Inside The Chaos: Breaking Save The Cat (Cinema Structure)


by Kierston Drier

Today, we are doing something that has been done by screenwriters everywhere at one time or another- but it is no small feat. People have been attempting to crack the holy grail of cinema structure, basically, since cinema has begun.


   Well, technically, it goes back to the beginning of storytelling itself. We could spend hours breaking down the Epic of Gilgamesh, or The Iliad and The Odyssey. But we digress. For the sake of time, we are going to move our breakdown ahead by a few centuries.


The history of film is long, rich and fascinating, but- to be very brief, the first films came to light in the last decade of the 1800’s and they were total novelties for the common audience member. Animation would appear right before the turn of the 19th century. Typically under a minute long and made without sound, the pull to these films was that they were simply incredible feats of technology for the time. The first film with sound would be The Jazz Singer in 1927, which helps to illustrate the world of early film as being very simple, silent and much more similar to a theatrical stage performance than the cinema we see today.


But where does that leave the story? To condense down a massive amount of history, industry, and technology into an impossibly small time-frame, suffice to say- there was no hard and fast rule on “how to tell a story”, in cinema’s early days. Yet, as the film became more profitable and its audience grew, as well as the advancements in technology, stories became richer, fuller, deeper in context and more realistic. The end of “silent films” and the development of “talkies” would usher in a more life-like sense of story telling.


Doubtless, there were schools of thought, instructions, books, and guidelines for writing movies and shows, but one of the major game changers was Blake Synders’ Save The Cat, which breaks down the Hero’s epic journey. The book has had multiple reprintings and has topped the charts on best-selling manuals for screenwriting (ex- the number one selling book on screenwriting on Amazon in 2015)


Synder’s Save The Cat is an Icon. Primarily because it acts as a minute-by-minute breakdown of the hero’s journey. Better yet, the pattern Synder lays out can be seen in famous movies like Star Wars, Toy Story and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and countless others.


But what is so magical about Save The Cat? Let’s break it down to see:


  1. The Opening Image (p.1)- The strong, sharp, efficient image that sets up the world of our character.


2.Theme States (p.5) -A subtle line, usually by or to the main character that will undertone the main conflict or crux of the story.


  1. Set-Up Section (p.1-10)-  We fully meet our main character and see their life right before it gets taken for a turn by the epic story they are about to engage in. We need to make up are mind about how we feel about the character in this section, and we need to see the problem that will ultimately push them into action


  1. Catalyst (p.12)- The problem that was hinted at earlier now has to come fully in the face of the main character- compelling them to act. Their world has been shaken and they must act.


  1. Debate Section (p.12-25)- The main character must come to terms with their new situation, and battle (either with themselves, their world, or other external elements or people) to decide on the next forward moving action. The outcome must be their decision to push forward with conflict, for better or worse.


  1. Break Into Two (p.25)- We enter Act two of the story, and the character is now completely out of their element. Whatever they have done in the plot has propelled them into an utterly new situation and they are well outside of their comfort level.


  1. B Story (p.30)- the establishment of a B story takes place. A B-story may have been hinted at earlier, but now we allow some time for that secondary plot to establish itself and hint that it may create more conflict later.


  1. Fun and Games (p.30-55)- Whatever genre your story is, this is where the conventions of that genre get played out- Action movie? We have a car chase where our hero is triumphant. Horror film? We have some spooky supernatural events, some deaths, and some narrow escapes. Romantic comedy? Some events that compel us into some screen chemistry occur.  A suspenseful mystery? We have some juicy clues and red herrings that propel us into a certain direction. Bottom line; whatever tantalizing bits of your movie that would go in the advertising trailer- those bits happen here.


9.Midpoint (p.55)- The stakes rise! Everything for the character gets more complication. Things will get worse if they don’t act, and act soon.


  1. Bad Guys Close In (p.55-75)- Whatever your character is fighting against (themselves, their world, others) is rapidly getting bigger, worse and uglier. Whether the character ignored the warning signs, or the problem itself is far out of control, the Problem now must be resolved or may already be too late.


  1. All Is Lost (p.75)- The problem reaches a crisis level and everything falls apart. Our hero has seemingly failed. Whatever they have tried to do has backfired, and they are to blame.


  1. Dark Night Of The Soul (between p.75-85)- Hopeless and dejected, they are at their lowest point in the film, emotionally, psychologically and metaphorically.


  1. Break Into Three (p.85)- Entering the third act, your character is brought hope, whether it be in a supernatural, introspective and external form. If the B-story hasn’t crossed directly into the line of your hero yet, this is the time for it to happen. The character is revitalized- not all is totally lost.


  1. Finale (p.85-110)- In one last attempt to fix the major problem, the Hero summons their strength, armed with any new lessons they have learned along the way and sets off to defeat the problem. This time they succeed!


  1. Final Image (p.110)- We close our script on an image similar to our opening, except that it now includes our newly changed Hero, now grown wiser and more mature from their experience. The world, or their world, has been altered forever. They are now the master of their own destiny and now long hurled to the whims of fate.






– it creates a simple, yet highly customizable template that maps out a hero’s journey from start to finish, including their victories and defeats.


-It builds on an established set of tropes that can be examined a large variety of films regardless of their genre


Yes. Sure. But WHY does Save The Cat work?


This is a highly subjective issue that can be debated till dawn breaks a hundred years from now. This reviewer will argue that Save The Cat works for three basic reasons:


1)  It Makes Us Feel.


Ultimately, every film needs to do one major thing- make the audience feel.  The structure, when followed makes it necessary to establish a connection between the audience and the hero, which makes the audience care. In between The Set-Up and The Debate we have seen the character go from comfortable- too uncomfortable, to dealing with internal conflict- to making a choice. This natural progression allows the audience time to develop an emotional connection with the character. We may hate them, we may love them- but we feel something for them. This means we have become invested. In short, we care about them, and we will care about their outcome.


2) It Utilizes Archetypes


Without getting too philosophical, Archetypes are basic concepts that reoccur all societies regardless of time period or cultural differences. Think stock characters like The Trickster and The Wise Elder that get shaped and reshaped in all our favorite films over and over again. The Trickster is Bart Simpson (The Simpsons) is Arlechino (comedia Del Arche) is Jim Halpert (the Office). The Wise Elder is Yoda (Star Wars), is Rafiki (The Lion King) is Gramma Tala (Moana).  They are all different individual characters, but they are built on the same foundation.  And why do these characters keep coming up over and over again? Because they somehow tap into the collective consciousness of human beings as story-tellers. Somewhere in our collective brains resides a comfort in these classic characters that help convey stories, pass along information and tech lessons.


In the Save The Cat breakdown, we walk our main character through the steps that turn them from ordinary to extraordinary. We move with them, in secret, and we share their failures and their successes. We have unfettered and VIP access to our hero as they leap from what is average, to what is great. This plays into two archetypes, The Underdog and The Hero, and joins them together. It is a combination that audiences naturally enjoy watching, and the story that develops from it satisfies the viewer.


3) It Creates Wish Fulfillment


When we follow Save The Cat, as it is written, we begin our story with a character we can relate to. Even in a high-concept fantasy, where we are living in a totally unrealistic world- even if the character isn’t human- the “hero” is still relateable. They may suffer from human flaws or insecurities. Yet they overcome those problems and rise to the occasion to triumph against all odds. It is the concept of the “everyman” winning the day over the terrible foe that makes the story so inviting. The audience wants to relate to the hero because they want to be the hero. They want to believe that they too, could rise to the occasion and beat the odds. The viewers, however, are safe and watching the hero- their hero- win the day in their place. Following Save The Cat means we see the character when they are their most relatable, and watch them grow into the hero. We get to live their adventure with them, and they fulfill our dreams. Save The Cat creates a Wish Fulfillment pattern that makes the viewer feel as those they are part of the Heros’ main journey.


So why does Save The Cat work? To be brief- because of its clean, concise and does the equivalent of a Jedi-Mind-Hack on our emotions. There are other outlines that work well too- like Dan Harmen’s Story Structure 101, or, going back even further, Aristotles’ breakdown of comedies and tragedies. And they work too! But we can talk about them next time…



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