If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that one of my favorite books on writing is Save the Cat (and it’s not even a WD book, so you know I’m telling the truth). SAVE THE CAT is a modern-day look at structure and story, written by screenwriter Blake Snyder, a wonderful man who passed away recently at the much-too-young age of 52.
So why is the book called Save the Cat? One of Snyder’s most basic points is that we (readers) must like the character we’re following. If we see the protagonist do something kind or admirable in the first few minutes/pages, then we will like him. And if we like him, we follow his story and root for him to succeed in getting what he wants.
I recently read some pages from a novel-in-progress. I had some typical notes: “This is good … this doesn’t work … cut, cut, cut.” But the big point was that the protagonist was unlikable. When we first meet the main character, they seem annoyed, and in the middle of a frustrating relationship. We cannot be introduced to characters like this, because why would we keep following a character that is constantly agitated and generally unhappy? We need to root for them, and that’s what the Save the Cat moment is all about. So let’s look at some movies and identify early Save the Cat moments.
Sandra Bullock is on a sting to catch a mobster. When agents ID themselves and hold the mobster at gunpoint, he starts to choke. But is he really choking, or is it a ruse? It’s not clear. None of the male agents move, but Sandra scurries in to help the choking man. She cares; she has compassion. That’s a perfect Save the Cat moment.
This movie is essentially about three guys trying to find a fourth guy who’s lost just before his wedding day. So which one of the three is the main character? The answer: None. The main character is actually Doug, the groom-to-be who’s lost. The Save the Cat moment is very early when he invites his new wacky stepbrother, Alan, to Vegas, even though he doesn’t have to. This makes us like Doug. And if we like him, then we root for him to succeed. To succeed means to get married. To do that, we root for his friends to find him in time for his wedding. Save the Cat.
A few years ago, a screenwriter re-envisioned the Robin Hood legend as told from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s point of view. In this (unproduced) screenplay, the story begins with a battle. Meanwhile, underground, an Army Leader (actually the sheriff: our protagonist) is leading troops through tunnels for some kind of surprise attack. He stops for a moment to address his men, only to see that instead of looking at him, they’re all staring at something else. It’s the bucket of water he’s holding. It’s clear that they’re parched. He takes off his own helmet and pours some water in it, instructing them to pass the helmet around and take one sip a piece. The whole thing takes about 7 seconds, and it makes us like this man. Save the Cat.
Sea of Love
I’ve never seen this movie, but this is the film where Blake Snyder identifies a perfect Save the Cat moment. At the beginning, Al Pacino, a cop, is arresting New York criminals who arrive at a location thinking they’re going to meet some Yankees. When Pacino sees that the next approaching criminal has his young son in tow, Pacino makes himself visible, showing his badge. The criminal sees this, and tells his son that there’s been a change of plans, walking away. Pacino says “… Catch you later.” This is great. It shows Pacino is a tough cop but willing to give this criminal a break because of the kid, but the criminal is not off the hook. Save the Cat.
Recognize other Save the Cat moments in film or books? Let me know.
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