Book Review: SAVE THE CAT!
When I finally broke down and picked up a copy of SAVE THE CAT! I noticed a few things right away. First off, the image of the cat on the cover has some truly nasty green spill on it, to the extent that portions of the fur are overexposed. It makes me feel ill to look at.
After that, I noticed that the subtitle on the front cover is The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. But on the book’s spine and back cover, it’s The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, redacting the “that.” It’s a weird inconsistency that put me on edge before I even started reading.
But you know what they say about books and their covers. Let’s talk about the content of the book itself.
The elephant in the room is that you’ve picked up this book with the intention of learning how to write from the man who wrote Blank Check and Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot!
I will resist the urge to repeat that for emphasis, but take a moment to read it again yourself.
It’s not necessarily a dealbreaker that Snyder is not himself a very good writer. Check the IMDB credits for screenwriting gurus Syd Field and Robert McKee — goddamn sparse, aren’t they? You can be a great basketball coach without being capable yourself of throwing a three-pointer, or a great food critic without yourself being able to cook gourmet meals. You can know, and teach, the mechanics without necessarily having the skill to put it into practice.
So it wouldn’t be a big deal to me that Snyder wrote a couple of blights on the face of cinema…if it weren’t for the fact that he’s so fucking proud of the fact that he wrote them. He repeatedly brings them up as examples, talking about the choices he made writing his “mini-hit Blank Check.”
First off, there’s no such thing as a “mini-hit.” I don’t know what Blank Check‘s gross was, but the phrase itself smacks of Hollywood doublespeak for “barely broke even.” It’s not like you wrote Citizen Kane here, guy. Blank Check was tepid and mediocre — and the examples he gives of movies he wrote that didn’t get made sound even more hideous.
Ultimately, though, this is actually less a book about screenwriting and more a book about how clever Blake Snyder fancies himself to be. To his credit, he basically admits as much about halfway through:
The real inspiration for this book started with one simple desire: I had a whole bunch of snappy rules for screenwriting and I wanted to get credit for coining them.
There! I said it. (page 119)
And he manages to coin one original, useful term. You can tell he knew which one it was, because he made it the title.
A “Save the Cat” moment is a shorthand term for a moment in your screenplay, early on — ideally when your lead character is introduced — when your character does something that pegs him or her as a Good Guy, or at least someone likeable. Like saving a cat from danger, for example.
Snyder asserts this rule as a reaction to the unlikeable antiheroes that Vin Diesel or Angelina Jolie tend to play. On this point, his weariness with movies centered around unpleasant and invincible protagonists, Snyder and I are kindred spirits. These creatures — they’re certainly not people — can walk into and out of any situation without a scratch, unless a scratch or two might look sexy. Why would I get emotionally involved with unpleasant characters in tensionless situations?
Give me an Indiana Jones any day — a man who seems like it would be fun to have a beer with and gets himself into situations where my god he’s going to fucking die. Make the characters likeable and human. Make sure, even if only in some vague and oblique way, they take a moment early on to save the cat.
So Blake came up with a solid rule of character that I can get behind and I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve ever heard it. [UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that, as I should have suspected, such a rule did predate Snyder. It was formerly called the “pet the dog” moment. I will admit to preferring Snyder’s term.] If he stopped there, I might love this book. Trouble is, he doesn’t stop there.
He can’t stop there, of course, his book would be three pages. And so he pads this one original idea with a collection of information lifted from the screenwriting books that came before, and simply restated with arrogant condescension and a dumb name.
The Hero’s Journey becomes the obnoxiously self-aggrandizing Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (or, can you stand it, the BS2. Blech). Goldman’s “One Piece of Magic” becomes Snyder’s “Double Mumbo Jumbo” (points, though, for hating on the awful Signs; another thing we have in common). He insists on defining his very own “genres” and even simple rules like “give the character an action” become “The Pope in the Pool.”
Mine eyes, they roll.
Still, this is still not necessarily a bad thing. Set aside that Snyder is taking credit for discovering/coining long-established principles of screenwriting and what you have is a slim little volume that collects said principles in one place. You don’t have to go out and read Field and McKee and Campbell and Vogler and Goldman. You should, if you’re serious about this screenwriting thing, but the salient points are all collected for you here in what could have been a handy quick-reference.
Like I was saying before, I object much less to most of the content than I do to the tone of it. Snyder’s condescending “insider” conceit is grating, especially when he insists on not knowing what he’s talking about while simultaneously putting forth authoritative commandments.
The man harps on Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality to the extent that you begin to wonder if he’s ever seen any other movies. When he attempts to use other movies as an example, you wonder even more.
For example, naturally for a guy trying to put forth an argument for story structure, he invokes Star Wars. He uses it as an example for his “Break Into Two,” which he insists MUST occur on page 25:
It happens on page 25. I have been in many arguments. Why not page 28? What’s wrong with 30? Don’t. Please.
Page 25 is the place where I always go to first in a screenplay someone has handed me…to see “what happens on 25.” (page 78)
Basically, in Snyderland, if the big turning point doesn’t come on page 25, your script is broken. After he makes the point that the main character must make an active decision to take the journey into act two (good advice), he puts his foot deep in it:
Take Star Wars. The event that prompts Luke Skywalker on his journey is his parents being killed, but the decision to “go on the road” is his. (page 79)
—wguh? Luke’s PARENTS?
This is not exactly a minor detail in an obscure film. The entire six-film cultural event that is the Star Wars saga hinges almost entirely on the well-known fact that those are NOT HIS PARENTS. His mother’s identity is more or less throwaway but the issue of his paternity is kind of THE WHOLE THING.
And yet Snyder — who remember is trying to teach us how to parse and deconstruct and understand story, here — cannot be bothered to get arguably the single most important detail of the overall story correct.
But that’s ultimately a side-issue to the real problem with this example: Luke finds his destroyed home on approximately page 45 of the Star Wars shooting script, WAY too late for the BS2 stamp of approval. Even excising the scenes with Biggs that didn’t make the final cut, we’re still looking at ~page 37.
Snyder would know this if he had bothered to read the Star Wars script, or even glanced to see “what happens on 25,” (Luke sees Leia’s distress message), or even taken a moment to have a look at the finished film (Luke finds his charred homestead 40 minutes in). But he couldn’t be bothered. He just said Star Wars because that’s what you do when you’re talking structure, and never mind if it actually works against the inflexible commandments he’s trying to mark as his territory by pissing all over the craft. He assumes that the reader will also be too lazy to bother finding and reading the Star Wars script and simply take what he says as gospel — and considering how many amateur screenwriters put their foot down about Save the Cat page counts, as though that’s the important part of story structure, he’s clearly on to something there.
He gets other niggling details wrong as he goes, too. Despite his insistence on the importance of a good title, he gives the wrong title on several occasions, referring to the Tomb Raider series as Lara Croft and Lara Croft 2, and to Child’s Play as Chucky.
This book was written in 2005. It’s not like the dude didn’t have Google/IMDB. But no, couldn’t be bothered. Research? Puh. That would mean effort, and Snyder’s whole thing is to put in as little effort as necessary at every stage of the writing process. The completeness of the way he approached this book with the same laziness that he encourages within the book is almost meta.
Another example is Snyder’s baffling decision to go after Memento, the film that put Christopher Nolan on the map. After he lays out the steps of the BS2 (blech) he addresses a possible objection: what about indie films like Memento that eschew formal structure? Doesn’t that mean that structure isn’t really that important?
This is the perfect setup for Snyder to give an eye-opening statement on the pervasiveness of proper story structure. Because despite the fact that Memento is, on its face, told completely out of order, it actually doesn’t disrupt the structure. In point of fact, if the story were told in a linear fashion, it would be badly structured, with the climax occurring at the midpoint of the film.
So while the film shuffles the scenes chronologically, in terms of the storytelling this shuffling is actually what creates a narrative that perfectly follows the BS2 and its predecessors. Memento‘s non-linear design is not just an artsy-farsty conceit — it’s a necessity in order to conform the unfolding narrative to a solid story structure.
In short: Memento follows the BS2, it just doesn’t look like it and you probably never realized it. Sadly, neither does Snyder. He hasn’t bothered to analyze the structure of Memento and, considering how he avoids addressing the film in any meaningful way, I’m not convinced he ever even saw it. He just heard it was a movie told “out of order” and dismissed it out of hand.
Instead of demonstrating the truth of his observations about structure in a powerful way, he says “screw Memento!” (literally, that’s what he says) and then goes on to yammer about the structure of Miss Congeniality instead.
What’s particularly perplexing about this, is that on several other occasions, he uses Pulp Fiction as an example of some principle or other that he’s trying to get across. I defy Snyder (or one of his acolytes, now that Snyder’s passed on) to defend Pulp Fiction as satisfying the BS2 while arguing Memento does not.
This seeming contradiction actually makes sense in light of Snyder’s real focus, in this book and pretty clearly in his career. At the end of the chapter, he posts this challenge to the reader:
[I]f you want to seriously debate the value of Memento in modern society, please go ahead and contact me at the email address provided in Chapter One. But be ready for one hell of an argument from me!! I know how much Memento made. (page 96)
So there you have it. It’s not about structure or storytelling value, it’s about monetary value. Star Wars and Pulp Fiction are examples of his principles not because they actually follow the principles, they’re examples because they made money. Not unlike Stephen Colbert’s assertion that reality is defined by the free market (“I believe in climate change,” Colbert says, “because An Inconvenient Truth made a ton of money. The free market has spoken.”) But Colbert is a satirist. Snyder is not — if he is, points for subtlety, but a lot of would-be screenwriters take this stuff at face value.
I also know how much Memento made, thanks to Box Office Mojo: just under $40 million in its theatrical run. And while this doesn’t approach Miss Congeniality‘s $213 million, it does represent a 433% return-on-investment considering the proportion of budget-to-revenue. Miss Congeniality, with a budget 5 times the size of Memento‘s, did only a bit more than five times the business, with a 473% ROI.
More importantly, the success of Memento (again, he can try to dismiss it as “low-performing” but 433% ROI is an undeniable success, just not a blockbuster) opened the door and gave its creators the opportunity to do Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, which collectively grossed $1.5 billion.
The creators of Miss Congeniality went on to do…????… which grossed…????
Try to answer without checking IMDB.
Moreover, during the years that the Nolans were producing billion dollar films, and certainly pocketing a good chunk of that, our fearless author Snyder was producing fuck-all and then he died. With his most recent credit a dispensable Disney movie in 1994, nobody would even know his name today, except that he wrote this book. “Value to modern society,” indeed.
I know I just careened off into a long ad hominem but really, he started it.
I’ve heard the argument: he didn’t have much in the way of produced credits, but Snyder was a successful spec screenwriter, selling (I believe) 13 screenplays to various studios over the course of his career. And this perspective shows in the book — Snyder’s approach to screenwriting is not writing-as-art or writing-as-craft, and it’s not even writing-as-business. It’s really writing-as-get-rich-quick.
For example, at the end of the very first chapter he lists a set of “games” to play in case “you don’t have an idea for a screenplay yet.” The examples he gives are horrific:
- come up with a “Funny” version of a serious film; he posits “Funny Christine — The haunted dream car of a teenage boy that ruins his life now becomes a comedy when the car starts giving dating advice.”
- come up with a wacky place for an FBI agent to be sent undercover. His example? “Stop or I’ll Baste! — Slob FBI agent is sent undercover to Provence Cooking School.”(Earlier in the chapter he spent an entire section insisting that you need “A Killer Title,” and then he drops that bullshit on us? Stop or I’ll Baste!? Fucking Christ, man.)
I don’t want to sound Ivory Tower, here. I’m still an amateur inasmuch as I still have yet to sell a script or write one on an assignment with money changing hands. But I have to wonder why someone would pick up this or any screenwriting book without already having an idea in mind, to the extent that these “games” are necessary. If you don’t have anything to write, then maybe the real issue is that you don’t have anything to say.
But Snyder’s concern isn’t about writing anything with “value to modern society” (I really…I just can’t believe he used that phrase). His concern is about “writing screenplays that sell.” As if the only way to do so is to write something bland and derivative.
Look, I’m all about structure, and screenwriting has some rules that have to be followed (mostly regarding formatting) if you want to be taken seriously, and some rules that really really ought to be followed if you want to be taken seriously unless you can break them in a truly breathtaking manner. But it’s akin to architecture — yes, there are some things you must do when it comes to building a house. But that doesn’t mean that you can only build identical tract houses, and knowing the difference separates the architects from the builders.
As with architecture, you can make something that’s functional and beautiful when it comes to screenwriting. But that’s not what Snyder is interested in teaching. He wants to teach you the quick-and-easy way to fill 110 mostly-coherent pages that might get bought and probably won’t get made. But it still sold, and it’s not like you invested in this thing emotionally, so who cares?
You should know that the spec screenplay market has changed significantly in the last few years. It is not the landscape that Snyder surveyed during his career, and it will not be as easy for you to get your script read than it was for Snyder — who grew up and had numerous contacts in the movie industry, including his father, at a time when studios were willing to take risks and just buy whatever came their way.
His path is unlikely to be yours. These days, fewer specs get read and even fewer sell — they have to be damn good. With the economy in the tank, the studios aren’t snapping up much original stuff — around October of last year, Universal shut down development of new projects for the rest of 2009, to give an extreme example of how few resources they’re comfortable expending at this point. The studios are turning to sequels and adaptations and remakes very nearly exclusively, and if you think “Funny Christine” is going to score you the gig of adapting the new Dan Brown book when you’re competing against Paul Haggis for the job, you’re sadly mistaken.
The time of the spec screenplay bull market, when if you could write something even semi-coherent over 110 pages you had a good chance of selling, is over — at least for a while. If you really want to be a working screenwriter now, then you have to learn your craft and if you want to work in the Hollywood system or even just get its attention, you have to be able to write the shit out of an idea. And that is something that Save the Cat! won’t teach you how to do. You need to read other books by better writers — Goldman, for starters — and you need to read a LOT of scripts and watch a LOT of movies and understand why they work or don’t. And even then, you’re not guaranteed anything. I certainly can’t write as well as many of the writers out there, and I’ve been working on it with a focus for some time.
If you don’t want to put in that kind of time commitment, if you’d rather just treat outlining as little more than page count-based Mad Libs, bang something out on your coffee breaks at your 9-to-5 and sell the first draft for high six figures against low seven, then Save the Cat! may be for you, but screenwriting is probably not. Do us all a favor: buy a lottery ticket, stop wearing that “SCREENWRITER” baseball cap and telling the indifferent barista at Starbucks how you’re stuck in Act 2, stop informing other writers their work is crap because you went straight to page 25 and you don’t understand what’s happening or their logline is lacking “irony,” which you are defining incorrectly. You’re not a writer, you are the noise that makes the signal harder to find.
If you have things you need to say and stories you’re aching to tell, if you’re going to keep slaving away over your keyboard or notebook no matter what anyone else says or how hard the market is right now, if you just gotta show other people this movie in your head, then screenwriting probably is for you, but Save the Cat! is not. Although the principles are generally sound, and it’s good to have them collected in one place, the attitude conveyed is so bad that it frankly seems poisonous, especially if it’s your first exposure to the mechanics of the craft. Screenwriting is a weird niche, with weird requirements, and it’s hard enough to navigate as a newcomer without some lazy hack bullying you into thinking it’s his way or the highway. Especially when he runs around contradicting himself.
Maybe I’m being overly harsh on the book. I won’t deny that in part I came into this book already irritated by all the Snyder acolytes who, despite having completed zero scripts (let alone sold any) are prepared to regurgitate page counts and logline requirements and dismiss each other offhand as “amateurs” if these holy commandments be broken. But it’s not like Snyder’s attitude is any different, and when a fantastic writer of classic films like William Goldman can write with grace and style and self-deprecation, it makes me far less interested in this kind of half-baked, long-form masturbation from one sale-monkey among many.
As for me, I want to be an architect, not just a builder. I want to write movies worth making and watching and passing on to others, not simply scripts an executive might buy and throw on the shelf forever. I want to write movies, not checklists. And if I were just starting out, if I had not written a single script (even a bad one) and begun the process of trying to fail a little less each time, this book would not give me the majority of the tools I need to reach for that goal.
Look, “Save the Cat” is a good principle — make sure you keep it in mind when you’re introducing your main character; I know I will. And there are some good nuggets of wisdom here and there: certain ideas are just not interesting and probably won’t work as movies and therefore are unlikely to get picked up or made; if you can’t make your story interesting in one sentence, you probably can’t make it interesting in 120 pages. And the BS2 is worth using as a springboard when you’re starting to outline, but if you do so, ignore the page counts and just focus on making each moment emotionally honest and the logical result of what’s come before.
Overall, though, you can learn the same thing from other books without such high doses of snark and self-congratulation. Skim it in Barnes and Noble and Save the Money.
ADDENDUM: Okay, I couldn’t help the little play on words up there, but after initially posting this I had a number of people tweet and message me about whether STC was really worth passing up, and I realized that I was being a bit snooty after all. It’s easy to say you should read a dozen other books when I’ve already read them — when someone is just starting out and struggling to figure out where to start, that’s much more daunting, and perhaps unnecessarily so.
While everything I said above still applies, I would say that for someone just starting to get into screenwriting, SAVE THE CAT! is a decent primer (the “greatest hits of screenwriting books,” as a friend of mine put it) that will get you up to speed quickly. The main caveat is to take it as a useful guide and not a set of commandments. Don’t come away from this book thinking you have to do everything Snyder says exactly as Snyder says it. Read on, see what other screenwriting authors have to say, and if they ALL agree on a point, then it’s probably worth taking as a “rule.” SAVE THE CAT! is not the last screenwriting book etc. But, if you can get past the grating tone, I can see it being very useful as the first.
- Like this gem: “The amazing Sheldon Bull and I wrote a hilarious comedy in 2004. What if the President’s helicopter goes down behind enemy lines? And what if he is forced to capture Osama bin Laden — all by himself? That was our premise. It’s about a President who finds his ‘inner leader.’ It’s ‘Galaxy Quest with George W. Bush.’ Great, huh? We even had a great title: Chickenhawk Down. And here’s why we did not sell that script: Because there are about two people who can play the part of the President” (page 57). Yes, I’m sure that’s why. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that it sounds terrible. And how is that Galaxy Quest?Then again, they apparently sold this script to Universal: “Third Grade…a story about an adult man who has to go back to third grade. After being caught in a speed trap in front of his old school, the hero is ordered by the judge to be sent back to third grade to learn some manners.” That one is so awful that it gives me heart palpitations, and even the pitch in this book is dull and repetitive (he says “back to third grade” twice in as many sentences). But it sold, apparently. So maybe the casting thing really was why Chickenhawk didn’t sell.↩
- Or in Indy’s case, save the Hat.↩
- Had I read this book prior to Snyder’s untimely death, I would have engaged him directly with these issues. Despite my annoyance, I can’t deny that he was clearly willing to put his money where his mouth was. Likely, though, he would just have come at me with “well, what have YOU sold, smart guy?” and considered that the end of it.↩