My last post on this site was an introduction to story structure, with a recommended reading list. The book ‘Save the Cat!’ by Blake Snyder was on that list for very good reason. It is one of the clearest, most practical books on story structure I have read.
In this article I will explain why Save the Cat! is such an iconic book and outline its key features and teachings. At the end there is a free downloadable worksheet which covers all the main points in the book.
First of all, the book contains a lot more than ‘just’ story structure. It is a guide to the fundamentals of fiction. Moreover, it is one of the most actionable books I have ever read. What I mean by this, as I hinted at by the word ‘practical’ above, is that the book is a step by step instruction manual on how to create a story. If you follow the steps and treat the book like a checklist, you will end up with a good story.
In this world, there are books on theory and there are books on practice. We need both. Save the Cat! actually is both. This is because Snyder tells you what to do but critically he explains why he’s telling you to do it.
Save the Cat! was actually written for screenwriters but it is absolutely applicable to novel writing. Last year Jessica Brody released a companion book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and I highly recommend it because it expands on the original book and breaks down the story structure for a number of novels, by genre.
The Save the Cat! system is intended to be used in the planning stage of novel writing, from the initial idea onwards. However, it can just as easily be used to analyse a work that is already written. Either way, the knowledge in this book will serve you well for years to come. I’d call it essential novelist for any author. Even short story writers, because while the story beats are too complex for short fiction, many of the book’s other principles apply to any story.
Inside Save the Cat!
Chapter 1: What is it?
The book starts out at the very beginning of the story-writing process and asks what your story idea is. In this very first chapter you come up with a preliminary logline for your book and Snyder states what this must contain.
Chapter 2: Genres
Snyder stresses the importance of knowing what type of story you are writing. He lists ten story types and directs the reader to identify the one which their story fits the most. Then he instructs readers to research the conventions of that genre.
Chapter 3: A guy who…
In this chapter we flesh out who the story is about. Snyder states the characteristics required of the protagonist, and we revise our logline. Also, he introduces the term PRIMAL, a word that will crop up again and again.
Chapter 4: Beat it out!
Story structure aficionados will be relieved to hear we are now getting to the part of the book on structure. In this chapter Snyder describes the fifteen beats of any story. A beat is an event or a section of the story and they are found in every story. It’s time now for you to work out the beats of your story.
Chapter 5: Building the beast
Snyder describes the BOARD, what he calls ‘the most vital piece of equipment’ in this process. It is a corkboard for plotting out the story. You mark out the four quarters of the story (Act 1, Act 2 first half, Act 2 second half, Act 3) and pin index cards. Each index card is one scene. Nowadays, you can use the corkboard in Scrivener or lines in Excel, but the principle is the same. In a 90,000 word novel, assuming each scene averages 1,500 words, then each quarter will have 15 cards. Snyder describes what scenes must contain.
Chapter 6: Immutable laws
This chapter describes a number of ‘rules’ of screenwriting, many of which are applicable to novel writing.
Chapter 7: What’s wrong?
This chapter states how to analyse your first draft to see where you might have gone wrong. It lists a number of typical problem issues and how to fix them.
The final chapter (number 8) is more about how to go about being a screenwriter and isn’t important for our purposes.
So that’s the book in a nutshell.
Most important points to take away from Save the Cat!
1 . The importance of the logline. If you have a killer logline then you probably have the bones for a killer story. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and also the Save the Cat! website (which is awesome) contains a template logline. It isn’t in the original Save the Cat! book as it builds on the book. It is as follows. Write the relevant part of your story where the bold underlined instructions are:
On the verge of a Stasis=Death moment*, a flawed protagonist Breaks Into Two, but when the Midpoint happens, he/she must learn the Theme, before All Is Lost.
*This just means what will happen if the hero continues with their ordinary life and doesn’t enter the story world (Break into Two).
2 . The importance of being PRIMAL. The character’s motivations must be primal; the stakes must be primal. Primal urges get our attention. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death, revenge – these are all basic needs, wants and desires and go to the core of being human. You must ground every action and story in its primal-ness.
3 . The importance of knowing your genre. The original Save the Cat! book doesn’t go into detail about the conventions of each genre and how the story beats apply to them, but Save the Cat! Writes a Novel does. With lots of examples.
4 . The importance of plotting out the story before writing a word, and hitting the important story beats. There must be a Catalyst in the first Act; there must be a Break into 2; also there must be a Midpoint; there must be a Break into 3; there must be a Finale. Note that in other books on story structure these will be called the Inciting Incident, the First Plot Point, the Midpoint, the Second Plot Point and the Climax respectively.
If you are a pantser rather than a planner you may wish to start writing knowing only what happens at these points and that’s fine. Of course, the other beats are important but if you can nail these main beats first in your plotting then you have the main supports in place on which to hang the rest of the plot.
I have prepared a worksheet that serves as a comprehensive checklist of all the salient points in the Save the Cat! book, including the template logline above. You can use the worksheet to record your ‘answers’ for all the steps contained in the Save the Cat! book. It will help you plot out your story and you’ll be able to see on paper if you have overlooked anything. Here it is!
In addition, the Save the Cat! website contains a one-page worksheet to record the steps, beats and other information on your story.
So that’s all from me. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Do you use the Save the Cat! system? Are you a pantser and you don’t consider any of these points before you begin writing? Whatever your point of view I’d love to hear from you!