What is Save the Cat? (and why do so many writers love it)
Maybe you’ve heard your writer friends talking about Save the Cat! and felt yourself nodding a long while secretly wondering, “What the heck is save the cat?”
Maybe you read about it on a blog post or saw it mentioned in a Youtube video. Or maybe you were just searching for cute cat pictures and wound up here.
Either way, I’m here to clear everything up and tell you exactly what Save the Cat! Is, why it’s so popular among writers, and why YOU should be excited about it too.
Let’s start with a very short definition before we dive into the deeper stuff, like why it works, why people use it, where it came from, and how it can help you.
A very short definition:
The super short, very officially sounding definition is this:
Save the Cat! Is a story-structure method that breaks stories down into a 15-beat blueprint that writers can easily follow to craft engaging, well-paced stories with a satisfying character arc, whether those stories be screenplays, novels, novellas, memoirs, stage plays, or short stories.
Oh, and I should also mention it’s the method that I’ve used to write over 20 novels that have been published by major publishers like Simon and Schuster, Random House, Macmillan, and Disney Press.
So, yeah, it kind of works.
But where does that mean? A story-structure method?
Well, to answer that we need to go back in time.
[Cue time warp sound effect]
Save the Cat – A (very) Short History
The story starts back in 2005, when a successful screenwriter, Blake Snyder, released a book called Save the Cat! Which quickly became not only a bestseller but a go-to guide for screenwriters and filmmakers across the world and remains today one of the most popular screenwriting guides ever printed.
But contrary to what some might believe, Blake didn’t invent a storytelling method. He didn’t just say, “oh, here’s a cool, new way to write a movie. From here on out, we should all write screenplays like this!”
Not at all. He didn’t actually invent anything. He simply studied movies way back to the beginning of the medium and found that all of those movies followed a similar pattern. In other words, they could all be broken down into the same plot points (15 of them to be exact), told in the same order and appearing roughly at the same place in every movie. Just like a blueprint.
And he called those plot points “beats.”
He gave the 15 beats fun, fancy names like “The Bad Guys Close In” and the “Dark Night of the Soul” and constructed an easy-to-follow template that screenwriters could follow to write their own movie. Because if every great movie follows this same blueprint, naturally, it stands to reason that, anyone could follow this blueprint and have a compelling screenplay on their hands.
When I picked up the book, back in my early days of novel-writing when I was struggling (and failing) to get an agent and sell my first book, I fell instantly in love with it (not just for its easy-to-follow narrative, but also for Blake’s fun, relatable voice). But mostly, I was dazzled by how simple yet effective the method seemed to be.
And I started to wonder:
Does this work for other forms of story too? Could it possibly work for novels?
Like for instance, my failed novel that nobody wanted anything to do with.
I decided to try it out.
I got out that old, rejected novel manuscript (the one that had been turned down all over town, by about 35 different agents) and reworked it, following the 15-beat template that Blake outlined in his book and what do you know? That revised draft landed me an agent and soon after a book deal with St. Martin’s Press.
Since then, I’ve sold over 20 novels to major publishers which have been translated in over 20 languages. And every single one of those books, I wrote using the Save the Cat! Method. So, yeah, I would say it works. At least, it worked for me.
But then I started to wonder:
Is it just my particular type of storytelling that it works for?
Maybe I just happen to write books that kind of feel like movies? Is it possible this 15-beat pattern that Blake found in movies also exists in other novels? Is it possible it’s existed all along?
So, I set out to do some research.
I collected a wide variety of books, from all different genres, from all different time periods and for all different age-groups like:
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
- Misery by Stephen King
- Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
And I proceeded to study their structure. How the events of the plot flowed.
And here’s what I found:
The Secret Storytelling Code!
At around 10% of the way through all of these stories, something happened to kick the plot into action. A life-changing event of sorts.
Like in The Girl on the Train when Rachel blacks out and wakes up to find blood in her hair and no memory of the previous night.
Or in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry finds out he’s a wizard.
Or in The Grapes of Wrath when Tom Joad returns home to find his family farm has been completely deserted.
And then, I found that about 20% of the way through all of these stories, the hero made some kind of decision to try something new or go somewhere new.
Like in The Girl on the Train when Rachel makes the decision to try to solve the mystery of Megan’s disappearance, Harry Potter boards the train for Hogwarts, and Tom Joad and his family set off down Route 66 for California in search of work and prosperity.
At 50% of the way through I found that all of these stories contained a major turning point that raised the stakes of the story.Like Megan’s disappearance being upgraded to a murder case, Harry winning the quidditch match only to discover a professor was bewitching his broom in an attempt to kill him, and Tom Joad and his family reaching California only to be found that there’s no work and they were tricked.
Then, at 75% of the way through all of these stories there was a kind of rock bottom moment, where the hero hit an all-time low point.
Like Rachel locked up in Scott’s house with the threat of being killed, Harry and his friends finding out that Voldemort is about to get his hands on the Sorcerer’s Stone and Tom Joad’s mentor Jim Casy dying in a fight that leaves Tom wanted for murder.
And finally, I found that around 80% of the way through these stories, a kind of resolution was discovered and the hero set out to fix everything that had happened previously.
Like Rachel boarding the train to confront Megan’s killer, Harry and his friends going after the sorcerer’s stone themselves, and Tom Joad setting off to help organize migrant workers.
That’s either a really strange coincidence. Or it’s a kind of code, buried deep within all stories.
I call it the Secret Storytelling code. And it’s been there since, well, forever. Blake Snyder found the code in movies and I found the same one in novels published all the way back in the 18th century as well as novels published yesterday.
That is the Save the Cat! Method.
The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet
It’s a pattern that exists in successful stories everywhere, made up of 15 common plot points or “beats”. And the ones I just mentioned are 5 of them.
Blake gave these common beats names like Catalyst, the Break into 2, the Midpoint, the All is Lost, the Break into 3, among others. And the 15 total beats make up a structure blueprint that’s commonly referred to as the Save the Cat! Beat sheet.
So, yeah, you could call it a blueprint, you could call it a structure template, but I like to call it a storytelling “cheat sheet.” Because naturally, if this is what successful stories have in common, then all we have to do to craft a successful story of our own, is follow the pattern. And what we ultimately end up with is a story that tracks a compelling character arc, keeps readers or audiences engaged, and leaves them feeling satisfied when it’s all over.
When to Use Save the Cat!
So now that we know exactly what the Save the Cat! Method is and where it originated, let’s talk about how to use it.
Contrary to popular belief, the Save the Cat method is not just for outlining a novel or story in advance (although it is super helpful for that too and I use it to outline all of my novels before writing them), it almost makes for a very handy revision tool.
Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to just start writing, without having a particular plan or outline in mind (which is also called “pantsing a novel” or “writing by the seat of your pants”.)
Well, eventually, you’re going to have to revise that novel and make sure it’s built around an effective structure. That’s when you’d compare your first draft with the beats of the Save the Cat! Beat sheet, figure out which beats you’re missing, which beats need to be amped up, which beats need to be shorter or longer or come earlier or later, and make revisions accordingly.
But the Save the Cat! Method is also great for figuring out what’s broken in a story you’re currently working on, busting you out of storytelling blockages, and getting your story back on track if you’ve wandered too far away from the main plot.
But I especially like using the Save the Cat method for test driving new ideas.
Whenever I get a new idea for a novel, or even an inkling of an idea, I always do a “beat sheet” test drive where I sit down and quickly sketch out some rough ideas for the beats of that idea. I know if I can brainstorm some brief, initial ideas for at least 10 of the beats, then I have a story that can go the distance.
On the other hand, if I’m struggling to find enough inspiration for just a few beats, I can pretty much tell I don’t have an idea worth writing. The idea is probably not wide enough in scope to get me through an entire story. This beat sheet test drive technique saves a lot of time compared to getting 100 pages in and then discovering there’s not enough story.
So, that’s the Save the Cat! Method, why it’s extremely useful, and how it might help you. Am I missing anything? Oh, duh. One of the most frequently asked questions of all. WHAT THE HECK DOES SAVING A CAT HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
Why is it called Save the Cat?
Good question. The title originates from Blake’s screenwriting book, in which he tells screenwriters that if you have an unlikeable hero on your hands, you’ve gotta do something early on in the story to get the audience on the hero’s side. The hero has to “save a cat” (like from a tree or a burning building, or a shelter). Okay, they don’t have to literally save a cat, but they have to do something that redeems them or warms them to the audience, regardless of how unlikeable they might be.
Like think about the scene early on in the animated film, Aladdin where Aladdin steals a loaf of bread from a market stall (not exactly a likeable thing to do). Then gets chased by the cops, wreaks all sorts of havoc in the marketplace, making him even more dislikable. But in the end, what does he do? He gives his half of the bread to a starving mother and her child.
Instantly, we’re on his side.
This is a perfect example of a Save the Cat! Scene or moment. (If you want to learn more ways to save a cat, I’ve got a whole list of them here!)
So, no you don’t need to save an actual cat, but I’d just like to point out that on the very first page of the Hunger Games (a scene that also appears in the movie adaptation), Katniss relays the story of how she tried to drown the stray cat that Prim brought home because it was another mouth to feed, only to be stopped by Prim’s relentless begging. And so yes, Katniss saved a cat. This quick backstory serves an important purpose, to show us right off the bat, how close Katniss is with her sister.
And if you’ve watched The Night Of on HBO, you might remember some very poignant Cat saving by the lawyer, John Stone.
So there you have it. The full story of What is Save the Cat!?
Be sure to dive deeper by checking out my book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel or my Official Save the Cat! Online Novel Writing course, available to stream on-demand. Filed under: Tips for Writers Writing Mastery Tagged with: fiction writing LMAP novel writing plotting save the cat save the cat beat sheet save the cat writes a novel STC Starter Kit (LMAP) Tips for Writers writing hacks writing mastery writing tips writing tools