Save the Cat by Blake Snyder - Book Summary, Beat Sheet, Lessons and Quotes

Screenwriting

Breaking down Hollywood movie making with a simple beat sheet and rules for marketing yourself, Save the Cat provides new screenwriters with a helpful toolkit to write and sell their first screenplay.

Table of contents

TABLE OF CONTENTS

🕰️ The Book in 20 Seconds

Whether it’s learning how to write a logline that can sell, how to structure a screenplay, network in Hollywood, or get a screenwriting agent, Save the Cat is a one-stop shop that teaches aspiring writers the basics of the business in an easy-to-digest format.

🤔 Who Should Read It

Save the Cat is a perfect read for anyone new to the craft of screenwriting. While Snyder has been criticised for the simplicity of Save the Cat, it is this very feature that makes it perfect for newbies. 

💬 Best Quotes

‘Until you have your pitch, and it grabs me, don’t bother with the story’
‘Writers tend to be insular, introverted, and introspective. But if you want to sell your script, you have to sell yourself’
‘A logline is like the cover of a book; a good one makes you want to open it’‘
'You can have a good idea and absolutely ruin it with the wrong characters’
‘A studio executive once told me to "give me the same thing, only different"'

📔 Summary and Key Ideas

🐈 What is Save the Cat? 

Save the Cat is a screenwriting rule invented by Blake Snyder that says: ‘the hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win’, for example, saving a cat from a tree. 

Snyder uses the example of Al Pacino in Sea of Love (1989). When we first meet Pacino’s cop hero, he lets off a criminal because he has his son with him, but says ‘catch ya later’. Pacino has saved the cat by showing the audience he is a good guy, and done it in a cool, stylish manner which the audience enjoy. 

❓Do I Always Have to Save the Cat Like This? 

No. Naturally, different screenplays require different strategies for character development, and purely making someone ‘likeable’ is obviously reductive, but Snyder addresses this concern. 

He explains that saving the cat isn’t just about making a hero ‘likeable’, it’s about getting the audience ‘in sync’ which the character. 

For example, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction was a violent contract killer, but Tarantino puts you on his side by impressing the nature of his far more fearsome and dangerous boss, Marcellus Wallace.  

🤔 Is Save the Cat Still Relevant?

While written in 2005, Save the Cat is still relevant to screenwriting today because although some of its information on how the business works has aged badly, the core concepts of how to write a solid Hollywood screenplay remain. 

For example, Save the Cat was released amidst the early 2000s spec-script boom where it was not unusual for a screenwriter to sell a high-concept screenplay to a studio for six figures. In a post-streaming era, this is now extraordinarily rare, but comparatively, Snyder’s lessons on logline writing and the importance of structure have no sell by date.

💰 How to Write A Sellable Logline (Step by Step)

Given that Save the Cat is focused specifically on mainstream filmmaking, it is no surprise that one of Snyder’s key lessons in the book is the importance of your logline. (A logline is a short one or two sentence summary of a movie/tv show. See examples here). 

More often than not, mainstream movies can be sold to a customer in that one line. Think Jurassic Park, Alien, Ride Along. They are high concept and easily digestible for both customers and movie studio executives. As Snyder puts it, you want ‘stories you can pitch to a cave man and they will get it’.

Snyder writes that screenwriters often think of their logline last. This is the wrong way round. Think of it first! It will be your rubric to work to throughout your script. 

He writes that you should be a ‘slave to the logline’, spending a long time to craft it, then using it as the backbone for all steps taken after. 

Ok that’s great, but how do we write one? Well luckily Blake has you sorted: 

STEP 1 - Irony

The most important part of a sellable logline according to Snyder is irony. Great loglines set up the conflict and drama in a few words, most easily achieved with irony. 

For example, using the previously mentioned movies:

Jurassic Park - A group of scientists visit the world’s most revolutionary theme park (woo fun!), only to be attacked by its prehistoric inhabitants (not so fun!).

Alien - A space crew investigate a mysterious foreign planet (interesting!) but on their way back learn a murderous extraterrestrial monster has joined them on their ship (oh no!). 

Ride Along - A high school security guard’s girlfriend agrees to marry him (great!) but her tough cop brother won’t give his blessing until our hero gets through a police ride along (that's not as easy!). 

Ok, those examples are pretty basic but hopefully you get the picture. 

STEP 2 - A Compelling Mental Picture

Secondly, your logline must paint immediate and obvious visuals in the eye of the reader. 

Snyder writes that you want their imagination to ‘run wild’ with what he calls ‘the promise of more’. 

With both Jurassic Park and Alien, for example, we can easily imagine set pieces with the monsters chasing our heroes. Likewise, in Ride Along, you can imagine our mild-mannered lead thrown into varying amusing situations as he goes through a night on the streets. 

The reader must be able to imagine not just a situation but an entire story

STEP 3 - Audience and Cost

Thirdly, a sellable logline allows the producer reading it to know what it’s going to cost them and who they can market it too. 

Jurassic Park’s logline clearly denotes a more expensive movie than Ride Along, for example.

As filmmaking is ultimately a business, you must remember that certain executives will be looking at your idea as not just an idea but a number on a piece of paper. 

If your logline has ‘army of aliens’ in it, that’s going to be a lot harder on the budget than a ‘single mother’. 


STEP 4 - A Killer Title

Next, you need a brilliant title for your script. One that ‘says what it is’ in a clever way. 

Having a great logline with a killer title is the great one-two punch of writing for mainstream success. 

If an executive can read both and get an idea for your idea in their head then you’re well on your way to selling your script and getting to the big time!

STEP 5 - Amp Up Your Logline

With your carefully planned out logline in hand, Snyder explains it’s now time to take it to the next level. 

To do this, most notably, Snyder pushes adding ‘primal roots’ to your story.Families, sex, survival. Anything from the world of Charles Darwin goes. 

For example; Ride Along isn’t the same if it’s not the cops brother in law.

Step 6 - Pitching Your Logline

Now you have your expertly crafted logline, it’s time to do some market research. 

Snyder recommends pitching it to anyone who will listen: friends, family, even strangers. You’ll get instant feedback on whether the concept works and get reps on your pitching muscles as well. 

A simple way to tell if you have a good logline is to compare it to that feeling when you hear someone else's and think ‘why didn’t I think of that!’.

✏️ Writing Your Screenplay

1. Know WHAT it’s about

Though it may sound simple, Snyder writes that knowing what your screenplay is actually about is the ‘name of the game’ in Hollywood. 

By knowing what it’s about, you’ll be able to describe it easily and when you are competing against so many other forms of media in the modern world, being able to 'cut through the traffic’ is crucial. 

This is why movies and television are so overwhelmed with existing franchises. It hops over the difficult first task of having the audience understand what your story is about. That’s why in Hollywood they are known as ‘pre-sold franchises’. 

2. Then know WHO it is about

If you know what it’s about, the next step is to know who it’s about. Our ‘who is our way in’ to the story. It provides a person for us to identify with. Someone to hang the story on. 

It is important to know what it’s about first as the hero must be crafted to provide the ‘most conflict in the situation and have the longest emotional journey, with a primal goal we can root for’. 

Snyder writes that: 

‘Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, and fear of death grab us. It is usually someone we can identify with primally, too, and that’s why mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives make better characters than mere strangers facing the same situations and storylines’

As usual, it comes back to the logline which should show who our lead is and why they are suited to the dramatic situation. 

E.g. ‘A risk adverse teacher’ - ‘A wiley CIA agent’ - ‘A reclusive janitor’. Etc.

Think carefully over the traits you choose for your hero and make sure they fit with what the film is about as it will be the hero who needs to carry the theme of the movie. 

🎥 The 10 Different Kinds of Hollywood Movie

In Save the Cat, Snyder breaks down mainstream moving making into 10 specific genres. We’re not talking crime, action or romance, no no, these are something very different. They are different Snyder's own observed categories, which overlay the traditional list of genres. 

1. Monster in the House 

Examples: Jaws, Alien, The Exorcist, Panic Room.

This is a heavily primal genre consisting of...a monster, and a house (surprise!). Jaws and Amity Island beach, Xenomorph and spaceship, devil and house, burglars and panic room. You get it.

Rules:


2. Golden Fleece

Examples - Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Back To The Future.

This is the ‘quest’ movie genre. Often seen in the form of a road movie. The hero goes out to search for one thing and ends up discovering another, themself. Aww.

Rules:


3. Out of the Bottle

Examples - Liar, Liar, Bruce Almighty, Freaky Friday.

This genre occurs when a wish is suddenly granted. Jim Carey becoming God in Bruce Almighty, Lindsey Lohan swapping bodies with her mom in Freaky Friday. 

The genre can be surmised by the line ‘I wish I had a…’.

Rules: 


4. Dude with a Problem

Examples - Die Hard, Titanic, Schindler’s List.

This genre is defined by the phrase: 'An ordinary guy/girl finds themselves in extraordinary circumstances'.

Rules: 


5. Rite Of Passage

Examples - Ordinary People, Days of Wine, Roses. 

The genre that covers life transitions: puberty stories, divorce etc. 

Rules: 


6. Buddy Love

Examples - Dumb & Dumber, Rain Man, Notting Hill. 

Obviously, this is the genre of friends but it also encompasses romance. Rom-coms, for example, are just a buddy film with sex.  

Rules:


7. Whydunit

Examples - Chinatown, JFK, The Insider.

Working on the premise that the ‘what’ is never as interesting as the ‘why’, whydunit is most often seen as detective or political scandal films. 

Rules:


8. The Fool Triumphant

Examples - Forrest Gump, The Jerk, Amadeus, the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

An underdog is set up against a bigger establishment. 

Rules: 


9. Institutionalized

Examples - Animal House, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather.

Stories of groups, institutions and ‘families’. This genre honours the institution and exposes the problems of losing one’s identity to it. 

Rules: 


10. Superhero

Examples - Not just obvious films like Superman and Batman, also includes Dracula, Frankenstein, even Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind.

The opposite of Dude With A Problem. An extraordinary person finds themselves in an ordinary world. 

Rules: 

🗺️ Save the Cat BEAT SHEET AND BREAKDOWN

Save the Cat has become most well known for its beat sheet plan of how to structure a hit movie. Here is an easy to copy list of each step before we dig into what each section means.

1. Opening Image (page 1)

2. Theme Stated (page 5)

3. Set-up (page 1-10)

4. Catalyst (page 12)

5. Debate (page 12-25)

6. Break into Two (page 25)

7. B Story (page 30)

8. Fun and Games (page 30-55)

9. Midpoint (page 55)

10. Bad Guys Close In (page 55-75)

11. All Is Lost (page 75)

12. Dark Night of the Soul (page 75-85)

13. Break into Three (page 85)

14. Finale (page 85-110)

15. Final Image (page 110)

1. Opening Image (page 1)

This is (obviously) the first shot of the movie. 

'The very first impression of what a movie is — its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film — are all found in the opening image'.

2. Theme Stated (page 1-5)

Snyder writes that 'a good movie has to be about something', and that’s where the theme comes in. 

You want to state the theme in these first few pages. It works for both movies and television, for example Walter White stating that he did it all for his family in the opening minutes of the Breaking Bad pilot. 

3. The Set Up (page 1-10)

The set up is the ‘make or break section where you have to grab me or risk losing my interest’. 

If you can’t hook your audience in the set up, then you’ve lost them.

It’s the area in your script to show each ‘character tic, every behaviour that needs to be addressed later on, and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win’. 

For example, in Romancing the Stone, she’s an isolated writer who lives in a make-believe world or in Legally Blonde, she’s a ditzy airhead who doesn’t appear to have much substance. 

Another aspect to show in the set up is what’s missing in the hero’s life.

For example, in Big’s set up, the young boy is told: 'You have to be this tall to go on this ride’. He can’t get the girl, have any privacy, etc. But in Act Two he gets all those things when he magically turns Big. And those call-backs only work because we have seen them in the setup’

‘The first 10 pages and the rest of Act One is the movie’s thesis; it’s where we see the world as it is before the adventure starts. It is a full-fledged documentation of the hero’s world labeled “before.” There is a calm before the storm in this world, and especially in the set-up. If events that follow did not occur, it would pretty much stay this way. But there is a sense in the set-up that a storm’s about to hit, because for things to stay as they are... is death. Things must change”

4. Catalyst (page 12)

The catalyst is the moment that everything starts to change. The ignition key in our story, usually known an as inciting incident

'In the set-up you, the screenwriter, have told us what the world is like and now in the catalyst moment you knock it all down. Boom!'

Examples include, Frodo being sent to destroy the ring in The Lord of the Rings, Caleb being invited to the retreat in Ex Machina, and Andrew gaining acceptance to the band in Whiplash. 

'The catalyst point is the first moment when something happens! Thank God! And if it’s not there, the reader will get antsy. Your coverage will read: “No Plot” because you’ll have lost the reader’s attention'.

5. Debate (page 12-25)

Debate, often known as ‘refusal of the call’, is the ‘will they, won’t they’ portion of the script. 

It’s the last chance for our hero to say no to the journey. The screenwriter must push upon their character that there is no option but to go. 

An example of debate would be Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. She’s decided go to Harvard but the debate is ‘can she get in?’. Or John McClane in Die Hard: the terrorists have taken over the building, is he going to try and stop them? 

6. Break Into Two  (page 25)

‘Break into two’ is just Save the Cat’s name for the act one break. 

We are going from the old world to the new. As Snyder writes, ‘it must be definite’. 

‘The hero cannot be lured, tricked, or drift into Act Two. The hero must make the decision himself. That’s what makes him a hero anyway — being proactive’

To continue an example from above, John McClane decides he is going to take on the terrorists to save his wife and the other guests at Nakatomi Plaza. 

 7. B Story (page 30)

At page 30, the B story is introduced. 

Often this is the love story of the movie. It ‘gives us a breather’ from the main events. 

In Legally Blonde again, this is Elle’s relationship with the manicurist (not sexual but still fits the brief of love story). 

It is the B story that often carries the theme. 

8. Fun and Games (page 30-55)

Now we get to the best bit - fun and games. 

This section provides what Snyder calls the ‘promise of the premise’. 

To put it simply, it’s the reason you came to see the movie. For example, Jim Carey acting like God in Bruce Almighty, Peter Parker swinging from rooftops in Spiderman or Bruce Willis evading the bad guys in Die Hard. 

Snyder explains this is a great area to put in your flashy set pieces. 

9. Midpoint (page 55)

As you can probably work out, the midpoint is the middle of the movie. Genius.

In Save the Cat terminology, the midpoint is where the ‘stakes are raised’. It’s where the fun and games portion ends. 

'I have found, in reviewing hundreds of movies, that a movie’s midpoint is either an “up” where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse), and it can only get better from here on out.'

For example in Bruce Almighty, it’s where Jim Carey gets everything he wanted, but it’s a false victory. He still has a long way to go to realise his unstated goal. 

10. Bad Guys Close In (page 55-75)

Until the midpoint our bad guys have tried their best to stop our hero but they have failed. While the hero is enjoying their false victory though, the bad guys (either physical or metaphorical) are not yet out of the picture. 

In this section of the script: ‘The forces that are aligned against the hero tighten their grip. Evil is not giving up, and there is nowhere for the hero to go for help. He is on his own and must endure’.

11. All is Lost (page 75)

Often labelled as a ‘false defeat’, it’s when our heroes think they are at rock bottom, but they’ve got a lot longer to go! 

Snyder writes that the ‘all is lost’ moment usually has a ‘whiff of death’.

For example, even in family Christmas comedy Elf, Will Ferrell looks off a bridge and contemplates suicide during his ‘all is lost’ moment. 

An amusing way to see it is ‘the place where mentors go to die’.

12. Dark Night of the Soul (page 75 to 85) 

The ‘dark night of the soul’ is Save the Cat’s version of true rock bottom for our hero. 

It is the darkness before the dawn that Snyder writes can 'last 5 seconds or 5 minutes'.

‘It is the point just before the hero reaches way, deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. But at the moment, that idea is nowhere in sight’. 

13. Break Into Three (page 85)

‘Break into three’ is just Save the Cat terminology for the act two break. 

Having had their ‘dark night of the soul’, our hero decides to get back on the horse and ride it to the story’s completion. 

14. Finale (page 85-110)

The finale is our final showdown. Batman vs The Joker, John McClane and Gruber. 

'This is where we wrap it up. It’s where the lessons learned are applied. It’s where the character tics are mastered. It’s where A story and B story end in triumph for our hero. It’s the turning over of the old world and a creation of a new world order — all thanks to the hero, who leads the way based on what he experienced in the upside-down, antithetical world of Act Two'.

‘The finale entails the dispatching of all the bad guys, in ascending order. Lieutenants and henchman die first, then the boss. The chief source of “the problem” — a person or thing — must be dispatched completely for the new world order to exist’. 

15. Final Image (page 110)

‘The final image is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real. If you don’t have that final image, or you can’t see how it applies, go back and check your math — there is something not adding up in Act Two.’. 

🗂️ How to Plan Out A Screenplay with Index Cards

It’s a classic technique used by screenwriters all around the world: the index card. 

Any good screenwriter knows that structure is a large part of the job, and therefore it’s important to ‘see your movie before you start writing’, Snyder writes. 

As usual, in Save the Cat, Blake Snyder puts forward an easy way to go about it. 

First, you take your index cards and make four rows:

  1. The first row is Act One (pages 1-25). 
  2. The second row is the first half of Act Two up to the midpoint (pages 25-55)
  3. Third is the second half of Act Two taking up to the third act (pages 55-85)
  4. And finally, row four is the beginning of Act Three up to the final image (pages 85-110). 

The ‘board’ of cards, as Snyder calls it, needs ’40 scenes. No more’. 

One you have your rows in order, you can now see the ‘problem spots’ in the script. Where are the holes? Where is it congested? 

Use colour coding to mark out your A and B story. 

Next up it’s time to work out the emotional drive of each scene. For each, add a plus (+) or minus (-) to the card. The reason being that either the scene has a positive or negative emotional change for your hero. Every scene is a ‘mini movie’ that must transform the character somewhat from beginning to end. If, for example, every one of your cards has a plus, your script is lacking challenge to the hero. 

'Believe it or not, an emotional change like this must occur in every scene. And if you don’t have it, you don’t know what the scene is about'

Finally, use the greater than, less than signs together (> <) on each card to denote conflict. For each, write out who the players in the conflict are, the issue and who wins at the end. 

‘Only one conflict per scene, please. One is plenty. And whether it’s a large issue or a small one, something physical or something psychological, it must be there. Every scene. Every time. If you can’t find a conflict, figure out a way to create one’.

👨🏻 How to Get A Screenwriting Agent (Pro's Advice)

While Snyder doesn’t explicitly list how to get an agent in Save the Cat, he tells two stories on how he got his own agents. 

The key takeaways are:


Make A Plan 

Snyder advocates making a plan to nab yourself an agent and following it step by step. 

‘Here’s what you’ve got: you’ve got you, a screenwriter with x number of scripts to your credit, varying degrees of success in selling them, and a great big crush on movies and moviemakers. You’ve got your product — your best screenplay — and several pitches (even if they’re for screenplays you’ve already written), ready to go. You’ve even got a rough idea of what you need next: An agent who will help you sell these projects, and producers who will either buy them from you or go into partnership with you to get these projects set up, sold, and made into movies.

If you don’t have that list, start making one.

Snyder’s advice here is somewhat dated due to the Save the Cat’s publication date. 

For example, Snyder recommends using the ‘Hollywood Creative Directory’ book of contacts which is no longer in print. These days, a look on IMDB Pro is much more likely to yield results here. 

Making Your First Contact

Described by Snyder as ‘that soul-eating first contact’, it’s one of the most important steps you’ll make in the business. 

‘You can contact anyone by letter, you can camp out on doorsteps and stalk your victims, you can produce The Blank Show and get it on L. A. Public Access and wait for the phone to ring, but whatever your method, slowly and surely, you must introduce you and your product to “them.” 

Though rare in the business these days, you can still pick up the phone or send a letter. Arguably as letters are so rarely written it’s a far more likely avenue to be noticed. 

Most likely though, getting your first contact in the 2020s is about creating great work online, then sharing it via email. 

The key to all of this is to not think so much about your immediate goals but your long-term ones. Sure you need an agent, right now! But you also need to build a reputation. If you are lucky enough to have a career, you will be bumping into these people again and again for years. So try not to burn any bridges, or at least try not to burn them all the way down. Be nice. Be considerate. Be helpful. Be upbeat. Keep knocking on doors and showing your face.

Snyder gives great advice of putting yourself in their shoes. What is it the they want? How can you help them get it? 

Too often screenwriters (and indeed anyone trying to contact ‘big deals’) make it all about themselves. 

'One of the golden rules is it’s easier to get an agent when you have a deal that needs closing’ . And it is also easier to pitch you if someone has already bought something from you. This is why I always recommend that if any legitimate entity wants to option your screenplay, even for little money, and no one else has offered you anything — grab it'.

👥 Networking For Screenwriters 

If your plan for finding an agent or producer has been thoroughly explored and you’ve got nowhere, it’s time to take different action. What are the options? 

Because as Snyder writes ‘it’s who you know, damn it!’. He's not wrong...

What To Try:

‘If I were starting all over again, I would come to L. A. and get any job, preferably one as a script reader. I would read as many scripts and make as many contacts as I could while keeping my screenwriting going on the side’. 

What NOT to try:

Knowing he is going to annoy certain groups, Snyder writes that you should not try:

📄 Bonus Screenwriting Tricks

Much like the rule that made Save the Cat famous, Snyder lists a bunch of other helpful/amusing screenplay tricks and tips:

'The Pope in the Pool' - exposition trick. Have your characters’ conversation in an interesting or weird place so the audience are distracted thinking 'I didn’t know the Vatican had a pool' or 'look the Pope isn’t wearing pope clothes', not 'why is the Pops being told all this obvious exposition'. 

'Double Mumbo Jumbo' - Two instances of extra ordinary events are hard to believe, even in a movie e.g. Spider-Man - being bitten by spider that gives him powers, ok, but on other side of town a lab accident giving the Green Goblin powers too? Bit much.

'Laying Pipe' - The plot elements needed to get your story going - beware laying too much of it. E.g. Along Came Polly - so much story before Ben Stiller dates Jennifer Aniston (promise of the premise). There's the first marriage. The honeymoon. The breakup. THEN Ben starts dating. 

'Black Vet' - Black vet was a Mel brooks joke where a veteran character was also a vetinarian. The rule is that more is not always better - one concept at a time - eg “lefty” a detective who’s a communist but also left handed is too much.

'Watch Out for that Glacier”'- Don’t have the bad guys close in extremely slowly. Danger must be present danger.

'Covenant of the Arc' - Everyone single character in your movie must change except the bad guys.

'Keep the Press Out' - Only bring the press into your story with care, a lesson Snyder learnt from Steven Spielberg himself.

🤔 What to Learn Next? 

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter wanting to get your first agent as discussed in Save the Cat, check out my podcast interview with Ricky Gervais’ agent Duncan Hayes!

In the conversation we delve into what makes him want to sign a writer and how to best approach agents for results.