5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat
Screenwriter, author, and educator Blake Snyder wrote Save the Cat “for those who want to master the mainstream film market.” He explores how to write a killer logline, define your genre, choose the perfect hero, structure your story, revise your screenplay, and market yourself.
Writers will find his breakdown of genre and story structure useful in understanding how the elements of story work together.
Although I disagree with some of his arguments (protagonists do not always have to be likable to be compelling and showing Lara Croft saving a cat would not have saved the movie), there are useful nuggets of wisdom throughout this book. For example, the concept that a writer should prepare a logline before writing will actually save them time and energy. Or The Board (an outline of sorts) can help writers explore their story in a safe space before committing to a character or structure or getting attached to an idea. However, I don’t think anyone should strictly follow another writer’s process. Your story should ultimately dictate your structure.
In this article, you’ll find an overview of the principles that Snyder shares in his book. I’ll let you decide what’s useful and what’s not.
NOTE: This book is summarized in a Q&A format; all answers are directly from Blake Snyder (not lil’ ol’ me).
Why did you choose the title “Save the Cat?”
“Save the Cat” is emblematic of the kind of common sense basics I want to get across about the laws of physics that govern good storytelling.
You mention in your book that before we start writing, we need to write a logline that captures the heart of our story. What makes a great logline?
A movie must have a clear sense of what it’s about and who it’s for. Its tone, potential, the dilemma of its characters, and the type of characters they are, should be easy to understand and compelling. Every movie has to have one or two main people we can focus our attention on, identify with, and want to root for--and someone who can carry the movie’s theme (It’s about a guy who…) The logline tells the hero’s story: who he is, who he’s up against, and what’s at stake. Use the logline to double-check your results as you begin to execute your screenplay. And if you find a better way in the writing, make sure you go back and re-enunciate it.
A logline must satisfy four basic elements to be effective:
Irony. It must be in some way ironic and emotionally involving—a dramatic situation that is like an itch you have to scratch.
A compelling mental picture. It must bloom in your mind when you hear it.
Audience and cost. It must demarcate the tone, the target audience, and the sense of cost, so buyers will know if it can make a profit.
A killer title. One that “says what it is” and does so in a clever way.
It’s how the “who” and the “what is it?” come together in any intriguing combination that makes us want to see this story unfold.
How can writers come up with original ideas?
A writer’s daily conundrum is how to avoid cliché. You can be near the cliché, you can dance around it, you can run right up to it and almost embrace it. But at the last second you must turn away. To give us the same thing...only different, you have to know what genre your movie is part of, and how to invent the twists that avoid pat elements. Trust me, your movie falls into a category. And that category has rules that you need to know. Use categorizing as a story tool. Be well-versed in the language, rhythm, and goals of the genre you’re trying to move forward.
The laws of physics that govern storytelling work every time, in every situation. Your job is to learn why it works and how these story cogs fit together. When it seems like you’re stealing—don’t. When it feels like a cliché—give it a twist. When you think it’s familiar—it probably is, so you’ve got to find a new way. But at least understand why you’re tempted to use the cliché and the familiar story. The rules are there for a reason. Once you get over feeling confined by these rules, you’ll be amazed at how freeing they are. True originality can’t begin until you know what you’re breaking away from.
What are your 10 story types that just about every motion picture can fit into?
Monster in the House - Jaws, Tremors, Alien - a monster (prompted by sin), a house (confined space), people desperate to kill the monster.
Golden Fleece - Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Back to the Future, heist movies - hero goes on a quest for one thing and discovers something else--himself.
Out of the Bottle - Bruce Almighty, Freaky Friday, Flubber - a wish-fulfillment fantasy
Dude with a Problem - Breakdown, Die Hard, Titanic, Schindler’s List - an ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
Rites of Passage - 10, Ordinary, People, Days of Wine and Roses - life transitions, growing-pains, victory means giving up to forces stronger than ourselves, acceptance of our humanity.
Buddy Love - Dumb & Dumber, Rain Man, love stories - two people who can’t stand the fact that they don’t live as well without each other, who will have to surrender their egos to win.
Whydunit - Chinatown, JFK, The Insider - the “crime” was committed and the “case” began; seeking the innermost chamber of the human heart and discovering something unexpected, something dark and often unattractive, and the answer to a question: Why?
The Fool Triumphant - Being there, Forrest Gump, Dave, The Jerk, Amadeus - an underdog--seemingly so inept and unequipped for life that everyone around him discounts his odds for success -- and an institution for that underdog to attack.
Institutionalized - Animal House, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Beauty, family sagas - When we band together as a group with a common cause, we reveal the ups and downs of sacrificing the goals of the few for those of the many. Stories about groups, institutions, and “families.”
Superhero - Superman, Batman, Dracula, Frankenstein, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator - an extraordinary person finds himself in an ordinary world. Sympathy for the plight of being misunderstood. Gives flight to our greatest fantasies about our potential, while tempering those fantasies with a dose of reality.
How can writers create a hero their audience will love?
The perfect hero is one who offers the most conflict in the situation, has the longest emotional journey, and has a primal goal we can all root for. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, and fear of death grab us.
Tell me a story about a guy who…
I can identify with.
I can learn from.
I have compelling reason to follow.
I believe deserves to win.
Has stakes that are primal and ring true for me.
How can writers effectively structure their stories?
The craftsmanship it takes, the patient work, the magic of storytelling on film, all come together in how you execute structure. From what I’d seen in movies, read about in screenplay books, and found myself relying on, I developed the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. The numbers in parentheses are the page numbers where the beats take place.
1. Opening image (1)
The very first impression of what a movie is--the tone, mood, and style of the movie—are all found in the opening image. It often introduces the main character and shows us a “before” snapshot of him or her. The opening and final images should be opposites, bookends showing change so dramatic it documents the emotional upheaval that the movie represents.
2. Theme Stated (5)
In many ways a good screenplay is an argument posed by the screenwriter. And the rest of the screenplay is looking at it from every angle. Somewhere in the first five minutes of a well-structured screenplay, someone (usually not the main character) will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie. It won’t be obvious, an offhand remark that the main character doesn’t quite get at the moment that will have a meaningful impact later.
3. Set-up (1-10)
This is the movie’s thesis, where we see the world as it is before the adventure starts with a sense that a storm’s about to hit (because for things to stay as they are is death). The first ten minutes “sets up” the hero, the stakes, and goal of the story. We start to plant every character tic, exhibit every behavior that needs to be addressed later on, and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win. This is the place to list what is missing in the hero’s life.
4. Catalyst (12)
The catalyst is the first moment when something happens. You have told us what the world is like and now you knock it all down. It’s the opposite of good news, and yet, by the time the adventure is over, it’s what leads the hero to happiness.
5. Debate (12-25)
The debate section is the last chance for the hero to say: This is crazy. Should I go? Dare I go? Sure, it’s dangerous out there, but what’s my choice? Stay here? The debate section must ask a question of some kind and show how the hero answers that question.
6. Break into Two (25)
The act break is the moment where we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and proceed into a world that is the upside down version of that, its antithesis. Stepping into Act Two must be definite. The hero cannot be lured, tricked, or drift into Act Two. The hero must make the decision himself.
7. B Story (30)
You’ve set up the A story and you’ve landed in a whole new world. The B story says: Enough already, how about talking about something else!” The B story provides not only the love story and a place to openly discuss the theme of your movie, but gives the writer the vital “cutaways” from the A story. We have not always met the B story players in the first 10 pages of the screenplay. But since Act Two is the antithesis, they are upside down versions of those characters who inhabit the world of Act One.
8. Fun and Games (30-55)
The fun and games section provides the promise of the premise. It is the core and essence of the movie’s poster where most of the trailer moments of a movie are found. Because the stakes won’t be raised until the midpoint, we aren’t as concerned with the forward progress of the story as we are with having “fun.” What about this premise, this poster, this movie idea, is cool?
9. Midpoint (55)
The midpoint is the threshold between the two halves of a movie script where the fun and games are over and the stakes are raised. It’s either an “up” where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse), and it can only get better from here on out. When you decide which midpoint your script is going to require, it’s like nailing a spike into a wall good and hard. The clothesline that is your story can now be strung securely. The midpoint has a matching beat called “All Is Lost.” These two points are a set because the two beats are the inverse of each other.
10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)
The term “Bad Guys Close In” applies to the situation the hero finds himself in at midpoint. All seems fine, but even though the bad guys—be they people, a phenomenon, or a thing—are temporarily defeated, and the hero’s team seems to be in perfect sync, we’re not done yet. This is the point where the bad guys decide to regroup and send in the heavy artillery. It’s the point where internal dissent, doubt, and jealousy begin to disintegrate the hero’s team. The forces that are aligned against the hero, internal and external, tighten their grip. Evil is not giving up, and there is nowhere for the hero to go for help.
11. All is Lost (75)
The All Is Lost beat is the “Christ on the cross” moment. It’s where the old world, the old character, the old way of thinking dies. It is the opposite of the midpoint in terms of an “up” or a “down.” And it clears the way for the fusion of thesis—what was—and antithesis—the upside down version of what was—to become synthesis, that being a new world, a new life. All is Lost is the place where mentors go to die, presumably so their students can discover they had it in them all along. So stick in something dead here, whether it’s integral to the story or just something symbolic.
12. Dark Night of the Soul: (75-85)
The Dark Night of the Soul can last five seconds or five minutes. It is the darkness right before the dawn, the point just before the hero reaches way, deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. But at the moment, that idea is nowhere in sight. It’s the “Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?” beat. Then and only then, when we admit our humility and our humanity, and yield our control of events over to Fate, do we find the solution. We must be beaten and know it to get the lesson.
13. Break into Three (85)
Thanks to the B story characters and to the hero’s last best effort to discover a solution to beat the bad guys, an idea to solve the problem has emerged. The world of synthesis is at hand. Both in the external story (the A story) and the internal story (the B story), which now meet and intertwine, the hero has prevailed, passed every test, and dug deep to find the solution. The classic fusion of A and B is the hero getting the clue from “the girl” that makes him realize how to solve both—beating the bad guys and winning the heart of his beloved.
14. Finale (85-110)
Act Three is where we wrap it up, where the lessons learned are applied, where the character tics are mastered. It’s where A story and B story end in triumph for our hero. It’s the turning over of the old world and a creation of a new world order—all thanks to the hero, who leads the way base on what he experienced in the antithetical world of Act Two. The finale entails the dispatching of all the bad guys, in ascending order. The chief source of “the problem”—a person or thing—must be dispatched completely for the new world order to exist. It’s not enough for the hero to triumph, he must change the world.
15. Final Image (110)
The opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred.
In your book, you mention that every screenwriter should try using The Board. How does it work?
The Board is a way for you to “see” your movie before you start writing. It is a way to easily test different scenes, story arcs, ideas, bits of dialogue and story rhythms, and decide whether they work. I like to get a pack of index cards and a box of push pins and stick up my beats on The Board, and move ‘em around at will.
Once you’ve bought your board (I use corkboard), take three longs strips of masking tape and make four equal rows:
Act one (p. 1-25)
Act two (p. 25-55)
Act two (p. 55-85)
Act three (p. 85-110)
Index cards are primarily used to denote scenes. You’ve got nine to 10 cards per row that you need to fill. Each card should include the basic action of the scene told in simple declarative sentences. There are two really important things you must put on each card: +/- and ><. The +/- represents the emotional change you must execute in each scene either from + to - or from - to +. The other symbol, ><, denotes conflict, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Society. The symbol >< on the bottom of each card must be filled in with who each of the players is in each scene of conflict, what the issue is, and who wins by the end. If it’s more than one person or issue, you’ve got a muddy scene.
The most burning ideas you have for scenes are what must be laid out first. The next cards you really must nail in there are the hinge points of the story: midpoint, Act Two break, Act One break. With the midpoint nailed, the All Is Lost is not too hard to figure out. Most likely you will have more cards than you need. Examine each beat and see if the action or intent can’t be folded into another scene or eliminated altogether.
What else can The Board be used for other than placing the scenes?
How each character’s story unfolds and crosses with others needs to be seen to be successfully worked out. Color-code each character’s story. When you put them up on The Board, you can see at a glance how the stories are woven together—or if they need to be reworked. Color-coding can be used for other things too:
Story points that follow and enhance theme and repeating imagery can be color-coded.
Minor character arcs can be traced
C, d, and e stories can get the color-code treatment
How do you know when you are ready to move from the Board to the blank page?
The work on the Board is important. But it’s a trick I play on myself, an exercise in storing moments, rhythms, scenes, and scene sequences in my brain. It allows me to play with these elements without commitment to any of them. If your Board is too perfect, or if you spend too much time trying to make it so, then you have left the world of preparation and entered the Procrastination Zone. I always like to start writing when I’m coming up on the end of finishing The Board, just before it gets too perfect. Speed is the key. I want to figure this all out so I can get to the writing. I must always be willing to throw it all away as I begin my writing process.
In your book you mention that there are Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics. What are these rules?
Save the Cat: A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start. I call it the “Save the Cat” scene. The hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win. When your hero is slightly damaged goods, or even potentially unlikable, make his enemy even more horrible.
The Pope in the Pool: Exposition is backstory or details of the plot that must be told to the audience in order for them to understand what happens next. Your problem is: How to bury the exposition? Mike Cheda told me about a script he once read called The Plot to Kill the Pope, by George Englund, which did a very smart thing. Representatives visit the Pope at the Vatican. And guess where the meeting takes place? The Vatican pool. There, the Pope, in his bathing suit, swims laps back and forth while the explosion unfolds. The Pope in the Pool gives us something to look at that takes the sting out of telling us what we need to know.
Double Mumbo Jumbo: I propose to you that, for some reason, audiences will only accept one piece of magic per movie. You cannot see aliens from outer space land in a UFO and then be bitten by a Vampire and now be both aliens and undead. They’re straining my suspension of disbelief. They’re breaking the reality of the world they asked me to believe in once already.
Laying Pipe: The screenwriter and director risk our attention by laying a ton of story points to get to the reason we came to see this movie. By needing so much backstory to set up the movie, the whole story has been torqued out of shape. If you find yourself with a setup that takes more than 25 pages to introduce, you’ve got problems.
Black Vet A.K.A. Too Much Marzipan: You cannot pile on more to make it better. You like that? Well, hell you’ll like it even more if I just add a couple of more scoops of the same thing on top, right? Well, no. Simple is better. One concept at a time, please.
Watch out for that glacier: Very often when bad guys are involved, they will be way off screen somewhere, far away from our hero, and “closing in.” The “danger” is coming toward your hero s-l-o-w-l-y! Danger must be present danger for people we care about. And what might happen to them must be shown from the get-go so we know the consequences of the imminent threat.
The Covenant of the Arc: Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story. Arc is a term that means “the change that occurs to any character from the beginning, through the middle and to the end of each character’s ‘journey’.” The measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who will curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. Everybody arcs.
Keep the Press Out: Bring the press in with care. Unless it’s about the press, unless your movie involves a worldwide problem and we follow stories with characters all over the world, keep the press out. By keeping it contained among the family and on the block, by essentially keeping this secret between them and us, the audience, the magic stays real.
Once you finish the first draft of your screenplay, how do you effectively revise it?
Try the “Is It Broken?” Test:
The hero: Is your hero’s goal clearly stated in the set-up? Is your hero being dragged through the story, showing up when he’s supposed to but for no reason? Or does he lead the action? Is your hero unmotivated with vague goals and no driving force or is he proactive at every stage of the game? Does he seek out clues of what to do next or is he handed his destiny? Do other characters tell your hero what to do or does he tell them?
Exposition: Do you resort to having your characters say backstory for you or do your characters walk into each scene with their own goals and say what’s on their minds? Do you reveal who they are and what they want, their hopes, dreams, and fear, by how they say it as much as what they say?
The bad guy: Do you make it seem impossible for the hero to win instead of protecting him from danger and challenge? Is the bad guy bad enough? Does he offer your hero the right kind of challenge? Do they both belong in this movie? Are your hero and bad guy two halves of the same person with almost equal power and ability who have something the other wants?
Pacing: Does your plot move faster and grow more intense after the midpoint? Is more revealed about the hero and the bad guy as we come in to the Act Three finale? Do you show flaws, reveal treacheries, doubts, fears, and threats? Do you expose hidden powers, untapped resources, and dark motivations for the bad guys that the hero doesn’t know about?
The emotional color wheel: Is your script onenote emotionally? Have you laughed, cried, been aroused, been scared, felt regret, anger, frustration, near-miss anxiety, and triumph? Does it feel like it needs, but does not offer, emotion breaks?
Dialogue: Is your dialogue flat? Can you tell one character from another just by how he or she speaks? Does your dialogue reveal character?
Minor characters: Do your minor characters stand out from each other in speech, look, and manner?
Character arc: Does the hero’s journey start as far back as it can go? Are you seeing the entire length of the emotional growth of the hero in this story?
Connection: Is it primal? Are your characters, at their core, reaching out for a primal desire--to be loved, to survive, to protect family, to exact revenge? Hunger, sex, fear of death?
Once you’ve polished your draft, how do you get people interested?
Selling a script has a lot more to do with thinking of your screenplay as a “business plan” than ever before. If you want to sell your script, you have to sell yourself--and I say this in the most healthy and positive sense. There is no crass salesmanship involved if you are genuinely interested in your subject. And if you seek out people to be partners in this game, whom you can help as much as they can help you, then it’s mutually beneficial.
Where do you start?
Get to know companies, contact names, fellow writers, and producers with projects in your genre. Include agents at big agencies and small, who like the same movies you like. Introduce you and your product. Making it personal, letting them meet and know you, is the best way to make the introduction to your work. Every sale has a story. The story is you. But how are you going to get that story told to the people on your list?
The key to all of this is to not think so much about your immediate goals but your long-term ones. Sure you need an agent. But you also need to build a reputation. If you are lucky enough to have a career, you will be bumping into these people again and again for years. So try not to burn any bridges. Be nice. Be considerate. Be helpful. Be upbeat. Try to put yourself in the shoes of everyone you speak to. What is it that they want? How can you make dealing with you easier on them? And what are they going to get out of the interaction that will make meeting you worth their time? Keep knocking on doors and showing your face.
What are some good places to try to reach out to those in the industry?
Film Festivals—Get business cards, pitch your script, hear other pitches. A contact is a contact and every person you meet knows 30 other people. Keep in touch post-festival and ask for referrals. Figure out how you can return the favor. Ask how you can help with their projects.
Classes—Go where other screenwriters go, but also go where aspiring producers go.
Screenwriting Groups—There are lots of these online, as well as in local communities.
Become an expert—Start reviewing movies. Do it in your local paper or online. By becoming critics, you have a platform from which to be heard.
You.com—start a website all about you and your career. Put up your photo and bio. List scripts in progress, treatments, and sample pages that are available to download.
Screenplay contests are a waste of time. It means just about zero to any agent or producer with anything real going on. If you must enter a contest, seek out the legitimate, the ones with high-level pros who will be available at panels and/or seminars. If they aren’t associated with the contest, you shouldn’t be either.
Stunts don’t work. Lame attempts to get attention don’t work.
How do you know if you are making progress?
An agent or producer says your project is not for him, but to keep him in mind for future scripts.
You talk to an agent or producer that you like. You’ve identified someone you will want to get in touch with again, even if it’s “no” now.
You have whittled a list of 50 possibilities down to three maybes. Those 47 no’s had to be gotten through. Every no is one step closer to a yes.
You get a referral. Everyone you contact must be asked this question at some point in the process of saying no: “Is there anyone else you can recommend that I contact about my career?” Referrals are gold.
Any inroad, any one at all, is a gigantic leap forward. And while you may not get an agent right away, or make a sale right away, you are making progress every time you write a query letter, pick up the phone, or meet someone for coffee.
What helps you avoid discouragement?
I’ve also been faced with terrible self-doubt and self-recrimination. You get bumped in this business, and want to throw in the towel from time to time. But if it’s in your blood, like it’s in mine, you learn to persevere. And you get as much education from failure as success. If you keep trying and stay focused, you can have any prize in the firmament. All you have to do is keep working at it, have a great attitude, and know that today just might be “the day.” As long as I maintain the attitude that the next script will be my best yet, and keep being excited about the process, I know I can’t fail. If you’ve done your job, that’s all you can do. You’ve done your best. The rest is fate. You must find a life within the confines of “It is what it is.” The powers-that-be can take away a lot of things, but they can’t take away your ability to get up off the mat and come back swinging—better and smarter than you were before. Most of all, you must try to find the fun in everything you write. Because having fun lets you know you’re on the right track.
Thanks, Blake Snyder.
My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:
Write a logline about the hero’s story (who he is, who he’s up against, and what’s at stake) before diving into your story.
To write something original, you need to understand your genre. True originality can’t begin until you know what you’re breaking away from.
Structure is not a restraint. It can free you.
Use The Board to play around with the structure of your story before committing. Make sure you have fewer than 40 scenes and that each scene is focused on one emotional change and one conflict.
To get your work out there, you need to sell yourself. If you really care about the project, it won’t feel like you are a sleazy salesman. The worst that can happen is that someone says no.
What did you learn from Blake Snyder’s work? Share your ideas in the comments below.
To free the writer today, try out The Board technique. Write down your scenes on index cards, rearrange things, double check that every scene contains emotional change and conflict. By visually representing your story, you may be able to pinpoint problem spots and discover scenes you’ve never thought of before.