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What Does the Cat Have to Do With It?

Thoughts on Save the Cat Writes a Novel (SCWAN)


Our screenwriting instructor at the college where I teach recommended, sort of, the Save the Cat book for screenwriting. Actually, I am not sure that it was a recommendation; it was more of an “it has some good ideas…” comment. He himself uses the Syd Field book, The Foundations of Screenwriting, to teach the course. Since I sat in on his class in 2021, I can say I read the book but it’s time to read it again.


Of course, I haven’t really touched my screenplay in a couple of years. I am a novelist. That is my form, along with some short fiction. However, Jessica Brody took the concepts of Save the Cat and applied them to novel writing. I bought it. I read it. I liked it, sort of.  


It promises a lot more than it delivers. The website Mythcreants ( tears it apart in several blog posts. I see their point, but everyone is in a different place in their writing career and development. Her major point is to impose a structure of storytelling on the novel, a structure that is very much like a screenplay’s format (that is, borrowing from the Save the Cat world).  She uses many examples of recent—and some older—novels that she purports to follow this format. (This is an area where critics go berserk, and I do too. She misinterprets Jane Eyre all over the place, and dares to cite Pride and Prejudice as an example of her thesis!)


The format is called the Beat Sheet, a series of fifteen or so steps the novel should go through in a three-act structure. (Why three? Shakespeare used five.) However, the steps have, to some extent, an organic logic, along this line: Opening Image, Setup, Theme Stated, Catalyst, Debate, Break into 2 second act), and so forth.


For myself, I interpreted it through a lens of my own understanding of fiction (developed through reading many, many novels; writing ten of them; and earning a graduate degree in English) and through asking myself, “Did my novels do this? Did they follow this timeline/structure/approach?


In reference to the first, she is too simplistic; she’s writing to people who have not really studied writing and fiction. I internalized the “rules” through exposure to the real things, especially the best ones: Anna Karenina, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, even Agatha Christie, Forster, Marilynne Robinson, and many more.


In reference to the latter, yeah, I think, generally, I do follow it. My latest two probably the most. Because the following is my understanding of the fiction task:

There has to be a reason to keep the action going forward. External or internal forces mean the protagonist has to act, or wants to act to achieve something they value, earn something they want, solve a problem that matters to themselves and perhaps other people.


The character has to be a person with qualities and flaws. The qualities should outweigh the flaws for us to want to read about them, and the flaws should be understandable and rooted in some backstory or reason (history, culture, experience).


Something has to happen early in the story to motivate the protagonist and even more, make the reader care. “Start with the snake,” as I say. Early doesn’t mean first page, but half-way through is too much.  No one is going to read that far.


Everything that happens has to have a reason—nothing random, at least by the end. If the dying person says something as they die, it should mean something later. As Chekhov supposedly said, “If there is a gun in the first act, it has to be used in the end.”


This is the first act, if you will. Then the second act is a way to get the main character to a point of self-recognition, victory, understanding, defeat, etc.  There has to be progress, even if there is a twist where the supposed progress turns in regress or failure.


Jessica Brody says that going from the second act to the first act there should be periods of dark night of the soul, renewed purpose, beating the bad guys, getting the team together, etc. I prefer to think of it as multiple threads coming together. Novels don’t usually have “bad guys” v. “good guys.” Those old “types of conflict” we learned in high school lit classes still work: human against self, against society, against nature, against another human, against God, against existence or meaning of life. Someone has to resolve the conflict by the end, by surrender that means self-understanding, or surrender that means hopelessness (1984), or by victory.  


Beyond those general guidelines, I don’t think that Brody’s format or “formula” would work for every work of fiction, and as I mentioned, she misinterprets the classics to the extent I kind of doubted she read or understood them.


All that said, I read a lot of budding novels by budding writers, and I often see where they start with an interesting premise and get off track to a point where the characters seem to be wandering around aimlessly in this fiction universe the author created. I’ve seen “novels” where nothing happens for the first ten pages…or twenty…as if the author wants to recreate Proust (pedantic, pretentious reference; I have not read Proust, just about him). 


One might say they aren’t writing to be marketable. That’s their choice, but unmarketable pretty much means unread.  And what is the point of writing that is unread?

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