American Sniper: Emotional Beats According to “Save The

By ~ 5 min read

As screenwriters we are “painting with emotions” across time.  There’s a relatively new screenwriting book out called “Save The Cat” written by Blake Snyder.  It breaks film structure down to 15 key emotional beats you see in most films.

If you’re writing screenplays, you should know the people who read your work will be comparing your script to the emotional beats in the book.

For example, this is how American Sniper would be constructed using Snyders ideas.

1. Opening Image (pg 1): The audience is first engaged with something compelling that sets the tone – and we begin to see how things as they are today.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) anguishes about a crucial decision, whether to shoot a woman and small boy, who may be terrorists.

2. Theme Stated (pg 5): Usually spoken to the main character in a snippet of dialogue, this gives a sense of the deeper issues that this story is “about.”

Kyle’s dad tells him there are three kinds of people in this world.  The sheep (the weak), the wolf (who preys on the weak) and the sheepdog (the strong who protect the flock).  Kyle decides he’s a sheepdog.  Kyle is convinced, at this point, his purpose is to defend the weak.

3. Set-Up Section (pgs 1-10): We meet the main character, who is living a compromised life in some way, while dealing with problems – and has something about them we can respect or like.

Kyle protects his younger brother from bullies.  Younger Kyle shoots a deer with his dad.  He’s shocked, watching the deer die. His dad’s impressed. It was an amazing shot.  Kyle’s a natural born sniper.

4. Catalyst (pg 12): An event rocks the main character’s world completely, and sets in motion the central problem of the story. It’s an external problem (not just internal, about thoughts and emotions)– it has clear and present stakes we can identify with and feel. 

An older Kyle watches terrorists on TV.  He’s angry, but frustrated.  He wants to fight. He feels his purpose.

5. Debate Section (pgs 12-25): The main character questions what has happened, tries to figure out what to do, and often seeks to avoid the true “call to adventure.”

After view 9/11 on TV, Kyle goes to a Navy Recruiting Office.  He’s told, the Seals isn’t for most men.  He replies, he’s not most men.

6. Break into Two (pg 25): The main character becomes pulled into a world completely out of his element.  He’s overmatched as they attempt to confront their story problem.

Flashing back to the opening image.  He’s got the boy and the woman in his sites, he sees the mother has a grenade and the boy is wearing an explosive vest.  Kyle takes his shots, saving Marines.

7. B Story (pg 30): A second story begins, which will run parallel to the “A Story”, and interweave with it throughout the rest of the movie. The theme and the character’s inner journey tends to be explored here.

Kyle meets Taya (played by Sienna Miller).  She’s a guide, his wife and mother of his children.  She reminds him of what his purpose is about.

8. Fun and Games Section (pg 30-55): The entertaining aspects of the story’s premise are explored – which are fun to watch, but NOT fun for the main character, who is essentially in HELL until the end of the story.

Kyle talks to Taya, she’s pregnant with his first child.  She tells him his brother enlisted which Kyle finds troubling.

Zarqawi, Al-Qued’s #1 in Iraq is at the center of the new mission.  Kyle decides to join the troops and join the search. They get close, but The Butcher stops them, nearly killing Kyle.  Kyle’s tour is up, he goes home, leaving The Butcher in Iraq.

9. Midpoint (pg 55): The stakes are raised: the problem becomes more focused, more serious, more important and urgent.

Back in Iraq, the fight for Zarqawi continues.  Kyle chases him in a truck, and finally fires an assault weapon on Zarqawi.  Iraqi Enemy #1 is dead.  However, psychologically, Kyle has been changed by fighting this war

10. Bad Guys Close In Section (pg 55-75): Problems get worse and worse – the hero to be failing in their approach, and/or is facing more and more seemingly impossible obstacles.

Iraqi terrorists have the Marines and Seals on the run. Mustafa closes in on Kyle.  He has him in his sights.  Kyle narrowly avoids death.  Back at home, he is having trouble fitting in as a civilian.  He has symptoms of PTSD.  Startle response, an inflamed temper, angry outbursts.

Taya tells him the war is changing him, he’s not “here even when he’s here.” Kyle goes back for yet another tour.  He want to get Mustafa, especially for wounding his friend Biggles.

11. All Is Lost (pg 75): The story seems to be over, and the hero appears to have no hope.   Everything the hero’s trying has failed, and they have no other options.

Kyle and his men are surrounded, and outgunned.  Ammunition is running low.  Broken down and crying, Kyle calls Taya to tell her “he needs to go back home.”  Thanks to a brutal sandstorm, Kyle and his men are able to escape.  He returns to find his friend Biggles has died.

12. Dark Night of the Soul (somewhere between pgs 75 and 85): The main character reels from the “all is lost” – and there’s often a “whiff of death.”

Back home, Kyle’s in a bar drinking alone.  Taya calls, he almost doesn’t answer. Psychologically the war has taken it’s toll on Kyle.  He’s a wreck.  There’s a strong internal struggle going on, as he tries to get back to being a civilian.

13. Break into Three (pg 85): A new idea, , a new plan for solving the problem emerges (often the A Story and B Story “cross” – the B Story should also be unresolved and at its worst).

Kyle is back home with his family.  His internal struggle is still raging.  He hears sounds of war while staring at the TV.  Taya is clearly worried.

14. Finale Section (pg 85-110): 5 part to solve the problem. The hero fails at first, and is pressed to his limit – confronts his own demons, and possibly change their life – before the story problem is finally resolved.

Marital problems escalate in the Kyle household.  His wife tries to guide him back to where he started, but he’s too damaged.  He almost hits a dog at a kid’s birthday party.  This event get him to see a psychologist.  Kyle feels he let his “flock” down in Iraq.

His therapist shows him a way he can still be the “sheepdog” and help disabled veterans.  Eventually, he comes to like the idea.  He becomes “the wounded healer,” as it were.  He loves taking disabled veterans out to shoot at the range  He has a purpose again.

15. Final Image (pg 110): Reflecting the new status quo now that this story is over.

Kyle and Taya talk about how well he’s assimilating back into real life.  She’s proud of him.  Kyle steps out to meet a couple of veterans who he’s taking to the range.  Taya looks at them concerned.  As the door shuts, we Fade to Black.  It’s announced that Kyle was killed by one of those vets that day.

For more information about “Save The Cat,” and what readers look for when buying scripts, please click here.  For advice of careers in Hollywood, or psychotherapy, click here.


Image credit: Creative Commons Icon/Logo Design 2014 by LordEfan is licensed under CC By 2.0


As a film/TV writer-psychotherapist, I have lived with the stress of day-to-day deadlines and understand writers block, rejection, procrastination, career longevity problems, ageism, and the occasional knife in the back. I survived a 20 + year career, so can you, with a little help. I studied psychology at Stanford University, filmmaking at USC. I have a private practice where I specialize in therapy & coaching for creative professionals, with addiction, anxiety, sex addiction, couples problems and trauma. I'm trained in EMDR, supported by the Red Cross and the World Health Organization Please check out my website: davidsilvermanlmft.comDavid Silverman, LMFT; COACHING & PSYCHOTHERAPY Are you an artist, writer, actor, designer, journalist, or in any Hollywood job? Need a therapist or coach? Call 1-310-850-4707 for a FREE HALF HOUR phone consult.Like this author?

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