Monday, November 2, 2009

Review of "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder

One of the hottest screenwriting books of the last few years is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It came out in 2005 so I’m a little late getting around to reading it. (And unfortunately Mr. Snyder passed away recently.)

Snyder was a successful screenwriter (always a good sign when you’re looking for a how-to book). His genre was studio family comedy. And the book pretty much assumes, whether Snyder intended it or not, that you want to write something similar.

The book is billed as “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” which I think is a bit of an exaggeration. The biggest problem is that, like many “gurus,” Snyder thinks that his way is the only way. For example, he insists that you break your story out on index cards. That’s a common approach and I’ve done it for several scripts, but many professional screenwriters turn out perfectly good scripts without using index cards. However if you consider Snyder’s rules to be suggestions then I think you’ll find a lot of pretty useful ideas in there.

The book is an easy, thought provoking read. And I really like that it gives exercises at the end of each chapter. For a beginner you could do worse than working through the book.

The first three chapters are on honing your film’s concept and researching the genre. These chapters are excellent and too many books and classes breeze past these critical topics.

I’m less a fan of the sections on structure. Snyder introduces his own beat sheet that is pretty much a variation on the three-act theory (and he acknowledges Syd Field, the father of three act). I do like Snyder's addition of a few thematic beats.

The most significant difference I see is that he puts his “All is Lost” moment a sequence ahead of the “Break into Three.” Typically the end of Act II is the moment of the character’s biggest failing. But Snyder has that be the moment the character figures out how to overcome the obstacle. Act III is about putting the plan into action.

I’m always open to new ideas on structure but I don’t think this one really holds up. Once the character knows how to defeat the bad guy it seems like Act III will get pretty perfunctory. You can do a lot of spectacular showdown stuff but we’re talking about a quarter of the movie here. How do you keep it interesting once the main character has found his solution? Moreover in all my years of analyzing movies I’ve rarely seen actual films play out this way.

One spot that annoyed me was Snyder using Miss Congeniality (a film in his chosen genre, I noted) as proof that his system is superior…and using Memento as an example of where varying from it fails. I think this argument is worth a little digression.

The first problem with Snyder’s claim is that he’s comparing apples and oranges. He uses boxoffice gross to assert that Miss Congeniality is more successful. While it’s true that Miss Congeniality grossed $106 million to Memento’s $25 million, it also cost $45 million versus $9 million. And I’m sure the advertising budget on Miss Congeniality was a lot higher, too. Any businessman knows gross does not equal success. “Return on Investment” is the far better metric. And Memento’s Return on Investment crushes Miss Congeniality’s.

I'd also take exception to the idea that financial success means the audience liked the movie better. Miss Congeniality was a big studio movie with a major star while Memento was a small indie film with a lesser known - though respected - actor in the lead. I bet a lot of the people who went to Miss Congeniality hadn't even heard of Memento. For a little indie film to do $25 million means that word of mouth had to be fantastic.

The second big issue is that Memento actually follows Snyder’s fifteen beat structure! Some of the beats come a few pages later, but the script is also 119 pages long and Snyder’s page numbers are based on 110 page script. (And the "All is Lost" comes even later, but I’ve already pointed out my quibble with his page count on that one.) Check it out:

1) Opening Image – The slowly fading Polaroid image of the dead body.

2) Theme Stated – (On p.3 instead of Snyder’s preferred p. 5) “You don’t know me. You don’t even know who you are.” The theme of Memento is about how we know anything for certain and how memory is unreliable yet all we have.

3) Set-Up (pp. 1-10) – We learn about Leonard’s condition and that he’s seeking revenge for his wife’s murder.

4) Catalyst – (on p. 15 compared to Snyder’s preferred p. 12) Leonard discovers Teddy is John G., the man who raped and murdered his wife. Writes “Kill Him” on the back of the photo.

5) Debate (p. 12-25) – Leonard discusses with Natalie why he’s doing what he’s doing and why he’s sure he’s right.

6) Break into Two – (p. 29 instead of 25) Teddy suggests someone is trying to get Leonard to kill the wrong guy.

7) B-Story – (p. 32 instead of p. 30) we get Leonard waking up next to Natalie. Hello B-story!

8) Fun and Games (p. 30-55) Playing with the implications of Leonard’s condition – he finds Dodd in the closet; he realizes he’s running but doesn’t know why.

9) Midpoint – (p. 56 instead of 55) Leonard burns his wife’s stuff.

10) Bad Guys Close In (p. 55-75) – Teddy and Natalie are clearly not being straight with him, each trying to get him to do what they want.

11) All is Lost – On p. 79 Natalie tricks Leonard, saying “I’m gonna use you.”

12) Dark Night of the Soul – (pp. 79 - 95 instead of 75-85) – We see how Natalie sets Leonard up, shows how easy it is to exploit him in his condition, that he can’t rely on his “facts” after all.

13) Break into Three – (p. 96 instead of 85 using Snyder’s definition of Act Three) Leonard Tattoos license number on his leg – the clue that will lead him to Teddy.

14) Finale – We learn that Teddy had been using Leonard and Leonard sets things up so he will end up killing Teddy.

15) Final Image – Leonard arriving at Tattoo parlor to tattoo false fact on himself.

Sorry Blake, I think your argument against Memento is specious. However, this does show the validity of Blake’s beat sheet (with the Act III exception)…if you keep a bit of an open mind about how you can use them.

It’s in chapter six that the book really shines – and Snyder even admits it’s this chapter that motivated him to write the book. It’s also where the title comes from. “Save the Cat” is one of several screenwriting tricks Snyder describes. I’ve heard of most of them (often by different names) but rarely seen them written down. Kudos to Snyder for spelling them out in a book!

Chapter seven is a fair guide to rewriting. Chapter eight is about breaking into the business and is a little dated considering the major changes that have happened in the last couple years.

Overall I’d say Save the Cat is a great addition to your screenwriting book collection for the sections on prepping your script and chapter six. But I wouldn’t say it’s either the first or last screenwriting book you’ll ever need.

1 comment:

Ajay said...

BS of memento was too helpful. Thank you :)