Aristotle Begat “Save the Cat”

And the three-act play lives on.

It’s fitting, at the beginning of any adventure, to map out a beginning and an end. We’ll never pin down definitively what exactly makes a great story memorable, but if we’re lucky we’ll get to party with it. We’ll begin with Aristotle’s Poetics and mark a big red “X” over Blake Snyder’s how-to book on writing a screenplay, Save the Cat. If you haven’t picked it up, you should. Yes, even if you’re a serious novelist, because like Aristotle did for writers of his time, Snyder spells out what Story, or a good story well told,  is for our era.

You’re probably wondering why we’re discussing a screenplay writing book at all, as SHR is focused on written stories and poems. It’s because screenwriters have done more work on Story than any other medium. Screenwriters distilled Story down to the basics because of one simple constraint: there is only so much time humans are willing to sit in a chair and eat popcorn. It is thought to be around1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours, so most movies size themselves to fit that window. It’s this constraint that created the standard screenplay formula.

Is Snyder’s Save the Cat formulaic? Yep. Isn’t it ridiculously generic? Absolutely. That’s exactly what we need. How else will we be able to gauge how unique and intriguing a story is without having something to measure it against? So we’ll need to strip Story down to it’s most basic elements in order to obtain a yardstick to assess how Story has changed over the years, and more importantly for our purposes, how Story hasn’t changed.

As Story is dynamic and constantly on the move, new storytelling techniques gallop in as old, tired workhorses are put out to pasture. The big question for me is are there elements of storytelling that resonate for all of us? Here’s a graph of what Aristotle talks about in Poetics.

Classic 3-act play graph

If we define the course of the story (beginning-middle-end) as problem-solving exercise: presentation of a problem, searching for answers, solving the problem and gauging the success of the solution, then Story is about developing a rise in tension while problem-solving. Rising tension simply means how we  increase the emotional content of Story. So when I sit down to write a good story, well told, I want my readers to feel what I know.  I want them to experience, first hand, the emotions that string together  events in my story and lead them to a little nugget of knowledge about life. More on exactly what type of life knowledge our readers are after later. Let’s get back to Aristotle.

You’re right, the above graph isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for a workable formula for Story. I’ve left out many of the best bits of Aristotle’s discussion: such as reversals (plot twists) pathos (suffering while searching for a solution to the central problem) and recognition (the moment when a character understands how to solve the problem), more on all of that later, too. I want to keep this simple to prove a point. Here is Snyder’s screenplay formula. He calls it the Beat Sheet:

Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" Story timeline

Alright so my graphics are a little obvious. I think they should be, because when you begin to pull back the layers of plot mechanics and character development, it’s revealed that Story, the emotional build (tension) that connects a Story’s plot and characters to it’s underlying theme: that hasn’t changed a bit. Snyder orchestrates the build of tension in his model. he isn’t really talking about plot mechanics (girl meets boy, girl loses boy, etc.), he’s talking about the emotions behind the plot and character growth.There are plenty of formulas out there: the Hero’s journey and Vonnegut’s story structures to name a couple. But I like Snyder’s model because it’s simple and specific. Personally, I use Snyder’s model as a checklist after I write a story as a means of assessing the tension build. I do this regardless of what medium I’m writing in writing in: poems, story, plays, screenplays, etc.: have I debated the issue enough? Is there enough suffering? I believe that it’s the emotional build of a story coupled with experiential learning that readers want. Everything else is just candy sprinkles. You have to make a reader feel what you know about this world.

So simple, really. But as anyone who’s ever tried to create excellence knows, simple is hard to pull off.

 Save the Cat website 

Poetics, by Aristotle: Wikipedia

What's your take on this?