I found SAVE THE CAT! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need through a novelist’s blog. I was scouring the internet for help getting through the “muddle” of my novel when I read the title. Cats rule the internet, so I Googled the phrase, read a few reviews, and ordered it from my favorite bookstore. Could a book about writing screenplays help me structure my MG/YA novel?
Loglines, Beat Sheets, and The Board
On the Plotter-versus-Pantser spectrum, Snyder’s approach is pure Plotter. Whereas Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is sprinkled with reminders that his advice is just a tool and your story doesn’t have to follow the mythic structure, Snyder prescribes 110 pages for a screenplay and lays out exactly what should be happening during each page range, sometimes down to a specific page.
But that’s after Snyder lets you start writing, which doesn’t happen until the end of Chapter 5 (out of 8 chapters!). First, he wants you to figure out a few things.
- Chapter 1: Know what your story is about. Your proof is the Logline: a synopsis of the basic premise which, at one sentence, may be even shorter than an elevator pitch.
- Chapter 2: Identify the kind of story. This transcends genre: Snyder has his own taxonomy for story types, almost any of which can be comedy, drama, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, etc.
- Chapter 3: Who is your main character? Both in terms of point of view (which character) and character archetype (who he/she is).
Just when you think you’re ready to settle down and start writing…
- Chapter 4: Fill out a Beat Sheet, a plotting-and-pacing outline that lays out major turning points and events (beats) in the story.
- Chapter 5 introduces The Board, Snyder’s favorite storycrafting tool. The Board is a simple rectangular surface divided into four equal horizontal spaces, each representing about one-quarter of an idealized story. You get 9 index cards (beats) for each quarter, plus 4 wild cards.
Done all that? NOW you’re ready to write, at least according to Snyder. Chapters 6 and 7 offer advice for troubleshooting a story that still isn’t working after all that planning and writing. Chapter 8 offers marketing advice specific to screenwriters, which may be the least helpful chapter for a novelist. A Glossary at the back defines terms specific to Hollywood, and some that are Snyder’s own invention.
So did it help?
YES. Like the cat on the cover, I was clinging to the end of my proverbial rope when I read SAVE THE CAT! It was too late to wait to start writing, because I’d already written plenty of scenes: upbeat scenes, downbeat scenes, dramatic scenes, soul-searching scenes, cute scenes, funny scenes, tense scenes, even a chase scene or two. There were conflicts and resolutions, characters and relationships, turning points and choices. I knew my characters. I had a great logline/elevator pitch. I even had a Board! I don’t remember where I came across the idea originally, but I had one. It looked like this:
What I couldn’t figure out was what SEQUENCE would work best for the scenes in the middle. Should my main character meet the buddy first, or the girl? When should his mentor challenge him to take a risk? What happens next after he flees the villain? How will the story be different if I choose to emphasize this subplot, or that other one? SAVE THE CAT! helped me figure this out. Over the course of one intense weekend, I completely re-drafted the Board for my novel. Here’s what it looks like now:
Once that was done, I was able to place all the various scenes in order into one manuscript, with placeholders highlighted in yellow for those few scenes I still need to write, and more yellow highlight for the many scenes that need revising now that I know what comes before and after. I felt so accomplished, I split a tiny bottle of champagne with my husband. (His reward for letting me disappear into my office for the weekend, and for making sure I ate meals!)
But is it art?
Any book that offers a structured approach to storytelling gathers its share of criticism, including charges that it encourages hack or formulaic writing. Clearly, those who feel that way understand story structure on such an intuitive level that they can pants their way through an entire novel and get everything right after a few drafts. I know these writers exist. If you’re one of them, I salute you. I also invite you to guest post here on Writers’ Rumpus, to share your experience. (Get in touch! Tweet @writersrumpus, FB fan page, or comment below.)
But I’m not one of those writers. I needed help. Does following someone else’s story-structure advice turn me into a hack? Maybe. I don’t care. I know my novel is commercial, not literary. I write to have fun, and it wasn’t fun to be stuck in the muddle, knowing where my character’s story starts and ends but unsure of the order of events in between.
Thanks to SAVE THE CAT!, I’m unstuck and having fun again. I’m not sure I’ll turn into a plotter for my next book—figuring it all out before writing it, the way Snyder insists—but I’ll have another place to turn when I get stuck.
The book has no index. This surprised me, given that each chapter ends with several Exercises for the reader to work through, making it useful as a text. I’m getting by, because it’s fairly short for a reference book and the chapters are sprinkled with descriptive subheads. But still!
Throughout the book, the author invites readers to email him with questions, exceptions to the screenwriting rules he’s discovered, and so forth. Sadly, Blake Snyder died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2009. But a team of writers carries on his legacy at Savethecat.com.
So what does “Save the Cat” mean? Read the book! (Hah!) It’s in the Introduction.
 Footnote on Beat Sheets: Jami Gold has links to downloadable beat sheets developed for novelists, based on several different story structure approaches. Put the target page count in the correct cell and the spreadsheet calculates where each beat should fall, approximately.