At some point in every screenwriter’s career there comes a time to reckon with the most popular screenwriting book ever written, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. The book is recommended so often because it is written in a clear and concise manner that seemingly unlocks the fundamental structure of every movie using the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet”.
A quick disclaimer: This article is only a whistle-stop tour of the book’s contents. It can’t accurately reflect the quality of the book in a fair way. Regardless of what I think, I highly recommend you read the book for yourself to make up your own mind.
Before I break down the book and the beat sheet within, it’s a good idea to figure out whether Save the Cat is for you. Save the Cat is influential and undoubtedly is a great introduction to basic ideas of storytelling structure, but it is not the cumulative statement on narrative theory that Snyder claims it to be. For my money, the book is far too prescriptive and insistent upon a stifling structure.
However, that does not mean it’s without value. Save the Cat works best as an introduction to understanding stories. After reading it you should investigate other writers and what they think about narrative structure. Story by Robert McKee, Into the Woods by John Yorke, and Craig Mazin’s fantastic podcast on narrative structure are all great places to continue your exploration of storytelling.
I don’t think there’s anything in Save the Cat that would be entirely beneficial for an experienced screenwriter as it is just another way of formulating the three-act structure. There’s nothing here that you wouldn’t know from countless other books or experience, but if you’re looking for a refresher there are far worse places to go.
Blake Snyder claims that Save the Cat is the “last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”, so it’s a good idea to do a quick survey of what’s inside just in case he’s right.
While Save the Cat is best known for its beat sheet, to Snyder’s credit there’s actually far more information in the book than just structure tips. Snyder begins the book by analyzing loglines and how to make a great one (make sure to check out our article on writing an eye-catching logline) before breaking down the different kinds of movies (“Monster in the House”, “Superhero”, and “Dude with a Problem” are some examples).
Before getting into the beat sheet proper, Snyder argues that all good storytelling is fueled by a “Primal Urge” such as sex, survival, or desire. This primal urge, Snyder contends, is what makes a character empathetic and a successful part of a story. After all, a plot is just one element of a great story. Character is just as important, if not more so.
The rest of the book is spent exploring the Save the Cat beat sheet.
Here’s Savannah Gilbo’s fantastic graphic to get us started:
This is a Save the Cat beat sheet. Split across four acts (act two is split into act 2a and act 2b), Snyder highlights key moments that every story should hit and on what page they should show up.
The opening image will immediately set the tone and style of your script, so it’s best for this to be striking and evocative. If you’re writing a horror movie, this isn’t the place to have a whimsical montage. If you’re writing a rom-com, a shot of scary looking house might not be appropriate. Bonus points if you can make the opening image contrast the closing image and be thematically poignant.
While simultaneously introducing the protagonist, Snyder argues that you need to explicitly state the theme of the story early so that the reader knows exactly what this story is about. Sometimes this can be a piece of dialogue or it can be implied through an image. Either way, Snyder argues that putting the theme up front means that you can put the theme through its paces so that it’s properly realized by the end.
Both “opening image” and “theme stated” come under the set up. In this early part of the story the plot itself usually hasn’t kicked in properly yet. Instead, this is the time to set up relationships, locations, character dynamics, and the theme. By the time the reader’s finished the set-up they should have a good idea of what kind of story they’re going to be getting and the tone of the dialogue and world.
As we’ve talked about before, this part of the script is key. It’s going to be the reader’s first impression of your writing abilities so it should be as perfect as possible.
Sometimes called the “inciting incident”, the catalyst is the moment that knocks the protagonist out of their normal and comfortable world and into the story. While it’s not encouraged to have random things happen to characters throughout the story, the catalyst is the exception to the rule. This unexpected event can happen out of nowhere and it is what ultimately sets the protagonist off on their adventure.
However, that doesn’t exactly mean that the protagonist wants to set off on their journey. Their world, while not ideal, is at least comfortable and following the catalyst threatens to destabilize the world they knew. While the debate is not the most mandatory part of the script, plenty of movies use this time to get an insight into the protagonist and what part of their psychology prevents them from following the catalyst to a more exciting life.
The end of act one marks the moment when the protagonist is ready to leave their comfortable world behind and follow the catalyst to wherever it leads them. This is Frodo leaving the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, Joy leaving the control center in Inside Out, or Neo discovering reality in The Matrix. It’s no coincidence that the break into two is often marked by a literal change in geography. The adventure has begun.
If you’re going to have a B Story, this is the place to start it. While a B Story can essentially be any complimentary plot line, the most common kind is a romantic subplot. The B Story can also follow secondary characters adjacent to the protagonist. While Act One is the domain of the protagonist, Act Two has enough space to introduce new plotlines.
Perhaps the most infamous part of the Save the Cat beat sheet. I much prefer to think about Fun and Games as “Promise of the Premise”. This is the part of the movie where the audience is going to get exactly what they were promised in the trailer. Are you writing a sci- fi movie? Then this is where we should see your characters fully engage with whatever future concept you’ve come up with. Writing a horror movie? This is where we’re going to get some of the best scares. Writing a rom-com? This is when the characters go on their first date.
All of the Fun and Games should lead to the midpoint. This is the central axis of your story upon which all else turns. Snyder argues that if your story is going to end happily, this should be sad, and vice versa. Here the stakes deepen through some discovery and the lightness of the Fun and Games get a little more serious. The protagonist realizes that they can no longer return to their comfortable world, but they haven’t learnt enough to come to the thematic realization yet.
This is where the couple have their first argument, the bad guy gets their hands on the doomsday weapon, or when Batman captures Joker and brings him into prison in The Dark Knight.
I sometimes call this “Descent” instead. Due to the protagonist being drawn to the comfortable world of Act One but being unable to return, post-midpoint is often accompanied by a series of unfortunate events that make the protagonist’s goal appear dire.
This is where the villain might reveal a master plan they had the entire time which took advantage of the protagonist’s fatal flaw. Again, this doesn’t have to be literal bad guys. Considering this as “Descent” means that in a rom-com this could be the moment where the main couple starts to wonder whether their relationship will work at all.
This all leads to a single devastating event that knocks the protagonist straight on their ass. Their significant other breaks up with them, their mentor is killed, the world is beyond saving. Make sure this is devastating, as the rest of the movie depends on this moment having emotional resonance.
This leads to the so-called “Dark Night of the Soul” where the protagonist has to live in this world of utter defeat. This is their darkest moment by far. Their goal is far out of reach and they can’t return from whence they came. What are they going to do?
All of this moping around leads to a realization that allows the protagonist to muster their strength and launch head-first into the third act. This is often a discovery of something previously unknown that leads the protagonist to gaining new found thematic knowledge. This thematic knowledge gives them the new strength needed.
Sometimes, the B story that has been quietly chugging along in the background is the key for the protagonist finding their Break into Three. Newly recharged and emboldened, the protagonist ventures into Act Three.
Emboldened by the newfound knowledge, the protagonist ventures forth into a final confrontation with the antagonistic force. While they were defeated earlier, the newfound knowledge acquired in the Break into Three allows them to finally beat the antagonist in a climactic confrontation. Bonus points if you can make this into a big set piece.
This is Luke and the rebel alliance assaulting the Death Star in Star Wars, the Avengers fighting Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, Neo saving Morpheus in The Matrix, the final duel in the graveyard in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Max turning his convoy around in Mad Max: Fury Road, the assault on the empty city in Tenet, Bond holding his childhood home in Skyfall, Miles and the other Spider-Men shutting down the dimension machine in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or venturing down into the sewers beneath Derry in It: Chapter One.
After the final confrontation there is a Denouement, a moment where of calm where the new world is established. We are rewarded for following the protagonist through their journey and see how their new world works.
One final image allows your audience to close the final page of the storybook with satisfaction. Again, bonus points if you can make the final image thematically relevant or “rhyme” with the opening image to give the story a sense of closure.
Is Save the Cat worth all the hype?
Maybe, but I’d hesitate to put it on any sort of pedestal. It is just one of many narrative theories that while is certainly applicable, is no better than many others. I always found that Save the Cat works best as an introduction to narrative theory or in conjunction with other books that flesh out our disagreement with Snyder’s beat sheet. This gives you a fuller impression of the intricacies of each beat that could be dissected ad nauseam.