Blake Snyder’s ten “genres” and fifty “subgenres” in his Save the Cat books are my single favorite tool for screenwriters. I have long believed that studying this system of story types, and making sure each script you write clearly fits within one of them, is one of the most important and helpful decisions a writer can make.
It seems to me that pretty much every good and successful movie does have the key elements of one of these ten genres, and really squarely fits within one of them. When I see movie trailers, or read loglines of scripts that sold, or just go to the movies, I constantly see endless new variations on these. And it’s usually crystal clear which type of story is on offer.
In my script consulting work, when I read scripts that I think have significant conceptual issues (which is pretty normal), one of the key problems is virtually always that there is not a clear, compelling and difficult enough story problem and goal for the audience to get behind. And that’s what these ten genres offer — ten specific types of viable story problems and goals which have worked over and over again, in all the best movies, with near infinite potential variations.
We writers tend to resist “formulas”, and rightly so. But we also know that some stories work and some don’t — meaning, some basic story concepts seem to be able to engage an audience enthusiastically, and some don’t. To me, understanding the reasons for this is key to learning how to create ones that do. And I know of no other, handier system for thinking about what kind of story you’re really trying to tell, and what great movies from the past also fit the same tradition. (I know it probably sounds like the Save the Cat people are paying me to say this, but I swear they aren’t!)
On the Save the Cat website, there’s a handy chart breaking down each of the genres and subgenres, with lists of titles that Blake Snyder felt fit within each type, plus the three main criteria for a story in each genre. For instance, the genre he calls “Dude with a Problem” always focuses on an “Innocent Hero,” who, after a “Sudden Event,” finds themselves engaged in a “Live and Death Battle” — that takes the whole rest of the movie to resolve. As in Die Hard, The Bourne Identity or, in a very different subgenre, Apollo 13.
For the top listed title under each subgenre, Blake also offered a full “beat sheet” for the movie in his great reference book Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.
Since Mr. Snyder is no longer with us, I have taken the liberty of adding more titles to this master chart, as they occur to me — including newer movies that have come out since his passing, such as Bridesmaids, The Hangover, Twilight, Enchanted, An Education, Temple Grandin and Up.
So check out my modified version of this pdf, where you’ll see little “sticky notes” under most of the subgenres, containing additional titles that to me, show how these genres continue to power the most popular and best-loved stories that make it to theaters. (Hovering over the sticky note icons should be enough to reveal the additional titles.)
And of course, feel free to comment if you disagree on where I place certain titles!
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.