08 August 2015

Saving the Cat

In the delightful Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life (1991), the souls of the dead go to Judgment City, where they must prove they deserve to break free from the reincarnation cycle and move to a higher level of existence. During trials, prosecutors and defenders support their arguments by showing film clips from the dead person's life. (Yes, your most paranoid fantasies are true: Everything you've ever done has been filmed and filed, and can eventually be used against you.) The onward progress of Meryl Streep's character is assured by a clip from the night her house caught fire. We see her rushing out of the burning building, leading her two children to safety. Then we see her rushing back in, flames all around her, to emerge moments later with the family cat safe in her arms.

I don't know if Blake Snyder had this scene in mind when he wrote his 2005 guide to screenwriting, Save the Cat! It seems possible. Snyder defines a Save the Cat scene as "the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something--like saving a cat--that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him."
True, he admits, not all protagonists are sterling sorts likely to save cats or help old ladies across the street. He cites Pulp Fiction as an example of a movie with protagonists who are, to put it mildly, not very nice. (But even then, he argues, the writers manage to get us interested in the protagonists, to come close to sympathizing with them.)
 Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need
I think many insights in Snyder's book apply not only to movies but also to novels and stories. As a writer, I've found his ideas about plot structure helpful, and I've been careful to include Save the Cat scenes in the first chapters of my recently released novel (Interpretation of Murder) and my soon-to-be-released young adult novel (Fighting Chance). Much as I'd love to talk about my own books, though, I decided more authoritative examples would provide more convincing support for Snyder's ideas. So I pulled some mysteries and thrillers from my bookshelf, not quite at random, and looked for Save the Cat scenes.

I'll start with an obvious example, Tom Clancy's Patriot Games. Jack Ryan is strolling down a London street with his wife and daughter when he hears an explosion. Grenade, he realizes instantly. He hears a burst of gunfire, sees a Rolls Royce forced to a halt in the middle of the street, sees one man firing a rifle at it and another man racing toward its rear. IRA, Ryan thinks. He yanks his wife and daughter to the ground to keep them safe. Then he takes off. He tackles one attacker, grabs his gun, shoots the other attacker. Ryan gets shot, too, in the shoulder, but he hardly notices. He's done what he had to do. He's protected his family and stopped the attack. He's saved the cat. 

So now we know, after only a few pages, that Jack Ryan is observant, courageous, quick, and capable. His first thought is to keep his wife and daughter safe, but he doesn't hesitate to risk his own life to rescue the people in the Rolls. His actions match a pattern we easily recognize as heroic. If we want to keep reading about him, if we want to see him triumph, no wonder.

The second book I looked at was Dick Francis' Banker. Even before I read Save the Cat, I'd noticed how often Francis uses his first chapter to make us like and admire his protagonist. Banker begins when one of Tim Ekaterin's co-workers looks out a window at the bank and  sees an executive, Gordon Michaels, standing fully clothed in the courtyard fountain. The co-worker exclaims about it but does nothing more. Ekaterin "whisk[s] straight out of the deep-carpeted office, through the fire doors, down the flights of gritty stone staircase and across the marbled expanse of entrance hall." He rushes past a "uniformed man at the security desk," who presumably should know how to handle unsettling situations but instead stands "staring . . . with his fillings showing," past two customers who are frozen in place, "looking stunned." "I went past them at a rush into the open air," Ekaterin says, "and slowed only in the last few strides before the fountain."  He tries to reason with his boss and learns Michaels is gripped by hallucinations about "people with white faces," who are following him and are, presumably, up to no good. The chairman of the bank, a "firm and longtime" friend of Gordon Michaels, scurries into the courtyard. "My dear chap," he says to his friend, but evidently can think of nothing else to say, nothing else to do. He turns to Ekaterin."Do something, Tim," he says.

"So I stepped into the fountain," Tim Ekaterin says. He takes his boss by the arm, gently assures him he'll be safe even if he leaves the fountain, gets him to come into the bank, takes him home, helps get him into bed. Ekaterin's actions aren't heroic in a traditional sense--he's never in physical danger--but he's shown himself to be compassionate, intelligent, and determined. And he's acted. When other people are too stunned and stymied to do anything but stare, Ekaterin runs past them "at a rush" and solves the problem. He saves the cat.

Then there's Harry Kemelman's Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, the Edgar-winning first novel in the Rabbi Small series. David Small doesn't have much in common with Jack Ryan. He's slight and pale, he'd trip over his own feet if he tried to tackle a terrorist, and if he picked up an a bad guy's gun, he wouldn't know how to fire it. But he takes decisive actions when, in Chapter One, two of his congregants are locked in a silly dispute about damages to a car one borrowed from the other. The two men are longtime friends, but neither is willing to admit he could be at fault, and both are so angry and frustrated they refuse to talk to each other, or even to pray in the same room. Rabbi Small persuades them to submit their case to an informal rabbinic court at which he presides. As he explains his judgment, he applies centuries-old Talmudic principles to this contemporary situation, displaying deep knowledge of complicated texts, impressive mental agility, and penetrating insight into human nature. By the time he's finished, the two men are friends again, relieved to put their differences behind them. The dispute about the car has no relevance to the novel's central mystery, to the murder that hasn't yet been committed. But the scene has served its purpose. We like and admire Rabbi Small and want to keep reading about him. And, once again, the cat is safe.

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
A week or so ago, I bought Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, embarrassed to realize I'd never read it. It's a mystery classic, I'm a mystery writer--high time I get down to business and read Rebecca. I started reading and felt the pull of that famous first sentence, of that haunting opening description--the trees, the smokeless chimneys, the threadlike drive, the nettles, the moonlight. Next comes the second chapter's account of a couple living in a comfortless hotel, welcoming boredom as an alternative to fear, waiting impatiently for newspapers that bring them scores from cricket matches and schoolboy sports--not because they care about such things, but because trivial news offers some relief from the "ennui" that otherwise envelopes them. Then Chapter Two merges into Chapter Three, into memories of a time when the narrator was dominated by the repellant Mrs. Van Hopper and felt incapable of fighting back. That's as far as I've gotten.

I'm not saying Rebecca isn't good. The quality of the writing impresses me, the situation beginning to develop in Chapter Three intrigues me, and generations of readers have loved this novel. There must be wonderful things lying ahead. But I've got to admit I missed a Save the Cat scene. As I read the opening chapters of Rebecca, I kept waiting for the narrator to do something.She didn't.

That, I think, is the essence of the Save the Cat scene. As Snyder says in his definition, "the hero does something"--his italics. Or, as the befuddled chairman in Banker says, "Do something, Tim"--my italics.

I think readers are drawn to protagonists who do things. I'd guess that's probably true of most readers, especially true of mystery readers. In mysteries, after all, there's always a problem to be solved, an injustice to be set right. Sitting around and feeling overwhelmed by circumstances doesn't cut it. Feeling sorry for oneself definitely doesn't cut it. If we're going to commit ourselves to spending time with a protagonist, we mystery readers want it to be someone who responds to a tough situation by taking action. We can forgive a protagonist who makes mistakes. Passivity, though--that's harder to forgive.

I fully intend to read the rest of Rebecca. But not yet. While I was browsing through my bookshelves to find examples for this post, I got hooked by a protagonist who does things, who knows how to save a cat. I'll finish reading Rebecca right after I finish re-reading Friday the Rabbi Slept Late.


  1. B.K., do finish Rebecca - our nameless, faceless heroine does indeed eventually do something. But also, remember, she's the narrator - it's sort of like not reading Sherlock Holmes because Watson never has a clue what's going on. If you think of it in those terms I think you'll appreciate its slow-building but definite dread, malice, and evil, that all finally comes to a head.

    But, back to saving/not saving the cat: One of my favorite examples of villainy is in Rex Stout's "In the Best Families" where what happens with a dying dog will prove, in the long run, who really was the killer.

    And I love "The Rabbi" series.

  2. Eve, I'll definitely finish reading Rebecca. As I said, I'm impressed by the writing, and I'm sure wonderful things lie ahead. If the narrator turns out to be a Watson whose main function is to report what others do, that would explain her passivity. I'm reminded of the character of Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights: He doesn't do much himself and never quite seems to understand the implications of what he hears, but his curiosity about the former inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange drives the story forward. But I'd better finish reading Rebecca before I say anything more about it. And I promise I'll finish it soon! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Great article, Bonnie! I also really appreciate save the cat openings. I just want (at least) one redeeming thing about a character I'll be following around for the rest of the book.

  4. Great read. Keep going with Rebecca--well worth the effort. I've not come across Save the Cat before but that's a thought provoking and convincing argument.

    And now I know what movie to watch tonight - Patriot Games-- and I'd head off and buy Friday the Rabbi Slept Late too.


  5. Meg, that's exactly how I feel. The Save the Cat moment doesn't have to be related to the central mystery, and it definitely doesn't have to involve physical courage, but I like it when the protagonist shows some little spark of spirit, something that lets me know he or she will develop into someone I'll admire and will enjoy spending time with. Of course, there are exceptions--all sorts of protagonists can be intriguing--but most of the time, a protagonist who shows Save-the-Cat potential is more likely to draw me into a book.

  6. Madeline, I bet you'll love Patriot Games. I definitely did. (Of course, I tend to love any movie starring Harrison Ford--but that's another topic altogether.) And I'll definitely finish Rebecca, and I think you'll enjoy Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. It sounds as if we both have some good reading ahead of us!

  7. B.K.-
    I totally agree with you on Rebecca.
    I never liked her character, not to the end of the book. She seems flat, passive. And now I see what it is she was lacking.
    Also, this inspires me in my own life to be less of an observer, and more of a save-the-cat type of person.

  8. Bonnie,

    Such a helpful suggestion. I'll keep it in mind for future writing. As to Rebecca, I read it many years ago. I fell in love with Gothic romance/mysteries as a teenager. I guess you could say my latest published novel DARK MOON RISING is a tribute to the Gothic tradition in literature. And my heroine does try to save the cat which makes her more modern and proactive.

  9. I’m a believer in save the cat, although I never thought of that phrase. I had great exemplars… both my parents were save-the-cat people, so saving the can is NOT an option. Their sons became save-the-cat people thanks to them.

    Saving the cat can manifest in other ways like honesty. I can think of a car salesman and a realtor who refused to lie, thus putting their careers at risk. When the realtor changed jobs, I followed to her new office because of the respect I felt for her. She saved the cat.

  10. I think the big difference here is when Rebecca was written. In the 50s, the writers could take their time starting a story. Readers were accustomed to that.

    But you couldn't do that now. Now, you are competing with 22 minute action TV shows, and tweets. Readers expect to get into the story immediately, and so do publishers/editors. I teach my Crafting a Novel students that many books they read and loved in the 80s and 90s wouldn't have made it to publication today. They simply don't start quickly enough, and thus wouldn't even make it to the editorial roundtable.

    But Rebecca is worth reading, BK, as it has the most amazing twist 2/3 of the way through. Reminds me of the great movie Laura...
    nuf said :)

  11. As most everyone else has said, Bonnie, you must continue with Rebecca--it's worth it. By the way, I loved the movie Defending Your Life!

    As for starting slowly, I'm always reminded of the Michener novel Hawaii--the entire first chapter, 15 or 16 pages, covered the creation of the islands themselves. In great and painful detail. Sweet Jiminy.

  12. Oh now I go and weigh in and mess everything up. "Saving the Cat" aside (and that is one terrific concept!) Patriot Games is the ONLY book I ever read by Tom Clancy because it was just ... I'm sorry. It hit me as a superhero comic book for adult males. I mean really: the guy saves everyone from everything, is loved by all these men who work for and are willing to die for him because he's just such a perfect human being and man's man, is literally rich, is someone the president asks for advice ... and on and on. The movie with Harrison Ford was reasonably good, but the book was over the top: like a romance novel for men. :-/

  13. Marie and Leigh, I agree that Save the Cat is a concept we can apply to life, as well as to literature. In both, we admire people who act, who try to help and to do the right thing. Jacquie, Melodie, and John, I always intended to go back to Rebecca, and you've now given me additional reasons for doing so. But as Melodie says (and Jacquie suggests), books published these days tend to start more quickly, and to have protagonists who take action sooner. Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite novels, but I can imagine how an agent or editor would react to it today--"Too much back story in the first chapter! Get things going, or readers won't make it past page one!" And Anonymous, I agree that the movies based on Clancy's novels tend to be better than the books themselves. I think The Hunt for Red October, for example, is a gripping, fast-paced movie, but the novel is one of the few thrillers that literally put me to sleep. Anyway, I'm sorry if I offended anyone by not falling in love with Rebecca immediately--as I said, my comments were based only on my first impressions, and I know I have to read more before forming a definite opinion--but I'm glad the post sparked this very interesting discussion.

  14. >… a romance novel for men.

    I’m not certain what my facial expression was when I read that, but I know what Anon is talking about. I used to notice that in magazines, those printed with testosterone instead of ink.

    Bonnie, The Moonstone is another classic I consider well worth reading for mystery readers… and writers.

  15. Bonnie, I've read SAVE THE CAT but it's been years. Thanks for the reminder about the crucial scene where we start to like the characters and get a glimpse of their personality.

    And as far as REBECCA goes, it's a gothic. It's slower-paced, well worth the read for the suspense--not the action-adventure. :-)

  16. Leigh, I read The Moonstone decades ago. I'll admit that I don't remember much about the book, but I do remember loving it. That probably means it's time to re-read it (after I finish reading Rebecca).

    Bobbi, I don't love everything about Save the Cat--the tone can get too snide for my taste--but I find parts of it very useful, including the Save the Cat concept and Chapter Four's discussion of plot structure. As for Rebecca, I love suspense, and I don't require action and adventure--the Rabbi Small books don't have an ounce of either. It's just that, most of the time, I need a reason to like and admire the protagonist. I'm sure I'll find plenty of reasons in the chapters to come.

  17. Bonnie, I recently mentioned Save the Cat to an aspiring crime writer, and he went right out and read it. I also tell my writing students about it. I think many of us, unconsciously, incorporate save the cat scenes into our opening chapters because we instinctively understand about the importance of attaching readers to our characters. But it is good to be reminded. And just maybe I do this in part because years ago, when I first started writing my Thea Kozak series, I gave her two excellent literary Godparents--Sara Paretsky and Dick Francis. They've served her well over the years.

    Great post.

    Kate Flora

  18. Thanks, Kate--it's good to hear from you. I've recommended Save the Cat to aspiring writers, too, and they've all said they've found it helpful--partly, I think, because Snyder's advice is so specific and concrete. And I'm glad you mentioned Dick Francis. It's been a while since I've read one of his novels, but I always thought he did an excellent job of using his opening pages to show us that his protagonists are trustworthy and competent.


  19. Bonnie, I'd never heard of the "Save the Cat" idea, but it has now been tattooed into a corner of my mind, and it will pop out whenever I start a new story. Thanks for posting this.

  20. Earl, I'm glad the concept sounds interesting to you. It's definitely been helpful to me.

  21. Terrific post! Catching up here on some back reading, and so glad I caught this one!


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