I felt I have a personal connection with Save the Cat since I first read it. This is why: when I was in film school in London – end of the 80s, beginning of the 90s – I used to pay my rent writing articles for the Spanish press about film and theatre in London. This way I was getting free tickets to the theatre and the movies too: good stuff – London is bloody expensive and it made a difference. One November, I attended the London Film Festival to watch Sea of Love, a very well made thriller directed by Harold Becker, beautifully written by Richard Price, with Pacino in the lead role. Well, the scene that stuck in my mind from that film is the reason Save the Cat bears this name.
I’m sorry for not making any sense. I’ll start again.
Blake Snyder – who sadly passed away in 2009 – defines a Save The Cat scene as “the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” And which scene does Snyder describe as the perfect example of a Save the Cat scene? You guessed it! The same scene that stuck in my mind from Sea of Love, a scene that I had watched 23 years before I read the book; and there it was, hooked in my mind. OK, I thought, this Snyder bloke sure deserves some credit … Let’s hear what he has to say. (Note: I’m afraid that, if you are curious about the Sea of Love scene, you’ll have to read Snyder’s book…. or watch the film and guess it. A clue, there are no cats in the scene).
Save the Cat is a controversial and very successful book. Many American film people recognise the practical influence that Save the Cat has had in Hollywood. Good for Blake.
But who is Blake Snyder? Quoting his own words, “I have been working as a screenwriter for 20 years and made millions of dollars doing it. I’ve sold lots of high concept, bidding war, spec screenplays. I’ve even had a couple made.” I have to admit that I found the whole concept very surprising. I’m not a Hollywood person, I’m a European, with a European mind. So I couldn’t make out how a writer could “make millions of dollars” and, as far as actual films, have only “a couple made”. That’s Hollywood, I guessed. Still, when you check Snyder’s name on IMDB – we all do that, you did too when you read my name – only two titles appear: Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. And Snyder quite disowns the second one in the book. 50% of his actual films disowned, leaves us with… One title? So he is a very successful writer, with only one title. OK, he made a lot of money, I give you that, I envy that. But films? What’s going on?
Anyway, I beg you pardon. You must think that I’m being European now, feeling superior and so on. Not at all. Someone who makes a living writing films and makes millions of dollars with it, is someone I deeply respect – someone unheard of in European standards. Bravo, Blake. And you made a very influential book too.
It wouldn’t make much sense to summarise here every chapter of the book, as the book itself already does it: Save the Cat is a proper manual, a very practical piece. So I will focus on the aspects of the book that I feel are more relevant:
Snyder particularly emphasises the importance of the logline (which condenses the story in a couple of sentences in a very attractive/intriguing/catchy way). These days you’ll be asked for loglines all the time. And I agree that it’s a great exercise, as you have to reach the soul of your work to make a decent logline, and it’s a way to X-ray your story.
The basic requirements of a good logline that Snyder dictates are dead right: It needs to create irony, a compelling mental picture, define its audience and have a killer title. “The logline is your story’s code, its DNA, the one constant that has to be true.” “The logline tells the hero’s story: Who he is, who he is up against, and what’s at stake”.
I’ve always found that one of the hardest part of writing was creating short synopsis (or a loglines). To be able to compress in a few words what you wrote using thousands, describing tone, style, atmosphere, genre and basic plot, sometimes seems an insurmountable feat. Maybe Snyder goes a bit too far when he suggests “the possibility that you hold off on writing your script until you get a killer logline and title”. In my opinion it shouldn’t be the first thing to do, nor the last. You should keep on going back to synopsis/loglines as you write, whenever you feel things are not quite working. When you toil in a screenplay, often trees doesn’t let you see for the forest, so writing the synopsis and loglines is like hiring a chopper and getting above everything and seeing the whole landscape again. It helps a lot.
STRUCTURE (STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE…)
Goldman, Field, McKee, and now Snyder can’t stress enough the importance of structure: “After coming up with the idea, and identifying the “who” in your movie – and who it’s for – the structure is the single most important element in writing and selling a screenplay”. And it’s in this department that the author defines the most peculiar element of his book, the most distinctive and controversial, the reason, it seems, why Hollywood adopted Save the Cat and took it home: The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. Drums in:
THE BLAKE SNYDER BEAT SHEET 1. Opening Image (1): 2. Theme Stated (5): 3. Set-Up (1-10): 4. Catalyst (12): 5. Debate (12-25): 6. Break into Two (25): 7. B Story (30): 8. Fun and Games (30-55): 9. Midpoint (55): 10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): 11. All Is Lost (75): 12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): 13. Break into Three (85): 14. Finale (85-110): 15. Final Image (110):
Snyder preaches that by following precisely his beats you are on the right track for script success. You’ll have to read the book – it’s only fair – to keep yourself in the full meaning of every beat, but I’ll give you some clues.
Basically what the Beat Sheet says is that:
- The opening image of a film IS important.
- The premise of the film should be planted in the script as soon as possible.
- You have 10 pages to set the story, the main characters, the tone, the genre… You ought to be VERY efficient in this first pages. All Screenwriting Gurus agree that in those pages lay the success of the script.
- The “Three-act structure” formed by “Set-Up, Confrontation and Resolution” may seen as “Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis” too.
- A life changing event takes place soon in the script.
- By the end of Act 1 the main character takes a decision that redirects the film into Act 2 and changes his world – and the protagonist has to be proactive.
- The subplot usually bears the theme of the movie.
- At the Midpoint stakes are raised.
- At the end of Act 2 the protagonist is in deep shit.
- Then in Act 3 hope leads to the finale.
- The final image of the film IS important.
Well, you’ll probably agree if I say that all this is, to say the least, quite sensible. What makes the Beat Sheet really audacious is that Snyder points out the exact page of every beat with all kinds of detail. It tries to be so precise, so exact, that some hardcore Snyder fans have even created Beat Sheet calculators online. Sounds crazy? You can find two of them here and here.
Reading Save the Cat is good fun. Snyder throws in a few great concepts: He defines the Fun and Games section (pages 30-55) as “the core of the movie’s poster. It is where most of the trailer moments are found” and it “answers the question: Why did I come to see this movie?”. Bloody important question.
But, do we really have to LIKE the main character, as Snyder suggests in his book? Maybe in most HolIywood films we have to, but not in films in general. I didn’t actually LIKE Robert de Niro’s characters in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but I empathised with them and loved those films. Robert McKee stresses this point in STORY: It’s not about sympathy, it’s about empathy (please check the post On Robert McKee’s STORY).
Looks like many writers in Hollywood believe the Beat Sheet works. Many producers too. But, is it really useful as a working tool? Or does it make all films look the same? Does it grant freedom or just kills it? Peter Suderman concludes that Save the Cat was bad news in Save the Movie! The 2005 Screenwriting Book That’s Taken Over Hollywood—And Made Every Movie Feel The Same.
One last note: The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics and Whats’ Wrong With This Picture? are, to me, the most practical segments of this book. I guess the Beat Sheet stole the limelight, but this two sections are fun and full of worthy pieces of advice.