One of the world’s most popular screenwriting books , Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat has brought clarity and a sense of direction to thousands of screenwriters, who were looking for the logical extension of Syd Field’s work.
If you’re not familiar with it the book delivered a structural roadmap to writers: not quite join-the-dots, but in some ways, close.
With fully 15 story beats to hit over 90-120 pages Save the Cat gave writers both a pathway through those tricky narrative woods and a way to quickly flesh out the stories worth developing to full screenplay stage.
But how well do the theories hold up?
In Blake’s 2nd book, Save the Cat Goes to The Movies, he attempted to firm up and solidify his thesis, by analyzing various classic films. And whilst this analysis proved for the most part effective, the doubters (largely, let’s face it, from the independent-slash-art-house sector of the industry) remain…
So whilst Snyder’s greatest gift to screenwriters probably remains the pithy maxim “give me the same, just different“, here at Industrial Scripts we thought we’d really stress test the theories, against a range of films of varying quality.
If you’d like to view all the articles in our Save the Cat Analysis Series please do so at the link, and simply read on for the first instalment in the series!
Save the Cat Analysis Series #1: AMERICAN PIE
FILM: AMERICAN PIE
STORY TYPE: Rites-of-Passage/Fool Triumphant
NOTES: Generally, AMERICAN PIE does fit the Save the Cat! paradigm, but it’s interesting to note that there is no glaring “Break Into Act Two” moment, and nor is there an absolutely clear-cut “Midpoint”. This film is really a case of the filmmakers setting up the protagonists’ goal early, and making it crystal clear where the narrative is headed throughout. The film is most Snyder-esque on a thematic level, in the way that the characters’ attitudes towards sex change over the course of the story. It’s also worth noting that in terms of genre, this film (like THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN) is really a Rites-of-Passage/Fool Triumphant hybrid, as the protagonist in AMERICAN PIE (ie. Jim) certainly defines the term “fool”.
Jim (Jason Biggs) is caught masturbating and watching pornography by his parents, and considerable embarrassment ensues. In the Save the Cat beat sheet, the opening image suggests the conflict and tone of the film that will follow.
The opening image of AMERICAN PIE is crude, comedic, and illustrates Jim’s struggle: he’s inexperienced and has no outlet for his sexuality. While AMERICAN PIE focuses on several different characters, the opening image – and the main focus of the story – belongs to Jim.
The main characters are all introduced, expanding on Jim and his friends’ lives and what’s missing from them. We’ve got Jim (clumsy), Finch (effete), Kevin (relaxed), Oz (the jock), Stifler (crass) and Sherman (geeky) on the boys’ side, and Vicky, Michelle, Heather, Jessica and Nadia on the female side. We’re also made very aware that the boys haven’t had sex yet, but really want to.
“You and Kevin haven’t even done it yet,” Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) tells Vicky (Tara Reid). “That’s not why we’re going out,” Vicky retorts. As in Save the Cat, the script sets up the theme, a wider debate or message underneath the story. Should sex be meaningful, or is it important to do it as soon as possible?
When Jessica says “It’s not a space shuttle launch, it’s sex,” and Vicky walks off in a huff, we know that the tension between these two contrasting viewpoints is going to play out over the film. Do you have to have sex to have a fulfilling life?
On page 16, Kevin says, “if Sherman has sex before I do, I’m gonna be really pissed.” When it appears that Sherman has indeed had sex, the boys make a pact to help each other have sex before graduation. “This is our very manhood at stake,” says Kevin, “we must make a stand, now or never” (p. 18).
In Save the Cat, this is the moment where everything changes. Sherman claiming he lost his virginity changes their world and forces Jim and his friends into action.
In Save the Cat, this is the moment where the hero doubts their journey and their ability to face it. In AMERICAN PIE, this doubt leads to the terms of the challenge being laid down – no sex workers are allowed, and it looks like prom will be their last chance to have sex. “Prom sucks though,” says Oz.
We’re made aware that having sex within this time frame is going to be a tall order – will the boys manage to do it?
Break into two
In Save the Cat, this is where the main character makes a choice and begins their journey. This happens for each character in the friendship group. They all have to leave their comfort zones. The boys head off into worlds different from their own:
- Oz, the jock, joins the choir to try and use the “sensitive angle” on Heather;
- Finch, the culture-vulture, heads in the opposite direction by spreading a macho rumour that he has a huge penis;
- Kevin calls his wise brother long-distance in search of the knowledge to give Vicky an orgasm;
- and Jim talks to an exchange student and takes the brave step of sticking his penis in an apple pie.
This final event is the “big” event, giving the film its title, occurring on p. 31.
The B story need not be totally separate from the ‘A story’. In Save the Cat, this moment is where characters, often the main character and love interest, discuss the theme.
AMERICAN PIE is more of an ensemble, but this moment is still present. The first seeds of romance (rather than just lust) are sewn between Oz and Heather, after she comes to watch him play lacrosse and subsequently asks him to take her to the prom.
Fun and games
In Save the Cat, this is where the script delivers on its premise. For AMERICAN PIE, that’s the gross-out comedy that the poster, trailer and reviews all promise.
The boys get stuck in to their respective “projects”. Jim has Nadia round to his house, and Oz tries to make amends with Heather after she sees him ridiculing her with the lacrosse boys. Unfortunately Jim then ejaculates ridiculously prematurely, to an audience of thousands on the webcam.
In Save the Cat, the midpoint could be positive or negative. Either everything is going well and the main character gets what they think they want, or they don’t. Either way, this is leading to the realisation that what they think they want might not be what they need in the end.
Page 53 – Jim recovers from the trauma of losing Nadia and becoming a figure of public ridicule, to ask Michelle to the prom. Oz also manages to patch things up with Heather, and they realise that they’re going to universities quite near each other.
Bad guys close in
This Save the Cat moment is self-explanatory, although “bad guys” can mean literal bad characters but also negative emotions and character flaws.
Oz realises that his crucial lacrosse match clashes with his duet with Heather, and chooses the lacrosse match which seems to put paid to his chances with her. Finch’s prospects with the opposite sex also disintegrate, after Stifler slips some laxative into his coffee. Kevin’s also struggling – Vicky wants him to say he loves her before she’ll sleep with him, but he can’t do it. Oz then screws up on the lacrosse pitch, and heads off to see Heather.
All is lost
In Save the Cat, this is the opposite moment of the midpoint. The initial goal looks impossible.
Page 70 – “I am so sick and tired of this bullshit pressure! I’m not going to stand around here busting my balls over something that, frankly, isn’t that damn important!” Jim rants, as the boys come together at prom to discuss their prospects. Jim has more or less given up, so has Finch, and it emerges that Sherman has never even had sex.
Dark night of the soul
After Jim’s rant, Kevin has a major crisis of conscience – “I’m on the brink when I should be psyched about Stifler’s party” – and none of the boys seem particularly cheery.
Break into three
In Save the Cat, the turning point into act three arrives with a new idea or way of thinking. Here, the characters give up the pressure of having sex before a certain deadline. This paves the way for a new attitude or new attitudes about sex.
Page 76 – Oz confesses to Heather that he doesn’t care about sex anymore, but does care about her. Kevin and Vicky have sex after he finally tells her he loves her, and Jim hooks up with Michelle. Finch also gets together with Mrs. Stifler (all around page 83).
The benefit of AMERICAN PIE having several characters on this same journey is that each arrives at a different point, finding what’s best for them. Sex can be part of a loving relationship (Kevin and Vicky), a loving relationship can exist without sex (Oz and Heather), and sex can be just for fun (Jim and Michelle have a one-night stand, and Finch with Stifler’s mother).
Vicky summarises the lessons learned as she tells Kevin that they’re going to break up when they go to different universities: “That’s what I’ve been realising – nothing’s perfect, and you can’t plan everything”, she says.
Jim synthesises the lessons everyone has learned about the theme and at breakfast, they can toast to the “next step”. Drawing on what Jim has learned about sex and about himself, he can approach Nadia again.
In the Save the Cat beat sheet, the final image is the opposite of the opening image, proving that the characters have changed. This is certainly the case in AMERICAN PIE.
Page 87 – Jim gleefully dances and strips for Nadia on webcam and although his father walks in on him, this time, there’s no embarrassment.
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