Not long ago, one of the readers of my book contacted me to inquire about the possibility of one-on-one screenwriting lessons.
It’s not something I’d ordinarily consider, but he said that he’d read everything that had ever been written about the subject and that nothing he’d encountered could come close to Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.
He wanted, he said, to learn from a master of the craft.
It’s hard to say no to a person of such obvious taste and discrimination, and so it was that we arranged to get together for a tutorial.
I asked my student to read, as his first assignment, my own The Last Innocent Man, hoping it might serve as a springboard for our conversations about the art of writing for the screen.
He showed up eager, enthusiastic and full of questions.
His first question?
Why had I failed to save the cat in the scene introducing my hero?
I patiently pointed out that there isn’t any cat in The Last Innocent Man, and he, attempting to suppress his contempt for my appalling ignorance, explained that “saving the cat” is a phrase from a popular book about screenwriting.
The notion, it seems, is that the hero of your story must do something nice in his first scene—something like saving a cat—something that will make the audience like him and sympathize with him.
What could I say?
I had clearly failed to save the cat in The Last Innocent Man.
When we meet my hero (I’d foolishly thought of him as my protagonist), he is tense, nervous, a criminal attorney awaiting the verdict in the trial of a former Green Beret accused of the bludgeon slaying of his wife.
His client is pretty obviously guilty as charged, but my guy, through dazzling turns of courtroom magic, manages to manipulate the jury into throwing justice out the window and declaring him innocent.
My hero, when he should be out saving cats, is putting monsters back on the street!
I don’t know how I could have screwed up so badly.
My one consolation?
I’m not alone in my unforgivable blunder.
Poor Robert Towne did the same thing in Chinatown, which opens with cheap detective J.J. Giddes, full of insincere sympathy, showing an agonized husband raw photos of his unfaithful wife and her lover in bed together. Giddes comes across as someone who probably doesn’t even like cats, let alone save them.
Then, of course, there’s old Joe Stefano, who opened Psycho with his heroine conducting a sleazy affair in a seedy hotel. Probably lots of stray cats in the neighborhood, but does she go out of her way to rescue one of them? No way! Instead she goes on to steal a shitpile of money from one of her boss’s clients.
And what of Walon Green and Sam Peckinpaw, who began The Wild Bunch with their hero leading his gang of outlaws into a small town, knocking over a bank, and precipitating a bloody gun battle. Pike Bishop and his friends are clearly more at home with scorpions than cats.
I blush to admit that, until my student set me straight, I had thought of each and every one of these films as masterworks.
I clearly had a lot to learn about screenwriting.
In fact, it seems that I had made catastrophic mistake after mistake in The Last Innocent Man…as well as in the twenty-four other screenplays I wrote.
My student, now my teacher, generously pointed out that no screenplay should have more than thirty or forty scenes.
The Last Innocent Man has thirty scenes in the first thirty-five pages!
What could I have been thinking?
What about the fifteen beats every screenplay must have?
Oh, my God!
I don’t even know what they are!
Well, my student informed me, you need a statement of your theme on page five.
All these years I’ve deliberately avoided such statements!
My credo has been “Show. Don’t tell.”
I actually believed that the theme would simply emerge from the action of the piece!
There are, it turns out, fourteen other beats a good screenplay must include, and mine, as my student so astutely pointed out, has only a few of these beats, all of them on the wrong pages!
If only I’d known.
For years, I labored under the delusion that screenwriting is a journey of discovery, that the characters will dictate the action, that the material determines the style and structure of the piece.
And now, I’ve learned that writing a script is really more akin to one of those wonderful paint-by-the-number books that I so enjoyed as a child.
For years, I struggled.
I waited endlessly for my characters to talk to me.
Waited for them to show me what was going to happen.
Waited for them to lead me to the end of their stories.
But I now realize that they gave me nothing.
No hint of where my acts should end.
No clue to where my B-story should begin.
Not even a suggestion about my debate section or my fun and games segment.
By listening to them, I not only failed to save the cat; I failed to write anything that deserves to be called a screenplay.
But thanks to my student, I’ve seen the errors of my way.
I’ve seen the errors of my way, and I make this public vow.
I will read Save the Cat.
I will paint by the numbers.
I will fill in the blanks.
I will connect the dots.
And one of these days, if I get very lucky, I will sell a script to one of the studio idiots who’ve read Save the Cat, attended Robert McKee’s weekend seminar, and now know everything anyone needs to know about the art of writing screenplays.