Book Review – Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Tuesday March 31, 2015 | By Hieronymus Hawkes | Novel Review
Saving the Novel Writer, One Cat at a Time.
There doesn’t appear to be a consensus from my informal survey of Goodreads and blog sites on Save the Cat in most writing circles. Some would say it needs its own “save the cat” moment. Others are devoted to the teachings laid out within. I found it useful in several ways. A point in Blake Snyder’s favor is that he provides exercises at the end of each chapter and gives a lot of excellent examples.
Snyder opens strong with his logline concept. The idea of being able to sum up your story in one sentence has its appeal. It will make pitching your book all that much simpler, but it is certainly easier said than done. Blake’s construct is framed around having the “Big Idea” from the start. There is value in this, but his focus is on selling the script to a producer, not on helping frame the book.
He even goes so far as to try to convince the reader that the title of the project should reflect the logline. The titles may be self evident but they certainly aren’t “killer” as he would put it. They lack imagination.
Having a logline before you start seems like a good idea if you want to write a story using your craft skills. I can see a lot of “pantsers” arguing that this would strip the soul from their story, but it can be a useful starting point to deviate from perhaps. Trying to go back and capture a logline after the first draft is well underway can be a daunting task.
The next chapter lacks focus but the bottom line is read in your genre and avoid clichés. Snyder confuses the reader with talk about doing the same thing but different, and then provides a list of the different types of movie plots. He refers to them as genre, but they are not the same thing that novel writer would recognize. Perhaps there is profit in this for a screenwriter, but it’s more plot focused than genre focused.
Blake follows this with selecting your hero. Here again it can be a little confusing for the novel writer. Snyder says, “It has to be about someone. It has to have one or two people we can focus our attention on, identify with, and want to root for – and someone who can carry the movie’s theme.” This is all fine and good, but his focus is more on picking a character that will amp up the logline. What I think he actually means is that you need to pick the character that can tell your story and has the most at stake. This is critical. There are craft things we can do to make the character more or less sympathetic, so maybe there is a little of cart before the horse here. I think Snyder knows that, but simply has trouble putting it in the right context. We see snippets in this chapter about his focus of selling the script versus telling a good story, when he talks about not writing the script for a particular actor or type. That is probably good advice for a screenwriter, but not necessarily important for a novel writer.
Next, we get to the meat and potatoes of the book, where the advice is widely praised for its story structure ideas. The three act play and Snyder’s fifteen beats are great fundamentals to hang a story on. He goes through each beat, providing good descriptions of what they are, with solid examples. He also explains how they fit within the three act play structure. This chapter alone is the payoff for the entire book. His advice to hit the mark on the proper page can be taken with a grain of salt, but the beats are sound.
The section that follows is also gold. Snyder talks about the value of a good mentor, to which I can attest, and he lays out the storyboard concept.
I’ve had a lot of mentor figures in my life, both good and bad, and there are beneficial things to be learned from both, but a great mentor is invaluable. It’s like a fastpass to learning tricks-of-the-trade along with the fundamentals. They may also furnish priceless networking connections. Even the less good ones can often provide at least a few lessons, as well as showcasing how not to do it if the roles are reversed.
The storyboard idea can be used in pre and post draft work. For someone who enjoys outlining and plotting ahead of time the storyboard is a great way to see if you are staying on track and hitting all your marks. For someone who would rather seat-of-the-pants write, the storyboard can clarify the plot structure and framework of the draft, showing where things might need to be cut or moved around to better fit the flow of the story. I like his concept of using note-cards and limiting them to 40. This keeps the work focused and forces the writer to examine every scene to see if it moves the story forward. I especially like Blake’s idea of writing down on each card the emotional change and conflict for each scene. These comments make the story arc easier to visualize, and the ability to color code and add further clarity by tying concepts or arcs together.
The next two chapters go into pitfalls to watch out for, and then he closes with a potpourri of things about selling scripts and stuff that really doesn’t do much for the novel writer.
Overall, I found a lot of value in this book. Blake’s focus on selling to a producer versus good story telling leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many writers, but there are nuggets of gold in these pages if you can grasp the underlying meaning. The concrete examples he uses provide a clear picture of the concepts and his structure ideas are well worth the read.