If you haven’t read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, you should – right now. It’s a reference written primarily for screen writers but the guidelines also work for other writers. In a nut shell, the premise is that within the first few minutes of a movie (or pages of a book) the hero needs to do something significant to make us align with and like him.
The hero saves the cat or he calls home or he brings flowers to mom or he get up so that an older woman can sit down – you get the idea, he has to do something that humanizes him and that immediately puts us in his court. We like him because he took the time to do something we would consider doing.
In movies (and TV) this is particularly important. Take a look at this trailer for House of Cards season 1 (where it was paramount that we immediately like the main character.) Frank Underwood is a sly fox, he’s part of political Washington. We shouldn’t trust a word he says, BUT because once we see that he is addressing *us* directly in the very beginning of the show (literally minutes), we realize that we’re being treated as a confidant. He’s letting us in on the joke.
We trust one of the most devious characters in recent TV history, because he saved the cat – in a big way. He addressed us directly and now we feel like we are part of a secret club. As devious as Frank behaves, we know that he will always be honest with us.
That inauguration scene knocks House of Cards out of the ball park. Frank Underwood, not only saved the cat, but he personally bankrolled the entire Humane Society.
We love him. We’re on team Frank.
Go back to some of the movies you’ve loved over the years. Watch only the first few minutes and see if you can figure out where the cat is saved.
And then, try to translate that action into your writing. No matter what your work is (with the exception of non-fiction how-to) you’ll need to humanize your hero. If it’s a romance, we need to see that the hero may be clumsy but he’s got a soft heart. If you’ve got a memoir, establish up front how people can connect to you, use an example of a time when you stumbled and by the end of the story, correct that stumble to show people how you’ve grown. Same rules apply to any fiction (YA, Romance, mystery, etc) give us a reason to care about your hero and then give us a reason to put ourselves in his shoes. Make us like your character.
Saving the cat is one of those little tools that is so subtle, you may not even catch it the first time you see it, but if you learn to recognize the technique, then like buying a new car, pretty soon, you’ll start seeing that exact model all over the place.
Once seen, trust me, you won’t be able to unsee it.
Feel free to share any “Save the Cat” moments from favorite movies or books in the comments.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.