The influence of Abrahamism on mainstream screenwriting reaches even deeper than just borrowing of plots and mythological motifs or expressing the religious worldview: It permeates the entire craft of contemporary dramatic storytelling!
Many fundamental techniques and principles of screenwriting, the ways we think of the layers and elements of a cinematic story, are often rooted in Christianity, Judaism, and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, in Islam.
It starts with story structure—and here I’d have to take a brief detour.
Great screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder achieved something extraordinary when in the early 2000s he formulated a sequence of 15 story elements, known as “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet”, and popularized it in his now-famous book series Save the Cat. You probably read them—and if you haven’t, you should!
Over the years since the publication of the first book, Save the Cat became Hollywood’s de-facto guide to screenplay structure. Blake Snyder’s books are so famous now that they’re sold in Target and mentioned with a knowing wink in movies and TV shows.
Shockingly though, you can find Blake Snyder’s 15-beat structure, replicated either perfectly, or with minor variations, in the overwhelming majority of Hollywood movies that were released throughout a hundred years of feature filmmaking before Save the Cat was published.
That’s because Blake Snyder did not invent the 15-beat structure—he just analyzed thousands of Hollywood movies and distilled that “golden sequence” from them. He was among the first to describe it—but the sequence itself was already there.
But do you know why?
Why these steps? Why in that particular order? Aren’t you curious to find out?
Is it because, somehow, the magical 15 dramatic elements represent the universally human “story DNA” and are part of the “collective unconscious”?
Or could there be a simpler reason?
The sequence is extremely specific. The succession of the fifteen steps is so clearly defined and its inner logic is so pristine that it almost makes one think it may be derived from a single prototype.
Could it be that there was the very first story that defined that pattern for all others?
Jeanie MacPherson, a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a great screenwriter of the silent era, may have given us the answer to that question.
In the 1920 book The First One Hundred Noted Men and Women of the Screen by Carolyn Lowrey, Jeanie MacPherson is quoted saying that "as the motion picture owes its psychology to D. W. Griffith, so does the motion picture scenario owe to Cecil B. DeMille the full integrity of its dramatic construction.”
The same book also asserts the following: “The state of scenario construction, when Mr. DeMille entered the moving picture field, was principally distinguished by chaos and crudity, and it was he who first put the integrity of real dramatic construction into the plot of moving pictures.”
Cecil B. DeMille was, of course, the director primarily famous for his Biblical epics, based on both Old Testament and New. Due to his upbringing, Cecil B. DeMille’s creativity was not simply influenced, but fueled, by Judaism and Christianity in about equal measure.
We can’t possibly know for sure, but we can hypothesize: If somebody like Cecil B. DeMille, a passionately engaged member of Episcopal Church, wanted to define the principles of screenplay structure based on a single source, what story would he choose to be such a source? Wouldn’t it be logical to suppose that he would select something he would consider the absolute example?
Could it be that the magical 15-step sequence, described by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat, has been so popular throughout the entire history of Hollywood because it’s rooted in what Hollywood itself referred to as “the greatest story ever told”?
Please judge for yourself
- Opening Image: The star of Bethlehem rises in the night sky.
- Theme Stated: Guided by the star, three Magi visit King Herod and inform him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem.
- Setup: Mary, a teenage virgin, is set to be married to an elderly man named Joseph. Mary is visited by Archangel Gabriel who announces to her that she is to bear the Divine Child. Soon, Mary is found to be pregnant.
- Catalyst: Jesus is born in a manger, and is hailed by the Magi and the shepherds as the Savior.
- Debate: King Herod, terrified that the newborn Messiah may threaten his throne, orders every infant in Bethlehem to be put to a sword. Will Jesus, Mary, and Joseph make it to safety in Egypt? Can it be that the baby really is the future Savior? The elders in the Temple seem to think so...
- Break into Two: John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, ordaining HIm for the Mission.
- B-Story: Jesus assembles a team of twelve Apostles, starting with Simon (Peter) and Andrew and ending with Judas Iscariot. He also meets Mary Magdalene, among many other new people.
- Fun and Games: Jesus overcomes Satan’s temptations and begins His ministry. He preaches Salvation, speaks in parables, turns water into wine at a wedding, heals the lame, the deaf-mute, and the blind, calms a storm at sea, feeds a huge crowd of people with five loaves and two fish, walks on water, casts out demons, cleanses the lepers, and to top it all off, brings the dead Lazarus back from the grave.
- Midpoint: Transfigured, accompanied by his disciples, Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem.
- Bad Guys Close In: The High Priest Caiaphas seeks to destroy Jesus, and pays Judas to betray Him. Jesus expels the money changes from the Temple, holds the Last Supper, and bids farewell to his disciples, then prays in Gethsemane alone, while the disciples fall asleep. Betrayed by Judas, Jesus is arrested. Peter denounces Jesus three times before the rooster crows. Jesus is tried by Pontius Pilate, whipped, crowned with thorns, marched through the city to Golgotha, and crucified there.
- All is Lost: Jesus dies on the cross.
- Dark Night of the Soul: Jesus is deposed from the cross, and His mother and friends lament His death. Joseph of Arimathea buries the body of Jesus in a tomb.
- Break into Three: Mary (mother of Jesus), Mary Magdalene, and a third woman, also named Mary, visit the tomb of Jesus and, after a sudden earthquake, are greeted by an angel who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead.
- Finale: Jesus appears before Mary Magdalene in person—but when she tries to embrace Him, Jesus tells her that she would have to let him go. Later, Jesus reveals Himself to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus, presents Himself to His Apostles and many other people, and finally soars above the crowd and ascends to Heaven.
- The Closing Image: Jesus in majesty sits at the right hand of God the Father in Heaven.
If you know Blake Snyder’s method well, you’ll agree that the Gospel fits perfectly into the Save the Cat model—or rather, we may surmise, the Save the Cat model distills the elements of the Gospel that were used as the foundation for Hollywood’s dramatic structure ever since Cecil B. DeMille, just like they were used as the foundation for literary storytelling since before the Arthurian romance.
Would we be safe to assume that within the civilization whose culture for two thousand years was based almost entirely on the mythology of the Gospel, the Gospel may be the most likely source of archetypal story structure for all subsequent stories?
In either case, this is something to think about, wouldn’t you agree?
You may recognize one significant difference between the Save the Cat model as we know it from some of the recent Hollywood movies, and the Gospel as its hypothetical source: Act I of the Gospel takes place years before Act II.
However, in the early, silent era of Hollywood, we can find examples of the first act being treated exactly like in the Gospel.
One of the most striking such examples is Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid. In that film, the first act describes the birth and infancy of a boy adopted by Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character. Starting with the second act, the rest of the story takes place years later, and the similarity with the Gospel is so striking that the kid may be perceived as a Christ-like figure, with Little Tramp being analogous to St. Joseph, and the movie may be seen as a metaphor of a relationship between a flawed but kindly human being and the Child, as the agent of Goodness in his life. The climactic surreal scene of that film takes place in Paradise!
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This concludes Part 3 of our series of articles Cultural Foundations of Screenwriting.
In the next article of this series, we’ll complete our review of the religious foundation of Western storytelling, concluding it with reviewing some of the tenets of Abrahamic ethics and the ways they find expression in mainstream screenwriting. We’ll then proceed to look at various schools of thought of the Enlightenment and consider their direct influence on the commercially successful screenwriting of today.
The next article is coming soon—so, please stay tuned!