Screenwriting Books – Save the Cat

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Amazon UK (other book shops are available)

ISBN-10: 1932907009  ISBN-13: 978-1932907001

Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” is one screenwriting book that everyone seems to have heard of and about which everyone has a view. It is one of the first books I read when re-embarking on my writing mission a few years back. It was recommended to me by a friend who had recently read it and chose it on the basis of the strapline on the front cover; the idea that this would be the last book on screenwriting he would ever need to read.

And who could ignore a statement like that?

I didn’t…

However, I have read a number of books on screenwriting since. Not because Save the Cat didn’t have all the answers (naturally, it doesn’t) but because it was a good starting point for exploring the way (some) films are written and it gave me the impetus and intrigue to widen my net and explore other texts.

What Blake did with Save the Cat is examine a lot of films and reduce them to a simple set of “beats” that he collected in his “beat sheet” – a simple template that helps the writer place certain events and actions in their films. For example, where your “Inciting Incident” should occur and when your screenplay should “break into” Act II. These beats were accompanied with fairly specific timings or page counts for your screenplay, making many of them fixed-points in the flow of a film. While many see this as too restrictive for being creative, I did find it a useful primer that kick-started my learning in terms of story structure.

[NB: The book also contains various other comments, advice, primers and tools that might be useful to you, but I am concentrating on the Beat Sheet here as it is the main thing that springs to mind when thinking of the book and Snyder. I am also not going to debate each of these beats as there really isn’t space for a full critique, but you will find more details in Snyder’s book if you chose to read it. ]

The beat sheet breaks down in the following way (I’ve summarised the descriptions here):

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It does work…

… to a degree.

When I started watching films with this in the back of my mind I was astounded by how many matched the paradigm. So many of them seemed to hit their midpoint at the 55 minute mark. They would include a “Dark Night of the Soul” and the third Act would break around the 85 minute mark, delivering a closing image that reflected the opening image.

Try it yourself, you’ll see what I mean – if you stick to “typical” Hollywood, commercial films.

What I also noticed was that there are plenty of films out there that don’t fit this paradigm. They might contain aspect of it; perhaps an Inciting Incident on page 10, but their Second Act may break much earlier (or later) or the Midpoint turn might occur much closer to the start of Act III.

I think, in the early stages of my screenwriting efforts, that this is where I began to realise that there was no “quick win”; no “magic formula” to writing an effective story.

Snyder’s Beat Sheet does work for writing stories. But it is fairly inflexible. If you prescribe to any set template for writing you will soon find you have stifled your own creativity as you constantly strive to fit your stories into the same format. I did that with the first couple of screenplays I wrote and, while it helped me get a story on the page, I feel that Snyder’s beat sheet also funneled me down a path that led to fairly predictable writing. I wrote a couple of decent screenplays, but they wouldn’t win any awards and they won’t really stand out from the crowd. Snyder helped me cut my teeth on breaking down stories and thinking about basic structure but I moved away from that specific Beat Sheet fairly quickly as I gained more experience, read more books and started to find my own voice and way of writing.

There is far too little space here to fully appraise all of Snyder’s book. As I said in the introduction to these posts, I just want to share my thoughts on the books and let you know what I got from them, so you can make a decision as to whether you think they are worth buying/borrowing. I would suggest that Snyder’s book is a great starting point for anyone completely new to screenwriting who wants a down and dirty introduction to the structure of story. But use the advice in the book to your advantage and as a springboard to other learning. Use it to develop your skills, not stifle them. Do not think that Snyder’s way is the only way. You have to find YOUR way too. If you have been writing for a while, you may do better to steer clear as you could find yourself taking a backwards step as you try to retro-fit Snyder’s approach to your own well-developed style/systems.

So yes, Snyder’s Save the Cat is a great launch pad for new writers. I enjoyed reading it and do not regret working through it. But I did move on from it fairly quickly. I don’t think I would be as far on with my writing if I hadn’t read it but it is unlikely that I will ever go back to it again. It will get you started, but it isn’t the final solution.

It’s a bit like the instruction manual for your new laptop; you might read it once just so you know how to switch it on but, once you are familiar with the kit, it gets thrown away and you have more fun just pressing buttons to see what they will do.

Do/have you used the Save the Cat Beat Sheet?

How has it helped your writing?

Feel free to comment below and let us know what impact Save the Cat may have had on your writing.

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Posted on October 15, 2015, in Learning, Prep, Reading, Structure, theme, Writing, Writing Rules and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I loved your blog post so much! This is written brilliantly and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I have just checked out your blog and it is safe to say I love it! (: so keep it up (:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read this one, so I can’t opine. I have read many other books on screenwriting, some very good (I think) and some complete rubbish. I actually reread parts of some of them every now and then, especially when I’m working on a new story, because I’ve found they help me focus on aspects of storytelling that I might be neglecting… like “oh, right… the exercise of telling the story from the point of view of the antagonist. I wonder how my antagonist is actually doing in this story?”

    And so I check that, and I always find ways of improving my writing. So that’s my approach: not holy texts or self help treatises, but reminding tools. Like knots tied on fingers typing the next draft…

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on other titles…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tools not Rules Angel! Definitely. Even when you read what, on the whole, you feel to be a less than wonderful text on the subject, I usually find there is at least one thing, one piece of learning I can take from that work. As writers we take inspiration from everywhere – we are probably eclectic by nature – and I think we have to learn to take what is useful and leave what is not. Everyone finds something different. Find what works for you, or helps you…and run with it!

      And we have to remember that no author is going to set out to write a rubbish book – in the same way that no one sets out to write a rubbish screenplay. The finished products just talk to different people in different ways – one woman’s trash is another man’s treasure!

      Liked by 1 person

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