Sometimes you come across a book that is so transformative to the way you approach your craft, that you wonder how you got so far without having read it. For my day job, that book was Thinking in Java, by Bruce Eckel. It completely changed the way I looked at software development, and to some extent, defined my career for the next decade. For my other career as a writer, that book was Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. I ran across a mention of this book on a writing blog a week or so ago, and decided to give it a try. I was hooked within the first dozen pages. Although geared towards screenwriting, the concepts Snyder outlines are, for the most part, directly transferable to the the world of genre fiction, in which I play. From the eponymous Save the Cat technique, where the writer gives the reader (or viewer) a reason to bond with the protagonist to the deep-dive on story beats to the criticality of being able to describe what your idea is, in only a few words, he de-mystifies all the techniques I knew from my experience writing (plus a bunch I had never thought of), but had never been able to fully articulate. Now I can.
In software development, when you know something is wrong but can’t figure out what it is, you often say the code smells bad. Sometimes you can fix it, but often all you can do is spray some perfume on the project and hope no one notices the festering odor of decay until you get a patch release out the door. As an engineer, I despise doing this, but as a pragmatist, I understand the necessity of shipping something you can fix later rather than toiling forever. As an author, I don’t have this luxury. My work has to be perfect - or as near to perfect as I can make it - every single time. You’d be shocked at the number of fifteen to twenty-thousand words stories littering my hard drive - novels that went nowhere, short stories that meandered into novella-land before choking to death on their own overwrought narrative before I finally pulled the plug. As I read Save the Cat, I couldn’t help but reflect on these stillborn efforts, and for almost every single one, I was able to identify critical points where I had deviated from the guidance in Snyder’s book. Face meet palm.
So what do I do with this newfound knowledge? Good question. I’m seriously tempted to try my hand at a screen play - just for the hell of it. But I probably won’t. Not yet, at least. First, I want to try to resurrect one of my zombie stories (sorry - not really a zombie story), and with a little help from the techniques I learned in Save the Cat, I think I may actually be able to finally answer the elusive question that killed the project the first time around - what is it? Stay tuned to see if it works.
Oh yeah - about the title of this post. If you want to see a textbook application of Saving the Cat, go see The Drop with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini. This film hits on every one of Snyder’s principles, from the glaringly obvious (Rocco, anyone?) to the more subtle points. I’m not a big fan of mob-movies, but this one really worked for me, and now I know why.