Day 15: Save the Cat Act 1 Catalyst
You can download the Catalyst section of Act 1 in both the original and STC versions at the links below:
Yesterday, I walked you through the first 10 pages or so of my script Come Ups and how applying the Save the Cat method altered my original structure. Today, we continue that process and pick up where we left off. We have already covered 4 of the 6 Plot Beats Blake Snyder says should be incorporated in the first act. This is where things will get a little interesting, as regards my script anyway.
We concluded the first session with the Catalyst or inciting incident. This is the moment when in your script when something happens that will change the reality of the world that has been set up in the first 10 pages. The Catalyst should occur, according to Blake and his Save the Cat (STC) paradigm, on page 12. In my original version (OV) of the script, that moment did indeed occur at the bottom of page 12 when Grady, Shep and Tyler hear gunshots from the cabin on the lakeshore. The world has certainly changed for the participants of the gun battle, but it also shifts for the three men in the boat. It was just a quiet afternoon of fishing, but now something has happened to change that idyllic setting. The revisions in the script based on the STC paradigm have compressed the action in the opening 10 pages and the catalyst now comes about ¾ of the way down page 10. That’s at least 1.25 pages earlier than Snyder calls for and a full 2 pages before it happens in the OV (original version). Now I could add some dialogue to the earlier scenes to shift the Catalyst into proper position, but the nature of the upcoming events leads me to believe it is better placed where it is. Here’s why.
Because the men in the boat don’t know exactly what happened (yet), this is a soft catalyst. They are not directly involved. Their world has changed; they just aren’t fully aware of what that change is or at least the true significance of it. We as an audience are very much aware that something has changed. We’ve been in the cabin; we experienced the rising tension, but we didn’t see the actual violence. Instead, we witnessed what the men in the boat witnessed. It was a soft catalyst for us as well, but we are more invested in that unseen action than are Shep, Grady and Tyler. This should carry us over until a more pronounced Catalyst occurs. Think of it as the spark that lights the fuse that sets off the cannon.
Right now, all across the web there are scriptwriting gurus and screenplay junkies freaking out about what I just said.
NO! There aren’t multiple Catalysts. There is one. And it must occur on page 12!
I’ll probably never be able to convince them otherwise, and they may be right. My decision to do this may be entirely wrong. Or it may be genius. The problem is I won’t know until I try. So here goes my reasoning.
Due to the nature of the story I have crafted, there is a larger, a primary catalyst coming. According to STC, it should happen on page 12. If I shift that larger moment to happen earlier, everything before it has to be compressed or cut. As a result, I would lose valuable information in the setup. By setting the Catalyst further from its prescribed position, I need to build up to it, create rising tension utilizing smaller moments that lead to the big explosion of events. So there is the first soft catalyst of the unseen gun battle. Adhering to the dictates of STC, this is followed by a period of Debate. What do we do know? The men choose to investigate. They find dead bodies, drugs and a large sum of money. This is bad. We should probably leave. Then they discover some of the dead are cops. Now they know the
situation is really bad. But before they can leave, Tyler makes the poor decision to pick up Almandeto’s phone, thereby alerting Reydel to their presence. This is our next Catalyst moment, larger than the first, but not as big as what is about to come. In the first incident, our three heroes were merely bystanders. Now they are active participants. The stakes have been raised, especially for the audience. What Tyler, Shep and Grady don’t know is Reydel is already on his way. We, as the audience, know this even before we see Reydel in the car because he told us he would be coming if something went wrong back in the Set Up. We’re hoping the men will get out of there before Reydel shows up, but before they can leave. . .
We have our Save the Cat moment.
Realizing that Almandeto is still alive, Grady and Shep both stay to offer comfort to the dying man. Shep prays while Grady takes his confession. Knowing the risk to themselves, they choose to stay with the fatally wounded man. This also hearkens back to Grady’s military experience we learned about in the Set Up when he saved a buddy during battle in Iraq. In classic Save the Cat style, it is a moment that defines who these two men are and what they are made of. It also defines Tyler, but in a not so positive light. Tyler takes the money and the drugs and makes a beeline for the door. You might say it’s his Kill the Cat moment.
But of course it is all too late. Reydel arrives as Tyler exits the cabin and we reach our third and final Catalyst moment. And all hell breaks loose. The lives of everyone involved changes dramatically at this point, but we have created a series of rising stakes and tensions to reach this point. If I had simply waited for this moment, then the earlier pages would have been filled with more Set Up and exposition and the audience would get bored. I could have rewritten the scenes to get this moment earlier, but that would either come at a cost to the Set Up or I would have to contrive a scene. For example, Tyler would need to take a piss and Grady would pilot the boat to the shore where the three men would then stumble on the drug deal. The way I have it now is more organic and it allows the men to make the choice to investigate the shooting instead of merely stumbling into it. Active choices are better than passive happenstance.
Even with this alteration in the method, I have still followed the rules, a catalyst followed by a debate, but bent them slightly. I can have a smaller catalyst moment earlier than called for if I follow it with another that builds ultimately to the final incident. It’s a series of interconnected moments that raises stakes and increases tension, the spark that lights the fuse that sets off the cannon. This, in theory, will allow me to place my large Catalyst several pages later than STC calls for. But I still have to be very cognizant of where that last Catalyst moment occurs because I have to hit my Act Break on page 25. I cannot bend that rule. Hollywood readers are going to turn to page 25 to see if that Act Break happens on that page. If not, they may not bother to read the script.
Now, if you’ve been following along in both the OV and STC versions of the script, you will notice that
our Primary Catalyst, the confrontation with Reydel, begins on page 16 of the STC script, but doesn’t occur until page 20 of the OV script. Page 20 is way too late for that moment to happen, even with the rising tensions. That’s 8 minutes later than Snyder calls for. In order for that sequence of catalyst events to work and keep the audience engaged it had to come sooner. That required a fair amount of cutting and rewriting to condense the sequence. The total sequence of events is now only 5 1/3 pages. I think it is short enough and starts early enough that it will work to hold an audience’s attention.
At this point, I’ve got my eye on that page 25 Act Break. I’ve got about 9 pages to get there, but I’ve got to resolve this Catalyst moment (and it’s a big action scene), and I’ve got to get some Debate going so someone (our hero) can make the decision on what to do and kick off Act 2 to start the main action of the story.
So that covers the middle part of Act 1 taking us from the Set Up through the rising sequence of Catalyst moments. Tomorrow I will examine the final and primary catalyst, the Debate and the break into Act II, completing our journey through Act 1.