THE SAVE THE CAT!® TUTORIAL 4.0
By Blake Snyder
(additional material by Cory Milles)
Welcome to Save the Cat!® The Last Story Structure Software You'll Ever Need.
If this is your first experience with us, if you haven't read the five books this program is based on, fear not!
If you have read the books (lucky you!), then you understand how my method was developed to help you write stories that resonate — from short films on YouTube to studio blockbusters to best-selling novels.
Either way, you're in the right place.
You don’t need anything more than a good idea to use this software — today — and get going on your script.
Where do you start? With the logline.
It's simple: the logline is one or two sentences that say everything about your story, and can be used as a double-check throughout the screenwriting process. From these few lines, you should be able to break out every element in a successful screenplay!
A good logline has four key elements:
- a type of protagonist (your hero)
- a type of antagonist (the bad guy or obstacle)
- a conflict (what’s stopping the hero?)
- an “open-ended question” (what will happen?)
Include an adjective to describe your protagonist and antagonist. Isn't a homicidal baker more interesting than just a day-old one?
A good logline has a sense of irony; it's that thing that intrigues us or makes us curious about what happens next. It’s a surprise twist at the end of the sentence that we didn't expect. Yet remember: the logline doesn’t have to tell the whole story. One of the reasons a good logline intrigues is because we don’t know what happens. That’s why it should be open-ended.
A good logline has a sense of audience and cost. Do you know who your movie is for? Teens? Women? Is it a date movie? Or the big magilla: the 4-quadrant hit like Shrek orPirates of the Caribbean that appeals to Men AND Women above AND below age 25. Draw from all four of these quadrants and you've really got yourself a winner. Just make sure you know who you're targeting!
A great logline must also have a great title. Title and logline are the one-two punch that makes studio executives swoon and agents reach for their cell phones. Good ones like Legally Blonde "say what it is," but do so without being so "on the nose" that it's unappealing. Winner of the best title of all time? The 40-Year-Old Virgin — not only the title, but the concept.
Your logline should have the four key elements; if not, make it so! And be sure to look at your logline throughout the process to be certain you haven't strayed off the path of your story. That’s why we display your logline at the top of The Board (see below) for easy reference.
Genre and Structure
The second step in the software is choosing a genre. When you acknowledge your genre, you’re deciding what group of movies yours is most like, so that you can follow in their proven footsteps.
Why do that? Because while many studios greenlight a script based on a point system of star, director, and the last hit like it, in fact the success of any film — whether it’s a quirky indie or a big-budget blockbuster — is based on two far more important factors:
1. A story that surpasses our expectations for the familiar genre of movie it is. And...
2. The most crucial element: structure.
Genre and structure. These are the two organizing principles around all successful movies — and the STC! method.
Unlike the authors of other how-to’s on screenwriting, my job day-in and day-out is writing and selling scripts. I am a screenwriter first and foremost and my daily struggle is figuring out what it takes to turn my ideas into movies that everyone — agents, producers, studio executives, and audience members — will love.
A writer’s job is to master the basics of each story type, and learn to give them your own twist that make them ring true for your generation! If you have a story you’re struggling with, and can’t figure out what it’s about, or what kind of story it is, you can check it against the genres I’ll tell you about to find clues to make your story better, and more meaningful.
The 10 movie genres I have coined help writers tell me what story they’re writing. If you come to me and say you’re writing a Western, or a Comedy, what does that really tell me?
What I need to hear is the story template you’re using. Like my slangy “Save the Cat!”, I’ve given my own names to these story types to make them more memorable and to further break up the clichés that the terms Western or Comedy imply.
My 10 unique movie genres are: Monster in the House, Golden Fleece, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, Rites of Passage, Buddy Love, Whydunit, Fool Triumphant, Institutionalized, and Superhero. No, you probably haven’t heard these names before so let me tell you about them — each with three key components for you to include when you’re writing a story in that genre. And I've listed six examples of movies in each genre that you can study.
This genre gets its name from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. This is any quest movie or any tale about a trip or a journey; for Jason it begins when he’s asked to retrieve the Golden Fleece (a sheepskin) in order to prove his bravery and become king. Jason collects a team and off they go on many an adventure — until they get to the end and realize it wasn’t about the fleece at all, but about what Jason learned along the way that would make him a better leader. Any time we go “on the road,” it’s a Golden Fleece.
Three elements appear in every Golden Fleece story:
- A “road” spanning oceans, time — or across the street — so long as it demarcates growth. (It often includes a “road apple” that stops the trip cold.)
- A “team” or a buddy the hero needs to guide him along the way. Usually, it’s those who represent the things the hero doesn’t have: skill, experience, or attitude.
- A “prize” that’s sought and is something primal: going home, securing a treasure, or re-gaining a birthright.
Dude with a Problem
“Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstance” — this is what makes up this genre. We’ve loved these stories since we first heard Noah and the Ark, and Jack London’s arctic survival tales. Putting an “ordinary” person into a “life or death” struggle reveals how truly extraordinary we all are, and shows how we find inner strength.
What separates these tales from others is the innocence of the hero. The “DWAP” hero did not ask for it, but was suddenly forced into a battle for his life. Often these are some of the most primal tales we tell! These stories make us realize that given the right circumstances even the most ordinary among us can be extraordinarily great.
The three components:
An “innocent hero” is dragged into this mess without asking for it — or even aware of how he got involved.
A “sudden event” that thrusts our innocent(s) into the world of hurt is definite — and comes without warning.
A “life or death” battle is at stake — and the continued existence of an individual, family, group, or society is in question.
Rites of Passage
Life is tough to get through now and then, and that’s where the “Rites of Passage” story helps. At various times, often when we least expect it, we are confronted with a “life problem” that seems so challenging, it feels like we’re the only ones who have ever gone through it. That’s why we tell these stories: to be reminded we are not alone and that others have had to face these very same dilemmas. If you have a story about the stress of any “life” problem: puberty, divorce, drug and alcohol dependency, mid-life crisis, or the death of a loved one, odds are you are writing a “ROP” tale, and should look at the many great movies that have come out of this genre category.
The indicating feature of a Rites of Passage story is a life problem that strikes when we least expect it — and the hero’s main goal is learning how to accept life on life’s terms. The running theme of all these stories, and the conflict each hero of them fights hardest against, is simple: acceptance. Can the hero learn to embrace life for what it is, or is he going to fight it and continue feeling bad? Acceptance is the end point of these stories and ones we like to hear because we’ve all been there — or soon will be! And when surrender comes, it shows how this genre wrings out our deepest emotions.
Here are the three things in common for all these stories:
- A “life problem”: from puberty to midlife to death — these are the universal passages we all understand.
- A “wrong way” to attack the mysterious problem, usually a diversion from confronting the pain, and...
- A solution that involves “acceptance” of a hard truth the hero has been fighting, and the knowledge it’s the hero that must change, not the world around him.
Many stories have a love story in them and, as you'll see in the 15 Beats section later, many a B Story involves the “love story” of a film. This is why we are often confused when we say a movie is a “love story.” After all, what does that mean? I prefer to call these “Buddy Love” tales because these are stories about how the most important event in our lives is... meeting someone else! The overarching rule of the “BL” tale is: “My life changed for having met another!”
These movies all chart the slow realization that one is not as good without the person who completes him or her. There is an essence in each that their “other” identifies with, compliments, and appreciates, that no one else can. And yet, our heroes both fight being together! Why? Partly this is just good drama. It would be a very short movie if the lovers “got it” on page one. The key is to have them hate each other at the start and slowly come to learn their lives are much better with their “better half” than without.
Here are the three components — and note especially the examples below, because Buddy Love stories include a wider range of tales than you might think:
- It’s about an “incomplete hero” who is missing something physical, ethical, or spiritual; he needs another to be whole.
- A “counterpart” who makes that completion come about or, in the case of a three-hander (story about a triangle) or a four-hander (story about two couples), has qualities the hero(es) need(s).
- A “complication,” be it a misunderstanding, personal or ethical viewpoint, epic historical event, or the prudish disapproval of society.
In a good mystery we all care about whodunit, but the real essence of the larger category I call “Whydunit” is much deeper. These are “detective” stories, and whether the detective is a seasoned pro, a cop, a civilian, or a journalist on the trail of a story, they’re all the same. Someone walks into our hero’s life, teases him with a mystery that seems small at first, that when our hero delves into becomes bigger and more dangerous with each turn.
Each of these stories is about going to the “dark side.” The need to know the final clue that will solve the mystery eats at each of our detectives, and leads them to break their own rules of conduct. The mystery is so intriguing, our hero can’t say no. And will go to any length to solve it. I call it the “dark turn” in which the detective becomes part of the crime. And by doing so, he becomes as bad as his quarry.
The three key components:
- The “detective” does not change, we do; yet he can be any kind of gumshoe — from pro to amateur to imaginary.
- The “secret” of the case is so strong it overwhelms the worldly lures of money, sex, power, or fame. We must know! And so does the Whydunit hero.
- Finally, the “dark turn” shows that in pursuit of the secret, the detective will break the rules, even his own — often ones he has relied on for years to keep him safe. The pull of the secret is too great.
The Fool Triumphant
The “Village Idiot” is someone we make fun of, but what if he turns out to be the wisest among us? This misidentification is the basis of these tales, and goes all the way back to stories of the court jester, Don Quixote, and many overlooked, but specially empowered figures in the Bible. Secret identity plays a big part in these stories — often the Fool dons a “costume,” and many have a “name change” as part of their disguise. These are also considered “fish out of water” tales. By being thrown into a new world, the foolish hero brings with him the skills, talents, and values of a world that misunderstood him all along.
Underestimated, but secretly the sharpest of us all, that is the essence of the “FT” tale. And that is the magic of these stories. Deep down we all know we deserve better treatment. These tales show why all of us are to be considered, and no one should be overlooked.
Don't overlook these three elements:
- A “fool” whose innocence is his strength and whose gentle manner makes him likely to be ignored — by all but a jealous “Insider” who knows too well.
- An “establishment,” the people or group a fool comes up against, either within his midst, or after being sent to a new place in which he does not fit — at first. Either way, the mismatch promises fireworks!
- A “transmutation” in which the fool becomes someone or something new, often including a “name change” that’s taken on either by accident or as a disguise.
You are a caveman. And each year you join the Woolly Mammoth hunt where half your pals get killed. So when they ask you if you’re up for it this year, you grab your spear and say you bet! Why? Because we like to be part of the group. Stories I call “Institutionalized” are about the conflict when a hero suddenly realizes that what the group is doing is wrong — and what happens when he decides to rebel against tradition.
Naturally when there’s a rebel in the organization, the folks in charge challenge him right back, and this leads to one of three outcomes: The hero can make his case and help change the group as seen in Michael Clayton; he can be squashed and even killed, e.g., One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; or he can help to “burn the place down” as seen comically in Office Space, and dramatically in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
Among this story type is the “false mentor” tale seen in movies like The Devil Wears Prada, Training Day, and Apt Pupil, where, in trying to bring a newbie into an institution, the newbie realizes the mentor is not only false, but so is the group.
Tales of the “I” kind suggest individuals have value that trumps the group and celebrates those who decide to stand up against conformity. The three common components follow:
- Every story in this category is about a “group” — a family, an organization, or a business that is unique.
- The story is a “choice,” the ongoing conflict pitting a “Brando” or “Naif” vs. the system’s “Company Man.”
- Finally, a “sacrifice” must be made leading to one of three endings: join, burn it down... or commit “suicide.”
The reverse of “Dude with a Problem” tales, the “Superhero” story is about an “extraordinary person in an ordinary world.” From Hercules to Moses to Jesus to Joan of Arc, right up through Spider-Man and Ironman, we have been forever fascinated by this story type. Think about the similarities here! All these characters have to sacrifice their human needs for the good of us; they tend to be celibate, highly focused, thinking only of others first — and they never get one “thank you”! We humans don’t really appreciate being saved, and yet year after year, here comes another being from Mount Olympus to put up with all our whining and save us in the hope we’ll do better in the future.
Remember: What makes a Superhero is not the gadgets... it's his enemy, a true “Nemesis.” So if you’re writing a Superhero tale, make sure the enemy facing your hero is more powerful and cunning than he is. The badder the bad guy, the better your hero has to be... to win.
The key components:
- The hero of your tale must have a special “power” — even if it’s just a mission to be great or do good.
- The hero must be opposed by a “Nemesis” of equal or greater force, who is the “self-made” version of the hero.
- There must be a “curse” for the hero that he either surmounts or succumbs to as the price for who he is.
Before you begin to write, look at the movies your idea bears any resemblance to and see how others did it. Learn what they did right, what they did wrong, and how your script MUST be a big step forward in the evolution of the genre.
Obviously, these categories tell me how movies can be different. But how can they be the same? Well, after some soul-searching — and years of hard knocks in and around the 310 area code — I figured out a way to codify that, too.
It is found in how each of these movies is structured.
What I wanted to create in addition to “type” of movie is a never-fail template that I can lay on top of any movie story as a way to test whether or not it will be satisfying.
Think about that for a minute.
A universal key to unlock every successful movie ever made — and to guide you in structuring your story.
And here it is…
The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet
In addition to learning from Syd Field, who first codified the three-act structure for me, and the All Is Lost point on page 75 from Viki King, I made up terminology of my own in “the BS2,” a handy device with the page count indicated in the parentheses that follows each “beat.” It is the third step of this software, and consists of:
1. Opening Image (1)
2. Theme Stated (5)
3. Set-Up (1-10)
4. Catalyst (12)
5. Debate (12-25)
6. Break into Two (25)
7. B Story (30)
8. Fun and Games (30-55)
9. Midpoint (55)
10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)
11. All Is Lost (75)
12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)
13. Break into Three (85)
14. Finale (85-110)
15. Final Image (110)
What are each of these beats about?
Opening Image – Right from Page 1 of a screenplay, and from the opening minutes of any film, there must be a “snapshot of the world before this story begins.” There will be an opposite snapshot, the “Final Image” at the end of your story, which will show the change that has taken place.
Theme Stated – Every good movie must be “about something.” State what your movie is about before the adventure begins. (I like to put it in early, roughly on page 5.) It’s usually spoken to your unsuspecting hero, often without his knowing what is said will be vital to his surviving this tale. It’s the moral of your story.
Set-Up – The first 10 pages of a script must not only grab our interest — and a studio reader’s — but literally “set the table” for your story. The first 10 pages is where we meet your hero and show his world. In addition to setting up “where we are and who we’re rooting for,” this is the part of the script where you set up ‘the problem.” Every story has to have a problem — this is where you introduce yours.
During the Set-Up, consider setting up your hero “at Home, at Work, and at Play.” Even though not every story has these scenes exactly, it must in some form. Think about the Set-Up for Russell Crowe in Gladiator: At work, he’s a great Roman General; at home, his wife is waiting; at play, the after-party of his troops’ Teutonic victory reveals the depth of friendship for him in the ranks. These “at’s” show a hero’s life.
Catalyst – Right around page 12 of a script is something that sets the story into motion. The news that your hero has lost his job, been dumped by his significant other, or received a ransom note — and suddenly we know his life has changed. It’s the movie’s first “whammy.”
Debate – Despite the fact it’s obvious to us, and we can pretty much guess that the hero will eagerly accept the “call to adventure” the Catalyst offers, what I call the Debate section between pages 12 and 25 shows how the hero hesitates. There is a little moment when every hero must drag his or her feet. And isn’t that just so human? For even though we know the hero will be forever unhappy if he doesn’t change, and get no opportunity to solve his problems if he stays put, he doesn’t want to leave his old world — it’s lacking, but comfortable! The Debate is the section of the script, be it a scene or a series of them, when a hero doubts the journey he must take.
Break into Two – All screenplays have three acts (when we get to “The Board,” I’ll tell you more about this). For now, just know that Act One is page 1-25, Act Two is page 25–85, and Act Three is page 85–110. (If you’re writing a short script for a short video or even writing a novel, the breaks are proportionate — and our software tells you exactly where those breaks should come.) The acts are three different “worlds,” with Act Two twice as big as the others. The next important thing to remember is: The hero must make a proactive choice to step into Act Two. You’ve introduced him, shown his deficiencies, “set up” all his problems, given him a “Catalyst” to act, a period to “Debate,” and finally comes the now-or-never choice we know he must, and will, make. Heroes are by definition proactive. This is your chance to launch the hero into action. It’s important to keep in mind all the way through your story; your hero must always be active, moving forward, never sitting still.
B Story – Often the B Story is the “love” story and the person to whom our hero will confide what’s happening. The classic “B Story” usually begins when the hero proactively enters Act Two, turns left, looks across a crowded room, and there she is! She’s not only a guide, but the girl he’ll fall in love with! It doesn’t have to be a girl — or a guy — it can be a Mentor, or a bunch of new characters that will help the hero understand this strange new place. That person or persons who assist the hero, and teach him the lesson of the journey, is the B Story. Yes, there is a connection between Theme and B Story! I call it the “helper story” because it helps the hero understand what his adventure is really about.
Fun and Games – This is the section of your movie where we see “the promise of the premise” that’s the “poster” of the movie and the best part. At this point, we put plot on hold and explore the new world the hero has entered. We are less concerned with what happens just now as we are with the “fun” of seeing what this new world is. Here we’ll find “set pieces” and “trailer moments,” and the coolest part of all is... the “fun and games” is your pitch for the movie when it comes time to sell it!
Midpoint – This is the most crucial of all the beats in the BS2. The Midpoint is the “no turning back” part of every movie. It’s where the “stakes are raised,” meaning a whole new problem — even bigger than the one the hero started out with — is now thrown in the hero’s lap, forcing him or her to deal with it. The Midpoint is where we get either a “false victory” (high) or a “false defeat” (low). It’s also where “time clocks” appear. This is where the detective is yelled at by his boss, and given “48 hours” to solve the case. Why here? Because another hallmark of the Midpoint is that we now want to pick up the pace of the story and rush to the end. From this point to the Final Image, things happen faster.
Bad Guys Close In – From the Midpoint on, we pick up the pace, and we put pressure on the hero that forces him to change. That’s why I call the stuff that occurs from pages 55-75 the “Bad Guys Close In” section. Both internally (problems inside the hero’s team) and externally (as actual bad guys tighten their grip), pressure is applied that makes life tough for our lead. Figuring out how this happens in your movie is one of the great challenges of storytelling. But by thinking “external” and “internal,” it’s actually easy.
All Is Lost – Something dies at this point in every story. Page 75 is the “All Is Lost” beat, that moment when it looks like everything is not only lost, but gone forever. And it is! What we are charting here is this truism: “All stories are about transformation.” We have seen that heroes start one way and end another — that’s the point of showing them one way in the Opening Image and the opposite in the Final Image. We’ve also seen that at Midpoint there’s no turning back. The pressure really is on; the pace accelerates. All of this is about forcing the hero to change. And to change he has to die. Not literally! But something about his old beliefs has to. That’s what real change is, and what All Is Lost forces, when the hero is “worse off than when this movie started” because he is stripped of everything he had before that made him feel safe. “All Is Lost” is where all mentors go to die! Why? Because for the hero to win, he must slough off everything that’s held him back. And that sometimes includes the mentors who’ve helped him come this far, who now must leave their pupil to go the rest of the way on his own.
Dark Night of the Soul – And of course once you die, you have to cry out: “Why hast thou forsaken me?!” That’s what “Dark Night of the Soul” is about. Between pages 75-85 you’ll find one scene or a series of them where the hero is bereft and wondering, “Now what?” In truth, he has lost all hope and doesn’t know…
Break into Three – ...but wait! Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute advice or information from that person representing the B Story, the hero takes a proactive step to yet another level, devising a brand new plan of action and committing to going all the way!
Five-Point Finale – It’s time for the protagonist to finish what she started. Whether she entered the upside-down world of Act Two willingly or unwillingly, she enters Act Three with a purpose. There’s no looking back now. Most importantly, the hero will make it clear that she’s learned her lesson. And the audience will see that she’s changed, and cheer her on as she shows off her newfound persona.
The hero does this in five steps: 1) Gathering the Team - those she'll need to "storm the castle." 2) Executing the Plan - the actual "storming," when things are looking good! 3) The High Tower Surprise - the Plan fails as the forces against the hero align and it looks like All Is Lost again! 4) Dig, Deep Down - the true test, when the hero has to find that last ounce of strength and does something she would never have done in the beginning of the movie. 5) The Execution of the New Plan - Awakened to the true test of the story, the hero puts this last-ditch plan into action and it works!
Final Image – The reverse of the Opening Image, a “snapshot of the world after,” proves that a change has occurred. ALL stories are about “transformation,” about a hero who changes — and changes us! That’s why I stress that the Opening and Final Images be opposites. All stories are “The Caterpillar and The Butterfly.” We start with a caterpillar, which, in the course of an adventure, “dies” by becoming a cocoon, and then is “reborn” to become something he never dreamed of! That is why the Beat Sheet is the secret key to unlocking every story ever told — and your way to structure a story that will resonate.
In my third book, Save the Cat!® Strikes Back, written after answering hundreds of emails and teaching many workshops after my first book was published, I’ve further developed the relationships of the beats and the transformation of the protagonist/hero of your story. The entire Chapter 3 of Strikes Back! has been provided in pdf form in this software. It includes more on the Midpoint, the Theme Stated-B Story connection, and what I call “The Five-Point Finale.”
The two organizing principles — genre and structure — give us everything we need to write our movie and make the idea we’re working on more likely to succeed.
I’ll say it again: If you want to create a movie that pleases most audiences most of the time, the odds increase if you use these two organizing principles to write it. Genre and structure are what buyers and moviegoers want.
This is because one of the other things I discovered in selling scripts to Hollywood — a few in the million-dollar range — is that executives know this, too. The savvy ones follow the same rules we writers do. They want to know what type of story they’re buying and whether it’s structured in a way that satisfies everybody. It’s what they’re looking for.
Why not give it to them?
Going for "The 40" – The Board
Once you've filled in your BS2, you’re ready to tackle The Board. That’s the next step in the software. To get you started, your 15 beats are automatically placed on 15 color-coded scene cards on The Board.
The Board is the fabled device, seen in executive offices all over Hollywood, which allows you to "see" your movie before you begin writing by using index cards (virtual in our case, but you can print them). It is a way to easily test different scenes, story arcs, ideas, bits of dialogue, and story rhythms — and decide whether they work. And though it is not really writing, and though your perfect plan may be totally abandoned in the white heat of actually executing your screenplay, it is on The Board where you can work out the kinks of the story. It is your way to visualize a well-plotted movie, the one tool I know of that can help you build the perfect beast.
Each card has fields for you to enter Scene Heading, Description, Notes, Dialog, Emotional Change, and Conflict. You can also use color coding to differentiate 10 aspects, such as “Major Turn,” “Theme,” or “B Story.” And there’s also a nifty way to track Set-Ups and Pay-Offs (explained below).
The Board is broken down into four rows, 10 cards per row for a total of 40 — a good average count for the number of beats in the average movie.
Row #1 is Act One; the last card in that row, the Break into Two, is your first major turn.
Row #2 is the first half of Act Two up to the Midpoint. This is where your B Story and Fun and Games cards will appear.
Row #3 includes your Bad Guys Close In and All Is Lost cards leading to the final major turn, the Break into Three.
Row #4 concludes your screenplay with the Finale and Final Image cards.
You will quickly find that the ends of each row are the hinges of your story. The Break into Two, the Midpoint, and the Break into Three are where the “major turns” are found. This perfectly fits my mental map of what a screenplay is. And if you buy Syd Field’s premise that each of the turns spins the story in a new direction, you can see exactly where those turns occur.
What goes on your final 40 is very simple. Each card stands for a scene, so where does the scene take place? Is it an INTERIOR or an EXTERIOR? Is it a sequence of scenes like a chase that covers several locations? If you can see it, type it in the “Scene Heading” section of the card: INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – DAY. Each card should also include the basic action of the scene told in simple declarative sentences in the “Scene Description” section: “Mary tells Joe she wants a divorce.”
And now, here's a really cool part: Because each scene is like a mini movie with a beginning, a middle, and an end, we give you two more things to fill out on each card: the >< which indicates Conflict (who is in opposition to whom) and the +/- which indicates Emotional Change. Just like every good movie, every good scene has to have clear conflict and some emotional shift from start to finish. Filling in these symbols on every card prepares you to write quickly and confidently knowing EXACTLY what must happen in EVERY scene.
It couldn't be easier.
Fill in The 40 for your movie completely and honestly, and you’ve got an iron-clad structure before you begin writing your screenplay. A few words of advice: Be concise! No need to write a book on each card. Be short and sweet.
Set-Ups and Pay-Offs
There are handy screens in this software to keep track of your set-ups and pay-offs — and even move them around from scene card to scene card.
Set-ups and pay-offs show "growth" and "change" as a hero progresses through the story. There are lots of little tricks to show "growth" and "change" as a hero progresses through the story that is your screenplay.
In Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, we see the character "set-up" as we follow him on a typical business trip. Ryan dispassionately fires strangers from their jobs, revels in his well-deserved (but trivial) job-related perks, and prides himself in not being tied down by family or friends — so much so that he gives motivational speeches encouraging others to live the same way. Later, when a young new employee begins to make suggestions for changing the company’s operations, we begin to see the "pay off" of that set-up. Ryan finds his travel-centric lifestyle threatened, and as he is tasked with mentoring the new hire on her first business trip, is forced into a meaningful human interaction of the type he’s been avoiding.
Another trick is to "set-up" the deficits in a character's life, those Cinderella types like Tom Hanks’ little boy, Josh Baskin, in the beginning of Big. In that case, you not only have to be "this high" to get on the carnival ride, but the kid's life offers no privacy at home and a tween girlfriend who overlooks him. All that is paid off when Josh turns Big, goes to the city, gets a job at a toy company, and all the perks to go with it. He's not only "this high" now, but he can stay up late, eat anything he wants, and is being zoomed by adult girl Susan, played by Elizabeth Perkins.
But the real pay off in both these stories is when Ryan and Josh learn the valuable lessons these experiences are really all about — and transform. And we know.... all great stories are about transformation!
Characters and Locations
There are handy screens in this software to keep track of your characters and locations – and even move them around from scene card to scene card and to track their stories on the Board.
There are handy screens in this software to keep track of crucial “things” – and move them from scene card to scene card and to track their stories on the Board. In THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, we track Midge’s notebook; in THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOST THINGS, we track a 1968 Firebird, a cassette tape, and a letter from UC Davis; in THE SHAPE OF WATER, we track Elisa’s calendar, “popper” and syringe, and hard-boiled eggs.
The Transformation Machine
The writer’s job is simple: to be astounding! And doing that is actually easy... so long as we meet only one demand:
Tell us a story about transformation.
I like to say that as we begin any story, you the audience and I the writer are standing on a train platform. You and I are getting on that train... and we’re not coming back. The tale we tell is so life-altering, both for the hero and for us, that we can never look at our world the same way again. Because change is not only astounding, it’s painful.
And that’s why we tell stories.
There are all kinds of ways to map out this change, but never forget that’s what we’re charting here. We will get bored not seeing change occur. Despite all the pyrotechnics you throw our way that dazzle us so, we must experience life.
So how do you find the transformation in your story?
I’ve discussed about two different “maps” to chart change: the 15 beats of the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet and the 40 beats of The Board. They are the basis of this software.
But in the course of teaching structure, I’ve found another way, a third map, to help you see story. This is the “flow chart” that shows The Transformation Machine that is change in action. It illustrates how, in the process of change, the hero dies and the person emerging at the other end is wholly new. We can actually track that change using this chart. It’s part of the pdf of Chapter 3 from my third book that is included with this software. I encourage you again to take a look at it.
Some Final Words
In my books, you will also find terms and phrases you might not be familiar with. Here’s a taste of them:
Save the Cat! – Not only the title of this series but a great principle of storytelling. When we meet the hero, he must do something that makes us like him. Save a cat and we will!
Spine of the Story – How the hero begins, changes, and grows throughout a story ─ that’s the spine, the thing writers and audiences track to make sure they are witness to a well-structured tale. The five questions to ask to straighten any spine are: Who’s the hero? What’s the problem? How does the story begin and end? What are the tangible and spiritual goals? What is the story “about,” what is its theme? Answer these and win.
Stasis = Death – We know what Death means. Stasis = Things Staying the Same. It is the moment before the journey begins where we know the hero will “die” if his life doesn’t change. Do this right and the catalyst scene that follows will feel like welcome news.
Stakes Are Raised – Also known as the “midpoint bump.” Those events found in the middle of a movie that supply sudden pressure, new problems, or bad news for the hero(es).
The Moment of Clarity – Every hero has a period of collapse around All Is Lost. Boom. He’s done. And in Dark Night of the Soul, since we’ve got his attention and he has nowhere to go anyway, this is the moment when the “penny drops” and he says: “I get it!” This beat reveals all the hero’s flaws in his own eyes, and though it looks like he will never get a chance to capitalize on this… we know better, don’t we?
The Pope in the Pool – A distracting way to bury exposition, so called for a scene in a script I know where the pope swims in the Vatican pool while boring plot details are told to us. So if you have a lot of backstory to tell, try to divert the audience’s attention while doing so.
Booster Rocket – A character that appears for the first time toward the end of a movie and lifts it to its final push, e.g., John Candy in Home Alone or Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers.
A Limp and an Eyepatch – When characters lack character, that thing which gives them a unique identifying quirk or habit. Create characters that stand out by giving the audience something to remember them by.
Primal – My favorite word and a guiding force in good stories. To test if your story is so, ask: Would a caveman understand?
Double Bump – This is my magic getter-out-of-trouble when a plot with either a lot of “pipe” or a hero who must be pushed requires a couple of nudges to move into Act Two. Normally, only one “invitation” is required at Catalyst, something done to the hero. But if you need a second at Break into Two, bump away!
The Shard of Glass – A blind spot or flaw the hero is not aware of, that sharp-edged incident, bad behavior, tough truth, or wrong done that the hero swallowed a long time ago. By the end of your tale, your hero must look at this flaw and deal with it in order to transform... and become something glorious!
These terms and others will be used in the software, especially in ADVICE FROM THE CAT (under the Fun menu).
By the way, now that you’ve read this tutorial, be sure to also view the SAVE THE CAT! HOW TO: A QUICK TOUR (under the Fun menu) for more advice on using the software.
Good luck, and God Speed, Screenwriter! Get in there and make some magic!