52 books in 52 weeks: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

I set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book 44.

Save the Cat! has been the last book on screenwriting that screenwriters will ever need since 2005, and then there was another, and another … until there were five books using this tried and tested method of writing, including … the last book on novel writing that novel writers will ever need.

I wanted Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody so badly that the poet bought it me for Christmas. It’s a little pricier than I usually pay for ebooks, and the ebook was dearer than the paperback. So, while I ummed and ahhed, he bought me the paperback. At the time, they were both the same price, probably cashing in on NaNoWriMo. Now the paperback is considerably cheaper again.

The book continues the methods in the original Save the Cat! from Blake Snyder, who sadly and unexpectedly passed away after penning three of the aforementioned guides. Since then, his legacy has continued and you can find out more from the website. There’s even writing software to go with the method. Unfortunately, it appears to be only on annual subscription, so I won’t be taking advantage of it until they have a standalone version again – as they apparently once did.

(*** SOAPBOX ALERT *** I’m getting rid of all subscription-based software – if I buy it once, then I expect to be able to use it without being forced to keep on paying for it over and over again. Call me old-fashioned …)

So, what’s it all about? Well, basically, Save the Cat! teaches screenwriters how to structure their screenplays using a template (or formula – and yes, it is a formula, I don’t care what anyone else says, but if you prefer to call it a code or a blueprint or a template or a method, then that’s fine too) of 15 beat sheets. Jessica Brody shows us how to apply this to novel-writing.

And she doesn’t just tell us that it can also apply to novel-writing, she shows us, using 10 examples plus one of her own.

There’s an introduction to the history of Save the Cat! and how to use the book, and the first chapter is all about creating our hero, our “why should anyone care” element. Then chapter 2 goes straight into an overview of the beat sheets, telling us what goes where and when – although, please don’t think this is cast in stone. It’s a start and it’s a method that can be shuffled around to suit.

This 2nd chapter goes into extensive detail about each of the beat sheets and which ones go in which of the three Acts or Parts of a story.

The 3rd chapter describes the 10 Save the Cat! genres, which are different but similar to the ones we all know and love (or hate) already.

Then from chapter 4 until chapter 13, Brody uses real life examples of 10 published books to demonstrate how to use the beat sheets. These examples include The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (although she uses the US title) by JK Rowling, and Stephen King’s Misery, among others.

But she doesn’t leave you dangling there. Chapter 14 looks at “killer loglines” and “dazzling synopses”, and chapter 15 answers some common questions, such as how to use beat sheets for series novels, point of view and how to make your hero likeable.

There are some exercises in the book to help readers brainstorm their ideas and see if their ideas have legs, and then there is the author’s own before and after beat sheet for her novel The Geography of Lost Things.

I loved this book and have already transferred the beat sheets to a template in Scrivener, which I also love, and I would give this book 9 stars if I could.

“But, why not give it 10 stars?” I hear you ask … (go on, ask me!)

Because there is just one thing in this book I disagree with and that is where the author says you have to find a literary agent first before you can find a publisher. This is quite simply not strictly true. There are still publishers out there who keep a slush pile and there’s indie publishing, of course.

Otherwise, buy this book. Even if you’re not a plotter, it’s an interesting read and I think you’ll learn a lot.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is available on Kindle for £10.99 ($14.14) and in paperback for £7.75 ($10.87).

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