Save The Cat was Blake Snyder’s term for screenwriters, though it’s used a lot by novelists, too. Snyder had the following advice when setting up a main character:
Heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they ‘save a cat’ or similar, to show they’re a good person.
The opening of the book must establish an emotional connection with the protagonist. The poignancy doesn’t need to happen on page one, and the character doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be a saint, but readers need to feel something for them. In screenwriting, this is called saving the cat. The protagonist can yell at old ladies, steal from a blind man’s cup, and cheat at cards, as long as they go out of their way to save one creature from discomfort. Start watching for it in movies. You’ll find that in the first ten minutes, the lead character will enact some version of saving a cat.
The technique is not always called Saving The Cat, but most writers have an intuitive grasp of it anyway.
During the story, your character works to do something valuable despite no obvious benefit to themself. They might bestow gifts on whoever they find in need, devoutly say their prayers at every meal, or just carefully tie their shoelaces before they leave their home. Everyone else thinks the hero is just wasting time. But when the climax comes, it’s the people they helped, the gods they pleased, or those well-tied laces that make the difference.
This is related to another writing trick in which you, as writer, do something nasty to a character at the beginning of a story to show what you are capable of. This increases suspense because the audience wonders what on earth you are going to do to your characters next.
For example, in the film Super Dark Times, the first scene is of a moose who is dying in a high school classroom after jumping through the window. A police officer is tasked with the job of jumping on the moose’s head to put it out of its misery. This scene seems completely unconnected to the rest of the film, except symbolically, and you could argue that it’s a scene of gratuitous violence. The reason for the scene’s existence is more than symbolic, though. This scene tells the viewer that bad things will happen in this story. We either turn it off or keep watching, to see what those bad things are.
Save the Cat technique is especially valuable when writing an antihero, who must first be written as likeable in their own way. Before Walter White breaks bad, we empathise with him. Antiheroes are harder to write than heroes. See further techniques for writing antiheroes in this post.
Examples of Save The Cat Technique
In The Beach by Alex Garland, Richard has a Save The Cat moment when he, alone among all the backpackers, approaches the woman who cleans the hostel about how dangerous it is to mix water with electricity. He ends up backing away, confident she’ll be fine because she’s obviously been doing this job for years, and feels a little chastised — who is he to tell her how to do her job? We now know several things about Richard — he has concern for other people and experiences can be humbling. This is in line with his first person storyteller’s voice — he’s looking back on this period of his life with a large measure of humility.
In No Country For Old Men, Llewelyn is portrayed as an uncaring person when he quickly forgets about the man dying in the van, the one who asked him for agua. But McCarthy wanted to portray him as far less evil than Chigurgh. So Llewelyn awakes in the middle of the night to take a big bottle of water to the dying Mexican. A Save the Cat moment. Unfortunately he coincides with drug runners, the beginning of a cat and mouse thriller. Llewelyn would’ve been far better off had he never gone back to do the good deed, setting up McCarthy’s ironically harsh world in which even good deeds don’t go unpunished. Although he was unable to save the dying Mexican drug runner, the audience sees the humanity in Llewellyn, and we root for him against his struggle with out-and-out evil.
Friday Night Lights — In the pilot episode, the morality of Landry Clarke is unclear as he plans to lay on the romance with a girl who is probably not interested in him. How far will he go? But our empathy is cemented when he insists they stop to rescue Lyla after she breaks down on the side of the road.
Mad Men — Don Draper has gifted his mistress a television. We don’t know she’s his mistress at this stage — she could be his girlfriend. She throws the gift out the window, further engendering empathy for this poor, put-upon man (who is studying her as a way of getting to know people and to be better at his job).
Breaking Bad — The writers use pretty much every trick in the book to inspire empathy for Walt in the pilot episode but Walt’s Save The Cat moments are understated and based upon what we feel men, in general, shouldn’t have to put up with. He has purchased office supplies but instead of getting thanked he gets chided for using the wrong account. (But he did save the cat by buying the office supplies.) He dutifully goes along to a family celebration and doesn’t cause a scene by reacting to Hank’s dick-waving.
Likewise, Tony Soprano, all round despicable human being, cares deeply about a family of ducks in his damn pool.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri — Mildred is a tough, thuggish character and we’re shown this immediately, but when she sees a bug upside down on the window sill, waving its legs helplessly in the air, she flips it over the right way.
Moana — We first see cute little toddler Moana help a turtle down to the water’s edge by shading it with a big palm leaf to save it from a flying predator. We fall in love with Moana.
The Iron Giant — Dean McCoppin stands up for the local kook by saying he saw the Iron Giant too, though it turns out he didn’t. He tells Hogarth that if he doesn’t stick up for the kooks who will?
American Fable — Gitty is depicted as the sympathetic character because of how she cares for her pet chicken. Later she will care for her family’s prisoner in similar fashion. On the way home, her father runs over a yearling deer. Gitty is distraught and won’t let her father put the deer out of his misery, so both father and daughter take the deer home, hoping to nurse it back to health. I don’t remember seeing the deer again — the deer exists only to set the father and daughter up as sympathetic characters. This contrasts with Gitty’s psychopathic older brother. We know he is psychopathic because he plays a trick which almost chops her hand off.
Avoiding Save The Cat
This technique is used so frequently that a savvy audience can spot it and see it for the trick that it is. Writers such as Gillian Flynn acknowledge this new level of reader sophistication and go out of their way to avoid it:
I […] wanted to make sure no one tried to make [my character] “save the cat.” To me, Camille is an inherently kind person despite everything that’s happened to her. And you see that when you walk through the day with Camille. You see how she treats people. But she’s not running around saving babies and kittens just so the audience can be sure she’s a good person.
Fresh spin: Kill The Dog
The problem with the Save The Cat technique is that it is such an easy trick and so commonly used that sophisticated audiences pick it as a writer’s trick. So some writers are twisting it a little, putting on a fresh spin.
A Slate article from 2013 asked if Snyder’s Save The Cat screenwriting techniques had become too popular, causing Hollywood to churn out the same stories time and again. It’s worth noting that the Slate culture critics are very sophisticated audiences. A younger audience, for instance, isn’t going to pick Save the Cat moments. In fact, until I had the technique pointed out to me, I never noticed them myself. Now I see saved ‘cats’ everywhere.
Once the audience starts to pick a writing technique, this breaks the fourth wall. So now writers need to put a fresh spin on it.
How, exactly, do you put a fresh spin on Save The Cat?
Matt Bird has noticed an increasingly common trick he has called ‘Kill The Dog’.
Examples of Kill The Dog Technique (or Drown The Cat)
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has Katniss almost kill a cat, and later Katniss murders a lynx. All this sets the reader up for her to actually save a metaphorical Cat later.
Matt Bird also offers examples from John Wick and House of Cards.
I noticed it most recently in a Netflix original, The End Of The Fxxxing World.
Case Study: The End Of The Fxxxing World
- Our two main characters, who have already murdered a serial killer, realise near the end of the narrative that they’re going to have to put an injured dog out of its writhing misery by wringing its neck.
- I dislike stories in which dogs are killed, and most audiences must feel the same because writers traditionally go out of their way to save dogs, even when numerous humans are expended.
- This dog is sacrificed for the story, to force the audience to dig deeper into the main moral dilemma: Is it sometimes okay to kill someone? Where would you draw the line? Could you do it?
- The story starts off priming the audience to think “Killing is wrong in all scenarios, no doubt about it.” We have a seventeen-year-old who wants to murder for the worst of reasons — because he wants to. He is fascinated by it.
- This is subverted when James and Alyssa accidentally cross a genuine psychopath, which ends with James killing a stranger to save Alyssa from rape and probably death. Now the audience is primed to think that maybe, in some circumstances, murder is all right. It is clear from the props inside the serial killer’s house that he is a despicable human being and that by murdering him they are saving others.
- Later, James and Alyssa are faced with either murdering the dog or leaving it to writhe in agony. The audience’s morality regarding murder has hopefully gone from one extreme to the other, after various scenarios are presented to us.
- James, too, is revealed to be not so bad after all. He does show empathy for the dog, proving to himself and to us that he is not actually a proper psychopath. We are what we do, not what we ‘want’ to do, and manage to suppress. Perhaps suppressing our darkest impulses in fact makes us more noble than people who don’t have those impulses in the first place.
Fresh Spin: What You Are In The Dark
The End of The Fxxxing World also makes use of this related trope. Alyssa can easily escape the police by running away, but she finds a lost girl and takes her back to her father, sacrificing herself.
For more on this trope, see the TV Tropes article.
Disturbing Spin but not Fresh: Male Heroes Finding Ugly Women Desirable Nonetheless
This is when a male character finds a woman ‘objectively’ ugly but he wants to do sex to her anyway, in a perverse Save The Cat moment where the author — male author, always a male — seems to want a cookie for his
personal stand-in hero, who loves women, all women, even the ugly ones.
Women do realise that we don’t have to look like models and men will still want to have sex with us. Nobody needs saving here.
I write about it here, with examples.
How else are writers saving cats in fiction? Have you noticed related tricks?