Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Saving the novel

I haven't plugged books here before, but I'm so excited about one I recently picked up that I just have to share it with you. It's Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been an avid disciple of the Save the Cat! books for a long time. I first came across them fourteen years ago when I tried to break into screenwriting. They quickly became my bible for structuring all my stories, not just screenplays.

Other books have covered similar ground, but Snyder's take was more detailed and user-friendly. He provided specific page counts for each of this fifteen story beats so that you can see how closely your story paces with existing movies. He defined ten popular story genres--from Monster in the House to Fool Triumphant--and described how the beats varied for each genre. And his books were just fun to read, with a jokey, light-hearted style and catchy, unforgettable names for many of the story concepts (I still refer to "Whiff of Death" and "Pope in the Pool" in discussions of my own stories).

I especially loved his second book, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, because it described the specific story beats of fifty famous movies, giving readers an intimate look at how masters of the craft structured their stories.

Sadly, Snyder passed away all the all-too-young age of 51 in 2009. But he left behind a legacy in Hollywood that's hard to match. Blake's template has become the de facto standard for commercial films.

Of course, novels aren't expected to follow this structure as closely as movies are. But you have to give your novel some structure or it'll just drift from event to event with no tension or sense of direction.

Author Jessica Brody
(Photo Credit: Brian Braff)

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel provides that structure. Brody--who's had her own success in the YA field with books like I Speak Boy--offers the same fifteen-beat template as Snyder but adds her own quirky humor while showing how those beats are met in novels like Misery and Bridget Jones's Diary. It took Snyder two books to cover that much ground for films.

Now I'm not one of those writers who believe you have to slavishly follow these templates. Do you absolutely need a B story? I don't think so. Can the Theme Stated come later, say halfway into the story? Probably.

But deviate at your own risk. Over the years, I've read many, many manuscripts for friends and acquaintances, and one thing has become painfully clear to me. Every poorly written story--whether novel, screenplay or play--fails because it leaves out one of those fifteen story beats.

Sometimes it's the Debate. Instead of rejecting the call to adventure, the hero jumps in willingly--even excitedly. Not good if you want to maintain a sense of tension.

More often it's the Midpoint. This is where the stakes are raised, where the hero first gets that whiff of death. Skip this beat and your readers won't even care what happens at the climax because they don't know what your hero is risking.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel isn't a book you're going to want to read straight through. There's just too much detail, too many helpful tips to remember. Instead, keep it at your side while you're writing so you can dive in when you hit a wall and find out how the masters got around it.

It won't just save the cat. It'll save your butt.