“Save The Cat!” Screenwriting Book: Chapter Two Summary
[This is a continuation of “Cliffs Notes” of the Blake Snyder book “Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” ~ Tim ]
Chapter 2: Give Me The Same Thing…Only Different
The script, the scenes, the characters and their dialog must be fresh. You can almost be cliché, but just before you are cliché, you must add a twist and be unique.
To accomplish this you need to know the traditions behind your story’s genre. And to do that you must be intimately familiar with all the significant movies in your genre, able to take them apart and understand their plot structures. It is key that you know the lineage of the genre from the very beginning, and appreciate how movies of the past have influenced the genre. This prevents you from being predictable or accidentally creating scenes or characters that have already been done.
Yes, yes, your movie is original, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit into a category. And each genre has its rules. By knowing the rules you will not create a muddled storyline that meanders into other categories. Having a grasp on the rules also will help you create twists to keep it fresh!
What Is It…Most Like?
When trying to describe what your movie is like, you will be tempted to present it as a cross between “Movie X” and “Movie Y,” or perhaps “Movie A set in Location Q.” Don’t! Most likely you’ll just confuse people as they try to figure out how this mash-up is a good idea.
Instead focus on which category your movie is in, knowing which movies are similar to yours. By reviewing those movies, you will learn what plot elements are important, how they were used correctly and incorrectly, and where you can add your own spin and twist.
10 Main Movie Categories
Monster in the House
(Jaws, Alien, Jurassic Park, Tremors, The Exorcist, Fatal Attraction, Panic Room, Scream. Greek mythology: The Minotaur and the Maze)
Monster in a confined location (house, beach town, spaceship, island)
Primal Goal: DON’T…GET…EATEN!
- A “sin” is committed (monetary or carnal)
- A supernatural/powerful monster kills those who committed the “sin,” but spares those who recognize the “sin.”
- You can’t escape “the house” so are forced to confront “the monster.”
- How people “run and hide”
- Who/what is the Monster
- Defining monster’s powers
- How you say “Boo!”
(Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Back to the Future, Ocean’s Eleven, Road Trip, Little Miss Sunshine. Greek mythology: Jason and the Argonauts)
Hero goes on “road trip” in search of one thing and ends up discovering something else – himself. (Includes heist, quest, mission, and “treasure locked in a castle” movies.)
Primal Goal: You MUST get the Golden Fleece; failure is not an option.
- Theme: internal growth of the hero as he encounters people and events during his journey.
- The plot is all about how these encounters affect the hero
- Incidents that change the hero are episodic, so they may seem unconnected; but they must be.
- The mission and the plot twists become secondary to the meaning and personal growth derived from the mission.
- Mileage is measured less in distance from the Golden Fleece, and more of how the hero changes during the journey.
Out of the Bottle
(Liar, Liar; Freaky Friday; Cinderella;Love Potion #9; Flubber; The Mask; Herbie The Love Bug, All of Me, Groundhog Day)
Primal Goal: What if my wish for came true?
- Source of the magic: divine intervention, magic spell, chemical formula, luck, generous rich guy, lab accident, etc.
- Evokes idea of genie granting wishes.
- Two angles: granting the wish could be a good thing, or it could end up being a curse.
- Good wish:
- Hero must a put-upon Cinderella type.
- Human nature dictates that the underdog doesn’t succeed too long.
- The hero eventually learns that magic isn’t everything, in the end preferring to be a regular person (like the audience).
- A good moral must be included at the end.
- Comeuppance wish (curse):
- Hero is a jerk (who still has something redeemable about them) who needs a kick in the butt.
- Requires a “Save the Cat” scene where you see the hero has something worth saving.
- Hero grows as they deal with the curse, benefiting in the end as they become a better person.
Dude with a Problem
(Breakdown, Titanic, The Terminator, Die Hard, Schindler’s List)
An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
Primal Goal: Overcoming insane circumstances despite being average.
- The relative size of the challenge has to be enormous compared to the hero’s abilities.
- The badder the bad guy, the greater the heroics. (Hint: make the bad guy as bad as possible so the hero is that much more heroic.)
- The hero triumphs from his willingness to use his individuality to outsmart the extreme powers against him.
Rites Of Passage
(28 Days, Ordinary People, 10, Days of Wine and Roses, When A Man Loves A Woman, On Death and Dying)
Life throws changes at you that are painful, awkward, and full of torment, but it is also what makes us human.
Primal Goal: Survive as the whole world is crashing down upon you.
- Feels like everybody’s in on “the joke” except the person who’s going through it.
- Only by going through the experience will the hero find the solution.
- “The monster” is often unseen, vague, can’t be named, and can’t be grasped; it “sneaks up” on the struggling hero.
- The hero slowly realizes who and what “the monster” is. (Some aspect of Life.)
- Victory is won by giving up to forces stronger than ourselves.
- End point is acceptance of our humanity (“That’s Life!”).
(Dumb & Dumber, Rain Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Finding Nemo, 48 Hours, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Lethal Weapon, E.T.)
Primal Goal: He drives me crazy, but I can’t live without him.
- The secret of a good buddy movie is that it is a love story in disguise. (And all love stories are buddy movies with the potential for sex.)
- At first the “buddies” hate each other. (Where would they go if they didn’t?”
- Then they realize they need one another as they proceed through their adventure.
- Realizing they need each other results in even more conflict. (Who can tolerate needing anyone?
- In the end they can’t stand that they don’t live well apart, so they surrender their egos to win.
- The buddy who is the hero does most or all of the changing.
- The other buddy is the catalyst for the hero’s change, although he himself will do little to no changing.
(Chinatown, JFK, The Insider, All the President’s Men, Citizen Kane, China Syndrome, Mystic River) Notes:
The “who” isn’t nearly as interesting as the “why.”
- Unlike “Golden Fleece,” “Whydunit” isn’t about the hero changing. Instead it’s about the audience discovering something dark and unexpected about human nature.
- The audience is the real detective, and the “detectives” on screen are just their surrogates.
- The audience ultimately is the one who have to sift through all the clues, and the ones who are shocked by what they find.
- The investigation onscreen really is looking into the dark side of humanity, namely ourselves as if through an x-ray machine.
- Asks “Are we this evil?”
The Fool Triumphant
(Being There, Forrest Gump, Dave, The Jerk)
- On the outside, The Fool appears to be the Village Idiot; however, he is really the wisest of them all.
- As the underdog, The Fool has the advantage of being anonymous, and everyone naturally underestimates his ability; ultimately this allows him the chance to shine.
- The Fool is an overlooked man who wins because of the specialness of not giving up despite all odds.
- No establishment is too sacred or off-limits to be the bad guy.
- The Fool is inept and unequipped for life.
- The Fool is set up against a powerful “establishment” bad guy.
- Often an “accomplice” who sees The Fool for what he really is, and is surprised he is getting away with his “ruse.” (The “accomplice” often get the brunt of it when they try to interfere.)
- Ultimately those society calls “winners” get a comeuppance by the actions of The Fool. (This gives us average people hope, as well as poking fun at the structures we take so seriously.)
(M*A*S*H, American Family, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Animal House, Breakfast Club)
Ultimately, the main question is: “Who is crazier, me or them?”
Primal Goal: Loyalty to the group above all else (even common sense or survival)
- These movies both honor institution (group, family, gang, clique) and expose the problem of losing ones identity to it.
- The group dynamic in these stories is often crazy and self-destructive. (“Insanity of the herd mentality”)
- It’s about the pros and cons of putting the group before ourselves.
- Must have a breakout character whose role is to expose the group goal as fraud.
- These stories are often told from the view of a newcomer, an innocent who is being initiated into the group by a veteran member.
- These newcomers provide a way for the audience to learn how the group operates.
(Dracula, Frankenstein, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Superman, Batman, Robocop. Greek mythology: Hercules)
About what it’s like to be different.
- Opposite of “Dude with a Problem.”
- “An extraordinary person finds himself in an ordinary world.”
- Asks audience to identify and sympathize with a superhero who has to deal with the struggles of helpless little people/mediocre world.
- The tiny minds around the superhero are the real problem. (“Don’t they get it?” “No, that is why being special is so difficult.”)
- Hero is born into a world he did not create, but must deal with people who are jealous of his unique point of view and superior mind.
- Problem for genre: sympathizing with a superior being; Solution: stress the pain that goes along with having these advantages.
- Make hero give up personal comfort so as to give back to community.
- Stress sympathy for superhero’s plight; also, sequels will fail if writer doesn’t recreate this sympathy in each movie.
- Superhero will never be understood; identify with him by sympathizing with his struggle of being misunderstood.
Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret
Most movies feel like they’ve been lifted from another movie:
- Fast and Furious = Point Break
- The Matrix = Monsters, Inc
- Who Saved Roger Rabbit = Chinatown
The reason is not the lack of creativity, but because these story templates work and they work for a reason that must be repeated. Your job is to learn why it works and how everything fits together. Don’t steal and don’t be cliché, but it’s highly recommended that you follow the rules. The rules aren’t confining, they are actually liberating. Once you understand the rules, you’ll be able to successfully break away from them.