(No, that cat isn’t the cat we’re saving. This battleworn death metal cat is a cat that skulks around the woods around my writing shed. I don’t run it off, as I hope it has better luck catching the mice, moles and voles instead of the songbirds it sometimes stalks. Stop chasing pretty birds, cat!)
This is about the book by the late Blake Snyder: Save the Cat.
It’s a fine book. You should read it [indiebound / amazon].
Here’s why I like it: it breaks story down into very recognizable blockbustery beats. Like, oh, here’s the part of the movie where there’s a FALSE VICTORY and here’s the part where ALL IS LOST and oh now it’s the time of the movie when the HERO has to say some COOL GLIB SHIT and GLISTEN SWEATILY. Or something. Whatever. There’s a worksheet. It’s great.
I meet a lot of book authors who really love this book and who swear by it. And I go to writing conferences and conventions and inevitably I see someone doing a talk or a workshop and they lean on the book — sometimes a little, sometimes a whole lot.
And that’s okay.
But it’s really worth noting:
Save the Cat is a book about screenwriting.
It is not a book about… well, writing books.
And that’s a vital distinction, because Snyder’s book isn’t here to tell you about the bones of story in general, it’s here to give you a very specific framework you may apply to any screenplay you care to write, and more specifically, with the goal of writing a sellable, blockbustery film.
And here you might say, “But what if I want to write a big, sellable, blockbustery book? Isn’t that the same thing, Mister Chuck?”
A book is not a movie. A movie is not a comic book. No one format is another format. Each carries with it a series of advantages and limitations (and some limitations are also advantages, assuming you don’t buy a duck hoping it’ll be a dog). A film tends to be a thing that follows a clearer, more illustrative pattern. It doesn’t have to be! Many times, it’s not, specifically when we look to smaller, niche, more “indie” films. But bigger films tend to follow more typical patterns and tropes. A book, though? A book is bigger. Sprawlier. Stranger. Books can be exciting and cinematic but even then, if you write them exactly like you’d write a film, you’d potentially end up with something too lean, too shallow — because films do not explore an internal dimension. Yes, there’s subtext! Yes, actors and direction reflect an internal world of the characters. But books don’t reflect that — they rip open the exterior wall to show what goes on inside character’s heads and hearts and histories.
A film is a lean 90-120 minutes.
A book is…
Further, a screenplay isn’t even a film. It’s the blueprint of a film. A screenplay is a very robust outline. So: Save the Cat is preparing you to write a very robust outline, the goal of which is to outline a future film made by a whole team of people.
A book is just you.
I mean, yes, there’s input from an editor.
But the book is the book. It is the alpha and omega of its own narrative.
It’s not meant to become something else (and if it does, that’s rarely on you, and when it does, it’ll be squished and made malleable to fit into whatever additional format, be it TV or film or an STD pamphlet or an injectable nightmare invented by Elon Musk).
The final problem with Save the Cat is that it is totally formulaic.
That is its purpose.
To give you a formula.
Now, that’s not all bad. A formula is a really great jumping off point to understand certain story-beats — and to recognize those beats in popular storytelling media. Of course, the danger of that too is the predictability of those beats. Storytellers, and inevitably audiences, begin to unconsciously (and later, quite consciously) internalize those rigorous beats. It means that stories become safe because we can detect the pattern. We know what happens after an ALL IS LOST moment. We know, “oh hey here’s the part where the VILLAINS REGROUP and MEGATRON fights CAPTAIN AMERICA.”
That can be good.
It can be comfortable to watch stories and to know how they’re going to go.
It can also get really, really boring.
Which leads me to this:
Save the Cat is like an Applebee’s meal —
It’s rigorously tested and reliably reconstructed and, at the end of the day, safe.
And by safe, I do also mean “boring.”
That’s not so much the fault of the book, which again, I like just fine — but it is one result of relying on it like it’s a fucking LEGO instruction manual instead of just another way to break apart and utilize the fiddly constituent bits of storytelling.
There’s definite value in taking Save the Cat and mining it for a deeper understanding of how stories are constructed — the rise and fall and twists of certain beats is useful to see. It’s a neat peek behind the narrative curtain. Because at the end of the day, the bones of story are common between formats, despite their differences. It’s like in nature: a dolphin, a dog, and a human being don’t look much alike, and don’t act much alike, either. But rip off all their skin (metaphorically, put down the skinning knife) and you find that the bones are similar. I mean, seriously, it’s fucked up, a dolphin has hands, you guys, a dolphin has motherfucking hands inside those flipper mitts. Which leads me to believe that, at any point, a dolphin can take off its gloves and like, undo knots, or hack a computer or some shit.
Still, at the end of the day, stories are not computer programs, they’re not math equations, they’re not cookie recipes. They’re much wigglier and weirder than that. They follow patterns, but they are also best when the patterns are made to serve the story, rather than the story made to serve the pattern. Stories can be best when they are not tourists on a tour bus following a prescribed, predefined path. Sometimes a story is at its most interesting when the tour bus gains sentience, jumps the fence, and fucks off into the woods, rumbling toward a cliff as the tourists inside its metal body scream and bleat. It’s not about confidently striding along well-lit paths; it’s about a trepidatious journey through a dark forest where the only light you get is a flashlight whose batteries are dying.
So, what I’d ask of you, Dear Authors of Books — and, arguably, storytellers of all stripes — is to use Save the Cat sparingly, and without any kind of dogmatic devotion. Do not study it (or worse, teach it) as if it is true, but rather, as a book full of formulaic beats that any good storyteller should feel free to smash apart. You should be comfortable rearranging those beats, reversing them, fucking with them ten ways from Tuesday. And you should also concentrate less on any kind of prescriptivist, plot-focused storytelling methodology. It has value as food to feed the story, but not as a formula by which the story must rigidly adhere.
Save the Cat? Read it. Enjoy it.
Just don’t put a ring on it.
THIS HAS BEEN A PSA FROM CHNURK MANDOG
*rainbow and star cascade across the screen*
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.
Indiebound / Amazon / B&N
28 responses to “The Save The Cat Conundrum”
I LOVE Save the Cat. Between that book, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, it’s helped me refine my writing process. (The sequels to Save the Cat are good, too.)
I’m a very visual writer, so comparing my books to movies actually helps me. (YMMV) That’s just my process. I’m a pantster, but I write in Scrivener and while I don’t outline, I do use “beats” of a sort. I know where certain plot points are going to happen and create placeholder “mile markers” and then fill in all around that.
What I like about StC is that it teaches writers to deconstruct and reverse-engineer movies to look at the storytelling aspect of it. I agree it’s for a different medium, but the storytelling basics are still extremely valuable.
But, as with anything, YMMV and every writer is different. I once tried the snowflake method and it didn’t really work for me.
I do love being able to sit through a movie now and pick it apart, seeing the beats, see what worked, what didn’t (for me) and how I would have changed it. Seeing these mechanics in action has definitely made me a better writer.
FWIW, there is an author, Jessica Brody, who has modified Save The Cat for books. I’m not going to pay her fee to see how, but it is out there.
Love your books. Do you follow any formal story structure yourself? I find myself doing a pretty solid outline with story beats, but then that stuff goes into my subconscious and I only look back at it when I get stuck. I’m reading John York’s “Into the Woods” right now, but I had to put away “Story Genius” by Lisa K.
Replying to Jason’s comment – Brody is planning to release Save the Cat Writes a Novel in October of this year as a book with Ten Speed Press. It’s on Amazon for pre-order now.
Thank you for writing this. I got halfway through the book before the feeling of being in the wrong classroom hit me. It is a good book, and he brings up some valuable insights in regards to something worth watching, but he doesn’t spend too long on those wonderful noodly bits that make something worth reading.
Have you read Robert McKee’s “Story,” and what do you think? It’s also a screenwriting book, but the first half deals with stories in a more theoretical fashion before delving into formal screenplay analysis. I enjoy screenwriting books and blogs (Save The Cat, Story, anything by John August, as well as Vogler) as a jumping-off place for story structure, but of course they break down when applying them too hard to prose analysis.
I have — I liked it, but I found it a little dry for my tastes. And long. But solid stuff in there.
God yes, Story took me FOREVER to get through, but I learned a hell of a lot from it. I could just only read it in very small doses.
As an exponent of Save the Cat!, I’ve written extensively about the methodology on my blog. What it offers storytellers — be them novelists or screenwriters (with acknowledgment to the particular demands of the different forms) — are two main tools.
The first is the “beat sheet,” which is just Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey by another (more user-friendly) set of names: “Crossing the First Threshold” is renamed “Break into Two”; “Tests, Enemies, Allies,” becomes “Fun and Games”; “Approach to the Inmost Cave” is simplified as “Midpoint,” etc. In terms of offering a mythic blueprint — a form, not a formula — the beat sheet can be very helpful.
Blake Snyder’s chief innovation, however, are his genre classifications — the ten different story models and their corresponding conventions: Monster in the House (Jaws); Dude with a Problem (Die Hard); Golden Fleece (Raiders of the Lost Ark); etc. Those are absolutely invaluable, and are explored in great depth in the second book, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies.
One thing to note: Study only the late Blake Snyder’s three books, and not the articles on the Save the Cat! website, which is managed by his successors, who habitually misapply and misteach his principles (which includes Jessica Brody and Salva Rubio, both of whom have written follow-up books focusing on novels and independent films, respectively), for reasons explored in this article. They’re well-meaning people, but they just don’t fundamentally understand the program they teach.
Love that, very true. We humans are all lazy. We want an instant formula but there isn’t one.
You’re not wrong. It’s a gong I’ve been banging for years (oooh errr).
I write TV/film scripts. I also write novels. They are totally different things.
The problem with screenwriting books in general, and Campbell’s Monomyth in particular, is that they describe a single story structure (not matter what spin they put on it, they’re all the same underneath).
But when it comes to prose, goddamn it there are *so many* different story structures. That screenwriting stuff is good shit but it’s not all the shit. It’s not even close to being all the shit. (The rest of the shit is piled up round the back – dig in.)
Yes, like Chuck says, read it. Read it all. But use it as a jumping off point for learning about story, not the be-all and end-all.
Because it ain’t.
I love that cat! It looks exactly like one I had for many years. She disappeared one day when we lived in Maine. We think coyotes took her. Seeing that stray of yours gave me hope for a moment until I realized you live in PA. Regardless, I love that cat. Save it!
I’m very sorry about your cat. I hope that if this cat doesn’t have an owner, Chuck puts out food and water for it and perhaps gives it shelter when it’s cold. If it’s unneutered there will be TNR groups in the area you can google to stop the cycle of kittens being euthanased.
I use Save The Cat for outlining. I’m not much of an outliner, I pretty much consider my first draft a detailed outline and make an actual novel on the second pass. Noting the STC beats gives me a one-page map of how I could take this idea and these characters and get them through an entire story. Nothing worse than taking a great idea and finding out 30k words in that there’s really nowhere to go from here. (Don’t ask how I know…)
I often change it substantially along the way, as the developing story tells me what’s REALLY going to happen vs. what I spitballed a month ago. Works well for me in that sense.
I enjoyed Save the Cat and the handy “save the cat moment” is great shorthand. But as Chuck says, it’s not all the story. Not even most of it. I’ve written how-to books and still buy them to find one nugget of advice to apply to my own work. My upfront take is that there’s no ONE way to write, only what works for the writer. Try any, try all. Use what works for you. For me the best advice of all comes from Pixar storyboard artist, Emma Coats, who tweeted 21 writing tips. #4 is my go-to. Google it. While you’re there, look up The Art of Romance Writing which came out in 1982 and is still selling, Damn nuisance because I’d like to sell more of the updated edition.
I’m currently reading this book, and like you, I find it useful–to a point. As you indicate, film and literature are different art forms, and the screenplay is generally a bare-bones structure for directors, actors, cinematographers, etc, to hang the visual story on. Writers do it with words. The formulaic structure is a good jumping-off point I think, but can be confining to the point of tedium, not that writers don’t do this. Louis L’Amour basically wrote the same story dozens of times.
Glad you chose to talk about the book just as I’m reading it!
I really appreciate this, Chuck. I have searched everywhere looking for the “proper” format to tell a story – including Save the Cat. What you’ve done here is remind me not to be intellectually lazy about it by relying on someone else’s bones. I need to get my hands dirty in the story!
For having gone to college for film, Save the Cat is one scriptwriting book I *haven’t* read. It gets recommended everywhere, referenced and copied and paraphrased and quoted and and and… I just didn’t figure I needed it that badly. I worked through Dramatica for a while and got the beat idea, and then I read A Princess Of Mars and tripped over Burroughs’ Action On Every Page format and decided to just do my own thing.
In other news, I also would love a “Centipedes Descend” shirt or coffee mug. I think it would be amazing if you put a spider web under the words (or on the bottom of the coffee cup) so it can catch the centipedes for you, lest you miss any. 😀
The basic 3-act structure, which is at the heart of this book, is a useful template for a thriller (in book form) and a really good place to start if you have any desire to ever have your book turned into a film by Hollywood. Saving the cat is a way of generating an empathic response from the reader to your main character. The ‘pope in the pool’ is another useful technique that Snyder explains. That’s about all I remember about the book.
Chuck: Great post. I think the Save the Cat conundrum boils back to one of the fundamental rules of writing and arting in general: You need to know the rules so you can figure out how to break them.
Save the Cat is a rulebook, guidelines, here’s how it’s done.
Then, you take the rules you understand, use the ones that work for you … and, ultimately, do what works for you. You can break the rules when you need to in order to create your art. Do what works for you.
True, but also, not entirely — SAVE THE CAT, again, isn’t a rulebook for writers of fiction. It’s a rulebook for screenwriters of blockbuster cinema. But agreed that this is best how to read it — guidelines. A thing you can break, not even because you need to, but because this shit isn’t really hard and fast in the first place.
I’ve been writing forever, but have only recently started looking at (screenwriting style) plotting and beatsheets and I’m all but PARALYZED with doubt while trying to apply it to my writing. It feels so awkward and unnatural. I’m a pantser not a plotter, but it takes FOREVER to get anything done plotting retroactively. It’s like trying to assemble a living chicken from a bucket of KFC.
[…] being a writer who has dabbled in screenwriting, I can tell you this review of Save the Cat is spot on. I haven’t read the book itself, but if it’s for screenwriters, it’s […]
I’ve read it. As with pretty much every writing book I’ve read (yup–including Chuck’s), there are nuggets I can haul away, and lots of stuff that either makes me wonder if I’m writing at all, or makes me wonder how the author ever writes anything, what with all this structure and stuff to keep thinking about.I suspect that it’s good to read the books. Some of that stuff seeps into the unconscious the way the grammar and structure of the English language seeped into me through reading, rather than memorizing rules, and probably helps me plot a better story. But I’m not treating any writers’ guide as the Bible. Hell, I don’t treat the Bible as the Bible.
I had heard that film producers are looking for non-formulaic scripts. TV shows are the worst! I always know who murdered the poor slob. No fun in that. SO I agree that using it in books could make it boring and predictable.
[…] Some classic Wendig: The Save the Cat Conundrum […]
Could you not leave out some food and water for the cat? Some shelter for bad weather. Contact a local TNR group about sterilisation if needed.
Update to your blog. There’s a book called Save the Cat Writes a Novel! I suggest people use that for book writing instead.Take care!