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.
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.
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