Save the Cat: chapter 1

Chapter 1

Blake Snyder has a knack for distilling what a screenplay needs into a cat-treat sized morsel that’s all protein and no filler. What he calls a log-line is basically the elevator pitch– you’ve got ONE line to say exactly what your story is. I’d like to be able to do this for my novel now, before it’s written, and I’ll absolutely have to when I get to the query letter stage.
Here’s what he says I’ll need:

Four must-haves for every screenplay’s log-line (one-line)

•Irony. Things are not what they seem. The dish is full of cat food but it’s turned upside down.
•Compelling mental picture that promises more. What is it about? There must be a core story.
•Consider audience and cost. Maybe not cost so much, because I can blow stuff up in my novel without actually having to foot the bill in real life, or on a movie set.
•Killer title that says what it is. Heck, yes! I’ve had a title picked out for a year. It was one of the first things that came to me when the story began to surface. (Uncle John says poo on titles yet, even though the book is nearly half written.) The title I’m working with is not thematic. It just says what it is. Double points: it’s ironic!

Ripley literally saves the cat in Alien.

Maybe you’re wondering what “saving the cat” is all about. I didn’t have a clue. It’s a scene early in a movie that shows the character in a positive light. Often the main guy is potentially unlikable, which is a good thing because he has lots of room to grow and become awesome, but it’s a bad thing if your audience hates him. The “Save the Cat” scene shows him doing something humane, which hopefully gets the audience, or in our case, our readers, to care about him.
For example, in Aladdin, we see the hero as a thief (bad guy) but then watch as he gives the stolen bread to a couple of poor hungry kids (good guy).

I’ve been mulling over Dufresne’s approach to novel writing in Is Life Like This?, contemplating why it hasn’t turned out to be a good fit for me. I think it comes down to two things:
1. Uncle John assumes you want to write a novel but have no idea what to write about. But I already had a well-formulated idea of the story I wanted to write (title and everything!) and had already “written” many of the scenes, if only in my mind.
2. His program involves following around a character to see what they will do. His assumption is that the story the character will tell me is better than the one I want to tell. This cannot work for a woman who is trying to become a person. I can’t work on my codependency issues– learning to value myself, speak up for myself, trust my own decision making process, have opinions– and then give control of my project over to a character that I created.

Dufresne’s fiction is great, but that doesn’t mean his way of writing novels is the only way. I have followed his program to the letter, but it hasn’t improved my story. It’s turned a tight 17 beat plan into a 67 beat monstrosity. Kind of like driving from Detroit to New York by way of Kentucky’s back roads.
His program has also been invaluable, and I still recommend it if you want to write a novel but haven’t got the germ of an idea yet. Favorite sections were digging through my personal history for topics, characters, and themes; visualizing the setting, the town, the ambience of my novel in detail; working through the exercise on point of view.
All good stuff!
I checked out the next few chapters and the book (Is Life Like This?) is still totally worth keeping on my desk. It’s comprehensive so I know Uncle John won’t let me accidentally drop anything through the cracks.
But there’s a kitty on top of that book now. Campbell with his Hero’s Journey, and now Snyder with his cat, have brought me back to the story I wanted to tell in the first place, and restored my confidence in my ability to tell it well.


3 thoughts on “Save the Cat: chapter 1”

  1. Funnily enough, I never worry about titles myself. It often ends up being the last thing I think about. Sometimes you can end up with such a great title that it really dominates how you write the book. I like the idea of saving the cat though: a handy tip!


    1. I didn’t necessarily mean to come up with the title early, and I’m not married to it. I totally get what you mean about the title dictating the story. I’ve seen that with friends who think they have a killer title and then try to wrap a story around it. Doesn’t work.
      But it was fun how mine just came up as a result of the story and tied so many elements together ironically. And it’s always fun to read about other authors’ approaches.
      I’ll have to wait and see if my title stays or goes!


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