As Mr. Snyder says in his prologue, “Why do we need another book about writing?” Apparently even in 2005 when he first published Save the Cat, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting an eager, helpful guru determined to instruct young writer hopefuls in his way to plot, write, and sell.
So what makes Save the Cat any different, and why has it taken the industry by storm to be required reading for newbies and professionals alike?
I decided it was time to buy it and find out.
What You’re Buying
First, an overview of what he discusses.
For the pure new-comer, with no preexisting theories rattling around his brain, Mr. Snyder will explain log-lines (one-sentence pitch of your story’s driving core), story beats (a page-by-page breakdown of three-arc structure), and his own invention: 10 genre categories based on theme more than atmosphere (see below).
Although I’m no stranger to writing books or how-to blogs, Mr. Snyder gave a good argument for shearing away story-fluff, intensifying your protagonist, and zeroing in on the core, essential conflict of the plot.
Another thing I appreciate about the book is the number of examples. The subtitle is “The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need”. Mr. Snyder gives homework at the end of every chapter, and – being geared toward screenwriters – it nearly always involves watching movies.
He explains the log-line in terms of what would make you and your friends want to see the movie on a Saturday night. A whole paragraph of world-building and proper names is not going to cut it (maybe that’s more of a novelist problem).
There’s also enough humor to keep the pace brisk. Mr. Snyder writes in a conversational style, adding plenty of personal anecdotes to connect with the audience.
This is probably especially true in the chapter about breaking into the screenwriting business, where he shares his own experiences in finding agents and working with producers. He does caution readers that the atmosphere might have changed…and given what I’ve heard recently about the difficulty of breaking in to the ground floor, I’m even happier that I’m an independent novelist whose publication isn’t dependent on the moods of producers, studio owners, or publishing houses. Commercial success is another question, but that’s always been true.
My Best Lessons
I really came to this book hoping to learn more about Mr. Snyder’s ten genre categories, but they are not explored very deeply. Perhaps there’s more in the sequel, Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies.
The essence of these categories is who the protagonist is, and what his relationship to his situation is. For instance:
Buddy Love: An incomplete hero needs a counterpart to become whole, and the story revolves around the complication that might keep them apart (see the explanation on the official website).
Dude with a Problem: A innocent hero is suddenly thrust into a life-or-death battle (official breakdown and sample beat-sheets).
Whydunit: A detective is driven to solve a mystery by the need to know – even when the answer reveals dark things about the human heart.
So…Sandra Connor in Terminator, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and Brian Mills in Taken, (and probably other movies I also haven’t seen) are playing the same role of an ordinary hero plunged into a primal struggle for survival. “Dude with a Problem”.
Laurel and Hardy, Romeo and Juliet, Marlin and Dory, Don Quixote and his sidekick, they all share an unspoken bond that makes it inconceivable for one to be without the other. “Buddy Love”.
Mr. Snyder offers us plenty of examples for each of his ten genres (which would be more meaningful if I’d seen more of them).
The one doubt I had while reading was, “Well, my book could match into several of these. What’s that mean?” I’d also read the official website, and watched the arguments where the authors and writing teachers curating the site couldn’t decide which category some movie fit into.
My conclusion? The point of this exercise is less to label your book a “Golden Fleece” or an “Out of the Bottle” but more to aid you in fulfilling audience expectations.
Mr. Snyder repeatedly tasks his readers to head to the movie rental and study four or five works like the one they want to write. The genre classifications are just another way of helping you understand what audiences will want from your work…instinctively, subconsciously.
A monster movie where the characters aren’t trapped somewhere? Less tense. (See “Monster in the House“.)
A superhero movie where the hero has a special power (not necessarily a cape and spandex, thought) but no downside to using his powers (Snyder calls that a curse)? Well, then it’s no longer a story about an extraordinary person trying to fit into ordinary circumstances…it’s a power fantasy. It’s Minecraft on Creative Mode – not a narrative. (See “Superhero“.)
By breaking out these genres, giving examples of each, and talking briefly about why each of these forms a character archetype with certain assumed elements, Mr. Snyder helps us see the underlying fabric of the story…that thing audience notice when it’s missing, but not when it’s in its proper place.
Now, it’s by no means the first time I’ve studied a “plot outline” fill-in-the-blank. As I’ve struggled to develop my own plots unassisted, I’ve read many a blog or book, looking for inspiration.
But somehow, the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” clicked for me.
Maybe it was his humility, in saying, “Hey, this is what I use. Try it if you want!” He is also very effusive in his homage to the teachers who went before him, including the mentor who introduced him to what he calls “The Board”.
Maybe it’s the examples…that for some reason made more sense that previous “broken down” examples I’ve seen. You know – the teacher says, “And so clearly this scene is the Midpoint that leads to –” And you’re shaking your head, not seeing how that adds up and connects back to the central plot.
And maybe it’s me, in this moment…having read all the blogs I have, seen all the plot structures that went before…maybe it’s that my brain has finally acquired enough structure itself to interpret and understand how these mystical spaces called “Catalyst”, “Debate”, or “All is Lost” apply to a story in the real world.
It’s finally left the theoretical, and is making the trek toward understanding and reality.
Have I used the system to make a functional story of my own? Well, I have plotted out my current work-in-progress (with sticky notes and everything!). We’ll see how it holds up once the thing’s written.
Save time by wasting time.
The single purpose of The Board (a more visual layout of the scenes from the beat sheet) is to waste time. I mean save time!
Mr. Snyder will tell you to get a nice bulletin board, shop for just the right index cards, select special colored pens for the purpose, and spend all the time you want writing out the scenes and pinning them to the Board.
Why? 1) It lets your subconscious fiddle with the story idea and sort out the rough edges.
But 2) Actually looking at your planned scenes, laid out on a bulletin board, shows you all the Black Holes of Story Nothingness you hadn’t discovered yet, and help you slow down enough to fix the problems now before you’re 15,000 words in.
And if anything kills motivation, it’s staring at chapters and chapters of worthless drek and wondering where to go from here.
One last quick note: I also appreciated the way Mr. Snyder explained the author-ly lingo he used. He said he wanted to write a book that spoke the screenwriter’s “shop talk”, without lofty terms of literary theory.
In doing so, he also spoke more clearly to someone who is neither a screenwriter, nor a literary critic. He describes movies (stories) and their moving parts in a way that’s easy to picture – primal, even (another of his favorite words).
After all, he insisted our stories be relatable to a cave-man. Why not make the writing book accessible to the cave-man, too?
Worth the Money?
So should we really shell out our hard-earned drachmas for another (screen)writing book?
I’m glad I did. Not only did I learn what all the hype was about, but I also learned some more about writing.
My attitude toward writing advice has grown increasingly ambivalent, as I watch self-proclaimed experts contradict each other, and ponder on how Homer managed to pen the Odyssey and the Iliad before the internet.
And yet…it’s not all self-important piffle. Blake Snyder is open about his own growth and journey in screenwriting, and even includes his email address, inviting readers to interact with him on the issue (an offer less meaningful, if not less generous, now that he’s dead).
There are plenty helpful, thoughtful mentors and fellow-writers to help us along this journey. While reading good stories is probably the best way to develop a skill for telling them, perhaps there are a few short-cuts by way of sound advice and example.
I’d recommend this book. I think it helped me, which means it could help you.
Mr. Snyder called it “The last book on writing you’ll ever need.” If you put it down, and go write amazing stories, he’ll have been right.
You can find beat sheets, info on the genres, and more on the official website.