They’re trying to kill me!
That’s what’s happening in the most misunderstood of the ten “genres” in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books.
“Dude with a Problem” is misunderstood because of its name, which really describes every story. Movies are always about someone with a problem. So writers often think their idea fits this genre, when it doesn’t.
In separating out this type from the others, Blake was talking about a particular type of problem — one that involves a “life and death battle.”
And he didn’t mean a third act battle only, or a battle that in theory could be life-threatening, or a battle against a fatal disease (which isn’t active, external, visual, cinematic and fun/exciting to watch).
He was talking about action movies, where the battle against the would-be killer(s) is ongoing, throughout. And that’s the whole problem and goal of the movie: not dying. It’s about survival, period. Defeating, destroying, and/or eluding the killers.
As with all of the ten genres, the five subgenres in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies are instructive, in illustrating what he really meant.
In this case, you have the following:
1. “Spy Problem” — someone is trying to kill the main character, often for unknown reasons, as in North by Northwest, Three Days of the Condor or Enemy of the State. Usually some sort of secret spy stuff is behind it all, and the main character has to get to the bottom of it, in order to solve the “problem” and survive.
2. “Law Enforcement Problem” — rather than spies, we’re dealing with simple law-breakers here. Cops are involved, but they are usually in way over their head. Like the best movies in all genres, they are severely overmatched and losing, until the very end — as in Die Hard or Speed. Or cops could be the adversaries, instead of the hero, as in The Fugitive. Either way, the main character is innocent, and fighting for their lives — and possibly the lives of others.
3. “Domestic Problem” — the would-be killer here is more of an intimate, like a lover, ex-lover, or would-be lover — or someone else the main character knows well — as in Misery, Cape Fear or Sleeping with the Enemy. “Women in jeopardy” movies usually fit this type.
4. “Epic Problem” — here we move beyond the single bad guy or group of bad guys threatening an individual or small group. In this subgenre, everybody is going to die, and the problem is beyond human — as in Armageddon, Deep Impact or Independence Day. This is the subgenre of “disaster movies.”
5. “Nature Problem” — again there is a non-human threat to life, but to a smaller number of people than in the “Epic” subgenre, and due to something more “natural” and real — as opposed to fantastical “what if?” scenarios in the “Epic” subgenre. Often these are even true stories, as in Apollo 13, Alive or Into Thin Air.
With all the subgenres, the biggest “problem” I see writers run into, with this genre, is not making it truly a life-and-death battle, all the way through. Save the Cat talks about a “Sudden Event” as the “Catalyst” in Act One, which leads to an ongoing battle for the main character. This is not easy to sustain for an entire movie, and keep everything believable. It’s always a question of how you keep your hero(es) imperiled, but also active in trying to solve the problem, and yet failing and losing, but not to the point of dying. They can make some progress in Act Two, and should, but still be in an “All is Lost” place at the end of it — where death looks certain, and all hope gone — only for one last chance to emerge in Act Three.
Usually these stories are about a “punch-counterpunch” dynamic throughout the middle of the story, where the hero takes some action to try to pursue their goal (which is survival, and ending the threat) — and their antagonistic forces “counterpunch” back at them. This dynamic goes back and forth throughout the story. But the key is that the game has to be changing with each punch or counterpunch — leading the story into ever new territory, evolving the nature of the situation without resolving it. It’s a bit of a high wire act.
The genre is closely related to “Monster in the House” — which also involves action and life-and-death battle, against a “monster” of some kind. “Superhero” movies also tend to have life-and-death battles at their core. As do some “Golden Fleece” movies (especially “Epic Fleece” and “Caper Fleece”).
The key difference here is that there is nothing special about the hero, typically, in a “Dude with a Problem.” They aren’t “super.” They’re an “Innocent hero” — an everyman, usually, who never expected something like this, and isn’t a badass who is used to dealing with such problems. And the nature of the threat is something that is fairly grounded and possible in the real world — not a “monster.”
Finally, rather than having a distant goal to pursue, which will make life better, as in a “Golden Fleece,” the goal here is incredibly contained and simple: “don’t die.”
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.