12 August 2009

Save the Cat! Uncaged

As you well know, Hollywood - and the film community at large - lost an unsung hero last week, when screenwriter/author/mentor Blake Snyder died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 51.

Blake’s website has been flooded with tributes and comments, sharing the Tao of Blake - that which made him so special and unique - with the world.

Blake's death was the ultimate Catalyst in the publishing of this blog. Blake and I had many discussions about it - I emailed to him what I had planned to be my inaugural post, “Married to Your Story”. Five minutes later, my phone rang. I glanced at Caller ID, and answered:

“Bonjour! Comme-ce vas?”

“I LOVE THIS BLOG!!” he shouted. “Love it, love it, love it. Can I use it?”

Just a few weeks earlier, Blake was helping me with a rewrite on one of my script options. We were going over Act 2 … it needed to be taken up a notch, up to eleven, as Nigel Tufnel would say. Okay, to be honest, two notches. Maybe three.

Blake closed his eyes for a moment, and then:

“Aha! Move your Midpoint to the end of 2! Pile on the death moments! Bam, bam, bam! Now, all you have to do is rewrite Fun and Games!!”

I promptly shot him “the look”; he burst into laughter, and bounced out of the room telling Jose “I just got the stink eye!!" as he went on a quest for caffeine.

Blake was doing for me what he did for so many in Hollywood, quietly working, behind the scenes, helping me to shape my career, directing my work, even my life. He was more than a mentor to me; he was my great, great friend, and my life will never be the same without his presence. Jeremy Garelick recently said about Blake, "“Blake’s massive contribution to the movie business will be forever unknown…he’s the uncredited partner to countless screenwriters.”

Never were words more true.

Rather than write a traditional tribute in memory of Blake, I’ve decided to post about the phrase that started this whole movement, this reimagining of the story structure paradigm – Save the Cat!, and how deeply integral it is to the story building process.

What is “Save the Cat”? In its simplest form, it is that moment when, early on in the film, our hero/heroine takes some sort of action, like saving a little kitty, which makes us want to go along on the journey with them. On the blogsite Noveldog.com, there is a terrific illustration of this principle from the film HANG ‘EM HIGH:

However, Save the Cat! is more than a simple principle. Blake was no lightweight, he possessed a massive intellect, and no one understood structure better than he did. Save the Cat!, like all of Blake’s principles, contains depth and resonance … and deserves further exploration.

I recently read an article challenging the principle; the author believed that an audience need not “like” a hero. Fair enough, and agreed, but he missed the point. The Save the Cat! moment is not always crafted for an audience
to like their hero. It can, instead, weave in a subtle whiff of empathy, of understanding for our character, using an action or moment taken that we can all relate to.

Let’s look at some Cat! moments, in which the Save the Cat! principle is firmly entrenched – and yet, so deftly woven in that you almost don’t know it is there:

In the first few minutes of the film, Clarice Starling, our heroine, runs the gauntlet at the FBI training center. She’s called in to meet with her supervisor. She enters an elevator filled with huge, young, testosterone laden men. She looks quite tiny and vulnerable – this young woman in an impossibly male world. That’s your Save the Cat! moment. A glimpse into her soul. Vulnerability. That’s what it is all about.

Following the teaser of the initial shark attack, we find Chief Martin Brody in bed with his wife. Through bits of dialogue, we discover that Brody has a pathological fear of water – and lives on an island. That duality within Brody is quite funny – and endears him to us immediately.

One of my favorite films, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is beautiful, complex study of the effects of sexual repression on adolescent girls. I’ll be blogging more about this film in the future. For now, I’ll limit remarks to a great Save the Cat! moment. Cecilia, the youngest of the virgins, has just attempted suicide. In the doctor’s office, the doctor says “What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Cecilia replies “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year old girl.” That bold smack of irony, that in your face moment bonds us to Cecilia, and through Cecilia, to all of the virgins.

Anti-heroes are not immune to Save the Cat’s! claws. One of the challenges of a film such as THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is to take a reprehensible character – such as a snarky, self-congratulatory tobacco lobbyist also known as “Yuppy Mephistopholes” – and make the audience care enough about him to stay in their seats. We get a bit of a double bump here; number one, Nick Naylor is such an absolute over-the-top bullshitter, we can’t wait to see what he pulls next. What keeps us there, however, is a glimpse into his heart and soul. His son Joey has come over to stay for the weekend; the two watch a movie late at night. Joey stretches out and drowses, sprawled over his father like a contented pup. Nick oh-so-tenderly strokes his son’s hair. He truly loves this kid, and for that, we not only forgive him, we cheer him on.

And there it is. See? As Blake would say, “It’s EASY!”

Create your own Save the Cat! moment. Establish a character and a set-up. Determine what it is about this character that will take us along for the ride. You can, of course, save a cat … or you can try for something subtle and layered. It's your story. You decide.

coming soon .... "Married to It"


mikeymoviemadness said...

Dear Princess...

3 years ago I wrote to Blake. I was stuck on a great story idea but I couldn't wrestle the idea to the ground. To my utter shock, Blake not only wrote back but he continued to write back over 15 times in an attempt to help me understand my story. He also shared advance chapters on Part 2 of his STC book series as a means to help. Blake did this knowing I was A) a writer who had not yet sold or optioned a script and B) Wouldn't be able to pay him a red cent, since I was (and still am) working a desk job to pay the mortgage as I continue to create and write.

Not many men like him in any business, anywher. I saw him speak a few times in NYC and was anxiously awaiting his seminar in NYC next weekend, when he passed. I know he's in a much better place, spinning tales and stories.

I love your blog. How great. I will be a constant reader and supporter. You love movies, you are a serious writer with a serious obsession (my kinda gal) and you are have pretty good taste in flicks (if I do say so myself). Deconstruct away!

I will soon be launching my own scribe blog. May mine me as fun and educational and grounded as yours.

Keep up the work and the faith, Princess. I, for one, am out here reading.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

very interesting... I never heard of "save the cat" moment but I can see it in many movies that I've seen and loved.

Debra Holland said...

Your post brought tears to my eyes. We've lost so much with Blake's passing!

Thanks for illuminating the "Save the Cat" moment. I have a better understanding of this, and see that I need to add one to my current work.

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog! Keep it up....maybe more of Blake's gems and how they work in movies and for us.

Lynn V

Sandra de Helen said...

Annie, I hadn't heard. I'm so sorry for your loss, and what a loss to the world.

Maureen Brady Johnson said...

Love the blog and will try to write a "save the cat" moment or attempt to find one in my YA.
His soul is entwined with this Blog and I for one will know him thru your helping me become a better writer...and so it goes...
maureen brady johnson

David Avallone said...

I have heard this principle called "pet the dog", and it can hurt you when it's applied too obviously and gratuitously. I remember an early scene in the film Outbreak where Dustin Hoffman literally pets the dog and thinking that the writer had been a little lazy writing his "pet the dog" moment.

princess scribe said...

Hi David ~

Blake's Save the Cat! theory has been around for close to a decade. Through his consultations with studios, publishings, workshops and seminars, the word spread ... and the idea took hold.

In terms of OUTBREAK - I was not in on the development process. That being said, my experiences would not permit me to unfairly refer to a writer as lazy. It is quite possible that the writer was fulfilling an instruction from studio development, an actor, a producer ... or none of the above. I wasn't in the room. I don't know, and I will always come out in defense of the scribe.

One of the great things that Blake brought to the table was his experiences with development, which fired his passion for good, solid structure. He believed - as do I - that if you build your structure tight and sound, complete your set ups and pay offs, then it becomes a beautiful house of cards. Your story cannot be messed with, for if a card is shifted or removed, the entire structure may tumble down.

Build it well, so it can stand on its own. :) princess s.

MichelleShyman said...

Princess, Can you write a column sometime on how to do "all is lost" moment in reverse for a tragedy? Blake used examples from movies with upbeat endings; but I am writing one in which everyone dies miserably at the end, especially the protagonist. So, it seems in a tragedy that the "all is lost" needs to be an "all is won," right?

P.S. Are you really ALWAYS right? Always and forever?

princess scribe said...

Mikeymoviemadness ~

I'm so glad to hear how Blake helped you. He was a hero to all, no?

Please let me know when you plan to launch. Keep up the good words!!

Princess Scribe

princess scribe said...

Dear Michelle:

Whether the outcome of the story is good or bad, All is Lost is all is
lost. It's the "whiff of death" as Blake called it as opposed to a reversal.

Midpoint of MYSTIC RIVER is a false victory when Sean arrests Dave.
He's got his man, Katie's killer.

All is Lost is when Sean has to release Dave on insufficient evidence, thus setting Dave's murder into motion.

Midpoint of ORDINARY PEOPLE is when Jeannine agrees to go out with
Conrad (false victory) .... All is Lost occurs when Conrad discovers
that Karen has committed suicide.

Generally speaking, midpoint is a False Victory. That point gives you the opportunity of reversal within the paradigm - you either have False Victory or False Defeat.

A great current film to examine is GONE BABY GONE - a false victory at Midpoint occurs when Patrick gets the news that Cheese has agreed to release Amanda. All is Lost is the discovery of the conspiracy, with the Dark Night of the Soul coming when Remy is shot and confesses. Interesting, isn't it, that Remy "Digs Deep Down"?
Blake's 3rd book contains a lot of end sequence material to help you walk through this portion into your Finale, where Storming the Castle is explored. The second book, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies has comprehensive breakdowns of over 50 films. Very, very informative!


Princess Scribe

D Jordan Knight said...

Atta' Girl!

Claudia Wolfkind said...

Thank you Princess,

Like so many, I loved Blake dearly and I've been lost without him. He was so excited about the script that I'm working on and I couldn't wait to have him read it. Sadly, that now won't happen. Any sales I make will be in honor of him, yet will forevermore be bittersweet.

Thank you for creating this blog and sharing anything and everything you can about writing and Blake.

God Bless,


mikeymoviemadness said...

Hey Princess...I am up! Hope everyone here can give me a read!

Take care!


princess scribe said...

Dear Lady Claudia ~

The world is less sunny today than it was just 16 days ago; and yet, one most always look on the bright side of life.

Do Blake honor. Write your stories. Structure them to a fare-thee-well. Write them well. Let your voice sing. Sell!

princess scribe said...

Dear Sir Mikeymoviemadness ~

Thank you so much! I've added your link to my site. Good luck and keep up the good words!

Princess Scribe