by Rex Hurst, Columbia II Chapter Member
Note: This blog post originally appeared on Dec. 6, 2015 on the Columbia Writers’ Workshop blog and can be found here.
“Save the cat” is a term coined by the late Blake Snyder in manual of screenwriting of the same name. And while it was created for the purposes of screenwriting I feel that it works just as a well for a longer work of fiction.
The term is used to describe the scene where the audience (or reader) first meets the protagonist. The idea is that the character has to do something nice to make the hero like the character and begin to sympathize with them- that it is important to make the reader’s first impression of the protagonist a positive one.
The term incidentally comes from the opening scene of Alien, where the hero Ridley saves a cat named Jones.
This technique also helps to insulate the character from backlash later on if that person makes a decision that is morally questionable, arrogant, or even downright evil. The initial impression is supposed to linger and the audience remembers that the protagonist is not all bad, because he saved the cat.
I recently did an experiment where I wrote two similar short pieces where the main character is attempting to escape from a sinking ship. In one I had him furiously attempting to escape as fast as he could. In the second the only difference was that I had him attempt to save the life of a person who was on the verge of death by carrying him, thus slowing him down.
Overwhelmingly people preferred the version where the hero saves the cat. I know this is just anecdotal evidence, but I’m convinced.
Saving the cat works!
Rex Hurst is a writer and a university instructor originally from Buffalo, NY. He will very shortly be releasing his first novel The Foot Doctor Letters: A Serial Killer Speaks. He also is trying to discover if one can grow wheat in a pot sitting by the window. His blog site is rexhurstspeaks.blogspot.com.