When I first started screenwriting in college, there was really only one main book on the topic, the Syd Field’s seminal Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. According to Field, as well as most of my teachers at the time, there was really only thing you ever needed to know about screenplay structure. You introduce your character in the first act, something goes wrong or they find themselves in trouble and then in the third act it is resolved.
So for many years I would approach screenwriting in this way. Along the way I read all of the other books everyone reads like McKee’s Story, Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Seger’s Making A Good Script Great. And even though I learned a great deal from each of them I would inevitably start a story and somewhere along the lines start to get lost. My story would be moving along, characters were developing, arcs were starting and completing, mystery and suspense were pulling the reader though from page to page, but at some point the story would always come to a grinding hault, usually around page 40.
I mentioned this to another writer friend one day and his eyes lit up. “Have you ever read this book that walks through page by page and tells you where you need to be in your story. I mean, it tells you the exact page numbers. I use it all the time for my story strucure.” What? I sarcastically responded probably in my head. Really, a paint by numbers approach to screenwriting?
I skeptically snatched the book from his hand and decided to at give it a read. Over the years I have become somewhat of a skeptic to these screenwriting gurus who tell you all the “rules” to screenwriting. I’m just happier listening to the advice of people like John August and Craig Mazin who will tell you that, although structure is important, what’s more important is storytelling and exciting the reader. If you break some stupid rules, screw it.
Anyway, so I actually really enjoyed Save The Cat. It gave me a perspective on the topic of the screenwriting that had been missing for many years. Instead of breaking up structure into simply 3 or 4 acts, Snyder took a different approach to plot. In his Beat Sheet, he outlines moment by moment what should be happening in your screenplay’s structure.
THE BLAKE SNYDER BEAT SHEET
Opening Image – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.
Set-up – Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.
Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.
Catalyst – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.
Debate – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.
B Story – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.
The Promise of the Premise – This is the fun part of the story. This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
Midpoint – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.
Bad Guys Close In – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.
All is Lost – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.
Dark Night of the Soul – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
Finale – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!
Final Image – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.
It’s very easy to see the huge problem with this very specific kind of structure breakdown. Sure, if you use these beats you will most likely be able to create a screenplay. It may actually be entertaining. But one thing is sure without a doubt, it probably won’t be very original. Even if we’re not consciously aware of it, ee as an audience have become so accustomed to the Save The Cat model in model in modern filmmaking we can usually tell the ending about 10 minutes in.
So what is the primary benefit of Save the Cat, and can good screenwriters benefit from it. Without a doubt the answer is yes. I know this because I have spoken with a number of very accomplished screenwriters who use the Save The Cat method whenever they write. Especially if you’re trying to write a screenplay that is “safe” and sticks to the common tropes of commercial films.
How has Snyder’s book helped me? It has redefined the way that I approach structure. In the early part of my writing life I would just have a few vague ideas in my head about the story and then launch into a first draft without fear. Whenever I would get lost, I would look at where I was and what page I was on, and maybe go back over to Save The Cat and see if where he recommended I should be in the story was relevant. Sometimes it helped, other times it didn’t.
Another one of the big crimes that I see these days with screenwriters is the feeling that they need to take their screenplay and then go back and make it hit all of the Save The Cat beats. Again, STC is very helpful for being able to have a kind of general guideline, but you should never sacrifice your original vision or second guess your instinct. If you are engaged in your story and things are working, stay with it.
Finally, just for fun, let’s take a look at some popular movies and the way they follow a Save The Cat structure.
Back To The Future
The Shawshank Redemption
For a great breakdown including page numbers.
Here’s another great breakdown of Toy Story 3 at The Writer’s Store.
If you like this you may also like our analysis of The Hero’s Journey.