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November 27, 2020

Save The Cat – An Overview

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. It’s 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.

Who is Save the Cat for?

Save the Cat is influential and undoubtedly 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.

Where to Buy?

You can buy Save the Cat at most local bookstores, as well as on Amazon, or Blake Snyder’s website dedicated to the book’s ideas.

Summary of the book

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 by analyzing great loglines (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 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.

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.

Act 1

Opening Image (Page 1 of your script)

The opening image sets 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 a scary looking house might not be appropriate.

Theme Stated (Page 5)

While introducing the protagonist, 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.

Set Up (Pages 1-10)

Both “opening image” and “theme stated” come under the set up. The plot hasn’t kicked in 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.

Catalyst (Page 12)

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.

Debate (Pages 12-25)

However, that mean that the protagonist wants to set off on their journey. Their world, while not ideal, is comfortable and following the catalyst threatens to destabilize the world they knew. While the debate is not a 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.

Break into Two (Pages 25)

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.

Act 2A

B Story (Page 30)

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.

Fun and Games (Pages 30-55)

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.

Midpoint (Page 55)

This leads to the midpoint, 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. 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.

Act 2B

Bad Guys Close In (Pages 55-75)

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.

All is Lost (Page 75)

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.

Dark Night of the Soul (Pages 75-85)

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?

Break into Three (Page 85)

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.

Act 3

Finale (Pages 85-110)

Emboldened by newfound knowledge, the protagonist ventures into a final confrontation with the antagonistic force. The newfound knowledge acquired earlier allows the protagonist to finally beat the antagonist in a climactic confrontation.

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.

Closing Image (Page 110)

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.

Summing Up

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.

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Save The Cat – An Overview
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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