By Brianne Hogan.
“I first learned how to tell effective stories…selling a shampoo or household cleaning product. But isn’t that what storytelling is all about – selling the hero’s story?”
From this prosaic storytelling education, José Silerio became Save the Cat! author Blake Snyder’s Development Director. Now Silerio now actively works with screenwriters who have projects in active development with major studios and has been invited to speak at a number of screenwriting conferences, including the Great American Pitchfest and London Screenwriters Festival.
Creative Screenwriting chatted with Silerio about his relationship with Snyder, the importance of genres and his thoughts on using a “paint by numbers” formula.
Tell us about your writing background. Were you always interested in films? What inspired you to write for the screen? What have you written?
Film came to me later in life you could say. I wasn’t one of those who constantly had a super 8 or small film camera while in middle school or high school. I started off as a copywriter in advertising. It’s funny that Blake talks about finding the 15 beats in a 30 second commercial because that’s exactly how I first learned about story structure.
One of the accounts I handled was Proctor & Gamble and they were very specific about what happens at certain points in a commercial. And, unknown to me at that time, that’s where I first learned how to tell effective stories – even if I was just selling a shampoo or household cleaning product. But isn’t that what storytelling is all about – selling the hero’s story?
I guess I could also say that’s when I slowly made that transition into wanting to tell, read and watch “longer stories.” I’ll never admit I was inspired to pursue a screenwriting career by a Mr. Clean commercial. Instead I tell people I was inspired by a bald guy who could take out all kinds of scum; if they say Walter White did the same for them, I just quietly nod my head in agreement.
I’ve written a few scripts in different genres, which is what I think new writers should do. It’s not about what genre you write but more of just writing what one believes is a good story. Currently, my writing partner and I recently acquired the rights to a biographical story of a young woman in India who has gone from being a survivor of a violent act to a leading advocate of women’s rights.
How did you meet Blake Snyder? How did you become involved with Save the Cat?
I met Blake about 10 years ago. As I tell everyone, I met him the same way everyone does – through his book. I had emailed him because he put his email address in the book. Who does that right? But it showed that he wasn’t like other authors. He really wanted to interact with fellow writers. Anyway, after a couple of email exchanges, he asked me to help him out with notes for a script someone had sent him.
In a way, you could say this was my test. While I knew all the basics of screenwriting from all those screenwriting classes I took, I figured the best way to do it was to use his beat sheet. More than that, it was also a great way to give notes to a writer without simply saying “I don’t get it” and not knowing what exactly I didn’t get about it.
One thing I tell writers about Blake’s beat sheet is that it allows me to look at scripts very objectively. I’m able to ask specific questions: What is a true Catalyst for the hero? Is the All Is Lost the lowest point of the story?
When I gave Blake those notes ten years ago, it was really a great exercise for me to learn what the beats were and could be. It wasn’t just for me, as a writer, but it was a great tool to analyze and breakdown scripts and stories.
From there, I helped him out with his classes and consultations. And that’s how I got better at it, by listening and learning from Blake daily, but also by working with writers’ stories day in and day out. And I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years.
What it is about Save the Cat that resonates with you as a writer?
I think what made Save the Cat! (STC!) resonate with me as a writer is that it’s a very “easy” way to get started with writing. I’m not saying writing is easy, but Blake’s method gives me (and I know other writers feel the same way as well) a great place to start off. A jumping off point that allows me to quickly explore if an idea I have actually has a story in it. If I can’t come up with a simple beat sheet – even if this beat sheet may change as I explore the intricacies of the premise and the characters more, then the idea probably doesn’t have enough in it to make it a fully engaging story.
So, what does it mean to “save the cat” and why is that an important moment to include in your script?
A “save the cat” is a moment, very early on in the story, where we meet or see our hero do something nice that makes us like him and say, “I want to follow this person’s story.” It’s important to have it because you want your audience to be sympathetic or empathetic towards your protagonist. We have to like the hero and believe there is some redeemable quality in him/her that will allow us to invest ourselves in his/her story for the next 90 pages at least.
But, as I always tell writers, when coming up with a “save the cat” moment in their scripts don’t simply have your hero pass by a homeless person and drop a dollar in his cup or hat – and I’ve seen that a lot – instead create a “save the cat” moment that comes from a situation your hero naturally belongs to, encounters or does as they go about their daily life, work or routine. It makes the moment more real and believable and has a greater effect on the audience because we see the hero as the best person they can be within the world you’ve created for him/her.
Can you lay out the STC! beats for our readers, and summarize their importance?
The easiest way to answer this is to read the book, simply because Blake already says it the best way possible!
Opening Image (p.1): You want to set up the tone and mood right away. If you can tell us who the story belongs to, it’s even better. This is the “before” snapshot.
Theme Stated (p.5): What’s this story truly about? What’s the universal truth that your audience will understand emotionally?
Set Up (pp. 1-10): Establish your hero’s emotional story. What’s her flaws? You’ll also want to show what’s wrong with this world and establish who the main characters are.
Catalyst (p.12): It’s the “knock on the door” that takes the story into a new direction and forces the hero out of her “safety blanket” that is the Set Up.
Debate (pp.12-25): An emotional moment for your hero to show vulnerability as she decides whether to answer the call of the Catalyst.
Break Into Two (p. 25): The hero accepts the call and “states” what the external goal is.
B Story (p.30): The helper story who helps the hero “learn the lesson,” the story’s theme.
Fun & Games (pp. 25-55): The promise of the premise. This is what the movie is all about. This is also where your hero is experiencing new stuff because she’s in the upside-down world of her 1st Act.
Midpoint (p. 55): The stakes are raised dramatically.
Bad Guys Close In (pp. 55-75): This is where the literal bad guys regroup or gain the upperhand on your hero. More importantly, this is where you hero is being forced to change and face her “inner demons.”
All Is Lost (p. 75): This is the lowest point for the hero and when she is farthest away from her goal, physically and emotionally.
Dark Night of the Soul (pp. 75-85): This is where your hero finally gets it. She’s learned the lesson. Sometimes, the theme is somehow restated.
Break Into Three (p. 85): After “rising from the ashes,” the hero pursues a new goal. If the hero is still pursuing the same goal, then she pursues this goal with renewed purpose.
Finale (pp. 85-110): The final battle where our “transformed” hero faces off with the villain. The climax of the movie.
Final Image (p.110): The mirror image of the Opening Image but with the hero changed. It’s the “after” snapshot.
[Thanks to savethecat.com for their examples of beats.]
Snyder was big on “high concept” movies. Do you feel that even though the term isn’t really used anymore, a high-concept film will always be the most popular choice for studios? If so, why is that?
I agree that “high concept” isn’t a term I hear a lot anymore these days but I still think it will be the popular choice for bigger and established studios. Why? “High concept” stories have a wider reach with audiences. It draws in more viewers. Especially if the movie has a really big production cost, a high concept movie gives them the best chance to make up for the budget and get a return on their money spent.
But just because that’s what studios prefer, it’s not always the case. I’ve always believed that a really well written story will trump everything else. For new writers, don’t get stuck on trying to come up with the next great time traveling story. Focus on the story you want to tell. What will make it “high concept” without the “high budget”? Writers really have to put on their business hats as well nowadays. The studio system is changing because of non-traditional studios such as Amazon, Netflix, and the like. These studios have a different approach to creating content. They’re not necessarily driven to look for “high concept” stories.
There has been push back on movies being written like a “paint by numbers” formula. I have spoken to several script readers who actually don’t think movies should be written formulaically. As someone who teaches a well-known formula, what is your response to that?
I completely agree with everyone who says that writing shouldn’t be formulaic. If it were, the industry would have been long dead. As I already mentioned earlier, STC! is merely a method to get started. It gives the writer the tool to play around with an idea to see if there’s a story in it. But it’s not the end all.
While structure is so important in telling a good story, there is more to it than that. It’s the writer’s duty to build complex and engaging characters as well, especially the protagonist. Adding to that, dialogue also plays a big part in making those characters feel very real.
People who feel that STC! is all that’s needed to write great scripts are wrong. Even Blake said that. The writer still has to give his audience something that’s familiar. The writer must still “stay in touch” with what the audience wants. If the writer goes too “experimental,” there’s a real danger that you lose touch with your audience.
There’s a reason why movies from all-time box office champ Avatar to this year’s Oscar winner Spotlight all fit within Blake’s beat sheet. They all follow a tried and true way of storytelling. From Aristotle’s Poetics to Syd Field’s Screenplay, Blake merely expands on the Three Act Structure model. It’s storytelling that we are all very familiar with, whether it’s in a book, a film, or a 30 second commercial. Blake merely points out what’s being done and how writers can use this to better their writing.
But it doesn’t end there. Like I said earlier, the writer now has to add her own voice, her own experiences, her own insights when creating characters. And that’s what I look for when I work with writers. Who really is their hero? What’s the story truly about, its theme? This is what makes the story unique and different. And that’s on the writer – not Blake or STC!
As writers, you have to make sure that the structure serves your hero. If done right, the structure gets hidden in a wonderful way. It’s not “in your face” but it’s still there. More importantly, you don’t end up with a “paint by numbers” story.
Save the Cat! also highlights the importance of genre, specifically the top ten genres, like Dude With a Problem, Fool Triumphant, etc. Why is knowing which genre your story falls into so vital?
I’ve always said, if Blake’s Beat Sheet is the heart of STC!, the STC! genres are the brains. This is what I was just talking about in the previous question. What’s great about these genres is that they don’t merely talk about tone of the movie. Comedy, Romance, Thriller, etc. What the STC! genres do is allow a writer to quickly get into the story, not just the what, but more importantly, the who.
As I tell writers, if you’re unsure about your stories and what the hero must do, take a look at the genre. Each genre has three rules or requisites. If you answer those, you’ll have a better understanding of what your hero’s story will be; what his/her biggest problem is; and, most importantly, what the emotional story will be.
The STC! genres aren’t a stand alone tool. Blake created them to work in conjunction with the beat sheet. And this is why Blake actually talks about the genres in the book before he talks about the beat sheet. Just like I said earlier (and can’t seem to say it enough), the structure must work specifically for the hero you’re creating. Lastly, as Blake would say, knowing the genres help the writer give their audience something familiar … yet different.
I read Snyder had trouble with the Bad Guys Close In beat. While teaching screenwriting students, what do you find is the most common problem they encounter with their writing in terms of the STC form? And how can they go about fixing it?
I wouldn’t say Blake had trouble with the Bad Guys Close In (BGCI), he just created trouble for writers with the Bad Guys Close In! But, seriously, it is the beat that seems to stump writers more than any other beat. The BGCI isn’t merely the beat where your hero finds himself surrounded by a million Stormtroopers or Orcs. More importantly, this is where your hero starts to realize that he/she must change and “learn the lesson” – whatever that “hard truth” may be.
The BGCI isn’t just about making it harder on your hero physically or externally. Even more so, it has to be harder on your hero emotionally or internally. But this won’t happen if the emotional story isn’t set up as early as the First Act. What is this story truly about? The hero can’t commit to a new love interest because of a painful loss before. The hero is addicted to drugs or alcohol because of a painful experience suffered when they were young. This is the emotional or internal story that your hero must overcome.
As I always tell writers, the BGCI section is when your hero realizes “they” were never the problem; the problem was always “me.” This is why Woody and Buzz end up in Syd’s room. Woody couldn’t overcome the idea that Andy was growing up and had a new favorite toy, but it didn’t mean Andy loved Woody any less. Because he refused to change, Woody had to learn the lesson the hard way.
That’s usually the most common problem I find with writers. The emotional story isn’t set up properly. The beat sheet isn’t merely a series of external plot points. The beats focus on both the external and internal stories. They work in tandem or alternately throughout the fifteen beats. If writers don’t want to get stuck or run out of steam as they work through their 2nd Act, they have to start building the emotional story from page 1.
This one always confused me: the false victory vs. the false defeat? Can you explain the difference between the two, and when one might use one over the other?
The False Victory or False Defeat happens at Midpoint and it’s a great way to put a twist in your story that pushes it into a different direction. The FV and FD at Midpoint are perfect examples of how the beats work dependently of each other.
The beats don’t act alone. One reason why scripts that have the beats still fail is because the writer plots out the beats independent of one another. The beats should have a cause and effect relationship. An action-reaction symbiotic association. From Opening Image to Final Image.
As I mentioned above, the Break Into Two beat is when your hero “states” the external goal. What’s he/she actively pursuing? It’s the goal he/she wants. So, when we get to the Midpoint, your hero can either obtain the goal (victory) or fall short of the goal (defeat). It’s false because your hero has yet to really achieve what she needs, not wants.
As I said earlier, as we move into the BGCI section (the 2nd half of your story), the stakes are raised because your hero is now forced to change, to deal with her emotional failings and flaws that you (should have) set up earlier in the story. The external goal is merely a means to force your hero to deal with the real problem – herself. So, it’s false because the true or real victory is when your hero “learns the lesson” and changes in the end.
What is the biggest piece of advice you can give to new writers?
Read a lot of scripts. Good. Bad. Movies you like. Movies you don’t like. Don’t merely watch movies. You’re screenwriters. Not screenwatchers. It truly is the best way how to be a screenwriter.
Just by reading, they can learn the “rules” of story structure and how to break those very rules so the story still works. It’s also a great way to learn how to use dialogue and physical action or behavior to show how a character feels. Then, they can watch and see how what was written on paper was translated on the screen by the actor, editor, director, etc.
Just as important, and I’m sure they’ve heard this before but hear me out: write what you know. When I say this, I’m not merely talking about profession or physical attributes. It’s great if you’re a specialized NASA scientist, then you can write The Martian 2: The Red Planet’s Revenge. But most of us are not specialized NASA scientists. In fact most of us are not cops or lawyers or doctors or have traveled the Serengeti or live underwater (actually none of us live underwater). So how do you write your characters if you don’t belong to that particular kind of work or traveled to a certain place?
Of course, you still have to do your homework on that world you’re creating, but you can draw on emotions that you experienced yourself when writing your hero. How did you feel when your car broke down in the middle of the freeway on your way to pick up your kid or to a meeting? How did you feel when your significant other achieved a milestone or broke up with you? How did you feel on your first day of college or work?
All these emotions are very real and very universal. We all know how that feels. That’s what I mean when I say write what you know. Create characters from your own personal experiences and emotions, and put that in the pages you’re writing, even if it’s an exaggeration. What did you do or how did you act when you really wanted to punch someone in the face but couldn’t for fear of being punched back, for fear of being sued, for fear of making a mistake you couldn’t take back? How did you release that tension, that anger, that hatred? Write it down.
One mistake I still see new writers do is to write according to how a character they saw on a different movie reacted to a situation. Instead of asking how I would react or how did my boss or lover or someone else I know react to a certain situation, they just mimic how a character they’ve seen in another movie or TV show reacts. When they do that, they end up with a caricature of a character we’ve already seen before and, worse, a character who doesn’t make sense.
If you’re merely saying I’m writing the next John McClane or Luke Skywalker, you won’t bring anything new – and it’s the writer’s responsibility to always bring something new to the craft.
What are some recent movies that you would recommend, and which also pass the Save the Cat! test?
There are a lot of good ones. From last year, I thought Spotlight was really good (and I’m not just saying that because it won the Oscar for best picture and writing). The Martian as well. From the previous year, I really loved Whiplash. The beats were spot on but it didn’t feel like a story I’d seen before.
Blake Snyder’s savethecat.com website has a wealth of information about his ideas.
For breakdowns of films into their beats, check out: www.savethecat.com/beat-sheet.
And for a large list of films broken down into Snyder’s genres, don’t miss Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies At-A-Glance.
And, last but by no means least, for our own experts’ opinions on Save the Cat! and other screenwriting manuals, check out our Virtual Panel.