So I’ve Been Reading “Save The Cat Writes A Novel”

And I love it.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to enjoy it. In fact, the tagline “the last book on novel writing you’ll ever need” puts me off so much (and is so objectively untrue) that I’m squirming at even writing this post, but ultimately I feel like I need to.

I haven’t read enough books on craft, but I frequently read blogs and theories and watch lectures in regard to plotting, character development, symbolism, voice, all that good stuff. But Save The Cat Writes A Novel really gets down to the bones. It might be my own bias, but I do believe one thing: there is only one story, and it’s your job as a writer of novels to tell that story in an interesting way. Even if you disagree with that, though, this book could still really help you.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing in Save The Cat I didn’t already know. Not to be a pompous ass or anything, but this book isn’t revolutionary; it’s not full of the deep, dark secrets of literary masters (no book is because those don’t really exist), and it won’t suddenly force you into epiphany after epiphany (probably, I mean you might have one, I certainly did). It’s instead full of all the stuff that, as a storyteller, you probably already know deep down in your soul because that’s the thing about stories and the human brain–we know intrinsically, as both a creator and a consumer, when they work.

That’s what I mean by “there’s nothing in here I didn’t already know.” I knew this stuff in my base, cavewoman, primordial brain. Every couple lines I was like “yup, duh!” but there’s something about seeing it all laid out so cleanly that sort of slaps you in the face. In a good way.

Stories aren’t complex, not at their foundation. There once was a person who wanted something, so they tried to go get it, but found, through trying, what they actually needed. That’s every good story. Ever. This piece of wisdom is the foundation of the book, and it was something I already believed (so again, my bias is showing), but Save The Cat helped me to see it more fully, and it made it possible for me to boil it down to a single sentence. That was the epiphany I had, that was the “everything’s coming together” moment in reading it. Not that good stories are actually that single sentence, of course: good stories are full of love and turmoil and dragons. But they are, at their core, the satisfaction of what that single sentence represents. Good stories are about a hero changing.

Jessica Brody, the author, has a conversational style to her writing, so it’s an easy read. It also feels too easy at points, like it’s a very surface self-help book with too many exclamation points and italics (not that I’m not guilty of my own annoying voice), but it kind of doesn’t matter what the delivery system is in this case since this isn’t a novel. The theory she’s trying to get across to you is the most important, and she could be singing it off-key and in the style of Dan Brown (well, okay, maybe not that), but it’d still be worth the read.

Most importantly, Brody doesn’t skimp on examples which are, I believe, the heart of explaining any concept. In fact, the book is mostly examples. The first two chapters are higher-order theory (though not that high-order, it’s still all very practical), and the next ten go on to break down different types of stories with hella examples, and then one long breakdown for each of the ten types where she goes through the entire plot of a book and shows the “beats” at work.

The “beats” are, of course, what the theory Brody puts forward in the book is all about. That’s the part you’ll see all over the internet in diagrams and breakdowns. Every story has more or less 15 beats, at specific times along the plot, that must occur. The order can be a little muddled, the definition of some of them can be changed, but for the most part, they exist in every piece of storytelling media that is enjoyable. Some of Brody’s examples are novels that are critically acclaimed, some of them are…not…but every one is popular, so you know they work.

Popular =/= good, we all know this, but…maybe it does? I mentioned Dan Brown because Brody references The Da Vinci Code a few times (and I think she even alludes to his taste being questionable), but the story itself hits the beats. I saw the movie, and I enjoyed it–the story does have the makings of what a good story needs. I tried to read the book, and it was hot garbage. But lots and lots of people still enjoyed it, and they’re more than allowed to. But I think they enjoy it in spite of it’s poor writing because the plotting is good.

That’s why Save The Cat Writes A Novel is not the “last book on novel writing you’ll ever need,” and that’s also why I’ll say this book could be super dangerous for writers who think that’s all there is to it. Actual writing is a billion other things than what’s covered in this book, but this book gets to the heart of storytelling, and it lays down the concrete slab that is your story’s foundation. (I’d argue that studying psychology and human nature are the basement, but that’s a whole other thing.)

So, yeah, read it if you’re a writer. I can almost guarantee you’ll get use out of it, it will stick with you, and it will become one of your most-used reference tools. It’s easy to get bogged down researching how to find your voice, how to produce more words, how to utilize zeugma and synecdoche and irony, but none of those things matter without the plot, and that’s where you gotta start.

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