By Craig Young
Posted April 28, 2012
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Several years ago, I picked up a wonderful little book by Blake Snyder titled Save the Cat. Despite hating cats, I was intrigued by the book’s suggestion that this was “the last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need”. How wonderful! I can finally stop buying books about writing and just write!
Turns out, I’ve purchased over a dozen books on the subject since then… but that has more to do with my exceptional procrastination skills than anything else.
While Save the Cat deals primarily with long format script (film), it’s something I believe translates well to shorter format, novels, comics… you name it! Why? Because Save the Cat outlines the basic keystones used in weaving some of the world’s greatest stories.
Please remember though, that writing is not a formula — writing is about structure. You can bend and play with structure to a certain degree, but it’s ultimately your foundation. It’s what all of your story’s little surprises hang onto. Without this foundation, you’re most likely fumbling along aimlessly wondering, “What the hell should I do next? Why is my story so shakey??” Don’t fret. We’ve all been there.
Below are the summarized ideas Snyder plotted out. In many cases, I’ve quoted him directly (paraphrasing here or there), noting personal experience where relevant.
And swear words.
Instead of referencing feature format as Snyder did however, I’ve referenced approximate page count with a 22 minute animated TV series in mind. And yes, although I reference movies and scripts, remember: movies, scripts, novels — they’re all stories.
Opening Image (page 1)
The very first impression of what a movie is–its tone, its mood. We need to know what we’re in for off the top. It’s also the “before” snapshot of who our hero is before his/her journey begins.
I’ve used this basic concept even in pre-school school shows (Rob the Robot). In fact, the show is structured in a way where we ALWAYS start inside the rocket ship, setting the basic tone for the story, then end each episode back in the ship with fears conquered and mission accomplished. It’s not as dramatic (being pre-school and all) as what you’d have in a novel or film… but the basic idea is there.
I won’t say this idea is an absolute MUST, but I do feel the strongest stories end with this “after” snapshot of the hero. It gives your audience a true sense of satisfaction, seeing your hero come full circle. He rode out into the sunset uncertain, and came back to his place of origin as a confident arse kicker. Art imitates life in this sense. Your personal journey began as a bed wetting infant and ends as diaper wearing wizard of knowledge.
Theme Stated (page 1-2)
Within the first 5 minutes of a film (or the first chapter of a book), the theme should be stated (note, the theme is usually not stated by our hero oddly enough). It’s usually a question or statement posed by someone other than our main protagonist. The statement is the theme of the movie (EG: Careful what you wish for). It shouldn’t be too obvious… more of an offhanded/conversational comment.
Again with Rob the Robot as our example, quite often one of the characters will wish for something they don’t have. “I wish I had super powers just like Bolt Boy!” To which one of the supporting characters would respond “What’s wrong with just being yourself?” That theme is examined and demonstrated throughout the full 10 minute episode. In the end, the question is finally answered through trial/error and the support of his friends. It’s indeed better to be happy with yourself, just the way you are.
Always know what your theme is and never lose sight of it. I find a lot of writers get caught up in gags and the uber cool scenes they’ve crafted. Those scenes may indeed end up being uber cool, but will your reader/viewer hang in long enough to see it executed? Most likely no. Not if you’re story isn’t focused on its objective. Don’t flail around like a fat hamster with no idea where your story is spinning towards. Write with purpose. Write with your theme always in mind.
Do yourself a favour, and write your theme at the top of your 1st page. Stick it to your office door, fridge, desktop, boyfriend’s head… everywhere and anywhere you can to remind yourself why you’re writing this story. Having this constant reminder will help with your stories focus, and make it tighter from beginning to end.
Set-Up (page 1-3)
The first few minutes set up the hero, the stakes and the goal. The first pages should also set up or hint at every character in your story. I guess this varies in novel land, but I believe a similar idea should apply. Here, every character tic and behavior that needs to be addressed later on in your story should be present. It will allow us to know how and why the hero will need to change in order to win.
When our hero wants or is lacking, we must SHOW the audience here what is missing in our hero’s life. What needs fixing!
Working with MCM on Rollbots, this was always the case in our 22 minute scripts. We generally know from the teaser who/what the threat is being caused by and who it relates to. In the first act we would then identify all the other players. You can add elements of mystery of course (villains in disguise etc), but we need to know the main players. Even when we didn’t want our audience to be 100% certain who the villain is, we’d give them clues so they could at least start putting 2+2 together.
Catalyst (pages 4-5)
The catalyst is the first moment when something happens that spins us in a new direction, towards our new world in act II. Accidentally receiving a note, stealing a squirrel, the knock at the door, etc. In the set-up we learned what the world is like and now, in the catalyst moment… you blow it to shit (I’m paraphrasing).
This is most likely the most natural story element that even very young writers understand. It’s usually the one thing (after the uber cool scene) that a writer thinks of when she’s formulating the story in her head. I know it’s what I do.
Now I just need to practice knowing my ending first… but we’ll get to that idea later.
Debate (pages 6-7)
This is the last chance for our hero to say SCREW THIS, I’M OUTA HERE! At this point, we need him/her to realize that this might be a shit idea. Do I go into the cave? Do I take the ring? It’s going to suck out there, but what’s my choice? Stay here? A question must be asked of our hero and he/she alone must answer.
Act II (pages 7-8)
Our act break is the moment we leave the old world behind, and head into the new world. At this stage, the hero cannot be lured or tricked into this new upside down world. She must make the decision herself and CHOOSE to go. Being tricked into it or forced tends to make the individual less of a hero… your audience will see him as weak with little to aspire to.
Frodo was given the burden of the ring, but he chose to accept it. Had he been forced along all the way, we wouldn’t have routed for him the same way. We most likely wouldn’t have even cared. By choosing to go, despite his size and lack of skill set, he was a great underdog to cheer on.
The B Story (pages 9-11)
More often than not, this tends to be the love story. It is also the part of the story that carries your theme. Not to mention, it smoothes over the Act break itself, making it less obvious. The B story gives us a breather from the full assault of the A.
This is where your hero needs to be nurtured and can openly discuss the theme of the movie (which, being a genius, you’ve already set up from your opening pages). It’s a place for them to draw strength from to help push them forward into Act 3.
The B story often carries a brand new batch of characters with it as well… almost all of which are the upside down versions of the A characters we met in the first 10 pages. Sound odd? Think of how wonderfully the Wizard of Oz did this!
Fun & Games (pages 11-14)
This is the section of your story that captures the promise of your premise. It is the essence of your movie’s poster, book cover, etc. It is where most of the movie trailer moments are found and where your characters (well, at least the audience) has the most fun. It’s where we aren’t as concerned with the stories forward progress (although we’re NOT losing sight of it either… it’s just not AS intensely focused) — the stakes won’t be raised till the midpoint of this act.
This is where Rob gets to try out his new rocket boots for the first time. It’s where Spin learns he has turbo mode… it’s where Neo learns Kung Fu.
This is the heart of your story.
It’s where you put all your snazzy set pieces!
Midpoint (page 14-15)
The midpoint is either an “up” where our hero either peaks (although it is a false peak) or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (although it is a false collapse).
The stakes are raised here. The fun and games are over. It’s back to the story.
The midpoint changes the whole dynamic of the film.
This is where the hero believes he’s made it (or completely failed), but it’s a false sense of victory. The hero still has a long way to go before he learns the lesson he really needs. It just seems like everything is warm and fuzzy here… it’s a lie!
The midpoint also has a matching beat which is called the “All is Lost” moment that leads into your third act. This All is Lost is a false defeat. These two points are set. It’s because they’re the inverse of each other.
The Rule is: It’s never as good as it seems to be at the midpoint and it’s never as bad as it seems to be at the All is Lost point… or vice versa!
Bad Guys Close In (pages 15-18)
This is the point where the bad guys regroup and send in the heavy artillery. It’s the point where internal dissent, doubt, and jealousy begin to disintegrate the hero’s team.
The forces that are against our hero tighten their grip here. Evil is not giving up, and there is nowhere for the hero to go for help. This translates to pre-school as well. The bully is winning the game, the witch has delivered the apple, etc.
All of this spells bad news for the hero. He is headed for a huge fall and that brings us to…
All Is Lost (page 19-20)
Again, this is the opposite of the midpoint in terms of “up” or “down”. It is the false defeat of our hero that appears as total defeat. Our hero’s life is in shambles. Wreckage abounds. Oh noes!!!
It’s the point where the mentor dies… or symbolically dies. Obi Wan kicks it, Gandolf is a goner, Marlin believing Nemo is dead…
Even if there is no mentor, stick in something that provides a symbolic death or hint of it (a character considering suicide, a dead flower, etc).
This is where the old character, the old way of thinking and the old word… dies.
Dark night of the Soul (pages 21-22)
This is the moment where we see how our hero deals with the All is Lost death moment. How does he feel about it? It can last 5 seconds or 5 minutes. It’s a vital point of your story — the dark before the dawn. It’s the point just before our character digs deep and pulls out that last best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. But at this moment, that idea is nowhere in sight.
It’s the “Why has god forsaken me!?” moment.
It’s here and only here where we know our hero is beaten and admits their humility and humanity, yielding control of events over to fate. It is then that our hero finds the solution.
We must be beaten to know it and to get the lesson.
Act III (pages 23-24)
Thanks to the characters found in the B story (the love story), thanks to all the conversations discussing theme in the B story, and thanks to the hero’s last best effort to discover a solution to beat the bad guys who’ve been closing in and winning in the A story… the answer is found!
Both the external story (A) and the internal story (B) now meet and intertwine. The hero has passed every test, and dug deep to find a solution. Now all he has to do is apply it!
The classic fusion of A and B is the hero getting the clue from “the girl” that makes him realize how to solve both beating the bad guys and winning the heart of his love.
Finale (pages 25 -27)
This is where the lessons learned are applied. It’s where the character’s tics are mastered. It’s where A story and B story end in triumph for our hero.
It’s the turning of the old world and creation of a new world order — all thanks to our hero, who leads the way based on what he experienced in the upside-down, antithetical world of Act Two.
The bad guys are dispatched, in ascending order (low rank to high). The head/source/cause of the problem must be completely dispatched in order for the new world order to begin.
It’s not enough for our hero to triumph. He must change the world.
It must be done in an emotionally satisfying way.
Final Image (page 28)
The final image is the complete opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real. The world is now a better place, thanks to our hero.
With all of this in mind…
Again, the 15 steps aren’t about creating a formula. They’re about understanding structure so you can weave your story within a universally inherent and accepted context. And yes, storytelling IS universal. We all recognize if a movie or book is bad or good, even though we might not fully understand or recognize why.
Throughout time, all cultures have applied the same story basics–from Greek mythology to American Westerns. You don’t have to take my word for it though. Pick a film that’s loved by the masses, or a popular book or TV show. Keep this post handy and check each step off as they’re presented.
If you felt completely satisfied by the story, I’m guessing you could identify the 15 keystones. If you were left feeling a bit put off… there’s a good chance a few of them were missing.
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