“Save the Cat” Explained

01Aug13

I can’t believe I have to write this, but I’m going to:

Blake Snyder’s book “Save the Cat” is not a template for filmmaking. It is a suggested template for how to construct a screenplay that will likely sell to a studio.

Backstory time: In a recent Slate article, Peter Suderman wrote that a (perceived) over-reliance on “Save the Cat’s” beats has turned modern Hollywood blockbusters into very predictable product. First off, when hasn’t Hollywood made predictable, “formula” movies? Just because you can see the seams, as he writes, doesn’t mean that the previous crop of movies didn’t have those seams, too. Since becoming a screenwriter/an adult, I’ve noticed the trends in storytelling, as well, but I have chalked that up to my maturity, my experiences, and the over saturation of the market. Back in the 1950’s, there were only a handful of movies released every month. This week there are somewhere around 12 this week — and that’s just major releases!

Second, I believe that this article throws “Save the Cat” under the bus, which feels unfair. To be honest, I like “Save the Cat,” but I feel I have a healthy relationship with the book. I’m not a disciple, but I believe there is some truth to be gleaned in there. Snyder did his homework and the best parts about that book is that it gave young screenwriters a common, easy-to-understand vocabulary to use. It dabbled into movie-making theory, asking why THIS worked when THIS did not. Obviously, this was all subjective, but that’s because it’s a theory. Theory is* subjective.

Now, truth be told, I didn’t read the Slate article until I heard it called out on the “Script Notes” podcast, where it was torn a new one. And along with tearing up the article, “Save the Cat” got smacked around, too, and — again — I don’t think that’s fair. No book will make you a great writer, great storyteller, or great movie maker. I think that’s even stated in the book. The purpose of the book, as I said in the opening, is not to make better movies. It’s to help the reader craft a screenplay which will (hopefully) be appealing to producers. It’s a tool, and if an unskilled filmmaker gets hold of that tool, he/she might make a bad movie. Don’t blame the tool!

I think many people confuse this issue, and it’s driven me nuts. Artsy friends of mine rankle at the book’s ideas, just as John August and Craig Mazin chide it for being a catch-all for writers. That’s not the point, and I think in every case listed — my friends, “Script Notes” and this “Slate” article — the accusers prove how bad they are at understanding what they’ve read.**

So that’s that. “Save the Cat” didn’t make anyone a bad filmmaker, or make bad movies. At the most, it helped some people consider their story ideas more thoroughly and maaaaaaaaybe helped a couple scripts get sold. Maybe. So quit picking on it and quit misconstruing its motives.

 

*The only thing not subjective about a theory is the fact that theory is subjective. Think about it.

**If they’ve actually even read it, which August and Mazin admit that they have not… and on one hand, why would they? Because if I were successful — WHEN I GET successful, I’m finished reading “How To Write” books. But if/when I get successful, I hope I don’t chastise the books that come out afterwards, especially without reading them. However, if I’m successful and I still have a blog to fill, I’ll probably rely on hyperbolic, uninformed snark, too, because that’s the nature of the internet beast.

 

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One Response to ““Save the Cat” Explained”

  1. I read the book and the follow-up when I went through my “I AM READING EVERYTHING ABOUT WRITING” phase. I enjoyed it, thoroughly, but didn’t consider it a template as much as a book of observations. I still go back to it on occasion and compare it to movies released since it’s publishing. I didn’t read the Slate article and only know about it from the Scriptonotes podcast. Now that I’ve seen you reference it as well I guess I better read the dumb thing. Thanks and keep it up!


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