Save the Cat! Save Your Story?

When school reading programs kick into full gear during the winter months, I like to participate in my own way by reading books that I’ve been eyeing for some time.  Usually, there is a middle grade novel in the pile (Wonder, this year), but I also like to dip into at least one book that explores the writing craft. This year that book was Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Why the odd title for this book? you might wonder. Why Save the Cat?  In the introduction, Snyder clears up one mystery. “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”  To show us what he means, Snyder references a film or two, films that introduce the hero and have him/her do something worthy within a few minutes of the film’s beginning. “That’s why the name of this book is Save the Cat!  It’s emblematic of the kind of common sense basics I want to get across to you….”

Snyder lives up to the promise. The book is filled with sensible ideas that can be applied not just to screenwriting, but to other writing forms, too.  He packs the book with film examples like Miss Congeniality  to show how, when and where they’ve been used in popular movies, and he explores the reasons why they work or don’t work. He also writes about his own personal experiences in the film industry, offers marketing tips, and takes readers behind the scenes of the film-making/screen writing business.

One of the most useful features in the book lies in Chapter 4: Let’s Beat It Out!.  Snyder introduces the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet”, a set of 15 points or beats that every well-structured screenplay contains.  The beat sheet is essentially a one-page outline that moves the story along, hitting the essential highs and lows from the Opening Image (1) to the Midpoint (9) and All is Lost (11) to the Finale (14) and Final Image (15).  

The fifteen beats

In Chapter 5 – Building the Perfect Beast – Snyder introduces ‘The Board’.  it’s a planning strategy “for you to ‘see’ your movie before you start writing.”  Although it has many forms, ‘The Board’ boils down to a set of 40 index cards or post-its that chart the major plot points of the story, and the pages in a screenplay where they should appear. 

A sample card

Each card contains a line that describes the action occurring in the scene. A line at the top tells where and when the scene is happening. Symbols, notations and color-codes add other information. The +/- sign, for example, is used to represent the emotional change that should be executed in each scene.  

One version of the board.
Another variation

Not everyone is a fan of Snyder’s method.  Some detractors claim that he’s boiled screenwriting down to a template, a one-size-fits-all formula.  One critic on the Internet even suggested that Snyder has ruined Hollywood by stripping film-making of much of its creativity. [On Story Structure (and how Save the Cat ruined Hollywood)]. 

I chose the book mainly to learn more about plot and character development. These were topics I felt I could apply in my own fiction-writing endeavors.  To those ends, the book – and especially Chapters 4 and 5 – served me well.  ,

Recommended resources:

Tim Stout – Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet – 

Tim Stout – Story Structure in Graphic Novels



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