Kill The Cat – The Awful Influence Of The World’s Worst Writing Guide

The terrible writer who is directly responsible for every major movie being formulaic rubbish.

Although passing away in 2009, screenwriter Blake Snyder continues to be one of Hollywood’s most influential figures. Adored and praised widely by industry insiders, Blake’s work lends its name to a *ahem* ‘prestigious’ screenwriting competition, he has been posthumously honoured by the Writers’ Guild of America, and there are even tributes to him in the end credits of several movies around 2010.

The son of Emmy-award winning TV producer, Kenneth C.T. Snyder, Blake broke into feature film writing with the award-winning Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992). A true classic that currently holds a 4.3 rating on IMDb, an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been mocked endlessly by its star, Sylvester Stallone. Those awards? It picked up a handful of Golden Raspberry Awards.

Snyder would go on to pen one more movie. Along with Colby Carr, Snyder wrote 1994’s Blank Check: A family comedy produced by Walt Disney that opened at #3 at the US Box Office behind Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Getaway. It would later win the accolade of Buffalo News’ Worst Movie of the Year. Snyder never wrote another film… at least not any that were produced.

If you’re paying attention (and I don’t blame you if you’re not), you’ll have noticed that I opened this by declaring Snyder is one of the most influential figures in Hollywood, yet he’s responsible for two bad movies. How can it be that such a man wields such influence a decade after he died? Well, when Blake wasn’t writing terrible films, he was busy scribbling down his guide on how to write great ones – Save the Cat.

Along with David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, Save the Cat is one of the most highly-regarded and respected guides on the craft of screenwriting. It’s required reading in any number of film schools. It’s cited as the book budding screenwriters simply must own by a great number of producers. Trawl almost any aspiring screenwriter community, and there will be champions urging others to drop $10 on Save the Cat.

Personally, I wouldn’t trust somebody who has demonstrably failed to do their job correctly to write a how-to guide on how to do their job. It’d be like asking George W. Bush how we can ensure the stability of the Middle East for future generations and then doing exactly everything that muppet says. Nonetheless, despite the absurdity of it all, Save the Cat, first published in 2005, has become one of the biggest influences on a generation of writers, producers, directors, and studios.

Snyder uses the book to attack films he believes aren’t doing things right. He cites Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003) as an example of a flawed movie that isn’t following his tried and true structure. While I won’t dispute it’s not a great film, it holds a higher IMDb rating than either of his movies and made more money than both combined, just about.

What is this failed screenwriter’s magic formula for writing the greatest movies? Let’s start with the title – Save the Cat. Snyder evidently believes that all movie audiences are intellectually challenged bumpkins who sit in theatres scratching their heads and get confused over which hole the popcorn goes in. To counter the problem of drooling simpletons gawping at the creepy moving photograph in front of them, Snyder proposes that in the first few minutes of any film, the hero needs to do something noble and nice – they need to save the cat.

Obviously, this works because no evil person in history has ever had a fondness for animals, have they, Hitler? Of course, it doesn’t need to be an actual cat. You just need the hero to do something such as help an old lady across the street, stop an armed robbery with a pretzel, or anything a one-dimensional cackling villain would never think to do because it would take precious time away from moustache-twirling.

Whatever you do, though, make it obvious. Audiences are far too stupid to figure out that somebody is a villain or a hero without an overt display of characteristics associated with one or the other. There is no room for interpretation, moral ambiguity will make people’s heads hurt, and this is the clearest neon arrow you can point at somebody to say ‘root for this guy!’.

Why on earth would you take advice on writing from the man responsible for this?

At what point in the original Ghostbusters did Peter Venkman ‘save the cat’? He’s introduced as an absolute dickhead who is electrocuting a college student because he’s hoping to abuse his power to cop off with another college student. He bullies Ray into taking out a mortgage to fund the Ghostbusters. His interest in helping Dana is purely driven by lust, and throughout the movie, he is sarcastic, ill-mannered, and kind of a twat. Despite not having the convenience of a signpost saying ‘cheer for this guy’, we end up cheering for this guy – despite all the reasons we shouldn’t – because he’s a well-written character, something that screenwriting guru Blake Synder evidently didn’t understand.

Snyder continues to offer his pearls of informative wisdom by discussing the structure of a great script. For some peculiar reason, Snyder thinks that you need to “break into [act] two” on page 20. Clearly, this means the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Deer Hunter is a shit one in Snyder’s estimations because it definitely does not do that. Blake even says that when he’s reading a script, he doesn’t start on the first page like a normal person. He jumps straight to page 20 to see if they’re breaking into two. If they’re not, he discards the script.

Screenplays don’t use written act breaks. Some teleplays do, and stageplays obviously, but not screenplays. Thus, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the script has transitioned to act two without the context of the previous nineteen pages.

This nonsense is all part of Snyder’s widely acclaimed ‘Beat Sheet’. The Beat Sheet is a near page by page breakdown of what should be happening and when. It’s a blueprint for a script. Such a thing should occur on page 5, another should happen on page 10, get to page 15 and do this and so on.

We haven’t seen this, but my God…

Hollywood loves formula, which is probably why it loves Snyder’s Beat Sheet. To be fair, storytelling has a structure, and a structure tends to have a formula. At the most basic level, a story needs three acts – the Beginning, Middle, and End. Within those acts, there are certain requirements to meet. You can’t have a beginning without establishing what’s going on. You should have rising action in the middle. And the end should be an end.

Snyder takes it further and in a very problematic way.

Movies are often likened to rollercoasters. “An adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster of action and sizzling sex!” or some similar shite is often used on promotional materials. So let’s use the rollercoaster analogy to explain why Snyder has ruined the art of storytelling in film. If you don’t like rollercoasters, you’ll probably get a bit bored here.

Our brains have one primary job – to keep us alive. When we go on a rollercoaster, we deliberately expose our brain to a massive amount of information that suggests we’re in immediate peril. The brain responds by filling our system with the adrenaline we’d need to get the fuck outta there and by triggering the fear response to try and convince us to get the fuck outta there. It has no concept of what a rollercoaster is, so it doesn’t really understand we can’t just vacate our seat without imperilling ourselves further, nor that we’re not in any real danger.

Imagine we’re at a magical theme park without queues. We have a fun time on a rollercoaster and immediately decide to go again. This time it won’t impact us as much. We might get a smaller rush of adrenaline and a more muted fear response. It’s not only because we remember it; it’s because the brain is figuring out the pattern.

By the fourth or fifth time, the brain has concluded that this poses no threat. It has identified a clear pattern, and providing that pattern remains consistent, it’s no longer going to bother treating this as an emergency. Sure, if the car detaches from the rail on round five, it’ll respond the way it initially did for the few moments of life we have left. But otherwise, it’s convinced there’s nothing to respond to because we’re not in any real danger. We don’t get the adrenaline hit. No fear response. It becomes tiresome to us.

Our brain looks for patterns in everything to build its own internal threat model and respond to it accordingly. If you’ve been mugged, your brain remembers the conditions you were in when it happened, and if it spots them again, it will immediately go into a high alert mode regardless of whether you’re in actual danger or not.

So when you watch a movie, and you accurately predict everything that’s about to happen before it happens – even the supposed twists – that’s your brain kinda taking the fun away because it’s got enough information to draw parallels between what it’s seen before and what it’s seeing now. It’s why jump scare-laden horror films lose effectiveness to horror fans. Your brain learns the tricks of writers and filmmakers and then sets about ruining everything for you. Because it knows when the jump scare is coming, it primes itself to not respond to it.

It is part of the reason nostalgia is so powerful. Those early experiences when we were still giving our brain something new to process far outshine the more recent ones when we really do feel like we’ve seen it all. And it is why Snyder’s lauded Beat Sheet is such a fucking problem.

Following this Beat Sheet is the epitome of production line writing. It inevitably grows stale because it’s nothing more than a pattern that doesn’t give the brain anything new to work with. The Beat Sheet is the product of a crap writer who never understood how the brain responds to a stimulus, and that’s probably why he was such a crap writer. You can’t be a successful storyteller if you’re incapable of emotionally investing people in that story. If you don’t understand how emotions work, you’ll never be able to do it, and you’ll end up writing Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check.

A movie lover reacts to watching yet another Beat Sheet-driven production.

That studios, script analysts and the industry as a whole are so in love with the Beat Sheet bullshit is the reason that us old farts in our thirties are so jaded towards the output of the Hollywood crap factory. We had already seen the latest movies ten years ago, albeit with different titles.

But can it change? Not with Hollywood. Originality is a dirty word to studio executives who would rather spend $100m milking the fuck out of a pre-existing audience than a tenth of that on trying to build a new one. Remakes, reboots, comic books and the rest of it are the order of the day because anything else is considered too much of a risk. So they’ll continue to abide by failed screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet because the idea that there is a simple, one-size-fits-all structure to a massive Box Office return is comforting, and the unknown is a danger their brains want to shield them from.

KATH RELLA

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31 comments

  1. Not for nothing are filmmakers’ manuals proudly self-proclaimed as ‘bibles’ – they seem to have all the hallmarks of inflexible religious doctrine, including the scare tactics to prevent you from choosing the path less followed.
    I want to see more movies which show signs that even the writer doesn’t have a fucking clue what’s going to happen next…

  2. I recently watched the Nostalgia Critic review of Blank Check – a film that has its tween lead getting off with a grown FBI agent. Eeeewwww!

  3. In my days in the pit, a beat sheet was something you wrote out in conjunction with the outline, after the pitch. It was meant to be scene by scene, not page by page, and meant to give you an easily followed structure so you could see what needed moving or eliminating or needed to be added. We often used cue cards for this (some writers rooms still do.)

    There was another saying then, too: kill your darlings. Harsh, but you can find weaknesses in a story by yanking characters and bits you’re overly fond of.

    Still, don’t blame Snyder’s terrible book by itself. The MBAs of no talent have been lost in greed since they realized a schlockfest potboiler opening wide could pad their bank accounts, meaning that the crapfest really started in the early 1980s and has been worsening in the forty years since.

  4. Because God knows there was no formulaic trash coming out of Hollywood before these books.

  5. “Blake even says that when he’s reading a script, he doesn’t start on the first page like a normal person. He jumps straight to page 20 to see if they’re breaking into two. If they’re not, he discards the script.”

    The above piece keeps referring to Synder in the present tense, though it notes early-on that he’s been dead for twelve years. That, more than anything else, is the ultimate Revenge of the Living, and we may all take great comfort in that.

    But just imagine if the notorious Edward Bulwer-Lytton had written a how-to manual containimng inviolable rules to constructing a can’t-miss early 19th century novel (that would demonstrated beyond any doubt that the likes of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontes, Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstory were not up to the task). That’s what the equally notorious Snyder has done for us and Hollywood.

    Thaks to him, in the screenwriting trenches it was — and remains — A Dark and Stormy Night.

  6. By and large, I agree with your points. The only screenwriting book I’ve read was Syd Field’s, which focused on structure and developing themes.

    Note: “Electrocute” means “kill with electricity”. (Simple formation from “electricity” and “execute”.) Stop using it to mean “shock”.

    1. According to Oxford Languages, which is the dictionary used by Google, ‘electrocute’ means to injure or kill somebody with electricity. It doesn’t specify how injured they need to be, though I would argue that at the very least, Venkman’s antics caused that poor lad significant (albeit temporary) mental injury.

  7. Bashing a dead guy for writing a book on one possible method to write a screenplay. Way to keep it classy. Disgusting.

    1. You’ve not been here before, have you? Half the people on these pages are dead, or dying, or something. People die. It doesn’t change what they did when they were alive, nor does it change the impact that their actions as a living person had.

      Take Mary Whitehouse, for example, who I recently described as somebody so repressed that every time she coughed, her bajingo farted dust. She’s been dead for a while, but her legacy lives on in the form of the Video Recordings Act and while that legacy remains, I’m going to say things about it.

      And Blake’s legacy lives on, in his book, and in his movies. Both of those movies. One of which Sylvester Stallone still mocks to this day, and the other which features a 31-year-old woman sharing a romantic lip lock with an 11-year old boy.

      I am genuinely curious, though… does Ed Wood being dead mean that Plan 9 From Outer Space is no longer a bad movie? Are we going to get to the point when everybody involved in Gigli is dead and we’re no longer allowed to regard it as a steaming pile of festering horse dung? How does this whole not allowed to say anything negative about dead people work? Is Henry VIII a saint now?

      1. Thank you Kath for torpedoing this book. Years ago I was trying to figure out why every movie was virtually a carbon copy of every other movie. Eventually I discovered “Save the Cat” was the culprit. I tried to read it years ago and gave up on it. It was virtually a paint by numbers guide to writing. The proof of the pudding, just look at Disney’s “Cruella” followed the book to the letter and flopped. While “Loki” and “Wandavision” nuked the book and became run away smash hits with the audience glued to the set from beginning to end of the series.

  8. Unfortunately, script readers are brain-washed into thinking a screenplay must follow the formula, or the script gets tossed. In North America, anyway. In Europe they don’t bother much with “rules.” And now, the audience has the attention span of a gnat, so if there isn’t a car chase or a sex scene in the first 5 minutes, the viewer will switch over to the next bit of titillation available.

  9. Forget what audiences truly want! “An original idea” is an anethema to Hollywood.

  10. You make some fair criticisms of STC. Blake can come across rather dogmatic about structure. But I have to take exception with one thing. The ‘Save the Cat” scene is not intended to identify the hero. It’s to make the hero sympathetic. These are two very different things. The audience will usually figure out who the hero is. Though I have seen my share of films were it wasn’t always clear. But will they like the hero? Will they root for the hero? Will they care if the hero fails? That is what the Save the Cat scene is intended for — to get the audience on the heroes side.

    1. I’d argue if you’re deliberately trying to make a character sympathetic through a show of niceness, you are attempting to identify them as the hero. While I appreciate your point there is a difference between a hero and a sympathetic hero, I’d still say that at the core-level, you’re telling an audience that you want them to ‘root for this guy’. Often you’re doing that because you’re not convinced that the next 90-120 minutes of storytelling will adequately give the audience cause to root for the guy so you’ve created a fallback point.

      Unless one-dimensional to the extreme, a character is a weave. They’re a collection of experiences, traits, viewpoints, strengths, and weaknesses that combine to create them. The more you invest time in establishing what makes a character tick, the easier it is to engender sympathy without resorting to such cheap emotional manipulation. An audience will inevitably side with the person who they feel represents the side they’re on within the confines of the story’s world.

      The mantra of ‘save the cat’ is a crutch for people who don’t understand what a simple photograph on the wall can say about a character. What the contents of a fridge can say about a character. What the contents of a trash can say about a character. What a particular quirk, manner of speech, physical tick, etc. can say about a character.

      While films rely on action to tell the story, characterisation can be accomplished in any number of ways, many subtle but equally as powerful as saving a cat. It’s a visual medium and too many writers who follow guidebooks and mantras forget that you can fill that visual space with all sorts of clues that can reveal a character’s true nature and make them sympathetic.

      Of course, I get it. Storytelling in film is increasingly rushed. The days of slow-builds are gone. Scenes generally last no more than two to three minutes without a cut to something else. So why spend time on characterisation when you can just have somebody do something nice and get the audience to say ‘Oh what a darling!’.

      But it’s still treating the audience like idiots because a hero doesn’t have to be sympathetic from the off. A hero can, and really should, earn that sympathy as they move the story forward – not with some irrelevant display of nicety, but with who they are and what they do. Rather than try and drop the hero bomb on somebody’s head in the first few minutes, writers should be providing enough for an audience to conclude more organically that this is the person that they want to root for.

      People are drawn to interesting people. It’s why some villains end up overshadowing the hero; not because no effort was made to make the hero sympathetic, but because the villains just ended up being more interesting and very few of those villains are saving cats.

      1. I completely agree you. The STC scene is a gimmick that relieves the writer from the burden of flushing out his character. Thank you for clarifying.

  11. So let me see if I have this right…

    A self-styled movie reviewer with zero writing credits to her name takes a swipe at a dead guy who, despite his shortcomings as a writer, is more successful than she’s ever been or might aspire to be.

    Reminds old me of an old aphorism:
    Those who can, do.
    Those who can’t, teach.
    Those who can’t teach, criticize.

    ::shrug:: you keep doing you.

    1. Zing! Wow, that’s put me well and truly in my place.

      I’m… I’m gonna need a minute here. ‘Scuse me. Deep breaths. In and out. In and out.

      Okay… close there. Almost had a panic attack from being so thoroughly smacked down by… sorry, who are you?

      I actually do have paid writing credits. Several of them. One under this name for a non-fiction essay. Most under another. None as a screenwriter yet, I admit. As a screenwriter, I do have a script under option, and I have had multiple scripts reach development slate consideration. Want to know the most common reason I get rejected? “Great, but too original”.

      Maybe I should self-publish a book based on somebody else’s IP?

      As for the concept of “success” – well, it’s a nonsense. The only person you need to answer to in life is yourself. Snyder undoubtedly felt he was a success, and whether he’s alive or dead, I can’t take that away from him.

      Am I a success? Well, I’ve spent my life as an unpaid carer to my disabled mother and I’ve still managed to get three degrees (hooray for the Open University!), sell pieces of writing, and I’ve almost wedged that industry door open… so maybe not a success in my eyes, but I’m quite happy where I am.

      Thanks for the permission to keep doing me, by the way. Lockdown without my girlfriend has proven quite stressful, as I’m sure you can appreciate. Doing me has been the only way to keep me sane!

    2. It doesn’t matter to me how successful or unsuccessful a person is. If their argument has merits, their argument has merits. Kath was unnecessarily harsh on Blake in the original piece, but the clarifying reply to my post was spot on to me.

      There is no denying the dogmatic and formulaic nature presented in his books. Syd Field was similarly dogmatic in his approach. I don’t think either of them were right or wrong. It’s just their opinions. Unlike Kath, I don’t see this as reason to criticize Blake or Syd. Just as I wouldn’t criticize any other writers technique.

      No matter what he wrote in his books, it’s still up to each individual writer to decide for themselves how to write their own screenplays. If they follow his methods to the letter, that’s their decision. And maybe that works for them. Maybe it even works for you. It doesn’t work for me. My view is they may be unnecessarily constraining their own creativity. In my opinion, the story needs to shape the screenplay, not the other way around. I took from Save the Cat and Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting what was of value to me and I discarded the rest — as I would imagine most everyone else has done.

      Unlike Kath, I don’t believe Blake or Syd are responsible for todays writing. I think Hollywood playing not to lose has more to do with it. They know what worked before and they want to recreate that success. Blake wasn’t the cause of this, he was a symptom of it. He was just the guy who wrote the blueprint for what Hollywood was already doing. Save the Cat was published in 2005. That decades after Hollywood had already started making formulaic movies. Hell, Syd’s book came out in 1979. If Kath wants to blame anyone for this, Syd is more to blame. Not only did Syd’s book come out decades earlier, Blake credits Syd for his foundations of structure. The very structure that became Blake’s beat sheet.

      1. While Blake may not be responsible for the structure, or every formulaic movie made before him, he is responsible for perpetuating that structure.

        I’d have no issue with Blake if he was just another of these self-styled writing gurus self-publishing their regurgitated advice for a quick buck on Amazon to a limited audience. I counted about fifty of those nitwits once, all repeating some random blogs with their biting insights about “show, don’t tell” and ill-sketched twaddle about “voice”.

        Blake isn’t that. Blake published regurgitated writing advice to a much wider audience. Many of those writers who got their break since 2005 didn’t read Syd’s book, they read Blake’s. The script analysts sifting through the pile of scripts in front of them didn’t read Syd’s book, they read Blake’s. The guys holding the decision making positions are the ones who have grown up in the Save the Cat world. Because a presumed authority has told them that’s what they need to be looking for, that’s what they’re looking for.

        Once the wheel is spinning, it’s less about who started it and more about who is keeping it going. Blake’s the one who has kept it going, and in ten or twenty years, I’ve no doubt there will be another Blake Snyder repackaging Blake’s repackaged advice to the next generation. I already know of a few budding young Blake’s today; one of whom is pretty open and honest that if you want to make it in Hollywood you need to write uncreative trash. Which he then did. Fair play to him.

        Meanwhile, I sit here constantly getting told my scripts are great but too original (because originality is a fault, apparently). Evidently, over-structured, simplistic, and derivative pisswater is what I need to be writing to appeal to the vast array of numpties out there who think that storytelling needs to adhere to rigid and unflinching boundaries. That’ll be fun.

        At least if I sell it I can buy enough whiskey to lament the fact I’ll have turned into everything I hate.

  12. I see your point and I understand your frustration. I have heard similar complaints from other writers. But I still feel that Blake and STC are a symptom of the problem, not the cause. Even if Blake’s acolytes are perpetuating and perhaps even exasperating the problem, it’s the studios, production companies and agents calling for it.

    Blake wrote his book based on his understanding of how the industry works, not the other way around. He was interpreting what Hollywood was asking for, then he wrote a guidebook based on his interpretation. If he had never written it, Hollywood would still be asking for what they’ve been asking for and other writers would have written clones of STC, as many already have.

    If I had to list the things I thought did the greatest harm to screenwriting, Blake’s book would be a distant second or third to the summer blockbuster. It forever changed how the studios pick which projects to develop. And that has had a much greater impact on screenwriting than anything else.

    Firstly, it introduced a never before seen amount of money from a single film. Secondly, it almost simultaneously introduced the summer blockbuster flop. But the quest for obscene money overrode any fear they may have had about making a flop. Instead it made sense to make fewer artsy movies, so there would be more in the budget to risk on the summer blockbuster. Every studio had to make one. This forever altered how screenplays were evaluated and which were bought and for how much.

    Sure, they’re ecstatic if they mange to make another My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Get Out, but are they cultivating such films? Not so much. Marvel has exasperated this tenfold. Black Widow was/is a spy. She isn’t super-powered. They could have made a movie based on the actual attributes and backstory of the character, but they made a 200 million dollar special-effects juggernaut instead. Why, because they want to make another 400-900 million dollars at the box office. A Black Widow spy film, even though it would be more true to the character, wouldn’t necessarily gross that much. Not unless they tried to make it like a Mission Impossible movie. But the Mission Impossible movies didn’t earn as much as the Avenger movies, so why risk that?

    Personally, I think a complexed, deep and intriguing Black Widow movie would have been great. It would have cost half as much to produce if not less and probably would have earned around the same based on the popularity of the actress and the character. But Hollywood and Marvel would never have risked that. Their brand is high octane action and special effects. They aren’t going to deviate from their model. And the MCU may have started with Iron Man in 2008, but this really goes back to Spider-Man 2002. That was when Marvel realized they can be in the blockbuster business as well.

    1. I understand there is a tendency to view Marvel as this all-consuming monolith these days, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. Marvel/Disney don’t really factor into the problem. They are an extension of it, but they’re basically the late/terminal stage of the illness.

      I’m talking about the very roots of the film industry.

      A writer, such as myself, writes a spec script. Now, we have to deliberately write low-budget material. We can’t write a two hundred million dollar movie because nobody is going to pick it up. Why would they? Nobody knows who the hell we are and without any name recognition, nobody will take that risk. If you want to make a two hundred million dollar movie, then you either need to be a well-known Hollywood name with a slew of Box Office successes under your belt, or the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Tom Cruise and Christopher Nolan need to owe you some pretty big favours and agree to sign on.

      That in itself is quite reasonable. It makes sense that you have to earn the right to go a bit nuts with somebody else’s money.

      But Hollywood and Hollywood-aligned independent studios still make an awful lot of $5-$25m movies. Just look at any streaming service and see how many movies have been made in the last few years that you probably didn’t hear about when they hit the theatres. They’re low-risk, relatively low-budget, and usually have one B-list actor, or a former A-lister who just wants the work to provide the name; Woody Harrelson used to do a fair few of these movies. They’re the movies that the studios knock out because it takes two years to make their $200m spectacular, and they’re alright absorbing that risk because even if it bombs at the Box Office, streaming licenses, physical media sales, rentals, and other such residuals will mean the majority of those movies will turn a profit eventually.

      The $200m spectacular is their “put it all on black” spin of the wheel at Vegas to try and get an instant return, but they still make a lot of movies that are essentially long-term investments that won’t yield immediate returns but likely will over time, and those over-time returns are useful not only to provide multiple revenue streams, but also because they help the big tax fiddle that is Hollywood accounting.

      However, even though these films are low risk, the people who give the greenlight are obsessed with the structure. If you don’t want to blame Blake for that, that’s fine, but he’s effectively a teacher who has taught a generation – and not just writers, but script analysts, and directors, and producers, and everybody involved in the process – that there is one way to do things and everything else is, if not wrong, then certainly worthy of a raised eyebrow and a shudder.

      And when all of your aspiring writers are writing to the structure, then that will have a domino effect throughout the entire industry – from the low-budget $5m entry film, to the $40-$50m “on my way!” production, all the way through to the end-stage which is the $200m blockbuster and thus the structure is cemented for another generation, and everything else… well, maybe if you’re writing some artsy piece you can find a sympathetic director who’ll shoot it for a packet of skittles and it’ll end up on Mubi one day?

  13. I had to laugh at your comment “us old farts in our thirties” I must be a reincarnation then at 73!

  14. That was an enjoyable read, made me laugh in a few places, thanks for sharing.

    I agree with much of the specific issues you mentioned, but on the whole, I wonder if you’ve misdiagnosed the issue. Blake’s observations of what seems to work for Hollywood execs is no more the sustaining cause than is Campbell’s articulation of the hero’s journey the reason so many stories continue to follow that pattern. There are exceptions, of course (*ahem* Star Wars).

    As for the particular beats, his guidelines fail in the same way as all “rules of writing” do, if they are taken as strictures. The goal is always to understand what a rule or guideline is accomplishing from a storytelling point of view, and then you can apply that by any means you find useful, or choose to disregard it, knowing the potential pitfalls introduced by doing so. For instance, when he calls for the character to save a cat, the reason is to build sympathy. That is a good thing to have in mind =>if you want a sympathetic protagonist<=, but you can accomplish it however you wish, and with any degree of subtlety you prefer. You’re not following a formula, you’re taking storytelling insight from patterns that work.

    The only other observation I’d leave is, I don’t think you should hang your thesis on the fact that he wasn’t very accomplished. That makes any of us who are also not very accomplished without the grounds to voice our own opinion on the matter. I think you pointed out enough of the problems with taking his guidelines literally that the thesis could have rested on that.

    1. I think when anybody purports to speak as an authority, an examination of their credentials supporting that claim is reasonable. I’d argue the failure to critically examine people’s credentials is why we live in a world where muppets started torching vital communications infrastructure due to the ill-educated ramblings of random blogs and Rubik’s Cube Man.

      Heck, I’m not even speaking as an expert. What you generously describe as a thesis is merely a silly article I scrawled out in a couple of hours largely for amusement purposes. However, that simple point notwithstanding, it hasn’t stopped an entire FB group of rather angry people either commenting on here or dropping into my inbox to give me some grief over it, largely based on what they perceive to be my own lack of credentials. And they’re welcome to that opinion.

  15. I think understand what you are saying and you have me nearly convinced. I’d like to push back one last time. Thank you very much for indulging me. This has been a very interesting and informative debate.

    My main objection has been that STC didn’t come out until 2005 and therefore couldn’t be the cause of this Hollywood syndrome plaguing the writing industry because it had already started years earlier. That Blake was merely ahead of the curve in seeing the pattern Hollywood had wittingly or unwittingly developed, and he wrote a guidebook based on his observations. The formulaic writing systems, and obsession with sequels, trilogies, franchises and blockbusters were all the inevitable consequences of this syndrome.

    It is the Ford Motor Company and assembly line manufacturing applied to writing. That’s how it works, doesn’t it? You have a product. There is demand for this product. Inevitably someone comes along and tries to figure out how to make more of the product faster. And naturally they want the new product to work as well as the previous product, so they try to imitate what worked without (hopefully) being a blatant ripoff. Talent is not inexhaustible, but replication is.

    There, that’s my final plea in Blakes defense. I welcome your feedback. But I would also like to pose a question.

    Blake didn’t write STC until 2005, but he had already long since been a considered a highly successfully spec script writer dating back to the early 90s. It is true only two of his scripts were ever made into movies, but he sold several others. How much influence might he have had on the industry as one of the more successful spec script writers? Could he have been the drug dealer providing Hollywood with their fix of safe, albeit formulaic derivative schlock? Could the feeding of Hollywood’s habit have worsened the addiction?

    1. Yes, replication exists in almost every industry, but so does innovation and structural writing isn’t particularly innovative.

      I apologise for how long this is about to get.

      Let’s move away from films for a moment and talk about TV. Network TV has a structure that has served them well since the dawn of time… or you know, the dawn of network TV. That structure is just as repetitive as Save the Cat.

      At its simplest, the structure for a one-hour drama is:

      Teaser/Cold Open: Quick event that usually has something to do with what you’re about to see. There are far too many types of teaser to cover, but effectively it could be a crime being committed (often in a procedural), or a flash-forward to an event later in the episode to engage interest usually because the first act or two are considered a little dry (good example is the Breaking Bad pilot episode). Sometimes its exposition, backstory, or just a tease of some new character coming into the show. Whatever.

      Act One: Effectively the episode’s prologue. It’s the “where we are” – what are your characters doing, what’s going on in their world, what plans are they making and it leads into what’s about to change at the end of Act One.

      Act Two: Here is where the conflict starts emerging. We’ve had the ‘change’ moment at the end of Act One, now we’re in the response phase. Generally speaking, Act Two ends just as things look like they’re being resolved in the character’s favour until a bomb drops.

      Act Three: The lowpoint. In film, this is basically the midpoint of Act Two. Everything has gone to shit. The resolution we were heading to in Act Two is a red herring. In a procedural, this is where the cops who thought they had the scumbag in custody suddenly find they got the wrong guy, and they’re back to square one. Insert ticking clock or something because the killer strikes again, or whatever. It’s backs to the wall time, and it isn’t that uncommon for Act Three to end with even more hell.

      Act Four: Here it depends if we’re using four or five acts, but Act Four is generally the learning act that gives our leads an advantage and helps propel them towards the resolution. It’s the “fuck yeah!” moment as a SWAT team descends on Scummy McBag, or when the superhero figures out how to overcome the big bad’s big evil contraption and is about to bring the wrath of hell to their door.

      Act Five: If we’re not using five acts, this will often be an embedded tag at the end of Act Four. Heroes win! Scumbag in custody. World saved. Whatever. We resolve the outstanding plot threads of the previous four acts, our characters settle back into normalcy, and if there is a season or series-long arc we might insert a Tag to aid viewer traction into the next episode.

      Now, all of that is pretty generic, and while there is room for a little bit of maneuvering with where the major story beats go, in general, that’s how the Network TV script breaks down – and it kinda has to, because writers are writing to the commercial break. You’re not going to get somebody to sit through 3-5 minutes of ads unless you’ve got them on a hook.

      Then HBO comes along with The Sopranos, and they don’t need that structure because they’re not writing to ad breaks. Consequently, only a handful of Sopranos episodes have Teasers. Most just go straight to ‘Woke Up This Morning’. Many of them don’t even resolve plot threads in each episode, because they’re not telling a 60 minute story; they’re telling a 780 minute story each season.

      Then you eventually get the logical extension of that – Game of Thrones. Now, yes, this was already a book series but it attracted more TV viewers than readers. Why? I’d argue because it was completely unpredictable for a long time, and once it became predictable the audience started to lose interest. It goes against pretty much every established “rule” of visual storytelling. Ned’s the hero – he’s going to survive. Oh, wait, he’s just had his head cut off. Okay, right well that means it must be a revenge story, Robb will see justice done… oh, he’s just been stabbed in the gut. Stannis is here to kill Joffrey! Hurrah! Oh, wait Joffrey’s still alive. Okay, well he must die in Season 3…. oh. Goddamnit another season of Joff… oh, he’s dead! Yes!

      Until S6ish, you never really knew what was coming, and episodes themselves weren’t confined to little boxes. It was a sprawling narrative that while written to ensure certain plot beats happened in each episode, took the long-view approach with how those episodes are written.

      HBO has largely facilitated today’s Golden Era of TV. HBO showed that when you don’t have to give a hoot about ad breaks, you don’t have to give a hoot about the accepted structure and now we’ve got Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, and the rest replicating what HBO started.

      But within that replication, there is innovation. More and more, episodes are diverging from traditional accepted formulas and treating the first two or three episodes of a season as ‘Act One’ and because they’re doing that, a lot of these new streaming platform TV shows seem fresh and exciting. Streaming services are kicking Network TV’s ass, and while there is an element of nostalgia involved (The US Office is still the #1 show in the world – even after it ended), there are also a lot of people who have grown tired of the network structure because it is predictable so they’re getting their kicks from Man in the High Castle, Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, etc. Look at the passion from fans when Netflix cancels yet another show. I’m not seeing that same level of outrage for Manifest or something.

      And that’s why I, as someone who has seen over two thousand movies, now prefers to watch TV and I’m not somebody who has been watching TV shows for a long time. I thought TV was shite growing up. Now, I think it’s the best medium for telling exciting, interesting, and surprising stories, and I now watch for more TV shows than I watch films.

      As for your question – I can’t really speak to what Blake’s reputation as a spec writer may have done, just as I can’t really speak to how much nepotism played a role in Blake becoming such a successful spec writer (remember that Emmy-award winning dad?). But I can see the effect Blake’s formula has had on movies; a medium I used to love but am increasingly bored with.

  16. Hi! Working screenwriter here who has a few thoughts on this article.

    First off, this characterization of Snyder is blankly unfair. A ton of things happen in production which effect the quality of the movie, but his goal of selling a script in Hollywood (twice!) is a feat which, for many unproduced screenwriters, sounds like a pipe dream. His goal, as he says often through the book, is to give a guide regarding how to write something which can sell- something which, evidenced by his career, he’s good at.

    Are there better screenwriters than him out in the world? Sure, probably. Does that mean that his career isn’t worth anything? Not at all. One’s ability in a craft shouldn’t disqualify them from teaching that craft. Obviously he’s a professional, and thus his advice would be warranted to anyone who hopes to be a professional.

    Beyond that, you paint a fairly inaccurate portrait of his actual book. Not only does he list out how his “Save the Cat” methodology isn’t nearly as arbitrary and clear-cut as you seem to envision- this method is only mentioned for a single page of the 200 page book! To hyper-fixate on this single point is unfair and a dishonest representation of the main points of the book.

    Granted, there are logic flaws in the book which, to a beginning screenwriter, could detract them. Using pages to determine beats, for example, is an inexact science that ultimately slows down the creative process. That being said, anyone trying to develop a craft should look for more than one teacher if they are truly serious about it. Every teacher will give some bad advice in their hopes to sound wise- it’s your responsibility as a student to separate the good and bad advice through use of second opinions.

    I didn’t come into this article meaning to outright defend Save the Cat. Personally, I didn’t much enjoy the book and, aside from a few tricks, didn’t take much away from it. Still, I felt it was a worthwhile read for me because it showcased different ways to tell a story. Sure, this way may be exceedingly rigid, but if you don’t feel it’s right for your story, you don’t need to use it. He’s offering a parameter for you to tell a story- not a prescription.

    1. The reason I ‘hyper-fixate’ on it is purely because it is the part of his 200 page book that Save the Cat is so often noted for. It is hurled around with gleeful abandon as though it stands as the gold-standard of structuring a story. It is held up in film schools, and writers’ rooms, and given to some analysts as a guide on what to look for.

      Yes, things happen in production. We know that, but a film starts with a script. It is all too easy to turn a great script into a crap movie. It is, however, very difficult to polish a turd – although to be fair, some scripts are turned into films that are far better than they had any right to be. Blake’s don’t belong in that latter category.

      I’m not denying that Snyder was successful at selling scripts. Good for him. I am lamenting the fact that his methodology has become synonymous with writing movies that it has contributed to the churn of derivative, over-structured, and uninspired films. That in itself is not entirely Blake’s fault; it’s a problem with Hollywood in general. Blake may merely have offered a formula, but I’m the customer, and when I see yet another film that has clearly been written to that Beat Sheet, well it’s not impressing me like a film should.

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