Of the principles spelled out in the Save the Cat! ouevre, none is more important than its namesake. “Save the Cat!” is one of many catch phrases we employ for identifying common tricks in storytelling and communication that we inherently sense — and now can put a term to.
The “Save the Cat!” beat in any movie, novel, or story is that moment when we meet its hero and he does something “nice” — like save a cat — that makes us like him and want to root for him.
It is, I’m finding, a ritualistic turning point, a truly magical event when we in the audience “step into the shoes” of, and become, the hero. And because of that, his story now becomes our story.
Though it doesn’t have to be that bald a moment, it must be considered in any type of communication — in a 30-second commercial, a political ad, a YouTube short, or even a speech one is giving to an audience. And we see textbook examples at the movies all the time!
Will Smith “saves a lion cub” in I Am Legend; Steve Carell “pats a dog” in the early moments of the recent Get Smart; and Robert Downey Jr. tries to “save his pals” in the beginning of Ironman.
The “Save the Cat!” moment is also seen in a 30-second spot for Kentucky Fried Chicken when a harried stay-at-home Dad or Mom, who wants to make a well-balanced meal for the kids — but doesn’t have time to cook — comes to the rescue with a family fast food favorite; or when a politician cites good deeds done in the service of others; or when a radio talk show host tells his listeners a self-deferential story that compels those listening to “identify,” and thus, stay tuned.
For that very small consideration, we as an audience think: “I’m like that! I’m rooting for him!”
And there are a million more variations on how to do this that aren’t so obvious, too.
There is the “Kill the Cat!” moment I point out in Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies in regard to Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. When Elle learns that her boyfriend, Warner, is not only not going to ask her to marry him (“I want a Jackie and not a Marilyn”), Elle is essentially smooshed. Up till then, Elle is just verging on annoying, put down for being blonde — and kind of deserving the label! But from this moment on, we want Elle to win. Why? Because we too have been “smooshed” in life and readily identify with wanting to get some sense of justice.
Another method is “Save the Cat! by proxy.” Often a hero in a film will not be likeable on the surface, but there may be someone in his or her circle whom we do trust, who makes a statement of support. In What Women Want, in the introduction of the “ladies man” Mel Gibson plays in that film, there is a sense the narrator can’t help liking this lovable rogue, and by proxy so must we!
There is also “Kill the Cat! by proxy” wherein a not so likeable guy is hated by someone who is worse — and that is its own recommendation for liking an “unlikeable” hero. A classic example of this is found in Pulp Fiction when we meet John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, killers, but made lovable not only by their funny patter, but the fact that there is someone who is worse! Marcellus (Ving Rhames) tossed a fellow hitman off the roof for giving Marcellus’ wife a foot massage. In this universe, we now know, there are degrees of badness, and our guys aren’t the gold medalists.
Recently, in The Dark Knight, I’d argue that the “Save the Cat!” moment comes when we meet Batman, by definition the moodiest and most depressed of superheroes, who is fighting not only criminals, but the citizens of Gotham who hate him and call him a “terrorist.” The caped crusader even runs afoul of Batman lookalikes with guns who are true vigilantes. Poor Batman is so under the thumb of others, so misunderstood, so put down and despised, we expect him to throw in the cowl? But he doesn’t. He is either a glutton for punishment, or maybe worth pulling for?
Heroes like this are worth following for awhile… if only to learn why they do what they do!
As I point out in both books, and hopefully in my workshops, and soon-to-be-available recordings too, the mistake is to not care about this first step in getting any act of communication off the ground. Storytelling is like building a case in court. We start with an audience who knows… nothing. What do we want them to know? What do we need them to know to keep their interest?
All stories are like this: an argument, a debate about a particular theme or “moral to the story.” What are we trying to say — and who will be our spokesman? Whether it’s a classic hero, anti-hero, non-human hero (WALL-E), or even if it’s just us — someone making a speech, or the person trying to get across a point of view in a debate or in court — we must be conscious of an audience who isn’t standing in our shoes and must be brought along in order for them to do so.
I’d be interested in any new ways to embrace the “Save the Cat!” moment. As storytellers, communicators, and proclaimers of opinion, any time we can share an insight we all benefit.
And there is always a new way to skin… or save… a cat!
P.S. A quick note of thanks to everyone at the Romance Writers of America conference this weekend! I’d especially like to thank Erin Fry who arranged for my appearance, Jenny Gardiner (author of the hilarious Sleeping with Ward Cleaver) who introduced me and was the moderator for my event, Nina Bruhns (author of the award winning Night Mischief) who helped me prepare my presentation, and all the deee-lightful writers who made me feel so at home! It was great fun!
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