by Noel T. Manning II
If someone asks us to name a favorite film genre, we may respond with the likes of comedy, horror, adventure, or fantasy. Most wouldn’t even acknowledge genres like the fool triumphant, the whydunit, the dude with a problem, or the rites of passage. That is unless we’re familiar with screenwriter and author Blake Snyder.
Through years of research, Snyder explored hundreds of film narratives, and he made a discovery that shocked even himself; he found that basically every film ever created fits into one of about a dozen “story formulas.” Regardless of categories like western, sci-fi, comedy or drama, Snyder found that most of these are connected to a select few story-genres. He admits that there are always exceptions to the rules, but most stories, according to Snyder, are simple blueprints for writers to engage (and reviewers to examine). Snyder believes that any creative person can master the story-telling patterns and write their way toward screenwriting glory; that is, if they have the patience to explore the elements of story, character, and conflict.
Snyder is responsible for three best selling books on screenwriting, and made millions of dollars in his lifetime selling scripts to Hollywood. His “Save the Cat” book series takes readers into the heart of writing compelling stories and characters, and he explains the process of making writing materials more marketable.
His formula for exploring genre-study makes for unique research and viewing opportunities for fans of films, and for critics. Below you will find a snapshot of those narrative categories with a list of film examples. After exploring the story-genres, think about how many other films you can find that will fit within those groupings.
Check out some of these formulas to see if any of the storylines sound familiar.
- BUDDY LOVE – The Buddy Love story genre focuses on completing a transformation of a character or characters. There are three ingredients needed for this kind of film:
- The Incomplete Hero – is void of something making him/her whole. That component could be something physical, spiritual, ethical, mental, or moral.
- The Counterpart – in a number of ways serves as the protagonist, yet provides the very piece of the puzzle needed for the Incomplete Hero to find a way towards oneness. The Counterpart will usually have exactly the assets or characteristics the Incomplete Hero needs or desires to achieve success or balance.
- The Complication – This is something that divides the two from one another. The greater the division at the story’s beginning, the larger the payoff at the end. Ethics, physical limitations, personal feelings, cultural differences, histories, religious leanings, class structure, general misunderstandings are all fair game in these stories.
Examples: Bad Boys for Life, Booksmart, Tag, Antman & the Wasp, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Rain Man, Say Anything, The Heat, Ridealong, Central Intelligence, 48 hours, Turner and Hooch, Men in Black, or Twilight.
- DUDE WITH A PROBLEM – Imagine being thrust into a life or death situation when you’re minding your own business. This is the essence of Dude with a Problem:
- The Innocent Hero – is pulled into unwanted (or unrequested) chaos and mayhem simply by being in the right place at the wrong time.
- Sudden Event – Being on a bus that is getting hijacked, making a bank deposit at the time of an armed robbery, showing up at a class reunion only to be drawn into an international spy ring, surviving a plane crash, being mistakenly identified as one of America’s Most Wanted are all signs that you may be a dude or dudette with a problem.
- Test of Survival – enduring life-challenging dilemmas become a key component and conflict of this story.
Examples: Superintelligence, Midnight Sky, Breaking in, Kidnap, Unbreakable, Adrift, The Shallows, Gravity, Die Hard, Everest, Bourne Identity, Misery, Speed, The Fugitive, All is Lost, or Apollo 13.
- FOOL TRIUMPHANT – The innocent, and gentle strength, of this often times reluctant leader will challenge established norms, and ignite change.
- The Fool – Ignored and overlooked by most, this character is unaware that he/she possesses anything worthy of power or greatness.
- The Establishment – A place, a situation, or a group completely foreign to the Fool. This is truly when the fish is out of water.
- The Transmutation – As a result of the crisis and conflicts, the Fool experiences change, and in the process impacts changes in the world around her/him as well.
Examples: Forrest Gump, School of Rock, Daddy Day Care, Miss Congeniality, Amadeus, The House Bunny, Legally Blonde, Elf, Billy Madison, The Jerk, or Mrs. Doubtfire.
- GOLDEN FLEECE – Inspired by the Greek classic Jason and the Argonauts, this road trip story explores the challenges and conflicts we must go through to reach our goals, and sometimes our dreams.
- The Road – The road can be a physical, mental, theoretical, or an extra-terrestrial one. The road paves the way for our character(s) to face and overcome the speed bumps, potholes, detours, and other crisis situations along the journey.
- The Team – In Golden Fleece stories, the team exists to provide balance to the protagonist(s). When the team leader lacks either motivation, intelligence, history, physical capacity, or the like – the team becomes the surrogate and utilizes their own strengths to counter the existing weakness(es) of the team leader.
- The Prize – Treasures can come in many forms. From mountains of gold, to spiritual awakenings, to reclaiming one’s place in society, the prize is the ultimate goal worth risking it all.
Examples: Solo: A Star Wars Story, Outside the Wire, Logan Lucky, Finding Dory, Suicide Squad, Guardians of the Galaxy, Little Miss Sunshine, Now You See Me, O Brother Where Art Thou, Saving Private Ryan, Ocean’s Eleven, Lord of the Rings, or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- INSTITUTIONALIZED – For any character willing to take on the norms of a society, this story-genre is for you.
- The Group – Any unique establishment (military, school, office, prison, society, etc.) with rules to live by that governs any and all within that particular world.
- The Choice – When the protagonist takes the challenge to break through the system, and violate the guidelines, the conflict not only tests the establishment, but also all those who hold those laws dear.
- The Sacrifice – The protagonist must decide if he/she is willing to accept the consequences of his/her choices and fight ‘til last breath, or if he/she is willing to give in and return to the very association he/she rejected.
Examples: Hotel Artemis, The Hunger Games, Crazy Rich Asians, Baby Driver, Darkest Minds, Captain America: Civil War, Full Metal Jacket, Goodfellas, The Devil Wears Prada, Crash, Avatar, The Breakfast Club, or Office Space.
- MONSTER IN THE HOUSE – Evil can come in many forms, human and otherwise, and when our own actions come to cause the chaos and pain our characters endure, there just may be a Monster in the House.
- The Monster – Human, supernatural or otherwise, this antagonist is filled with destructive powers that will literally feed on any (and sometimes all) who challenge it’s authority, territory, or nature.
- The House – Although the setting could take place in an actual house, also think in terms of spaceships, towns, family units, elevators, prisons, nightmares, someone’s mind, or anything that would allow your character (or characters) to be confined, and or trapped.
- The Sin – This monster would ultimately not strike or come to life without some type of judgment lapse giving it on-screen birth. Sometimes the “sin” can be as innocent as ignorance, scientific investigations or indifference.
Examples: 7500, A Quiet Place, The Meg, Kong Skull Island, The Mummy, Jaws, Alien, Saw, Jurassic Park, Devil, The Purge: Election Year, Psycho, Cabin Fever, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Village, Train to Bussan, or Fatal Attraction.
- OUT OF THE BOTTLE – Many of us have had times where we wish we could time travel, fly, change the world, or control the nature of life around us. If you’ve ever
experienced those desires, you’d fit right in “Out of the Bottle.” Inspired by the stories of Aladdin and his magical lamp with a wish-fulfilling genie, this story-genre has been shared in comedies, action films, sci-fi, horror stories, and dramas.
- The Wish – Our hero seeks a different kind of life and begs to find a way to leave normalcy (and everyday living) behind.
- The Spell – Once the wish is granted, a new set of rules must be followed or chaos can (and usually does) ensue. Our hero comes to realize that with wishes granted, there is always a tradeoff, a sacrifice that one must be willing to make.
- The Lesson – Our hero will usually realize that the power he/she wanted (or needed) all along was actually always within self. Discovering the important things in life are usually better than being able to always get what you “wished” for.
Examples: What Men Want, Wish Upon, It’s a Wonderful Life, Big, 13 Going on 30, Pinocchio, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, Click, Field of Dreams.
- RITES OF PASSAGE – From surviving childhood traumas, to making it through high school, to experiencing first love, marriage, family, death and taxes … and every life challenge in between – these are all perfect fodder for “Rites of Passage” stories. What are the choices we make, and how do they impact our view of the world.
- The Life Problem – Any universal life experience (and challenge) can play host to our protagonist. Painful experiences can drive the story and draw the audience deeper into the crisis. Humans relate to life problems because they are a reflection of real life.
- The Wrong Way – Characters usually make a choice that diverts them from the reality of facing their own demons and exploring the very pain thing that is needed to overcome to move forward in life.
- Acceptance – When characters realizes that the real problem they are confronting is acknowledging the “truth” in front of them, then real-true change can occur. The problem is usually internal in nature (character vs. self), not external.
Examples: Little Women, Eighth Grade, Life of the Party, Sing Street, Spiderman: Homecoming, Then Came You, Boyhood, City Slickers, Sixteen Candles, Dead Poets Society, 500 Days of Summer, The War of the Roses, Ordinary People, Stand by Me, or Adventureland.
- SUPERHERO – Although our typical Marvel & DC films can fall into this category, it is really less about the actual super powers of the protagonist, and more about our hero overcoming her/his own weaknesses to gain acceptance of who he/she was really meant to be.
- The Special Power – Real-life or imaginary, these leaders are filled with some unique ability or mission that provides a catalyst for change in the world.
- The Nemesis – Someone or some force of antagonism will offer powers or position greater than or equal to that of our hero. This is the conflict; this is the crisis.
- The Curse – Our nemesis will use any and all means necessary to overcome the hero. There is usually one weakness that the antagonist will attempt to exploit; this in turn leads our protagonist into engaging with the conflict, or sacrificing his/her very live to protect what he/she holds dear.
Examples: Doctor Sleep, Skyscraper, Braveheart, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Dark Tower, Selma, Erin Brockovich, the Harry Potter series, The Matrix, Gladiator, The Chronicle of Narnia, V for Vendetta, Tarzan, or Spider-Man.
- WHYDUNIT – We’ve always thought the question was about “who” committed a crime. But, no, the real question should be about what motivated the criminal action in the first place. That is the real heart of many mysteries.
- The Detective – Professional or amateur, this protagonist (not always a real detective –could be scientist, doctor, kid next door, etc.) leads us through the mystery; or at the very least, allows us to go along for the ride. Many times, our protagonist thinks they know all the answers, when in reality, they don’t always know the right questions.
- The Secret – As the questions do become to take form, the detective and the audience begin to explore “the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why” the crime occurred. Once those questions are answered, the secret may be revealed.
- The Dark Turn – The detective will come face to face with inner demons or be forced into an ethical situation where he/she will have to walk a fine line between light and dark, right and wrong, or known and unknown. In order to uncover the secret, the rules that govern the moral fabric of the protagonist may need to be stripped away.
Examples: Rebecca, The Undoing, A Simple Favor, Spilt, The Book of Henry, Seven, Inferno, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Sixth Sense, Fargo, Criminal, Self/Less, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Listen to this interview with Snyder with the crew of Movie Geeks United:
Bork, E. (2013, June 10). Flying wrestler: Finding the right genre. Retrieved from http://www.flyingwrestler.com/save-the-cat-genres-movie-list-with-erik-borks-additions/
Bork, E. (2010, November 24). Using SAVE THE CAT’s Ten “Genres” – Script Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.scriptmag.com/features/columns/using-save-the-cats-ten-genres
Podbean. (2019, July 17). Save the cat! Podcast. Retrieved from https://www.podbean.com/podcast-detail/83ejf-361b9/Save-The-Cat%21-Podcast
Snyder, B. (2005). Save the cat!: The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need. Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions.
Snyder, B. (2007). Save the cat! goes to the movies: The screenwriter’s guide to every story ever told. Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions.
Snyder, B. (2009). Save the Cat! strikes back: More trouble for screenwriter’s … to get into and out of. Studio City, CA: M. Weise Productions.
United, M. G. (2012, June 26). MGU Interview: Screenwriting Guru BLAKE SNYDER [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBcpzaamGYQ