What do Screenwriters Know that You Don’t?

A Review of Save the Cat! And Save the Cat Goes to the Movies 
by Blake Snyder 

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever NeedDo you have a stack of stories that, in spite of a strong start, hit a wall that forced you to abandon them? Yeah, me too.  Usually about 75 pages in, give or take, I feel like a fish on the riverbank, flopping around, trying to find the river again. The story that had so much promise seems to have lost its way. My instincts told me that something significant needed to happen at the point to keep the story’s motor running, but I didn’t have a clue what, so the story stalled.

Then through a series of fortuitous events, I discovered something interesting. Those who write about writing books don’t write about story structurebut screenwriters do.  I'm not the first novelist to discover this because I'd heard about Save the Cat! some time before I decided to spend the money to buy it. Now I'm wishing I hadn't waited so long, because you know those stories I abandoned? That instinct that told me that something significant should happen at that precise moment of the story was dead right.  Now I know that I came up against that first plot point where, in the hero’s journey paradigm that was so popular, the hero answers the call. Why the whole Hero’s Journey thing didn't gel for me, I can’t even guess. Maybe it would have had I been writing High Fantasy, but that’s not what I write these days. Romances are a little subtler, so swashbuckling hero patterns felt too flamboyant. STC! is written in a down to earth way that can be applied to any story you want. In fact, STC! Goes to the Movies is all about applying it to different story types. (We’ll come back to this point, I promise.)

The most useful tool in STC! is the Beat Sheet which is made of 15 plot points or “beats” that define the highs and lows of all successful stories . (There’s a little wiggle room in the order of these, but not much.) The beats are:

1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
3. Set-up
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break into 2
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into 3
14. Finale
15. Final Image
Most of STC! is devoted to defining these beats and exploring their significance.

For example, at the All Is Lost beat, you'll often find what Blake Snyder calls The Whiff of Death. Something at this stage dies, whether it's something tangible, like a person, or something intangible, like hope. This is the moment in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi dies and Luke (and the audience) realizes that not every character gets a happy ending. Is it worth knowing that your story needs this moment? I think so. Each of the beats on the beat sheet gets examined for what it means to the story, and this information is gold to a wouldbe novelist.

Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever ToldLike many great tools, the beat sheet appears almost too simple, but the more you study it, the more textured it becomes. How can the same story structure apply to When Harry Met Sally that applies to Die Hard? It may seem like a stretch, but it does. I'm not saying it doesn't take practice to see it. That's where STC! Goes to the Movies is valuable. It breaks down beat-for-beat 50 popular movies, so you can see how these beats apply to different types of movies. Everything presented in STC! is demonstrated in STC! Goes to the Movies and for different story types (of which STC! defines 10.)

If you have a spot in your story that drags or you can't decide what should happen next or you've started a dozen stories and they all fade out after roughly the same number of pages, the Beat Sheet is the best tool I've found to help identify where you've gone wrong. While you may never be a full-fledged plotter, the beats are enormously helpful when you don’t know “what comes next.”

The beat sheet alone is worth the price of the book, but STC! deals with other things as well. Like making your characters likable. In fact, the title comes from one of his methods for doing that. The theory is that you can give your character some fairly unlikeable traits as long as you also show something that promises that deep down, they've got at least one redeeming quality. Imagine an Ebenezer Scrooge who adopts all the stray cats in his neighborhood. There's at least one movie I can think of that takes this trick literally. Anyone who's watched Lethal Weapon III will remember the scene early on where Riggs and Murthuagh shove a cat out of the way just before Riggs cuts the wrong wire on the bomb and the timer starts to countdown in rapid time. Rigg's line to Roger? "Grab the cat." Since this is the third movie of the set, the writers didn't really need to convince the audience that Riggs was a good guy, so I'm convinced that this was a nod to that rule. An inside joke for other screenwriters.

But wait! There’s more! (This is starting to sound like one of those late-night infomercials for ginzu knives.)

Don't you just hate to write loglines? Don't know what that is? That’s movie parlance for that one sentence that puts everything you slaved, sweated, and bled over with all its subtleties and reversals  into the proverbial nutshell, also known as a one-line pitch in novel parlance. If you’re like me and you'd rather write an entire novel while sitting in a cactus patch than wrestle with that one sentence, there is hope and STC! is there to show you how to put it together. The ingredients that apply to novels are:

STC! offers an example that I'm sure you'll recognize.
A cop comes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office is taken over by terrorists. Who doesn't recognize Die Hard in that description? (If you don't, you really need to watch a movie or two.)

Then comes a compelling mental picture
STC! uses Blind Date for this example:  She's the perfect woman--until she has a drink.

A Killer Title
Like Legally Blonde

I'm not sure why the section about identifying your hero doesn't immediately follow the section about loglines because the two are so closely related (as you've seen in the above examples) but STC! does have a section dedicated to this. The book acknowledges knowing your characters and what drives them is necessary to amp up the log line. It helps the writer define what makes a good protagonist. STC! also pushes that the protagonist's motivation must be a primal need. Primal here means basic and universal. The character and his motivation strengthen the logline. The logline is likened to the story's DNA and when you're through with STC!, you'll be hard-put to disagree. After all, if you write a killer logline, the kind that will hook that agent, editor, or reader, why would you stray from that guideline when you write the story?

Had I understood all these things, all those wonderful story beginnings would have had a complete story attached to them, because I would have had a plan. At some point, I will look back at those beginnings and see if I can figure out that first turning point and resurrect some excitement for those stories.

If this all sounds promising, come back next week when I continue the review with STC! Strikes Back. (Update: The review is here.)

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


  1. Great post! I've heard of this book before but wondered if it was worth the bother. Now I know. It is WORTH the bother. Thank you!

  2. This book has been recommended to me and I finally bought it. I'm reading the chapter on beats right now. This is an excellent book and reminds me of another goodie. Try Larry Brooks' Story Structure Demystified. It's an ebook and you can find it at www.storyfix.com. I think you'll like it too.

  3. Yes, I've been following Larry Brooks' posts for a while, too (he's one of My Favorite Links). He's one of the few novelists who talks about structure. If you've read his fiction, you even understand why he's such a supporter of plotting your novel in advance. I think STC! presents a more complete road map but every place that reinforces the idea of story structure helps because as simple as it looks on the surface, you have to keep reviewing it until it sinks in.

  4. Wow, that was a way cool post. I'll have to look up Save the Cat now. :)

  5. I've never heard of this craft book, but I'm going to be looking into it now. GREAT POST! Thanks so much for sharing STC.

  6. I've been a fan of STC for a while now. I devoured it when I bought it years ago. And I do try to make sure all the beats are there when I write my novels and my scripts.

    I love writing loglines myself. But that part of the book helped me too. So much so that I give a workshop on creating loglines now. :)

  7. Really great information to share - thanks - I am checking this one out since I usually stall terribly at chapter 4.

  8. I hope the book helps, Jennifer. It's certainly helped me.

    And Cindy, if you really love writing log lines, boy could I use your help. I can actually write them, but I can't tell if they're any good. Hmm. Maybe I should blog about that.

  9. Excellent post and thank you for bringing this to my attention. I'll look for it. based on the title I would have probably overlooked it or considered it misplaced on the writer's shelf. I have read the series, "Elements of Fiction Writing." The book "Scene and Structure" sounds a lot like Save the Cat. Can anyone give me a comparison?

  10. Great post! Thanks for the link, I'll definitely check out this book!