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November 27, 2020

Save The Cat – An Overview [+ Free Template]

Struggling with what to write? Or maybe you have the perfect idea for a screenplay, but you don't know how to structure it. Then consider the Save the Cat method and its accompanying beat sheet. Download your own fillable free Save the Cat beat sheet template and start creating!

What is Save the Cat?

The Save the Cat originally came from a book and is a storytelling format created by screenwriter Blake Snyder and the title of his 2005 book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need.

In this book, written by Blake Syner, the cat is the hero of the film; saving the cat refers to the moment in a film where the audience first connects with the hero and considers that they might be worth saving and championing.

Unlike a three-act or five-act structure, Save the Cat, in general, offers more guidance because it breaks down a story, usually into 15 or 40 different beats.

The Save the Cat book.
The Save the Cat story structure originates from Blake Synder's book of the same name.

Who is Save the Cat for?

This screenwriting format is for people struggling with the structural aspects of their story. However, even if you think you have your screenplay plotted impeccably, it can still be an excellent activity to study Save the Cat and see if you can tighten up any of your beats before sending it off to agents or directors.

Many people love this screenwriting structure because it's relatively straightforward and not as complex as others. However, it can be made very complex, as we see in films such as Interstellar, which we will dive into later in this blog.

What is a Story Beat?

A story beat is a moment in your screenplay that moves your story along. It leaves your audience considering what will happen next and adds more mystery and suspense to your film.

Another way of thinking about story beats is as the smallest structural competent of your plot. Your movie is divided into acts, and an act is composed of several scenes, which are all made up of beats.

Save The Cat explained beat by beat

Here's Savannah Gilbo's fantastic graphic to get us started:

Save the Cat graphic illustration.

This is a Save the Cat beat sheet, split across four acts (act two is divided into act 2A and act 2B); Snyder highlights key aspects that every story should hit and what page they should show up on.

Act 1

Opening Image (Page 1 of your script)

The opening shot determines the tone and style of your script, so it's best for this to be striking and evocative. Unfortunately, this isn't the place for a whimsical montage if you're writing a horror movie. 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 story's theme early so that the reader knows exactly what this story is about. Often, this can be a piece of dialogue or implied through an image.

Set-Up (Pages 1-10)

Both "opening image" and "theme stated" come under the setup - the story hasn't kicked in yet. Instead, this is the moment to set up relationships, locations, character dynamics, and the theme. The second the reader's finished the setup, they should have a good idea of the story they will be getting and the tone of the dialogue and world.

Catalyst (Page 12)

Sometimes called the "inciting incident," this is the moment that knocks the protagonist out of their routine and into the story.

Debate (Pages 12-25)

The protagonist has to decide if they want to embark on the journey. Their world, while not ideal, is comfortable, but the catalyst threatens to destabilize it.

Your debate might be shorter, or you might not need to include this if the catalyst is so destabilizing that it becomes a no-brainer for your protagonist to embark on the journey. This part will give you 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 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 a literal change in geography often marks the break into two. 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 plot lines and fully develop secondary characters.

Pro tip: don't slack on developing these side characters! They can add so much depth and interest to your story.

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 the futuristic world. Writing a scary 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 ends happily, this should be sad, and vice versa. The stakes deepen through some discovery, and the lightness of the Fun and Games gets a little more serious.

The protagonist realizes they can no longer return to their comfortable reality, but they haven't learned enough to realize their 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 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, taking 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 instant the main couple starts to wonder whether their relationship will work.

All is Lost (Page 75)

This all leads to a single devastating event that knocks the protagonist straight on their ass. In general, this part of the story is when everything goes wrong. 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 instance having emotional resonance.

Dark Night of the Soul (Pages 75-85)

This is where the protagonist has to live in 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. So 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 gain newfound thematic knowledge. This thematic knowledge gives them the new strength needed.

Often, the B story that has been quietly chugging along in the background is extremely important for the protagonist as they Break into Three.

Act 3

Finale (Pages 85-110)

Emboldened by newfound knowledge, the protagonist ventures into their last confrontation with the antagonistic force. The newfound knowledge acquired earlier allows the protagonist to 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)

The ending shot 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 and end with success.

Save the Cat explained with Interstellar

Here are the 15 beats of Save The Cat and how they correspond to Interstellar:

A still of Matthew Mcconaughey in Interstellar.
The film "Interstellar" follows Save the Cat.

Opening Image

This single shot is a concise representation of what the film will be all about. In Interstellar, we see a replica NASA space shuttle gathering dust on a bookcase. This is a symbol of forgotten hope.

The Theme Is Stated

This is where the film's conflict is first established; it poses a question that we will come back to throughout and hopefully resolve in the last beat. For Interstellar, the theme is about whether Will Cooper will be able to embrace the unknown.

During a discussion at the dining table with his young daughter Murph, Murph questions whether science alone will be enough to save them.

The Setup

Here we establish more details about the world where the story takes place. We might call this exposition. In Interstellar, this takes place in the Principal's Office. Murph's class teacher speaks to Cooper about Murph bringing in a textbook about the 1969 NASA Moon Landings. Murph's teacher explains this deviates from the official school narrative that the Moon Landings were propaganda designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

This sparks an argument between Cooper and the teachers in which more details about the apocalyptic reality of Interstellar are revealed to us.

The Catalyst

This scene puts the entire story into motion; it's the equivalent of the inciting incident. Cooper uncovers NASA and is asked by Professor Brand to lead a mission into Interstellar space to find a habitable planet.

The Debate

This transitions nicely into the plot section, where the hero is undecided about whether to embark out on their mission into the unknown. In Interstellar, Cooper has to save humanity or leave his children, potentially forever. This perfectly sums up what's at stake for the main characters.

Break Into II

We're now moving into the second act. The exposition is over, the stakes have been laid out, and the hero has decided to embark on their quest and resolve the fundamental conflict of the story. Cooper and Professor Brand's daughter Dr. Brand launch into space and begin their mission.

B Story

With the central conflict is in motion, you can now add a sub-plot or b-story that will make things a little more complex. Dr. Brand is Cooper's foil. They clash immediately with Cooper, asking Brand not to be 100% honest all the time. Dr. Brand is also ideologically juxtaposed with Cooper: she embraces the unknown and is governed by emotions, whereas Cooper is governed by science and reason. This clash is further pushed in motion when Dr. Brand and Cooper discuss their views about whether nature is evil before they hibernate themselves on the long voyage to the wormhole.

Fun and Games

The hero, having left home, arrives in the new world and is ready to begin exploring, only to find themselves overwhelmed. In Interstellar, the characters are venturing into a new world when they land on the first planet.

The mission is more difficult than first imagined. What Cooper and Brand think are mountains turn out to be giant waves; they sustain heavy losses and damage to the ship.  

Midpoint

Here the stakes are raised either with a false victory or a false defeat. The mission's failure to reach the first planet cost the crew years back on earth. With the ship running out of fuel, they must choose between the two remaining habitable planets to explore.

The B story comes to fruition as we realize that Dr. Brand is in love with Dr. Edmund. This informs her choice of which planet to visit. Dr. Brand wants to visit the planet that isn't emitting a signal because of her emotional drive. In contrast, Cooper, driven by logic and reason, concludes they should visit the planet, emitting a signal as this indicates the explorer - Dr. Mann - who was sent there - has survived and the planet is hospitable.  

The Bad Guys Close In

The bad guys of this beat create both internal and external conflicts. Professor Brand is revealed to have tricked Cooper and Dr. Brand into leading the mission since he had given up any realistic prospect of saving the earth and was never truly invested in Plan A.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mann turns out to be a villain - his planet is a wasteland, and he omitted a signal so that he could be rescued and wouldn't die. When they are alone, Mann tries to kill Cooper.

All Is Lost

The events of beat 10 lead to Cooper questioning his mission and whether he should continue. Mann tries to take control of the ship, and in fending him off, the ship faces heavy damage. This, in turn, leads Cooper to realize they don't have enough life support to make it back to earth. He might never see his daughter again.

Cooper sacrifices himself into the black hole, and defeat feels imminent.

Dark Night of The Soul

The hero now has no hope and they are left alone to reflect on their failure. For Cooper, this takes place when he is inside the black hole. What he finds inside is a construct where time is represented as a physical dimension.

Cooper can now see into the past and is forced to relive what he perceives as the greatest regret of his life - leaving his daughter behind.

Break Into III  

In this beat, the hero has a revelation in which they understand that all is not lost and there is a plan which allows them to fulfill their mission, transitioning us nicely into the third act.

Cooper realizes future humans constructed the inside of the black hole specifically to enable him to communicate with Murph: she is crucial in solving the equation which can help save the earth.

Finale

The last beat can be divided into five sub-beats:

  • Gather the team
  • Execute the plan, a high tower surprise
  • Dig deep down
  • Execute a new plan

Cooper's team is TAARS, who he calls upon to relay the quantum data found in the blackhole to Murph. Murph realizes what's happening and decodes the data - she executes the plan. Cooper is thrown out of the back hole, but in a high tower surprise, he is rescued and wakes up to meet Murph one last time on her death bed.

Cooper then decides to execute a new plan to go and rescue Dr. Brand; he realizes that to understand the universe entirely, you have to embrace the unknown; you cannot simply rely on logic and reason.

Final Image

The film's last scene depicts Dr. Brand setting up a colony on Dr. Edmund's planet: it's juxtaposed with the fading hope of the first scene as we see that there is renewed hopefulness for life on a new planet.

Films that have used Save the Cat

Once you get familiar with the different beats of Save The Cat, you will start to see how it applies to many of the movies you watch.

Gangster Squad is a great example. Notice how the line: "We got rules around here, smart ass…do yourself a favor. Learn 'em," given by O'Mara's boss perfectly encapsulates beat number two: the theme stated at around seven minutes into the film? This is precisely on time following Save the Cat.

Or what about Monsters University? Both Sully and Mike leave home to pursue careers as scarers, each being a foil for one another. But, like Brand and Cooper from Interstellar, they both have different attributes and ways of thinking about the world, which help them approach the Scare Games differently.

Mike is studious and anxious, while Sully is more laid back but can lean back on his father's reputation. The tension between Sully and Mike is the B story which ultimately overshadows the A story of winning the competition and becoming scarers.

In the all is lost beat, Mike realizes both that Sully cheated during the Scare Games and that he doesn't honestly think Mike is scary; it seems their friendship is at an end, forcing them to consider the truth about one another in a their moment of darkness.

Charlie's Angels is another film that can be broken down using Save the Cat. Check out the beat sheet here.

We trust all these examples were helpful! Now, see if you can apply Save the Cat to the next film you watch.

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.

Make screenwriting structure easy

What's excellent about screenwriting today is that you don't have to manually write out every beat or create a separate word document or excel spreadsheet to have open beside your screenplay. We can all agree this is a tedious process.

You can use Arc Studio Pro as an all-in-one planning and scriptwriting tool. Arc Studio offers all the famous screenplay structures, including Save the Cat. It will automatically set this up for you with all 15 beats. You can also break these beats down even further to end up with 40 beats.

Once you've filled in your Save The Cat template, you can refer back to it, and Arc Studio will direct you to when and whereas in the script, you need to flesh out your beats as you reach those parts.

Planning is extremely important and one of the most crucial aspects of writing a screenplay, and getting your formatting in order before you start to write can save you lots of effort during the drafting process.

Save The Cat is worth considering

Save the Cat, written by Blake Synder, is an excellent way for beginners to get started writing. If you are struggling with your storytelling, then consider utilizing Save the Cat. It's more straightforward than other structures and is based less heavily on literary theory.

As a writer, it's important to note that this structure can guide you more clearly beat-by-beat; especially if you're scrambling around to develop your big ideas into a tangible screenplay that you want to eventually sell to an agent or executive.

If you are looking for further resources, information and tools on screenwriting structures, feel free to check out more of our posts. We are constantly updating our blog with helpful content for novice and professional screenwriters. If you are looking for additional material to help you in your screenwriting endeavours, take a look at this list of spectacular screenwriting books.

We trust all this information has been helpful and make your writing even more successful. Good luck writers!

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Save The Cat – An Overview [+ Free Template]
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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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"