A close up shot of a Pallas Cat

Pallas Cat by Scott M Liddell used under CC BY 2.0

We already know that Save the Cat! isn’t the complete manual on screenwriting that Blake Snyder claims. The fake genres and arbitrary plot points mean that it can’t teach us storytelling, and in many places, it isn’t even trying to. Much of the book is just Snyder talking about movies he likes and vaguely suggesting we should be more like them, somehow. 

But believe it or not, there are actual storytelling rules buried in this book, and they start in Chapter Six: The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics. Unlike previous entries in this series, Snyder doesn’t write his rules out in a couple neat lines. Instead, he starts with a weird name and gives a long account of what it means, usually involving an anecdote to explain where the name comes from. 

Including the entire explanation would make this article unreadable, so I’ve given a summary instead. That’s sometimes difficult, as Snyder rarely prioritizes clarity in his advice. But personally, I think that’s part of the fun! 

1. Save the Cat 

This is Snyder’s best known and most controversial rule, and it’s not difficult to see why. He first introduces it at the start of the book in incredibly simplistic terms: To make your hero likable, start the film with them doing something nice, like saving a cat from a tree! Oh boy. Likability is controversial at the best of times, and the lack of context only makes it worse. Snyder is describing selflessness here, which is just one aspect of likability. He also doesn’t say anything about how to make selflessness matter or how to craft a character who would believably do something selfless. 

Fortunately, chapter six expands the rule into something a bit more functional. Snyder describes the way Pulp Fiction makes its hit man protagonists likable by giving them funny dialogue and an overbearing boss, which is basically what Mythcreants would call giving them novelty and sympathy, respectively. 

Snyder also adds Aladdin to his selflessness example, describing how the kind street rat gives his hard-won bread to some even less fortunate kids. This is a key aspect of selflessness: it has to actually cost the character something or it provides no benefit. Snyder even admits that his original example is too simplistic and that other writers convinced him to add more context. Granted, he still opens the book with that simplistic example, but this is one of the only times where he admits to changing his ideas based on outside feedback. 

The biggest issue with this expanded rule is that while Snyder can spot likability working in the wild, he can’t explain why it works. For example, there’s no exploration of how an overbearing boss gives the characters problems that aren’t their fault, which makes the audience feel like the character deserves a break. Nor does Snyder talk about how jarring it’ll be if you make an asshole character and have them perform a selfless act that clashes with their established motivation. 

Even so, this is still better than most explanations of likability, as it gives you a lesson in spotting good examples. To my surprise, we’re starting off on a high note!    

Conclusion: Useful, if not entirely complete.

2. The Pope in the Pool 

If someone had told me six months ago that “Pope in the Pool” was the name of a rule for keeping exposition interesting, I would not have believed them. And yet, here we are. As Snyder explains, a friend of his once tried to make some exposition more interesting by having Vatican officials deliver it while the pope goes for a swim. Supposedly, the pope swimming in a special Vatican pool is so unusual that it’ll distract the audience from all the information being dumped on them. 

In a second example, Snyder describes a comedy scene where the resident crime boss tries to explain the specifics of a job while the two main characters desperately have to pee. Snyder assures us that this is very funny, and I suppose we have no choice but to take his word for it. 

If we continue taking Snyder at his word, this advice is terrible. At one point, he claims that such scenes should be so distracting that “We, the audience, aren’t even listening.” So… no one will remember the exposition? If that’s okay, why are we bothering with the exposition at all? Just skip the scene and go to something more interesting. And if the exposition is important, as Snyder seems to think it is, then everyone will be confused later because they were too busy laughing at pee pee jokes. 

If we charitably decide that Snyder is being hyperbolic, he’s close to describing what we call “multitasking,” which is making a story do more than one thing at the same time. Instead of just delivering exposition, you can deliver exposition and be funny,* or deliver exposition and set the scene for a movie about the Vatican. This is less about distracting people from the exposition and more about being efficient with the audience’s time. 

Unfortunately, this is a lot further than Snyder actually goes. He has no advice for how to streamline your exposition so it’s not boring, just tips to distract from how boring it is. The problem is that if your exposition is boring on its own, it will still be boring if something funny is happening at the same time. If anything, you’re just giving the audience more incentive to tune out and miss the critical information. 

Conclusion: Useless, unless you already know more than Snyder. 

3. Double Mumbo Jumbo 

In this rule, Snyder tries to describe theming: specifically, theme clashes, or as he puts it, “audiences will only accept one piece of magic per movie.” If you have more than one piece of magic, you have more than one type of mumbo jumbo. Hence the rule’s name. 

His primary example is a story where an alien UFO touches down and later the characters encounter a vampire. He’s right: that situation would be a major theming clash unless the author did a lot of work to make their story feel like somewhere vampires and aliens co-exist. 

This is a really important aspect of storytelling that writers often miss, leading to settings at war with themselves. Snyder also correctly notes that superhero movies* often break theme and get away with it because of their comic book roots, but it’s not something most writers should emulate. Great stuff.

Snyder’s major theming weakness is that he doesn’t understand how complex it gets. If we followed his advice as written, that would rule out a vampire and werewolf in the same movie, since those are two different pieces of magic. But it’s pretty obvious that vampires and werewolves fit together much better than vampires and aliens do. 

Theming has as much to do with convention as it does with speculative logic. It’s weird if a group of space opera heroes encounter a magical wizard, but far more acceptable if they encounter an alien with psionic powers. Snyder isn’t quite there yet, but the fact that he recognizes theming at all is a pleasant surprise. 

Conclusion: Partly useful.

4. Laying Pipe  

Unlike most of the entries on this list, this rule doesn’t have an anecdote attached to it.* “Pipe” is just Snyder’s catch-all term for setup. It includes exposition and also scenes that get characters into position for the main plot to start. If your story requires two Water Tribe kids to be out fishing before they can find the Avatar frozen in ice, those scenes are laying pipe in Snyder’s vocabulary. 

So… what’s the rule here, other than unnecessarily making up terminology when existing words did the job just fine? Mostly, Snyder doesn’t like too much setup. He specifically criticizes the film Minority Report for taking too long to start the part of the story where the crime psychics predict that Detective Tom Cruise is going to commit a murder. According to Snyder, this makes for a boring movie. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Minority Report, so I can’t confirm if Snyder’s assessment is accurate. But, in the abstract, this is certainly something that can happen. If a premise is too complex or the writer is simply not on task, it can take a while before the main plot starts. When that happens, the story has a tendency to drag, since whatever comes before the main plot probably isn’t as interesting. 

Snyder’s only real advice about this is that the setup should go no longer than page 25, or 25 minutes. Since he assumes a 110-minute run time, that means about 22% of the movie can be setup. How did he arrive at this number? I have no idea. This tidbit is only mentioned in the final two sentences of the rule, leaving it more like an afterthought than something actionable. The rest of the text is just a series of movies Snyder thinks have too much setup

He doesn’t give any guidance on how to keep setup within acceptable levels or what to do if you have a story that requires a lot of setup. Should any such stories go directly in the bin? That would be a pretty harsh stance, but at least it would be consistent! 

Keeping setup down usually requires both simplifying a complex story and finding ways to set things up as you go so that you don’t have to get every moving part in place before the main plot can start. None of that is helped by setting an arbitrary deadline by which all setup must be complete. 

Conclusion: Useless. 

5. Black Vet A.K.A. Too Much Marzipan 

On today’s episode of Snyder’s Weird Names, we get a special discount sale: two weird names for the price of one! The first, “Black Vet,” refers to a 1979 SNL skit* about a Black guy who is both a veteran and a veterinarian. According to Snyder, it’s a joke on how TV shows at the time were trying to do too much and thus becoming ridiculous. Watching the clip, I’m not sure I get it? From Snyder’s description, I expected it to be a tug of war between veteran and veterinarian gags, but the former never comes up. Maybe you had to be there.

Regardless of the name’s origin, this is Snyder’s rule about not doing too much. Too much what, you ask? That’s harder to nail down, and I’m not sure Snyder himself knows. His single example is a TV show script he and a partner worked on called Lefty. It actually sounds interesting, about a detective who is blacklisted during the 1950s Red Scare for being a communist, with “Lefty” being both a tough-sounding detective name and a reference to his political affiliation.

Supposedly, this idea was ruined when Snyder’s partner wanted to also make the character left-handed, as well as a former boxer for some reason. In Snyder’s mind, this is an example of doing too much with an idea. And the idea is sweet, so it’s too much marzipan, I think.  

I’ve read this section several times now, and I’m still scratching my head. It’s true that making the character left-handed would be pretty silly, and I think they wanted a more serious atmosphere. Then again, I can’t be sure, as his description is vague. Either way, I don’t see how making the character a former boxer fits into it. In the extended format of a TV show, a character can have more than one thing going on! 

After this example, Snyder sums up the rule as “simple is better.” Too bad he didn’t follow his own advice and use that for the rule’s name instead of rambling about vets and marzipan. Even taking just that summation, there’s nothing in here to help us judge what makes an idea too complicated. Trying to follow Snyder’s extremely slim advice is just as likely to create one-dimensional stories as simple ones.

Conclusion: Too confusing to be useful.

6. Watch Out for That Glacier! 

In this rule, Snyder rails against having a threat that’s looming in the background. At first, he seems to be onto something. He describes several movies that have the promise of a big threat, but that threat isn’t here yet. It’s approaching very slowly, like a glacier that one must watch out for eventually. 

As is often the case, Snyder is describing several different problems in this rule. The most obvious is a lack of urgency. This is particularly apparent when he describes the western movie Open Range,* in which the characters have no hustle in their step as they try to catch some murderers. They act like they have all the time in the world, which sends tension plunging through the floor. If they have so much time, they’ll probably figure it out eventually. 

But then Synder talks about Dante’s Peak, in which a volcano threatens to erupt near a sleepy Washington town. Urgency isn’t the problem here. They know the volcano will erupt soon, so there’s an urgent need to evacuate. The problem is that the filmmakers didn’t want a movie about evacuating the town, they wanted a movie about surviving a volcano. So the characters just kill time on pointless errands until the volcano erupts. This is more an agency issue than an urgency issue: We know the volcano will erupt and kill people, but there’s nothing the heroes can do about it, which is frustrating. 

Snyder also lists the movie Outbreak as an example of this problem, but I’m not exactly sure what the issue is this time. Maybe we have to meet too many characters in too short a time? The plot summary* describes a team of scientists trying to prevent an outbreak and then trying to contain said outbreak, which doesn’t inherently suggest an issue with either agency or urgency. I’m not saying Outbreak is good, just that Snyder can’t seem to articulate why it’s bad. 

More importantly, if you follow this rule as Snyder lays it out, you wouldn’t ever be able to include a looming threat in your story, and looming threats are great! You also need smaller threats that are immediately available, but a bigger danger that builds in the background is great for naturally raising tension as the story continues. You might recognize this strategy from Star Wars: A New Hope, where the Death Star is a looming threat, while imperial stormtroopers are an immediate threat. I doubt Snyder would intentionally condemn a movie as successful as Star Wars, but that’s what happens when you don’t think through your rules. 

Conclusion: Half-baked and useless. 

7. The Covenant of the Arc 

Snyder, buddy, what are you doing? You name a rule “The Covenant of the Arc” and don’t mention Indiana Jones even once? Talk about not fulfilling reader expectations! Instead, this rule is about character arcs, and Snyder’s opinion on them is… strong. According to him: “Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story.”

Really? Every single one? Even if we assume this only includes named characters, that’s a lot of arcs to get through! Two rules ago, Snyder extolled the virtues of keeping things simple, but now you have to find time to give every character an arc. I wonder where on the beat sheet that’s supposed to go? 

Beyond the unrealistic time requirements, some characters just don’t benefit from an arc. In a lot of romances, it’s not the love interest who changes; it’s the protagonist changing into someone who can have a fulfilling relationship. Or you might have a stern mentor whose approval the protagonist must earn. Unless the mentor is such a hard-ass that it’s a character flaw, there’s no particular reason to force an arc on them. 

But wait, Snyder’s not done. He also says that the villains shouldn’t get arcs because “Bad guys are those who refuse to change.” Again, really? There are so many great storylines that this rule would lock you out of! The most obvious is a redemption arc, which is difficult but incredibly satisfying when done correctly. Sorry, Zuko, but Snyder has spoken! 

And redemption isn’t the only arc a villain can go through. Downward arcs are also common, as the villain starts out kind of bad and gets worse as the story progresses. Bad guys often benefit from a romance, or maybe they just have an arc about growing into their evil strength. Sometimes stories start with a scrappy villain who has a way to go before they reach maximum power! 

Again, I can see the kernel of truth that Sndyer starts with. Most stories are better if the main character has a strong arc. It gives the story some emotional power to go with the external stakes, increasing both attachment and satisfaction. Important secondary characters can also benefit. But Snyder is painting with a brush so broad that the whole canvas is just one color now. 

Conclusion: Too absolutist to be useful. 

8. Keep the Press Out

If our last rule was overly broad, this one is bizarrely specific: Snyder doesn’t think you should bring the news into your story. He claims that he learned this rule from Steven Spielberg, and that it’s why there are no reporters asking questions about the alien in E.T. Supposedly, Spielberg said that it would make the story feel less “real” or “believable.” In Snyder’s recollection, Spielberg also compares it to breaking the fourth wall. 

Did this exchange actually happen? I can’t say for sure, but I have my doubts. From the outside, the reason there are no reporters in E.T. has nothing to do with realism or believability; it’s that there’s no room for them. The movie has plenty going on already, first with Elliott and E.T.’s developing friendship, and then with the government trying to take E.T. away. What would a bunch of reporters add to that? It’s the same reason the story doesn’t take place during the final days of a mayoral election: We don’t want to distract from the story that actually matters. 

In another example, Snyder claims that the film Signs suffers from not learning this lesson, and that it’s less believable because while under attack from aliens, the heroes hear about other alien attacks on the news. To be fair, Signs is a very bad movie, and the way it uses news reports is a problem, but not for the reason Snyder thinks. 

Rather than lowering believability, the news reports spoil the big mystery in Signs. You might be wondering what’s going on with these crop circles and mysterious figures, but then the protagonist* turns on the news and is told it’s aliens. Well, that was easy! 

On the bright side, following this rule probably won’t have a negative impact on your story. Snyder even includes a caveat that it’s fine to have the press in the story if you have an actual purpose for them, so that’s nice. I’m just utterly baffled as to what the point is. Does Snyder think that aspiring screenwriters are all chomping at the bit to swarm their protagonist with reporters? 

Why stop here? Why not also have a rule about how you shouldn’t bring in crews of salty fishermen? We probably also need warnings about not interrupting the plot with constant telemarketing calls. The list of random things that could possibly distract from the story is endless!

Conclusion: Random and useless.

So far, Snyder is at two rules out of eight that are at least partly useful, giving him a 25% rating. That’s not a fantastic start, but, fortunately, he’s got another chance! As you may have cleverly deduced from the “part one” in this post’s title, there’s more to come. Save the Cat! has a whole other chapter of writing rules, and it was too much for a single article. So stay tuned for next time, where we see if Snyder can improve his score. 

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