Save the Cat Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder: a book review

Save the cat2

What do these movies have in common: Alien, Fatal Attraction, and Godzilla? How about these: Star Wars, The Bad News Bears, and Lord of the Rings?  The first trio belong to the genre that Blake Snyder called “Monster in the House.”  The second set are “Golden Fleece” films in Snyder’s terminology.

He assigned distinctive genre names to help us think about films in a different manner and see connections we might miss with more familiar and less specific tags.  Some of the names came from Snyder’s love of the roots of our story traditions.  The Golden Fleece, for example, was the object of Jason’s quest in the myth of the Argonauts, while Theseus and the Minotaur is a “monster in the house” tale that is thousands of years old.

Snyder described his approach in Save the Cat, where he presented his top-down approach to writing a movie script, from idea to logline to pitch to outline to finished screenplay.  He presented a model of 10 movie genres and 15 critical plot points.  Save the Cat Goes to the Movies rounds out these concepts with detailed discussions of 50 well known and well respected movies – a valuable addition.  Here’s an example:

“Monster in the House” stories have three three key elements, a monster, a house, and a sin. The monster often has seemingly “supernatural” powers: Jaws is an uber-shark, while insanity lends a lot of power to human monsters.  The house may be a literal house, a spaceship, a town, or a planet, as long as escape from the monster is not an option. The sin is often greed (closing the beaches would hurt the tourist economy) or lust in a teenage slasher film. In the case of Victor Frankenstein and the atomic tests that spawned Godzilla, it is scientific hubris.  Sometimes ignorance is the “sin.”

frankenstein1

“Golden Fleece” movies are quest stories that span the millennia between Homer’s Odyssey and Bob Hope road movies.    The elements Snyder identifies are a road, a team, and a prize.  These movies run the gamut from comic (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to deadly serious (Saving Private Ryan), but in every case, winning the prize is less important to the story than the lessons the (surviving) team members learn.

road movie

In my previous post, I discussed Snyder’s “Fool Triumphant” genre.  His remaining seven categories also reveal unexpected similarities between movies where we don’t expect to find them.  It is also illuminating to look for his plot points in our favorite films.  Some of them are familiar through the names he assigns – “The bad guys close in,” “All is lost,” “Dark night of the soul.”  Others require explanation, which this second book in the Cat series provides.

A map is not a territory, as an outline is not the gripping story our hearts and minds crave.  That doesn’t mean a map isn’t useful in helping us reach our destination.  Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Goes to the Movies is a useful and stimulating map to help us navigate the wilderness of a stack of blank paper.

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4 Responses to Save the Cat Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder: a book review

  1. Rosi says:

    I’ve not read Save the Cat yet, and this reminds this I need to get to it. Thanks for telling me about this new book. I have much to read.

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    • Maybe because screenplays are much more precisely structured than novels, with no room for meandering, I find some of the books on how to construct them very valuable. These two are good.

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  2. Interesting article just published in SLATE which blames Save the Cat for destroying creativity in Hollywood. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/07/hollywood_and_blake_snyder_s_screenwriting_book_save_the_cat.single.html

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    • Thanks for passing this along. Gotta think about it and probably post it here to solicit more comments.

      I tend to be fascinated with detailed tools involving story structure, since I’m pretty challenged in that area. I can never remember formula’s like Snyder’s, whether I’m writing or reading or watching a movie, so I really cannot comment on the assertion that the huge number of disappointing movies this year comes down to Save the Cat.

      I’ve seen exactly two 2013 movies so far, not because of formulas, but because of trailers that show digital effects trumping story. Or The Great Gatsby with rap music on the soundtrack. Or really stupid retellings of fairytales. I would also add that several 2012 movies come to mind that probably followed Snyder’s formula exactly, but had it woven into really fine stories – Argo and Silver Linings Playbook come right to mind.

      Also, have you seen my description of Sleepless in Hollywood by Lynda Obst? I have yet to read it but your comment moved it up in my book queue.

      Obst produced Sleepless in Seattle and The Fisher King and was motivated to write about the current state of Hollywood one day when her son said, “Mom, making movies because they’re good is so 2003.” Her analysis has much to do with studio profits – how the foreign appetite for American blockbusters has made up for plunging DVD sales, and in the process, squeezed out smaller, quieter, and often better films, the way the clamor for “breakout novels” has squeezed out smaller, quieter books in traditional publishing.

      Again, thanks for the comment and link.

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