Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder

cat among stones
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You might or might not have heard of the book Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, but if you’ve ever made a serious attempt to write or market a screenplay, you probably have. I am no screenwriting expert, but I don’t know of any more specific, practical advice on the topic, and I be very surprised if you could find a more entertainingly-written one.

Read it because it is the one book you need to read if you want to write a movie. Or, read it because you want to understand movies better, and note the formula as you come across it in your own recreational viewing.

Key Takeaways

  • Good screenplays follow a fairly rigid formula. When writing a screenplay, learn it deeply and follow it closely.
  • Here is that winning formula: page one: opening image; page five: theme stated; pages 1-10: setup (including six things that need fixing); page twelve: catalyst; pages 12-25: debate; page 25: break into Act Two; page 30: the B story; page 30-35: fun and games; page 55: midpoint; page 55-75: bad guys close in; page 75: all is lost; page 75-85: dark night of the soul; page 85: break into Act Three; page 85-110: finale; page 110: final image.
  • The screenplay’s logline needs five things: irony, a compelling mental picture, the audience, the cost, and a killer title.
  • During Act One, bring in “six things that need fixing”–are callbacks or running gags that are introduced early in the story and get wrapped up by the end.
  • During Act Two, bring in “fun and games”: “–the area of the movie with the “set pieces” where the hero is shown to be playing out the results of their choices and the premise. This is where the girl and the boy are falling in love, where the here is engaged in combat training, where the hero is enjoying their new friends and environment and learning the ropes and the like.
  • At the midpoint, there should be a false high to match the false low at climax/”all is lost” moment.
  • In Act Three, the “all is lost” moment should include a “whiff of death.” This is a moment in which something–anything, even a petunia!–is shown to die.
  • In Act One, consider using a “save the cat” moment–a moment in which the hero does something that will endear them to the audience, such as saving a cat’s life.
  • Also in Act One, consider using the “pope in the pool” technique. This is when you use a compelling or unexpected visual backdrop to help the viewer through a boring backstory, such as the movie in which the Pope discussed the backstory while swimming.
  • Don’t use “double mumbo jumbo.” You can’t have aliens and zombies in the same movie: only one suspension of disbelief is allowed. That’s because this one condition is the one the theme explores, and adding more is just cheating.
  • Limit the time spent on set-up. Audiences can only stand so much pipe laying.
  • Don’t use too many gimmicks. A little goes a long way.
  • Danger must be immediate or quickly approaching, not slowly approaching (“watch out for that glacier!”).
  • All of the main characters except the villain must grow and change, at least somewhat–not just the hero.
  • The hero must be proactive. They must make a decision or multiple decisions that lead to the furthering of the plot. Otherwise, they’re just a passive recipient of bad luck, and we are not as invested in their story.
  • Don’t talk the plot. Show, don’t tell.
  • Make bad guy badder. It’s okay! Your main character can handle it!
  • The plot should not just move forward evenly, but intensify as it moves to create a strong dramatic climax.
  • Show different facets of the main problem. Don’t assume the viewer just gets it. As the song says, “turn, turn, turn.”
  • Use the emotional color wheel; appeal to a wide range of emotions.
  • Don’t use boring, flat dialogue, even if it is more realistic. Movie characters don’t speak quite like us; they’re special. There should be uniqueness and personality in every spoken line.
  • Give every character “a limp and an eye patch”–certain distinct, memorable qualities that help viewer distinguish them, like character shorthand.

About the Author

Blake Snyder was a screenwriter and author most known for his influential book Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, which provided a popular framework for screenwriting and story structure. Snyder’s formula has been used consistently since, and his other entertaining works about entertainment are popular as well.


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