Trouble with story structure?

Save the Cat! by Blake SnyderSave the Cat! is a little book on screenwriting that became popular so quickly, it diverted author Blake Snyder’s career from writing scripts to teaching. People who attended Blake’s workshops, or who simply read his books, were mesmerized by the way he could analyze and explain story structure. The simplicity of his approach and his ability to decode structure were amazing, and I’m not a person who’s easily amazed.

Blake never tried to turn writers or their scripts into formulaic replicas. Still, he was forced many times to repeat his assertion that learning how to use structure, which he referred to as the backbone of a story, wouldn’t prevent writers from being experimental or literary or wildly creative. He taught writers essential elements with a very broad range of applications. Screenwriters and novelists who study his methods come away with at least a few handy strategies. It’s certainly worth knowing which techniques actually work with audiences and readers before deciding not to use them.

Save the Cat! Goes to the MoviesBlake was a wonderful guy, widely respected, always candid about his shortcomings, and intensely devoted to what he had finally discovered was his professional calling. At the peak of his second career, he died suddenly at a ridiculously young age, devastating his family, friends, and everyone who had expected him to be around to give great advice for decades to come. His third book, Save the Cat! Strikes Back, was published posthumously last year.

Copies of Blake’s three screenwriting books were (in the interest of full disclosure) given to me by his business associates, because I wrote a piece about him for Writer’s Digest Books. I’m not a creative writer. I studied literature from the reader’s, scholar’s, and critic’s points of view. Blake’s books helped me understand the creative writing process from the film industry’s perspective.

Save the Cat! Strikes BackIt’s summer, with tons of fun to be had, and it’s easy for writers to get discouraged and rebellious and sick of learning. Writer’s block is an evergreen excuse for giving up and going to the pool to throw in the towel. But if you’re one of those never-say-die types, and you want to turn things around, take a cue from Blake Snyder. He once objected to learning what it took for his screenplays to be commercially viable. In Save the Cat! Strikes Back, he says, “I’d been a bullhead—it’s true! I was much more interested in doing it my way than succeeding.” Changing his mind made all the difference.

If success seems elusive, don’t be reluctant to learn something new. It takes humility to accept that you’re not unique and that other people have something to teach you. As long as you’re learning, you’ve got a chance.

4 Replies to “Trouble with story structure?”

  1. Hi Robin! Thank you so much for recommending Blake Snyder for writers of fiction. I’m halfway through his first book, and already many of his ideas about good storytelling resonate with me. I wish I had found a book like this twenty years ago. Nonetheless, I’m very happy to learn from his guidance now. Blake gives such sound advice. Having a logline and identified genre in the beginning makes so much sense. And his sense of humor in each chapter makes me feel like reading his work is the same as having a direct discussion with him. Thanks again!

  2. I’m glad you like the book as much as I did, JMO. The writing and revision are still lots of hard work, but having a plan makes the process less like stabbing in the dark.

  3. I loved Save the Cat, which I found through a link on your blog, Robin. So sorry to hear Mr. Snyder is no longer with us…but he’s with me on a daily basis, after a fashion, as I keep Save the Cat in my VIP bookshelf, a smallish wooden affair within arm’s reach of my keyboard. In fact, he’s right alongside Mr. Strunk and Mr. White, Mr. Roget and Mr. Webster. Sure, most of that is available in various permutations on line, but nothing like a dog-eared version of Save the Cat to help one get back in the groove of being a “real” writer.

  4. TT, I didn’t know you were a Cat! lover. What do the pugs think? Funny, I have a VIP bookcase beside my desk too. And yes, Blake Snyder’s books keep him with us in a beautiful way.

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