How Blake Snyder made me a better writer

I was saddened recently to learn of the passing of Blake Snyder, author of the Save the Cat series of screenwriting books. I had read other books on screenwriting before, most notably Syd Field’s Screenplay, which is the basis for modern screenwriting, and Viki King’s How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, which took Field’s ideas and expanded on them, but it wasn’t until I read Save the Cat that things really made sense. It’s a bit cliche, but it really felt like someone flipped a light switch in my brain and suddenly I could see the skeleton structure that underlies a good movie. Since then, Save the Cat, has become my screenwriting Bible, the book I always go back to and whose rules I try to adhere to. That’s not to say I take it as “the unbreakable gospel,” because there are certainly some things I disagree with (Memento is a good movie, damnit!), but as a whole it has become thoroughly ingrained into me with the way I write and look at movies.

More than just structure, it has completely changed the way I look at movie genres. No longer am I confined to such terms as comedy, action, or sci-fi! Sure they may tell you something about the tone of the movie, but they say nothing of the actual story being told. Now when I watch a movie or begin to write one, I instead ask myself whether the movie is an Out of the Bottle or a Buddy Love, a Golden Fleece or a Rite of Passage. Blake broke each genre down into 10 categories (all with 5 subgenres), each of which is about the journey the hero must take, which makes a lot of sense when you get right down to it.

For instance, one of the scripts I’m working on right now is a comedy, but that doesn’t really tell me what movies I need to look at to study the structure and beats of how it should flow. I mean, there’s a big difference betweenWhen Harry Met Sally and Dodgeball; sure, both may be comedies, but they’re completely different types of comedy that tell two completely different stories. However, based on the STC genre it fits into (Issue subgenre of Institutionalized), I’ve found that I can learn far more about how to set up this particular script by looking at other films in that genre, most of which (Magnolia, Crash, Sin City) are certainly not comedies.

Right now I’ve got the section of wall over my desk taped off to represent The Board with a couple dozen notecards tacked up there, each containing information on various scenes for my current screenplay. It may look like a cluttered mess, but it’s a great way for me to see where my problem spots are, what may not be needed, or what would be best moved around. Besides, it’s really nice having something tactile to play around with.

I feel I owe a lot to Mr. Snyder and the works he put out before he passed. I wish I had been able to take one of his workshops to get feedback on my writing, because I’m sure that would have been immensely helpful. But instead, I’ll just give him a thank you for everything, and recommend the Save the Cat books to any writers out there, regardless of the medium.

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