You may be familiar with the seven-point story structure or the classic hero’s journey, but have you ever heard of “Save the Cat”? With a classic three-act set-up as a base, “Save the Cat” offers fifteen plot beats to help authors navigate the expanse between the first and third act. Originally created for screenplays by Blake Snyder, it can just as easily be applied to fiction writing as it covers the fundamentals of good storytelling. If you’re not familiar with the 15 components of this structure, check out this Save the Cat Beat Sheet.
In this article, I’ll break down exactly what effect this structure aims to create, and offer four reasons why every author should try to “save the cat” in their own writing.
1. It makes readers instantly root for the hero
Originally, Snyder used the idea of “saving the cat” to describe that decisive moment early on in a story when the protagonist wins the audience over and demonstrates that they are worth rooting for. Having the protagonist do something heroic or admirable—like risk their own life to save a cat from a burning building—is an effective way of achieving this. I mean, who wouldn’t root for a selfless and heroic animal lover? Of course, it could be much more subtle than facing imminent danger; the main point is that you clearly show the reader that the protagonist is someone they’re supposed to favor and support off the bat.
From that moment on, you’ll be able to develop the plot of your story and your characters with the comfort of knowing that your readers already want what’s best for them. This classic show-don’t-tell trick will not only draw your reader in quickly, but it will also make it easier for you to elicit emotional reactions and create high stakes later on in the story as your protagonist faces inevitable hardships.
2. It allows you to meet (or subvert) reader expectations
“Save the Cat” taps into a familiar and comforting way of telling stories that most readers will intuitively recognize and enjoy. And while some argue that the fifteen beats make for formulaic and predictable writing, it can actually give you a lot of freedom to both meet and play around with reader expectations.
Let’s take the classic enemies to lovers trope in romance novels: predictability is a staple ingredient of the genre and this familiar structure allows you to really lean into situational irony, as everyone but the characters themselves know that they’ll end up together. With that said, there’s nothing that says that you have to adhere to these expectations religiously just because you’re using a familiar structure. In fact, you can use the fact that your readers will begin to expect a certain outcome to execute an exciting plot twist that readers won’t see coming.
3. It helps your writing stay sharp and balanced
Many pantsers who start out with a great premise but no plan on how to execute it end up falling down one too many rabbit holes during the writing process, losing the plot completely. With a fifteen-beat structure to follow, there’s no room for such dilly-dallying; you’re going to have to keep things pretty snappy to get from point A to point B in a timely manner, or you’ll end up with a veritable door stopper.
With that said, there’s still room for exploration and creativity within a “Save the Cat” structure. There’s a small but significant difference between being lost and exploring with purpose and “Save the Cat” helps you stay on the right side of that fence by forcing you to actively think about what you want to achieve in each part of your story, and sticking to the topic at hand. This keeps your writing concise and gives the reader an impression of being in the safe hands of someone who knows what they’re doing.
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4. It can help you get over the fear of the white page
Writing a full-length novel can often feel like a monumental task—especially if you’re new to writing longer fiction. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the prospect of the white page or you’re stuck trying to reinvent the storytelling wheel, “Save the Cat” can boost your writing confidence by breaking your writing project down into manageable chunks. Dividing your story up into seemingly separate, smaller parts can be hugely helpful because it allows you to schedule more tangible tasks and goals that you can check-off along the way, creating a sense of steady progression in your writing process.
Once all of the parts are ready, you’ll still need to put them together into a seamless novel, but “Save the Cat” can be a helpful way to get over that mental stumbling block and realize that you don’t have to write the whole novel in one go—you just need to write it one piece at a time.
With fifteen detailed beats to hit, “Save the Cat” provides a recipe that many authors swear by when it comes to putting together a delicious story. But make no mistake: “Save the Cat” is no fool-proof, copy-paste solution that guarantees success; it’s up to you to come up with story ideas and plot beats that are unique and riveting enough to convince literary agents that you’ve written the next bestseller.
Rose Atkinson-Carter writes about writing and publishing at Reedsy—a website that connects authors with publishing professionals and gives tips on a wide range of topics, such as how to publish a book on Amazon or how to write query letters.