Book blog: Save the Cat (and your logline)

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The cat's OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?
The cat’s OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?

If you struggle with story structure, theme, or bookending your work with definite character progression, then Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide, Save the Cat! is a must-read. I started this book last week and I’ve re-read parts of it so many times already, in particular his guidance on creating a killer story premise or logline. I’ve done Snyder’s writing exercises, and read out loud to friends the industry-insider anecdotes that Snyder scatters throughout his book.

This book addresses my primary story writing weaknesses: the logline (I’ve never had one) and story beats (I have them but they judder like a bad-news cardiogram). Since reading this book, I’ve been working on both, and found the writing growing stronger every time.

Snyder refuses to let you start your brilliant story until you can say, in a simple sentence or logline, what your story is. The logline forces you to examine the premise of your idea, and tests if it is strong enough to carry a whole story. His conviction that there must be something ironic about the logline, something that draws in the audience with its promise of trouble or fun, echoes CS Lakin’s advice that every good story must have a ‘concept with a kicker‘.

I found working on loglines incredibly helpful. Having to produce a logline strengthens every idea. Maybe you have this idea about a guy who wins a million pounds. OK, but what’s the irony – the kicker?  How about if the guy is the worst possible person to win because…  he’s got a week to live… he daren’t let his family get their hands on it…the love of his life hates wealth … he just became a monk … he’s just been put in jail -? A rich guy who got lucky isn’t enough of a story. The worst possible rich guy, a rich guy with an ironic reason why he can’t enjoy his new wealth…that could be the start of something.

Snyder uses the example of the movie Four Christmases to illustrate his insistence that your logline – and your title – must answer the audience’s question: what is it? In this case – it’s a couple who must endure four separate Christmases with their  double set of divorced parents. The irony? The couple are ready to commit to marriage and want out of their parents’ disastrous relationship history.

Snyder’s other piece of pure gold in  this book (among lots, lots more that is high value) is his beat sheet: fifteen points through which every successful story must pass. He demonstrate how every smash-hit movie fits this structure, whether it be Miss Congeniality or Elf. The three-act structure will be familiar if you’ve looked at work by James Scott Bell or KM Weiland – but has just 15 points, including the opening and closing images which define for your audience how the hero has changed.

For these 15 points, Snyder suggests a maximum of 40 scenes. He’s dealing with movies, but that’s a good number to go for in a novel too – you may end up with more, but 40 is nicely achievable. And only 15 points to hit, including start and end – that feels eminently doable!

This book is encouraging throughout and avoids the hectoring tone employed by some other story structure books. The examples are memorable and entertaining – the Pope in the Pool! – and their lessons are easy to learn. I know I will be watching for the hero’s ‘save the cat’ moment in the next film I see, and in every story. because if the hero doesn’t show humanity, even a tiny bit of it, then for Snyder, he ain’t the hero.

I recommend this book without reservation. The only downside is that now, as well as writing novels, I want to write a movie.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has been adapted by various writing blogs, including this one  on Jami Gold’s website. You could also set up this structure in Scrivener, which would be great for shuffling around your scene ideas.

Scrivener's corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.
Scrivener’s corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.






The four essential elements of a logline are:

  • Irony – it must give an involving and dramatic situation.
  • Compelling mental picture – a whole movie, including its timeframe, must be implied.
  • Audience and cost – for novels, the target audience and tone.
  • Killer title – says what the story is, in a clever way.

Writing skills – battle scenes

Reading Time: 2 minutes
I carry the torch for big, cinematic settings, so where can I put my climactic battle?

My current novel is an adventure story so I always imagined it would climax with an epic battle. Only problem – I’ve never written a battle scene. I have written action but always small-scale, and always based around an emotional moment. I’ve never tried to co ordinate armies –  and personally I glaze over during those clash-bang scenes in films and books. Yeah yeah, troop movements, just tell  me who wins and who dies, OK?

Here’s KM Weiland’s take on the thing, and I’m relieved I’m not the only one who finds big sweeping action dull unless there’s some character development to draw me in:

She uses an example from the screenwriting book Save the Cat, which is on my shelf…ahem, and never read. So there’s one task on my list for this week.

Maybe this week’s goal is to get inspired for the war which is about to break out.  Maybe that’s my breakthrough in my outline – all is about to end for my lead, and then phew, war breaks out, except not phew because everything is now much much worse. Yup, that could work.

OK, this week’s tasks:

1.Read some battle scenes I liked. Or might like. Narnia? I had to skim most of the GoT stuff as it was so violent. My book is not gory. Yup kids, welcome to my new genre: cosy war.

Diana Wynne Jones has some big fights in her Chrestomanci series, plus Howl’s Moving Castle. That’s more my level. The stakes are high but nobody gets eaten by hounds.

2. Practise writing some individual action for example scenes where:

  • AP singlehandedly fights off the bandits torturing a bird which is actually M
  • M faces off to MK above some kind of towering abyss (channeling my inner Star Wars/Indiana Jones here).
  • F and M escape the prison, fighting with the guards

Those small scenes might help me with the big scene.

3. Investigate settings. I’m always inspired by real places, or places glimpsed in fantastical movies. Glancing through fantasy art on Tumblr is good too. That would be some very pleasant homework!

4. Climax/battle setting. My big battle needs a great setting. A cinematic setting. In my fanfiction I always tried to have the big emotional scenes at big filmic settings – Statue of Liberty*, abandoned hospital island, etc – so I need one for this. It’s notionally set in Britain so there’s scope for more ‘research’ there. Think  Man dangling from the face of Big Ben, or Woman clinging to the mast on the Eiffel Tower, for the level of drama I want.

Ok. CJ Cherryh does great ‘big’ scenes, so does Michael Crichton and Lee Child, but those all focus on a single character or small group of characters, in a tight spot – often literally for Crichton, the master of claustrophobic tension. I think that is far more my forte. Big setting, but tight spot. Food for thought there.

Right, this week’s tasks are set. Go!

PS* (I haven’t yet written my Statue of Liberty scene. It’s for Elementary fanfiction and it involves stolen gold. I’m just quickly getting this novel out of the way first…)