EXCERPT FROM “SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL”
In 2005, a very wise screenwriter named Blake Snyder wrote a very wise book called Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. In this book, Blake set out to teach screenwriters how to structure their screenplays using a template of fifteen beats or plot points, claiming that every great movie Hollywood ever made was structured around these same fifteen beats.
The reaction was almost instantaneous. Within a few short years, screenwriters, directors, producers, and studio executives the world over were turning to Blake’s fifteen-beat template or beat sheet to develop better, tighter, more engaging stories for the screen. “Save the Cat!” quickly became an industry-recognized method.
Meanwhile, in 2006, I was a former-movie-studio-executive-turned-struggling-novelist, trying (and failing) to sell my first book. I had a file drawer literally full of rejection letters, which all said the same thing: “Great writing. No story.” Essentially, I was clueless about plot structure. Until one day, a screenwriter friend of mine handed me a copy of Save the Cat! and told me, “It’s a very popular screenwriting book, but I believe it could work for novels too.”
He was right.
After reading Save the Cat! cover to cover (multiple times), and comparing Blake’s fifteen-beat template to popular novels that I’d read and loved, I soon discovered that with some tweaking and adaption, his methodology could be applied perfectly to novels.
And I set out to prove it.
Now, nearly a decade later, I have sold more than eighteen novels to major publishers like Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Macmillan. My books have been published and translated in over twenty-three countries, and two are currently in development as films.
Is this a coincidence? Definitely not. Am I just that good of a writer? Debatable. Did Blake Snyder invent something that no one ever had before? Not at all. He simply studied the elements of story and character transformation and noticed an underlying pattern. A secret storytelling code.
And now, after plotting countless novels using the Save the Cat! methodology and teaching thousands of other authors how to do the same, I’ve come up with an easy-to-follow, step-by-step process for teaching novelists how to harness the power of that storytelling code and turn it into compelling, well-structured, unputdownable novels. And I’m sharing it all with you here in this book.
Because essentially the Save the Cat! beat sheet that Blake designed is not about movies. It’s about story. And regardless of whether you’re writing screenplays, novels, short stories, memoirs, or stage plays, whether you’re writing comedy, drama, sci-fi, fantasy, or horror, whether you fancy yourself a literary writer or a commercial writer, one thing is nonnegotiable: You need a good story.
And I’m going to help you get there.
A Screenwriting Guide for Novelists?
But why should novelists follow in the footsteps of screenwriters? After all, we novelists came first!
The truth is, in today’s media-centric, fast-paced, technology-enhanced climate, we novelists are actually competing with screenwriters. Like it or not, since the moment that first silent film hit the big screen, novels have had to contend with movies as a source of entertainment. Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters didn’t have to compete with the latest high-octane superhero flick or the newest Melissa McCarthy comedy, but we modern novelists do. (Although, as a side note, I can attest to having found all fifteen of the beats on the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Great Expectations, among many other classics).
The key is all in the pacing. A well-paced novel with visual elements, compelling character growth, and an airtight structure can step into the ring with any blockbuster film—and win.
But how do we write one?
Enter Save the Cat!
The Method to My Madness
For several years before writing this book, I taught an intensive Save the Cat! workshop for novelists. After years of watching writers struggle to figure out what their novel is about, and how to structure it, I have come up with what I believe is the most logical, intuitive, and effective way to guide you through the Save the Cat! methodology. The beauty of the way I’ve structured this process is that you can do it alone or with a critique group or partner. I’ve even included exercises and checklists at the end of several chapters to help you hold yourself accountable (either on your own or with your critique group). So whether you prefer to fly solo or flock together, this book will help you develop the best possible story you can.
Even if you bought this book because you’re stuck at a very specific part of your plot (like the middle), I still urge you to read the chapters in order. You may think you have everything else in the story figured out, but chances are being stuck somewhere (like in the middle) is just the symptom, not the real ailment—and your story problem goes much deeper than you realize.
Because despite what you might think, this book is about so much more than just plot. The word “plot” on its own is pretty useless. It’s just a series of events that happen in a story. But structure is the order in which those events happen and, maybe even more importantly, the timing of when they happen. Then you add in a character who needs to change and does change by the end, and presto! You’ve got a story worth telling.
Plot, structure, and character transformation.
Or what I like to call the “Holy Trinity of Story.”
All together, these three elements are pure storytelling pixie dust. The three essential building blocks of every great story ever told. But the Holy Trinity of plot, structure, and character transformation is a very delicate, intricately connected entity. And that’s why years of research, teaching experience, and careful consideration have gone into the organization of this book.
Plotters Versus Pantsers
It is a truth universally acknowledged (in the writing community) that there are two kinds of novelists: plotters and pantsers. Plotters are those who plot out their novels before they begin; pantsers are those who just “write by the seat of their pants” and figure it out as they go. And I realize any pantser who has bought this book is probably freaking out right now and breaking into a cold sweat at the sight of words like “structure” and “checklists.” GAH!
But let me be perfectly clear.
This book is not an ode to plotters. Nor is it a manifesto to convert all pantsers. Yes, I do consider myself a “plotter,” but I didn’t write this book to prove that any particular way to write a novel is better than the other. I’ve learned, through working with thousands of authors over the years, that the creative process is a very mysterious thing and that everyone is different. (Yes, you are all unique, fragile, storytelling snowflakes.) So, no, I’m not here to change your process. I’m here to enhance your process.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to figure out exactly where you’re driving to before you turn the key in the ignition, then this book will help you do that faster and more efficiently. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who likes to get in the car and just drive, confident you’ll figure out where you’re going along the way, then consider me and this book your personal AAA, ready and eager to give you a jump start whenever you stall out or get stranded in the middle of nowhere with no map, no GPS, and no fuel.
Regardless of which category you fit into, this book will guide you through the inspiring and often daunting process of plotting a novel. Because whether you’ve “pantsed” your way through a first draft, and now you have to figure out what to do with it to make it work, or you’re just starting out with a shiny new idea and you want to plot it in advance, it’s all the same thing in the end. We all have to do the plotting work somewhere, somehow. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a plotter or a pantser; the structure gets added in eventually. Either up front or afterward. It’s all the same to me. And it’s all the same to this book.
Meaning: don’t worry, I’ll help you get there.
The “F” Word
It’s around this time in the process of introducing Save the Cat! that people sometimes start throwing around the “F” word.
Many novelists worry that following a methodology like Save the Cat! will cause their novel to end up “formulaic” or “predictable.” They worry that following a structure guide or template will detract from their art and limit their creative options.
So I want to nip that fear in the bud right here. Right now.
The pattern that Blake Snyder found in almost all movies and the pattern that I’ve similarly found in almost all novels is not a formula. Like I said before, it’s an underlying storytelling code.
It’s the secret recipe that makes great stories work.
There’s something buried deep within our DNA as humans that makes us respond to certain storytelling elements told in a certain order. We’ve been responding to them since our primitive ancestors drew on walls and tribes told stories around campfires. The Save the Cat! methodology simply identifies that code and turns it into an easy-to-follow blueprint for crafting a successful story, so that we writers don’t have to reinvent a wheel that has been used since, well, the time the wheel was invented.
I’ve studied popular novels throughout time—books published from as recently as today to as far back as the 1700s. And I’ve found that nearly all of them fit the same pattern. All of them can be structurally analyzed using the Save the Cat! methodology.
If you want to call it a formula, go right ahead. But it’s a formula that can be found in the works of countless great authors including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Michael Crichton, and Agatha Christie.
Regardless of what you call it, it works.
Excerpted from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Brody. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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