Save The Cat! and Root for Your Hero

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If you’re a writer like me, you might have heard about “Save the Cat”.  What is it?  Before I explain, first I must share with you a picture of Clawde who was my cat I got a week before meeting my lovely wife Pamela, and then he became our cat till he passed in 2013. 

Okay, now that the obligatory cute kitty picture has been presented, I can continue with this blog post.

“Save the Cat” is the title of a book on screenwriting written by Blake Snyder.  It’s mainly a theory of screenplay structure with specific “story beats” that help a screenwriter map out their story. 

Like all books on screenplay structure, it can be a useful tool to help you map out your plot, but you shouldn’t rely on it as “gospel truth”.

Now, if you’re a novelist, you might think that the “Save the Cat” structure doesn’t apply.  For the most part, that’s right.  This article isn’t about story structure — instead, I’m touching on a specific point of the book as it relates to how to make your readers root for your protagonist. 

Blake Snyder came up with the book’s title as a metaphor for having your hero do something kind at the beginning of the story so that the audience roots for them…like literally saving a cat. 

In an earlier blog post, I detailed how to make your protagonist more relatable and likeable.  This method is another way to build audience empathy for your main character. 

Have your protagonist do something positive that shows their true character at the beginning of your story.  Unless your story arc for them has them changing from an unsavory type to more compassionate, as Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol does with Ebenezer Scrooge. 

It’s true that this “Save the Cat” motif happens more often in movies and TV shows, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use it in your short story or novel.  Some examples in recent movies and TV series include Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the controversial Squid Game.

In The Force Awakens, we are introduced to Rey, a scavenger living on the desert planet of Jakku.  She spends her days collecting scrap which she trades for food to a nefarious junk dealer.  Earlier in the movie, the droid BB-8 is separated from his human companion Poe Dameron and wanders through the desert.  Rey encounters the droid and BB-8 follows her back to the junk shop where the dealer offers her a much larger ration of food if she’ll trade the droid.  Though tempted, Rey refuses to give BB-8 over, giving us an insight into her character.  It’s her “Save the Cat” moment (or “Save the Droid”, more accurately.)

In Squid Game, the main protagonist Gi-Hun has a gambling problem.  He lives with his mother and squanders their limited funds on horse racing and other gambling, putting him in a dangerous position with the local loan sharks who threaten his life if he doesn’t pay his debts.  He’s not that likeable of a character and the danger is that we won’t care about his fate as everything he does seems to invite his misfortune. 

The mother of his childhood friend (who owns a fish stand) gives Gi-Hun some mackerel to take home so he and his mother can have dinner.  On the way, he finds a stray cat that’s starving.  Without pondering, he shares the mackerel with the cat, literally having a “Save the Cat” moment!  I wonder if the South Korean filmmakers were inspired by Blake Snyder’s book? 

At any rate, it’s worth considering using this technique to build sympathy for your main character, especially if there’s not much about them that is likeable at their introduction.

Have a safe and Happy Holiday Season!  Happy Writing!