STC! Strikes Back - A Review

Save The Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for the Screenwriter to Get into . . . and Out of
by Blake Snyder
Publisher: Save the Cat! Press  

Have you ever found a wonderful writing book and been so enthusiastic you bought another writing book by the same author only to find it was the same information repackaged? I sure have. But this isn't one of those. These pages are filled with lots of new insights.

If you’re a natural plotter or you’re determined to convert into one, I can’t see much of anything in this book that won’t delight you.  Even as a pantser, I’m an enthusiastic advocate of Blake Snyder's beat sheet. Knowing how stories should be structured isn’t going to turn me into a plotter. Writing is a journey of discovery for me and that keeps it fun and interesting. If I knew every twist and turn ahead of time, I'd lose interest. That's just how I'm made. I've generally got a fairly decent idea of what my last scene is going to look like even as I'm typing page 1, and I may have some fun and games as well as a few pivotal scenes rattling around in my brain, but I don't know exactly how things are going to lay out, and I don't want to. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think STC! Strikes Back isn’t a gold mine.

Early in the book, Mr. Snyder looks at the world that exists in the three separate acts of a story and defines them as the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis worlds. Now I sometimes (okay, most of the time) have trouble pinpointing the first plot point in stories, but I think this will help me, because if I can’t recognize it other stories, how am I supposed to fashion one for my own story? Thinking of the change as stepping into another world that’s different from the one the character knew before makes it so much easier. For example, in Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner leaves New York City behind for the jungles of South America. Wow! That’s a world she’s not used to. In P.S. I Love You, Holly’s husband dies, and that creates a new world for Holly. Yes, these are really obvious transitions, but baby steps, folks. I’m working up to the tough stuff.

STC! Strikes Back then digs back into the beats of the beat sheet presented in the first book of the series, taking things a level deeper, drawing parallels between the progression of certain beats and showing how they mirror each other.

A considerable amount of space is dedicated to finding the spine of the story, which is basically Mr. Snyder’s version of the Hero’s Journey. To help define the spine of the story, he asks these questions:
  • Who is the story about?
  • What is his problem?
  • How does the hero begin the story and how does he end up?
  • What are your hero's goals?
  • What's it about?
Identifying the character isn't always as easy as it first appears, particularly in buddy or ensemble pictures. For example, in Lethal Weapon (what's called a two-hander), he identifies the spine of the story as belonging to Danny Glover's character. I always thought it was Mel's, but I was wrong. In the original Pirates of the Caribbean (a three-hander), it's Keira's story. Again I'd have called that badly. So it's not always obvious, but Blake gives us the tools to understand why it must be so. 

Identifying the problem accurately isn't always easy either. I know this because I still have trouble with this, even when it should be easy. In fact that's usually when I have the most difficulty because the “easy” answer is too easy. STC! SB helps bring me back to reality.

The third thing he asks of you is to compare where your hero is at the beginning of the story and where he is at the end. If you can't answer how your hero changes, you've got big problems with your story.  (You may even be mistaken about whose story it is.) The solution offered is to force the changes, to set the hero up at both the beginning and the end so that the change has the widest possible swing to it. He swears it works and I think it has to work better than allowing your hero to languish without changing.

Goals he identifies as the hero's wants and needs, and he gives a nice example of the athlete who wants to win the game but needs a lesson in teamwork. Notice how nicely they relate to each other. Yeah, that's important. Notice that the hero's goal needs to be tangible, so he knows when he's achieved them, and he must pursue them with vigor. As important as this is, it's the hero's need, which is often intangible, that makes us take this trip. An example in many romances might be that the heroine wants to get married, but what she needs is a good man who loves her. The wedding with the husband waiting at the altar are the tangibles, but the love shining from his eyes is why it works.

With the final question--what's it about?--we come back to theme. Ah, the dreaded theme. I hate coming up with a theme statement. I usually just settle for knowing what my theme emotions are, and hope that's enough. Maybe it is. But maybe it's not. Just in case, Blake has an interesting method for determining theme. He suggests sitting down and listing "30 Bad Ideas for the Theme of My Story." In those 30 bad ideas, he says, there will be a great one. Knowing how sneaky the subconscious is, I have no doubt that he's right. He has some questions to help stir the juices: 
  • What does the hero learn?
  • What is the moral of the story?
  • What's on your mind? What statement, issue, or ax to grind finds voice in your characters?
  • If the theme were your title, what would it be?
  • What film is your story most like, and what's its lesson?
These are all just different ways to look at the same thing, but sometimes that slight shift in perspective is just what you need. I actually think the best gift STC! has given me about theme is in the first book (my review of that is here.) Putting a statement into a character's mouth that states what the story will prove or disprove makes it seem so easy to me. Is it because it shifts the responsibility from me to a story character? Or is it that my story characters are smarter than I am? I suspect the latter, but a beautiful example is in P.S. I Love You when Gerry tells his wife Holly that she shouldn’t be waiting for her life to start. It’s already started. And then the movie is all about her finding her way back to living in the present after he dies.

In the section on rewriting, STC! Strikes Back matter-of-factly praises critique groups. Given that movies are more of a group effort and that they quickly leave the screenwriter's control, it makes sense to make the script as bulletproof as possible and a trusted group of writers can help make that happen. It's no less important for book authors, particularly new authors. That point aside, much of the section on rewrites is skewed toward screen writers (that is who the book targets after all), but it’s worth sifting through all that to find the pieces of wisdom that applies to novels. Everyone seems to have a different method for revision however, so this is too tricky for me to evaluate because what works for one person might be a total train wreck for someone else.

There is an extensive 4-page checklist at the back of the book to help you decide if your story is ready to be sent out into the world. I'm still at the stage where I appreciate it because it helps me identify the beats of the story, so I know I'm on track. The book also provides a short pitch guide. (You can never have to many of those, can you?)

As good as all that is, it’s when STC! Strikes Back gets into the story beats introduced in the original that you get the real gold. Between the then and now of the two books, Blake Snyder taught his beat sheet in workshops. The feedback that resulted let him know what he needed to expand on, so he takes a short trip back through the original beats, adding wisdom. For example, he starts calling the Midpoint of the story the Magical Midpoint because he’s come to understand how vital the midpoint break is to story structure and he uses strong examples to illustrate both the False Victory and the False Defeat types of midpoint breaks.

Good stuff, huh?

But it's peanuts compared to the real treasure. Pay attention. This is the real gold. Enough writers in the workshops cried out about how vague this Finale beat was in the original STC! that Blake Snyder knew more was needed. And he delivers.

In the Finale which begins Act Three, the worlds of Act 1 and 2 synthesize into a new world. Or as Blake Snyder puts it: 
from what was and that which has been learned, 
the hero forges a third way.
The path to that new way is a Five Point Finale that Blake affectionately calls Storming the Castle. The points are:
1. Gathering the Team
2. Executing the plan
3. The High Tower Surprise
4. "Dig Deep Down”
5. The Execution of the New Plan
What’s really fascinating about these five points is that there’s an arc to them that mirrors previous arcs found in the story structure. As the explanation unfolds, you can feel the structure resonate. For example, The High Tower Surprise has the same emotional vibration as the Debate moment in the first half of the story and the All is Lost moment in the second half.  You feel it in your bones that if you can pull this off, the story you’re writing will be better than you ever imagined.

Sadly, Blake Snyder died in 2009, but he’s left a legacy that will reach out and touch people around the world as they watch the movies and read the books that will be shaped by his wisdom. His gift to us will endure. I intend to make what I write part of that legacy. How about you?

If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.


  1. Wow! This book sounds fabulous. I'll definitely need to check it out.


  2. This book sounds like a winner. I'm off to the library and the bookstore to track down a copy. I can't wait to read it. Thanks for the post.

  3. I'm a panster too, but you have me convinced I need to read Blake Snyder's ideas! Thank you so much.

  4. I've heard of the first book and never read it, and now I find out there's another one. I've got to get both of them! Although, I have to admit, I feel like I learned so much just from your post. Great info--thanks for sharing. :)

  5. That's why I do these reviews. When someone says "this is a great book!" you don't really know because you don't know if they're in the same place you are on the learning curve. So I give you a taste of what the book really offers. I'm so glad folks are finding it worthwhile.

  6. Found your blog through the blogger forum, and am very grateful I came across this post. This book sounds wonderful, and a great asset to writers.



  7. Thanks for sharing this insightful, informative review, Suzie!

    If you're into book about the craft, please check out Donald Mass' Writing the Breakout Novel, and my VERY favorite, Alan Watt's The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the story within. This last one is fantastic for those right-brainers who hate plotting.

    I'm reading it right now, and I'm blown away by his insight.

  8. Hi Mayra,

    I've read Maass' book. Even took a couple of workshops from him. It's a good book. I should review it here. Haven't read Watt's book though. I'll have to get that.

  9. I also consider myself a pantser and a novelist but, like you, found Snyders books to be fantastic and filled with information that is helpful far beyond just the screen. I'm glad to see you spreading the word.