‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody

The best way to procrastinate when you’re supposed to be writing a novel is to read books about how to write novels, so after seeing an online recommendation for Save the Cat!, I decided to buy it. It turns out that Save the Cat! provides a clear, structured approach to novel plotting and pacing, which is one of my writing weak spots, so this was not the waste of time and money that it could have been.
Save The Cat! by Jessica Brody

Jessica Brody, who worked in the US film industry and is now a novelist (although not one I’d ever heard of), has adapted Blake Snyder’s screenwriting plotting method for novel writers. The Save the Cat! method claims that all good stories have three distinct acts and fifteen story ‘beats’. The fifteen story beats are:

1. Opening Image (0-1% of the story pages) – a ‘before’ snapshot of the hero

2. Theme Stated (5%) – a hint at the life lesson the hero will learn

3. Setup (1% – 10%) – more information about the hero’s flaws, reluctance to change, and consequences if they don’t change

4. Catalyst (10%) – a life-changing event that catapults the hero into a new world or a new way of thinking

5. Debate (10% to 20%) – the hero dithers about what to do next

6. Break Into 2 (20%) – the hero decides to act and ventures into a new world

7. B Story (22%) – introduction of a new character who will help the hero learn the life lesson

8. Fun and Games (20% to 50%) – multiple scenes in which the hero either succeeds or flounders in the new world while pursuing their goal

9. Midpoint (50%) – a false victory (if the hero’s been succeeding) or a false defeat (if the hero’s been floundering) that raises the stakes

10. Bad Guys Close In (50% to 75%) – either a downward path (after a false victory) or an upward path (after a false defeat), but the villains and the hero’s internal flaws are closing in

11. All Is Lost (75%) – the lowest point for the hero, typically involving literal or figurative death

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75% to 80%) – the hero contemplates what to do

13. Break Into 3 (80%) – the hero realises what to do to attain their goal and fix their internal flaws

14. The Finale (80% to 99%) – the hero proves they’ve learned the theme, attains their goal, destroys the bad guys, and the world is a better place

15. Final Image (99% to 100%) – an ‘after’ snapshot of the hero, a mirror of the opening image, showing how the hero has changed.

The book goes into helpful detail for each of these story beats, with lots of examples from well-known novels. It also introduces ten story ‘genres’ (for example, ‘Monster in the House’, ‘Rites of Passage’ and ‘Superhero’), all of which have distinct components (for example, ‘Monster in the House’ involves some kind of supernatural monster, brought into an enclosed world by someone who’s done something wrong).

The book also explains how to write an effective ‘logline’ (one or two sentences that outline the story) and provides general plotting hints. I should warn you that there is a lot of jargon, which is mostly explained, although I never worked out what a ‘road apple’ is. The Save the Cat! title comes from a hint for unlikeable protagonists (get them to do something nice like saving a cat, so the reader is more inclined to care about what happens to them).

I was initially a bit sceptical about this approach, thinking it might lead to formulaic writing. It certainly has the potential to produce unoriginal, predictable stories, if used unthinkingly by an unimaginative author. However, I found this method useful for ordering my work-in-progress story events into a more exciting, dramatic sequence. It also forced me to think more about how to link the external story events to the protagonist’s inner journey and how to increase tension by raising the stakes. While the method is clearly aimed at producing bestselling commercial fiction (for example, action thrillers, romantic comedies and crime fiction), I think it would be useful for any writer, even a ‘literary’ one, who writes any form of narrative. (I mean, I don’t think Ali Smith would find it helpful, but I’m sure an analysis of novels by Margaret Atwood or Anne Tyler would show effective use of the fifteen story beats).

I wondered how this story structure would work with a series of novels and this is briefly addressed in the book. A trilogy is meant to cover one story act per book and I was interested to find that my three Montmaray books fitted this perfectly (although the individual books themselves didn’t always follow the Save the Cat! method, which would come as no surprise to readers who complained about the pacing of those books). This blog post by Jessica Brody goes into more detail about how the method applies to multiple-book series.

There is an entire Save the Cat! industry, including books, online courses, computer software, printed story cards and a website with a discussion forum. I’m not sure how necessary any of that is if you’ve read this book, but you might want to check out the website or Jessica Brody’s blog if you want more information.

You may also be interested in:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

On Writing by Stephen King

7 thoughts on “‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody”

  1. Ooh, this is interesting. I haven’t come across Save the Cat before, I am more of a Snowflake girl myself, but I think this outline might be very useful to me at the stage of writing I am currently at. All these techniques seem to be most helpful when you already have a mass of stuff that needs tweaking or shaping, and for finding where your holes are.
    I think I know how I’m going to spend my writing hours today… totally not procrastination at all… extremely useful structural work, it’s called 🙂

    1. I started off using Snowflake for the book I’m writing now, but then COVID hit and I put everything aside, and when I came back to it a year later, I had no idea what I was doing. Save the Cat! was helpful for getting me back on track and, as you said, finding where the holes are (there are a lot of holes). Good luck with looking into this! It’s totally not procrastination, just as blogging is totally not procrastination!

      1. Well, yesterday I discovered that I also have many many holes… gaping chasms more like. Oh well, better to face it now than after the fourth draft, I guess…


          1. I don’t know what I’m doing! But I do know that I have an amorphous mass of material that desperately needs some structure imposed on it — so Save the Cat might just save my … let’s say skin!

  2. Hello Michelle, hello Kate! I have tried and tried and TRIED to write more efficiently. To plot. To plan. To stop ambushing myself with enormous plot holes. I never seem to quite manage it. My method of bumbling along and getting there somehow seems to work most of the time, but when it doesn’t…
    Well, I have two recent failed manuscripts of around 65,000 words each to show for this method. They represent a lot of time and effort – am I telling you something you don’t already know? Sigh. I’ve found Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron very interesting. And I’ve just bought The No Rules Handbook for Writers by Lisa Goldman because I liked the title.

    1. Hi Susan and welcome to Memoranda! I really enjoy your blog, even though I have been too slack to comment on any of your posts. I especially love your photos – those recent flower photos were so beautiful.

      I’m sorry to hear about your two ‘failed’ manuscripts! Heart-breaking. Of course, they’re not really a waste of time or effort, because you learned what didn’t work or you figured out some ideas or you’ll be able to use bits of them in a new work – or maybe they aren’t really failures, they just aren’t right for this particular time in publishing? Story Genius sounds fascinating and I’m adding it to my To Read list. Although I will probably just use it to procrastinate some more…

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