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SAVE THE CAT


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THE BOOK

SAVE THE CAT!

by Blake Snyder

WHY THIS BOOK?

Not only is it one of the hottest new manuals on screenwriting — it also dares to break down scripts into fifteen mini-acts and insists that all good, Hollywood films contain these acts. It’s a bold assumption, and Snyder backs it up impressively with fifty examples in his follow-up, SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES. The recent and untimely death of Snyder has robbed Hollywood of a much needed pragmatist whose inventive, storytelling vocabulary should urgently supplant the industry dinosaurs still in circulation.

WHAT’S IN IT

If you’re going to spend the next several months of your life painting a detailed, beautifully composed picture, any painting teacher worth listening to will tell you that the first step is to compose your picture in a sketch. Then, transfer the sketch to the canvas. Once you’re sure the picture fits the canvas just right, and the focal points are strategically placed where they will have the highest, visual impact, only then do you start painting. If you have no sketch and just start painting at a random spot on the canvas, working outwards to the edges, most likely you’ll do a lot of erasing. You’ll find that things you wanted to include won’t fit into the composition, so you’ll be forced to paint over areas you’ve already spent a lot of time perfecting. Or, worse yet, you won’t paint over those areas because you’ve fallen in love with your work — even at the expense of the literal, bigger picture.

This is all, of course, an exhaustive metaphor to illustrate Blake Snyder’s take on writing. Too many young writers don’t feel that structure is as important as content, taking it so far as to rebel against structure with the belief that it hinders content. The resulting piles of lovely dialogue with nowhere to go is an avoidable waste of time!  Don’t get specific with beautiful, memorable lines and poetic prose until you know what you’re writing!  Structure is the unsung and beleaguered hero of all commercial film and television writing. Without it, movies and TV shows sag and bore.

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The Late Blake Snyder

I never appreciated structure until I started reading screenplays. You don’t have to read many before you start to divide scripts into one of two categories, and these categories are not good/bad, strong concept/weak concept, realistic/unrealistic. No, I’m talking about structured/unstructured. And the amount of well-structured scripts are SO SPARSE that when one shows-up, all the other elements barely seem to matter. Once the underlying structure is in place, it’s easy to improve even the worst offenses of the script. Bad dialogue? No problem, we can fix that. Holes in the plot? We’ll explain them away. Not funny enough? We’ll punch up the jokes. As long as the structure is there, you know you’ve got a picture that works at its core. What about fixing a weak protagonist?  Well…that’s a trick question. If your structure is strong, your protagonist is well written — and vise versa. Here’s why.

Save the Cat lays out 15 min-acts that should be adhered to in a well structured script.  Each of these acts twists and turns the story, always pushing the protagonist forward, even when dealing him/her setbacks.  Try subjecting any flatly written character of yours to Blake Snyder’s 15 mini-acts and their personality will be forced into existence.  Or, try the opposite. Make-up a well rounded character and subject the 15 mini-acts to that character and the script will start to write itself.   The essence of every film is an explanation of a character’s strengths and weaknesses, followed by a series of tests specifically designed to challenge those unique strengths and weaknesses.  This series of tests is the structure of the script; know your hero and they will insist on a certain structure with which to reveal their traits. OR, know your genre’s structure and it will insist on a certain type of hero with which to tell its story.

SCREENWRITING SECRETS

Save the Cat! has plenty!  Here’s Snyder’s patented Beat-Sheet that serves as a template for all scripts, broken into 15, named mini-acts (with their page numbers). Throughout the week, I’ll be breaking down a film using these beats to illustrate how it works.

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 also breaks down all films into Ten Categories that explain the type of story, rather than the genre. Simply saying one is writing a Western doesn’t really explain what kind of story that particular Western is telling. Here’s his ten types of movies which I’ll also be covering this week (with some brief examples):

1. Monster in the House (Jaws, Alien, Fetal Attraction, the Exorcist)

2. Golden Fleece (Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, Ocean’s Eleven and most “heist movies”)

3. Out of the Bottle (Liar, Liar, Freaky Friday, Big, Groundhog Day)

4. Dude with a Problem (Die Hard, Vertigo, Schindler’s List) — there’s a great idea for a triple feature, all you movie theaters owners!

5. Rites of Passage (Ordinary People, the Hustler, the Accidental Tourist, Terms of Endearment)

6. Buddy Love (Rain Man, Dumb and Dumber, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bringing Up Baby, E.T.)

7. Whydunit (Chinatown, Citizen Kane, J.F.K., All the President’s Men)

8. The Fool Triumphant (the Jerk, Forrest Gump, Dave, Being There)

9. Institutionalized (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, M*A*S*H, the Godfather, Mean Girls, the Shawshank Redemption)

10. Superhero (Superman, Gladiator, Robocop, the Talented Mr. Ripley, A Beautiful Mind)

I’ll also be discussing some of his terms for movie moments such as “Pope in the Pool”, which is his shorthanded way of saying that a character’s conveying boring information while doing an action (taken from a scene in a movie where the Pope is swimming during a lengthy bit of exposition), thereby masking the banality of the scene.

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Swimmer Courtney Pope...in the pool

IN CONCLUSION

What structural nay-sayers fail to understand, is that structure does not equal formula. Save the Cat offers writers a sort of freedom by building their jail cell for them. Because ALL writing requires one sort of jail cell or another — the worlds we create are finite (unless you’re Tolkien)  so that we can focus on our story. And, alright, I lied; the most important element isn’t Structure — it’s Story. Structure comes in second place, and most writers aren’t nearly as good at structure as they are with Concepts. By supplying the jail cell, Snyder lets the writer put more of their energy into playing with their concept in a predefined work space. There is nothing more liberating than boundaries and no reason to reinvent the wheel every time you have an idea for a film. Snyder supplies the walls and insures that no one writes twenty pages on the history of Elven mead. Structure doesn’t stifle creativity — it is the sign posts that keep you on the subconscious road of the audience’s mind.

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There's a Tap Dancing Alien in that Bear Costume

Like it or not, humans expect certain things from a story. As long as you give them those time-tested story beats, you’re free to write whatever else you’d like. But respect the audience enough to acknowledge that there is a reason E.T. was a universal hit while Mac and Me wallows in three minute portions on YouTube for our amusement (check out the McDonalds dance sequence — it’s insane).

SHOULD YOU READ IT?     RECOMMEND

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for an explanation of Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, along with further discussion of his ideas. And feel free to leave your own thoughts in the “Comments” section!

– Benjamin

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