If you asked me what my greatest writing weakness was, I’d say plot. Easily.
Most times, when I start a new story, all I’ve got is a ‘what if?’, some characters I want to meet, some unpleasant things to befall them, and hope. That hope guides me through many a first draft. Maybe I should’ve done some more planning beforehand but look at this shiny new plot point! And another! Yes, this writing lark is easy.
Then I finish. Like a student after a night out, I blearily look over my words. A whole lot of fun when I wrote them, but under the cold light of craft knowledge they’re hole-ridden, frayed round the edges, tied together by loose strings of events. Not a pretty thing to wake up to.
After feedback from a novel writing module at university suggested I work on plot and structure, I decided to do deeper research. I hoped to find something that would finally help me understand how to build a novel.
Instead, I found a cat.
Save the Cat! is a storytelling method that has spun off into books, software, classes and more. Its creator, the late screenwriter Blake Snyder, claimed to have found a universal structure in most mainstream media. One of the books I picked up in my research explained how that structure could appear in novels.
As you can see, I devoured it hungrily, along with a couple of scones. Finally, a book that broke down every part of a story, allowing me to better understand their purpose.
Not only did it help me with my university coursework, it’s also influenced how I develop my ideas and plan future novels ever since.
Then I heard about the controversy.
Some people believe the Save the Cat! structure is formulaic. Useful for selling commercial fiction and Hollywood blockbusters, but it can never be used to create anything good.
So, what’s the alternative? Well, there’s the Hero’s Journey, which some Save the Cat! detractors point to as a superior model. But what’s Crossing the Threshold if not a Break Into Two? What’s a Call to Adventure if not a Catalyst? The only difference is the Hero’s Journey provides no support in understanding the purpose of different points in a novel. Like other advice I’ve received about story structure, it’s frustratingly vague.
Other writers feel you should let The Muse (or a copious amount of cocaine) take the story where it will go. That’s great if you’ve been writing for years and have a couple of novels under your belt, but some of us are still learning how to knot the threads.
Novel planning has become easier for me as I get older and learn more about the craft of storytelling, but that’s thanks to advice I got from places like Save the Cat! This bank of knowledge allows me to make judgement calls for whatever I’m working on.
For example, I don’t use the exact percentages suggested by Jessica Brody in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Every story goes at a different pace; sometimes the major catalyst comes earlier than the novel’s 10% point. No, there won’t always be a convenient character to discuss the theme about 5% through. Trying to force elements in because the maths says so won’t be the best thing for your story.
So where does that leave you? I’d say you need to make your own judgement. Dive into the advice out there (I’ve made a list below) and see what resonates with you the most.
And don’t feel guilty or as if you’re writing ‘predictable’ fiction if that involves a cat in peril. What you take from it, and the imagination you put back in, will make it entirely your own.
Liselle Sambury’s Fun and Games Video (Good for if, like me, you get stuck with middles)
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby (Thanks Kevin!)