Writing Craft Reviews: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Title: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need
Author: Jessica Brody
Publication Date: October 9, 2018
Page count: 311
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is a novel-focused version of the very popular screenwriting guide Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. The premise behind this guide is that every story through all time, when boiled down, follows the same set of “beats,” or plot points, which are outlined in the book. If writers master these building blocks of all great stories, they can craft compelling and marketable stories of their own.
This is a great resource for new writers, writers who struggle with plot or story structure, or writers who are stuck in their story’s plot and can’t figure out what to do next.
Not Recommended For:
Hardcore pantsers/discovery writers. (Though it may be able to help during revisions.) Also, this likely won’t be anything new for experienced writers, except perhaps to illuminate some of the things you’re already doing in your subconscious.
This is a great overview of basic plot structure, and if you’re able to treat it more like a list of potential ideas than a roadmap, then it could be very useful. It’s written in an organized, straightforward way that makes it easy to reference over and over again. Its structure also goes from quite basic at first to more in-depth later, so it’s easy to dip a toe in before diving in completely.
One of the things I liked best about this book was its examples. Jessica Brody used illustrative examples of each beat from both modern bestsellers and classics, so it’s quite likely that any reader has probably read at least one of the books she mentions for each beat. I feel this is key to a good craft book, so kudos to her on her choices.
I also really liked the breakdown of the different story genres, each of which uses the basic beats in a slightly different way. Honestly, I feel like the genre section of the book was actually the most helpful, because it showed the sheer variety of possibilities within the Save the Cat! story structure system.
There’s also a sort of troubleshooting Q&A section in the book, which goes over some of the problems Jessica Brody’s students have encountered when trying to implement this system. This section covered most of the thoughts that cropped up for me while reading, so I think it was a perfect addition.
Jessica Brody also explains her own personal outlining process, which is helpful for those writers who understand the story beats, but aren’t quite sure how to actually implement them when writing. On top of that, she emphasizes how much a beat sheet for a novel can change from its first conception to its final form, which was quite encouraging.
Not So Helpful:
This system requires that the plot stem entirely from characters. While that is the way that I write, I do know some writers who do not plot their stories this way at all. For those of you out there who are writing more plot-focused stories, where the characters’ personalities or mental states don’t always play a major part, this book may be a source of frustration.
Jessica Brody also mentioned that some books can change the order of the story beats a bit. However, she didn’t go into depth with this concept at all. This is unfortunate, because I think demonstrating how the beats could be moved would be helpful for some writers whose stories just aren’t quite going to fit the basic scaffolding outline here.
A lot of words were devoted to the single scene beats, but a lot fewer were devoted to multi-scene beats. The single scene beats are usually some of the easiest to come up with while writing (for example, the “all is lost” beat, where the protagonist reaches their lowest point emotionally), so I wish more time had been devoted to the multi-scene beats. This is especially true for the middle of a story, where lots of writers tend to get stuck. It would have been nice to hear more about what kinds of scenes to include in these middle beats.
This would be a good craft book to pick up just after finishing your first draft, before you go into your first round of structural editing. With these story beats in mind, you may have an easier time combing a tangled first draft into smooth, flowing narrative.
I don’t think reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is a waste of time by any means, but I also don’t think it’s the be-all-end-all that it claims to be. If you’re struggling with structure and need some direction, or if you’re a new writer who doesn’t know where to start, then this is a great book to go with. If you need help with character development, world building, or basic writing mechanics, then you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Check out more (less in-depth) reviews of the books I've been reading over on my Goodreads!