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Save the Cat Revisited — a Q&A with Salva Rubio

Back in the early days at Writer Unboxed, Kathleen Bolton–my friend and co-founder here at WU–and I used to do weekly interviews with authors and industry gurus. These interviews not only brought us some fantastic traffic and were instrumental in raising WU’s profile, they were richly rewarding to everyone, including Kath and me. There were, of course, favorites. I think I can safely say one of Kath’s favorites was her interview with Diana Gabaldon [1] (of Outlander fame). One of mine was with the brilliant and oh-so-charming Blake Snyder [2], author of a series of books for (screen)writers beginning with Save the Cat [3]. Blake had just released his second book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, when we had our phone interview.

I’m going to share the first question from that interview with you here, because it’ll help to establish a grounding for the Save the Cat series and this interview as well.

TW: In the first Save the Cat, you introduce the idea that every story falls into one of ten new genre categories–Monster in the House, Golden Fleece, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, Rites of Passage, Buddy Love, Whydunit, Fool Triumphant, Institutionalized or Superhero. How does your latest book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, expand on this concept? 

BS: In the first Save the Cat, I proposed that most well-structured stories fall into certain patterns. I pointed out fifteen points on the Blake Snyder beat sheet that I think are unique.

What I’m trying to get across is that there’s a function for every section of a story. As a writer myself, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it all out. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of success in selling scripts, and so breaking down the components of what makes any story work has always been my goal. That was the important thing in the first book.

The other important thing in the first book was the concept that there are ten story types. So what I wanted to do in the second book is basically prove my point, prove the case. In writing the second book, I wrote ten different chapters, each one about a different story type. I found five different examples of each story type and broke them out into the beats. It really is just proving the case.

“Just proving the case” makes it sound so simple, doesn’t it? But what Blake had done, I felt, was nothing short of astonishing, as he revealed the veritable DNA of story after story and type after type.

A brief aside: My son just finished his first year at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. He wants to eventually direct films, though he could end up writing or editing, too. Point is, he loves story. We all love story. We put a movie on at my house, and after it’s finished we talk about that story for an hour, at least. What worked. What didn’t. Why. What we think could have made it better. My son’s had his hands on my well-worn copy of Save the Cat, and knew I’d had the honor of talking with and interviewing Blake. And so it was with some awe that he registered that Save the Cat is cited in his classes at USC — in what is arguably the #1 film program in the country (#mombrag).

Bottom line: Save the Cat has become a must-have book for screenwriters and accrued much industry respect. And even though Blake passed away at a far-too-young age back in 2009, his story analyses live on through film programs across the country via his own books and brand. So when I learned about a new book out from Blake’s former publisher, I was intrigued.

Save the Cat! Goes to the Indies: The Screenwriters Guide to 50 Films from the Masters [4] was written by a former colleague of Blake’s, Salva Rubio–a graphic novelist and screenwriter who hails from Madrid, Spain. For a decade, Salva worked for Spain’s foremost independent production company, Alta Films, where he analyzed scripts by the Coen Brothers, Eric Rohmer, Gus Van Sant, Walter Salles, Jane Campion, and even Spain’s Ministry of Culture (ICAA), among others. As a graphic novelist, Salva works in the French-Belgian market (Le Lombard Editeur), having published such projects as Monet, Nomad of Light [5] (2017), and the novel Zíngara: Searching for Jim Morrison. He also co-wrote the animated movie Deep (2017).

Interviewing Salva reminded me why Blake’s brand has withstood the test of time. And while the latest Save the Cat book may exist mainly to continue “just proving the case,” it is still fascinating.

How is it that so many different kinds of movies — at least those that are successful — roll out in such a similar fashion?

And — the big question here at WU — can novelists take anything away from what Blake recognized?

If you don’t know anything about Save the Cat, I hope this serves as a worthy introduction. If you already do know about the brand, I hope you enjoy this fresh perspective — and your introduction to Salva Rubio.

Q&A with Salva Rubio

TW: Can you tell us a little bit about how you became attached to the Save the Cat project? How did you know Blake, and what did you think of Save the Cat the first time you read it? Did you believe it would become the classic it has become?

SR: It all started about ten years ago, I was considering being a professional screenwriter and I used to read just about every book published in the market. So I got to read “Save the Cat” and it immediately blew my mind: it was so crystal-clear, easy, positive, straight to the point and the author (Blake Snyder) knew his craft, as he was a professional screenwriter. With it, I understood so many elusive concepts and I discovered that, no matter how easy it seems, it’s deep enough to use it for years.

After that, by sheer coincidence I noticed that Blake himself was about to teach his seminar in Barcelona, so I couldn’t miss it! We spent a week there, along with other 10 writers, beating a whole movie with its 40 scenes in just those days! After that I was incredibly confident in the STC method and in my abilities, and soon after I wrote a script that was a finalist in an important contest…

I remained in touch with Blake, exchanging emails and theories until his sad untimely passing. At that time I was working for a production company in Spain, in which I was handled scripts by top names in the European and indie industry, like Jane Campion, Gus van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Larry Clark, Christopher Hampton… and I discovered that, no matter how “auteur” or independent the resulting films were, the scripts were perfectly classic and thus fitted Blake’s theories.

So I decided to tell BJ Markel, editor of the books and the STC! Blog, and I wrote a chapter for him. He liked the idea, and we started work on “Save the Cat! Goes to the Indies”.

TW: Let’s talk about beat sheets. What sets them apart from other ‘tools of the trade’? Why do you think they work so well?

SR: Well, beat sheets make our life and work easier, so that is already something to be thankful for! Seriously, I also think they work great because all of us, at some point, usually at the start, must figure out what story we are telling, how it will develop and how it will end. So beat sheets become a great “road map” for developing our story.

They are simple tools. They can be written in a few hours. They are easy to grasp and revise in case something is not right. And I really think (and teach) that most of the main problems we might later encounter related to plot, character or theme can be fixed in a beat sheet. In fact, when a writer or production company hires me to help them with a finished story, the first thing we do -you guessed it- is “go back to the beat sheet” to highlight and solve the problems of the story.

So I think a book like “Save the Cat! Goes to the Indies,” which features 50 Blake Snyder beat sheets, are a great way to get used to, or to perfect, your use of this great tool.

TW: Beat sheets clearly work well for movies, but do you think novelists can benefit from this same beat sheet or would they need to be amended?

SR: I really think that they can be used approximately the same way, but of course the novel format allows us for more freedom. While a film script must necessarily have about 110 pages (this count is a little more flexible in the indie realm), a novel may be as long, and have as many plots and characters as we want.

This means that, for example, we could set apart the beats and give them more space than usual. In a script, your “Break into Two” beat should fall on page 20-25, but who says where it must happen in your novel? As long as it falls on approximately the first quarter break of your total page count, it would be enough.

Another way I use beats in my own novels is using a beat sheet for every character. Since many novels explore the stories of various characters, you could write a beat sheet for every one of them and then combine them to your liking. I actually find this an easier way to make character-centered secondary plots, so that working on those characters and adding more depth to the stories is almost automatic.

TW: You home in on ‘flexibility’ as key to working with a beat sheet. Can you speak more to this as it might apply to novelists? Why is flexibility so critical? Does it help prevent that dreaded sense of storytelling predictability?

SR: “Flexibility,” as used in Save the Cat! Goes to the Indies refers to the fact that many Hollywood films are becoming too plain and uninspiring, and also, as you say, predictable. One of the reasons is that writers or executives are not making them rich enough by being more flexible with genres, beats and scene duration, etc. This is also applicable to some novels, as sometimes we remain too fixed in a single genre or storyline, when many could be combined. And we are not talking of traditional genres such as “western” or “sci-fi”, but we call “genres” storylines that you see repeated over and over in fiction.

On this very site, Writer Unboxed, during in the course of a wonderful and inspiring interview, Blake himself said, “I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with blending story types together. One of the things I’m toying with is the idea of making a list of movies and showing how they’re combinations of two or three types.” In a way, we have done that with the new book; we have focused on films that could work in various genres, thus being flexible and enriching them with different themes and storylines.

TW: How can *multiple* beat sheets be used to tell a more complex story, and what is your favorite example of this in movies and/or novels? Can you break it down for us?

SR: First, as I was telling before, you could use one beat sheet for every narrative thread you are developing. This way you could combine them in traditional (linear) or fancy (non-linear) ways.

The best example I can provide is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where three beat sheets (one for every main character) were written and then cleverly structured in a non-linear fashion. As the theme (loyalty) and the genre (“Institutionalized”, where character must decide which “group” they belong to) are consistent, the final form is both clean and inspiring.

The same could be said about Reservoir Dogs, which features two overlapping beat sheets (a “Golden Fleece”, meaning that the characters must go down a physical or emotional road), but also Blue Valentine (which features double beats happening in flashback/flashforward fashion) and Being John Malkovich (in which beats are doubled for the two main characters, each having a different ending). I am actually writing a novel combining two storylines 30 years apart from each other, and working on thematically relating the beats is being both challenging and fun!

TW: What is your best advice for novelists who’d like to use this book?

SR: My best advice would be to remember that all of the Save the Cat principles apply to all kinds of writing formats: I have written screenplays, novels and graphic novels using it, because deep inside, and no matter how long and complicated a novel is, inside there is a very simple story: Someone wants something and has to undergo deep inner change to get it… and Blake taught us how to write it.

Also, stories always need to be primal, to deal with transformation. And no matter how anti-classic they are supposed to be, they belong to one or more of our genres. Again quoting Blake from your interview with him here, “Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… If you look at those movies, they are beautiful, and they follow the beat, beat for beat. So, even avant-garde storytelling has to satisfy.”

I’d like to invite your readers to check a couple of beat sheets we have shared at the Save the Cat blog: The Big Lebowski [6] and Boogie Nights [7].

Thank you, Salva!

Readers, you can learn more about Salva on his website [8], and learn more about this latest volume in the Save the Cat series on Amazon [9]. Write on.

About Therese Walsh [10]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [11], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [12] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [13], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [14] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [15] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [16]). Learn more on her website [17].