Software Developer Bob McFarlane on STC and the Late, Great Blake Snyder

The Save the Cat!® story structure software developed by Bob McFarlane helps writers create meaningful stories.  A powerful logline and title, a genre with recognizable traits, a beat sheet with 15 key beats for every screenplay or novel and a board with moveable, color-coded scene cards, are just some of the elements included in the new Save the Cat 3.0 version – for the beginner or advanced writer of any kind including novelists and screenwriters.  The software was based on popular Save the Cat! books written by Blake Snyder and used around the world.

Our own Roger Tejmar, a new cat on the team, sat down with software developer and screenwriter Bob McFarlane, president of The McFarlane Group, Inc. based in New Jersey, who developed all three versions of Save the Cat! ® story structure software.   Bob talks about meeting and working with Blake Snyder and how he got involved developing software for writers and others in the film industry.  McFarlane says he educated himself as a screenwriter well before he started to create software and had a profound knowledge of what a writer goes through.  “For me, it’s very personal,” he says. “It’s not just making a living writing software.”

ROGER: How and why did you get involved with the “Cat” in the first place?

BOB MCFARLANE:  I had actually been working as a software developer for a long time but my passion all along had been screenwriting.  I was a member of a screenwriting group when I purchased a copy of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need in 2005 and really liked it.  I was starting on a new screenplay but also needed to work on and learn one of the latest computer languages.  After reading Blake’s book I was thinking hey, I could create software based on Blake’s creative principles so I built a working prototype. Luckily, Blake’s email address was right there in the inside flap to contact him with any questions – I did just that and told him about my idea, sent screenshots, and suggested we might be able to market software based own his ideas.  I think it was less than an hour when I received an email response from Blake and his business partner stating they were very interested and we would make it happen.

ROGER:  So you started writing software for Save the Cat?  

BOB MCFARLANE:  We began the process immediately, but it took over a year before the first software version came out in 2006.

ROGER:  Had you read other screenwriting books?

BOB MCFARLANE:  I had read probably 20 screenwriting books before working on Save the Cat! software. I was very interested in screenwriting.

ROGER:  When you created Save the Cat! software, did you believe it could apply to other kinds of writers in addition to screenwriters? 

BOB MCFARLANE:  Novelists? ! ! !  I mean, wow, that was completely unforeseen on my end. Yet telling a story is telling a story.  Blake was surprised initially but as he continued to speak at novelist, romance writer, and other conferences and writer retreats where he met a lot of fans that had discovered Save the Cat! books and software. A one-minute commercial, a 10-minute YouTube short, or a 1,000 page novel, whatever, it’s applicable.  The feedback we get from novelists is amazing. In fact, version 3 is very good for long-form writers.

ROGER:  What has happened to your writing life in the meantime?

BOB MCFARLANE:  My day job writing software keeps my pretty busy but I’m still working at it.

ROGER:  How is this version 3.0 different from all other versions?

BOB MCFARLANE:  (Laughing) Sounds like a Passover question.  Version. 3.0 was a year and a half in the making.  Based on writers’ feedback, we completely redesigned the interface to be used much more cohesively.  Customers can now resize and hide different sections of information so they can create their own creative space.  For example, the Cork Board was very limited in previous version; cards would overlap.  In 3.0 you can virtually make the board as large as you want, pin cards where you want, with absolutely no overlap and scroll around and view the full board.  If you have a big monitor, putting software into “full board view” makes your monitor into one giant cool corkboard.

Additionally, we added places to put in character descriptions, their wants and needs and the six things that need fixing.  You can also attach, photos, PDFs, sound and music files, videos – even an Excel sheet if you want. Then link them to characters, locations, or scene cards. Just drag and drop into place.  Photos inspire writers and we think helps the creative process.  You can reference historical sources.  Any ancillary inspiration links to your project and helps the writing process.

ROGER:  How do Blake’s books and software interact?

BOB MCFARLANE:  We do have people who get frustrated with “save the cat” methodology. But only because they like to jump ahead.  Blake always wanted you to get the title and logline first and to complete your beats before moving to the board. You’re not allowed to move ahead until you fill in those fields – so read the tutorial, and we recommend reading the books. It will more sense, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Most people can jump in and figure what to do. If you didn’t read the books it still makes sense. It’s fun to use, too.  Little catheads pop up to give contextual advice. There’s a Litter Box where you can save scene cards for later use on the board.

Version. 3 contains a very extensive user guide for using the software.  Lots of help and writing advice in there.  And, there are some demo videos on YouTube.

ROGER:  What kind of other software have you developed for the movie industry and how did that come about?

BOB MCFARLANE:  One of the members in my screenwriting group worked as a script supervisor.  He had always wanted to develop software for his craft since they have been doing their job with pencil and paper for the last 100 years and he knew of my work with Save the Cat! so we got to talking and formed a partnership.  The script supervisor basically is the editor’s and writer’s eyes and ears on the set, which helps the director and DP (director of photography) make sure that the film can be cut together.  So we developed ScriptE ®.  All information goes to production and ultimately makes the script supervisor more valuable on set, providing more information to the director, editor, actors, the DP (director of photography) and AD (assistant director).

ScriptE is used for television series, on film sets and commercial houses.  We have hundreds of customers including major production companies who make ScriptE ® mandatory on all their sets.   ScriptE will email the first shot of the day – like to producers on the golf course.  Script supervisors capture stills and they do a coverage sheet with each photo identified by the shot.  All kinds of great on-set information.

ROGER:  What kind of computer works with Save the Cat! 3.0?

BOB MCFARLANE:  Windows and MAC version both work with basic memory and requirements.  You can also export to and import from Final Draft so the interface is seamless. Operating systems don’t have to be ultra new. The new desktop version is the first step.

We’ll be releasing an updated iPhone app along with a version designed especially for the iPad. Not just a blown up iPhone version.

And by the way, our software doesn’t replace Final Draft, commonly used by most screenwriters.  The beauty of Cat 3.0 is that it takes care of building story and structure prior to turning it into a full-blown script. Writers should use our software with Final Draft.  This helps build the whole McCoy from beginning to completion.

ROGER:  How does Save the Cat software compare to other programs – some can and do almost build the story for the writer?

BOB MCFARLANE:  STC doesn’t do that. What STC does do is to get all of your ideas gathered into one place and helps keep you on track to developing proper structure.  It doesn’t tell you how to do it but it gives you guideposts.  It’s like a creative yardstick.

ROGER:  How many people use Save the Cat software?

BOB MCFARLANE:  It’s hard to know how many are people using it.  You only find out who’s using it if they have question or issue.  We don’t hear from people unless they have questions.  We know writer/director Dean DeBlois used the software for the DreamWorks film, How to Train Your Dragon that was dedicated to Blake.  And lots of others, like JJ Abrams and Steve Levitan, have downloaded the software.  We’re approaching 7,500  units that have been sold.  Blake’s books of course, continue to be in the top selling screenwriting category.

ROGER:  Does the software work for a television writer?

BOB MCFARLANE: A story is still a story and structure is still just that.  Lots of television writers swear by it.  Half-hour comedies, hour-long dramas, and long form.  You just set the number of pages you want.  From 4 to 1,000 and the software sets out beat guides based on the number of pages.  Typically 45 pages for one-hour drama.  Save the Cat software acts as a guide for any range of pages or minutes that the writer indicates when prompted for number of pages. It doesn’t have, say, a different template for different formats like TV, film or a mini-series but works all the same based on number of pages.

ROGER:  Any other recommendations?

BOB MCFARLANE:  Writers should use Save the Cat! software with Final Draft.  This helps build a really good foundation for story then you can export into Final Draft, polish it up and, hopefully, get it made.

ROGER:  Are you still writing?

BOB MCFARLANE:  Yes, I continue to write in my spare time.  In fact, Blake had read one of my screenplays, really liked it a lot and provided valuable advice.

ROGER: When did you first meet Blake?

Blake Snyder

BOB MCFARLANE:  Believe it or not I met him in person for the first time when we released version 1 at a Screenwriting Expo in 2006.

ROGER:  What did you think of Blake?

BOB MCFARLANE:  I liked Blake a lot.  When I read his first book I really liked his writing style, edgy wit, occasionally sarcastic, but when I met him in person, he really wasn’t like that…he was so very nice, positive, and had a lot of integrity.  Blake was super encouraging.  That’s what I got out of his books immediately:  encouragement and no ego.

ROGER:  What was your reaction upon hearing news of his death?

BOB MCFARLANE:  52 years old when he passed away in 2009.  A shock.  So disappointing.  Blake had so much left to do.

Books by Blake Snyder:

In his 20-year career as a screenwriter and producer, Blake Snyder sold dozens of scripts, including co-writing Blank Check, which became a hit for Disney, and Nuclear Family for Steven Spielberg — both million-dollar sales. Named “one of Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriters,” Blake sold his most recent screenplay in 2009. Save the Cat! books and software are the basis of screenwriting classes at many major universities in the U.S. and Canada.

How to Train Your Dragon (DreamWorks, 2010) was dedicated to Blake.  A sequel is planned for the second half of 2013.

2 thoughts on “Software Developer Bob McFarlane on STC and the Late, Great Blake Snyder

  1. Jed Tylman

    This is one of the biggest lost of the decade for Hollywood and the art of screenwriting. Especially since he was so young (so to speak).

    Who know how much more he could have contributed with another couple decades of writing and teaching.

    🙁

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