Don't Blame The Cat

by Samuel Marlow. Published 27th July 2014

The late Blake Snyder and his "last book on screenwriting that you'll ever need" Save The Cat! have come in for some criticism recently, specifically that it is making all modern movies feel the same.

Blake Snyder

Author of Save The Cat Blake Snyder

As a fan of Snyder's book, and its second sequel Save The Cat Strikes Back! (the first sequel Save The Cat Goes To The Movies is a retread of the first book with examples from films), I feel obliged to give a feline spring to its defence.

The thrust of STC is a set of techniques to help the writer plan their screenplay, and Snyder's own observations on where story beats should fall down to the page number.

Screenwriters, and writers in general, have been looking for a magic formula for writing good stories, really, since the Bronze Age. The first surviving work of literary criticism, Aristotle's Poetics (published in the 4th Century BC), gives notes on structuring Comedies and Tragedies, as well as how to make the story resonate with the audience. He is also credited with the invention of the Three Act Structure.

Familiar to anyone who has studied writing in even the most superficial way, the Three Act Structure describes the "beginning, middle and end" of a story, also more helpfully referenced as "set-up, conflict, resolution". When I attended John Truby's seminar in London a few years ago he correctly pointed out that, while the three acts are correct, they are so vague as to be effectively useless when it comes to planning anything other than the simplest story. Truby offers Seven Steps in stead, which underpin his famous 22 Steps of Narrative Structure.

The Seven Basic Plots

Christopher Booker, author of the very thick The Seven Basic Plots primarily favours the five acts of formal playwriting, which he describes as "stages". What these are depends on the genre, but to take the simplest Overcoming the Monster plot, they are the Anticipation Stage, the Dream Stage, Frustration Stage, Nightmare Stage, and Thrilling Escape and Death of the Monster.

Personally, I think all storytelling is about problem-solving - all stories start with a person with a problem. Because of this I favour four broad acts, which I think of as:

  • Thesis
  • Antithesis
  • False Synthesis
  • True Synthesis

In the Thesis, we see the hero's world as it is, his problems and ambitions. We are shown the flip side of this world in the Antithesis, where the hero becomes a stranger by either entering a new world or looking at his own world with fresh eyes. He tries to combine the old and new worlds in the False Synthesis, but because he has not resolved his own demons, has made incorrect assumptions, and/or still has things to learn this first synthesis fails. Finally, having learnt from his mistakes, the hero is able to create a True Synthesis combine the best of both worlds.

It may be because Snyder's own model falls into four broad categories - Act I, Act II Part One, Act II Part Two, and Act III - that it resonates with me.

I like Snyder's model and, along with Truby's more character-driven Steps, Booker's Plots, Aristotle's identification of the importance of Catharsis (which he never bothers to expand on!), and Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces is one of the best sources on screenwriting in my opinion.

That said, it has its problems. Early on Snyder claims, when he is sent a new script, the first thing he does is turn to page 25 and if Act II doesn't start on page 25 he throws it away, as the writer clearly doesn't understand screenwriting. Firstly, I worry about anyone that inflexible. Secondly, out of context, who knows what constitutes the start of Act II? There are no curtain drops to cue us. So if a man orders a coffee on page 25 this could be a very dull scene, or if he had revealed a deathly fear of baristas on page 5 that could be a huge deal for him that would totally constitute the start of Act II.

Save The Cat Strikes Back

In Save The Cat Strikes Back Snyder admits that the reason the first book was light on Act III was that he himself was still getting to grips with it. He also seems to have mellowed a bit by STCSB, as he gives a list of events that should take place in Act III, but doesn't ascribe them specific page numbers.

Other than that, Snyder's approach is pretty solid. He tells the reader how to structure a story that works and makes sense, introducing character tics and problems early on, an initial stage of joy and success followed by a false victory or defeat at the midpoint, the Bad Guys Closing In, and the Dark Night of the Soul, before the Finale where the hero fights back to (hopefully) success!

As someone who plans a story intensively before committing the first draft to paper, I also like Snyder's "Chairman of the Board" technique of pinning scenes and actions to a notice board split into four "acts" to help plan and structure the narrative.

So how about the accusation that his technique now makes all movies the same. As an experiment I took a look at The Empire Strikes Back, considered to be a great movie and predating publication of STC by more than a quarter of a century. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that it corresponds to Snyder's Story Beats exactly.

12 minutes in, Luke is sent to Dagobah by Obi-Wan's ghost at the Catalyst beat. 25 minutes in, Act II kicks off when Luke flies out to repel the Imperial attack on the Rebels. Han kicks off the B Story after exactly 30 minutes when he goes to get Leia from the command centre. Yoda reveals he is the Jedi Master at the Midpoint, and the B Team arrive at Cloud City just as the Dark Night of the Soul is scheduled to begin. What happens at Act III should be starting? Han, Leia, Chewie are captured by Darth Vader as Luke speeds to rescue them. We are even given one of the greatest High Tower Surprises of all time: "I am you father..."

I Am Your Father

So what does this prove? Only what Synder himself had already acknowledged - that he invented nothing. He observed these recurrent beats at specific points in the scripts he was reading and films he was watching.

How is it, then, that a film as consistently exciting and unexpected as The Empire Strikes Back can be written on the same formula as bland and even annoyingly predictable movies of recent years?

The answer, really, is simple. What none of these books claim to do is tell you how to come up with a great idea. What they offer is to help you structure an idea you've already had. If you're very lucky they might nudge you into thinking of the idea in a different way, or push you onto a new idea, but none of them can create that spark of Muse that makes a story great.

The problem we have now is that as writers (Roberto Orci springs to mind) use books like this as a crutch in place of a good story, we become aware of the mechanics. By using it as a manual to write a script rather than a tool to tell a story we are not drawn into the magic of the world or grow to love the characters. We are less willing to suspend our disbelief, so we start to see the strings.

Roberto Orci

Cat saver and screenwriter Roberto Orci

All Snyder's Beats, Truby's Steps, and Booker's Plots are are set of proportions that they have each noticed in our history of storytelling. To blame a movie for being bad because it corresponds to Snyder's Beats is as asinine as blaming a photo for being dull because it uses the Golden Ratio or Rule of Thirds. Both are framing guides telling the author where to place things in a way that we find the most aesthetically pleasing, but they can't replace inspiration, creativity, experience and, sometimes, just being in the right place at the right time.

Some of the most amazing films I have seen have corresponded to Snyder's Beats, as have some of the worst. What this tells me is that this structure is everywhere, and has been since forever, but we only notice it when the story is deficient in other ways.

It's not the Cat's fault people are using the Beats to write dross. The worst it can be blamed for is making them aware of it.

So is Save The Cat! a magic formula for writing good stories...?

I would, surprisingly, say "Yes".

But the caveat is in the question: Is it a magic formula for writing good stories? The story has to be good to begin with, or at least be good by the time it corresponds to Snyder's Beats. Without engaging characters and a decent plot, the best Save The Cat! can give you is a well-structured bad story.

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