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More Ways to Save the Cat!

By on August 4, 2008 in About the Beats, Today's Blog

Of the principles spelled out in the Save the Cat! ouevre, none is more important than its namesake. “Save the Cat!” is one of many catch phrases we employ for identifying common tricks in storytelling and communication that we inherently sense — and now can put a term to.

The “Save the Cat!” beat in any movie, novel, or story is that moment when we meet its hero and he does something “nice” — like save a cat — that makes us like him and want to root for him.

It is, I’m finding, a ritualistic turning point, a truly magical event when we in the audience “step into the shoes” of, and become, the hero.  And because of that, his story now becomes our story.

Though it doesn’t have to be that bald a moment, it must be considered in any type of communication —  in a 30-second commercial, a political ad, a YouTube short, or even a speech one is giving to an audience.  And we see textbook examples at the movies all the time!

Will Smith “saves a lion cub” in I Am Legend; Steve Carell “pats a dog” in the early moments of the recent Get Smart; and Robert Downey Jr. tries to “save his pals” in the beginning of Ironman.  

The “Save the Cat!” moment is also seen in a 30-second spot for Kentucky Fried Chicken when a harried stay-at-home Dad or Mom, who wants to make a well-balanced meal for the kids — but doesn’t have time to cook —  comes to the rescue with a family fast food favorite; or when a politician cites good deeds done in the service of others; or when a radio talk show host tells his listeners a self-deferential story that compels those listening to “identify,” and thus, stay tuned.

For that very small consideration, we as an audience think: “I’m like that! I’m rooting for him!”

And there are a million more variations on how to do this that aren’t so obvious, too.

There is the “Kill the Cat!” moment I point out in Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies in regard to Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.  When Elle learns that her boyfriend, Warner, is not only not going to ask her to marry him (“I want a Jackie and not a Marilyn”), Elle is essentially smooshed. Up till then, Elle is just verging on annoying, put down for being blonde — and kind of deserving the label! But from this moment on, we want Elle to win. Why? Because we too have been “smooshed” in life and readily identify with wanting to get some sense of justice.

Another method is “Save the Cat! by proxy.” Often a hero in a film will not be likeable on the surface, but there may be someone in his or her circle whom we do trust, who makes a statement of support. In What Women Want, in the introduction of the “ladies man” Mel Gibson plays in that film, there is a sense the narrator can’t help liking this lovable rogue, and by proxy so must we!

There is also “Kill the Cat! by proxy” wherein a not so likeable guy is hated by someone who is worse — and that is its own recommendation for liking an “unlikeable” hero. A classic example of this is found in Pulp Fiction when we meet John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, killers, but made lovable not only by their funny patter, but the fact that there is someone who is worse! Marcellus (Ving Rhames) tossed a fellow hitman off the roof for giving Marcellus’ wife a foot massage. In this universe, we now know, there are degrees of badness, and our guys aren’t the gold medalists.

Recently, in The Dark Knight, I’d argue that the “Save the Cat!” moment comes when we meet Batman, by definition the moodiest and most depressed of superheroes, who is fighting not only criminals, but the citizens of Gotham who hate him and call him a “terrorist.” The caped crusader even runs afoul of Batman lookalikes with guns who are true vigilantes. Poor Batman is so under the thumb of others, so misunderstood, so put down and despised, we expect him to throw in the cowl? But he doesn’t. He is either a glutton for punishment, or maybe worth pulling for?

Heroes like this are worth following for awhile… if only to learn why they do what they do!

As I point out in both books, and hopefully in my workshops, and soon-to-be-available recordings too, the mistake is to not care about this first step in getting any act of communication off the ground. Storytelling is like building a case in court. We start with an audience who knows… nothing.  What do we want them to know? What do we need them to know to keep their interest?  

All stories are like this: an argument, a debate about a particular theme or “moral to the story.” What are we trying to say — and who will be our spokesman?  Whether it’s a classic hero, anti-hero, non-human hero (WALL-E), or even if it’s just us — someone making a speech, or the person trying to get across a point of view in a debate or in court — we must be conscious of an audience who isn’t standing in our shoes and must be brought along in order for them to do so.

I’d be interested in any new ways to embrace the “Save the Cat!” moment. As storytellers, communicators, and proclaimers of opinion, any time we can share an insight we all benefit.

And there is always a new way to skin… or save… a cat!

P.S. A quick note of thanks to everyone at the Romance Writers of America conference this weekend! I’d especially like to thank Erin Fry who arranged for my appearance, Jenny Gardiner (author of the hilarious Sleeping with Ward Cleaver) who introduced me and was the moderator for my event, Nina Bruhns (author of the award winning Night Mischief) who helped me prepare my presentation, and all the deee-lightful writers who made me feel so at home! It was great fun!

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About the Author: Read about Blake here. .

There Are 14 Comments

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  1. shanelaporte says:

    It’s also fascinating when you have the antagonist in the story have a “Save The Cat” moment. It makes the bad guy that much more complex, and makes us think… “that guy’s just like us… and yet…”

    It’s also interesting how just a choice in casting can make all the difference. One writer friend of mine is convinced that only Jack Nicholson could’ve made Melvin in “As Good As It Gets” work for the audience right from the get-go, just because – hey, it’s Jack! Jim Carey also seems to play unlikable characters (at first) whom we seem to like right from the start — even though eventually they have their own save-the-cat moments by the end of the first act.

  2. Sue B says:

    I’ve noticed that some movies use ‘kick the dog’ moments to create unlikeability towards the antagonists. For example, in Trading Spaces, the first time we see Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason), the Dukes’ mole, he’s yanking an innocent person out of a phone booth. Right from the get go, we know this guy’s a jerk.

  3. Scott W says:

    I agree with Sue – because screenwriter’s show and don’t tell, when the villain is introduced we like to see him doing something bad – like the Joker making the pencil “disappear.”
    Blake, you said “we must be conscious of an audience who isn’t standing in our shoes and must be brought along in order for them to do so” … and after we do show them what they need to know, I also try to remember not to belabor the point either, a common script “filler.”

  4. James says:

    The Dark Knight is actually making fun of your “Save The Cat” theory. Or what is typically called the “pat the dog” scene.

    He snaps a dog’s neck and tosses it off a parking structure.

    Goyer knows his screenwriting and structure. And he’s inverting it.

    I agree that every movie needs this “scene.” But for different reason. I LIKE Batman because he snaps a dog’s neck. That’s my “pat the dog” scene.

    In this every changing world where the audience is much more savvy about movies, we like not being pandered to.

  5. Scott W says:

    One could argue that Batman’s STC moment is simply donning the costume; it’s very reason for being (and Batman’s reason for being) is to save the people of Gotham, its cats and its non-lethal canines.

  6. Kat says:

    Recordings????? When????? And how do I get them????

  7. Michael says:

    Recordings? Yes, I’d like a copy. I’m sure they’ll be verrrry affordable. 🙂

  8. Blake says:

    These are great comments guys! I am using James’ fantastic insight, and all of your brilliant thoughts on this vital storytelling convention, in my next speech — which will be Final Draft’s “Take A Meeting” here in Los Angeles on September 6. As to recordings, we are going “into the studio” this weekend, and will be putting those up in the store ASAP. We’ve been asked for these for a while now and our motto here at Cat! Central is: Ask and you shall receive!

  9. Bruce says:

    Always enjoy your blog, Blake.

    Shouldn’t “kill the cat” refer to the villain (or other baddie) doing the opposite of “saving the cat?” What old-time writers called “kicking the dog” as opposed to “petting the dog?”

    What you described as “kill the cat,” Aristotle called “undeserved misfortune.” The more we heap misfortune on a character, as long as they don’t deserve it, the more we will like them. A good way to turn your villain into an anti-hero is to show the undeserved misfortune that drove him to his villainy.

    Dark Knight is filled with Undeserved Misfortune, BTW.

  10. Bobby J says:

    Scott & Sue:

    How about Darth Vader’s entrance in “Star Wars: A New Hope”? He boards Leia’s “diplomatic vessel”, lifts a guy with one arm by the throat, interrogates him, chokes him, then tosses him aside. That might actually be a “kicking the crap out of the dog” moment.

  11. Hey Blake! Great fun meeting you. LOVED your discussion at RWA Nationals. Everyone was talking about it the rest of the conference as THE best workshop of the week. Thanks!

  12. Salvador Rubio Salvador Rubio says:

    I find that there’s another kind of save the cat moment, which we could define as “the talented cat”. It’s that moment in many movies where the protagonist is presented doing something that impresses us, refering to his talents or abilities. I remember the movie “Point Break” where Keanu Reeves’ character was so dull in the start of the movie that a scene was added in credits where he did a perfect shooting exercise, so that we know that he’s a sharp shooter, therefore a talented cop and likable guy.

    The funny thing about this “talented cat” is that it works equal for the bad guy. When you show a bad guy displaying his talents, you immediately find him bad, but at the same time so fascinating that you “like” him. The best example I can find is Hannibal Lecter, who impresses us with his ability to read Sterling’s past in her appearance.

    What do you think?

  13. Scott W says:

    William Goldman tells the story of Paul Newman’s “Harper”: the filmmakers discovered late in the process that they needed an STC moment; on the fly, Goldman wrote the scene that plays over the opening credits where Newman’s bleary-eyed character, desperate for a cup of joe in the morning, discovers he’s out of coffee/filters. He looks in the trash and squinches up his face as he rescues yesterday’s soggy filter as a solution to the problem. Goldman says he knew right then the audience would follow Harper anywhere.
    This scene gets echoed in Adam Carolla’s “The Hammer” where a desperate caffeine craving leads his character to his wife’s tampon box… Cut to: him enjoying a cup of coffee. Spoiler: She leaves him shortly after, not sure why. 😉

  14. martin says:

    Here’s a twist – In “To Kill a Mockingbird”, when Attius shoots the dog, he actually saves the cat. 🙂 Pretty cool.

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