I attended a great writer’s conference in Chicago in June. One of the big takeaways for me from one of the sessions was this: Be aware of the moment your reader will fall in love with your main character, and why. The session leader referred to it as the “saving the cat” moment. When a fireman climbs the tree and saves the cat, he becomes a hero. We want to root for him. We’re engaged and want to see him succeed. When does that happen with our main protagonist?
Blake Snyder, a screenwriter, wrote a famous manual, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, which describes in detail the structure of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The phrase “Save The Cat!” was coined by Snyder to describe a decisive moment when the protagonist does something likeable or nice. His inspiration for this was the movie Alien, where Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley actually saves a cat named Jones. Snyder writes that saving the cat is the scene where we first meet the hero and she gains audience favor and support right from the start. His point is that it’s not as important to make your character cool and sexy as it is to make her likable.
Heroes that are too noble, flat and cartoon-like are boring. Our protagonists can and should be complex characters, filled with flaws and weaknesses. This makes them human and relatable, but it can also make them hard to get close to. The protagonist Paul in my novel, for example, is not exactly a warm and fuzzy guy. He suffers from difficulties in making and hanging onto relationships. He is by nature bumbling. He mistakes people’s meaning and does things that can antagonize others. So how will a reader come to root for him? Probably they will fall in love with his need to uncover the past and figure out why he is the way he is. Or they’ll identify with his longing for connection, which we all have. I believe his “save the cat” moment may be when he begins to ache over the sadness he sees in the other main character, Lainey, and feels protective of her. So it’s less a hero moment and more an empathetic human moment.
As a balance to this “save the cat” idea, note that this paradigm is more relevant in genre fiction, or more action- or adventure-oriented stories. I would argue that other types of stories, such as those seen in literary fiction, don’t always fit this paradigm. Not every story arc is a classic hero’s journey. Read this article from narrativefirst.com. The article says:
“The purpose of great narrative fiction is to argue a particular point-of-view through the context of problem-solving. It is true that fiction could seek out other grand purposes—slice-of-life stories like The Kids Are All Right, or tall tales like True Grit—but for the most part, when an author sits down to write a compelling work of fiction he is usually trying to say something meaningful.
Complete stories offer an author the opportunity to make this argument in such a way that an audience must accept it (if they accept the story’s initial givens). Authors are able to pull this off because complete stories present several points-of-view on the problem at hand, points-of-view that are impossible to hold simultaneously in an audience’s day-to-day lives. This is the true power behind great stories.”
So I would qualify these writing guidelines by saying that principles like “save the cat” are good. Until they aren’t. The main question is, what is the real story we’re writing?