“Save the Cat!” Screenwriting Book: Chapter Four Summary
[This is a continuation of my series of “Cliffs Notes” of the Blake Snyder book “Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” to help you write better movie scripts. ~ Tim ]
Chapter 4: Let’s Beat It Out!
Now that you have the perfect hero for your movie, it’s time to build the structure — and the beats — for your screenplay.
Structure, Structure, Structure…
Structure is the single most important aspect of a screenplay. It is the bones of your story. It will also help you pitch/sell your screenplay and as well as make sure that you retain writing credit for it no matter how much other writers change dialog, characters, and scene order. During meetings, professionals you talk with will want more than some “cool scenes” and will ask you how you dissect the various beats and elements of your script. Having a structure for your screenplay will fill in all that “empty space.”
After reading How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method by Viki King and Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field Blake Snyder felt there was too much space between their suggestions of Acts, Midpoints, and B-Stories, so he created the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. It is based on what he had seen in movies, read in screenwriting books, and from personal experience writing screenplays. It is comprised of 15 beats, with the page number of where the beat happens in the screenplay shown in parentheses. Also, each beat should be able to be described in one or two sentences.
(Shown in parentheses is the script page where the “beat” should appear.)
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)
Here’s the breakdown of each beat:
First impression; sets tone, mood, type and scope of film. Also it’s an opportunity to give the audience a starting point of the hero, a “before” snapshot. It will contrast with the Final Image (the “matching beat”) showing things have changed. Opening and Final Images are bookends, opposites, plus and minus, documenting the emotional upheaval the movie represents. It should make the audience think, “This is gonna be good!” (A short cut for actors is to read the first and last 10 pages of a script to see if the change is intriguing to them; if not the script gets tossed aside.)
Somewhere within the first 5 minutes, a character will pose a question (often not the main character) or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie. It won’t be obvious. Instead it will be off-hand, conversational remark that the main character doesn’t get at the time, but it will mean a lot later on. This statement is called the thematic premise.
Many times a good screenplay explores an argument or question, the pros and cons of a specific lifestyle, of pursuing certain goals. “Is that goal or lifestyle worth it?” “What is most important in life?” The rest of the screenplay fills out and explores this argument, either proving or disproving it as different angles are considered. This establishes what the movie is about, and “all good movies are about something.” (If your movie isn’t “about something,” you’re asking for trouble!)
The first 10 pages sets-up the hero, the stakes, and the goal of the story. It’s also where every character in the “A” story is introduced or at least hinted at. Additionally this is the time when the screenwriter starts to plant every character tic, behavior, and flaws that needs to be addressed, showing why the hero will need to change later on (their character arc).
Blake Snyder adds what he calls the “Six Things That Need Fixing.” These are things that are missing from the hero’s life, which will be fixed later on. These call-backs and running gags will fixed during the character/story arc, and the audience will remember them being introduced here. By showing these flaws here, tension is added, along with a release when they are fixed. But the call-back to work you have to set them up!
These first 10 pages are also the audience sees the hero’s world before the adventure begins, the calm before the storm, the “before” in the hero’s character arc. But it is also made clear that something needs to change and that a storm is coming…
A catalyst moment knocks the hero out of his or her “before” world that was shown in during the set-up. Examples of catalyst moments: telephone calls, telegrams, getting fired, catching a spouse, knock on the door, news the hero only has days to live, etc. These are life-changing moments disguised as bad news, yet also what leads the hero to happiness in the end.
The catalyst is very important and creates the plot. It needs to be on Page 12; before then and there isn’t enough set-up, not enough “before” shown; after that and the audience gets bored and wonders where the movie is going since they still don’t know what the plot is.
While some screenwriters will want the hero to immediately act on the catalyst presented on Page 12, a debate is necessary. This shows us that the hero declares, “This is crazy!” and is conflicted by the options to resolve the dilemma. “Should I go?” “Dare I go?” “Stay here?” The debate section must answer some question about how to deal with the catalyst. The best action will most likely involve overcoming an obstacle, and therefore will result in the beginning developments of the hero’s arc.
No later than Page 25, something BIG must to usher in Act Two. This is the point where we leave “the way things were” and enter into an upside down version of it. “The Before” and “The After” should be distinct, so the movement into “The After” should also be definite.
Also, events cannot draw the hero into Act Two. The hero MUST proactively decide to enter leave the old and enter the new. This is part of their arc, and so can’t be left out.
The B story starts on Page 30 and has a few purposes:
First off it is the “love story.” No, not necessarily a romantic love story, but an emotional relationship nonetheless. It’s where the hero deals with the emotional side of their arc and perhaps is even nurtured, energized, and motivated. It also creates the opportunity to openly discuss the theme of the story.
Second, the B story carries the theme of the story, but in a different way with different characters. The characters are often polar opposites of the characters in Act One, the “upside down versions” of them.
Third, it gives the audience a break from the story, a type of breather, a chance to “talk about something else.” Yet it still will be used to develop and eventually propel the story forward.
A side benefit of the B story is that it provides cutaways from the A story.
This is the part of the movie that holds the promise of the premise. It is the heart of the movie and answers the question: “Why did I come see this movie?” It tends to be more lighthearted and contains some of the great set pieces. This is where the hero explores the upside down world he/she has entered into. Movie posters and trailers are normally based on this part of the movie. During “Fun and Games,” we aren’t as concerned with the plot moving forward and the stakes won’t be increased here… that doesn’t happen until the midpoint.
There may be three Acts and two act breaks, but there is also a midpoint splitting the movie in half that is just as important. The midpoint is either “up” where the hero seems to peak (but it is only a false peak), or is “down” where everything seems to collapse in on the hero (but it is only a false collapse). After deciding which type of midpoint you will have, it defines a lot of the rest of the movie as a whole.
Many screenwriters say that the midpoint is when “the stakes are raised.” The fun and games are over, it’s time to get back to the story!
If your hero has a false peak, he or she may think everything is fixed, everything is wonderful. But it just seems that way. Our hero still has a ways to go before they learn the lessons that really matter.
The matching beat to the midpoint is in All Is Lost on Page 75 of your screenplay. The beat at All Is Lost is the inverse of the midpoint. With a false peak: it’s never as good as it seems to be at the midpoint, and it’s never as bad as it seems at the All Is Lost (or vice versa). If the midpoint is a false collapse, then All Is Lost actually has something great happen…but it is a false victory. The midpoint and All is Lost create the roller coaster that defines the action and drama of your story.
Between the inverse peaks of the midpoint and All Is Lost is a journey where these things flip. If the hero has a false peak and the bad guys seem temporarily defeated, it is during Bad Guys Close In that the bad guys regroup and the hero’s overconfidence and jealousy within the good guy team start to undermine all that they accomplished. This is because the hero hasn’t fully learned the lesson he or she is supposed to learn, and the bad guys haven’t completely been vanquished. As a result, our hero is headed for a huge fall.
Note: this section of the screenplay is often the hardest to part to write. Just know that you aren’t alone if you struggle getting this part of the story to work smoothly.
As mentioned during the section about the midpoint, All Is Lost has the opposite tone for the hero. If the midpoint was a false peak, then this is the low point for the hero when he or she has no hope.
Blake Snyder recommends putting in a whiff of death moment – either a real death or a symbolic death – that says, “the old world, the old character, the old way of thinking dies.” This death could be the hero’s mentor dying or it could be a potted plant dying, it doesn’t matter. It could even be the thought of death or a near death moment. The thing that dies doesn’t even need to be integral to the story. This event opens up the door to a new world, a new life, when the old world and the upside down world lead to the new world.
We have reached the darkness right before the dawn, when the hero is forced to admit his or her humility and humanity, yielding control to “fate” or to “the universe.” It can last five seconds or five minutes. It is just before the hero digs deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save the hero and everyone else. The reason is that to learn the lesson of the story the hero has to hit rock bottom and know it. However, at this very moment this idea is no where in sight. That doesn’t happen until Break into Three.
At this point both the A story (which is the external, obvious story) and the B story (the internal, love story) meet and intertwine. The characters in the B story, the insights gleaned during their conversations discussing the theme, along with the hero striving for a solution to win against bad guys all comes together to reveal the solution to the hero. The hero has passed every test, dug down to find the solution…now he or she just needs to apply it. Synthesis happens: the hero beats the bad guys and wins the love story “in one fell swoop.”
Now it’s time to apply the lessons that the hero learned. The old is gone, the new world is here! This is called Act Three. The bad guys are defeated in ascending order, meaning the lowly henchman lose, the middle men, and finally the top dog. The source of “the problem” must be completely and absolutely defeated for the new world to exist. It is more than just the hero winning; the hero must also change the world.
The final image is the opposite of the opening image and acts as proof that change has happened, and that the change is real.
“Save the Cat!” Beats Applied
Example: “Miss Congeniality”
Blake Snyder demonstrates these beats in the movie “Miss Congeniality.”
An ugly duckling FBI agent goes undercover as a contestant to catch a killer at the American Miss Pageant.
Sandra Bullock’s character, as a child, surrounded by boys and she’s beating them up.
Sandra declares that she doesn’t need to worry about being “feminine” because she’s an FBI agent. This movie explores the subject of femininity, looking at the pros and cons of being tough and a woman.
By page 10 everyone in the A story is introduced along with the “set-up” world: Sandra is in a tough, boy’s club and she fits right in. She seems happy, but is she?
News comes of a murder threat at the American Miss Pageant. To stop the murders, the FBI hatch a plan to send in an undercover female FBI agent. After looking through every option, they pick Sandra.
But can she pull it off? A discussion ensues.
Break into Two:
Sandra strides from her makeover, looking the part. But then she stumbles. This isn’t going to be as easy as they thought.
Fun and Games:
Promise of a premise: tough FBI agent undercover as a girly pageant contestant. Goofy water-glass talent demonstration ends poorly, fish out of water leads to jokes, etc, etc.
The “love story” is actually between Sandra and the other female contestants because the theme is about femininity and Sandra does not know this world. Each contestant needs and likes Sandra, and it is because of the girls that she discovers her feminine side.
Fun and games are over. A new threat is announced and Sandra’s stakes are raised. Now the real trouble starts.
Bad Guys Close In:
Sandra has doubts about her femininity, conflicts with mentors increase, real bad guys close in.
All Is Lost:
Sandra’s boss delivers an ultimatum: quit the case or be fired. She is now worse off than when the movie started! The whiff of death is death of her identity: if she isn’t “the girl with the badge,” who is she? Her mentor gives her a last weapon: a new dress.
Dark Night of the Soul:
Sandra goes to the pageant finale. She’s lost being neither an FBI agent nor a full-fledged woman. What to do?
Break into Three:
With help from friends in “Girl World,” the other contestants put Sandra back together for the pageant finale. She is embraced by what used to be foreign to her, and revived by knowing the girls really care. By helping Sandra, the contestants also help themselves.
Sandra’s two worlds fuse together, using her FBI skills during the talent portion. This answers the theme: Yes, she can be tough and sexy. The bad guys are caught, who have a warped view of their own femininity. Sandra has proven herself to be a woman among women.
Movie closes with Sandra surrounded by women and awarded the coveted Miss Congeniality Award by her fellows.