Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: A Review of the Book, not the Cat

I won’t make you work for it — this book was immediately useful, genuinely interesting, and greatly improved my novel. 

I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I had the uncomfortable feeling I should have studied story structure sooner and that my current WIP was lacking something. I also wanted to be able to articulate plot structure better for my own creative writing students. Save the Cat! helped with both goals. The real aha moment was when I realized my “theme stated” wasn’t actually stated. Yikes. With this clarification, my character went from not knowing what he wanted (not a very interesting goal) to knowing exactly what he wanted while having to learn how to overcome his flaws to get it. It’s been a lengthy process to unravel my novel’s plot points and restructure with Save the Cat!, but it’s been worth it. Even more encouraging is that I’ve been better able to plot the sequel having now internalized this structure. 

Like many books on craft, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, written by Jessica Brody and published in 2018, begins with an introduction that is probably an expendable eleven minutes of your time. (Disclaimer: I listened to the audio version). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel follows the celebrated, highly successful version written originally for screenwriters, and no doubt Brody wanted to frame the “story beat” context and honor the insights of Blake Snyder’s original Save the Cat method.

But you? You’re a busy writer, with barely enough time to perfect your new “stuck at home during the end times” bread-making, ice-cream churning, terrace-hydroponics gardening or essential-oils candle-making skills. Meanwhile, you’re reading a book on craft to motivate yourself to write a novel (perhaps about a bread-making, ice-cream churning housebound superhero) or, more likely, to work through a sticky structure issue. So skip the intro unless you need to be convinced the book will be useful. It will be.  (And hey, besides, haven’t we all been warned dozens of times we’ll never be one of the chosen few agented authors if we dare present them with a prologue? Why then are we reading one?)

Unsurprisingly for me, I digress. Brass tacks time: figuring out how to plot, improve, or edit your novel. 

Summary: Brody structures this book around the now-famous “story beats” which break down how and when certain plot points and thematic events must occur. Brody points out these beats, done successfully, in novel after novel, analyzing classics and recent best sellers from numerous genres. Brody does urge you to listen to the chapters in order, saying that your being stuck somewhere in your writing process is likely the “symptom, not the real ailment,” meaning that you need to understand your character’s arc in order to know how to lead them through events. Brody explains that her book is about “plot, structure, and character transformation,” referring to them as “the holy trinity of story.” The book comes with worksheets and pdfs on “Ten Universal Lessons,” various exercises to make your hero “story-worthy” or brainstorm important aspects of character arc, and of course, the book includes a timeline of the ever-important “story beats.”

I didn’t wholly follow Brody’s advice regarding how to use the book. I read the first several chapters in order, in which the story beats and general principles are discussed, and then starting skipping around to listen to the different genre examples based on my own writing interests. But in the end, I listened to them all, because each genre has something important to teach about novel writing. 

Why this book works: Yes. Save the Cat! breaks down novel-writing into a semi-formula. And this approach, so loudly discouraged in MFA programs and literary circles, can have its drawbacks. Any novel that relies too heavily on formula can lose its fluidity and become staid and predictable. However, the real artistic integrity behind Save the Cat! is that it espouses character over plot, arguing that the structure of a story is woven through a successful combination of both character development and the timely plotting of events that resonate with said development. The examples provided by Brody, with genre breakdowns such as “monster in the house” and “fool triumphant,” are thorough and well-explained, thus helping the reader immediately connect to Brody’s points.

I’m on board. To accompany a character as they transform, to be taken by the hand as they reveal how they became such a perfectly flawed, wonderful, complex bundle of ganglia and neurons and neuroses — that’s why I write. Writing novels is addictive. Magical. Surprising. Transformative. And Save the Cat! proves that while plot matters, it’s the thematic resonance behind each plot point and story beat that makes us care about the protagonist’s story. 

Lastly, and I say this after having taught creative writing for years, the worksheets provide genuinely useful activities and questions for consideration regarding character development. Many books teaching story structure for commercial writers provide such rigid guidelines that they leave little room for actual creativity, thus becoming a parody of themselves as structure guides. Not so with Save the Cat! (Follow me if you’re interested in my upcoming review of the Story Grid). Save the Cat! will teach you how current, commercial novels are being plotted and will surprise you with is consideration of theme.

Sure, each writer has a different need when it comes to a book on craft. If you want something literary and articulate that makes you remember why you want to write, or even exist, try Lamott. If you want a workbook or regular practice to get you writing, try Cameron. If you want an intensive book on line-level craft and devices, try Gardner. And of course, if you just want to read a fascinating memoir about the life of a novelist steeped in the human condition, try King.

You might want to try Save the Cat! if:

You have imposter syndrome about being a novel-writer. After reading this, you’ll know more about structure than many exiting MFA programs. Four years deconstructing the description of a coatrack in Maugham may not always translate into the writing of a satisfying novel that hooks readers. 

You have always wanted to write a novel but haven’t made much progress. Reading this book and following the exercises may well tell you if you’re ready, or even truly interested, in the longer pursuit. If you are ready, you’ll have a path for moving forward. 

You are stuck for ideas/stuck in the middle of your novel. Checking in on where you should be at a certain point in the story, structurally, can often jog your brain and help you rediscover where the energy resides.

You’ve written your novel but suspect the arc and structure need a tune-up. Yup. This was me. I had no trouble writing my last novel, but I knew it did not fulfill a clear arc. STC! helped me see what I was unwilling to admit: my character, though beloved to me, had muddy development on the page. Here’s a link to my revised novel (a dystopian YA about a post-plague world).

You’re thinking about trying NaNoWriMo. This book is a fantastic opportunity to work on story plotting for the week before Nano so that you can hit the ground running (though the NaNoWriMo website also has excellent resources).

Disclaimer: I listened to the audio version of STC!, which included the necessary beat sheets and story exercises as pdfs. The narration, by Brody, was commendably upbeat without being overbearing, and I also give her credit for sounding equally enthusiastic about the lengthy deconstruction of dozens of novels. 

Anti-disclaimer: I am not an affiliate and in no way benefit from your purchase of STC! I’ve been evaluating books on craft for my teaching of college creative writing courses and have been commenting on my findings on my blog. (There you can find reviews of other books on craft and my suggestions on various writing skills such as reducing word count, writing distinctive dialogue, and/or overcoming writers block). 

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