Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! (StC) is an advice book for aspiring Hollywood screenwriters. First published in 2005, it’s since grown into much more.* These days, StC is taught in creative writing classes and recommended to storytellers everywhere, be they novelists, playwrights, comic writers, or even game masters. While many decry StC as everything wrong with Hollywood’s approach to stories, just as many hold it up as the best place for new writers to start.
There’s just one problem: StC can’t actually teach us storytelling. This opinion probably isn’t surprising to veteran Mythcreants readers. In the book, Snyder is open about being influenced by Syd Field and Joseph Campbell, both of whom have been on the pointy end of our critiques. If you’re new to the site and can’t understand why I would besmirch a name as hallowed as Snyder’s, I’m happy to explain!
It’s More Flash Than Substance
I don’t know much about Snyder’s skills as a screenwriter. I haven’t seen his movies or read his unproduced scripts.* What I do know is that in this book, his teaching skills leave a lot to be desired, because he’s more interested in branding than clarity. Here’s a small taste of what his terminology sounds like:
Those are certainly memorable, but only for how weird they sound. Most of StC’s terminology is like this, giving no hint to its purpose unless you have time to read a page-long anecdote. For example, would you have guessed that “Pope in the Pool” is Snyder’s rule about keeping exposition from being boring? Probably not, because the only connection is a story about how a friend of Snyder’s once kept some exposition interesting by having it delivered in a scene where the pope goes for a swim.
Even the title, Save the Cat!, requires a lot of explanation. First, Snyder has to tell us about how he likes movies that start with the hero doing something nice, a tactic he thinks has fallen out of favor. He then explains that one example of a nice thing would be saving a cat that’s stuck up a tree. It’s like a book made of memes, where the appeal is that you and your friends get them, but outsiders are super confused.
Weird terminology isn’t the only way that Snyder puts style over substance. He makes a huge deal about the famous people he’s worked with, especially Steven Spielberg. Check out this quote from later in the book:
You see, I learned this next lesson from Steven Spielberg. Personally. Oh yeah… We worked together*
To be clear, I did not add the italics, that’s what Synder wrote in his book. In isolation, I might assume that was a joke, but the book is full of similar passages. It all seems to be in service of how much he overpromises. Supposedly, reading StC will enable you to write a script that’s “as good as Lawrence of Arabia” and “will sell like Spy Kids 3-D.”
Normally, that kind of claim would be obviously absurd. But since Snyder’s worked with greats like Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, maybe he can actually do it? Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and Snyder’s extreme reliance on his famous connections is little more than smoke and mirrors.
The Fake Genres Are Absurd
Once you get past all the famous people Snyder’s rubbed elbows with, StC’s first real foray into writing advice is to make up a bunch of new genres. This is a bad sign. Genres are fuzzy categorization tools that have little to do with the fundamentals of storytelling. Steampunk stories need compelling conflict the same way hard scifi does. Mysteries might focus on whodunit, while romances care about the love story, but both of them need a satisfying resolution.
Snyder’s not interested in any of that. He wants genres to be fundamental to storytelling, but not just any genres: special genres that only he has the clarity of vision to notice. Apparently, every movie ever made can be sorted into one of these genres:
- Monster in the House
- Golden Fleece
- Out of the Bottle
- Dude with a Problem
- Rites of Passage
- Buddy Love
- The Fool Triumphant
It takes about five seconds to spot glaring inconsistencies. He insists that Monster in the House movies must have the characters trapped somewhere with the monster, and lists Jaws and The Exorcist as examples, neither of which feature characters trapped with a monster. In Jaws, the shark is in the water. Quint, Brody, and Hooper can leave the water any time they want. In The Exorcist, the possessed girl is stuck in a house, but the priests who try to cure her aren’t. It’s true that both sets of characters head into danger rather than away from it, but if we expand the definition that far, it would include any movie with an action plot.
That’s hardly the only issue with these genres. Snyder puts Star Wars and heist movies under the poorly defined Golden Fleece because they both… involve trying to get something valuable, maybe? I don’t know, I think Snyder just isn’t familiar with either scifi or heist stories, so he stuck them both in his miscellaneous genre. He also insists that all Buddy Love* films begin with the buddies hating each other and includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as an example. I guess no one told him that Butch and Sundance start that movie as best friends.
We could keep poking holes in Snyder’s genres all day, but even if he’d found example films that actually matched his definitions, none of it would mean anything. You can’t make big storytelling generalizations by genre, because at that level of abstraction, all stories need roughly the same thing. They all benefit from a tense plot, characters you can get attached to, a well-themed world, etc.
Once you zoom in to the nitty-gritty level where genre actually makes a difference, there are so many caveats and exceptions that making rigid categories is pointless. This is the core problem with any book or blog that tries to give storytelling advice through the lens of genre. Understanding that is far more important than making fun of Snyder for his poor choice of example films…
…Okay just one more! In The Fool Triumphant, he says “Often, the Fool has an accomplice, an ‘insider’ who is in on the joke.” He then lists Salieri from the film Amadeus as one such accomplice, with Mozart as the “fool.” If you haven’t seen Amadeus recently, Salieri’s main action in the plot is trying to kill Mozart. Some accomplice. Snyder also has a weird section where he tries to split actors into their own genres, but then admits there are too many to list and gives up. I don’t know what to make of that.
The “Beat Sheet” Is a Pretentious Outline
If you’ve only heard of this book in passing, you might assume that saving the cat is its most important part. But according to Snyder and his enthusiasts, StC’s real core is the beat sheet. This is a set of plot points, or “beats,” that Snyder insists every good movie should have, or maybe that every good movie already has.* He’s not entirely consistent on that point, but he is clear about exactly which page number each of his points should happen on. This is also where StC gets its most heated criticism for being formulaic, and it’s not hard to see why. Look at this thing!
- Opening Image (1):
- Theme Stated (5):
- Set-up (1-10):
- Catalyst (12):
- Debate (12-25):
- Break into Two (25):
- B Story (30):
- Fun and Games (30–55):
- Midpoint (55):
- Bad Guys Close In (55–75):
- All Is Lost (75):
- Dark Night of the Soul (75–85):
- Break into Three (85):
- Finale (85-110):
- Final Image (110):
Just like Snyder’s invented genres, it’s a cakewalk to poke holes in the beat sheet. Point #2 requires a character to state the movie’s message, or as Synder calls it, the “thematic premise.” He’s very literal about this. It won’t do for a movie to show its message; a character has to say it in dialogue. And it has to happen on page five. Page four or six won’t do!
Snyder’s “debate” section is described as the hero considering whether to go on the adventure or not. This is supposed to last 10 entire pages, which usually translates to 10 minutes of screen time. Do you think that sounds boring? So does Snyder, apparently, because his first example* has a character decide their debate in only one or two minutes. His second example is from Legally Blonde, when Elle applies to law school. Except, she’s already decided to go by then. Working to get into Harvard isn’t a debate, it’s just conflict.
Some of these sections are even weirder. He describes Fun and Games as when “We take a break from the stakes of the story and see what the idea is about.” What? Why are you taking a 15-minute break from the stakes? Those are what matter! And one of his examples is Die Hard! Apparently, Bruce Willis killing his first terrorist counts as taking a break from the stakes of the story.
But by far the weirdest thing about the beat sheet is that Snyder never really makes an argument for why you need to do these things. Once you get past the anecdotes of all the famous people he’s worked with, there’s almost nothing to explain how following these plot points will make your story better.
The closest he gets is claiming that Miss Congeniality follows his beat sheet, and that movie made a lot of money.* But later, he criticizes Minority Report for having a slow opening, and that movie also made a lot of money!* So, does a movie making money mean everything about it is great, or can a movie make money despite having problems? No one knows!
Just like the Hero’s Journey before it, the beat sheet is nothing but a handful of arbitrary plot points that vaguely correspond to movies Snyder likes. Nothing in here will ensure your story has a strong throughline, a novel setting, or moving character arcs. If you have all those things, you can certainly use Synder’s creation to outline your plot, but it won’t add anything that you didn’t bring yourself.
Snyder Doesn’t Understand His Ideas
Snyder’s fake genres and much-trumpeted beat sheet feel like something an unprepared student would make up to get through a test they hadn’t studied for. There’s no substance anywhere, just a bunch of grandiose claims that collapse under the slightest scrutiny.
However, that’s not to say Snyder has nothing more robust up his sleeve. Both before and after those sections, he introduces several ideas that at least come close to some genuine aspect of storytelling. The problem is that he’s not interested in thinking about his ideas in any depth, so the results are stilted and half formed. Storytellers who follow his advice will probably end up with less-than-optimal results, unless they can fill in the areas that Snyder leaves blank.
An early example is his focus on the “logline,” a one- or two-sentence pitch that’s supposed to communicate what a movie is about. Occasionally, he talks about the logline the same way we talk about throughlines, as the core conflict that makes the story work. Then, he backslides and describes it more like a premise. For example, he has a logline about a dysfunctional family getting superpowers. That’s neat, but it doesn’t define what the story is about. That premise could lead to a comedy where the superpowers turn the family tension up to 11, or it could be the setup for the family coming together to save Earth.
In the third chapter,* Snyder lays down the law that all movies must have a single main character. Here, he’s touching on the idea that it’s easier to build attachment to a single protagonist if we spend more time with them. But because he doesn’t understand attachment, he states it as an arbitrary rule. Eventually, he remembers that ensemble films exist, and his solution is for the writer to just pick one character and declare them the protagonist.
He does this with stakes and motivations too. He knows that a story should have compelling stakes, but he doesn’t know what those are. Instead, he goes with the “primal urge,” which he defines as “Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death.” Not only is he repeating himself a few times,* but he’s excluding a huge number of powerful motivations. You might think it’s compelling to watch three Black women fight for recognition in the early space program, but no one’s in danger of dying in that story, so actually you’re very bored.
This pattern repeats again and again, especially when Snyder gets to his Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics. Some of these are better than others, and he actually manages a decent explanation of likability at one point, but most of it is poor understanding after poor understanding. To be fair, I’m writing 17 years after Snyder did, so maybe one day someone will say the same thing about Mythcreants. But nothing in Snyder’s book suggests he’s even trying to better understand stories. He’s got it figured out, and if you can’t follow his advice, that’s a you problem.
The Rest Is Process Advice
While much of StC is filled with bad storytelling advice, just as much has nothing to do with storytelling at all. Instead, it’s the dreaded process advice. Rather than saying what needs to be in a story, Snyder tells us how we should go about getting the words on paper.
Chapter five is literally nothing but process advice. Snyder spends it explaining how to visualize his beat sheet using exactly 40 index cards. Like all process advice, this won’t help if you don’t know what your story is yet, and it might not help even if you do. The writing process is personal, and index cards are no more valid than jotting down notes in marble folders or a word processor. Snyder’s process will undoubtedly work for some writers, but it isn’t what most of us need from a book on writing.
On the bright side, at least chapter five doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. The beat sheet itself is effectively process advice, since it doesn’t actually teach you how to write a script, just a fancy method for outlining. That’s not exactly what Snyder promised when he said we could write the next Lawrence of Arabia.
Many of Snyder’s weirder storytelling tips also turn out to be process advice. If you follow his logline section to the end, you’ll discover that it’s mostly about pitching your story to an agent or producer. This is actually important, and most fiction writers will need to do it eventually, whether they work in Hollywood or not. But it’s not the foundation of a story the way Snyder thinks it is, and skipping directly to the pitch can leave you without any clue of where to go next.
By far the funniest example of process advice in StC is the section on made-up genres. After an entire chapter of inventing arbitrary categories and insisting that he’s just documenting a natural phenomenon, Snyder finally gets to the point: you should watch movies that are similar to what you want to write and get inspiration from them. Sure, that could be helpful for someone who’s stumped about how monster movies work, but I don’t think we needed 26 pages of evangelizing to understand it.
There’s also a fair amount of Hollywood business advice, and I have no reason to doubt its efficacy.* People tend to be much better at the concrete details of navigating their chosen profession than the abstract brain teaser that is storytelling. Other than that, Snyder’s process advice is at best unremarkable and at worst actively deceptive.
Save the Cat! is often derided as formulaic, but that isn’t accurate. A formula would be something you could input an idea into and reliably get a story at the other end, even if it was similar to every other story made this way. StC does not understand storytelling well enough to work like that. The best it can do is add a bunch of arbitrary requirements to someone who already knows how to write a story.
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