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Monday, June 8, 2020

Save the Cat! Explained: The Middle




Now that we've addressed the beginning, we're diving into the middle of the Save the Cat! story structure.

Also, I want to mention that you can find loads of story examples of this structure here, should you want to look at others. I realize a lot of us might be tired of Spider-verse at this point--but I find it helpful to use the same story to compare and contrast different structures. If we keep using different stories (like what everyone else does), then we miss out on some insights and conclusions we can't draw otherwise. Plus, all this is going to lead to bigger points I'll be posting on my blog far down the road from now. (In any case, this is the last structure I'll be using this story example.)

I realize for some, using the same story may be more confusing, especially if you are new to structure. Please feel free to take what works for you and leave the rest. Structure itself can be confusing to anyone who is learning. Feel free to skip the examples or even my own thoughts and opinions, if that best suits you (heck, or even this whole series). It's all good.

And now . . .

The Middle


Break into Two (25)

Now that the beginning is completed, it's time to get to the middle--and in most structures, this is considered Act II, which is where the title of this term comes from. As Snyder puts it, "The act break is the moment where we leave the old world . . . behind and proceed into a world that is the upside down version of that . . . But because these two worlds are so distinct, the act of actually stepping into Act II must be definite."

In the Hero's Journey, this is called "Crossing the Threshold." While the Hero's Journey focuses more on how this is the protagonist transitioning to the "special world," Save the Cat! points out that this is a moment where the protagonist chooses to go forward into the "other world" or, as he calls it, the "antithesis world" himself or herself. It must be a choice. If the hero is tricked, dragged, or lured, it will probably fall flat.

Snyder also says that something big must happen here to lead to the protagonist making this decision. In my opinion, this is an event that can be big either internally or externally--it's significant. So in Star Wars, the event is Luke's aunt and uncle being killed, which leads him to decide to go on his journey.

Big Event --> Protagonist Decides to Move Forward.


In Spider-verse

After Miles finds the spider that bit him, he encounters Spider-man fighting Green Goblin and the collider. Peter asks for Miles's help, explaining that the collider could destroy all of Brooklyn, this and Peter's death are the big events that lead to Miles making the decision to move forward. He may not like the idea, but he won't be passive about it. He'll at least try to fix the goober and save Brooklyn.


B Story (30)

According to Snyder, this is where the B story of the narrative is introduced. In most movies, this will be a love story between the protagonist and the love interest. It's also a story that carries the theme. Snyder sees this as sort of a moment that smooths over the transition from Act I to Act II that we just saw, so it doesn't feel so obvious. The B story here gives the audience a break from the A story, that has had a lot of focus (and has gotten intense).

The B story often has a bunch of new characters. And in this approach, they are upside down versions of characters that were in Act I.

This doesn't have to be a romance plotline, but it's almost always a relationship plotline. It can be about best friends, siblings, parent and child, student and mentor, coworkers--the key is that it can't be wholly antagonistic. Even if the characters seem to be enemies or rivals on the surface, that barrier is broken down to some degree. In Moana, this is when Moana meets and begins trying to work with Maui.

Some say, this may not even need to be a human relationship. It might be about the protagonist and his car.

In Story, Robert McKee talks about how having a relationship plotline (of some sort) works well to balance out all the intensity of the A story (primary plotline)--they complement each other.


My Thoughts and Opinion:

And if you think about it, to me, it makes sense. The primary plotline typically weaves together the greatest external and greatest internal journeys of the hero. A relationship plot fits nicely in the middle of those two--it's more intimate than the external journey, but a degree distant from the internal journey, which gives the events of the story as a whole, more dimension.

In contrast, if you try to add another more external plotline, it might feel off, or if you try to add another inner plotline it might feel off--busy and competitive, since we already have plotlines for those.

A relationship also gives the hero someone to talk to about what's happening; he or she can bounce ideas off someone who is not closely involved, and possibly get another perspective of their problems.

While I appreciate Snyder including this term (as he's the only one who does it this way), I personally disagree just a bit with the definition. I already mentioned how I think you could create a relationship plotline with (seeming) enemies, but I also don't think the characters in here need to be new characters. From some of the lines in the book, I can't quite tell if Snyder believes this or not. He seems to imply at first that the audience could have met them in Act I, but right after he says, "We did not even know they existed."

But loads of stories introduce B story characters in Act I and maybe even introduce the type of relationship the protagonist has or will have or has had with them. A lot of times, the protagonist runs into the love interest rather early. So here's how I would explain this. The term B Story doesn't necessarily relate to introducing the B story characters or plotline, but rather is where that plotline begins to take a turn in development.

Sure, it can be an introduction to a brand new person. Or, it can be a shift in a relationship already established, so that it starts a path to becoming something different. In this sense, even characters we've met in Act I, can turn out to be (somewhat) "upside down" versions of themselves--the hero will likely see a new side to the other person. The person may actually be totally different than what the hero thought, or maybe is cleverer, kinder, more capable, more understanding, than expected. It's simply (at least) a moment where the hero interacts with the other person in a way that hasn't happened before.

I also disagree somewhat with his thoughts about the theme. Yes, absolutely the B story should relate or touch on the theme in some way--I mean really, ideally, all "through" plotlines should. In particular, a relationship is a great place to have discussions about the theme topic. Maybe it's possible that the B story might address the topic more openly, but hands down the A story/primary plotline should be addressing the theme way more. I mean, it's the primary plot!

The difference is this: The A story shows the theme more and takes the whole story to do it. The B story allows more room for the writer to tell the theme, through the relationship plot line, and if not tell, show it in more obvious ways. Since all plotlines should relate to the theme, really, the B story may be a more simplistic, mirrored, exaggerated, inverted, or contrasting example of the theme. It gives more thematic power, understanding, refining, or complexity to the A story. It also sometimes (not always) reaches a thematic conclusion, earlier (which fuels the A story).

I'm not convinced the B story needs to always be a relationship. Instead, I think the B story is a plotline that (as I said above) fits between the protagonist's external and internal plotlines. Not as big and far-reaching as the protagonist's external journey, but not as intimate and personal as the protagonist's internal journey. For example, the A story could be about the protagonist fighting in a war and how that changes him. The B story could be about two business owners in conflict about how they contribute to the war efforts--not as big as the war story, but not as personal as the character arc. That, in my opinion, is a B story.

And often in many stories, a relationship will fit those requirements just fine. And often, in most stories, there will be an important relationship. But it feels narrow to say the B story is always a relationship.

Also, the B story is a plotline that feeds into the A story in some way, maybe literally or maybe only thematically. But the B feeds into the A, not the other way around--something that can be helpful to writers so they can discern what fits where.


In Spider-verse

Soon after trying to become Spider-man, Miles meets a Peter Parker from another dimension. He's almost quite literally an upside down version of the Peter Parker that died--different hair color, older, out of shape, at a low point in his life. Notice how he offers a more simplistic yet exaggerated version of the theme. He claims he loves to be Spider-man and always gets back up, no matter how many times he gets knocked down, but the footage actually shows the exact opposite of what he is saying. Miles and Peter have a student-mentor relationship plotline, which will allow them to address the theme a little more openly. It also fits between the Miles's external journey and internal journey, adding dimension.


Fun & Games (30 - 55)

This section is the promise of the premise.

It delivers on what the audience "came for." It answers their question, "Why did I choose this story to immerse myself into?"

So in Legally Blonde, this is where we see Elle trying (and failing) to fit into law school. In Elf, this is where we see Buddy trying to navigate New York. In The Emperor's New Groove, this is when we get to see Kuzco stuck as a llama. In an origin superhero movie, this is usually where we get to see the hero using his superpowers. If this is a buddy story, this is usually where we see the buddies clashing with each other in the most entertaining ways.

Snyder says this part of the structure is more concerned with having fun than with moving the story forward.

Think of movie trailers--this is the section where they get a lot of the clips from.

While I think the Hero's Journey would consider these moments "tests" of the Special World, I like the playfulness Snyder's perspective brings to this section, though "playful" might fit some stories better than others. For example, I wouldn't really consider the moments of this section in the Hunger Games, to be "fun," so I'd rather call them "tests."


In Spider-verse

After meeting the alternate Peter Parker, we get a lot of entertainment with the interactions between him and Miles--which contrasts experience with inexperience. They clash. But it's more than that, this is where we start getting to see Miles really learning what it's like to be Spider-man, as he has to encounter villains as Spider-man for the first time.


Midpoint (55)

I've talked about midpoints in other posts. In fact, I once did a whole post about midpoints. Save the Cat! has a different interpretation of what a midpoint is, in comparison to other structures.

What I hear from other structures is that the midpoint is the moment the hero moves from responding and wandering around, to being active and in a "warrior" mode. In order for that to happen, there must be new, significant information that enters the story, which gives the character a greater understanding of what's going on.

But Save the Cat! defines it differently. The midpoint still happens in the middle, but it's either a "false win" or a "false lose." The stakes are also raised (which actually fits into the other definition, because when new information enters the story, it raises the stakes so the character becomes more active).

Snyder zeros in on the idea of the "false win" or "false lose." Around this point, he says, the hero seems to get everything she wanted, but in reality, she hasn't yet learned what she needs to. It seems like a victory, but it's not. It's a "false victory." This is meant to contrast the "All is Lost" beat that comes at the end of the middle, which is described as a "false defeat."

"It's never as good as it seems to be at the midpoint," Snyder says, "and it's never as bad as it seems to be at the 'All is Lost' point."

This can be switched around, he says. So if you have a false defeat at the midpoint, you'll have a false victory at what would be the "All is Lost" point. This means the midpoint will seem like a loss to the protagonist.


My Thoughts and Opinion:

Using this structure, I sometimes feel like the word "false" can be a bit misleading. In some stories, this is exactly what happens. But other times, I'd maybe call it an "incomplete victory" or "incomplete defeat," or maybe even a "seeming victory/defeat." Because the heroes may succeed at something, but still be aware they have more work to do, or vice versa. They may not necessarily be completely misled. And it may actually be a sort of short-term victory/defeat. I mean, I get what Snyder's saying, but I think the word choice can make it confusing to some writers who are learning. But as always, understanding the concept is more important.

And while I think this approach works, I'm not completely sold on this idea yet, mainly because most stories will put an All is Lost beat and a Reward/Victory beat right next to each other regardless of whether the midpoint is a victory or defeat. I almost feel like it just depends on how you slice and dice structure rather than what the midpoint is. Near the end of the middle and the beginning of the end, there is almost always a sort of negative (-) beat (All is Lost), followed by a positive(+) beat (Reward), followed by another negative(-) beat (related to the the bad guys)--so doesn't it just sort of depend on where you draw the line? (I'm sure I've gotten too complicated for half my readers . . . moving on. 😆)

Anyway, maybe I just wish Snyder gave a clearer idea of what the alternate version looks like, beyond simply saying a false defeat midpoint goes to a false victory later and giving only one quick example.


In Spider-verse

Peter B. Parker and Miles (and Gwen) succeed in getting the computer from Alchemax. We also learn that if Peter and Gwen don't return to their proper dimensions, not only will they be glitchy, but they'll die. Doc Ock is given a tighter timeline to get the collider finished. Both of these things raise the stakes. And getting the computer seems like a victory.


Bad Guys Close In (55 - 75)

If the midpoint is a false victory, then all seems fine . . . until the bad guys close in.

"This is the point where the bad guys decide to regroup and send heavy artillery. It's the point where internal dissent, doubt, and jealousy begin to disintegrate the hero's team."

The antagonistic forces tighten their grip on the hero. So basically they are re-engaging with the hero. While Snyder doesn't say this, I think he'd agree that here they have become more cunning and conniving or maybe just more ruthless.


My Thoughts:

One thing I wish is that Snyder would address how this section may be different (or the same) if the midpoint is a false defeat (from his approach/perspective). Does this flip too? So that it's the hero that closes in on the bad guys? Then I wonder how much it matters--cause really, through here, in a lot of stories both sides are preparing and engaging in conflict. So I still think it largely depends on how you slice and dice it.

In comparison to other structures, I would say in the Hero's Journey, this would encompass "Approach the Inmost Cave" and begins to go into "The Ordeal." In the 7 Point Story Structure, this would include Pinch Point 2


In Spider-verse

Peter, Miles, and Gwen, go to Aunt May's house, where they meet more allies and prepare to defeat Kingpin. Soon after this, Miles discovers that his uncle is actually Prowler. The bad guys close in as he leads them back to Aunt May's, and a fight breaks out.


All is Lost (75)

This is a moment in the story that feels like a total defeat. (It's the "false defeat.") All hope seems lost. All goals seem lost. Everything is doomed. At least that's what it looks like.

Save the Cat! adds a new technique to this moment called "The whiff of death."

It's pretty straightforward. Here either someone dies or at least, the idea of dying is touched on in some way. In a lot of stories, this may be where the mentor dies. But even in stories where there is no death, there should be the presence of death. It might be a dead flower or goldfish or news of a relative dying from somewhere far away.

This taps into the mythic structure of the Hero's Journey--where the old version of the protagonist dies to make room for a new version of the protagonist. Snyder shares this same idea. It's the old world within the character that dies. "All good, primal stories must have this. It resonates for a reason."


In Spider-verse

At the end of the fight, Uncle Aaron dies. The other spider people tell Miles he's not ready to be a superhero.


Dark Night of the Soul (75 - 85)

Now that everything seems lost, we need to take some time to show how the character feels about this. Save the Cat! says this is vital to the story. "It can last five seconds or five minutes." The hero needs to feel the defeat to the extent that she seems unable to continue. It's the darkness before the dawn. In order to learn her life lesson, she must be humble and beaten.

In The Hunger Games, this is Katniss feeling terrible after Rue dies--it seems that nothing pure and innocent can survive this world, and she can't protect the pure and innocent despite her best efforts.


In Spider-verse

Tied up, Miles is at his lowest low. He's alone and even more alienated from his dad. He seems to have failed in every way.

. . . and next will be my last post on this structure, the end according to Save the Cat!


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