Does It Save the Cat?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Screenwriting is really hard. Like impossibly hard. There’s the self-doubt, conflicting information, writer’s jealousy, writer’s block, lack of time, lack of ideas, lack of pay (especially early on). This mixed in with the high fees for competitions or advice from dubious ‘experts’ claiming to know how to make you the next Aaron Sorkin. It’s like everyone wants a piece of you in this industry.
They want you to buy their book, or their course, or join this group to see industry listings for only $49/m. It all seems like a fantastic scam to part you with your hard-earned money. Not to mention the snobs who always love to tell you you’re doing it wrong, you’re a n00b, your logline is too diffuse, your story is too derivative. It almost makes you wonder why anyone writes at all…
Well for me it’s the desire, no need, to tell stories. I have to put pen to paper, even when self-doubt and lack of direction makes me want to throw my computer out of the window. To quote Alexa Donne - ‘You do it because you love it. Even when you hate it’.
There’s a lot of theories going around about how to write and structure stories or hit the right marks to make it big. Even though essentially most of it is just random luck and being in the right place at the right time. But what I want to know is, exactly how much merit is there to this idea of story theory, and does cracking it really put you on the short train to stardom?
If you’ve hung around in the writing sphere for any length of time you will most likely be familiar with the concept of Save the Cat. For anyone who isn’t, Save the Cat is a story beat structure devised by the late screenwriter Blake Snyder. This beat sheet is infamous in the community for how divisive it is. With one camp claiming it is the absolute bible when it comes to structuring your story, while the other describes it as hokum written by a hack.
I am someone who sits on the fence on this one. While I see Save the Cat’s merit, I don’t think there is enough good ol’ country hard-hitting grassroots research on whether or not this system actually writes a good screenplay. I’m a person who likes to do a lot of research. I also like things to be repeatedly broken down so that I can understand them. Though Snyder’s book does a good job of breaking down Ms Congeniality (2000) to give us a more concrete example of how his theory works in a real context, I personally would like some more examples. Even if I have to make them myself.
Hence why I am starting this series called ‘Does It Save the Cat?’. In this series I will take a leaf out of Snyder’s book (literally) and breakdown films to see how well they align with his beat sheet. However, I will also go a little deeper and analyse the critical reception and box office stats of these films to see if Save the Cat really does have an impact on the outcome of a movie.
I’m not sure if this idea has been done before, I have scoured the internet for a resource that does this type of thing on a grand scale, and I have as yet failed to find one. Therefore I volunteer as tribute in this endeavour. Moreso as an exercise to educate myself and if it helps anyone else along the way then that’s a win-win in my book.
Just so I don’t have to explain this in every single article in this series, I will quickly summarise the Save the Cat beats and link to this introduction in future instalments in case anyone needs a quick refresher. It is also worth picking up a copy of Snyder’s book, because whether or not you believe in his teachings, it’s a fun read and his enthusiasm is definitely motivating, if nothing else.
So, in their most basic form, Snyder’s Beats are as such:
1 - Opening Image (1%) - a visual that shows the story world in its status quo, usually it shows the struggle of the protagonist and sets the tone for the story. Often it will be the inverse of whatever we see in the final image.
2 - Set-up (1-9%) - this expands on the opening image. We see our hero’s world as it is now and what is missing from their life. We may also see the character’s fatal flaw or get a hint to what they will need to overcome.
3 - Theme State (4%) - here we learn the truth that needs to be revealed by the time the credits roll. Usually this will be revealed to the hero by a confidant or situation, it’s a ‘nugget of truth’ that the hero is not yet enlightened enough to understand the true message behind.
4 - Catalyst (10%) - an incident that interrupts the hero’s status quo forcing them to take action.
5 - Debate (10-23%) - here the hero will decide whether they have the mettle to accept the challenge presented to them. They will usually deny the call to adventure due to self-doubt or unwillingness to step up.
6 - Break into Act Two (23%) - here circumstances will change and usually force the hero to accept the call to adventure. They will travel through the door with no return. This is the beat that really sets the story in motion.
7 - B-Story (27%) - minor story that supports the main story, this usually helps the hero learn what needs to be learned or come to terms with their fatal flaw. This is often the love interest / romantic arc or it can be about secondary characters.
8 - Fun & Games (27-32%) - this is the ‘promise of the premise’ or the part the audience actually came for. The hook. The trailer material.
9 - Midpoint (50%) - plot twist that raises the stakes for our hero and may require them to change tack in order to reach their goal. They may learn that friends are actually foes or have a change of allegiances.
10 - Bad Guys Close In (50-68%) - Fun & Games gets serious. Greater obstacles are introduced for the hero that seem insurmountable. They aren’t strong enough, their team is broken apart, they are betrayed. In short - shit gets real.
11 - All is Lost (68%) - the hero hits rock bottom. They are filled with self-doubt or reeling from a defeat and don’t think they can go on. Often they are in a much worse situation than before they got the call to adventure.
12 - Dark Night of the Soul - hero wallows in self-pity and wants to give up. Often threatens to give up the fight and return to their original status quo - even though we all know that is not an option.
13 - Break into Three (77%) - new information comes to light, usually delivered by B-Story or secondary character, that creates a new catalyst and invigorates the hero to keep pursuing their goal.
14 - Finale (77-100%) - hero confronts antagonising force with renewed strength. This time the hero uses ‘nugget of truth’ revealed in beat 3 having finally understood what it means. The hero will win/lose but learn a lesson and be forever changed.
15 - Final Image (100%) - here the hero returns to their life but there is a new status quo. It will usually be the inverse of the Opening Image beat, here the hero is forever changed.
If you’re familiar with the format then you’ll know that Blake Snyder actually has specific page numbers connected with his beats. However, movies differ in length, particularly in the era of home-screening, meaning filmmakers no longer need to abide by the laws of the human bladder. Therefore, I have worked out this relative figure as a percentage of Snyder's original 110 page screenplay length.
So there you have it, the 15 Blake Snyder beats that are needed to Save the Cat. To kick off the series I will be starting with ‘Legally Blonde’ so make sure you check that out next week.