Book Review: ‘Save the Cat’ Will Make You a Better Storyteller
Note: This is the first post in a monthly series of book reviews. Reading is a vital part of your creative life, and my goal in this series is to curate the most important books that will unlock your creative potential. You can find an annotated list of book recommendations on my Resources page.
We live in a world that is creatively fragmented. If you put ten people in a room together, chances are good that each one will have different tastes in music, art, and books. We have endless choices about the art we consume today because there is so much content available.
However, there is one industry that still creates art for the masses: Hollywood. You can go almost anywhere in the world and mention The Avengers, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, and people will probably know what you’re talking about.
Movies are the cultural currency of the 21st century. They give us a common language and unite people who otherwise have nothing in common. We are wired to love stories, and movies tell stories more powerfully than any other art form.
How can screenwriting help you?
As creatives, it’s important for us to understand why and how stories work. A great place to begin is by studying screenwriting. You may not consider yourself a writer, or don’t plan on writing a screenplay. Even so, understanding the storytelling process can help you in a variety of ways.
First, you come to appreciate movies more. A little knowledge about screenwriting will give you a deeper understand of the movies you watch.
Second, you’ll be inspired to try writing your own stories. I had never considered writing a story until I began studying screenwriting.
Third, screenwriting principles can help you see the arc of your own story. You come to see that your creative journey mirrors the classic hero’s journey. And you also start to see how your art helps others live a better story.
So you’re interested in screenwriting and storytelling, but where do you turn for help?
Enter ‘Save the Cat!’
My hands-down favorite book on screenwriting is Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. “Save the cat” refers to a scene where the hero does something likable—i.e. saving a cat—so the audience will root for him (or her).
The subtitle of the book is The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. It may not literally be the last screenwriting book you’ll ever need, but it comes close. Save the Cat! helps you understand how to take a concept from an idea to a full-blown screenplay. Snyder’s writing is clear, direct, and best of all, very funny.
Chapters 2 and 4 are the most valuable parts of Save the Cat! Chapter 2 details the 10 movie genres, and how to recognize each one. These aren’t generic genres such as “action” or “romance.” Snyder takes an entirely different approach and uses categories such as Buddy Love, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, and Golden Fleece. When you’re writing a story, it’s vital to understand the rules of the genre you’re using.
Chapter 4 contains an in-depth discussion of 15 key “beats” found in any successful movie. I have gone through several movies using this system, and I’ve been amazed at how accurate it is.
Save the Cat! opened my eyes to the world of storytelling and helped me understand why we respond to great movies. The reason: because screenwriters know how to satisfy our hunger for powerful stories. I am such a big fan of Save the Cat! that I’m using it as a textbook for my Faith & Film college course this semester.
Before his passing a few years ago, Blake Snyder wrote two follow-up books, both well worth owning: Save the Cat! Strikes Back and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies. I also recommend that you check out the Save the Cat! website for sample “beat sheets” and all kinds of other goodies related to storytelling and screenwriting. The Save the Cat! podcast is another great resource.
Bottom line: Save the Cat! will help you understand story structure, appreciate the movies you watch, and inspire you to create your own stories.