Save the Cat! Trap: A Helpful Guide or a Narrative Straitjacket?
There is a new sickness running through the screenwriting world, a sickness that attempts to twist every instance of narrative fiction through the reductive filter that is the "Save the Cat!" story structure paradigm.
As with last year's article Not Everything Is a Hero's Journey, this article will shed some light on the mistakes and oversights prevalent in this popular and pervasive understanding of story.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the Save the Cat! paradigm. The chapters on Genre in particular are perceptive. But to contend that STC gives Authors the tools to say something truly meaningful is to show a lack of understanding into how a story's structure offers meaning. STC can be a helpful guide as to how the Audience will receive a story, but it lacks substantial material to help an Author say exactly what it is they want to say.
Before diving in, note that this is a criticism of the accuracy of the Save the Cat! paradigm, NOT a personal attack on the author, Blake Snyder. Having received email expressing concern over the constant badgering of the beloved story guru on this site, it becomes necessary to lay out in clear and precise terms the purpose behind this article.
As mentioned several times in the past, particularly in the piece entitled Stories Are Not Always About Transformation, Snyder's writing has always been a great source of inspiration for those wishing to write. There are many who find his infectious take on the sequences of story illuminating and they should not interpret this article as an effort to downplay such an influence. Clearly he has had an impact on many great artists, including but not limited to, those behind Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon.
There are some who feel it is unfair to criticize someone who can't defend themselves. Projecting that logic, one should not pick apart the works of Lajos Egris or even the great and vaulted Aristotle because they no longer have a voice. Pointing out that stories have a beginning, middle and end is a good start and a nice introduction to structural concepts, but is Aristotle's Poetics the penultimate understanding of how powerful a story can be?
Certainly not. It is within this same line of logic that we begin exploring the shortcomings of Save the Cat!.
The purpose of great narrative fiction is to argue a particular point-of-view through the context of problem-solving. It is true that fiction could seek out other grand purposes--slice-of-life stories like The Kids Are All Right, or tall tales like True Grit--but for the most part, when an Author sits down to write a compelling work of fiction they are usually trying to say something meaningful.
Complete stories offer an author the opportunity to make this argument in such a way that an audience must accept it (if they accept the story's initial givens). Authors are able to pull this off because complete stories present several points-of-view on the problem at hand, points-of-view that are impossible to hold simultaneously in an Audience's day-to-day lives. This is the true power behind great stories.
STC never once makes this assertion, preferring instead, to focus on the obvious.
The greatest of these observations is the fifteen sequences or "Beats" that STC believes runs through every story. While interesting in their ability to accurately describe what happens in a film, they never move beyond simply being a collection of touch points to hit. Touch points, mind you, that are so recognizable that UCLA screenwriting instructor Corey Mandell believes them to be deficient:
Over the years I have brought in agents, managers and producers to speak to my UCLA classes, and they all pretty much say the same thing. They can spot a script written to one of the popular structure formulas a mile away, and these scripts almost never succeed.
Beyond the formulaic nature of these beats, identifying the differences between the Final Image and Opening Image, while at first glance instructive, doesn't help an Author say what they want to say. Why does that difference exist and how does one go about constructing a story that naturally leads from Opening to Final?
Some would say the last 13 beats take care of all that, but even then, the sequence in which these beats occur has no significance.
As with popular interpretations of the Hero's Journey model, the Save the Cat! paradigm plays with the sequence of its beats as if the order in which they appear has no meaning. The Theme Stated can happen after the Midpoint, the Catalyst can happen before the Set-Up and the B-Story can happen before the Break into Two.
The problem with this is that the order of events has meaning. Learning story structure in order to write a story is not the same as writing a story in order to learn what works. The direction of a process helps describe its purpose. To say that you can interchange two events without affecting their significance is to say that you have two meaningless events.
If the beats are meaningless then, how can one account for their prevalence in many popular and well-written stories?
There is a huge difference between the reception of a story and the creation of a story. Stories are Like Birthday Cake. We can consume them at will and appreciate the joy they gave us without having a clue as to how their genesis.
Reading Save the Cat! is like eating a large piece of chocolate-frosted birthday cake--a corner piece if you want to be completely precise. It tastes sweet, feels creamy on the tongue, and goes down easy. But at the end of it all, we still have no concept of how they made the cake. We can make guesses, as STC does, as to the layering of each section, and we know instinctively when it tastes awful, but we're still miles away from creating our own cake. We may feel inspired to make our own, but we have no idea where to start.
The baker, on the other hand, has a list of ingredients and a recipe to follow - an intention of baking. While the consumer of his baked goods has no concept of the preparation, the baker has no idea what the final product will taste like. He can make an educated guess, a much easier one than the consumer faces, but still faces the unknown when faced with its reception.
A great author must play both parts--baker and consumer--in the creation of a meaningful story.
The STC beats are an understanding of stories as seen from the consumer, i.e. the Audience. The Fun and Games beat is a wonderful insight (probably the most original as well), but it has little to do with what a story means. This explains why the sequence of beats can be so easily changed--they are insights into Story-telling, NOT Story-forming. We know those Fun and Games taste chocolatey-cocoa-nutty but just how much cocoa to put in and just how much coconut remains an elusive mystery.
This mystery masquerading as understanding leads to all sorts of destructive trains of thought.
The first runaway train exists within the "B Story" and the belief that it happens after the Break Into Two. As mentioned before, there are times where STC backtracks on this and puts it well within the First Act (where it belongs), but for the most part the contention persists that this important part of storytelling happens after the first major Act turn.
As covered in the article The Reason for Acts, Acts have a purpose beyond beginning, middle and end:
This is why Acts exist within a story. They signify the change in dramatic focus the characters take in order to solve the problems within a story. The reason there are only four acts in every complete story is because for every problem we can experience in our lives, there are four major contexts, or dramatic approaches, we can take in order to go about effective problem-solving.
This "B Story" requires those same four movements. To be perfectly accurate, the B story refers to the emotional argument carried within a meaningful story, an argument between the central character of the piece and another character who provides an alternate approach towards solving problems. This throughline works in concert with the other more logical side of the argument, what is typically called the A-story line. To wait until the A-story line has already moved on to a new frame of reference before the B-story line has even started is to break this important connection.
When an Author delays this exploration, as suggested within STC, they are effectively weakening their own argument. By missing out on the dissonance present when both play off each other simultaneously, an Author robs an Audience of that beautiful experience. The harmonics of meaning lay forever dormant and silent.
While STC was correct in identifying this essential component of story, where it fails is in its placement within the story's structure and its explanation for why this B storyline even exists.
Yet another miscue within the STC paradigm lies in the common assumption that stories divide into three parts. One short, one long, and another short. And like the Morse code it resembles, this understanding--taken for granted since Aristotle--represents a distress code for those seeking stronger, more meaningful stories.
Sometimes stories have three acts. Sometimes they have four. Sometimes they only have two. To be perfectly precise, more often than not a complete story is a combination of four, three and two acts simultaneously among the different throughlines. Just how many and in what combination lies entirely on what the story is trying to say. Structure supports the message.
To assume that there are always three Acts conveniently divided by a Midpoint, as with STC, Robert McKee, Syd Field and everyone else, is to miss out on an opportunity to form a deeper understanding of story structure. It also can lead to a misuse of that middle Act turn commonly known as the Midpoint.
Take for instance The Fugitive. While the logical side of the argument, the one surrounding a fugitive on the loose, maintains the typical three-act structure, the emotional argument, the "B-story" line between Kimball and Gerard consists of two acts. The first half finds them at odds over Kimball's innocence, the second finds the two growing closer together as Gerard learns to "care."
This structural set-up, where the Midpoint relates specifically to the relationship present within the "B-story" line, exists within Witness, Some Like It Hot, and The Sixth Sense. It does not exist in Lawrence of Arabia, All About Eve or Splendor In The Grass. In these films, the Midpoint specifically turns the main storyline. Every story has a unique structure depending on the point-of-view the Author wishes to express. The message forms the structure.
The problem occurs when those steeped in STC spend time trying to force a huge turning point into the logical A-story line when what they're trying to say doesn't require that.
Before Cole's revelation that he sees "dead people", the relationship between he and Malcom in The Sixth Sense was primarily a clinical one between doctor and patient. After that reveal, they shifted towards becoming two friends on equal footing--each trying to help the other move on.
If the Author of that film had instead focused on turning the larger A-story line, as dictated by the STC paradigm, he would have missed out on the chance to create a relationship that meant something to the message of the film. Instead of applying pressure in just the right spot to support their argument, Authors who follow STC guess at which throughline requires the more significant Act turn.
And this is where Save the Cat! becomes troublesome.
You can look at any movie and find a Fun and Games moment or a Bad Guys Closing In scene the same way someone from South America can see the Virgin Mary in a tortilla chip.
The intent was never there to begin with.
The STC beat sheet is a look at story from the audience's point-of-view. What a character wants versus what they need is what we the audience learn about the character's journey, it is NOT what an Author sets out to prove. And it is not what an author needs to be asking himself when crafting a story.
The moment a particular story isn't working and the one reading it or the one considering producing it turns to STC for the answer, meaning breaks down. By tacking on scenes or moments that have NOTHING to do with the Author's original intent, these well-meaning individuals impose another man's interpretation of story on their own work.
Most writers write to express their own unique point-of-view. Save the Cat!, the Hero's Journey, Syd Field's Template, the Writer's Journey, etc. impose story-telling conceits upon a writer's personal expression, dictating a meaningless collection of cultural commonalities on their art. These paradigms always have caveats and always bend their own rules, because they don't mean anything. In short, they don't help an artist say what it is they want to say.
Structure is meaning, not a template. If the intent of an Author is to provide a slice-of-life experiential tableau then they don't need structure. However, if the intent of an Author is to argue a particular point-of-view (as it is 90-95% of the time) then they have to craft their story in such a way that their argument is irrefutable by an audience member. How they structure their story will help formulate that argument.
With this last point it becomes clear that the Save the Cat! paradigm represents a wonderful introduction, or "Starter Kit", to the wonderful world that is story structure. Disregarding the huge errors present within it--as when it states that every hero "lets go of his old logic" to do "something he would never do when the movie began"--STC introduces those new to writing some of the common story-telling techniques present in many stories. Unfortunately, it is so easy to digest and so pleasing to read, that many believe it is all they need.
Referring back to the analogy of stories as birthday cake, the delicious concepts within the Save the Cat! paradigm showcase only a small part of the story creation process. They can help make a story more palatable, but they can't make a story.
If Save the Cat! is birthday cake, Dramatica is a heaping pile of liver--an excellent source of nutrients that tastes nasty and takes even longer to force down. But like most things that are good for you, Dramatica is not there to make your life easier.
Unlike STC or any other sequence-based beat sheet story structure paradigm, Dramatica does not dictate page numbers or the positive/negative aspects of certain scenes. It certainly does not insinuate that the Main Character must Change (doing something they wouldn't have done at the beginning), leaving the question of final Resolve up to the Author. Some characters Change the way they see the world, others Remain Steadfast in their approach.
Acts represent areas of thematic focus and exist not only in the A and "B-story" lines (what Dramatica refers to as the Objective Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline), but also within the Main Character and the Obstacle Character he or she develops a relationship with. Waiting to start the Relationship Story Throughline until after the Objective Story has already moved into its Second Act (or Transit) breaks the meaning of the story.
In regards to three, four or two acts, Chris Huntley's document Dramatica Act Structures has all the answers. In short, the feeling of a major reversal in dramatic focus (as in a major Act Turn) depends entirely on the type of thematic material in question. Sometimes that will result in a typical Three-Act Structure, other times it could be Four or even Two. The end result, as always, lies what the Author is trying to say.
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