Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder provides a guide to screenwriting from an industry perspective, focusing on what a writer needs to do to prep for the act of writing. These techniques include creating a logline (or one-line), watching and analyzing movies in your chosen genre, creating a beat sheet, and building a board to layout scenes as a form of outlining. Skipping over actually writing process, he then reveals some screenplay "rules" and somethings to look for during edits if the finished draft isn't working.
The Importance of Structure
I've heard a lot of praise for this book, both from screenwriters and from novelists, and a lot of this praise is in regards to Snyder's discussion of structure. As both a novelist and a screenwriter, I found this valuable. Understanding the beat points of a story helps a lot in the actual writing process. The beats* let the writer know where important points of action should fall within the story, such as the catalyst that leads the heroine into adventure. (The Save the Cat! website includes a breakdown of the beats in a variety of popular movies, along with other valuable tools, which is awesome.)
Structure is especially vital to screenwriting, where space (i.e. movie length) is limited. Snyder talks about specific page numbers where certain plot points should fall (midpoint on page 55, for example). In the movie industry, these specific plot points are the kinds of things executives and decision makers are looking for, especially from new writers.
For the novelist, this strict structure seems less relevant, but there's oodles of more leeway. Though it can help create a framework around which to build the giant story that is a novel.
Another great piece of advice Snyder gives for both kinds of writing is being able to sum up the story in a single sentence or two, called a logline. The logline should state the heroine's objective, highlight obstacles, and have a hook. For example:
Legally Blonde – When a blonde sorority queen is dumped by her boyfriend, she decides to follow him to law school to get him back and, once there, learns she has more legal savvy than she ever imagined. (from IMDB)
The simple summary helps the writer (screenwriter or novelist) get clear on their story before writing, provides an anchor as they work through actually writing, and gives them an easy, simply summary to use if they get the chance to pitch to an agent. Kristen Lamb has a great discussion of this bit of advice on her blog.
The book is full of simple to follow advice like this (if not always easy to execute).
What Drove Me Bananas
Save the Cat! is written in a snappy, conversational tone, which is great because it makes it an easy read. But it also came off sounding pompous, like I could see his smug smile reverberating through the text, and sometimes grated on my nerves. It's clear Snyder had a preference, he wrote and mostly enjoyed family and romantic comedies. So, it's when he talks about the genres he's not into and is less comfortable with that I found myself wanting to rage and beat him over the head with his own book.
Clearly, this was a bias on Snyder's part. He doesn't get these kinds of flicks and seems to not be hot on ind flicks. That's fine, but it annoys the frack out of me that he's including this bias as part of his "rules" and it distracted me from focusing on the valuable tools he was teaching.
Ranty Bit #1 - One of Snyder's "rules" is the Double Mumbo Jumbo rule, which states that only one type of magic is aloud in a single storyline. Essentially, don't confuse the viewer/reader by throwing in many different kinds of magic — decide on the rules for your world and stick to them. Makes sense.
But the example he used, Spider-Man, made steam come out of my ears. He basically wrote, here's a guy, bit by a radioactive spider and gains spider-like abilities, then you have the Green Goblin begin to gain his own superpowers using a completely different method, and it's mixing different kinds of magic!
At which point, I began to mentally shout at the book. It's a COMIC BOOK universe, I told the book. Both superhero and super villain are changed by the SAME kind of "magic", both are changed by a kind of mad-science, which is logical given the rules of the universe! Who would you have be the villain of Spiderman?? Joe Schmoe robber? By you're own rules, Snyder, you demand that he bad guy be BIGGER AND BADDER than the hero! ... and it went on from there.
Ranty Bit #2 - In his discussion about structure, knowing that young screenwriters will bring it up as a non-structured movie that worked, Snyder mentions Memento. He calls the movie existential and boring. "Fuck Memento," he writes. "I know how much it earned."
This pissed me off on two levels.
One, both Snyder and the young screenwriters are wrong. Even though it presents its story in reverse chronology, Memento is highly structured. It has to be. The movie wouldn't work without structure. I took a screenwriting class once and watched a teacher lay the structure out, following the same beats that Snyder recommends screenwriters use. (I may even break down the structure on my blog at some point, if I get a chance to rewatch the movie.)
Two, Snyder seems to take the assumption that box office earnings equals a successful movie. In his dismissal of Memento, he skips over to discuss a movie he's more comfortable with, Miss Congeniality, which follows a clear traditional structure and earned $106 million at the U.S. box offices. His comparison is absurd, since Memento was an indy flick and never intended to be a blockbuster movie.
Besides, box office earnings don't mean a movie was profitable. As CNBC writes in their article on the 15 Most Profitable Movies of All Time, "A profitable movie doesn’t just do well at the box office. Toy Story 3, for example, is the highest-grossing movie of 2010 so far, with a worldwide take of over $600 million. However, its budget was $200 million, meaning that it has only made three times its investment. Even the mighty Titanic, the second highest grossing film of all time, could only realize a 900% return on its budget."
Let's take a look at Memento and Miss Congeniality. As noted, Miss Congeniality made over $100 million, while Memento made only around $25 million at the box office. From that point of view, there's a clear winner.
However, Memento only cost around $9 million to make and Miss Congeniality cost $45 million.
If I do my math right, this means Memento had a return on investment of around 278%.
Miss Congeniality meanwhile had a slightly lower return of around 236%
It's all WAY more complicated than that of course, but if you look at the real profitability of the movies, it's clear that Memento is a far more financially successful movie than Snyder made it sound to be.
Ultimately, none of these annoyances detract from the core tools and the value of any writing or advice book is whether it inspires the reader to actually take action and get to work. After reading Save the Cat!, I immediately jumped to work. I started creating loglines for all the novel ideas I've been working on and planning and I bought a board to lay out the scenes and acts in a tactile manner (I've been needed a new way to approach my current novel). The book also has me thinking about all the screenplay ideas I have on hold. I've learned oodles of valuable tools and my creative juices are flowing, so this book is a win.
If you've read Save the Cat!, please let me know what you thought about it in the comments. Did you find the tools in the book useful?