Should I Save the Cat with a Hero’s Journey in Three Acts?

Webb Pickersgill asked:

The industry is complex, and I know there is no one answer, but I’d like to hear your commentary on the following subject: Following the “Save the Cat!” blueprint seems to be a sure-fire way of at least having a chance of getting your screenplay any sort of actual success. Agreed, it is solid, proven, and widely accepted by audiences worldwide. However, we are artists and we love to break the mold. Rather, we are always children and part of us always wants to rebel against the “parents” that tell us how things should be. Under what circumstances do you see the mold being broken, and being properly rewarded for it? Of course “properly” is the subjective here, if you rate success based on revenue, societal impact, or some other measure. Financial success is the easy measure, so I challenge you to find an answer that uses other sources for value as well as money. Nonetheless, I’d like to hear your thoughts, to give the artists inside us some hope that being a rebel is rewarding, because deep inside you know you want something new and different. Artists love finding a creative way!

OK, you opened a can of worms that might get me crucified but the fact is:  “Save the Cat” and any other screenwriting paradigm out there are just tools.  That’s it.  They help new writers to, well, hit their beats.  Make sure they get the key elements needed to tell a story, but the key is telling a good story.

Save the Cat! was published in 2005.  There was nearly 100 years of cinema before Save the Cat.  Syd Field’s Screenplay, probably the grand daddy screenwriting book of them all, was published in 1979.  There was decades of cinema before that as well.  People were writing good, solid, screenplays long before the guides and paradigms were drafted.

Corey Mandell, screenwriter and professor at UCLA, wrote a nice blog post about this very topic.  Its all summed up in a story he relates from a guest speaker in one of his classes:

He then gave her three scripts written to one of the popular structure books advocating what must happen on pages 1 to 10, 10 to 20, 20 to 30, and so forth.  He told her the first three scripts were realscreenplays and the other three were bullshit and her job was to never let a bullshit script cross his desk.

It’s not that someone used the guidelines with any particular paradigm, its when they follow them to a fault.  For example, Save the Cat says:

page number 12 Catalyst A life changing event that propels the hero out of the comfort zone and confronts him with the need to act in order to restore the balance
pages 12-25 Debate Sometimes the hero has a choice after the catalyst event, sometimes not. In any case, the pages between catalyst and break into act two should show how daunting the task ahead is, for example by having the hero struggle with the decision or show how he and/or others hesitate face the unavoidable.

Do you really think it matters if the Catalyst falls right on page 12?  Some people do and that’s ludicrous.  Its all about your STORY.  I mean, look, here’s the basic three act structure:

pages purpose
Act 1 first 25% Setup
All main characters and their surrounding situation should be introduced here. What is the hero’s goal – externally and internally? Who are the supporting characters.The first act ends with plot point 1 – an incident that turns the plot in a new direction.
Act 2 next 50% Conflict
The protagonist fights for his goal encountering one obstacle after the other. It ends with plot point 2 which puts him into a situation where it is almost impossible to succeed.Because the second act is very long, Syd Field suggests three orientation points for the writer. One is the midpoint – it’s in the middle of the movie. You knew that, right? Often this is the point where the hero and his enemy clash directly for the first time. Kind of a point of no return, the last chance for reconciliation has passed.It’s not easy to fill 30 pages with meaningful action that drives the plot towards its goal. So Field introduced two more orientation points: pinch 1 and pinch 2. Pinch 1 occurs half way between plot point 1 and the midpoint. Pinch 2 occurs half way between midpoint and plot point 2.The second act ends with plot point 2 – also called the crisis. Here the hero faces a situation that seems impossible to solve. We certainly don’t want to be in his shoes here, but would really like to know what he does now.
Act 3 final 25% Resolution
At the beginning the hero is in the pits, approaching the crisis. Except in tragedies he wins over all adversities and gets back on top, using everything she learnt and accomplished in act 1 and 2.

Its standard.  Everyone knows it.  Every assistant forced to read scripts all day and all night to present to the boss knows it and that’s the very minimal guidelines for writing a screenplay.  That all said, there are four and five act structures.  There’s Syd Field’s Paradigm.  There’s the Hero’s Journey.

The fact is each one says its the best.  The fact is that there are rabid followers of each of them.  Each of these paradigms have one thing in common: they outline the important points to remember in crafting your story and the pacing your story should try to maintain to entertain your audience.  But the one true fact is: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STORY.

So break the rules, do what feels good and is comfortable for the story you are telling… but don’t leave something out and don’t make rookie mistakes (which includes following someone else’s outline on how to write your story).