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Reviewed: Save the Cat!

Jack Brislee reviews “Save the Cat!  The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need” by Blake Snyder.
Michael Wiese Productions.  Studio City.  California.  2005.
195 pages.  ISBN 1-932907-00-9  Amazon Price:  US $13.57

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Blake Snyder began his Hollywood career at the tender age of eight, working as a voice over artist for his father, Emmy award winning producer Ken Snyder.  When Blake’s voice broke his father had to fire him, but he stayed in the industry, earning a degree in English from Georgetown University and a part time job with Disney as a writer.

He became a full time writer in 1987 and sold his spec screenplay, “Stop!  Or My Mom Will Shoot” in 1989 for $500,000.  By 2004 he had sold 13 spec scripts, two of which earned him seven figure cheques.

I think it would be nice if the guy writing the book on how to write a screenplay had actually sold something.

In 2003 he decided to share his screenwriting ideas and began working on “Save the Cat” and teaching weekend workshops for writers, filmmakers and executives.  At the same time he provided script analysis for major studios such as Disney and DreamWorks.

In the introduction to “Save the Cat” he says, “I think it would be nice if the guy writing the book on how to write a screenplay had actually sold something.”  Blake Snyder was that guy.  Unfortunately he died suddenly in August 2009 at the age of 51.

THE LOGLINE

“Save the Cat” is packed full of valuable advice that should help even the most experienced screenwriter.  He begins with the logline, that pithy one sentence that captures the essence of the movie.  While loglines are a fundamental tool for selling the script, they also help the writer focus on the essence of the story.

Snyder makes the painful exercise easier by introducing the four components of a successful logline.

Many writers hate dreaming up loglines, much preferring the creative process of scene construction and character development, but Snyder makes the painful exercise easier by introducing the four components of a successful logline – irony, a compelling mental picture, an idea of the audience type and cost and a killer title.

TEN CATEGORIES

Under the heading, “Give Me the Same Thing…Only Different” he places Hollywood movies into ten categories.  Genre always generates fierce debate amongst screenwriters and many will disagree with Snyder’s categories, but as he points out “…if you are looking for exceptions to the rules you’re missing the point of the chapter, which is to use categorising as a storytelling tool.”

This is the essence of Snyder’s approach.  His book is a catalogue of sharp ideas and brilliant suggestions, rather than a high browed academic discussion of storytelling.  Many other books, he writes, “…treat the movies with waaaaay too much awe and respect – they’re just movies.”

If you are looking for exceptions to the rules you’re missing the point of the chapter.

HOLLYWOOD STYLE?

The excessive number of “a’s” in “way” is not a misprint.  This is Snyder writing a screenwriting book that, “talks the way we (Hollywood professionals) talk”.

The knowledge that “Save the Cat” imparts outweighs any condemnation of style.

I found this talk, with its one sentence paragraphs and whiz bang approach to grammar a bit tedious, but my criticism is both personal and irrelevant.  The knowledge that “Save the Cat” imparts outweighs any condemnation of style.

STRUCTURE

The chapter on structure introduces a number of new ideas, but also repackages elements of the accepted three act structure with different names.  He calls his structural template the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet”, or more modestly the “BS2”.

There are 15 elements in his beat sheet – six in Act I, seven in Act II and two in Act III.  As Act II is usually twice as long as Act I, it could probably do with more than seven beats.  Most structural problems occur in Act II, and a more in depth analysis of this act would, in my opinion, greatly help many writers.

I am not sure that all successful Hollywood movies include 25 pages of “Fun and Games” (pp 30 – 55) or 20 pages of “Bad Guys Close In” (pp 55 – 75).   I also think that calling Beat 3 – the “Set Up” (pages 1 – 10) is a little bit strange when most screenwriters call the whole of Act I “the set up”.  Once again these criticisms are only mild.  Many successful Hollywood movies do share these elements.

Oh, and btw, screw ‘Memento’.

In his 2007 book, “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies”, Snyder provides 50 excellent examples that illustrate the BS2 – five movies in each of the ten genres.  But like most writers on screenwriting he does not provide examples of successful screenplays that do not fit his thesis, although he does acknowledge their existence with, “Oh, and btw, screw ‘Memento’”.

In Chapter 5, “Building the Perfect Beast”, Snyder adds two important elements to the “index cards on a notice board” approach.  Each card is marked with a +/- to represent the emotional change in the scene, and a >< to represent conflict.

A writer who finds a series of blanks next to these symbols is missing emotion, drama and conflict and has a dead screenplay.  Snyder’s cards reveal immediately which scenes must be eliminated.

LAWS OF PHYSICS

Chapter 6, “The Immutable Laws of Screenwriting Physics”, introduces clever concepts that will greatly enhance a screenplay and help the writer avoid many traps and pitfalls.

It makes you feel like a genius.  Suddenly you’re in on the tricks of screenwriting.

The title of the book – “Save the Cat” – is an excellent technique to help the audience empathise with the hero.  Other concepts, which Snyder labels “Pope in a Pool”,  “Double Mumbo Jumbo”, “Laying Pipe”, “Too Much Marzipan”, “Watch Out for that Glacier”, “The Covenant of the Arc” and “Keep the Press Out” are excellent screenwriting suggestions.

As Snyder says, these techniques make you “…realise why things are done, what that scene was really for, and it makes you feel like a genius.  Suddenly you’re in on the tricks of screenwriting…”

FIX IT

His chapter on error fixing, which identifies problems such as “Talking the Plot”, “The Emotional Colour Wheel” and “Take a Step Back”, examines “typical trouble spots that others have faced”.  (For a more comprehensive examination of this area see Syd Field’s “The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver”).

THE LAST BOOK?

Snyder disproved his own subtitle, “The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need”, by writing two more books in the “cat” series.  They indicate that Snyder had a lot more wisdom to impart, and his untimely death is a great loss to the industry.

CONCLUSION

My criticisms of “Save the Cat” are minor.  This book is packed full of excellent advice and should be read by all screenwriters.

– Jack Brislee

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

About the Author

Jack Brislee

Comments 3

  1. Of the hundreds of books on screenwriting in my library, this is one of the very best. Down to earth, entertaining and practical, it takes in Snyder’s Hollywood experience, structural teachings ranging from Aristotle to Robert McKee, many useful tips; and shows a fine appreciation of how emotion drives drama. The centerpiece, his beat sheet, is a useful tool to check the structural feel of your screenplay when it’s done or to help move it forward when it’s stuck. I’ve even sought and received extremely useful advice from Snyder’s friend Mike Cheda, whose name appears in the book. I was saddened by his untimely death, but Blake Snyder leaves a body of work of which this book alone is a worthy legacy.

  2. Yep they’re “just movies” I guess, but Snyder’s book inspires me to make vehicles of escape. The “pope in the pool” on exposition is only one of his great real world modes for storytelling, all his one-liners stick. I made an excel version of his beat sheet, with columns by date, which is a great kind of airport lounge diary for movie ideas.

  3. Pingback: Train Your Screenwriting Brain | The Story Department

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