The Language of Save the Cat!® – 10 Key Terms
Blake Snyder wanted his books and workshops to give writers a way to create and analyze stories. In the last three weeks, we posted three podcasts by Blake. Here are definitions of 10 helpful terms that Blake used in those podcasts.
Primal: Blake’s favorite word is a guiding force in good stories. To test if your story is primal, ask: Would a caveman understand?
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 (pages 30-55) of a screenplay. This is the point where we understand fully what this movie is about. This is why we bought our tickets.
Six Things That Need Fixing: Six is an arbitrary number, but should indicate there are a bunch of defects in the hero’s life when we first meet him or her that will be healed during the movie. In the opening scenes of Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey is shown as: 1) a difficult actor with 2) an uncaring agent. He is 3) insensitive to women and – not surprisingly – 4) an ineffective pick-up artist and 5) bad friend who 6) doesn’t like to hold babies. All these things will get “fixed” by donning a dress and becoming a better man for having been “Dorothy Michaels.” The journey would mean nothing if these problems weren’t set up in Act One.
Spine of the Story: How does the hero begin, change, and grow 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 Key questions to ask to straighten any spine are: Who’s the hero? What’s the problem? How does the story begin and end? What is the tangible and spiritual goal and what is the story “about”? What is its theme? Answer these and write a story that resonates.
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.
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 or her life doesn’t change.
Tangible and Spiritual: There are two stories in every story: the thing that’s happening on the surface, known as the plot, and the thing happening below the surface, known as theme. The surface world is all material, or “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.
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis 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.
Time Clock: “How long do we have?” asks the captain of the Titanic upon hitting the iceberg at the Midpoint of the movie. Meet the “time clock” or “ticking clock,” a way to let us know how much longer we’ve got and to put pressure on the hero to solve, get out of, or triumph before it’s too late.
Transformation: 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.