Scribbler’s Saga #49 – Save the Cat

Posted: November 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

You can’t pretend to block out a few words for the benefit of other writers without coming face to face with such helpfully intended writing manuals as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. ARRRRRGGGH! This is me giving full vent to the hot and cold love-hate I have for helpfully intended writing manuals.

In a perfect world we would understand what a deceased but successful screenwriter had to say about how to replicate his mainstream Hollywood career and then push all of that sometimes useful information just below the surface into the same place Zen archers go to hit bulls-eyes. At the very least, I would like to have fewer story conversations like this – “In Ben-Hur, him saving the Roman admiral sits squarely on the mid-point…” We can dream.

What Mr. Snyder did well was convey the hard-won experience of two decades of sitting across from a variety of other professionals (with varying degrees of storytelling skills) and try to distill a best practices primer. In this vein, his suggestions may help the writer to understand the constant push-pull between the originality we say we want and the comfort of the familiar justified by sales figures of successful movies. Mister Snyder condenses this conflict into a sentence – “Give me the same thing, only different!”

Interpreting the words on the page, it seems that Mr. Snyder’s point is that the writer can find both the “originality” and familiarity in the same piece by confining the new to a few moments of the story with a twist that goes against expectations created by recent similar movies. The remainder of the structure remains the same subject to an alleged “physics of storytelling” going back to the cave or stone tablets. For instance, the writer will analyze the structure of Star Wars and make the modest changes that get you Harry Potter.

The “originality” may come from how Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are different despite sharing the same Jungian archetype: fatherless boys that leave home to learn about the power within. And key moments, usually landing squarely on one of Mr. Snyder’s fifteen beats that make up a story’s spine (more later) have been changed between the two versions of the same story. Everything else about these examples in a genre labeled a Golden Fleece (quest) story in Snyder’s analysis will remain the same.

Which leads us to how Save the Cat names genres that have nothing to do with comedy, drama, biography or the words we think are story genres. I hate writing list sentences, so you’ll have to actually read the book for the full list and definitions to understand Golden Fleece versus Superhero or Dude With a Problem and the seven others. These names represent an ancient type of story form that is alleged to be universal and with us since the cave.

The fifteen beat spine presented with the ten genres represent loose instruction how to get from Fade In to Fade Out (the few times I write screenplays I just start with a slug and then end the script…rebel). Mister Snyder presents suggestions for each of these moments or beats using words like “false emotional up or down” to describe the mid-point (very nearly the exact middle of the story and a place for an important scene) intended to lead the writer, reader and view through the emotional rollercoaster of the story. When combined with his ten genres the beat sheet will guide the writer through the scary middle of the story where most of us hit brick walls when answering – “What next?”

Before getting to the beats and genre, Mr. Snyder suggests that the writer should answer – “What is it?” – about his/her story in the form of a logline and may even want to tap people’s arms in public to ask them about your story. Watch their eyes, you’ll know when your pitch hits a boring party and go back to the drawing board. And just so you know, the Player Pitch – “X meets Y in space.” – is not what was meant by a one sentence pitch. It can develop later as a funny shorthand, but the writer needs one, usually compound, sentence that says what the story is.

Even though I have my love-hate with Mr. Snyder’s work, largely I think because a guru’s devotees can ruin any party, I do apply some of his techniques. I woke up one morning with a brilliant idea and four tries later on paper (Mr. Snyder really wants people to solve story problems with $4 notebooks and pens before foisting trouble on everybody else further downstream in the production pipeline), what follows is my logline.

A naïve, engaging and mostly unseen combat cameraman acts as the official record of an investigation into a win-at-all-costs starship captain that uncovers an illegal cloning conspiracy.

So what do you think the Player Pitch for this logline might be? The work in progress pitch is – “An OG Star Trek Planetary Landing episode meets The Caine Mutiny filmed in the style of 84-Charlie Mopic.” Now, if Mr. Snyder were to zombie up to comment on this Player Pitch he might slap me around for not saying Blair Witch Project in the Z slot, where the in space douchery usually goes, to convey that this story is Found Footage.

Mister Snyder asserted quite cheerfully that the writer who absolutely must use a Player Pitch will always name hits – “Ishtar meets Howard the Duck” – being a specific example of the opposite from his book. My problem in this case is that I really HATE Blair Witch and want to convey the military flavor of the story that the more obscure and awesome indie that predates BWP by twelve years or so does. I’ll take a hall pass and tell Zombie Snyder to go eat someone else’s brains thank you very much.

I haven’t gone further with this story because I have so much prose to write and the minute you say Found Footage, it can’t even be written as a comic book. But, I did wait to write until I have my logline. When I do get back to it, I need to watch The Caine Mutiny, A Few Good Men, and Judgment at Nuremburg along with every OG Trek episode cheerfully slaying redshirts. Just to make sure I grok, I will also boot up various Trek courtroom episodes across all the shows. All to make sure I know which beats to steal for my script.

Oh, and I’ll read the books from which these movies might have been adapted something Mr. Snyder didn’t mention. If his storytelling advice applies universally then reading the books will also reveal beats, genre and tone. Use your library card or lose it.

So far, I must sound like a gushing devotee (it’s the followers that ruin the party remember?). Now for the soft mushy parts that Mr. Snyder might not have fully understood still leaves many writers in the dark where they started.

Mostly I want to keep Save the Cat a little further away from novel writing than screenwriting. My process with novels is one where I get the idea and start blasting out words saying things like – “I use the first draft to discover my connection to the characters and plot and will fix it later.” His process delays the timely release of that book and if his suggestions are as universal as claimed then my narrative will naturally find those comfortable beats that define our stories since the cave. Worrying about the fifteen beats upfront just adds a lot of freak out to the process. An editing tool.

Another minor bit of contention with Mr. Snyder’s methodology is that key sections are glossed over with names like Fun and Games. This is a section early in the story in between Stating the Theme and Turn into Two (reading the book will explain these terms better) where the characters move through scenes essentially in between more important beats. It’s just that when you name it Fun and Games, you might give the misapprehension that these scenes don’t matter and can be anything as long as they link the State Theme scene with the Turn into Two (beginning of the Second Act) scene. All scenes matter and should reflect the character of the protagonist.

Speaking of the many structure-heavy writing manuals of which Save the Cat is currently the best selling version, I’ve noticed that the writers may short shrift developing characters. Mister Snyder asserts that part of the logline process includes developing the protagonist (naïve, engaging and mostly unseen combat cameraman) and the antagonist (win-at-all-costs starship captain). But, he doesn’t go much further than what are essentially Jungian archetypes rooted in those adjectives. The cliché going back to Syd Field or further is – “you need compelling characters…” Duh!

This is where I get to recommend an acting class or two for writers. Good actors create compelling characters, even for bit parts, based on the saying that “everyone is the hero of their own narrative.” Whether trained in the Method or the various competing anti-Method techniques an actor will make up a person to play, even for the yeoman silently handing Captain Kirk a clipboard. It seems to me that the writing manual author that incorporates both this ubiquitous structure knowledge and deep dives on what actors actually do will likely deserve being a bestseller.

Now we get to the biggest concern about Save the Cat and the many similar books rooted in two questions.

Does Save the Cat really describe universal narrative themes, structures and meanings?

If it is universal, are there other equally universal dramatic story forms that haven’t surfaced in our consciousness in the same way that might also hold the audience’s interest?

Save the Cat describes a variation of the Hero’s Journey originally named by folklorist Joseph Campbell (recently distilled by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey). Mister Snyder says nice things about other authors of other structure-heavy manuals. Syd Field is listed as an inspiration and that Mr. Synder used the earlier work as the basis of his fifteen beat structure, so that people moving from On Screenwriting to Save the Cat won’t feel like they’ve been completely and uselessly reeducated. Robert McKee is also listed as someone to listen to (Mr. Snyder says there is a theatricality to Mr. McKee’s seminar that can’t be missed).

But, if you dig deeply enough, you’ll find that among academic folklorists there is backlash against the Hero’s Journey that may wander afield into the nasty politics of the age (Liberal Arts favoring evil Multiculturalism versus sound principles of Western Civilization). Until this debate is resolved either way, hopefully by scholars willing to shift the theory to fit the facts instead of distort the facts to fit the theory, there will always an asterisk next to any book that sells copies according to the Hero’s Journey.

Yes, Hollywood has massive worldwide sales figures from good movies in this narrative style working for the Universal Physics of Storytelling argument. But, Hollywood does crap in that style too. The debate continues.

This matters to the writer because we aren’t folklorists. We tell stories and, after we leave school, we don’t have time to read/see/hear everything. We plow through the things we need to get through our next project. Our protagonist is a cop so we watch/read about other fictional police and maybe ask a few questions of real cops, but not one of us could authoritatively argue for the universality of the underlying story forms. We just want the handy reference book that gets us through the next project.

Mister Snyder comes close with Save the Cat and the several exploitative sequels (posts for another day) in that once we figure out if the Hero’s Journey is universal just because we’re people or whether Hollywood and Mass Market Publishing made it so by drowning out all other story forms, this book does the Hero’s Journey quite well. I’ll repeat the part about needing a deeper dive into what actually makes a character compelling, but I don’t have any reason to not recommend this book to any writer beginning their journey from wannabe to master wordsmith. Just take with salt and please Dear God allow me to get more whiskey before we go off on discussions like – “Obi-Wan Kenobi getting whacked is the All is Lost moment in Star Wars…”

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