Day 13: Save the Cat, Act 1
Download the Save the Cat Beat Sheet here.
On Day 13 of our Journey we are going to take a look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method of screenwriting.
What is Save the Cat, you ask? It’s a unique methodology for outlining a screenplay using specific plot points or beats on prescribed pages. It provides a wide scope of the structure of your screenplay in moment-to-moment beats. What it does not do is write your screenplay for you. That is still your responsibility. Now, I must clarify that I receive no benefit from recommending this particular method of outlining; I am not connected in any way with Save the Cat other than as a screenwriter looking to gain greater understanding of the structure of the story I am attempting to tell.
In fact there are plenty of other methods out there, including Chris Soth’s Mini-Movie Method, Robert McKee’s Story, and Viki King’s Write a Movie in 21 Days program. What all these various methods have in common is they are based on Syd Field’s story structure analysis described in his book Screenplay. This is The Bible of screenplay structure. It is not just required reading, it needs to be on every screenwriter’s bookshelf. This is the standard for the 3-act structure that is the basis for virtually every Hollywood movie ever made. These other methods take that base structure and break it down even further, going moment-to-moment rather than the broad strokes of act breaks.
Because of the limited scope of this blog, I will not be able to go into heavy detail of the method, but merely give a general outline. If you find it appealing, I urge you to purchase a copy of the book through Amazon or the WritersStore.com. There is an amazing amount of information in this book that will have you looking at your writing through a different lens. Today's presentation will only introduce the first six beats running through Act 1. On subsequent days, I will post pages from my current screenplay, both the original and the new version, with the Save the Cat paradigm applied, so you can compare the changes. Once I have made it through Act 1, I will move on to Act 2 and so on.
So what is Save the Cat? Interestingly enough, it is not one of the plot beats that outline your script. Rather, it’s a character moment. Specifically, it’s that moment where the hero of the story does something that defines who he is – such as a firefighter risking his life to plunge back into a burning building. . .to save a cat. It’s an action that provides insight into the character, and not necessarily in a positive way, although for our hero, it probably is.
A real life example comes from the movie Hooper where Burt Reynolds plays a Hollywood stuntman. While performing a stunt where he leaps off a building with a dog, he turns to take the brunt of the fall – and save the dog – injuring himself. It’s a small little moment, but it gives great insight into his character – they type of man he is. Tough guy on the outside, but with a heart of gold on the inside.
Snyder describes a different moment in his book when Al Pacino, in Sea of Love, has set up a sting to catch parole violators, but when a man shows up with his son, Pacino discretely flashes his badge to the man warning him so the man can leave and not have his son witness his arrest. To show he is not completely soft on crime, Pacino says to the departing man, “Catch you later.” It’s another great character moment that exemplifies the theory of Save the Cat.
Now let’s get to the good stuff. How does this outlining thing work? Well, the Save the Cat method involves 15 different plot points spread out across the script with specific page numbers on which they should occur. The downloadable beat sheet posted above is based on a screenplay of 110 pages. Having a script slightly longer or shorter will alter some of these page numbers slightly, but remember this is only a guide. The only beats that won’t change are first act beats. Consider those carved in stone.
The first beat occurs on our first page. In fact, it is the very first thing the audience sees: The Opening Shot.
The Opening Shot or image is what will define the tone, mood and style of the film. It can give you a sense of what to expect from the movie without a word being said. It can introduce your main character and give a snapshot of what like is life for him/her before the action of the movie starts.
The next beat is your theme. This happens on page 5. Someone will make a statement that expresses the moral question or lesson of the movie. “Be careful of what you wish for,” or “Pride goeth before a fall.” These are examples Snyder uses, cautioning they shouldn’t be quite that obvious. For my screenplay Come Ups a character states “Everything has its price. Worth it or not.” It’s stated as a joke, but comes back to haunt the characters in very bad way.
Then we move into the Set Up. This is where you introduce your characters, the world they live in and some exposition regarding the various relationships. Snyder says it is a snapshot of the world the characters inhabit before the main action of the story begins. This is accomplished in the first 10 pages.
Once everything is set up, we need to upend it all and on page 12 we have our catalyst or inciting incident. This is an event that will set the action of the movie in motion. It’s where the hero receives notice that he is terminally ill, where he gets fired, breaks up with his girlfriend. Something will happen that alters the hero’s world.
Then the hero gets to question that event and what to do about it. This is the Debate beat and covers pages 12-25, which leads us directly into the Act 1 Break into Act 2. This moment occurs on page 25. It’s where the story takes a turn in a new direction. This turn is usually and should be initiated by the hero. He has to make a decision on what to do, and that decision is what sends our story in a new direction. In Star Wars, after the death of his aunt and uncle, Luke Skywalker decides to join the Rebel Alliance and fight the Empire. Mr. Snyder is very clear that this moment must come on page 25. Because so many Hollywood readers adhere strictly to Syd Field’s 3-act structure, they will usually check two things before they begin reading. The first is to flip to the last page of your script to see how long it is; it can’t be over 120 pages. And the second is to flip to page 25 and see if you have that plot point that will shift the action of you story in a new direction. If either of these two elements are off, they will likely put your script aside without reading a word of page 1.
After this act break, you have a little more leeway in the placement of your plot points, depending on your script length, but you need to be darn close. From page 25 you have several pages to wrap up Act 1; ideally by page 28, but no later than page 30 because on 30 you need to be into the second act and the start of your B Story.
And that takes us through the first act plot points as outlined in Save the Cat. Tomorrow, I will walk you through the first 10 pages, both before Save the Cat and after, to show you how I applied the paradigm and what changes resulted from that application. In the meantime, take one of your own screenplays and see if your first act lines up with the Save the Cat plot beats. If not, make a copy and try some alterations. Can you make the paradigm work for your script. If not, why not? It’s just an experiment. Don’t be afraid to make the cuts or possibly do some rewriting to make it work. Then compare the two. I think you’ll find your story is more concise and flows better. But until tomorrow, keep writing.