A “Save the Cat” Moment
If you’ve read many of these posts, you know that I’m a big fan of screenwriting guru Blake Snyder and his book on the film writer’s craft, Save the Cat. Here is Blake defining this principle:
Save the Cat is the screenwriting rule that says: “The hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” Does this mean that every movie we see has to have some scene in it where the hero gives a buck to a blind man in order to get us onboard? Well no, because that’s only part of the definition.
So on behalf of my hypercritical critics, allow me a mid-course addition [Snyder goes on to cite Quentin Tarantino’s intro scenes in Pulp Fiction, in which the killers Vincent and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel Jackson) are without redeeming moral virtues but at least are funny and charming]: The adjunct to Save the Cat says: “A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.”
Let’s examine this concept (which applies equally well, I believe, to the writing of novels and all other forms of storytelling).
Consider the opening of the classic 1953 Western, Shane.
The hero Shane (Alan Ladd) enters a Wyoming valley on horseback. He’s alone, riding at an easy, unhurried pace. He approaches a homestead. Six-year-old Joey (Brandon deWilde), the child of this ranch, keenly observes Shane’s approach.
From the rider’s buckskin-fringed jacket and the .44 on his hip, we—and Joey—realize at once that the stranger makes his living with a gun.
The filmmakers now have a problem. How can they get us in the audience on the side of a professional killer?
One item in their favor: they have cast Alan Ladd as Shane. He’s handsome, likeable. But he’s still packing that Big Iron on his hip. What if we in the audience perceive him as a Bad Guy? If we lose sympathy with him here at the very beginning, it could be fatal for the success of the story.
Here’s how director George Stevens and writers A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and Jack Schaeffer handled this issue.
Shane rides up slowly to where Joey is watching him. The boy is sitting on the top rail of a corral fence. Shane pulls his horse up alongside Joey and reins-in. A few words of greeting are exchanged between the man and the boy’s father Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), but nothing (yet) that gives us or Joey a clue as to whether this stranger is a good guy or a bad guy.
Then Shane turns to little Joey.
Joey drops his eyes. He’s shy … and more than a bit spooked by the stranger.
You were watchin’ me down the trail for quite a spell, weren’t you?
Joey withdraws even further. He’s frightened. Is the stranger going to take offense at the boy’s intrusiveness? Will he rebuke him or treat him with dismissively or with condescension?
Yes, I was.
Shane’s expression softens. He leans forward in the saddle, toward Joey.
You know, I … I like a man who watches things going on around. It means he’ll make his mark someday.
In that instant, Joey surrenders completely to this stranger. In the audience so do we.
We don’t know what Shane’s issues will turn out to be, or what struggles he will be facing in the story, but already we are rooting for him and hoping he will prevail.
But the key element, to me, of a Save the Cat moment is that it must cut against the grain. The character who delivers it must be someone who, on initial impression at least, is an individual possessed of elements of darkness.
When hard-boiled Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca acts with kindness toward a young couple fleeing the Nazis, or when cynical private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown lets a hard-pressed client off on a bill, the act does something more than say, “He’s a nice guy.”
It creates a personality.
It sets up two poles of character that are in dynamic conflict with one another.
It hooks us because we want to learn which side will win.
More on this next week.
Brilliant! And, so practical. Thanks, Steve!
“The character who delivers it must be someone who, on initial impression at least, is an individual possessed of elements of darkness.” Echoing Bar’s comment above – “brilliant!” Looking forward to next week’s post – as always, thanks!
Using “save the cat” to show the conflict within the character. “Which side will win?” Thank you for adding depth to this concept that I hadn’t noticed before.
Bully! Bully, man!
Response to Steven Pressfield
Yes. I get this: “But the key element, to me, of a Save the Cat moment is that it must cut against the grain. The character who delivers it must be someone who, on initial impression at least, is an individual possessed of elements of darkness.”
I enjoy the TCM film noir Saturday nights.
When I was watching Woman on the Run (1950 film noir) the key STC moment was when the escapee’s hard-hearted loveless wife (Ann Sheridan) warns her husband to not call home again, the police are there looking for him. The story hinges on whether we can like her or not. She doesn’t seem to like her husband but she is protecting him. We wonder if she will ever show her wifely side again or if that is dead forever.
I write about feminine archetypes from Greek mythology of goddesses that explain the inner conflicting drives in good stories. https://renitawellman.com/index.php/2019/04/23/hera-on-the-run/
Talk about setting up the opposing poles of the character, I’m loving what comes thirty seconds after “I like a man who watches things.” After Shane puts Joey at ease and accepts a cup of well water from Joe Starrett, Joey jumps down from the fence rail and makes his way toward the house. With Shane facing the other way, the boy innocently works the lever action on his peashooter rifle.
A moment earlier, Shane is kindly and even avuncular. But at the unexpected sound of a rifle action behind him, he drops the tin ladle, spins and crouches, his hand going to the butt of his Colt Single Action Army. No kidding, I jumped as hard as Joey did. We see that while Shane has a capacity for kindness, this is a dangerous man. He’s seen things and done things.
And they go another step further in showing the conflict (opposing poles) within the character. We see Shane’s face in the aftermath of a narrowly averted tragedy. We can feel the pain and see the thinly veiled sorrow in his face at the thought of what he had almost done. It’s masterful.
Shane (opening sequence): https://youtu.be/oxuPWsBRn8A
Or to jump right to it: https://youtu.be/oxuPWsBRn8A?t=195
As usual, very helpful. and insightful. I eagerly anticipate these posts–they’re a bright spot in my week!
Let a little light in with the shadow, then?
Insight. Thank you. I learn a bit more each week… tweaking characters and scenes thanks to you.
Thank you for the additional insight into the “save the cat” story element.
My cats like this concept as well.
Harper says hello.
Another way to make the wrong guy or a bad character (A Hero) to look good or make the audience root for him, is to create a Character worse than the hero. Inside the story world, Characters are always being compared with each other to find the nice guy to whom they can root for. so by creating characters worse than hero, we drive the audience to root for the hero. why would we root for a gangster ? , they are shown as better characters inside the world of Godfather (Comparative Study)
Jessica Brody’s “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel” applies Snyder’s principles to novel writing with examples for various genres. Hungry Katniss Everdeen had planned to kill a cat but saves it because her sister Prim begs her. Not just a save the cat/good hero moment but also foreshadows Katniss taking Prim’s place in the Hunger Games. Also, rewatched season 1, episode 1 of the Game of Thrones. Jon Snow saves five (no, six!) direwolf pups from execution in response to his little brother’s unspoken request. In both examples animals are saved, heroes are elevated, and relationships are revealed.
Save the Pup!
One of the worst movies Robert Mitchum ever made was the 1951 His Kind of Woman! (Yes, the exclamation mark is really part of the title.)
It was evident that the central character of the film was supposed to be Jane Russell’s colossal figure while Mitchum’s (as Dan Milner) was hidden in a very boxy suit until he was belt buckle whipped at the end. Dan Milner (Mitchum), coerced by beatings and bribes, waits at a fancy lodge in Baja for an exiled mob boss (Raymond Burr), who wants to take his identity.
The movie feels unbalanced for many reasons but the one in point is the delayed Save the Cat moment, which happens nearly halfway through the movie. At 30 minutes in, Milner observes the young newlywed wife and goes to her table to see what’s wrong. After a while we learn that her husband has gambled and lost all their money.
Milner (Mitchum) wins back the IOU so that the young bride will not have to “settle the debt” at 50 minutes into the movie. It feels wrong to place the Save the Cat defining moment at this point. By this point we in the audience do not care.
After John Farrow, Mia Farrow’s father, had turned it in, Howard Hughes head of RKO at the time asked for many rewrites. Hughes coerced Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage) into redoing the picture. The result was a mess.
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