Book Review – Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder

Screenwriter Blake Snyder opted to take his writing skills to the next level. After successfully crafting and selling 13 screen plays to various Hollywood producers, including Steven Spielberg, he decided to take on the most challenging writing assignment imaginable. Mr. Snyder opted to pen a “how-to” manual for aspiring screenwriters. Those of us fortunate enough to have read Save the Cat! are glad he did. It provided outsiders like me with some key insights as to what A-list entertainment industry producers look for in scripts.

The author came up with a host of neologisms for common screenwriting concepts. By his reckoning the most controversial inspired the book’s title. The expression “save the cat” referred to: “…the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” (Page xv) However, “save the cat” applies to “bad” characters, too. The author went on to explain:

The adjunct to Save the Cat says: “A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” (Page 121)

I liked the way the author incorporated the unlikely pair of Samuel L. Jackson’s and John Travolta’s characters from Pulp Fiction to illustrate this concept’s universality. Quentin Tarantino found clever ways to get the audience to “like”, or at least, root for their characters in spite of their working as hit men. One such method entailed making their “boss” a worse bad guy than they were. (Page 122)

Of all the tips Mr. Snyder revealed in the book, writing for archetypes impressed me the most. He pointed out that it’s a bad idea to create characters with particular actors in mind. Instead, he suggested thinking about it this way:

…You find throughout cinema history that many of the big stars play one part really well. Think about Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Cary Grant. Now think about Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. It’s not because these are not good actors who can’t do more than one type of role, only that what makes movies work to a large degree is our need to be shown certain archetypes onscreen.

And the actors who play these archetypes now are just taking the place of actors who played the same archetypes years ago.

Isn’t Russell Crowe Errol Flynn? (Even geographically?)

Isn’t Jim Carrey Jerry Lewis?

Isn’t Tom Hanks Jimmy Stewart?

Isn’t Sandra Bullock Rosalind Russell? (Page 58)

Mr. Snyder included a variety of trenchant thoughts on characterization that would apply to any type of writing. I took away the key concept of how the hero always knows: (s)he never asks. (Page 146) The author added the best way to reveal a character’s essence is through actions, not what (s)he says. (Page 148) I’m thankful to the author for raising the point that often times the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are two sides of the same character. (Page 149).

I always encounter jargon when I read books about craft. Since the author targeted this book to those interested in writing for Hollywood, he included a good deal specific to that market. Fortunately for those of us outside of Tinseltown he added a glossary at the end. This helped me follow unfamiliar concepts such as loglines, promise of the premise and whiff of death. He also defined story ARC which I, embarrassingly, should have already known.

Save the Cat! works as a great primer on screenwriting. It also includes helpful tips that writers of any type of fiction could utilize. I’d suggest those interested make the time to read it now. Don’t wait for the movie.

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