Save the Cat!

Posted: November 20, 2018 in Book reviews, Regarding writing
Tags: ,

By Blake Snyder

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We’ve all sat in a lousy film at some time or another and thought, I could write something better than this. And so a whole industry has sprung up, with a multitude of gurus offering their patented way to million dollar script’dom…for a price, and even though the spec boom of the 1990s has long since passed, plenty of people are desperate enough to pod out as lot of money to learn the so called secrets of success.

Some books on script writing have gained more cachet than others of course, take Syd Field’s seminal work, and Save the Cat! Is one of those books, with its slightly arrogant subtitle as The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need it’s been the go to book for millions of aspiring screenwriters.

Well a million and one because obviously I’ve bought it too.

To be honest it’s only the second book on screenwriting I’ve ever bought, and the first was decades ago, because there’s a lot of great advice and guidance for aspiring screenwriters out th ere that doesn’t cost a penny, or certainly doesn’t cost very much (The University of East Anglia runs a free course through Futurelearn, and I’d also highly recommend the Scriptnotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin. If you want to access the back catalogue it’s $1.99 a month, but the most recent 20 episodes are always free). But having said that I’d heard enough about Save the Cat to be intrigued, even though some of what I heard wasn’t that complementary.

You see what Snyder (who sadly passed away in 2009) promised was a fool proof blueprint for writing a successful script, and given the book cost less than a tenner I figured, what the hell, reasoning there was bound to be some useful information in there.

And to be fair, there is useful bits to be gleaned from this work, but I don’t think it’s the scriptwriting panacea it claims to be and certainly isn’t a skeleton key to unlock movie writing success.

The title refers to the act of having your lead prove they’re a good guy or gal by doing something worthy early on in the script, like saving a cat, although the odd thing is that he based this on Ripley saving Jones the cat in Alien, which she doesn’t actually do till near the end? It’s also worth noting that for much of Alien Ripley comes across as an officious jobsworth, none of which stops us rooting for her (especially once we realise that if she’d been allowed to keep the others outside nobody would have died…well apart from Kane obviously, but you can’t always save everyone). Anyway, the point is that even the title of the book seems a little erroneous if you give it some thought.

Snyder provides some interesting thoughts on genre, even going as far as to create his own list which is surprisingly useful, so rather than comedy/romance/horror movie etc. He lists ten genres, and here’s just a few: Buddy Love (which covers not only romance but buddy comedies) Dude with a Problem (think Die Hard) Monster in the House (which covers not only horror but a lot of thrillers) and Institutionalised (which covers anything from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Police Academy).

Now we get into the meat of Snyder’s work, when he starts talking about the format of a screenplay, but this isn’t just about a three act structure, Snyder goes way deeper than this, micromanaging a script to the point where he claims that there’s effectively a tried and tested formula for writing a successful script.

He identifies 15 ‘beats’ and if you look online you’ll find numerous versions of his patented ‘Beat Sheet. This is all well and good, and structure is an important thing to get your head around, especially when you’re fairly new to screenwriting, so there’s “Theme stated” “Catalyst” “Fun and Games” and “All is Lost” to name but a few. The problem is the anal lengths Snyder insists you go to, even down to specifying exactly when certain things should happen! The catalyst must happen on page 20, you must introduce all your main characters in the first ten pages etc.

To be honest it’s a trifle ridiculous. In fairness Snyder did sell a lot of scripts, although only two of them ever got made; Blank Check (no I’ve never seen it either) and Stop or my Mom will Shoot (which again I’ve never seen but I have at least heard of) so he must have been doing something right. Even if this is the sure and certain path to success (and clearly it’s unlikely to be given how many copies of the book have been sold and the finite number of screenwriters out there) I’m not sure I want to write a cookie cutter script that hits all the right marks to impress some Hollywood reader who’s just looking for an identikit script.

But it was still an interesting read. Snyder’s prose is amiable enough (though he gets a trifle annoying at times when he becomes obsessed with how successful—or not— he feels Memento was) and there’s interesting stuff around loglines (those mini elevator pitches beloved of Hollywood) genre, structure, and the basis business of screenwriting, but I feel I’ve learned more about screenwriting from listening to John and Craig and from just watching movies/reading scripts so read it by all means, but don’t treat it as the be all and end all.  

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