Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (Jessica Brody)

In principle, it seemed like something I’d be in favour of: saving the cat. But when I spotted Jessica Brody’s book in the library catalogue, I wasn’t familiar with screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!®method.

Never mind: Brody clearly outlines each element –each ‘beat’ – that Snyder identifies. “Read it. Learn it. Love it! The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet is divided into three acts (or parts), which are further subdivided into fifteen total beats (or plot points).”

This is the stuff of a weekend seminar weekend designed to rev your creative engine: even just opening the book cover, you half expect to find a T-shirt, fridge magnet and logo-embossed bandanna inside.

Nonetheless, beneath the snazzy veneer are some key concepts designed to assist novelists and storytellers. For instance, consider the question of likeability, the cornerstone of Snyder’s method, which originated from the scenario that “you’ve got a douchebag of a hero, desperately in need of some de-douchbagging, walking around doing douchebaggy stuff when suddenly he sees a cat stuck up in a tree”. Doucebag saves cat.

At a certain point becomes ineffective of course, when there are so many douchebags saving cats that some of the douchbags will need to open cat sanctuaries to set themselves apart from the ordinary douchebag who simply chooses to save a single cat. (Some may even have to widen their base, invite donkeys or ducks.) But the concept running beneath remains valid: complicate your characterization.

Brody aims to expose the common tenets in storytelling. She identifies “ten universal lessons” in “almost every novel throughout time”:

  • FORGIVENESS: of self or of others
  • LOVE: includes self-love, family love, romantic love
  • ACCEPTANCE: of self, of circumstances, of reality
  • FAITH: in oneself, in others, in the world, in God
  • FEAR: overcoming it, conquering it, finding courage
  • TRUST: in oneself, in others, in the unknown
  • SURVIVAL: including the will to live
  • SELFLESSNESS: including sacrifice, altruism, heroism, and overcoming greed
  • RESPONSIBILITY: including duty, standing up for a cause, accepting one’s destiny
  • REDEMPTION: including atonement, accepting blame, remorse, and salvation.

The examples she provides to illustrate her theory are contemporary and recognizable. She outlines, for instance, Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.

Seventeen novels are discussed in detail, including children’s books and various genres with a couple of classics. Not dramatically diverse selections, but commercially successful titles. It’s a nice touch that, before undertaking any detailed discussion, there are spoiler warnings at the beginning of each chapter. Because, wow, the stories get spoiled quickly when each of the fifteen beats is discussed.

This technique resides in essentials. “In short, the first step to being a successful writer is being a reader. There’s just one teensy problem. There are quite a few novels out there. Like, tens of millions of them. There’s no possible way to read them all. But here’s the good news: you don’t have to.”

Instead of doing a lot of reading on a lot of weekends, you can, instead, read the ten chapters which consider one book from each of the ten genres that Brody identifies: WHYDUNIT, RITES OF PASSAGE, INSTITUTIONALIZED, SUPERHERO, DUDE WITH A PROBLEM, FOOL TRIUMPHANT, BUDDY LOVE, OUT OF THE BOTTLE, GOLDEN FLEECE, and MONSTER IN THE HOUSE.

One can imagine that, if only one opted for the Premium Weekend package, that there is a plastic bracelet emblazoned with the name of your favourite genre on it and a set of colour-coordinated metallic seals that will decorate your pitch. Diligently composed according to the instructions provided. 

So succinctly does Brody break down the process of creating loglines and summaries, that they almost write themselves.

The logline? “On the verge of a stasis=death moment, a flawed hero Breaks Into 2; but when the Midpoint happens, they must learn the Theme Stated before the All Is Lost.”

The synopsis? “Paragraph 1: Setup, flawed hero, and Catalyst (2-4 sentences)
Paragraph 2: Break Into 2 and/or Fun and Games (2-4 sentences)
Paragraph 3: Theme Stated, Midpoint hint and/or All Is Lost hint, ending in a cliffhanger (1 to 3 sentences).”

So, now you know everything. You should still attend the seminar, because you’ll want the fridge magnet and the sticker sheet. Even more importantly, you’ll want to tell your other writer-friends that you attended. But all that is just for show. Ultimately you have what you need to sit down and write.

For some beginning writers, the snazzy packaging and the sense of a formula to follow will be a seductive entrance into the possibility of writing a novel. For some experienced writers, the methodology will orchestrate a new perspective on a fledgling or stagnant project. Staycation seminar groupies will mourn the lack of accompanying merch.

Good stuff for some writers.

Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. NY: PRH – Ten Speed Press, 2018.