Friday, October 18, 2013

Does "Save the Cat!" Lead To Lots Of Intentional Clone Cats, But We Still Love Them Because They're Cats?

I ran into this article the other day, and I couldn't help but notice my Agreement Meter rising as I read on. All too often I've seen resources available that are intended to guide experienced or fledgling writers through the craft of writing, how to do it, how to stay at it, etc.

There's some great resources out there, but few have had as big of an impact as Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Why's that? For starters, it's a screenwriting book which, according to the book's subtitle, is "the last book on screenwriting that you'll ever need." Since it hit the shelves in 2005, we started to notice a change in the delivery of the Hollywood blockbuster ... and film story in general. Turns out that since this book is centered on outlining a story (with a 15 step beat sheet), this could apply to any story, be in presented in a novel, a play, television, radio, you name it!

Before we knew it, we had lots of movies and novels that used this beat sheet as a guide that, more likely than not, aided in landing deals and discovering new talent that would have been left unexposed otherwise. A number of my author friends swear by it and have contributed part of their success to it.

I've taken a stab at it myself. In a way, it's an outline, and you have to fill in the beats. I've always been an outline writer, so what I got out of this book is when the elements are "supposed" to happen or when they "should be" introduced. While this is all and good, the bad thing about good things is people tend to jump on a good thing.

That means it's good right? For a limited time only, maybe ...

The article I mentioned details what I'm referring to. Now, when I go to the movies or read a new book, I can't help but feel an element of predictability. Yes, there are introductions, conflicts, rising action, climaxes, and so forth (all expected), but it feels more pointed, at times forced, much like messing with genetics to create an outcome rather than letting nature take its course, or focusing on a structure instead of the construction. Those who use the beat sheet as a guide (rather than the law) ultimately produce great stories. Thing is, we now have many stories that use this technique, and while it works, from what I'm seeing, some struggle with what to write between beats. Plot devices are randomly thrown in and the dialogue feels contrived - because that's WHEN it's "supposed" to happen.

I've always felt that the moment an external influence dictates what an artist does, some level of creativity is compromised. But wait, it even said in the book that it's a guide and not a rule book, but when something is toted as a "storytelling bible" and story structure software is created based on the beat sheet, you gotta wonder ...

This is just my thought on the matter. The key to a good story is execution - doesn't matter what style or structure. I'm by no means dissing this book or those who use it regularly, for the record. As a writer, I look for any tool I can get my hands on. The trick, at that point, is to use the tool in a way that only I can - the only way you can. Find ways to make it different from anything we've read or seen. That alone will help us develop a stand-out story to be proud of.

Open discussion time! I'd love to know what you think. Got to take off for now, so in case I don't see ya, have a fantastic weekend!

Does this structure run the risk of beating a tried and true formula to death? What does this mean for the future of storytelling? Do we expect books and movies to follow these beat now?

I'm David, it's about time we had an Aquaman movie ... right?


  1. I can see where it would lead to a lot of similar books and movies as far as pacing goes. I read the book immediately after I wrote the first draft of CassaFire and upon comparison, I realized I'd hit the fifteen beats without even knowing it.
    I think it helps to have that in your head as reference, but know when to use it and when not to use it. I didn't even think about it when writing CassaStorm.
    Still a great book though - my favorite writing book.

  2. Romantic comedies have followed the same plotline for years and yet people still love them. Maybe it affects some genres more than others?

  3. I enjoy romantic comedies, good to have a laugh though I have read Alex's first two books and almost finished his third.

    Enjoy your week-end.

  4. I've debated this David. On one hand, I think it probably offers a formula that is, as Diane intimated, pretty successful. On the other, it's a cookie cutter and people can glue themselves to the formula without creative thought. I imagine for popular fiction, it's probably better to stick closer to the formula than stray too much. There's still plenty of creative room in the plot, characters and action.

  5. The sad truth is that I bought a book in a used book store in the late 80s called The Seven Plots.

    Guess when that book came out?

    Yeah, it was a book from the 20s.

    Blake's seven plots?

    The same. Which is to say, all story structure harkens back to something primal. For people who study plot structure, all plots are predictable. I'm rarely surprised by endings that have my family and friends twisted up, but I've studied plot. I think Snyder's take on it is how much more easily consumed it is than similar pieces like Hero with a Thousand Faces.

  6. It's the same trap as when a popular book comes out, a trailblazer in its genre, and a zillion copycats that follow the exact same formula arrive in its wake. I think people want a "safe bet," something that they know has been successful before, but it's novelty that made the trailblazer popular in the first place. We should always look for new ways to tell a story, no matter what medium!

  7. I agree. Every time I write out my 15 beats I ALWAYS drift and none of my books have ever conformed to this formula, but it serves more of a starting point for me than anything. My book releasing in 2014 takes a huge plot risk (which I love) but wouldn't be there if I was too stuck on following 'the rules.'

  8. The thing about formulas for things like this is that they depend on factors that are objective. Something can follow the points to the letter, but that doesn't mean it will work. The formula is never going to "die" because it depends on the skill of the writer to be good, not itself. Or at least that's what I think.

  9. This is something I've thought about a lot, and it applies to all kinds of "structures." If you let them dictate your story instead of provide a general framework, creativity takes a backseat. That's one thing I like about first drafts. I know generally where I'm going, but a first draft is where I can just throw down anything I want, and even if it's crap, at least I'm getting creative. Then I can use the structure to shape things--not dictate them.

  10. I should read the book before I comment, but... I don't like putting writing in a box. It's true that characters should develop, plots should unfold, but I don't think it should follow a predictable timeline.

  11. I haven't read the book yet...BUT, with a lot of things in life, I see "guidelines" turning into "rules." For example, this book is supposed to help our writing, not define it. But when it becomes so popular, it can start sliding into the defining zone. It's a tool for us, our story isn't a tool for it.

  12. Hey, I'm glad you said this. I read this book and then decided it was a good tool but I didn't like to think about such things when I was writing. It felt too restrictive. And your post I think relates why. It often doesn't let the story breathe on its can be a rigid corset. As you said--guidelines only!

  13. Love the book. It's saved me countless hours of rewrites, because I could easily catch the plot holes that I knew where there, but I didn't know how to fix them. Seriously love it.

    That being said, it's a guideline. My beats aren't always right where there supposed to be, but I write High Fantasy, which takes a long longer than other genres, simply because of the world building.