The Save The Cat Conundrum

(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?”

Nnnggh.

Whhhh.

*winces*

No.

Not really?

Not really.

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…

*whistles*

Not?

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*

*star explodes*

*rainbow melts*

*centipedes descend*

* * *

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