Why Writers Try To Save The Cat – Newsletter 12/12/2023

If you’re a writer, you know about Save The Cat, a technique for crafting plots for novels and screenplays. Here’s a glimpse at an inside secret for everyone else.

Jim and I were novices when we sat down to write Uncommon Scents, a funny novel that you should read out loud to your children except for Chapter 5, which has a reference to a sexy séance. Buy your copies today!

We had a big idea – thirty years from now everyone can experience augmented reality without glasses. We created a world with the technology to make that happen. We had a specific idea for a plot: a programmer comes up with a way to change what people smell.

We ran into a roadblock. Novels are about specific people doing specific things. The big idea, the world-building – great stuff, congratulations, but we were untrained in how to create a character and have her do something interesting to bring those ideas to life.

So we made up characters and sent them through adventures. There’s an exciting climax. It’s good.
But we felt like we were cutting through untracked bush. There was probably a nearby road but we were untrained. We didn’t have a map.
“Save The Cat” is a writing technique for screenplays and novels that provides a roadmap for building stories. When I describe it, your first reaction will be resistance to something that sounds like it would produce formulaic plots. The more we studied it, though, the more we came to believe that its framework allows for immense creativity and originality. This description captures it:
“There’s something buried deep within our DNA as humans that makes us respond to certain storytelling elements told in a certain order. The Save The Cat methodology simply identifies that code and turns it into an easy-to-follow blueprint for crafting a successful story, so that we writers don’t have to reinvent a wheel that has been used since, well, the time the wheel was invented.”
Blake Snyder wrote the first Save The Cat book in 2005 about screenwriting. Since then, it has been acknowledged and extended because its storytelling principles are truly universal. Jessica Brody wrote Save The Cat Writes A Novel in 2018, providing guideposts specifically for authors of novels and analyzing hundreds of stories that follow the same structure. It’s not a new way to write stories; it’s guidelines about how successful stories have always been crafted. You can find it in historical fiction, science fiction, young adult novels, almost anywhere.

If you saw a movie or read a novel and you felt satisfied at the end – if the characters were well drawn, the story drew you in, the conclusion worked . . .

Chances are it followed the beats of Save The Cat.

At its core, Save the Cat is built on 15 key plot points, each serving a specific purpose in the development of the story and the protagonist’s arc. These beats, however, are not rigid prescriptions. They act as guideposts, allowing writers to tailor them to their specific narratives and characters.
Save the Cat focuses on “Theme Stated” and “Catalyst” moments. These early beats establish the protagonist’s world, introduce their flaws and desires, and then throw them into a situation that forces them to act. You want to see the protagonist succeed, to overcome their own limitations and achieve their goals.

The “B Story” is a parallel narrative that intertwines with the main plot. This B Story often involves a love interest, a close friend, or a rival, and adds another layer of complexity and emotional depth to the story.

The most crucial element of Save the Cat is its emphasis on the protagonist’s transformation. The “Midpoint” forces the protagonist to make a crucial decision that changes the course of their journey, while the “All is Lost” moment pushes them to their lowest point, stripping away their confidence and resources.

The 15 beats are not rigid rules, but rather suggestive guidelines that can be adapted to fit any genre, style, or theme.

The name “Save The Cat” comes from one of the suggestions in the original book: if your main character starts off somewhat unlikable, have them save a cat – or something else that makes the reader root for them.

Here’s a specific example. Save The Cat suggests that the theme of the book should be stated near the beginning, frequently in a single sentence by a character (not the hero) that somehow relates to what the hero needs to learn by the end of the book.

In Veilpiercer, my work in progress, Cabalynne is thrown out of an airport lounge for wealthy travelers. She has this exchange with the guard escorting her back to the terminal.
Her mind was buzzing with questions. “Before you go, I want you to settle a bet for me. If there was a bomb scare, would these people escape to hidden bunkers under the airport?”

His look combined pity and disdain with a trace of amusement. “Perhaps it would serve you well to focus on reality instead of potential.”
It’s a throwaway line. It won’t stick in your head.

But it’s also the theme of the entire book. By the end of the book, Cabalynne has learned how important it is to distinguish reality from made-up conspiracy theories, even when unbelievable things turn out to be real.

Jim and I have absorbed writing advice and techniques from many sources over the last few years but we still return to Save The Cat.

Because when I read a book or watch a movie now, I see the structure behind the story, like visualizing the girders when you look at a skyscraper, and I think, there’s the Catalyst, there’s the Midpoint, ah! there’s the Dark Night Of The Soul.

Everything is Save The Cat – not a formula but a very handy roadmap.
OLD MAN’S WAR – John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s first novel is OLD MAN’S WAR, an intriguing look at a future in which man is colonizing nearby planets using the Skip drive. It skips over all the intervening space. I’ll let you find out how by reading the book.

John Scalzi has been compared favorably to Robert Heinlein, though Scalzi is a lot funnier.

Complicating human expansion are a lot of alien races that covet the same planets, making colonies dangerous. This requires a quite active and capable human fighting force to both defend existing colonies and, more often than is comfortable, steal colonies from other alien races.

In order to recruit soldiers, the Colonial Union recruits 75 year olds from Earth who are tired of being old. They know they’ll sign up to be soldiers but will be “made young again” in the bargain. How this miracle happens is a surprise. I won’t spoil it here.

Follow several of these soldiers as they are recruited, made young and strong, and then sent into battle. The aliens they fight against are interesting, the fighting can get brutal, but the humor is non-stop.

With four books in this series, you’ll get several viewpoints into Scalzi’s future. Lots of scenery chewing fun, battles, politics, a lot of morally gray choices, and hard science fun.
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