Blake Snyder wrote the Save the Cat!® books to provide a language for filmmakers to create and analyze movies. Along with the names of his beats and genres, here are other terms Blake popularized.
ALL STORIES ARE ABOUT TRANSFORMATION!
This is not a Hollywood term… it is our motto! It should be printed out and put on top of our computers as a reminder of why we do this job. No story is worth telling unless change occurs in the hero — or in us, the audience. The bigger the growth, the more epic the tale.
The rebel found in stories of the Institutionalized kind. Named for Marlon Brando, who portrayed motorcycle tough Johnny in 1953’s The Wild One, this is the radical who defies the system and doubts everything about the family, business or group that has stood the test of time.
CASE WITHIN A CASE
In a Whydunit, usually the initial or long-buried caper that for some reason is unresolved. By pursuing another case, the detective revisits the original — and cracks both.
In an Institutionalized story, the one who has so bought into the establishment that he has sacrificed his humanity for it, e.g., General Mireau in Paths of Glory, Williamson in Glengarry Glen Ross and Frank Burns and “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan in M*A*S*H.
The person, place or event that stops the lovers from being together in a romantic comedy or love story, e.g., the iceberg in Titanic, the short time together in Before Sunrise and the secrecy in The Reader. Ironically, it is also the thing that keeps the lovers together — and is usually what your rom-com is “about.”
In an Out of the Bottle story, a person the hero can trust with the secret of his magic power — and sometimes the one who uses that information to harm the hero (so much for trust).
This is Blake’s 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!
DOUBLE MUMBO JUMBO
In movies using “magic,” the tendency of the writers to pile it on, or use several forms of it, and unwittingly make the story feel fuzzy or confusing. The rule is: We, the audience, are allowed to suspend disbelief once in a movie. You cannot be led to believe aliens and vampires exist in one world.
EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL
These are the twin skeins of action found in the Bad Guys Close In section of a script in which both external and internal pressure is applied to make our hero change — exactly what he is resisting! Having a sense of oncoming “death” in the All Is Lost moment, heroes resist both the external and internal, but cannot do so for long.
EYE OF THE STORM
In a Dude with a Problem film, the break from the fast-paced, confusing and dangerous situation our innocent hero suddenly finds himself in. It can be a friend or a love interest who also offer the hero a needed lesson.
In a Monster in the House movie, the partial survivor who has had an interaction with the monster in his past and comes away damaged in some way because of it. This is the “false mentor” who can tell the hero — and us — the horror of what dealing with the monster will entail — and who is almost always sure to die!
In a Fool Triumphant movie, the jealous one who realizes the “idiot” is wiser than everyone and seeks to stop him before others see this too, e.g., Doctor Lessing in Life Is Beautiful, Nola in Match Point and Salieri in Amadeus.
LIMP AND AN EYEPATCH
When characters lack character, that thing which gives them a unique identifying quirk or habit.
In a Superhero tale, the loyal and very human underling who looks up to the title character but can never be him, e.g., Kylie the opossum in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Sarah in The Crow and Timon in The Lion King. Often used by the Nemesis to threaten the Superhero.
MIDPOINT PARTY / PUBLIC COMING OUT / FALSE VICTORY / FALSE DEFEAT
When the hero has a false victory at the Midpoint, he thinks “he gets everything he wants.” Sometimes, this manifests itself in the form of a celebration, while at other times, it’s a public coming out as the hero declares a new identity or a new way of living. Sometimes, the hero has a false defeat where he “loses everything he thinks he wants.” This, too, has a public aspect, as the hero’s failure is often on display for others to see.
MOMENT OF CLARITY, THE
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 else to go anyway, this is the moment when he says: “I get it!” The hero recognizes his flaws, and though it looks like he will never get a chance to capitalize on this… we know better.
POPE IN THE POOL, THE
A distracting way to bury exposition, so called for a scene in a script 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.
What is basic about a story, a character’s goal or a movie premise is its relation to our inner drives as human beings. Stories of survival, sex, hunger and revenge connote immediate interest on our part. We will stop and look when these themes are presented to us. We can’t help it. We have to. It’s primal. To you, the screenwriter, this means you must ground every action and story in its primal-ness. When characters are not acting like human beings, when they are not being driven primally, odds are you are testing the patience of the audience. To ask “Is it primal?” is to ask “Is this relevant to a caveman?” The answer must be: Yes!
PROMISE OF THE PREMISE
The premise of a movie — its “What is it?” — can only be proven to be satisfying when we see it in action. What is fun, catchy or hooks our interest about a movie’s poster must be paid off once we get inside the theater. If it is not paid off, we the audience will consider it to be a bad experience. We will feel cheated. The promise of the premise are those scenes or scene sequences that exploit the premise to its maximum and are usually found in the Fun and Games section of a screenplay. This is the point where we understand fully what this movie is about. This is why we bought our tickets.
In a Golden Fleece movie, this is the thing that stops the team from gaining the prize. It’s the set-back, surprise backstab or bit of new information that makes the participants think they will never win the day, e.g., Alvin Straight’s many obstacles in The Straight Story and when Tom Hanks and company find Private Ryan — and he refuses to go home.
The magic in an Out of the Bottle story needs these parameters, guidelines or boundaries to keep what happens credible. State The Rules up front — and stick to them!
SEX AT 60
Old-time Hollywood writers often put the first sex scene at page 60 of their normally 120-page scripts. Remarkably, this Midpoint rendezvous still occurs many times today, even in indie-world screenplays — though contemporary scripts tend to be shorter, so the Midpoint comes before 60.
SIX THINGS THAT NEED FIXING
This is the list of a hero’s minor character flaws, enemies and rivals that bully him, and a wish list that — if we like the hero enough, and think he deserves help — get “fixed” later in the film. We as an audience like to see the Six Things That Need Fixing get paid off later in the script — the more the merrier. It’s thoroughly enjoyable to see those pay-offs. But you have to put the flaw in there in Act One to make the pay-off work.
STAKES ARE RAISED
This is a term that is frequently heard in development meetings. Also known as the ticking clock or the Midpoint bump, it means the raising of the level of tension. Suddenly from out of nowhere at the Midpoint, some new thing — an even bigger and more unexpected thing than we’ve seen before, and one that seems insurmountable — becomes a problem for our hero. You must be sure the stakes are raised at the Midpoint to give the hero new challenges and lead him to his ultimate win.
What’s worse than going nowhere in life? Not much, and when we meet the hero during the Set-Up, this is where we find him. He’s stuck in his current predicament, just “existing,” but not truly living. If he doesn’t do something, it’s going to mean “death” for him, in some form or another. Luckily, there’s a Catalyst just around the corner to jumpstart his journey.
a.k.a. Act One, Act Two and Act Three
Thesis, antithesis and synthesis describe the thematic progression of the hero’s journey. In Act One, the hero’s world is set up. In Act Two that world is turned on its head; it is the upside-down version of what he left behind. By mastering this surreal new world, the hero gains the knowledge to combine what was and its opposite to form a synthesis of everything he has learned. That synthesis occurs in Act Three. It is not enough for the hero to survive the journey; he must transform his world in order to truly be great.
TANGIBLE AND THE SPIRITUAL, THE
There are two stories in every story: the thing that’s happening on the surface, known as “plot,” and the thing happening below the surface, known as “theme.” The surface world is all material, tangible with concrete goals, obstacles and consequences. The goals are all specific too, such as winning a trophy, a girl or a legal case. The below-the-surface world is the spiritual part; it is the lesson the hero learns from the plot — and the real story. Remember: A Story = plot = wants = tangible. And B Story = theme = needs = spiritual.
The time clock or ticking clock often occurs at the Midpoint as a way to let us know how much longer we’ve got — and to put pressure on the heroes to solve, get out of or triumph before it’s too late. Examples are the pressure on Riggan to hire Shiner in Birdman and Minister Kempf demanding surveillance results from Wiesler in The Lives of Others.
A movie where we follow two characters, each has an arc, and each grows because of the other, e.g., Before Sunrise. Three-hander — A movie where we follow three stories, each with its own arc of growth, most often a love triangle,such as Sweet Home Alabama, Titanic and Gone with the Wind. Four-hander — a movie where we follow four stories, most often a two-couple love story like Closer, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and When Harry Met Sally...
Once your protagonist enters Act Two, he steps into an upside-down version of life as he knew it. It’s a mirror reflection of Act One, an antithesis. Things might be the opposite of before, but his problems still follow him. Because of this, it forces the hero to confront new challenges head-on and to grow.
WHIFF OF DEATH
The added extra bonus found in the All Is Lost beat of a well-structured screenplay is that very special moment where something dies — actually or metaphorically. The All Is Lost point is rife with the whiff of death because it marks the end of the world as is and the beginning of a new world the hero will create from this seeming end.