Monday, August 12, 2013

Why Save the Cat didn't destroy screenwriting: it's all been done before

This is a replay post from a couple of years ago, but recent events have convinced me that it merits spotlighting again.  My buddy J.J. Patrow did an excellent comparison that placed the screenwriting philosophies of several leading "gurus" side-by-side.  One of these gurus was Blake Snyder, whose book Save the Cat was recently eviscerated in a Slate article that targeted it as the reason that Hollywood movies suck.

I detest linking to the article, but I need to pull out at least one excerpt.

When Snyder published his book in 2005, it was as if an explosion ripped through Hollywood. The book offered something previous screenplay guru tomes didn’t. Instead of a broad overview of how a screen story fits together, his book broke down the three-act structure into a detailed “beat sheet”: 15 key story “beats”—pivotal events that have to happen—and then gave each of those beats a name and a screenplay page number. Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder’s guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula.

The problem I have with blaming Save the Cat for all of this is that there really isn't anything new in that book.  It might be presented differently, but Synder's overall philosophy isn't too dissimilar from storytelling tenants that have been around long before film itself.  So without further ado, I'll turn the floor over to J.J. Patrow:

By J.J. Patrow

Although good screenwriting isn’t easy, it can be learned through study and practice. That’s what we’re taught to believe. And we must believe it because thousands of people have been inspired to learn the craft, generating a huge market for screenwriting lectures, classes, workshops, instructional videos, and how-to books. It has also generated just as many reader opinions about which screenwriting guru offers the best advice.

Some authors champion a paint-by-the-numbers approach. The “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” in Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder comes to mind. Other authors counter that step-by-step guides are misguided. In the introduction to The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay, by David Howard and Edward Mabley, Frank Daniel states that ”…the worst thing a book on screenwriting can do is to instill in the mind of the beginner writer a set of rules, regulations, formulas, prescriptions, and recipes.” (xix) And yet others choose the middle of the road. Andrew Horton writes in his book, Writing the Character Centers Screenplay, that writers should blaze new paths, but still “…pay attention to story and structure and other elements.” (2)

If there’s one reality that all how-to authors seem to agree on, however, it is that there is a saturation of screenplay books, but their work is worth your time and money. It’s special. Maybe this is true. But one should question if new screenwriting books are really fresh, seeing as most of them visit – or rather, revisit – how to construct the same old three-act story.

The generic construction of the “Hollywood Three-Part Screenplay” is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t require too much discussion. I don’t mean to imply that the nuances of screenplay writing are simple, but learning to recognize the essential building blocks of the Hollywood screenplay and their proper order is fairly basic. And this basic knowledge is what most screenplay books seek to impart. The result is that they end up parroting each other. Sure, the average author may bring a more accessible voice, a particular emphasis on character or genre, a unique set of details, or even a set of fresh terms for pre-existing structural components, but the meat of the subject goes unchanged.

Most authors of popular screenwriting books spend a lot of time discussing the three-act structure, which was thoroughly explored by Syd Field in the 1970s. Odds are he inspired them to write a how-to screenwriting book in the first place. And prior to Field there was already a well-documented tradition of the workings of three-act stories, which originated in mythology. These had been discussed for centuries and can be found in the writings of Aristotle to Joseph Campbell. So it is not a stretch to imagine that a lot of what screenwriting books offer is partly a review of earlier works.

To better explore this, it is helpful to visually demonstrate the way certain authors instruct their readers to write screenplays. Each offers an interesting take on storytelling and has plenty to offer, but they are clearly dipping into the same source. Indeed, before someone declares that the “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” is revolutionary, they should read Field or Campbell. Even Snyder suggests this in his introduction.

Aristotle presented the basic three-act structure in Poetics. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Joseph Campbell, having spent a lifetime studying mythology, noted similarities in the story structure of the classic hero journey in A Hero With A Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. He found that in most mythological stories there was a beginning (the Call to Adventure), a middle (the Road of Trials), and an end (The Return). George Lucas made great use of Campbell’s insights when writing Star Wars. And Stuart Voytilla, in his book Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythical Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films, outlined how the components of Campbell’s hero journey applied neatly into many Hollywood films.

Writing in the 1970s, Syd Field defined the essential components of the three-act screenplay as consisting of a set up, followed by a confrontation, and then a resolution. He also added additional story landmarks, such as the inciting incident. Whether he realized it or not, these landmarks fit quite neatly into Campbell’s model.

Blake Snyder, a fan of Campbell and Field, created a “Beat Sheet” that parrots those who came before him, though he uses his own terms. His placement of story landmarks, such as when to “show what needs to be changed,” is a variation on Campbell’s “Call to Adventure” and Field’s introduction points for the story’s “Situation” and “Premise.”

Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot, explores the character arc between the key three-act points, which he calls The Beginning: “Life As It Was,” The Middle: “Life Torn Apart,” and the end “Life as it Now.” Although quite detailed, these emotional markers are also in keeping with Campbell.

In his book, The 3rd Act, Drew Yanno explores the end of the film and how it relates to a question posed in the beginning, further complementing the works of his processors. He defines the three acts as the Question, the Debate, and the Answer.

When all the graphs are overlaid there are clearly similarities between each book. 

Unfortunately, following this chart will not guarantee a blockbuster, but it will illustrate a point. Each of these how-to authors is not as different from each other as some might expect. Consider this the next time you read a new screenplay book and, when you sit down to write, remember the words of Robert McKee: “Your work needn’t be modeled after the “well-made” play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.” (Story, 3)


Note: I've long had problems getting Blogger to display images properly.  For those of you who want these charts in their complete sizes you can download a zip file of them here


  1. I can't understand why Save the Cat gets so much hate. If you don't like it, that's fine -- but there are a million books out there and it seems silly to dump just on this one. We all basically agree there's no shortcut to an amazing script. I say if STC is helpful to you, great. It was the first screenwriting book that made me say "Ok, I can do this," which was what I needed at the time.

    Also, how does that writer know that every bad movie post-STC was written with STC in mind?

    1. Agreed. When I first toyed with the idea of writing scripts, I read whatever I could get my hands on...Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Dave Trottier, a guy named Michael Hauge. Until finally something clicked -- I can't remember what -- and I had that same "Ok, I can do this" moment.

      Now I sort of Frankenstein them all together. Seems to work for me.

  2. I can understand why it gets the hate, with such statements as "the inciting incident MUST be on page 12" and the Snyder blogs continuing quest to PROVE that every succesful screenplay absolutely follows the beatsheet down to the page number.

    Also, there's the fun of the writer of "Stop or my mom will shoot" telling current golden boy Christopher Nolan why Memento is a lousy screenplay throughout the book.

    It's also "how to write a commercial screenplay", which, you know, drives artistes like Charlie Kaufman crazy. Never mind that their screenplays follow a three act structure too...

    Shout out to new script writing book "into the woods" that ends with a chart similar to the one here mapping all the structure guru's recommendations together.

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  4. I read STC back in the day, but it's not something that's really stuck with me. Some of these guideline books resonate with some people, others don't. They discussed this article on August and Mazin's Scriptnotes podcast recently, and the consensus seemed to be that next to nobody in the biz has even heard of it, let alone uses it. That doesn't mean they aren't applying the same basic principles Snyder "parrots" some of the time. Personally, I've become a big fan of Lajos Egri's "The Art of Dramatic Writing", which is not screenplay-centric but really stuck with me. It's horses for courses. At the end of the day, these things are like water-wings or bike stabilisers; they can keep you safe for so long, but sooner or later, if you're going to grow, you have to let go.

    1. This echoes my feelings, although I would say that Save The Cat has had a really positive impact on my writing (and my approach to it) over the last year. I use other books and resources as well, but as a means of understanding form, STC has helped me greatly.

      The way I see it is that I'm still learning, and these types of texts are useful to me for making sure I have enough clarity about my ideas. They may be training wheels, but for a writer in training... that's not such a bad thing.

  5. I'd say the author of the Slate article proves himself wrong, without realizing it, by using this phrase: "...poorly executed movies with Snyder’s formula in mind..." Anything poorly executed will not, by definition, be quality material. I'm gonna throw a "Well DUH!" in there for good measure.

    Snyder's 'formula' is indeed a guide, and as always, it's up to us screenwriters to make our work as good as it can or no cat.

  6. This whole STC bash fest is rather bizarre. Have the haters who claim it’s ridiculous to lay out such a detailed beatsheet to which you’re beholden ever heard of John Truby? That dude’s book says “here are 22 story beats that every well-structured screenplay should have!” Personally, I think that claim warrants greater objection and debate than a measly 7 or 8 universal beats that Snyder repackaged in a more accessible fun manner than his predecessors. Hell, I say skin the cat, wear it’s hide as a decorative head dress and feed the carcass to your vengeful angry pet birds. Maybe that’ll shut up the Craig Mazin's of the world.

    Does anyone else loathe his snide, arrogant attitude towards this whole thing? I don’t know why he angers me but he does. He’s so against all screenwriting book…it’s like even LaBron James had a basketball coach in high school.

  7. I've written on this elsewhere on the web (, and also in print. The problem with all these self-styled formulas or "paradigms," is that we can always find a successful film that doesn't fit.

    That truth lead blogger Alex Epstein to mistakenly declare in his book (and in his blog) that 3-act structure is a myth. He cites numerous films (THE WIZARD OF OZ, FORREST GUMP, WILD THINGS, ALL THAT JAZZ, APOLLO 13, among others) to illustrate his point.

    My take is that he, too, has it wrong, and I've taken every title he's cited, plus a few others with notorious “structure-less” reps, and demonstrated their structures in a series of articles.

    It comes down to a failure to recognize that structure is multi-dimensional. You have a physical level that can be in any number of so-called acts, from 1 to 9 (or even more); then, existing simultaneously, in parallel with the physical, you have a "logical" or meaning level that is invariably only in 3 parts. In that way you will have films such as ALL THAT JAZZ having both 3 and 5 parts or "acts"; WILD THINGS having both 3 and 7 "acts."

    Once this is recognized, pretty much any narrative film from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY through MY DINNER WITH ANDRE and MEMENTO can be analyzed for structure according to this approach.

    I'd be happy to send anyone who is interested the articles (as PDFs) demonstrating this in depth. Just email me at the address listed at my blog ( The articles are also published as a series of blog posts in the archives running from 11/23/2009 through 1/7/2010.

  8. Anyone who's been a Script Reader can say they've read a god awful script that'd reap massive benefits with even a minute understanding of structure. That's what STC provides. It's a guide to structure. Even with quotes like "inciting incident should happen on page 12", listen, you should extrapolate that this isn't a hard fast rule. It's a suggestion, not exact science.

    For those who unabashedly sh*t on STC, and think it's a complete waste of time -- that's fine. Don't read it. Don't recommend it. But I think to suggest it doesn't help the novice screenwriter is unfair.

  9. Snyder is just hero's journey lite - I don't know why people object to structure so much, to me it seems obvious that we see the same beats over and over, especially in the mega blockbusters.

    I reckon all the gurus have something to say, but the ones that are closest to the mark, IMO are the ones who focus on transformation (Dara Marks, Kal Bashir etc).

  10. I think they're all trying to get a handle on the collective unconscious (thank you, Dr. Jung). It's just hard to put into words what we know on a emotional or metaphysical level---that there are certain rhythms that speak to all of us---we just can't quantify it, but we try.

  11. Skip Press is the worst screenwriting "guru" AND a total creep. (I've met him)

    Tom Lazarus has at least one great piece of advice: write a scene list before starting on the actual writing of your script, that way you'll have the whole story laid out (you can always add or subtract later in the editing phase.) You won't be stuck at page 25 and give up - it works, trust me!

  12. Tom Lazarus has at least one great piece of advice: write a scene list before starting on the actual writing of your script, that way you'll have the whole story laid out (you can always add or subtract later in the editing phase.) You won't be stuck at page 25 and give up - it works, trust me!