What’s that, you thought we were done with Blake Snyder and his book about rescuing felines? Not a chance!* After his first chapter of storytelling rules, Snyder hits us with a second one, titled “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” Supposedly, these are distinct because you’re supposed to apply them after finishing a screenplay, but there’s little in the chapter itself to justify that difference. Really, it feels like Snyder decided that a chapter for all 17 rules would be too long, and as you can see from the way my review is split in two, I sympathize!
1. The Hero Leads
In this section, Snyder lists a bunch of possible problems a hero might have, both real and imagined. The list includes not having a proper motivation, succeeding too easily, being too passive, and, weirdest of all, not being in charge. Apparently it’s a major problem if your protagonist isn’t at the top of their local org chart.
Despite being barely over a page long, this section manages to waffle back and forth on whether these are different problems that must be dealt with separately or if they’re actually the same problem. The initial description certainly makes it sound like they’re all the same problem, but Snyder tries to address each of them separately. This is a better approach, but the sudden shift is confusing.
First, Snyder reminds us that the hero’s goal should be clear to the audience, which is true. While the character-goal model of storytelling isn’t perfect, it’s still important for the protagonist’s motivation to be understandable. Otherwise, audiences won’t be able to invest in the character and build attachment. This advice is even actionable… assuming your hero already has a motivation and you just haven’t stated it clearly enough. If the problem is lacking a motivation in the first place, Snyder has no help for you.
Next, Snyder cautions against making things too easy for your hero, but he pitches it exclusively on whether the clues come to them* or if they go get the clues. This is one aspect of whether the hero’s problems are too easily solved, but it’s hardly the only one, or even the most important. Snyder seems to think that as long as the hero is on the attack, nothing can go wrong.
The rest is a simple misunderstanding of when a hero needs to be active and what being active actually means. Following Snyder’s advice would make it impossible to have iconic characters like Neo and Luke Skywalker since they start their stories reactive and become more proactive later. Snyder also thinks your hero always needs to be in charge and should never ask questions, which is a fascinatingly unexamined bit of toxic masculinity.
Conclusion: Mostly useless, with one or two usable specks to pick out if you’re generous.
2. Talking the Plot
Next, Snyder rails against what Mythcreants calls “as you and I both know” dialogue, which is when the characters speak unnaturally because the writer needs to get some exposition across. This is a very real problem, and it’s worse for screenwriters than novelists. In a book, you get most of the exposition done through narration, a tool filmmakers don’t normally have. I’m glad Snyder decided to address this.
Unfortunately, his advice leaves a lot to be desired. First, he’s vague on how you even spot this kind of dialogue. You’re basically down to instinctively feeling whether it sounds natural or not, which you don’t need an advice book to do. Most writers already spend hours obsessing over every line in their work and whether it sounds natural!
Worse is Snyder’s proposed solution. In his example, he describes a story where the protagonist’s backstory involves being the star fullback of the New York Giants until he was injured. Snyder thinks that instead of using dialogue to establish these facts, the movie should simply show some photos of the character with his team and then show that said character now walks with a limp. Everyone will immediately put the pieces together!
Except they won’t. Depending on how the scene is filmed, the audience might not realize the photos are of a specific football team or that the protagonist is in them. For those who do make the connection, it’ll be even trickier for them to spot which position the character played, let alone that he was the star player for that position and that his current limp is the result of a football injury.
That might not matter if the backstory isn’t super important to the plot. Maybe it’s fine if all the audience realizes is that he used to play football, or maybe all they have to know is that he’s injured in the present. Or maybe every single fact I’ve listed is critical and will be key to understanding the story. Snyder doesn’t say.
In most movies, filmmakers use a combination of visuals and dialogue to get important information across, the same way novelists use a combination of dialogue and narration. The trick is figuring out how to make said dialogue feel natural, like something a character would actually say, and Snyder has no advice for that. Instead, he advocates for simply not using dialogue for exposition. I’m starting to wonder if he forgot that audiences don’t get to read the description and blocking that’s included in a script.
Conclusion: A useless solution to a real problem.
3. Make the Bad Guy Badder
This is probably the weirdest bit of writing advice I’ve seen from Snyder yet,* and I once read through a chapter that put Star Wars and Ocean’s Eleven in the same genre. In this section, Snyder posits that if your hero is boring or uninspiring, it could be on account of the villain not being evil enough. Or not powerful enough. To Snyder, those are the same thing.
As he often does, Snyder is taking several different issues and awkwardly lumping them together. It’s absolutely a problem if your villain isn’t evil enough to be worth opposing or if they aren’t powerful enough to be a real challenge. But neither of these problems will manifest as your hero not being compelling enough.
If your villain doesn’t seem evil enough, audiences will probably wonder why Team Good is so invested in the fight. Do they really need to fly around the world and risk death to stop a guy who’s rebooting another classic animated film in subpar live action? That’s bad for sure, but probably not bad enough to motivate a sequence of thrilling heroics. Likewise, if your villain isn’t powerful enough, the story will be boring or contrived. Either the good guys just walk all over the opposition, or they ignore obvious paths to victory so the plot can keep happening.
The only way any of this reflects on your hero is in the sense that audiences are often imprecise in why they didn’t like something. They aren’t trained critics,* so it’s common to hear something like “that character made the wrong choice and is a horrible person” when the real problem is that the story has a frustratingly dismal moral dilemma where every outcome is equally horrible. Improving your villain will result in fewer complaints overall, but that doesn’t make hero-complaints a good way of judging whether there’s something wrong with the villain.
As if this rule wasn’t convoluted enough, Snyder then goes on to talk about how the hero and villain are “the light and dark sides of the same person.” You might recognize this as yet another instance of something that’s occasionally true but not broadly applicable to all or even most stories. If an author wants their hero and villain to reflect each other, they have to work at that; it doesn’t just happen in the natural course of writing a story.
Beyond being an excessive generalization, I have no idea what this even has to do with Snyder’s original point. Maybe the idea is that because heroes and villains are basically the same person (they aren’t), improving one will create an identical improvement in the other? I guess this is Snyder debuting his theory of quantum character-entanglement.
Conclusion: I can’t even tell what he’s talking about.
4. Turn, Turn, Turn
In typical Snyder fashion, we begin this rule with a bizarrely elaborate description of how tension should rise as the plot moves forward. Or, as he puts it: “The plot doesn’t just move ahead, it spins and intensifies as it goes. It is the difference between velocity (a constant speed) and acceleration (an increasing speed).”
That’s wordy but ultimately correct. Stories should get more tense as they go so you know they’re building to something. He’s basically describing pacing and movement, but in a way that leaves you wondering where he gets his metaphors from. Granted, he also thinks the plot should get more complicated as it nears its end, which is decidedly not true. In most cases, the story’s end is when you’re resolving stuff, not adding more.
Then, Snyder switches to critiquing The Cat in the Hat for having no stakes. I missed that particular cinematic masterpiece, so I’ll grant Snyder the benefit of the doubt and assume his complaint is correct. What does that have to do with his previous musings on tension? Sometimes, introducing higher stakes is part of raising a story’s tension, but Snyder is critiquing the film for not having any stakes in the first place.
Did you think that was random? Buckle up. Next, he talks about characters for a while, and how the story “must show flaws, reveal treacheries, doubts, and fears of the heroes.” Oh, and also “You must expose hidden powers, untapped resources, and dark motivations for the bad guys that the hero doesn’t know about.”
So basically, stuff should happen in the story. That’s where we are right now in this screenwriting advice book. I would never have thought of that on my own, so that’s $10.89 well spent! At the last second, Snyder tries to veer back into talking about tension and plot, but it’s too late. This section contains no instruction whatsoever, and most of it is meaningless rambling.
Conclusion: And I thought I was confused before.
5. The Emotional Color Wheel
By now, Snyder’s advice is starting to feel like a parody of itself. What’s the emotional color wheel, you might ask? Why, it represents every emotion that might exist, and your story should evoke all of them: sadness, joy, terror, grief, regret, frustration, arousal. If the audience doesn’t feel all of those, you’re a bad writer, and you should feel bad.
Snyder emphasizes more than once that it should indeed be all emotions, so if this is hyperbole, it’s so committed as to be indistinguishable from serious advice. He also insists that the Farrelly brothers’ movies exemplify this practice, which is… certainly a claim one could make. I don’t remember ever feeling fear or regret while watching Osmosis Jones, but maybe I was an especially brave 14-year-old. I do remember feeling more than a little grossed out, but, oddly, that isn’t one of the emotions Snyder mentions.
In an act of what I can only describe as unmitigated gall, Snyder pivots to talking about how movies shouldn’t be emotionally one-note – as if the only options are a single emotion or all of them. No middle ground, just a toggle switch between boring monotony and complete chaos.
The point of this section is to advocate for emotional variety, but it’s done in a way that makes it sound like Snyder has never seen a movie before. The sheer absurdity of it is off-putting, and that’s assuming you already know enough about storytelling to recognize said absurdity. From the way Save the Cat! is worshiped in some circles, it’s easy to imagine neophyte screenwriters taking this section seriously and trying to add every emotion possible to their stories.
And, of course, there’s nothing in here about how to tell if your story doesn’t have enough emotion or how to add more. With how obsessed Snyder is with genre, you might expect there’d at least be some consideration for whether one is writing a comedy, drama, tragedy, etc., but no. I’m sure the writers can figure that part out for themselves; all they need is a bizarre little ramble about how important it is to have every emotion possible in their story.
Conclusion: I think Snyder is trolling us.
6. “Hi How Are You I’m Fine”
I’m really excited, because in this section Snyder actually has some concrete advice for us. Granted, it’s process advice, but I’ll take anything if it’s not another ramble about how my lighthearted comedy should arouse people.
What is that advice about, you ask? Flat dialogue. With very little time spent on bizarre tangents, Snyder explains that the way you can test for the problem in your story is by covering up all the attributions, then seeing if you can still tell who’s talking. If you can’t, your characters all sound the same, supposedly.
I’ve seen this concept before, and I don’t think much of it. Frankly, the standard is too high. Distinctive dialogue is important, but you’ll never reach a point where you can automatically identify each major character just from reading the words they speak. There just aren’t that many ways of speaking!
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at an exchange from The Next Generation episode Best of Both Worlds. This is considered one of the best Star Trek episodes ever made for its superb character work, as well as a kickass Borg plot. In the scene we have Troi, Wesley, Shelby,* Data, Geordie, and Riker. I’ve covered up all the names and identifying ranks or titles: See if you can guess who’s who just from reading the dialogue. If you’ve never seen The Next Generation, see if you can guess which lines were said by the same character. Once you’re done, highlight the quote to see the names.
WESLEY: Got another king in the hole, Data? DATA: I am afraid I cannot answer that. Wesley. And as you are a newcomer to the game, may I say it is inappropriate for you to ask. I will buy another card, Counselor. TROI: No help there. LAFORGE: Fold. Again. TROI: Three jacks looking back for the handsome young ensign. (Shelby) Pair of deuces stands. (Riker) Flush, possible straight flush. Your bet, Mister Crusher. WESLEY: I’m in for ten. SHELBY: Call. RIKER: Now it’s time for the long pants. There’s your ten, and one hundred. LAFORGE: He’s got the straight flush, folks. DATA: Not necessarily. Commander Riker may be bluffing, Wesley. WESLEY: I don’t think so. Fold. LAFORGE: With three jacks? What, are you kidding? Wesley, you may get straight A’s in school, but there’s a lot you need to learn about poker. SHELBY: Well, I’ve only got two pair, but I’ve got to see your hole card. I’ll call.
(against the four hearts, Riker turns over the two of spades)LAFORGE: You got him.
How did you do? If you’re anything like the Trekkies I ran this by earlier, you guessed some of the speakers correctly, but not nearly all of them. Data in particular has a very distinct way of speaking, much more formal than the other characters and with far fewer contractions.* But for most of the others, it’s not hard to imagine several different characters saying any particular line, depending on context.
Of course, if you watch the episode, the dialogue is anything but flat. Part of that is the actors, but it’s also because the dialogue is snappy, clear, and emotionally relevant. Shelby isn’t saying she needs to see Riker’s cards just because she’s curious; she’s saying it because this poker game is a microcosm for the clash they’re having over how to handle the Borg threat.
There is so much that goes into dialogue, and there’s nothing to gain by reducing it to “can you guess who’s talking.” To reliably guess all or even most characters, your dialogue would need to sound absurd, offensive, or both.
As luck would have it, Snyder is happy to prove my point when he describes a script in which he “gave every character a verbal tic. One stuttered, one did malapropisms, one was an Okie versed in Sartre, and the Alien parents (my favorite characters) always yelled, a point I reinforced by having at least one word in every sentence they spoke CAPITALIZED!”
That does not sound like good dialogue. At best, it would distract from the story, and that’s assuming the stuttering didn’t come off as ableist.* Snyder later clarifies that a script doesn’t have to be that extreme, but it actually does if it’s going to pass the very test he advocates for.
Conclusion: A wrongheaded exercise makes for a useless rule.
7. Take a Step Back
At first, I expected this rule to be some process advice about how you should put a story down for a while before starting revisions, but, boy, was I wrong. Instead, this is actually character arc advice. The gist is that instead of starting with your character the way you want them after their arc, you have to start them the way they are before their arc.
On its face, this rule is too niche to be useful. I have yet to meet a writer who imagines a character arc and skips to the end before the story has even started. I doubt Snyder has either, as that’s a pretty silly scenario.
However, if we cut through the Snyder-speak, there’s a kernel of truth here. Snyder makes it sound like everyone has a fully formed character arc in mind and is starting in the wrong place when, in reality, the problem is that many writers want an arc for their heroes but don’t know what it should be.
Sometimes, this means starting the character with no personal or emotional problems to overcome. Without either of those, it’s difficult to have an arc. This is similar in appearance to what Snyder describes, as a character who’s perfectly well adjusted could also be one at the end of their arc.
The problem with Snyder’s advice is that rewinding such a character won’t actually help. They don’t have an arc at all, and that’ll be true no matter how far back the writer goes. Following Snyder’s rule won’t get us anywhere, because he’s once again correctly identified a tree while missing the forest.
Though, even within Snyder’s framework, there’s little guidance on how far one is supposed to go. Far enough to unlearn whatever lesson the character has pre-learned, I guess. How long is that? Teenage years? Childhood? The birth of the universe in a cosmic explosion?
Conclusion: Useless, because Snyder has only a single facet correct.
8. A Limp and an Eye Patch
This rule had me worried at first, considering Snyder’s somewhat-cavalier attitude toward ableism. I thought it was going to be advice about using exaggerated or insensitive portrayals of disability to make characters more distinctive. And, indeed, this section talks quite a bit about how to make your side characters more memorable, which sounds like a bad combination.
But despite the title, the rule itself doesn’t actually suggest any of the things I was worried about. Instead, it begins with a vague suggestion to create distinctive mannerisms, costumes, or fashion choices so that secondary characters will be more memorable. Fair enough: that’s good advice! Assuming it’s a character we’re supposed to remember, anyway. I’m willing to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt here, as I’m just grateful this didn’t go in the direction I worried it might.
But then we get to Snyder’s main example, and it is extremely weird. He describes a script where his boss kept saying the love interest wasn’t memorable until Snyder added some extra description about the character “wearing a black t-shirt and sporting a wispy soul patch on his chin.”
After that, with nothing else altered, Snyder’s boss changed his mind and said the character was super great, assuming that more significant changes had been made. While that’s great for Snyder, nothing in that description is distinctive or memorable. Black t-shirts and soul patches are incredibly common. The “wispy” part is a little better, but the story was about a bunch of teenagers, so wispy beards are the norm.
Snyder does claim that the description fits this character’s portrayal as a self-styled truth teller who hasn’t actually figured anything out, but that’s pretty weak. The soul patch has a certain hipster association, but it also has an association with famous athletes, so the character would need more if his appearance was supposed to be a strong signifier.
Instead of storytelling advice, Snyder’s “rule” is actually a story about the time he tricked his boss into liking a character without making any real changes or additions. I won’t say that’s morally wrong or anything, especially in the ethically murky waters of Hollywood, but putting it in a chapter about storytelling is like adding “keep a work tab open so your boss won’t see you reading Mythcreants articles” to a list of productivity tips.
Conclusion: Now I know Snyder is trolling us.
9. Is It Primal?
In this final rule, Snyder returns to his “primal” motivations that I mentioned in my initial Save the Cat critique. To recap, Snyder believes that all characters should be motivated by “primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death.” Or, once you cut out the repetition, to acquire sex or prevent death.
The problem with this idea is that it’s absolute and utter nonsense. There are countless compelling motivations that have nothing to do with either sex or death, but Snyder either fails to imagine them or is so busy making unspoken exceptions that he doesn’t realize how limiting his own ideas are.
Looking at this section, I think it’s the latter. For one thing, Snyder suddenly mentions Maximus Decimus Meridius’s desire for revenge in Gladiator as a primal motivation. The sharp eyed among you may notice that revenge has nothing to do with any of the previously described options. Getting revenge won’t save Maximus’s life or his family’s lives, and it certainly won’t get him sex.
To cover this, Snyder argues that getting revenge is actually a way “to knock off a competing DNA carrier and propel your own DNA forward.” That’s more than a little creepy and not at all true in the film he’s describing. Maximus’s family is already dead; his DNA isn’t going anywhere. Oh, and searching for lost parents is “the desire to shore up and defend existing DNA and survive.” Sure, Snyder. Suuuuuuure.
Topping off this unappetizing sundae, Snyder gives us an example of weak motivation: two stockbrokers trying to rig the market. He’s right that this is pretty weak, but it’s not because it’s not “primal” enough. The reason is that without any other context, there’s no particular reason to care if these characters succeed or fail.
That context could come in a host of forms. Maybe this is a Mel Brooks style comedy where the fun comes from watching buffoons try and fail to execute a financial scheme. Maybe the brokers are secret radicals: they’re trying to crash certain sections of the market so they can buy and then forgive everyone’s debt. That second one could match up with one of Snyder’s “primal” motivations if you dig deep enough and find someone who can’t survive under the strain of all their debt, but it’s got nothing to do with this new DNA obsession.
As a final bit of nonsense, Snyder also pushes this rule as a way to make characters act like “recognizable human beings.” Suddenly, realistic behavior is what makes for good motivation. It would be super realistic for most heroes to run the heck away from life-threatening danger, but that’s not going to make a good story. I have no idea where this came from, except maybe that it’s a glimpse into Snyder thinking that real people operate on his primal DNA logic, which I’d rather not think about any further.
Conclusion: Garbage in, garbage out.
Admittedly, I did not expect last week’s 25% to be Snyder’s high point, but here we are. This second chapter has exactly zero useful rules in it, bringing the total to two of seventeen, or about 12% usefulness. That’s still higher than Franzen, but only just. It’s too bad, because Snyder does have some understanding of storytelling. But in this book, he’s just too in love with his own half-baked ideas, never hesitating to make sweeping generalizations on the thinnest of justifications.
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