There's a good chance you've heard of the Save the Cat beat sheet but why is it so popular?
Blake Snyder was a successful screenwriter with more than 12 spec script sales under his belt. Some for over a million dollars. He was trucking along in Hollywood when he realized a pattern to the scripts he was selling.
There was an identifiable structure that seemed to please executives and audiences alike.
So Blake Snyder set to work on what would become Save the Cat, a bestselling book that would require multiple printings. It was first published in 2005 and now is in its 34th printing.
Today, Save the Cat is taught in film schools, sold on Amazon, and has become ubiquitous with screenwriting in general. I want to do a deep dive into this book, its beat sheet, and talk about why it remains so popular.
Let's climb a tree and save the cat.
What is the Save the Cat Beat Sheet and Why is it Popular?
First up, we need to define a few things.
What does it mean to save the cat?
Basically, this is an expression that comes from the fireman going up a tree to save cats in old-time TV and comics. Those heroes always did something to ingratiate themselves with the audience. Like saving a cat from a tree. It's how the people watching knew they were the good guys and to root for them.
Blake got it from Aliens when Ripley literally saves the cat. And we love her for it.
This recognition of the audience's desires was expanded into fifteen beats that marked as a litmus text Snyder used for his own scripts...and then in what he deemed the Save The Cat Beat Sheet.
So what is the Save the Cat Beat Sheet?
Blake Snyder said that all stories are about transformations, so he wanted a beat sheet that reflected that. Let's go through each of his beats and ping on exactly what they mean and reflect in your story.
These are based on the idea that you're writing a 110-page screenplay. The number after the heading is where you theoretically should be within the page count of your story when you hit this juncture.
- Opening Image (1): How does your story open? What are we looking at?
- Theme Stated (5): What's the driving force behind your story?
- Set-Up (1-10): Meet the characters, understand the stakes, live in the world.
- Catalyst (12): What happens to change the course of events from normal?
- Debate (12-25): This is where the character decides to do something about it. Pressure mounts.
- Break into Two (25): The decision to act is made. And the story sets off.
- B Story (30): What else is happening? Any other storylines we're following?
- Fun and Games (30-55): This is where you deliver the "promise of the premise." All the scenes of exploration and wonder that fit the genre.
- Midpoint (55): Things change. You have the same goal but a new way to get there.
- Bad Guys Close In (55-75): Your goal is being overshadowed by the antagonist's journey to beating you.
- All Is Lost (75): Just when you think you might pull it out, your character is served their largest defeat.
- Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): Your protagonist wants to quit. Everything has gone wrong.
- Break into Three (85): Something comes back and convinces your character to move forward.
- Finale (85-110): In the last pages we see everything your characters are willing to do to win this fight.
- Final Image (110): Like the opening, this is the last thing you see. Give us an image that sums up the movie.
So why did this get so popular?
Screenwriting is one of the only jobs you can get in Hollywood without having to buy expensive equipment. You just need some screenwriting software, and anyone can sit and write a story. It might be a terrible story, but you can do it.
There have been hundreds of books written on screenwriting, but Save the Cat endures because it breaks everything down to a formula. Its beats are identifiable in modern cinema and the sequels to the books only expand on it further.
I also think it helps that Blake Snyder was a successful writer. While his career writing scripts didn't last long, his big sales were...well...big.
A lot of people see a bad movie and think "I can do better than that," and I think that hubris also contributes to his book selling so many copies. Many people want to dive in and see what they can so.
The problem is...the book is not the last book you'll ever need on screenwriting. Because you don't really need any books.
All you need to do is watch a bunch of movies and work on your craft. Writing is much more valuable than reading about writing. Telling a story is a natural talent or skill. There are plenty of great movies that defy the saving of any cat.
Some invert it! Some ignore it!
To his credit, Blake Snyder knew this and added comments about it in his book. Since he tragically passed in 2009, I think he has not been able to see his legacy, and if he had he'd probably tell you the same.
No matter what, spend your time writing. If the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet helps you do that, then we are all for it.
“We, and hopefully you, are in the business of trying to pitch our wares to the majors, make a big sale, and appeal to the biggest possible audience. We want a hit – and a sequel if we can! Why play the game if you don't swing for the fence? And while I love the Indie world, I want to hit it out of the park in the world of the major studios. That's why this book is primarily for those who want to master the mainstream film market.” -Blake Snyder
What's next? Try our Beat Sheet!
A beat sheet can help you pick moments that keep your narrative thrust moving forward. So why aren't you using one?
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