Blake Snyder has sold dozens of scripts in his 20-year career as a screenwriter and producer. The author of the Save the Cat! book series (and software): Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter’s Guide to Every Story Ever Told, and the upcoming Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into … And Out Of (due to be released in October), Snyder is an internationally known speaker, as well. He has taught at Chapman, UCLA, Vanderbilt, and the Beijing Film Academy, among others, and does workshops throughout the country. Snyder speaks with Write On! about his “catchy little secrets” for writing, and discusses—among other things—the importance of writing badly.
Why did you write Save the Cat!?
I’ve sold a lot of screenplays in my career. I was a screenwriter who sold on spec a lot. I would get emails from writers, [asking for help]. So I started answering them, and would send out my beat sheet, which is a 15-point one-pager. I always gave it out to writers, because I thought it was handy tool.
So I decided to put it all down in a book. I wrote Save the Cat! in about 2 months: the beat sheet was in there, my genres were in there, the funny little things like “Save The Cat” were in there.
The remarkable thing about the beat sheet is how universal it is. I’ve gotten emails from novelists and advertising copywriters and marketing people—they use the 15 point beat sheet to do a 30 second commercial or to lay out a marketing campaign. I even got a letter from a real estate agent who used the 15 beats of the story to sell houses. He told the story of the house and made you the hero.
What is “Save the Cat”?
It’s that moment when a hero does something nice and you say, “Wow, what a nice guy.” You’re rooting from him from then on. It’s just one of those little techniques.
You can write a script and give it to producers, and they go, “I don’t like the hero.” And you realize it’s because you didn’t help the producers like the hero. You have to do something that makes the hero likable.
That’s part of being a screenwriter: you’re trying to figure out shorthand, so you can communicate faster. I have a new thing in my new book that’s coming out in the fall: it’s called Storming the Castle: The 5-point Finale. It’s the five points that are in every good ending.
My biggest critics are people who say I am proposing a formula. … I get a lot of grief from people who go, “You’re just writing Hollywood movies.”
Regarding the 5-point finale: you can go back to the final act in Homer’s Odyssey when Ulysses comes back and “storms the castle.” All five points are in there. Is that formula? It seems to hold up.
What are the three biggest mistakes writers make?
The first mistake writers make is in the concept. We are inspired to write for all kinds of reasons, and not all of them should wind up in the final product. I call this the “smell of the rain on the road at dawn.” You’re driving down the street and see some guy wearing a t-shirt and you go, “That’s a movie.” And maybe it’s not.
The second thing is in terms of story execution, which is corollary of the first idea: you are the small “g” god of this universe. You can change it any way you want to change it. And your prime directive is to tell a good story. A lot of writers—myself included—fall in love with stuff: that scene, that sweater that guy’s wearing; sometimes you don’t realize you can swap it all out for something else and make it work.
I think you’re only real goal is to tell a story about transformation and to make that transformation huge. A guy starts out one way he ends up another way. It’s important to keep those things in mind as you create. Just because you thought of it doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to stay.
The third thing is that the most powerful stories involve some sort of touched by the divine. I really think that the reason we tell stories is to get at the essence of some interaction with powers greater than ourselves.
There has to be something in your story that is not necessarily inspiring, but deals with a hero discovering there’s a power greater than themselves. And you see that in successful movies: in action pieces, in comedies, in dramas. I think that’s what we’re really secretly looking for it. And if you can tap into that and look for it, you’ll tell a better story.
What is your favorite part of being a writer?
I took a break from writing screenplays in 2000, 2001, I wrote other things. The truth of it is, that’s where I found my “voice.” There I was, a seasoned pro, and yet I think I really became a good writer when I took a break and looked for that voice. I’m really glad I found it.
I feel like I found not just my writing voice, but also my place. I am less interested now in selling my own screenplays than helping other writers. And I think that’s my goal.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started your career?
Everything. I wish I knew this stuff then. Some of it, you have to learn for yourself. You just have to bump along.
That’s why I am so sympathetic to people who criticize me. I was exactly the same, and it stopped me from succeeding. We all have to go through that “we’re going to do it our way” phase. And that’s important as a development: to be rebellious, to try and do it some new way. And eventually those things work their way back into your work anyway.
I wish I had short-circuited my bullhead phase.
Do you have to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter?
No. No you don’t. I think it’s a good idea to come out here. Get good at your job, and write a lot of scripts. And at some point gang up a bunch of meetings with people who respond to your material and come out and meet them all. I think it’s a good thing to have the experience of meeting movie people who are doing their job every day. Once you’ve done that, go home and write some more.
Do you ever get writers block?
No. After a certain point, it’s—for lack of a better term—age and experience. I have written so much stuff now and am not afraid of putting something on paper that’s not right.
My tendency is always not to be perfect. It just has to be out there. Right now, I have a goal of 1000 words/day, which I pretty much maintain. Sometimes the stuff you really hate when you’re writing it—you’re in a bad mood: it feels bad, looks bad—you go back and read it at the next day and you’re like, “Huh. That’s pretty good.” So, I’m always surprised by that.
That kind of dovetails into the new book: Save the Cat! Strikes Back. The subtitle is “More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into … And Out Of.” And it really is about the dark night of the script. It’s about, “I’ve hit the wall.” The truth is: when you are in trouble, it’s good. You’re right at the point where it’s going to get better.
You have to welcome trouble. You have to lean into that pain a little bit and go, “Okay. Bring it on. I’m fine. I can write my way out of this. I will find the answer.” Because there always is an answer.
Writing badly frees you up to be creative.
Tags: Author Q&A Blake Snyder Debra Eckerling Save The Cat Screenwriting Write On! Writing