My Shard of Glass: How Save the Cat!® Saved My Novel
Blake Snyder talks about a “shard of glass”—a sharp-edged incident or “wrong done that the hero swallowed a long time ago.” It’s a blind spot, a character flaw that heroes must address before becoming the “fully formed beings they need to become.”
Here’s my shard: My baby, my precious first novel, was stillborn.
After completing what I thought would be a bestseller (a mixed genre Thriller/Mystery), I sent off the manuscript to a major New York literary agency for review and evaluation for possible representation. I soon learned my book was DOA.
The feedback was scathing:
- “Returning your manuscript with my very deepest regrets since it just doesn’t add up to a marketable piece of work. ”
- “The problems that have rendered your novel less than marketable go to the very heart of the book’s conceptualizations. Plot structure is the first point because the structure of this novel contributes to its lack of success.”
- “The prospect of a revision of some sort is something I cannot recommend.”
Like I said, “Dead on Arrival!”
This was in the early 1980s. I put the stillborn novel in a drawer. Hopes dashed, buried deep, so deep they didn’t resurface for two decades. Stasis equals death. The shard festered.
I was besieged by crippling writer’s block, fearing I was wasting my time trying to write, dismayed I wasn’t a natural, and terrified that story was beyond me. I told myself sad jokes: Why did the budding author buy a caseload of corn starch? He thought if he could find a way to add it to his novel, the plot would thicken.
Truth was, for me the plot never thickened because I had no clue how to plot. Not for want of trying. I even took graduate courses in creative writing from a prestigious university known for its award-winning authors. Wonder of Wonders, in the lecture hall I learned plot was overrated.
Following the anti-plot crowd, I ended up with metafiction—self-aware character sketches in which “nothing happens.” Life deconstructed. When I submitted these stories to literary magazines, I received form rejection slips. More failure.
Those manuscripts too found their way to the drawer, joining my stillborn.
Apparently, non-plot stories weren’t the solution to my writing woes.
Maybe plot, I thought, really does matter after all.
Oh, if I could only plot…
So, it was back to the drawing board.
To find a way forward, I devoured everything on the language of storytelling. That’s when I come across Blake Snyder’s trilogy on screenwriting—Save the Cat!, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, and Save the Cat! Strikes Back. I just couldn’t put these books down.
Loved Blake’s first-person account of adventures in the screen trade and his fusion approach to writerly advice—part craft, part self-help book. And I was encouraged by his unquenchable optimism: “Given enough patience to find it, every story problem has an answer.”
My reality: I had a STORY PROBLEM.
And what little patience I had left was running out.
Time for an intervention.
Cut to August 27, 2016. I’m sitting in a two-day Save the Cat! Beat Sheet Workshop with José Silerio, screenwriter and script consultant. I’m looking for help with plot, with story structure.
José is running through the course material and giving us exercises to complete—the Hero’s Journey Questionnaire; the Story and Character Development Questionnaire. He asks us to pitch our project, whatever we’re working, be it script or novel. We go around the room.
When it’s my turn, I tell them about the “novel in the drawer.” I run through a crude logline for what I think is a Dude with a Problem: A maverick CPA endangers much more than his career when he connects his best friend’s suicide to a secret audit of the nation’s gold reserves.
“What’s the catalyst?” José asks.
“The consulting firm the hero works for asks him to pick up where his friend left off in the gold investigation.”
José weighs in. “I’m not sure this is a DWAP. It’s got to be life or death. Doesn’t sound like a survival story. Remember the three rules we covered this morning: Innocent Hero, Sudden Event, Life or Death.
“So not a thriller?”
“Think on it some. Pitch again tomorrow.”
My story pattern’s off.
That night I return home from the Santa Monica site of the workshop and fire up my copy of the Save the Cat! app—”the only story structure software you’ll ever need!” I’m going to beat out my next attempt. And try another genre.
What genre? Well, definitely not a DWAP. In the outline for my current project, the hero’s life isn’t in danger until Act Three. So, I fool around with Golden Fleece, instead. Nail down the three rules (Road, Team, Prize).
Day two of the Beat Sheet Workshop covers more story craft. We spend hours on the Transformation Machine and the 15 beats, including the troublesome Fun & Games. José gives us some tips on how to structure this multi-scene beat so that it builds to the Midpoint.
After lunch, we’re back to pitching our stories. I’m up. I go with Golden Fleece and launch into the “deets” on the story elements. Road: Journey to discover the nature of the gold conspiracy and thwart it. Team: Hero and three teammates (investigative reporter, cybersecurity guru, and gold expert). Prize: Save the world economy from financial shock.
The Prize doesn’t resonate with the participants in the workshop.
“It may be a road story,” one of the screenwriters in the group says. “You have the hero traipsing back and forth across the continent from LA to DC and up to New York but is the journey what it’s really about?”
What’s It About?
So, I tell the group: It’s about this young (up-and-coming) financial investigator, just fresh out of grad school, who endangers his wife and unborn child when he tries to figure out why the facts aren’t adding up in his best friend’s bizarre suicide. As the hero picks up the audit trail where his friend left off, he stumbles onto a massive conspiracy.
“Sounds like you have a Whydunit,” José says.
Story problem solved.
With the right genre, it was only a matter of time before I was able to beat out the story, scene card by scene card.
All that Glisters is a Whydunit with a dash of romance and plenty of action. The plot still revolves around the bizarre death of the hero’s best friend/surf buddy and a secret probe of the U.S. gold stockpile. The hero’s wife is very much pregnant, six months along. And the facts still don’t add up. Conspiracies abound.
In the all-new B Story, the sassy sidekick teaches the hero [Detective] to color outside the lines [Dark Turn]. These “dark turn” skills come in handy as they progress, a la Blake Snyder’s nautilus shell image, deeper into the secrecy before uncovering the truth [Secret]. In the search for justice, the two amateur sleuths trigger a brutal manhunt to silence anyone looking to set the ledger straight. Collateral damage ensues, tsunami-style.
On September 20, 2023, my debut mystery was published in paperback and e-book and is available wherever better books are sold.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give thanks for Blake’s help with my Story Problem. In the Acknowledgments section of All that Glisters, I pay my respect to the master: “And finally, I’d like to recognize the late Blake Snyder for his influence on story craft and the folks at Save the Cat! Workshops for ‘beat-by-beat’ guidance in plotting my story.”
After signing the publishing contract with The Wild Rose Press, I found my confidence as a writer returning. Success does that! For my local chapter of the League of Utah Writers, I even began making presentations on plotting, focusing on the Foundation Beats for scaring up your story arc. I had class members analyze popular films, music videos, and novels and then pointed them to the Beat Sheet Library on this website.
As my wife says, I’ve practically become a Save the Cat! evangelist.
A Final Note
For those who like mysteries, an actual shard of glass plays a pivotal role in the Finale beat of my debut novel, proving once again: Metaphorical wounds can be repurposed!
To learn more about the Thad Hanlon & Bri de la Guerra Mystery Series, check out my website.