Save the Cat! An interview with Blake Snyder, Screenwriter
It is a great pleasure to introduce Robin Mizell, my first guest writer for Writing Companion. Robin is an American freelance writer and copy-editor. Her blog, Treated & Released, is a favourite of mine—a treasure trove of useful and inspirational information for writers.
Robin worked as an assistant editor on the forthcoming Writer’s Digest book, 2009 Screenwriter’s and Playwright’s Market. In this role, she recently interviewed Blake Snyder, a screenwriter who has written two phenomenally successful how-to books about the craft.
Robin presents highlights from her interview, where Blake chats about goal setting, the positive side of self-doubt, and the importance of structure.
And now, over to Robin.
Blake Snyder’s story
In an unanticipated plot twist, screenwriter Blake Snyder is beginning to attract a following as a workshop instructor and author of forthright, easy-to-understand books on scriptwriting and storytelling. The pivotal point in every good story, as well as in life, as he explains it, is the emotional nadir that provokes an inspiring transformation in the main character. His own life story took a similar turn.
Snyder has worked as a writer in Hollywood. He’s sold—and failed to sell—million-dollar scripts. He says, “I was a screenwriter who had gotten into the Writers Guild. I had worked with a partner. I had a few things that got made, but not big deals. There was a point in my career where I could have given up, where I could have said, ‘Well, I’m just going to do something else now.’ I gave myself one last year to turn my career around.”
What helped to motivate him that year? “My motto was ‘DISCIPLINE, FOCUS, AND POSITIVE ENERGY.’ I wrote those words down on my computer and had it there staring at me every day. I focused on a goal, which was selling a script. I learned as much as I could by myself and tried to change. Three or four years later, I had a deal on the Disney lot and I had sold two million-dollar screenplays. I had achieved the things that I wanted to achieve.”
Snyder continues to write spec scripts, but he now tends to turn down offers to write screenplays in favor of working on sequels to his bestselling books, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies. The books have afforded him a personal and professional renaissance.
The Dark Night of the Script
His upcoming book, Save the Cat! Strikes Back, is a troubleshooting guide for screenwriters. It bears the subtitle More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into and Out Of. “It’s about finding yourself somehow lost and finding your way back,” says Snyder, who frequently turns philosophical. “My personal theory is that in writing every screenplay, you must have a Dark Night of the Script, some point in writing when you go, ‘I’m so terrible at this. I’ve got to quit.’ Because if you aren’t pushing it that hard, if you aren’t trying to get the most out of yourself and the project, you aren’t doing it right.”
“‘Trouble is good’ is the subtext of this whole thing,” insists Snyder, perhaps in response to those who say the story structure he teaches overly simplifies the art of screenwriting. He believes a crisis—such as writer’s block—can force beneficial changes. “Get into trouble. Paint yourself into a corner,” he says. “That’s when the fun starts.”
Structuring a Story
Snyder says that the most crucial characteristic of a narrative, in any medium, is the story’s structure. He focuses on what he calls the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, which maps narrative structures. Ciara Stewart attended Snyder’s presentation to the Greater Seattle Romance Writers of America in January 2008. She describes on her blog how he applied to Nora Roberts’ novel Born in Fire the 15-beat story structure he outlines in his books and teaches during his seminars.
A fascination with archetypes has now inspired Snyder to begin work on a book tentatively titled Save the Cat! Falls in Love. Written with romance authors in mind, it will cover the subject of love in the movies.
Novelists, speechwriters, and film producers have adopted Snyder’s methods. “The amazing thing is how many letters I’ve gotten from people who say, ‘I love your screenwriting beats. Is it okay if I use them to write a novel?’ Yes, of course.” A real estate agent once told him, “I don’t know if you know this, but you can use the fifteen beats to sell a house—and I do that.”
While some novelists in his workshops enthusiastically embrace his storytelling advice, Snyder recognizes that not everyone is willing to subscribe to his theories. As he quips, some people “will still want to pee on my Pop-Tarts.” He’s good-natured about his critics. “I was rebellious as a young writer myself. I looked at the tricks of screenwriting as not necessarily high art and thought I was better than that,” he laughs.
“What I came up against, and what other writers come up against,” he adds, “are certain laws of nature. I found that the ideas I’ve had that weren’t good were the ones I kept to myself because I thought somebody might steal it.” Instead of jealously protecting a story concept, writers should practice pitching it to strangers and watch for their reactions, he says. “The story’s magic won’t disappear if the idea is good.”
Inspiration and Questioning
He also cautions about relying too much on inspiration. “We fall in love with our inspiration because it feels so good—this sense of this amazing thing that we’ve been given.” However, inspiration alone makes a weak foundation for developing a story. A sense of amazement is in effect the opposite of the firm infrastructure found in a good story. Snyder’s catchphrase for such shaky underpinnings is The Smell of the Rain on the Road at Dawn. It might awaken your senses and elicit a feeling of wonder, but it should not be mistaken for a plot.
Snyder sees more opportunity for writers than ever before, but he presses them to gauge the viability of their work by answering three decisive questions:
1. “Do your title and your story pitch intrigue me?”
2. “When I first read your story, does it interest me immediately?”
3. “Is it a well-told story?”
Networking and Help
To help writers maintain contact with each other so they can offer critiques, share success stories, and exchange career information, Snyder encourages his workshop attendees to establish local Cat! networking groups. He publishes his email address and promises to answer questions posed by readers of his books. He’s committed to the challenge of helping screenwriters learn to craft sellable scripts, and his advice is being eagerly adapted by storytellers in other media who want to perfect their art.