Thoughts On: Save The Cat!
Blake Snyder’s guide to screenwriting containing a plethora of alleged insider’s information that you can get nowhere else.
I’ve been meaning to talk about this book ever since I started the blog and now seems to be the right time. In the previous post we talked about how you may abandon the 3 act structure with the use of set-pieces or chapters. However, I said at the top of this post that there is a huge debate to be had on whether you can actually abandon the 3 act structure – and this is what I want to talk about now. As you will know, the 3 act structure is a very simple beginning, middle and end. More specifically, a 3 act structure says that a quarter of your story is spent on set-up, half is spent on conflict and the last quarter is spent on resolution. If you were to take the initial definition of the 3 act structure as a beginning, middle and end, you could easily dismiss my claim that this structure could be abandoned. This is simply because of how ambiguous beginning, middle and end is – which means that any story, as long as it is understandable, can have it. From Star Wars to the most impressionistic experimental film such as Anemic Cinema – which is just a series of swirling patterns…
… you can argue that this structure holds true. With Anemic Cinema, you may argue that the opening swirl represents… I don’t know, something – nonetheless it is the beginning. With a change of swirl we move to the narrative’s middle and with the last transition we have an end. Because there is change, because time meets space, film is alive and so has a beginning middle and end.
If this is the 3 act structure, then you may never abandon or break free from it. However, if the 3 act structure is merely a set-up, conflict and resolution, then it may certainly be broken. Anemic Cinema has no strict traditional set-up, conflict or resolution – just as Pulp Fiction, Moonlight and Wild Tales do not (amongst a myriad of other films mentioned in the previous post). You may argue that these films have some degree of set-up, conflict and resolution to them, but it does not dominate the arc of the narrative. With Moonlight, we can see this to be the case as each chapter has its own set-up, conflict and resolution, but not necessarily the narrative as a whole. This is the basis for my argument that says 3 act structure can be broken with the manipulation of chapters and set-pieces. Nonetheless, you can disagree with me. It is certainly possible to identify a set-up, conflict and resolution and so 3 acts of the traditional manner in Moonlight, Pulp Fiction, Wild Tales – maybe even Anemic Cinema. This is the source of our debate. If you wanted to find it, you could identify a three act structure in almost every single narrative film ever made. However, I find this insistence on a universal 3 act structure to be redundant for two reasons.
The first comes down to creativity. By saying all films have a set-up, conflict and resolution, you aren’t really helping developing writers – nor yourself. This dogmatic appeal to 30 pages of set-up, 60 of conflict and 30 of resolution doesn’t even help the novice writer in my opinion. It says to them that audiences only want to see one thing and that stories only work a certain way – this is not true. This is what I try to make a point of in the previous post. Moreover, in said post, I am outlining a plethora of techniques you can utilise to create new, unconventional films. I don’t mean to pat myself on the back here – sorry it if comes off as such. I simply write these ideas down to help my own thought processes. And in doing so, I am hopefully giving detailed explanations that aren’t dogmatic and so are ambiguous enough to be creatively interpreted. In such, I believe that accepting that there isn’t a universal 3 act structure clarifies to screenwriters, like myself, how films are different instead of training them to force films into this cookie cutter philosophy. Whilst I think it is only rational to accept the idea that some say there is a universal 3 structure, but an ambiguous one that facilitates the non-narrative and a myriad of approaches to story, I do think this is a redundant stance to take. What’s the point in holding fast to this concept when it can easily be understood that stories have a beginning, middle and end? It seems that repeating these basic mantras to oneself instead of seeking new structures and paradigms is counter-productive. The essence of this is that when a 3 act structure, one defined by set-up, conflict and resolution, is made universal, it is watered down, leaving it to simply mean beginning, middle and end again. To further clarify, beginning is synonymous to set-up, conflict is synonymous to middle (in that a middle is a means of continuing towards and end – the only way that is possible is friction) and resolution is synonymous to end. With this equivalency, you see the banality of this theory of structure, the redundancy of its rigid terms and the way in which it pointlessly rambles about concepts inherent to all writing. Tell a writer that these things exist, but don’t expect them to centre their learning curve around this as it isn’t representative of how complex movies actually are.
The second and much more pressing reason I oppose a universal 3 act structure is its reflection of people. What I mean by this is that 3 act structuring does not describe anything about the stories we tell or the way we tell them. 3 act structuring is us, is what it means to be human. What I mean to suggest by this is that humans perceive the world with a constant idea of the finite. We assume that things come to life, they struggle to stay alive and then they eventually die. In such, we assume everything has a beginning, middle and end, a set up, conflict and resolution. However, this is not universally true. Not everything follows this structure, just look at an idea of momentum. If you asked someone in pre-Newtonian times to describe what happens when a cannon ball is shot, they’d likely tell you that the ball is given energy to blast into the sky and then loses it as it falls back down. However, as anyone who’s sat in a science class can tell you, energy cannot be created nor destroyed. This means that the energy isn’t just given to the ball and lost, but transferred from a chemical reaction that led to an explosion whose energy was given to the air providing resistance to the flying ball. (There are probably many other ways the energy is dispersed). This ultimately means that energy has no beginning, middle or end, instead is in a perpetual state of change. Moreover, this means that nothing really comes to life or dies, just becomes a part of a flow of energy in a manner humans have decided to call ‘alive’ or ‘dead’.
Whilst it is something of a false equivalency to compare screenwriting to physical laws of energy transfer, my point is on human perception. We often give labels and structure to things that in a human-centric and misinformed manner. In such, you can still semantically argue that, within the cannon ball, kinetic energy is created and then lost – the point of contention being kinetic energy being created and destroyed, not energy in general. You can use this to then say that, yes, energy can be created and destroyed like things may come to life and die (under you definitions of the word). But, why would you argue this? The only reason why seems to be that you don’t want to come off as wrong. And this is how we should come to see the idea of 3 act structuring.
However, returning to the idea of 3 act structure as a reflection of ourselves, we can easily see that this rigid process of labelling and listing can permeate into a more detailed explanation of filmic structure. This is where Save The Cat! comes into play. In this book Blake Snyder builds a beat sheet from the assumption that there is a universal 3 act structure that can teach us about writing. The sheet is as follows:
1. Opening Image (1)
2. Theme Stated (5)
3. Set-up (1-10)
4. Catalyst (12)
5. Debate (12-25)
6. Break into Two (25)
7. B Story (30)
8. Fun and Games (30-55)
9. Midpoint (55)
10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)
11. All Is Lost (75)
12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)
13. Break into Three (85)
14. Finale (85-110)
15. Final Image (110)
This 15 step structure is just as redundant as the 3 act one. My crucial point of criticism comes with a question of, what came first, the beat sheet or the film? The answer appears so obvious: the film. This book came out in 2005 – over 100 years after the first film was made. However, you can see the beat sheet applied to almost any narrative film if you take away the page numbers and really want to see it fit a narrative. This is both an exhausting exercise and the means by which we can truly understand this beat sheet to be useless, so we’ll only do this once, but effectively.
Our archetypal example will be Memento – one of the first films you’d be able to come up with as a narrative that should abandon the parameters of this sheet. Ok, Opening Image:
All films have an opening image as frames must start flickering. But, as Blake Snyder said it should, this opening image also sets the tone of the movie as well as its scope, mood and genre. Memento is a psychological crime thriller that is not in a chronological order about a man who refuses to, or can’t, change his ways. You see this with the fact that this is a bloody crime scene, that the shot is in reverse and will eventually go black – an apt metaphor to describe Leonard. A successful opening image.
Next, Theme Stated. At the 5 minute and 1 second mark we get this:
Leonard finds his killer through a lack of trust and quickly assassinates him. The theme stated here is all about trust and responsibility. This is later understood to be the crux of the film as Leonard is Sammy Jenkins – the character who killed his wife with insulin shots. In such, Leonard’s wife’s trust in him fails her when he overdoses her. Moreover, just as Leonard shouldn’t trust or believe Teddy’s lies, he should’n’t believe anyone’s – including his own–a crucial thematic element of the film. But, there is also a blind, haphazard clambering after revenge in this film. Arguably, unknowing and naivety are then another set of core themes – all stated at the 5 min mark. And if you want more themes stated, 30 second later, with the gun to his cheek, Teddy says: You don’t know who you are. Lost identity – another theme stated at the 5 min mark.
Next, Set-up. In the first 10 minutes we go through the murder and through this scene where all is explained about Leonard’s condition before Teddy picks him up…
I won’t continue to bore you with arduous details, but this is the set-up as it tells the audience that there is a repetitive structure and reverse chronology on top of everything you need to know about Leonard for this story to make sense. Moreover, this chain of events prepares Leonard for the narrative.
At the 12 minute 30 second mark, Leonard is given the singular piece of evidence that starts him towards hunting down and killing Teddy.
This sequence is where Leonard is given the previous evidence, but the question of why? is also raised here. Natalie states that he will never even know that he gets revenge and in turn questions his motive. Through this we have a segment in the film that prevents us from immediately Breaking into the Second Act – which occurs here:
We break into act two with the repeated beginning of the last sequence and move into a B Story with the exposition on Sammy Jenkins – which turns out to be Leonard’s back story with his wife.
After this, Fun and Games. This is supposed to be the entertaining crux of the movie and the reason why we come to watch it. In such, the premise is capitalised on for what it is. Because this is a movie about memory loss, we get some fun sequences like this one:
This is where Leonard stumbles into a fight with Dodd, gets into gun fights and all because he cannot retain memories.
This is where the movie picks itself up and starts moving towards the end. Leonard wakes up in the middle of the night because he hears a door slam – it turns out it’s the prostitute he hired to do just this. It’s in this moment that we can start to collect ourselves, re-calibrate and focus on where the movie is going.
The mid-point is justified as such as it’s where we start to see The Bad Guys Close In. The bad guys are not only Leonard’s inner demons, as represented with the return to the B story, Sammy Jenkin’s, but also Teddy – we see him as a bad guy on approach because it is here where he continues to lead Leonard down a rabbit hole of self-deceit…
This growing atmosphere of deception crescendos to this point where Natalie tricks him:
This comes at the 75th minute and is where we get a sense that All Is Lost.
Next, The Dark Night Of The Soul. There isn’t a sequence where Leonard has to regroup and come back strong. However, we next go into a reflection on his wife’s murder with this scene where he sits down with Natalie…
Moreover, we see Leonard begin to break down and question everything as part of his dark night of the soul here…
This is all before the Break into Act 3 where Leonard starts to figure out the final details like licence plate numbers and “finds out” who his stalker is – this is also where Teddy’s lies thicken.
This all leads into the Finale where Leonard has his revelatory moment in which he finds his ‘killer’…
Before Teddy is killed, however, all is revealed in this exchange:
This is where the story is wrapped up, and despite it not being done in an emotionally satisfying way, all ends are tied and the meaning of the film made clear, which takes us to our Final Image…
This is Leonard convincing himself that we only need to trust ourselves and construct our own fantasies to be happy – an image that implies a perpetual continuation of his search for his wife’s killer.
Ok, before I go further in my breakdown of structure as presented in Save The Cat!, I’d like to quote Blake Snyder. A quick preface, this is in the summary of the beat sheet section:
I’m sure all you hip, young screenwriting whipper-snappers are saying, yeah, right old man. Maybe this applied in your day, but we don’t need it anymore. We eschew the need to “like” a hero (we dig Lara Croft!!!) and those boring old story beats are passé. Who needs ’em? What About Memento?
Have I grasped the basic gestalt of you objection?
Oh, and btw, screw Memento!
My first comment: yes, I agree; Blake Snyder is a complete ass-hat. My second comment: Memento clearly does fit the beat sheet – if you want to see it as doing such. What I hope this demonstrates to you is not that Blake Snyder is wrong and that he doesn’t know what he’s going on about. In fact, despite his unpalatable writing style and projected persona, Snyder makes many great points and his beat sheet is interesting – though, not something you need to strictly follow as a screenwriter. What our assessment of Memento’s structure should demonstrate is that it appears that the beat sheet does come before the movie. In such, like 3 act structure is a reflection of human perception, this detailed beat sheet is just a mere reflection of the artistic sensibilities of a screenwriter. By watching movies, we, screenwriters, inherently have an understanding of a beginning to an end that can be labelled in this 15 beat manner because the beats are just as banal and redundant as the terms set-up, conflict and resolution. I figured this out after picking up Snyder’s book before writing my third script. I read the beat sheet and saw the sense it and so planned to write scripts with this in mind. However, later down the line, I looked at the scripts I had written before knowing this book existed. And guess what? The scripts fit the beat sheet. The page numbers where slightly off, but the script fit the beat sheet.
The crucial point I am trying to drive home is then that ideas of structure, like this beat sheet, are defined after people develop a paradigm and are making ‘structured’ movies. So, just as all films have always followed this beat sheet, all films will continue to do this. This should not say to you that there is a formula you need to follow, just that there is a paradigm in writing that needn’t be taught. You cannot embellish or stick to this paradigm and expect success. After all, it is estimated that around 800 films are made in Hollywood alone each year. How many of these films do you think are successful because of their beat sheet approval rating? After considering that, think about the 1000s of independent features made in American alone. Then think about the millions of films made worldwide. I guarantee that a vast, vast, majority could be accurately broken down by this beat sheet – just like Memento. What does this say to you? To me, this says that the beat sheet is redundant. It claims to have found a paradigm of success where it has merely found a paradigm of how the screenwriter thinks. The beat sheet is then ultimately an interesting exercise in assessment from a film theorist’s position – but nothing worth paying attention to as a writer.
However, as said, the crux of me pointing the beat sheet out as redundant is not to say that Blake Snyder’s wrong and I’m somehow, by proxy, right or better than him. Recognising that the beat sheet has little worth should simply allow you to recognise that there are a plethora of ways to structure a movie. These many ways will never be universal, but completely dependent on your concept and intentions. If someone says they have a one-solution fix-all, know they can’t actually help you. To get real advice on how to create and structure your story, you’re going to need much more nuanced and specific notes. If you don’t want to pay to get these and you want to develop as a writer, you have to do things the hard way. You have to slowly build up your own artistic sensibilities by watching films, reading about films, writing your owns films. You can take advice along the way, advice like the shit I spew and the garbage Snyder churns out. But, ultimately, I’m not about to give you the answers to how to type out those next ten pages of your script. I won’t be able to provide guidelines, rules of thumb or general paradigms that are of much help either. All the rules people lay down or identify, like beat sheets and structures, are often things you already know through watching, but can’t articulate yet. The articulation is an important process as it gives us the tools to self-assess – one of the only strengths of the beat sheet. But, advice like this that facilitates self-assessment can only be used in reverse and when a lot of the hard work is done and lessons learned. By recognising this, you can see that cinematic structuring is a very arbitrary and idiosyncratic art when it is specific and actually applicable to a script. This is why all of my previous notes on creating unconventionally structured narratives were based on your constructions, your characters, concepts and themes, giving rise to the structure of your own film. All I can articulate is an interesting thing many films do that you may be able to utilise once you internalise what everyone else is doing. In turn I’m not actually giving you structure, just some hint of inspiration – hopefully.
What all of this comes back to is the idea of 3 acts being escapable and breakable. From the incredibly broad idea of structure being a beginning, middle and end, to Snyder’s very detailed beat sheet, you can see that paradigms of structure are redundant. In such, it seems that structure cannot exist outside of film theory in a way that’s helpful at all to a writer. This is because the structure of your scripts can be described by all and none of the beat sheets and guides out there. And that’s all they ultimately do: describe. To actually formulate a script, you have to turn to yourself and your story and start building an idiosyncratic plot, one specific to you. If beat sheets are redundant then it only makes sense that you aim to develop a final product that you, the writer, see the sense in. My final assertion to you is then that you should structure your film in a way that makes sense to you as well as works for your audience. The only way to get this right is trial and error – to actually go and write, to experiment, to form your own rules before telling yourself there already are any.
Moonlight/Pulp Fiction/Wild Tales – Abandoning The 3 Act Structure
The Nightmare Before Christmas – Where Holidays Comes From
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