Save the Cat! meets Claude Lévi-Strauss

Photo by Christelle Hayek on Unsplash

Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! offers a blueprint for screenwriters on how to draft a successful film script. Drawing on his experience as a screenwriter in Hollywood, the book outlines a ‘beat sheet’ that describes the different points and pacing in many winning films. Somewhat later, Jessica Brody transformed the insights into a craft book for novel writing called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Now, her book includes a similar ‘beat sheet’, and she categorises novels based on the underlying theme in the story. Examples include a rite-of-passage story, or a ‘buddy love’ account of two lovers or friends getting closer to one another.

In the first half of this blog post, I’ll briefly summarise the ideas in the book and then at the end I’ll critique it.

The Idea behind Save the Cat!

The Save the Cat! beat sheet is based on the idea that good stories are character driven. They typically feature a ‘flawed hero’ and a narrative that takes us through that hero’s transformation as they overcome this character flaw. Of course, the path to this transformation is strewn with conflicts and obstacles.

The phrase Save the Cat! is a reference to what you should do in the opening scenes of a novel so that the reader gets behind and wants to root for the protagonist. If this person has some incredibly dislikeable qualities then this scene is especially important. So, if a grumpy, stingy old man living alone goes downstairs and saves a cat stuck in the tree by his front porch, then we are more likely to take an interest in his story and see what happens next.

I won’t cover *every* part of the beat sheet here, but you should get the idea:

The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet

Opening + setting upIntroducing the protagonist, setting, etc. (p.s. lots of worldbuilding happens here!)
CatalystSomething happens that shifts the protagonist’s perception with respect to their flaw. They become more aware of it and try to fix it.
Fun and GamesIn this section, which is often quite long, we explore the world/setting and the protagonist tries to fix the problem the wrong way (still quite a bit of worldbuilding going on here).
MidpointSomething happens that raises the stakes.
Bad guys close inThe story flips. If things have going bad so far, there is an upward turn in the protagonist’s fortunes; if the journey so far has generally been upward, the direction here is negative (from now on, there is probably not much worldbuilding going on).
All is lostThe protagonist is as far as possible from reaching their goal.
Dark night of the soulThe protagonist hits rock bottom.
Final actsSomething shifts; the protagonist may recall something useful and undergoes the promised transformation; battles with enemies ensue as we move towards an ending.

If you want to see the beat sheet in more detail, take a look here. Or buy the book.

Many popular films and novels follow this structure. Indeed, as Brody points out, many of the most commercially successful films and novels follow the structure to the letter.

Are there only ten kinds of story?

In the second half of the book, Jessica Brody teaches the reader the beat sheet effectively, by exploring it through ten different genres that she says make up almost all the possible kinds of story out there. Of course, it’s true that many novels will contain several of these elements, e.g. people trying to solve problems and form relationships. But it’s the central focus of the novel that makes it one genre or another. I’ve listed them in the table below with an example for each.

The genres

NameA novel about…Example
Whydunita secret; it usually includes someone in the role of a detective who does not change, and a dark turn that changes our perspective on the events coveredThe Girl on the Train
Superherosomeone who has extraordinary powersHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Dude with a Problema person trying to solve an immediate and usually big problemThe Hunger Games
Buddy Lovethe making and breaking of a friendship or romantic relationship. ‘Will they or won’t they’ is the big question hereTwilight
Institutionaliseda character weighing up the costs of being a member of a certain institution. It usually ends in them (i) becoming a part of it (ii) getting out of it or (iii) destroying the institutionThe Help
Fool Triumphantan underdog – a fool who wins against all oddsBridget Jones’s Diary
Out of the Bottlea magical intervention in the protagonist’s life that serves to teach them an important lessonA Christmas Carol
Monster in the Houseovercoming a monster in a confined space (real or metaphorical – this could be a house or even the world in a movie about a pandemic). There is usually some kind of sin involved (this marks it as different from a Dude with a Problem story)Frankenstein
Golden Fleecea quest; a journey with obstacles on the wayReady Player One
Rites Of Passagea life transition. Often a coming-of-age story, but this applies to other life transitions too.The Kite Runner

In addition, some grand claims are made in the book about almost all stories fitting into these categories. And indeed, many of the themes deal with human universals like the need to belong, the fact of growing up etc.

But what if we flip this around and view Save the Cat! as a cultural artefact?

Cultural anthropologists debated this years ago….

Once upon a time (well, in 1978), the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, wrote a book called Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture. In this book, moreover, he attempted to break down myths found across the range of human societies into repeating elements that joined together, which he called mythemes. These are, for instance, like discrete musical notes on a piano that can be combined in different ways to produce different songs (stories). For the linguists among you, this idea is incredibly similar to Noam Chomsky’s claims about a universal grammar.

Yet, are grammar and narrative both hardwired into the human mind? The evidence points to a yes for grammar, but a no for narrative. This is because context can change the meaning of an element in a story much more deeply than it can change a single grammatical unit.

Yet even if Levi-Strauss’s ‘scientific’ approach to myth has been discounted now, it still gives us an exciting methodology that can be applied to the study of myths (and other stories). And Jessica Brody’s book and the Save the Cat! beat sheets do this too.

Flipping Save the Cat!

We can flip things around and say that the premise of a character-driven novel based on conflict and transformation, with an emphasis on the boundary between the protagonist’s external world (the A-story) and their internal world (the B-story) is not a human universal, but specific to Anglo-American writing contexts. Some of them (e.g. Monster in the House) even have Christian themes.

This blueprint or template is incredibly useful, moreover, if your aim is to publish a commercially successful book in English. In other parts of the world, and outside of this domain (e.g. hobbyists or people writing memoirs for family members) other traditions and blueprints exist.

For instance: can you tell a captivating story without a character arc? Yes. One good example is Indiana Jones. More details here.

However, can you tell a captivating story without conflict? Yes again! Here’s a narrative structure without conflict found in many traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean narratives.

Finally, should I read Save the Cat!

Yes! Save the Cat! is an incredibly useful blueprint that many winning films and novels follow. And so, I’d definitely recommend this book for anyone having trouble with character development. This includes myself – when I was drafting a novel for the first time, I was so focused on the worldbuilding, the characters’ personalities, flaws, and conflicts were an afterthought.

I’d also recommend Save the Cat! for writers having difficulties with a novel and who are looking for a shift in perspective. But I’d also suggest exercising some caution because there are many different possible ways of writing a novel out there. If you are working in a different tradition or you are not aiming to publisher a commercially successful book, then you may want to think through alternative visions for your manuscript.

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