How a cat can save a novel

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Authors might have heard of the Save the Cat method of story development.  Save the Cat is a popular screenwriting book that loves index cards as a plot tool. Blake Synder codified the structure of making a screenplay that attracts us to a hero. That hero must do something when we first meet them, so that we like them and want them to win.

There are 15 beats that a story uses in the Save the Cat method. There’s also a fine book that applies this method to writing a novel. In Save the Cat Writes a Novel, Jessica Brody shows us how.

The whole Cat concept of a beat sheet works with any kind of book with a story we dream up. A beat sheet for A Christmas Carol is a great way to see how “Bad Guys Close In” applies to the Bob Crachit dilemma.

I’ve worked with a novelist who believed hard in the Cat’s rules. We decided her book was a Whydunit, one of the ten genres that provide a category for nearly every story. In that Whydunit genre, the hero solves a mystery and learns something shocking about the dark side of human nature.

Save the Cat Writes a Novel is thick with process, instruction, and advice. Like Wired for Story (Lisa Cron) or Story (Robert McKee), this is a book you read while you’re developing your early draft, shaping it into a solid, beta-reader-ready manuscript. You won’t get it all right, but enough of it will succeed that you’re inspired to keep plugging away.

Saving the cat can be simple, at the start of a story. In the crime thriller movie Sea of Love, Al Pacino is a detective stalking a criminal, and he finds his quarry on a Saturday morning. He knows the crook is a baseball card lover. Except Pacino sees the man with a son in tow at the card show. Not wanting to arrest him in front of the boy, Pacino strolls by and says hello. Then he adds as he leaves, “Catch ya later.” We like Pacino’s restraint in the moment and we’re on his side after that scene.

About Cats and plot

Plot is the enemy of character. At least that’s the advice you can find throughout the writing world, usually delivered by authors and instructors who have whipped a plot into shape so they could finish a novel.

The trouble with this advice: while plot might be the enemy, we still long for something interesting to happen in a story. Yes, you can can find novels, some a bit successful, where not much happens throughout 300 or more pages. But the best tales give your well-crafted characters something notable to do, experience or endure. It might be as simple as losing a dog. It might be as epic as discovering a secret government plot to experiment on virus victims.

You are at the right moment to craft such plot points once you know your characters well. But after you know your people, shuffling their story about can take place on, well, index cards. It’s now well into the 21st Century, but these are still tools that the pros use, in some form or another.

I used colored index plot cards for Viral Times, my novel about a government plot during a pandemic. They were the second generation of the plot, standing on the shoulders of a simple Word file written in outline mode. Each color represents a Point of View, for a chapter or simply a scene. After I write the action, I note a goal for the scene or chapter. They have changed in order, expanded — and some have even been scrapped.

There are good tools out there for plotting with the index card. Go ahead, visit Office Depot and make your writing more clear. Use Post-Its in colors instead of cards, if you like, but go old-school to plot.

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