Writing Book Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Image from Amazon.com

Note: I don’t know why I was holding this review, exactly, but here it is. Probably I was too busy writing the great American novel (or an awesome, best-selling YA fantasy trilogy).

I knew that for this year’s National Novel Writing Month (November), I wanted to write a novel I had in my head which was brand new. I also knew, thanks to a workshop, that I wanted to formally plan it. I am already a planner, sure, but my planning was, well, ADHD-driven, meaning it was scattered, random, and often disorganized. In other words, I just dumped ideas and notes into the Word file in which I was writing (in capital letters, brackets and stars) and occasionally into a notes file meant specifically for that story. (I am not in the habit of using the actual “comments” features.) Using Scrivener this year (which I should probably blog about at some point), I had tools to organize this whole process a lot more. And I had the will. But how exactly? What questions did I need to be asking and what information did I need to try to have existing before I could begin writing? What universal structure did I want to use?

It seems to me that Save the Cat! is all the rage. There are some other story structure/story planning methods out there, like the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method, and various 7- or 5- or whatever-point structures. I have actually used the Hero’s Journey to plan a novel before, though maybe not as thoroughly as I wanted to this time. The Hero’s Journey was an experiment for me, and I have been advised that it worked. We’ll see. This time, I knew I wanted to include some more basic thoughts, like stakes and faults, and I suspected that all the cool kids (or actually pretty nerdy kids but a lot of them) were getting this from Save the Cat!. Turns out that Save the Cat! is for screenwriting, but that it has been somewhat recently adapted for novels in the book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Now, the way I understand it, Save the Cat! didn’t invent the wheel, it codified it. Then plenty of novel-writers, short-story writers, memoirist, etc. read the screenwriting version anyway and figured out how to use it. But then Jessica Brody (the original was written by Blake Snyder) wrote the literal book on using the Save the Cat! method for novels. (There is a YA version coming out in 2023, and I am already on the waiting list for a copy.)

Yes, this is a book about a formula. Brody goes into that concept in some depth, because formula-friendly authors are frequently defending their love of formula. Or maybe we don’t need to call it “formula,” because that does smack of plugging an idea into a lifeless rubric. The whole point of these systems, however, is simply to 1) honor the innate thing in the literary arts that rings true in the human spirit and 2) help authors connect with the fundamentals and universals—the usual suspects—of the soul-ringing story. Ideally, great writers would use these tips and even formula to ask tough questions about their latest story in order to—what?—write a better story or fix a story to make it better. To strengthen their story. Ultimately, yes, also to sell books because more people will relate to the story if it rings those truth-bells, but there is something more subtle going on here. Learning the science behind cooking would only make an intuitive chef better at what they do, not threaten their creativity. Same idea here. And, Brody promises, it will save the writer a whole lot of grief and drafts if they know what the heck it is they’re doing from the moment they have an idea as opposed to after three years of random writing.

I breezed through this highly technical (though clear and sometimes funny) book because I was on the verge of Nanowrimo and also was currently deep in the first draft obsession with my book. I just ate it up, underlining, starring, and arrowing all the way. It’s a good thing, too, because I was later going to go back over all the underlined parts to come up with my own, detailed story questionnaire to get me to my “beats,” or typical, necessary reference points in any successful story. Much of the content in this book (around 300 pages) is technical, as in examples, lists, break-downs (so, actually, you don’t have to read every single page if you know what “genre” your book will be. You can save that for later).

I find that I don’t have that much to say about the book, actually. I am using it. I recommend it. If you are looking to plan a novel, then this should be—if not the top book on your list then—one of the top books on your list. Yes, everybody is already doing it, but this time that’s because it’s a well-written, easy-to-follow book that introduces and then details the techniques that any author should have in their back pocket. Or tool belt. I did think there could have been more organization in the book itself: like charts, graphs, or checklists bringing all the many pages of info down into followable infographics, but I did that myself for the most part. But that might also be why I am now using a K. M. Weiland workbook on top of it. I get the ideas, here, but there has to be ways to work them out for a hard-planner. I also used Save the Cat! Writs a Novel to make an actual story board on a corkboard in my family room, which was super handy.

I guess we’ll see if following these beats leads to novel success in the next couple of years, but I think that this sort of thing is an important part of a writer’s education, whether they’re all literary and poo-poo-ing it or not. I don’t think just anyone can write or write well, but if you take your (novel- or even long short story-) writing seriously, there is much here for you to consider.

QUOTES:

“We turn to story to watch characters fix their problems, better their lives, improve upon their flaws. Great novels take deeply imperfect characters and make them a little less imperfect” (p11).

“…your hero also has to want something (badly) and be proactively trying to get it …. What does your hero think will fix those problems, or what does your hero think will better their life?” (p11).

“Your reader should be able to know if and when your hero gets what they want” (p12).

“We call the real problem the shard of glass. It’s a psychololigal wound that has been festering beneath the surface of your hero for a long time” (p14).

“…whether you’re starting something new or revising sometime old, drafting a beat sheet that lays out a clear transformative journey for your hero will save you…” (p23).

“And this is what I love about the Theme Stated. / The hero often ignores it!” (p33).

“The Catalyst should be BIG. Don’t wimp out on me” (p38).

“Pondering and weighing options and gathering more information is what we do as humans and heroes” (p39).

“You need the fun stuff too. You need the A Story” (p43).

“I call this the bouncing ball narrative. Your hero is up, your hero is down. Things are going swimmingly, things are going horribly. The hero succeeds at something, then fails at something” (p48).

“A great story is the continual raising of the stakes” (p56).

“…there is one kind of bad guy that does exist in all stories. / And that’s the internal bad guys” (p59).

“The Break Into 3 almost always includes the following realization for the hero: It was never them who had to change; it was always me” (p66).

“Whenever I get stuck on a certain part of my story, I always bust out the old Save the Cat! genre breakdowns, find novels and movies that are my chosen genre, and get studying” (p83).

(The book is 300 pages long, but after this point it is broken down by “genre,” so I didn’t really have any more quotes for you.)

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