Snyder Explains Screenwriting


Blake Snyder. 2005. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If wanderlust has ever taken you outside your own profession to sojourn with another, you will discover new insights that will enhance both analogous to a year’s study abroad. Each profession has a slightly different focus and jargon to match. Jargon borrowed from one field and used in another can both enlighten and confuse, depending on the quality of the communication that accompanies it.[1] Crossing writing genres is no different.


Blake Snyder, in his book—Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need—writes:

“The real inspiration for this book started with one simple desire: I had a whole bunch of snappy rules for screenwriting and I wanted to get credit for coining them…To get to the good part, I had to explain the screenwriting process, from idea to execution, in order for anyone to understand what I was talking about.“ (120)

Over the past several years, I have read and reviewed numerous writing books, but Snyder is the first author to take the time to define the many technical terms that he uses. If you don’t believe me, look up the term, beat—an emotional story transition. Most fiction authors use the term without precise definition. Snyder outlines fifteen such transitions on his beat sheet (70).

Snyder distinguishes his book, saying:

1.    He uses the language and terms actually employed by screenwriters,

2.    He has actually sold scripts,

3.    He has taught the material presented, and

4.    He explains how the business actually works. (xii-xiii).

The title for the book comes from Snyder’s rule that the author must present his protagonist as likeable, like the policeman that climbs up the tree to rescue a cat (xv). Authors who fail to take the time end up with robotic characters that readers/viewers have trouble bonding with.

Background and Organization

Wikipedia describes Blake Snyder (1957-2009) as: “An American screenwriter, consultant, author and educator based in Los Angeles.” He studied English at Georgetown University in Washington DC.[2] He writes Save the Cat in eight chapters:

1.    What is it?

2.    Give me the same thing only different!

3.    It’s about a guy who…

4.    Let’s beat it out!

5.    Building the perfect beast

6.    The immutable laws of screenplay physics

7.    What’s wrong with this picture?

8.    Final fade in (v-vi)

These chapters are preceded by a foreword and introduction, and followed by a glossary.

Sell Me

The one point that stays with you in reading Snyder is the importance of selling a script. In the moneyed world of movies, every conversation is metered like an elevator speech. Being able to communicate the theme, audience, plot, and key characters quickly takes pride of place.

Snyder sees four elements in your pitch: a touch of irony (an intriguing hook), a compelling mental picture, an indication of audience and cost, and a killer title (6-9). A “high concept” film is easy to see and pitches itself in one sentence (the logline; 14-15).  These elements are so important that Snyder starts with the pitch before writing a line.

The Spec Writer

Snyder describes himself repeatedly as a spec writer, a term he neglects to define. My image of a spec writer is the jaded writer who follows a director around always with a typewriter within reach, like the writer in Clint Eastwood’s 1990 film: White Hunter, Black Heart.[3]

The key to being a spec writer is to being able to analyze a story quickly in terms of genre and beats. Snyder gives us ten types of story genre:

1.    Monster in the house

2.    Golden Fleece (the quest)

3.    Out of a bottle (a touch of magic)

4.    Dude with a problem

5.    Rites of passage

6.    Buddy love

7.    Whydunit

8.    The fool triumphant

9.    Institutionalized

10. Superhero (25-40)

What is interesting about this list, it is that it classifies stories by their dominant theme rather than an undefined, literary tagline. This helps the spec writer to classify stories quickly and to detach emotionally so as to be able to change up storylines as needed to strengthen the emotional content. Snyder’s fifteen beats in a story then allows him to peg the key turning points in the plot (70) where such changes might be made. Understanding this framework, the jaded writer morphs into more of an action junkie on a quest to write the ultimate screenplay in the least amount of time.


Blake Snyder’s book—Save the Cat—is perhaps the most helpful book that I have ever read on writing fiction. As I read through it, I had repeated ah-ha moments where things that I read elsewhere suddenly made sense. I also found myself memorizing Snyder’s categories and descriptions, knowing that it would be helpful to recall them as I watched movies or read novels that use such devices. If you are a writer or simply a wannabe, you will want to read this book.


[1] During my year in Germany, I heard the term ferkle, which translates as piglet, bantered about in new and interesting ways. At one point, a friend noticed my amusement at the use of ferkle in conversation and explained to me that ferkle did not simply mean a cute little pig, but one that had not yet learned to control its bowels and would defecate everywhere.

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Grams: Outpouring of the Spirit


Rollin G. Grams. 2010. Stewards of Grace: A Reflective, Missions Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962. Eugene: Wipf & Stock.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the truly remarkable events of 20th century Christianity has been the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Pentecostal movement. It is also relatively undocumented. Rollin Grams’ book, Stewards of Grace, works to fill this gap. Rollin is the son of Pentecostal (Assembly of God) missionaries, Eugene and Phyllis Grams, who labored most of their careers in South Africa. He writes their story in their own words. The book is, however, more than an oral history or a travel diary. Rollin writes from the perspective of a biblical scholar who can interpret their experiences in terms of the biblical tradition.

Why might we, as Christians, read be interested in the lives of these quiet missionaries? Grams writes:

The Story of Eugene and Phyllis Grams is a story of one way to live justly amidst the social injustices of apartheid—the policy and practice of racial separation and inequality of South Africa. It is one way to live missionally before the needs of the world (x).

The words—live justly—and—live missionally—stand out here. Our lives in Christ are in tension with the world—how exactly do we deal with that and remain faithful to our calling as Christians?

Salted throughout the book are asides (he calls them capsules) to explain to a non-Pentecostal audience what is going on. For example, in an early capsule, Grams provides historical insight into the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostalism is often dated to begin with the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 ( in Los Angeles, California. However, the Azusa Street Revival was one of many offshoots of the Welch Revival of 1904 and 1905 (19). Pentecostalism builds also on the much earlier holiness and faith healing movements (18). The multi-ethnic, multi-racial context of the Azusa Street Revival is a Pentecostal distinctive and an important contributor to its rapid growth worldwide.

Not all his capsules focus on Pentecostalism.  For example, Grams’ first capsule deals with Apartheid. What was Apartheid? Apartheid started in the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed Church whose General Synod ruled in 1857 that blacks should worship separately from whites. This doctrine pointed to God’s separation of the races at the time of the Tower of Babelthe whites viewed themselves as Israelites entering the promised land (3). This religious separation became law after the Nationalist Party gained control of the government in 1949. A series of laws were passed. The Mixed Marriage Act of 1949 made interracial marriage illegal. The Illegal Squatters Act of 1951 authorized the government to relocate into “homelands”. The Abolition of Passes Act required blacks to carry identity books at all times (4). It was in 1950 that Nelson Mandela was elected to the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC). After the abolition of Apartheid, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994 (5).

Other than the capsules, Grams primarily writes a series of short stories. The book consists of 21 chapters that frame these stories. These chapters are preceded with a forward and followed by short postscript. Far from dry, Rollin poses a sense of humor that makes the stories come alive.

Apartheid is now history.  Historians will likely want someday to understand the events and people that led up to the quiet revolution in South Africa. The church likely played a leading role in this effort, even if historians gloss it over. I can tell you as someone who worked in international affairs that few people envisioned the changes that took place in South Africa. The role of Christians, such as the Grams, in providing hope to persecuted and reviled people cannot be underestimated. Rollin’s book provides source material for that evaluation.

A good screen writer could place this biography against a backdrop of the times and create a classic in Christian cinema.

Grams: Outpouring of the Spirit

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Bell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell: How to Write Dazzling DialogueBell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell.[1] 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What dazzles editors? Journeying from nonfiction to fiction writing, I have had to learn new things. Where nonfiction authors write articles, reviews, and reflections, fiction authors focus on writing scenes. While nonfiction authors focus on analysis and description fiction authors focus on plot, character, and dialogue. When I stumbled across James Scott Bell’s How To Write Dazzling Dialogue, I knew that I had to learn how to dazzle.


Bell starts by comparing three manuscripts. The first begins with description. The second begins with descriptive dialog. The third begins with dialog between two people in conflict. Which has the most rapid pace? Which is most likely to get noticed by an agent? Bell describes the third manuscript as “crisp and tense”. It is taken from Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (9).

Dialogue Defined

Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. (12) Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (13)

 Five Functions of Dialogue

The role of compression is important. Bell writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” (16) Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. (17) Bell sees five functions of dialogue:

  1. Reveal story information
  2. Reveal character
  3. Set the tone
  4. Set the scene
  5. Reveal theme (22).

In weaving a story, Bell advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. (25) How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other (36). The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other (37). Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (38)

Practicing Dialogue

Bell suggests that the best way to learn to write dialogue is to practice acting out or writing out different roles with a voice journal. He writes:

“How do I know what a character’s voice sounds like? I prompt them with questions and then let them talk. I do this fast, without thinking about it much. What I’m waiting for is the moment when the character starts talking to me in a voice I did not plan.” (40-41)

He advises writers to take time in writing these journals out and reading them out loud (41-42). Another way to practice dialogue is to convert movie scripts into scenes in narrative form. (42). His example is taken from Cool Hand Luke, a film starring Paul Newman (1967), one of my favorite movies.[2] Bell also suggests trying improvisation. (45)

Increasing Tension

Dialogue can also benefit from new agendas, arguments, barriers, and addition of fear. (61) Bell recommends that characters who simply act out who they are in dialogue makes for natural conflict that simply flows out of their personalities.

The classic film that Bell returns to over and over is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (28-30). In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays a closed mouth private detective, Sam Spade, who interacts with talkative socialites, manipulative millionaires, and sleazy women who have trouble telling the truth. Conflicting agendas break out everywhere because the characters differ deeply from one another. This is what Bell refers to as orchestration because well-formed characters ooze conflict. (62)

Arguments can be playful or serious. Barriers can be cultural—think of someone that thinks so differently from you that communication is difficult—or situational. Have you ever had a job interview where the interviewer was constantly interrupted with phone calls or an assistant breaking in? Sometimes barriers to communication can be downright funny or simply discouraging.


James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dazzling Dialogue is a fascinating read for authors needing tips on how to improve dialogue and follow convention in writing it. Bell writes thrillers, teaches writing, and works as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. His advice on dialogue runs deep.


[1] @JamesScottBell



Connelly, Michael. 2003. The Last Coyote. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Lawson, John Howard. 1936. Theory and Technique of Playwriting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.


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Bell: How to Plot a Good Novel 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

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