I heard “Save the Cat” mentioned at various workshops and lectures, and I finally broke down and got a copy. The title refers to it being okay to have a bad guy be the protagonist if he saves a cat in the first act. It was originally written for playwriting and breaks down the three acts into separate scenes and categorizes what should take place in each scene.
It’s much too analytical and removes much of the joy of writing for me. For example, the first act consists of the following scenes: Opening Image, Theme Stated, Setup, Catalyst, and Debate. Each scene is broken down into “beats” (called that to mirror the theater origins). There are numerous examples, such as Harry Potter and Katniss, to define and show how the opening image is used. In fact, there are too many examples of each beat. Why use four or six when one would do? There is a nice spoiler alert at the beginning of each chapter telling you which novels are discussed in that chapter, but most are skimmable.
Each act is broken down into specific scenes that need to be there to “solve all of your plotting problems.” There’s even a percentage to show you where that action needs to take place in your novel. Each scene is defined, shown multitudinous examples, and given an exercise. I was surprised after delving into the details of each beat in each scene for three acts that the first third of the book was over. What was in the rest of the book?
Then, we’re introduced into the writing genres and how these labels apply specifically to each of them. Like dissecting the novel into named components, the genres are a little strange. Topics include: Whodunit, Rites of Passage, Institutionalized, Superhero, Dude with a Problem, Fool Triumphant, Buddy Love, Out of the Bottle, Golden Fleece, and Monster in the House. These seem more like movie genres than novel genres. I’m used to Crime, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, etc.
After describing what these genre terms mean, the book goes into detail on which of the dozen scenes are needed for that particular story. Again, using examples and definitions, that fills up the middle third of the book. The remainder is practical information such as how to pitch a story, write a synopsis, and finally, what point of view to use (?).
I couldn’t do all this beat tracking while I was writing. I might be able to use the beat checklist when rewriting to ensure that I had all the components I needed for a best-seller, but I think this analysis would be better served AFTER the writing and not before or during. It would produce pretty lifeless prose if I used the formulas shown here. Yes, I know the author says repeatedly “this is not formulaic” while showing you the formula. If it quacks like a duck…
I wouldn’t recommend this to a beginning writer.