Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)


Save the Cat is one of those screenwriting books, like Robert McKee’s Story, that you can’t help running into if you’re looking at writing advice at all. The title refers to the idea that you must establish your protagonist in a movie with some sympathetic action. There are a lot of musts in this book. Snyder is telling you specifically how to write a three-act, 110-page movie script that fits a Hollywood formula of a few years back — down to which pages of the script should feature major events and reversals; how many beats should appear within each act; and how the hero should be feeling at the midpoint of the movie.

He explains that the heroes ought to be in their 20s at the latest because Men Under 25 are the most coveted viewing demographic. He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit. The book is a few years old; after Black Panther and Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, perhaps Snyder would now have something different to say about representation.

In any case, the book is largely about formula — and a formula much more genre-bound than my nemesis The Hero’s Journey. Snyder has very little to say about theme, other than to acknowledge that you probably should have one and mention it early in your screenplay. He has not much to say, either, about developing characters or about representing personal truths. He doesn’t very much care what the substance of your work might be. This book is about how to package it, how to make it accessible to audiences in a format that is familiar to them and that will help them quickly understand the emotional landscape.

So if this is mainly formula for a different medium and different market from games, does it have anything to offer?

Some of the value comes from looking at Snyder’s suggestions and mapping them to game equivalents if any exist. The famous Save the Cat admonition itself, for instance: in games, this is not just “do you like the protagonist?” but “are you going to enjoy being the protagonist?” What’s it like to play this particular character? What can they do? What are their goals? How do they perceive the world? All of those things do need to be conveyed fairly immediately, and they involve a blend of mechanics and fiction. It’s fun to play Batman in Arkham because he has cool stealth moves that let you enact a lot of micro-stories of cleverly ambushing people.

Another of Snyder’s suggestions is to use “the Pope in the pool” move — a reference to a screenplay in which some exposition was delivered while the Pope swam laps in the Vatican swimming pool. The world building and comedy of this slice of life in the Vatican kept the scene interesting (according to Snyder). Though they don’t always do so effectively, games are well-positioned to provide interesting stage business for the player to offset exposition — see, for instance, the times you’re driving a carriage in Red Dead Redemption while your passenger tells you some backstory.

Snyder also advises against spending too much time “laying pipe”, which is to say, setting things up in Act I before getting to anything interesting. Here, commercial games at least tend to have much less room to dally than even the formula movies Snyder is describing. Often, there effectively is no Act I in a game plot, or it consists of about thirty seconds of scene-setting, before we jump right into the point where the player’s required to take some action.

Still — it takes some translation to get from the movie advice to something applicable to games, and that exercise is likely to come most naturally to people who already know something about how game writing typically works.

There is one aspect of the book that I think does have some direct transfer value, though, and that’s the section about working out the plot beats you’re going to need in your story. Snyder’s particulars about how acts should be divided up and how many scenes are allowed per act — all of that doesn’t apply, and different games will substitute their own structural demands instead. We have so many levels that we need to wrap in story, or we have so many locations that can be tied into the game world, or whatever else.

But the general technique of identifying what you need to communicate at each stage of the story, checking your scenes to make sure they offer enough conflict and enough emotional change, and imposing adequate structure at that scene level — all of that is really very useful.

And I think it may be particularly useful to IF writers. Structural sloppiness is a fairly common issue in interactive fiction. IF authors often write long because there’s nothing to stop them doing so — no external editor, no resource constraints — and it’s easy to wind up with scenes, especially around the middle, where it’s just not clear why that scene exists. If you struggle with this kind of structural discipline, Snyder’s suggestions may be useful. You might even find that you want to adopt a few of his formula rules about how many scenes are allowed, or make up your own: yes, they’re arbitrary, but a well-chosen constraint or two can do a lot to help structure an unwieldy project.

7 thoughts on “Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)”

  1. I agree that “Save the Cat” is overly formulaic and somewhat old-fashioned. I have read it and, like McKee’s book that you referenced, it’s got some reasonably good ideas in it for screenwriters, novelists and maybe for game writers. However, I take exception when you say: “He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit.” He not only doesn’t say it overtly, he doesn’t say it at all and at least in my reading, he doesn’t imply anything in this area. Maybe it’s true that Snyder was white, I have no idea. But you’re putting words in his mouth and then condemning him for it. That hardly seems fair.

    1. “We need a leading character who will appeal to the broadest possible demographic” is very frequently used (in Hollywood and in the video game industry as well) to support the argument that the protagonist of a commercially successful project cannot be a person with any marginalized characteristics, especially race. The “A, therefore B” connection here is frequently repeated in the context of the exact discussion Snyder is participating in.

      Here Snyder has emphatically said A. He has not said B, but he also hasn’t said anything to refute B, either. He’s just avoided mentioning it.

      I think it’s reasonable to imagine that some of Snyder’s readers will take him to be endorsing the whole A->B argument. I think it’s also extremely probable — verging on a practical certainty — that he’s *encountered* that whole A->B argument in the course of his work, and is aware of the context in which he is saying A. But I don’t know more about his thoughts here.

      What I do know is that he hasn’t explicitly refuted B, while strongly endorsing A. I did not want to advocate the book (even at a fairly tepid level of endorsement) without pointing out that I consider the conclusion fallacious on its own terms.

      I have not, you may note, said anything about Snyder’s overall motives or personal attributes, which are unknown to me. I do think it’s fair to say that there is anti-racist work that needs to be done in this field and on this topic, and that Snyder’s book isn’t doing that work.

  2. I understand your point. And certainly Hollywood has had a historical bias in this area. It is fair to say that Snyder didn’t challenge the conventions of Hollywood by encouraging the development of unrepresented characters, or for that matter, any form of unconventional stories. I’m not going to defend Snyder or Hollywood, but I think you are displaying your own personal biases here in declaring how you think Snyder’s work is interpreted by others and what you think he encountered in his career. It’s your blog and I respect your writing, but you are overreaching and blaming Snyder and his readers for things that you have observed outside of his work.

  3. Also, I apologize if I sound cranky. That wasn’t my intent. I’m a big fan of your writing and having read the book, I did not see the things you saw.

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