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. It’s written for people who might have to quote anything about it to someone who’s taking it way too seriously.
Chapter Three – It’s About A Guy Who…
There are two things that confound me about Blake Snyder. The first is that he had some good ideas, but they’re often buried beneath his more indefensible statements. The second is that because he voiced some of these ideas, other people who talk about similar concepts have to work extra hard to distance themselves from Save The Cat to be taken seriously. (1)
“As my wise old father used to say, ‘tell me astory about a guy who…’
Mr. Snyder uses this introductory section to state his belief in the importance of character in any one-line, logline or movie idea.
Mr. Snyder says that all pitches should begin with “It’s about a guy who…” This is not inherently bad advice, but per usual his rationale is scattershot, referencing a soccer mom in a Tylenol commercial, Lawrence of Arabia, and the Jack in the Box mascot.
Mr. Snyder believes that all scripts can be encapsulated into a one-line. Many people have pointed out that his one-line template is not radically disimilar from my diagnostic logline
. This is a fair comment, but I like mine better, obviously. (1)Mr. Snyder believes that all one-lines should have an adjective for the protagonist (I agree) and an adjective for the bad guy (which I don’t agree with because it’s too reductive my for my taste).
SECTION: WHO IS THIS ABOUT?
Mr. Snyder pitches some movie ideas and points out the importance of character in the pitches.
As an example of a one-line, Mr. Snyder pitches his own work, Poker Night: “A hen-pecked husband finally gets the house to himself one weekend and loses it in a poker game to an unscrupulous gambler.”
Hen-pecked is one of those words that hasn’t aged real well. Lucky is the actress who gets to play that man’s wife.Mr. Snyder pitches this as “Risky Business with a dad… need I say more.” Well, actually, yes. I have no idea what that movie looks like.
Mr. Snyder also pitches his comedy, Third Grade, which forces an immature businessman to attend third grade. With his typical slipshod approach to rhetorical consistency, Mr. Snyder neglects to provide the adjective that this character gets. He also neglects to describe the antagonist, which he just got finished describing. I’d forgotten how lazy the writing was in this treatise.He points out that the smug business man is the best person for this role because of the inherent irony of the situation – the premise would work less well if the protagonist didn’t need to be taken down a peg.
SECTION: Amping up the Logline
Mr. Snyder suggests positioning characters so they have maximum irony. He also advocates writing for the marketplace (you don’t want to write for old and done actors).
Mr. Snyder references some of the loglines he cited in chapter one. Worthy of note is that even though he said that all one-lines should have a protagonist and an adjective, his cited logline for the lamentable Four Christmases lacks an adjective that describes a characteristic (he uses newly-married, which describes a situation).
Mr. Snyder cites Ride Along: “A risk-averse teacher goes on a ride along with his brother-in-law, an overprotective cop, and the goal is primal: the love of the woman they both care about… Those adjectives tell me exactly where this story is going. It’s a trial by fire for the teacher: is he brave enough to overcome his fear… if he loves her, he will.”
This is a fair assessment, but I’d argue that Mr. Snyder makes the mistake of thinking a first act is implicit enough to suggest a second act, when it frequently isn’t.
Also interesting is the general terribleness of the two examples he cited. I remember reading this when it came out and thought, “are those really emblematic of the kind of movies he wants to champion.” Tellingly, they both got made, so I guess he wasn’t completely off his rocker, but the utter failure of Four Christmases, both critically and commercially, deserves frequent and repeated mockery.
When it comes to picking protagonists, Mr. Snyder recommends we pick the ones that:
* Offer the most conflict in the situation
* Have the longest way to go emotionally.
* Are the most demographically pleasing.
This advice is boring, but serviceable. I’d like to see more about how to write characters to attract a star’s interest, which is one of the ways projects get picked up, but whatever. I’ve already established that I think this book has some problems.
SECTION: The Primal Urge.
“The best ideas and best characters in the lead roles must have basic needs, wants, and desires. Basic, basic!
“Make the hero want something real and simple: survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death.”
I actually like this note. Generally, in a movie’s stakes, the trophy, victory, or goal is a fig leaf for one of these things.
SECTION: Casting for the role of your hero.
“Don’t cast the movie before you’ve sold the script.”
It’s worth noting that this flies in the face of another popular screenwriting book, HOW TO WRITE MOVIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, which nakedly encourages you to write things like “Meet CHAD (think Jonah Hill).” I have no opinion on this.
SECTION: Actor Archetypes
Mr. Snyder breaks actors down into archetypes. Speaking as someone who’s facinated by Jungian archetypes, I found this idea intriguing, but totally underfed. Mr. Snyder seems to have thrown it out and just assumed that we’d pick up what he’s throwing down. (2)
The Young Man on the Rise: Harold Lloyd, Adam Sandler, Ashton Kutcher (remember, this book was written in 2005)
The Good Girl Tempted: Betty Grable, Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon
The Imp/Clever Resourceful Child: Jackie Coogan, MacCauley Culkin
The Hunk: Rudolph Valentino, Vin Diesel
The Wounded Soldier: Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood
The Troubled Sexpot: Veronica Lake, Angelina Jolie
The Loveable Fop: Cary Grant, Hugh Grant
The Court Jester: Danny Kaye, Rob Schneider
The Wise Grandfather: Alec Guiness, Ian McKellan
The Sex Goddess: Mae West, Halle Berry (I regret that Mr. Snyder never got to see Kate Upton make it big. No man should be denied that pleasure).
To Mr. Snyder’s point, some archetypes are deathless.
The archetype stuff is intriguing, but we never hear an explanation for this or any suggestions on how to use archetypes in an interesting way. It’s like I’d need another book for that, which makes the tagline “the last screenwriting book you’ll ever need” stand out like the blighted lie it is.
SECTION: Special Circumstances
Mr. Snyder deals with exceptions to his rules, which include biopics, ensemble movies, and animated movies. This is uninteresting, and he addresses it with his typical blithe confidence.
SECTION: SLAVE TO THE LOGLINE
“If it sounds like I am insisting you be a slave to the logline… well, you’re right.”
For all the shade I’m throwing, I can’t help but admire this confidence. I don’t even disagree with this
“By better examing who your hero is and what your primal goal is… you can better identify and expand on the needs of your story.”
This is essentially true, and it hits on things I espouse, like patternizing, unity, and specificity.Speaking as someone who’s had my own problems expressing how loglines can help shape a story, I can sympathize with Mr. Snyder. That said, I also wish he’d used better logic and rhetoric in selling this idea, because now every time I mention the word premise or logline, I have to spend five minutes cravenly distancing myself from Mr. Snyder and Save the Cat before explaining the concepts.
The perfect hero is the one who offers the most conflict in the situation, has the longest emotional journey, and a primal goal we can all root for. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones and fear of death grab us.” Mr. Snyder uses the loaded term “perfect hero,” when he probably meant “perfect hero, at least in my ideal world.” By softening his language just a little, he probably would have allowed his many good ideas to communicate more freely. (3)When committing… to your lgline, you must have an adjective to desribe your hero, an adjective to desrbie the bad guy, and a definite and primal goal or setting.
As noted, Mr. Snyder breaks these rules in the chapter of the book that introduces him, so I’m skeptical about all this. I don’t think a logline needs an antagonist, and I think most loglines would be improved by accounting for HOW the hero accomplishes his goal, which is an idea SAVE THE CAT approached, but never quite articulated.
(1) Hence this series of articles. If you’re wondering what happened to chapters 1 and 2, I’m writing this out of order. I’ll be done with it sometime around 2027.
There are some good ideas in Mr. Snyder’s work. Unfortunately, they’re buried beneath the more questionable “Blake Snyder beat sheet” and his “ten genres.” I was intrigued with his ideas on archetypes in this chapter and the “promise of the premise” on page 81, but future installments of Save the Cat ended up about applying the reductive beat sheet template to everything.
(2) This reminds me of a broader note, that Mr. Snyder seems to have used this book as a proof of concept for every idea he ever had, figuring he’d get it in print and point at it in a seminar if he ever needed to revisit it. He basically says as much on page 119.
(3) As noted earlier, SAVE THE CAT is the name for a kind of scene that makes a person likeable so we’re engaged with what he’s doing. Ironically, Mr. Snyder never “saved the cat” in his own book, so his distinct and earnest voice comes off as smarmy in print, when it was friendly and engaging in real life