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Monday, June 1, 2020

Save the Cat! Explained: Beginning




Save the Cat! is one of the most popular modern story structures, used by filmmakers and novelists alike. I admit, out of the most popular story structures, this approach has not been my favorite, even though it's very effective and very famous. But the more time goes on, the more I've come to appreciate it.

Like all the other story structures, I feel like Save the Cat! has both strengths and weaknesses. As I explain the structure, I'll also be sharing my opinions on any concepts I feel could be refined and improved upon. Who am I to think I can do this? Well, I certainly don't have the same credentials of the creator of it, Blake Snyder! But I can back up everything I say, and you'll have to decide for yourself what you think.

But this structure is a great one to learn, in part because it works for so many writers and in part because it includes elements that other structures do not. Also, I know I have friends and followers who have probably had years more experience with it than I have, so I'd like to invite anyone who can refine our understanding of this structure to leave comments, should they so desire.

Again, I'll be referring to Spider-verse--not because I'm obsessed with it, but because I want to again show how the same story actually fits multiple structures--not one, as so many tend to believe. (If I had known I was going to do all this story structure stuff, I probably would have picked a different story, but hey, it won an Academy Award, so yeah!) There is also a bigger point all these structure posts are building up to, which will eventually be on my blog, once I get all the groundwork done. If you are sick of this example, feel free to skip the Spider-verse sections, as you can still get the definitions of the structure.

This structure was developed by a screenwriter, and the title comes from a screenwriting method, where you show the hero saving a cat to make them more likeable, although the method is never in the structure itself (I think it stuck, because that's the title of the book it comes from). The numbers next to the terms represent what scene that term takes place in. If you are writing a novel, you often have more wiggle room. But I've left them as a guideline.

Is Save the Cat! really the last story structure you'll ever need (as the book claims)? I question that sometimes. But I'll let you decide for yourself. For now, let's appreciate and dig into this wonderful thing Blake Snyder created and decided to share to help all of us writers.


The Beginning


Opening Image (1)

The Opening Image is what it sounds like. It's the "opening image." 😆 But that sounds a little vague, so let's explain it some more. The Opening Image is going to give the audience the first impression of the story--it's going to help set the tone, the type, the scope, and the stakes. Which frankly, seems like a great thing to do when introducing a story to someone.

Typically, it also shows the audience the starting point of the hero (which will not only set the stage, but help prepare us for how he or she is going to arc). There will be a matching beat at the end The Final Image, which will typically illustrate how the hero has changed.

Another purpose of the Opening Image, is to communicate to the audience that this is gonna be a great story.

This is all the first scene.

So in Lion King, we get to see all these different animals from all over in the African kingdom, come to meet baby Simba. In A Quiet Place, we get to see a family all together, navigating an abandoned setting in near silence.


My opinion: If you have a story that really pulls off two different tones, or rather, two different draws, then it might be helpful to sort of have two Opening Images--with one as a prologue. This is a situation where a prologue might actually be a great idea. To learn more about that approach, check out my post on prologues.


In Spider-verse

So in Spider-verse, the Opening Image is the very beginning where Spider-man talks about how great it is to be the one and only Spider-man. That whole scene completely sets the tone of the story and establishes the type of story it is (Spider-man saving people), it also gives us the scope--he saves all of New York City, which then gives us the stakes--the people in New York  City (and his loved ones). Sure, it doesn't have Miles, but we'll get to him in the next scene.

Because so much of what Spider-man says in The Opening Image is going to be contradicted (and the audience knows this), it promises to the audience that this story is gonna be a great story.


Theme Stated (5)

Not too many scenes later (and in screenwriting, it's usually the 5th scene), someone other than the main character will say a question or statement that, in Snyder's words, is the theme of the movie. Often this is said to the protagonist.

Some of his given examples are, "Be careful what you wish for," "Pride goeth before the fall," or "Family is more important than money."

"It won't be this obvious," Snyder writes, "it will be conversational, an offhand remark the main character doesn't get until later. . . . This statement is the [story's] thematic premise."


My opinion: This is a place in this story structure where my views deviate a bit from Snyder, though honestly . . . I feel if I were to explain my views to him . . . I think he'd probably agree with them--we just look at this differently.
 
Snyder says a good movie is always "about something," and so you should stick that statement right here.

I personally think this is kind of a narrow definition and approach, especially when I can point to specific successful stories that don't do this exact thing.

I think he's right that there should be a thematic beat around here, but I don't think it needs to be the thematic statement (and maybe this is why he uses the word "premise"). Instead, if you've read my post about the thematic pendulum, I'm going to argue pretty confidently that this is when the protagonist first (or nearly first) encounters an extreme, opposing worldview on the theme topic. It may or may not embody the thematic statement.

Remember, a thematic statement is something like "Love is the most powerful force in the world."

And a theme topic, is the topic of that statement, "Love."

I won't repeat everything, but basically, in my opinion, the theme topic will be explored and ideas about it tested through the story. Part of this includes confronting the protagonist with a worldview that is opposite of his. That's what I think this moment is.

For example, in Hamilton, Hamilton meets Burr who has the exact, extreme opposite worldview of him. While Hamilton sings all about not throwing away his shot to ensure a legacy, in the same song, Burr expresses that Hamilton needs to shut his mouth and not make waves if he wants to get anywhere in life. HOWEVER--neither of these viewpoints actually embody the true thematic statement, which is that we can't control our legacy. What the opposing outlook does do is that it works to introduce and kick off the thematic journey.

I'll pull from other examples (some from my pendulum post) to back this up:

In Les Mis, Jean Valjean is shown mercy by the bishop--an extreme, opposing worldview from his (which is focused on justice).

In Harry Potter, Harry, who is unloved, must witness Dudley's birthday--a case where a child is so loved that he is spoiled rotten.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss, who believes the country can never be changed, has her worldview challenged by Gale, who openly talks about how sick the Games are and asks what would happen if everyone refused to watch it.

Sure, in some examples, the true thematic statement is said, but not always--in a broader sense, it's really an extreme, opposing worldview that enters the picture.

I'm also going to disagree with the fact the theme has to be said. Not even the opposing worldview needs to be said. But it does, at least, need to be shown. (Case in point, Harry having to witness his aunt and uncle dote on Dudley.)

So this is one element in the structure that I think could use some more refining, but Snyder is great at drawing our attention to it. Yes, we need to introduce the theme topic around here.



In Spider-verse

As Miles goes to school, one of his teachers calls him out for intentionally failing his test. She says he's trying to quit, and she assigns him to write an essay about what kind of person he wants to be.


Set-up (1-10)

This is pretty straightforward. In the Hero's Journey structure, this the equivalent of the "Ordinary World" section. For the first segment of scenes, the writer will be grounding the audience in the story, showing who the main character and other key characters are. This will establish why the protagonist needs to change (or arc) in the story. While I usually think of this moment as also introducing the setting ("Ordinary World"), Snyder emphasizes prepping for the hero's arc, which is nice, because he probably does this more than the other popular structures.

In this section, you need to "plant every character tic, exhibit every behavior that needs to be addressed later on," related to the hero. There is something (or rather, multiple things) the hero is lacking, and the writer needs to show this. These elements will be explored, twisted, and (likely) cured through the course of the story. All these things you show about the character here, can be called back on, later.

While Snyder doesn't use my exact words, he touches on the idea that this establishes what is "normal" for the characters and society--which will begin to be challenged with the catalyst.



In Spider-verse

We meet Miles and other key characters. Throughout his ordinary day, we see him time and time again wanting to quit and not applying himself. He wants to quit his new school. He intentionally does bad on a test. He chooses not to write the essay he was assigned (and instead goes to visit his uncle). His relationship with his dad needs work.


Catalyst (12)

This is what the Hero's Journey calls "The Call to Adventure," or what some call the "inciting incident." In my words, this is when something comes along and disrupts or challenges the established normal. It calls the hero in a different direction.

Snyder doesn't say much more about it than that, and a lot of times, not more needs to be said. Something happens and suddenly the protagonist has to deal with a new situation.

Examples:

Harry learns he's a wizard.

Primrose has her name pulled out at the reaping.

George Washington asks Hamilton to be his right-hand man.

Now of age, Elsa must have her coronation, which includes having guests over.

In Spider-verse

This is the moment Miles gets bit by the spider--it disrupts the established normal and calls him in a new direction. 


Debate (12-25)

This is the initial reaction segment--we see the hero first reacting to the Catalyst. In the Hero's Journey, this is basically "The Refusal of the Call," where the hero, at minimum, hesitates before embarking on her new journey.

Snyder uses a different term, which brings to mind a slightly different perspective. That the hero is debating what to do.

Does he run away? Try to get help? Hope to ignore the Catalyst? These are things that might run through his head. We may see the hero trying a few different things.

When you compare different story structure models, there can be some ambiguity on what this means and includes, which I hope to define more in a later post. But for now, we'll stick to Save the Cat!

Snyder states that this section must answer a question of some kind. For example, in Legally Blonde, the Catalyst is Elle getting dumped; during the Debate, she decides to go to Harvard Law, and the question becomes, "But will she be accepted?"


My opinion: To me, the question (or questions) posed in the Debate is really a nod to oppositions/challenges and stakes--or in other words, difficulties and potential consequences. If there are no difficulties or significant outcomes, then what the character does during the Debate doesn't really matter and doesn't carry any weight (which I guess would mean the Catalyst may not be a true Catalyst).

So personally, I'd like to take this a step further and say it's helpful that the audience is aware of the risks in play as the character Debates.

Which is funny, because this is what the Hero's Journey touches on--if there isn't a moment where the character at least hesitates, then the audience can't appreciate the seriousness of the situation. By touching on the risks/stakes, we do that, and give this moment a little more oomph. . . . But . . . I promised to not get into other structures here (oops!)



In Spider-verse

The morning after getting bit by the spider, Miles starts to debate what is going on. Is it puberty? Is it Spider-man abilities? Was it the spider bite? But it had to be an ordinary spider! How can the same thing that happened to Spider-man be happening to him? etc. I'm going to say the stakes are touched on, in that we get a glimpse of what the potential challenges and consequences would be if he is a Spider-man. (Particularly in that moment where he sees his roommate's comic book and imagines the future . . . and then runs away.)


. . . in a future post, I'll explain and analyze the middle.



7 comments:

  1. Generally I really enjoy your posts, but I have to admit that this series, and specifically the use of Spider Verse as the example/demonstration, is doing my head in. I can't stand Spiderman, and steer well clear of his stories. There's nothing about him that I like or care about, so trying to assimilate the potentially beneficial learning that may lurk in these posts is totally thwarted by my cerebral avoidance of your chosen means for demonstrating each learning point! As a former teacher, I can't understand why anyone would choose, as a teaching example, something they did not passionately like. For me, a student in terms of this series, you've wasted your time and hijacked my ability to learn - not your intention, I am sure. I do hope you choose more wisely in future. Until then, thank you, but no thank you. I'm playing truant whilesoever spiders lurk in this classroom.

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    1. JKM,

      That's fine. I do like Spider-man (he's my favorite superhero), but like I said, if I had planned ahead, I would have picked something else. I've put a heading for every example from that film, so I assumed people would skip those if they don't want to read about Spider-man (maybe I should have mentioned that in the opening). Please feel free to do so, as you can still learn about the structure. Or feel free to skip the whole series. This is the last one I'll be referring to it (and I only have two more posts), my point being that a well-structured story actually fits all the popular story structures, just not one, as so many believe, which is an idea I'm going to build off later.

      I did love the film--but enough to use it as an example for all three types of structures? Probably not. I'll try to plan ahead better in the future! I can understand how that can be annoying, especially if you can't stand Spider-man! I, too, have stories I can't stand that others love. Plus, different story structures can make anyone's head spin at times! And certainly they aren't for everyone.

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    2. I just realized I maybe should mention that there are also hundreds of other stories used a examples online, that anyone can look up here: https://savethecat.com/beat-sheets

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  2. Thank you - I have seen those beat-sheets before. I guess I was hoping your posts on this subject would have aided my understanding more. By and large, I really enjoy your posts and your way of framing and offering information. It sort of suits the way my brain works, I suppose. I shall set my mind to anticipating future posts that hopefully don't use Spiderman as the teaching example! Stay safe.

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    1. Thanks! This will mostly be an explanation of that structure, with some of my own opinions and thoughts put in. Basically, I have some other structural stuff I want to talk about later (like months into the future), but I need this structure up to build off for that--if you have seen the beat sheets, it'll probably be fine to skip all this. Thanks for following. And stay safe as well :)

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  3. Jessica Brody actually did a breakdown of the ’Save the Cat’ method for novels. She did an excellent analysis of the method as modified for novels, with lots of examples. It’s called ‘Save the Cat Writes a Novel’. I think you’ll find it is easier to examine than Blake’s screenwriting version.

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    1. Ooooh--I have seen this, but I've never had a recommendation for it. I just figured I'd go to the original source. I'll have to check it out! Thanks for recommending it, Jona--now I wish I looked at it before starting this.

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