Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March's Book: Save the Cat

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Non-Fiction (2005 - 195 pp.)

Blake Synder's Save the Cat is part memoir (he wrote Blank Check, after all), part DIY guide to screenwriting. Snyder's overarching theory is that movies fall into preset categories with predetermined plot arcs - but that doesn't mean just anyone can write the next summer blockbuster. There are rules about what sells, according to Snyder. The title comes from the notion that a sympathetic character must be one we see Save the Cat, or do a good deed that flaunts a redeeming quality.

As a screenwriting guide, it only makes sense that Save the Cat would apply, and not apply, to many screenplays. What can I, as a fiction author, take from Snyder's methods?

I don't usually open with something I don't like about a book, but Snyder is on such a solid foundation with the clarity and fun of his writing style that I can make an exception here. The 10 Types of Movies (25-26), while certainly 10 available types of movies that span a wide range, are far from a comprehensive list. His focus on theme rather than genre is impressive, such as grouping Dracula with Superman under "Superhero". However, he lacks movies centred on internal conflict or on the relationship between character and setting. If a book like 1984 were ever made into a movie, where would it lie? It could be "Institutionalized" ("about groups"), but that categorization would be so facile it'd be meaningless. "Institutionalized" seems better served for movies like Mean Girls and The Secret Life of Pets.

My favourite parts of Save the Cat are the most interactive ones. Each chapter ends in numbered exercises, textbook-style; I should do that in a novel sometime. Near the start of the book, Snyder introduces loglines: single sentences that answer the question "What is it?" using (1) irony, (2) a compelling mental picture, (3) audience and cost, and (4) a killer title. (16) Audience and cost are through images, like how "interstellar flight" probably costs more to produce than "two people sitting at a restaurant". A little later on is the Beat Sheet, one of Snyder's most famous contributions to the world of screenwriting. (70) Using that sheet, a would-be screenwriter can plan out an entire 110-page play, being careful not to miss a single plot point. It's fun to apply these sorts of tools to any form of writing or storytelling to see where there might be a plot point missing.

Notice I said "plot". Save the Cat is all about plot. When Snyder discusses the protagonist, with precious little description of the other characters, he calls the protagonist "the guy who needs the lesson most". (50) He does this in the middle of his list of plot points, with a subsequent heading up "AMPING UP THE LOGLINE". This is the extent to which Save the Cat prioritizes the plot. I appreciate this, though, given my stultifying aim toward character and setting.

A word Snyder uses a lot, and explains late in the book, is "primal". Every character has to be motivated by something base in Save the Cat: food, sex, survival, or some variation. (158) Expanding these terms, as Snyder does, the primal motivation makes sense on its face. Escaping the basement of the hockey standings can be survival. Romance can be sex. All kinds of things can be food. Whether all memorable motivations really are primal is debatable. What about nationalism or civic duty? I like the way Snyder uses the word to force the viewer to think about visceral reactions, though. Before someone is truly engaged with a work, some base level of attention has to be grabbed.

Something I frequently recommend during the writing workshops I attend is to describe something in narrative or in dialogue but not both. My favourite example is to say to a writer not to write, "'I am wearing red', said the man in red." Snyder agrees with me in his warning about "talking the plot":
Try "talking the plot" in real life. Seriously. Go to a party or meet with a group of friends and say: "I sure am glad I'm a screenwriter who was born in Chicago!" or "Gosh, you've been my friend for 20 years ever since we met in high school!" See what reaction you get to this kind of dialogue.
Considering how fabricated many of Snyder's plot points feel (All Is Lost always on the same page? Really?), it's nice to see him side with the realists among us.

As a writer and contrarian, I had to think: "What are some exceptions to Snyder's seemingly hard and fast rules?" The one that immediately comes to mind is My Dinner with Andre, the movie Roger Ebert once called "entirely devoid of cliches". The plot is simple: two men sit down for dinner, and the movie follows their conversation. The characters, and the settings imparted by their words, are what make the movie work. Neither character has a Save the Cat moment, the Bad Guys (who? the waitstaff?) never Close In,* and there's certainly not much primal going on. Then, I tend to believe that rule-breaking is for the classics anyway.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 8

NOTE: Pages 186-194 list a glossary of the terms Snyder invents, converts and otherwise uses in the book. As someone who loves reference guides, I fell in love with this section immediately.

*Snyder cites "Bad Guys Close In", the part of the screenplay when the protagonist's nadir becomes an appetizing meal for the antagonist, as the toughest part to write. (85)

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