Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

I’ve been told Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody, is life-changing. People swear by the beat sheet she recommends, with 15 points that will nail down your novel and make it better. And the author herself oversells it constantly, claiming that her 15 beats are in almost every popular novel ever and will solve all your problems.

I got a lot of insights from it, but I wasn’t convinced of its grand claims. You can look up the beat sheet yourself, if you haven’t read the book. You can see that it’s based on a three-act structure, which isn’t my favorite. The thing about three-act structure is that it leaves you with the hardest part, the middle, entirely unstructured. They always leave you with something like “insert complications here.” This book alleviates that somewhat by giving you a few points to break up act two, but it still leaves you with entire “beats” with a quarter of the book to fill in. That’s the part I was looking for help with, but really I got a lot more help from five-act structure.

There was a great deal of helpful stuff about the third act, the end. I like the idea of making sure there is a point near the end where “all is lost” and the character realizes it’s their own fault. I have noticed my idol, Lois McMaster Bujold, generally has a part like that. And the “Five-Point Finale” is pretty neat–though perhaps a bit too specific to work for every novel. It seems about right for an action novel, though, and that’s what I write.

But as for the act-one stuff, I’m skeptical. She recommends spending the whole first 10% of the story on setup, which just seems too much. You’re supposed to really spell out how unsatisfactory the hero’s starting state is, with scene upon scene showing them failing in the different areas of their life. That seems like a surefire way to get your book put back on the shelf before the reader is done with the first two chapters. And after that, there’s a catalyst, an inciting incident, and then we are supposed to blow another 10% of the novel on having the character debate about whether to accept the challenge or not! That might work for some novels, but in others, the hero is thrust into the quest without any real choice. And some heroes just aren’t that hesitant. Anyway, 25% of the novel before any of the real action starts seems too much. That’s an advantage of the five-act structure–it keeps most of the meat in the middle.

However, I caught the author secretly using the five-act structure a little bit. She says she begins writing with just five beats: Catalyst, Break into 2, Midpoint, Break into Three, and All is Lost. I think it might be useful for any author to study her method and then use just those beats. Then they can add any of the others they find helpful.

The real heart of the Save the Cat! method seems to be focused on the theme. She teaches you how to find a character’s flaw, what they want, and what they really need, and that’s the theme–your character’s change from their beginning state to their ending state, as a person. That’s really valuable; I agree with the author that the best stories have a clear theme going on. However, that’s not the part I really have a problem outlining. I generally have the theme pretty clear, it’s a matter of coming up with what practically is going to happen. And this book, for the most part, isn’t going to help with that.

And I feel that it comes down a little heavy on theme. I like themes that are a little bit subtle. She has you have a character say it straight out in act one, and your hero ignore it. Then the entire plot hinges on your character learning the lesson–they will fail to solve the problem until they reach a moment of transformation, and then they’ll be able to fix it because they’re finally going about it the right way. But I can think of lots of great books that don’t happen that way at all. Mysteries, for instance, rarely do, especially if the detective is a recurring character. He can’t completely transform as a person every crime he solves. And Moana, which is my idea of a completely perfect story? Moana doesn’t really change at all. From the very beginning she’s really set on going beyond the reef and restoring the heart of Te Fiti, and that’s what she does.

Would I recommend this book to others? Yes, I would. It’s worth a read, especially if you have trouble writing theme or planning out how your character will change over the course of a story. But am I going to use the beat sheet to plot out my novels from now on? No. I tried it just now with my work in progress, and while I did find it helpful to work out my hero’s flaw, want, and need, after that I felt like I was wrestling the story into a framework that didn’t really fit. Why do I need to introduce a B character at the beginning of the second act? Why should I bore my not-yet-committed reader with a ton of setup and debating before [redacted] even happens?

If you’re having trouble working out your theme or outlining your plot, check out this book and see if it helps. But if it doesn’t, there are lots of other good writing advice books. Each one may hide a helpful gem or two.