Is Save The Cat the ultimate guide to screenwriting? Let's test it...
Screenwriting is hard.
Like impossibly hard...
There’s the self-doubt, conflicting information, writer jealousy, writer’s block, lack of time, lack of ideas, lack of pay (especially early on).
Add to this the high fees for competitions or advice from dubious "experts" claiming to know how to make you the next Aaron Sorkin – just buy this book, course, or join their group to view exclusive industry listings for the low low price of $49.99 per month!
It all seems like a fantastic scam to part you with your hard-earned money.
Not to mention the snobs who love to tell us we’re doing it wrong––you’re a n00b, your logline is too diffuse, your story is too derivative, you format your scripts wrong.
It almost makes you wonder why anyone writes at all…
"You do it because you love it. Even when you hate it." - Alexa Donne
There’s a lot of theories going around about how to write and structure stories in order to hit the right marks that will help you HIT THE BIG LEAGUES! (Even though most success stories pretty much boil down to tenacity, random luck, or 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?
Does 'Save the Cat' Really Work...?
Let's talk about Save the Cat...
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", which 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. One camp claims it as the absolute bible when it comes to story structure, while the other describes it as hokum written by a hack.
I currently sit on the fence––I see the merit, but I don’t think there is enough good ol’ country hard-hitting grassroots research on whether or not this system actually works.
I'm a person who likes research. I'm also a person who needs things to be repeatedly broken down so that I can understand them (something you'll find a lot of this blog).
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 practice, I personally would like more examples... even if I have to make them myself.
A new frontier...
This entry makes the start of a series I call "Does [X] Save the Cat?"
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 dig 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.
RELATED: Does Legally Blonde Save the Cat?
I’m not sure if this idea has been done before, I have searched the internet for a resource that does this type of break down, but have yet to find one. Therefore I volunteer as tribute in this endeavour––even if purely for my own educational purposes.
So, let's take a look at 'Save the Cat' in Storytelling...
Dropping beats like Blake Snyder himself...
So I don’t have to explain this in every post, 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.
RELATED: Does Mean Girls Save the Cat?
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!
Thank you for reading. Make sure to leave a comment and share this with other writers.
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