I was talking about a character I was creating with a friend when he asked me a very unusual question: “Where’s the character’s save the cat scene?” I hadn’t mentioned a cat and couldn’t figure out what my friend meant. It turns out that most of the successful movies for the last eight years have followed a formula Blake Snyder describes in a book titled SAVE THE CAT.
In that little but very influential book Snyder lays out the formula, step by step, for a successful screenplay. There are several “beats” or scenes that a screenwriter must include. To make a character sympathetic for viewers it is critical that this character have a “save the cat” scene very early in the movie in which he or she does something very sympathetic to the viewer. It doesn’t literally have to be saving a cat, of course. It might be visiting a sick relative, helping a child, playing with his dog, etc. The entire point of this scene is to make the movie goer care about the character.
Of course much of this same formulaic approach to writing carries over to the writing of a novel. Larry Brooks, an expert at teaching writers how to structure a novel, wrote a book called Story Structure in which he lays out all the key scenes a novel must have, including describing the approximate page location of each scene. One enterprising novelist took Brooks’ material and even created an Excel spreadsheet. Novelists need only type in the number of pages they anticipate for their novel as well as the font they are using and the spreadsheet calculates the precise page number for a plot point.
What does this have to do with readers? If you love to read novels, then you’ve probably had the disturbing feeling that a novelist is trying to manipulate your emotions. Did the novelist have to kill off a character’s lovable dog in bring tears to your eyes? Did the novelist have to give that cute little girl that horrible incurable disease?
Because most of us are frequent movie goers as well as novel readers, the genres meld together. No doubt you sometimes think about how a book you are reading would make such a good movie. Most screenwriters calculate a minute per screenplay page and believe that the movie viewer must be hooked by the five minute mark. Similarly, many literary agents tell novelists seeking representation that they would like to see the first 10 pages of the first chapter. Why? It’s not just an agent wanting to see whether an aspiring novelist can write. It’s also a test to see if anything dramatic happens early in the first chapter to capture the reader.
Pity the traditional European screenwriters who used to be able to create a script for a French or British movie in which the first half hour consisted of setting the scene. They no longer have that kind of time. Poor Jane Austen likely would receive a rejection note from a literary agent complaining that nothing dramatic happened in the first three chapters.
My first draft of Egypt Rising included an opening chapter in which Olivia sleeps over at the home of her Islamic friend. Even though the chapter included a confrontation between Olivia and Aasuma’s militant Muslim Brotherhood-leaning brother, it wasn’t dramatic enough. In later versions of the novel I opened with a chapter that propelled Olivia and her friend into downtown Cairo where they are caught up in a demonstration and then detained by the police. Clearly I learned my lesson.
The problem for readers or viewers today is that no one wants to feel that someone is pulling strings to manipulate their emotions. Screenwriters and novelists now are so accustomed to following formulaic patterns that they sometimes have to sacrifice character development or elaborate descriptions of settings. The effect is to flatten out the book or movie. Another impact of this formulaic approach to fiction and film is to make readers and viewers feel like whatever they are reading or watching is familiar enough to give them a sense of deja vu.
We’ve already very accustomed to formulaic approaches in certain genres. Take mysteries, particularly police procedure mysteries as an example. When I wrote Silent Partner (completed but not yet placed for publication), I found that there were a number of conventions I had to follow. The crime occurs off-screen. The detective comes to the scene of the crime and then begins gathering clues and identifying suspects. Generally the first few suspects are attractive possibilities, but they don’t pan out. The formula also calls for the novelist to place clues strategically so that readers later can look back and discover that the clues pointed to a suspect who turned out to be the killer. It’s no longer considered acceptable to follow the formula of the old Perry Mason series for TV where someone winds up confessing while on the witness stand. If something like that happens in a police procedure novel today, most readers would feel cheated of the fun of matching wits with the detective to see if they could identify the killer first.
Science fiction also follows very strict formulas. Does the novelist want to write a First Contact type novel in which humans discover an alien race? If so, there’s a formula or bringing the two races together, whether the novel is The Mote’s Eye or Footfall, two very different accounts of aliens.
Of course Romance novels also have their formulas. Some series even specify to the novelist the degree of “heat” such romances can have. One formula specifies that any sex scenes have to lead to marriage. Another specifies that there cannot be any rape scenes although “mild” S&M is acceptable.
I’m reminded of a key scene in Earnest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Lieutenant Henry concludes that they” “throw you into the game, don’t tell you the rules, and then kill you when you break one.” Nowadays novelists and readers both must understand the rules of the “game.” Someone purchasing a “cozy” mystery does not want to read the gory details of a murder. Someone buying a Young Adult novel doesn’t want to read about 12-year old characters while someone buying a “New Adult” labeled book does not want to read about 16-year old characters.
A writer who tries to defy these formulas runs into real problems finding a publisher. Recently I received a nice note from a fine publisher who really loved my Silent Partner, but did not want to publish a police procedure mystery that contained a paranormal element, even though the spirit doesn’t actually solve the case.
So, the next time you’re reading a novel or watching a movie, ask yourself whether you’re the master of your fate or whether someone else in the background is cleverly pulling the strings. Bite your lip and refrain from crying when a character saves the cat.