Tips for Writers—Do Readers Like Your Hero?

Paper and pencilI’m sure some of you are writers, and even if you are not, I’ve found that many readers enjoy a glimpse of the processes writers use to create their books.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for this series of blog posts I am calling Tips for Writers.

For this inaugural post in the series, I’d like to focus on a writing technique known as “Save the Cat.” The “Save the Cat” concept was coined by Blake Snyder in his 2005 book of the same name. The book focuses on screenwriting, but it is full of helpful information about storytelling in general. “Save the Cat” refers to a method of making the main character of your story likable by, early in the story, showing that character going out of his or her way to do something kind—like, for example, saving a cat stuck in a tree.

People enjoy reading fiction for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest is the joy of bonding with a character you love. The “Save the Cat” technique is a tool that helps accomplish this. If the idea sounds trite or gimmicky to you, I would urge you to withhold judgment. You don’t have to literally show your character saving a cat. The technique actually provides a lot of room for creativity.

I have spent many hours brainstorming “Save the Cat” moments. A really good one will fit the tone and setting of the book so well that it will not call attention to itself. It will seduce the reader into loving your character without ever drawing attention to itself.

My favorite “Save the Cat” moment from my own work is one of the early scenes in Burnout, the first book in the Jessie Black series. We see Jessie in a convenience store, grabbing a cup of coffee on her way to work. Aside from establishing her love of coffee, the scene shows her compassionate side when she encounters a shoplifter and, despite her job as a prosecutor, tries to help him. Here is an excerpt (no spoilers):

She was filling her travel mug when she saw the kid out of the corner of her eye. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt with the hood up, a few flakes of snow still melting in the black material. He held a magazine in his right hand, but his left hand picked four-packs of Duracell batteries from the rack and slipped them into the wide front pocket of the hoodie. He was good, but not good enough to get away with it here. She shook her head. Let him learn his lesson the hard way. She had a ton of work waiting for her down the street.

But something about the kid—maybe the youthful face shadowed by the hood—made her think of Kristen Dillard. Rationally, she knew this stranger had nothing to do with the fragile, orphaned crime victim recovering at Philadelphia Center for Inclusive Treatment, but sometimes rationality lost out to instinct—especially before any coffee hit her brain. She sighed and stepped beside him. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

He whirled on her with narrowed eyes. “Do what?”

She tilted her travel mug at his sweatshirt pocket. “That.”

He rolled his eyes, turning away. “Yeah, why don’t you mind your own business?”

“I’m an assistant district attorney. This is my business. Not that I prosecute shoplifters anymore, or juveniles. But I did enough of that when I was starting out. And you’d be surprised how many of my cases involved this store.”

He chewed his lip. “What are you talking about?”

She gestured at the security camera bolted to the wall near the ceiling, dusty and enmeshed in cobwebs. “That thing works, believe it or not. And the old man’s been watching you for the last five minutes. He looks like he’s reading, but Alish has eyes in his forehead. Probably already called the police.”

“Bullshit.”

“And he will press charges. He always does. He loves going to court.”

The kid seemed to hesitate, then his left hand began to unload his pocket. He didn’t thank her for the advice, or even say goodbye, before strolling out of the store. The bell jangled and he was gone.

One of the things I love about this scene is that it plays against the stereotype of the “tough as nails prosecutor.” Jessie is tough as nails when she needs to be, but she’s not a one-dimensional character bent on punishing the guilty. She wants to help people.

A word of warning: Once you start studying the concept, you’ll start seeing “Save the Cat” moments in books and movies everywhere. For example, I took my kids to see the Disney movie Moana. Early in the story, the main character sees a baby turtle stranded on the beach, being hunted by birds. She helps the turtle back to the water and its family. The incident is brief and the turtles are never seen again, but the point is made—Moana is a good person. Sitting in the dark theater, I smiled to myself at this blatant example of “saving the turtle.”

Jessie doesn’t save any turtles, but she’s a strong, compassionate prosecutor who fights for the victims in her city. Start the series today by buying the books here.

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