A Hater’s Guide to Save the Cat – Part One

Blake Snyder was, by all accounts, a nice man. He tragically passed away in 2009. I’m not here to disrespect the man, and if you do, you’re an asshole. That said, this is a Hater’s guide to his book, Save the Cat, in case you ever have to quote anything about it to someone who’s taking it way too seriously.

PART ONE – THE ROMAN NUMERALS
FORWARD
Sheila Hanahan Taylor, then a producer at Zide/Perry, now a producer at Practical and adjunct faculty at UCLA, gives a glowing review, as she should, it’s the forward. Still, some choice sentences stand out.

“I also found myself trying to come up with a way I could politely refer Save the Cat to a number of repped, produced writers who could use a little goose from it’s tactics.” I would pay money to see the real-life flame war that would erupt if you tried that on the wrong guy with the wrong agent.

“[If everyone read STC] My weekend read would dramatically improve… On second thought, are you sure you want this published, Blake? It might beef up the competition.” I’m sure someone will point out that Mr. Snyder was long out of the writing game at this point.(1)

She notes his use of Miss Congeniality and other hit movies of the era as a good example of his ability to pitch advice in terms of how executives think.  We may never know why Miss Congeniality made such an impression on Mr. Snyder, but he went bananas for it. While I’m sure some bright spark will argue the relative merits of some of these choices, I think the larger point here is that studio heads are very cynical about the way they see movies (more box office = better film), a useful cultural point that gets lost amidst the more polarizing points that come in the book.

“Once you learn to think like the people with the checkbook, you’re one step closer to success.” Implicitly, the argument that’s being advanced is that STC is the closest model to showing how producers think that’s ever been published. That’s a very dubious inferred statement, but it’s worth understanding the basic premise.

She goes on to compare the precepts of STC to the same pearls of golden development wisdom that undoubtedly rolled forth from the story department of Zide Perry. She also announces plans to introduce Save the Cat to the UCLA screenwriting curriculum. She was at least partially successful, it’s available in the UCLA bookstore, and every extension course at UCLA recommends it.

INTRODUCTION (IN WHICH MR. SNYDER INTRODUCES HIMSELF, HIS CREDITS, AND HIS TITULAR TRICK)
Mr. Snyder acknowledges that the screenplay market is flooded, and expresses his admiration for Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Viki King of HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE IN 21 DAYS fame (people used to talk about this book a lot more than then do now. It was referenced in THE SOPRANOS for gods sake). Mr. Snyder states that this is one of the few/the only screenwriting books that talks the way writers talk and isn’t too academic. While certainly not academic, the “talks the way writers talk” is very arguable, given that most of the trusted pro writer bloggers (John August, Ken Levine, etc) give this book a tentative “marginally better than useless” at best.

Mr. Snyder talks about his credentials, about how he’s sold millions of dollars worth of screenplays. As a hater, it’ll be useful for you to know that he was born with a foot in the door (his father Kenneth was an Emmy-winning TV producer) and he sold in the 90′s, a glorious, coked up time where the spec sales fell like rain (I’m exaggerating, not by much).

He also talks about the writer’s he’s coached. As a coach myself, I’m in a poor place to make fun of this, but the glaring elephant in the room with the book is the lack of testimonials from working writers. He has good testimonials from producers, but that’s it. Given all the flack his book would later receive from the cynical chattering classes of the internet, the lack of testimonials from name writers shines particularly brightly here. The phrase “turd in a punchbowl” comes to mind.

Mr. Snyder says that movies need a conceptual hook. This is a fair point, especially when a spec comes from an unknown writer, but he’s far from the first to mention this. I’m reasonably sure Crafty Screenwriting and Breakfast with Sharks beat him to it. Still this is good advice. Write movies with strong hooks.

He hates on the practice of movies opening wide (putting a movie in 3,000 theaters opening weekend, so it doesn’t matter if it stinks). Ironically, this is probably the sentence where he shares the point of maximum commonality with people who hate his book. He quickly follows this up with a point that works against this own point, that people should “follow the rules” to make writing more commercial. There are problems with this statement (see below).

WHAT IS A SAVE THE CAT MOMENT?
Mr. Snyder explains a Save the Cat moment as a moment that makes a character likable. He uses this moment from SEA OF LOVE, a deathless classic that every real American has seen twice:

http://www.anyclip.com/movies/sea-of-love/the-guy-who-was-late/#!quotes/ (2)

Why use Save the Cat? “Because liking the person we go on the journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.”   He might have said something like, “There are many elements that draw us into the story. I believe that empathizing with a character is the biggest part. That’s why I’ve titled my book the way I have.”  He didn’t.  A bigger problem than phrasing is the fact that saving the cat and likability have very little to do with his list of 15 beats, which end up being the money part of the book.

Mr. Snyder probably should have gone more into WHY likability is such a key issue, and then illustrated HOW his specific beats work to build that likability. He doesn’t, which is a major weakness in the book and the premise. A later chapter has more on the term, but it would have been nice to see a chapter on HOW to make a character likable (interestingly, there’s no Save the Cat moment in Blank Check), instead the concept gets short shrift and is tossed off in a few hundred words, then left to die.

Mr. Snyder sneers at LARA CROFT 2 (sic) and says that if they had followed “the rules,” and written a save the cat scene, it might have done better (historical note, it made 65 million domestic vs a 95 million production budget). This is another groaner moment.

  • There are no rules, and if there are/were, SAVE THE CAT was certainly not there yet.
  • Another turd in the punchbowl – 4 CHRISTMASES, held up in this book and subsequent ones as a model of his theory. It flopped, critically and commercially.
  • Again, I still don’t know HOW to write a Save the Cat scene, and I’ve read this book like a dozen times.

This sets up the biggest ad hominem critique I’m going to make against Mr. Snyder, and it comes back again and again. He has no sense of humor about himself, and he honestly believes his rules are empirically tied to box office performance. The Four Christmases thing is worth examining on several levels, but I’ll touch on it when he brings it up again.

Mr. Snyder brings it all home on page xvi –

“We are in the business of trying to pitch our wares to the majors, make a big sale, and appeal to the widest possible audience.” Oy. I agree that a beginner writer is well served by writing to the most lucrative development market, but the words “make a major sale” actually hurt the fillings in the back of my teeth. The spec market that bore, shaped and made Mr. Snyder aware was basically dead by 2005, which is why he had the time and financial interest in writing the book in the first place. He might have been hoping it was coming back, but it didn’t. Early, he said “this is a book that talks the way [professionals] talk.” This line is an example of how they talked in the mid 90′s.

He admits that this book is written for writers who want to work in the studio system and not the indie market, which is a a fair assessment. He thanks young writers who have given him new perspectives by “questioning me in that snotty-as-hell ‘tude that only insightful young people have,” a line that shows a marvelous economy, as it sounds simultaneously disingenuous, square and patronizing.(3)

“If my Save the Cat example has whetted your appetite to learn more tricks, let’s begin. Because it’s one of many that are basic. And they work. Every time. These are rules I hope you will use learn and use and even break. And hopefully when you’re movie comes out, and it’s satisfying and a hit — you can pass on your rules to others.”

Clearly, a goodly number of people were sufficiently intrigued to read on, this book was a bestseller, which is why we’re talking about it. But given that this is the hater’s guide, this is where he lost a large chunk of potential audience/credibility.  If tricks work every time, why would you want to break them? If they work every time, why did you transition from writing to coaching? If they work every time, why would LARA CROFT 2 (sic) have maybe made more money using a Save the Cat scene instead of DEFINITELY making more money? And, not to belabor this, but how the fuck do I write a Save the Cat scene?

IN CLOSING
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” F. Nietzsche
“When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Folk Wisdom.
“Only the Sith deal in absolutes,” O. Kenobi, missing the point of irony.”

Save the Cat’s introduction is a pretty good glimpse of the book to come. A smattering of good advice, that’s often undercut by the overweaning pride of its author. Mr. Snyder offers up each of these pearls as if he were a benevolent god shining his wisdom on the morlocks. If you’re a Save the Cat fan, it’s useful to understand that a lot of the flack the book received comes directly from the tone used by the author.(4)

Save the Cat is badly overhyped. It calls itself the “last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need,” when you could call it a good starting point for an understanding of screenwriting. It’s really simplified, it’s like an EZ Bake oven – it’s a kid’s toy, but a good chef could use it to make a fun meal. STC earns more flack from naive beginners who talk like it’s all you need to know about screenwriting, when in fact by citing it, they look like people with training wheels talking a big game to X games athletes.

Much of this stems from an apparent lack of irony from Mr. Snyder. Look at William Goldman and Stephen King. Both are highly accomplished commercial writers, but in their books they fall all over themselves with self-deprecating humor. It may be a pose (I don’t think it is), but it makes them super likable, they’re not trying to big time us, they’re trying to relate like a guy at a bar. In a sense, a self-deprecating voice is like a “Save the Cat” moment for a know-it-all author. Mr. Snyder ironically misses that point.

Snyder wrote STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT and BLANK CHECK, and now he’s writing a writing book. That is freaking hilarious(5). If and when I write a writing book, I will mock myself at every fucking turn, because it’s easy, it’s fun, and it undercuts your own bombast (I haven’t done much of that yet – I will. To start: I’m far from rich. At this point in my life, I would kill to have the commercial success that Mr. Snyder had, either as a coach or a writer). Mr. Snyder either fails to see the humor, or refuses to comment on the humor, which leads me to believe that when he says the rules “work every time” or that LARA CROFT 2 (sic) could have made more money by following his rules, he’s not being hyperbolic, he’s committing the logical fallacy of magical thinking.

Personally, I find utility in everything.  It’s important to understand that everything has good and bad in it, and the purpose of this guide is to examine the strengths and weaknesses of a given approach.  Also, it’s fun to snark on the works of a dude who made tons more money than I did.

FOOTNOTES

(1) The secondary point one should take from this is that Ms. Taylor found the book useful as a conceptual framework. She might be the odd case, but if everyone in town were talking about Save the Cat (or whatever flavor of the month book comes next), the smart writer will find a way to make their story fit that pattern).

(2) In grudging fairness to Mr. Snyder, I just rewatched this scene and I forgot how truly good it was. Still, he might have considered his audience and used a more popular example. He uses Pulp Fiction and Aladdin later. It’s difficult to make a straight line that connects all three of the Save the Cat scenes he cites, but those are pretty much the only examples in book one (we’ll doubtless find out for certain as we progress through the tome, but I can’t remember off the top of my head.

(3) A recurring theme of this guide will be that Mr. Snyder writes from the point of view of someone who knows that he should SEEM amenable to other points of view, but who doesn’t really get WHY. I also what he might have made of the “snotty-as-hell” ‘tude that would surely have blown his way from the cynical internet circa 2014.

(4) Is that fair? Probably not. But as a screenwriter, Mr. Snyder was a communicator. He should know the old axiom: it’s not how the message was intended, it’s how it was received.

(5) These scripts don’t disqualify him as a teacher. You can often learn more about a craft from a hack than from a master.

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