wide variety of movies:

In High Noon (screenplay by Carl Foreman) the ticking clock is in the title. The bad guys are coming to town at noon. As the sheriff tries to gather allies to help him face down the villains, we constantly cut to shots of the clock getting closer and closer to noon.

Throughout the third act in both Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) and Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) we hear a computerized voice reading a countdown to imminent destruction – in the first movie the self-destruct sequence of the ship, and in the second movie that nuclear detonation of the facility’s failing power plant.

In The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) we know that the serial killer keeps his victims alive for several days – thus when a new victim is kidnapped, Clarice suddenly has a time limit to solve the case.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family must get Olive to the beauty pageant before registration closes. As they get closer to that deadline, they get more and more desperate.

And that is the purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene. The ticking clock is related to the stakes. We know something good will happen if the character succeeds and something bad will happen if the character fails. A ticking clock gives the character a deadline to achieve success or failure.

Consider Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe). It is a coming of age story about young William going on tour with a rock band to write an article for Rolling Stone. Like many road movies it’s a bit episodic. But as the deadline for delivering the article approaches and William repeatedly fails to convince the lead guitarist to give him a crucial interview, the tension ratchets up. William can’t just go along enjoying the adventure – he has to get his article done!

A ticking clock needn’t be a literal clock, of course. The deadline doesn’t even have to be at a specific time. We just need to know that at some point the opportunity for the hero to succeed will come to an end, and we need some way to measure how close we are to that point. For example in Speed (written by Graham Yost) the ticking clock is the gas gauge on the bus running down toward empty.

There’s a very clever ticking clock in one scene in Notorious (written by Ben Hecht). The spy characters played by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman have to get down to the wine cellar to look for a clue during a big party at the Nazi mansion. They’ve stolen a key to get access. But the champagne is running out. They have to do the job before the butler needs to go to the wine cellar for more champagne.

As Grant and Bergman make their way down to the cellar we keep cutting back to the ice bin filled with champagne bottles. Each time the number of bottles is getting smaller and smaller. The popping of champagne corks are like nails in our heroes’ coffins.

At first it seems like there is plenty of time. But then one obstacle after another interferes – a jealous husband, chatty guests, a broken bottle – and next thing we know the last champagne bottles are coming out of that bin and our heroes are still in harms way.

In this case we don’t have a specific time on the clock – like high noon – when the jig is up. Hitchcock is using intercutting to show us the window of opportunity slowly closing. This technique goes back to the days of silent film – the woman on the ice floe heading for the waterfall or the woman tied to the train tracks as the train approaches.

And imagine how much less exciting the scene would be if there was enough champagne in that bin to last the whole party.

Perhaps you've already realized that what we're talking about here is suspense. Ticking clocks are critical to building suspense. And I'll talk in more detail about suspense in my next post.

Does your story suffer from a lack of urgency? Try adding a ticking clock. Got a scene that lacks intensity? Ticking clock. It’s a powerful screenwriting tool.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Review of "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder

One of the hottest screenwriting books of the last few years is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It came out in 2005 so I’m a little late getting around to reading it. (And unfortunately Mr. Snyder passed away recently.)

Snyder was a successful screenwriter (always a good sign when you’re looking for a how-to book). His genre was studio family comedy. And the book pretty much assumes, whether Snyder intended it or not, that you want to write something similar.

The book is billed as “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” which I think is a bit of an exaggeration. The biggest problem is that, like many “gurus,” Snyder thinks that his way is the only way. For example, he insists that you break your story out on index cards. That’s a common approach and I’ve done it for several scripts, but many professional screenwriters turn out perfectly good scripts without using index cards. However if you consider Snyder’s rules to be suggestions then I think you’ll find a lot of pretty useful ideas in there.

The book is an easy, thought provoking read. And I really like that it gives exercises at the end of each chapter. For a beginner you could do worse than working through the book.

The first three chapters are on honing your film’s concept and researching the genre. These chapters are excellent and too many books and classes breeze past these critical topics.

I’m less a fan of the sections on structure. Snyder introduces his own beat sheet that is pretty much a variation on the three-act theory (and he acknowledges Syd Field, the father of three act). I do like Snyder's addition of a few thematic beats.

The most significant difference I see is that he puts his “All is Lost” moment a sequence ahead of the “Break into Three.” Typically the end of Act II is the moment of the character’s biggest failing. But Snyder has that be the moment the character figures out how to overcome the obstacle. Act III is about putting the plan into action.

I’m always open to new ideas on structure but I don’t think this one really holds up. Once the character knows how to defeat the bad guy it seems like Act III will get pretty perfunctory. You can do a lot of spectacular showdown stuff but we’re talking about a quarter of the movie here. How do you keep it interesting once the main character has found his solution? Moreover in all my years of analyzing movies I’ve rarely seen actual films play out this way.

One spot that annoyed me was Snyder using Miss Congeniality (a film in his chosen genre, I noted) as proof that his system is superior…and using Memento as an example of where varying from it fails. I think this argument is worth a little digression.

The first problem with Snyder’s claim is that he’s comparing apples and oranges. He uses boxoffice gross to assert that Miss Congeniality is more successful. While it’s true that Miss Congeniality grossed $106 million to Memento’s $25 million, it also cost $45 million versus $9 million. And I’m sure the advertising budget on Miss Congeniality was a lot higher, too. Any businessman knows gross does not equal success. “Return on Investment” is the far better metric. And Memento’s Return on Investment crushes Miss Congeniality’s.

I'd also take exception to the idea that financial success means the audience liked the movie better. Miss Congeniality was a big studio movie with a major star while Memento was a small indie film with a lesser known - though respected - actor in the lead. I bet a lot of the people who went to Miss Congeniality hadn't even heard of Memento. For a little indie film to do $25 million means that word of mouth had to be fantastic.

The second big issue is that Memento actually follows Snyder’s fifteen beat structure! Some of the beats come a few pages later, but the script is also 119 pages long and Snyder’s page numbers are based on 110 page script. (And the "All is Lost" comes even later, but I’ve already pointed out my quibble with his page count on that one.) Check it out:

1) Opening Image – The slowly fading Polaroid image of the dead body.

2) Theme Stated – (On p.3 instead of Snyder’s preferred p. 5) “You don’t know me. You don’t even know who you are.” The theme of Memento is about how we know anything for certain and how memory is unreliable yet all we have.

3) Set-Up (pp. 1-10) – We learn about Leonard’s condition and that he’s seeking revenge for his wife’s murder.

4) Catalyst – (on p. 15 compared to Snyder’s preferred p. 12) Leonard discovers Teddy is John G., the man who raped and murdered his wife. Writes “Kill Him” on the back of the photo.

5) Debate (p. 12-25) – Leonard discusses with Natalie why he’s doing what he’s doing and why he’s sure he’s right.

6) Break into Two – (p. 29 instead of 25) Teddy suggests someone is trying to get Leonard to kill the wrong guy.

7) B-Story – (p. 32 instead of p. 30) we get Leonard waking up next to Natalie. Hello B-story!

8) Fun and Games (p. 30-55) Playing with the implications of Leonard’s condition – he finds Dodd in the closet; he realizes he’s running but doesn’t know why.

9) Midpoint – (p. 56 instead of 55) Leonard burns his wife’s stuff.

10) Bad Guys Close In (p. 55-75) – Teddy and Natalie are clearly not being straight with him, each trying to get him to do what they want.

11) All is Lost – On p. 79 Natalie tricks Leonard, saying “I’m gonna use you.”

12) Dark Night of the Soul – (pp. 79 - 95 instead of 75-85) – We see how Natalie sets Leonard up, shows how easy it is to exploit him in his condition, that he can’t rely on his “facts” after all.

13) Break into Three – (p. 96 instead of 85 using Snyder’s definition of Act Three) Leonard Tattoos license number on his leg – the clue that will lead him to Teddy.

14) Finale – We learn that Teddy had been using Leonard and Leonard sets things up so he will end up killing Teddy.

15) Final Image – Leonard arriving at Tattoo parlor to tattoo false fact on himself.

Sorry Blake, I think your argument against Memento is specious. However, this does show the validity of Blake’s beat sheet (with the Act III exception)…if you keep a bit of an open mind about how you can use them.

It’s in chapter six that the book really shines – and Snyder even admits it’s this chapter that motivated him to write the book. It’s also where the title comes from. “Save the Cat” is one of several screenwriting tricks Snyder describes. I’ve heard of most of them (often by different names) but rarely seen them written down. Kudos to Snyder for spelling them out in a book!

Chapter seven is a fair guide to rewriting. Chapter eight is about breaking into the business and is a little dated considering the major changes that have happened in the last couple years.

Overall I’d say Save the Cat is a great addition to your screenwriting book collection for the sections on prepping your script and chapter six. But I wouldn’t say it’s either the first or last screenwriting book you’ll ever need.