Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Save the What? When?


I have been reading a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat! I love cats, but I wondered what a book about screenwriting had to do with felines. Blake Snyder, the author of this book with the orange tiger kitty swinging across the front, explains that the “save the cat” scene in a movie is when the audience observes the hero doing something that makes him likable--such as saving a cat. This action defines the character as a good guy. Score.


I got the impression that this saving business should happen sooner rather than later, as in when the audience first meets the main character, at least in a movie. But is this necessary in a novel?


I can’t help thinking about one of my favorite classics—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In this fabulous tale of redemption, Ebenezer Scrooge is far from saving any cats when the reader meets him. Yet, at least for me, Scrooge is still a compelling character. Yes, he’s cynical (you know: “bah humbug”), but he is also lonely and empty.


It seems to me that Charles Dickens sets Scrooge up to be such a crusty dude that the reader senses that change must come. The story becomes more interesting because the reader wants to understand why Ebenezer has developed into such a callous of a human being.


So, by the time ol’ Ebenezer finally has an epiphany, at the end of the story, and saves a cat, the reader practically cheers (or, at least, this reader did). The reader has been hoping that the wicked can turn kind-hearted, and Scrooge has. By the close of the story, he has saved multiple cats and this works.


What do you think? In a novel, does a character need to save a cat right away? Is Charles Dickens the only guy who can pull of making a main character pretty unlikeable and yet compelling until the very end of a story?

34 comments:

  1. I do enjoy a well written story with a little bit of saving happening early on... then moving to major story lines later ... tho I think I'm a minority.

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  2. I believe most of the books I've read have the MC's saving cats early on. Also, I've read books where the antagonists or some minor characters do cat saving later on in the book.

    I don't mind unlikeable MC's as long as the author has the skill to pull them off.

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  3. Thanks, Michelle. I wonder if you are in the minority. : )

    I agree, Medeia. I think most books I've read also have the MC's saving at the beginning. It's tough to pull of an unlikeable MC for pages and pages.

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  4. This is making me think! Scrooge is such a great character. His meanness leaves such room for growth, you can only imagine that's what must happen.

    Perhaps it's the attitude of Tiny Tim's dad . . . of pity . . . that directs the reader. Just a thought. (And why can't I think of his name!?)

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  5. There must be other stories besides A Christmas Carol, but I can't think of any. Perhaps Dickens is the only one who was able to pull it off.

    Bob Cratchit is Tiny Tim's dad.

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  6. Scrooge wasn't named Scrooge for nothing. This also made me think of The Grinch, who was bad throughout the entire book until the very end. I think any redeemable character is relateable. We all need to be redeemed.

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  7. Marcia said: :)

    This is a great question to chew on. If a character must begin as unlikable, I think humor helps. And if you can somehow make the character someone we love to hate, that helps. If the author can get us rooting for the character to turn good, I think it works.

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  8. IMHO, It is exceedingly hard to create a completely unlikable character and save the cat later. That doesn't mean it's impossible either though. :D

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  9. What an interesting question. The book that immediately comes to mind is THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp. The YA opens in the morning with the main character in the process of getting drunk--not very likable. But then he goes out of his way to help this little kid--very likable. I was completely sucked in by this complex character, who's also very funny, which helps on the likability scale. But I do think that opening scene was important for readers to "accept" him.

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  10. Nope, I don't think the MC has to do any saving up front for me to continue with his story. As long as he/she does have some redeeming qualities or even thoughts somewhere in there, I'm in for the ride.

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  11. Janet, that's a great thought! Bob Cratchit (TT's dad) does show pity which is sure to affect the reader.

    I agree, Bish--I couldn't think of other examples, either until I read E.R.'s comment about The Grinch. Thanks, E.R.! Great example.

    Adding in humor and crafting a character we love to hate... wonderful ingredients, Marcia.

    I have to agree, Lisa.

    What a fabulous example of a complex character, MG. A perfect example of a save the cat scene that redeems a character. And, as Marcia pointed out, humor helps.

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  12. Interesting, J.L. Reading all the different opinions is one of the reasons I love posting topics such as this. : )

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  13. Great point! (and yes--I have to GET this book) It's a tricky thing...you want the reader to identify and sympathize with the main character, but it's not always possible or advisable to have that save-the-cat moment in the first chapter (or early on). I think it sorta depends on the writer, and it also depends on the story and the character.

    Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets" is a thoroughly bad/annoying character until nearer the end--as is Bill Murray in "Groundhog's Day." And yet they are really intriguing characters!

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  14. I LOVE books with characters that I'm not sure if I like.
    Grounding Quinn was an example of that. The main girl, Quinn, was snarky, not always nice, but I cared about her, and HAD to know what happened.

    She only saved very minor kittens until the end. I think it's a WAY cool talent for someone to have.

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  15. I think in certain genres yes the cat must be saved early. In others it can take some time.

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  16. You know... I think it depends on the story... sometimes I enjoy waiting to decide if the character is good or bad.. it makes for some good suspense and analyzing!

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  17. I love STC and I cried at the end of Christmas Carol.

    I'm with Lynda. It really depends on the book (and genre).

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  18. I like the saving to happen a wee bit later. Something to look forward to!

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  19. Two great examples, Carol. Thanks!

    Only saving "minor kittens" until the end--I love that, Jolene. Great point.

    The genre makes the difference. Interesting, Lynda.

    I agree, Writing Nut: Not being sure about the character does add suspense and make the reader think more about that character.

    Stina, A Christmas Carol is still one of my favorite reads.

    Good point, Lydia. The more to look forward to, the better.

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

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  20. I think it depends on the story. And the skill of the writer.

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  21. Well...my main character doesn't save anyone, really. It's everyone else doing stuff...but peeps still like him! Interesting.

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  22. This is a great example. I think it's definitely challenging using an unlikeable hero, but can be done with great success when it's feels authentic.

    Now that you've read Save the Cat, you'll have to try Writing Screenplays that Sell (Hauge). I tell you, the screenwriting books are a gold mine for writers. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  23. Ha. Ebenzer was really crusty. Maybe I'm a weird reader but I'll stick with an unlikeable character because they have to be crusty for a reason and I want to know why.

    But I always loved the reason character save cats --- the reasoning always shows something deeper about the character.

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  24. I think the skill of the writer is key, Carol. So tough to pull of an unlikable character.

    That is interesting, Ashley. And now I'm curious about your MC. : )

    I agree, Angela. Thanks for the book recommendation. I also love STORY: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principals of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.

    Nah, you're not a weird reader, Karen. I think there can be great rewards for sticking with a unlikable character. Sometimes, though, I get too impatient with them.

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  25. I like the saving graces to come later, it gives a reader hope that people can change. After all, the world is full of different and complex individuals, shouldn't they be in our stories, as well?

    I think of Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets", too! You wanted to hate him and then you wind up liking him.

    Your post is just like a good book. It gets you interested, keeps you interested and looking forward to the next one!

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  26. I kind of do like the characters that I'm supposed to be rooting for have a save the cat moment. It doesn't have to be anything big. I can just be a very small hint. It just lets me know that there is greatness inside them somewhere, and through their character arc, I'm going to see some more of it.

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  27. Thanks, Maeve! And you make such a good point about how stories should reflect the complex characters in our world. Also, great example of a character who goes from unlikable to likable.

    That's a great point, too, Peggy. The save the cat moment doesn't have to be immense and Earth shattering. Maybe it's just a hint of some goodness deep inside a character.

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  28. Great post! I'm enjoying reading the comments. I think it helps when you see the likabililty of a character. Like Katniss Everdeen. She's a tough character but the way she takes care of her sister . . . makes her very likable.

    But, there are exceptions to every rule. I think likability can be shown in many ways. It doesn't have to be earth shattering. Sometimes I like a character simply based on their humor or perspective on life.

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  29. Thanks, Christy! You make wonderful points. I really like what you wrote about how a character's positive traits can be shown in subtle ways.

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  30. I absolutely loved Save the Cat! Didn't he also say that the mc doesn't necessarily have to do something likable, but can also be made likable by being interesting or funny, like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction? So I think that while a Save the Cat scene is great, we can be drawn to the character in other ways as well.

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  31. I really have to get myself a copy of this book! I think the main character certainly has to be likeable for some reason early on--whether its by saving the cat early on, or showing signs that he/she will save the cat later on. :D

    nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  32. Good point, Susan.

    There is also a Save the Cat website, Nutschell. It's quite the popular book.

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  33. hey, i'm in the midst of reading save the cat. great read. ummm... i think it has a lot of valid storytelling techniques, but its more geared toward the formula of movie making, and not as much toward novel narrative writing.

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  34. Well yes, it is a book on screenwriting, Aguilar. There's no doubt about that. Nonetheless, I think Save the Cat (as well as other books on screenwriting) offers lots of valuable information for those who focus on novels. I plan on using a few of the techniques and many of the exercises outlined in this book while crafting my next project. For me, a novelist, Save the Cat was an informative and thought-provoking read that expanded my knowledge on crafting stories.

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