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Weekend Writer: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel Chapters Four and Five by Jessica Brody

Hey all, Sam here.

It’s amazing how much better you can feel after two really great days in a row, two days that were a soothing balm for your mental health. I’m of course talking about the fact that we got together with friends and played our first session of Pathfinder 2E on Wednesday evening…and then everyone apparently had such a good time that they woke up on Thursday asking if we could play again late that night after everyone was off work, and we said yes. So two days in a row of sitting around a table, rolling some dice, and enjoying a chaotic and shenanigan filled fantasy adventure. It was the first time in MONTHS that we had been able to do that…and it felt WONDERFUL.

For the past couple of years I told the people who I thought were my friends that sitting at the table with them and playing D&D was beneficial to my mental health and that it helped me feel better and more centered…so obviously when they voted to kick David and I out of the group at the beginning of this year, after the group being on hiatus for several months, my mental health took a dive. It’s why I’ve spent the past few months struggling and feeling extremely depressed.

It feels so incredible to have a gaming group again, and even with only a few hours at the table with all of our characters, I already love our adventuring party so much, and am very excited to find out what will happen next. But…I’ll talk more about it in our next WIP Wednesday.

For today, hello, and welcome back to Weekend Writer, a weekly series where I talk about creative writing. The first Friday of each month, I use a bunch of idea generators to create prompts, which I use to give myself a mini writing project for the month. These prompts are available for anyone to use; it doesn’t matter if you are a novelist, a short story writer, a screenwriter, a poet, an artist, whatever…if the prompts inspire you to create something, then that’s awesome. And for the final Friday of the month, I like to share a snippet of something I’ve been writing over the month. Usually this includes some writing based on whichever prompt I selected for myself for the month, but sometimes also includes a different creative project I’ve been working on. If anyone else participates in these monthly writing prompts, I encourage them to share their projects as well, either in a comment, in their own blog posts, or on social media (I’m @SamRushingBooks on Twitter and Instagram).

All of the other Fridays of the month, the focus is on a creative writing topic. This could be a writing panel, a creative writing article or blog post or video, or most of the time, a book focused on the craft of writing. For most books, I try and split it up enough so I can do a deep dive through the sections and chapters without making the posts too long.

Our current bookish deep dive is focused on Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody, which is based on the books by Blake Snyder. The original books by Snyder had a focus on screenwriting, and Brody realized that the points could be refocused to cover novel writing as well…and here we are. Today the focus is on Chapters Four and Five, which began our breakdown of the Save the Cat! Genre Beats.

So…I don’t want to waste any more time here in the intro. Let’s go ahead and dive on in.

SAVE THE CAT!® by Blake Snyder is a popular screenwriting book series and storytelling methodology used by screenwriters, directors, and studio execs across Hollywood. Now, for the first time ever, bestselling author and writing teacher, Jessica Brody, takes the beloved Save the Cat! plotting principals and applies them to the craft of novel writing in this exciting new “workshop style” guide, featuring over 20 full beat sheets from popular novels throughout time.

Whether you’re writing your first novel or your seventeenth, Save the Cat! breaks down plot in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step method so you can write stories that resonate! This book can help you with any of the following:

Outlining a new novel
Revising an existing novel
Breaking out of the dreaded “writer’s block”
Fixing a “broken” novel
Reviewing a completed novel
Fleshing out/test driving a new idea to see if it “has legs”
Implementing feedback from agents and/or editors
Helping give constructive feedback to other writers

But above all else, SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL will help you better understand the fundamentals and mechanics of plot, character transformation, and what makes a story work!

Chapter Four: Whydunit- Detectives, Deception, and the Dark Side

First up is the Whydunit, which primarily covers books in the mystery genre. Now I’ll be honest, I don’t really read a lot of mystery–I prefer to watch it–and I also don’t write books that are primarily mystery. I might write fantasy with a mystery/puzzle to solve but it’s a subplot, not the main focus. So while I was able to learn some stuff from this chapter, it doesn’t make me want to decide to write a complete genre flip or anything.

As with all the previous chapters, this one opens with a spoiler tag for books that Brody will talk about throughout the chapter. Again, I still find myself happy that this is included. It’s just nice.

Brody says that we turn to mysteries to find out more about ourselves and to find out more about the dark side of ourselves. The whodunit of mysteries isn’t what makes the story compelling.

It’s the why, not the who.

Why would someone commit such atrocities?

And what does that say about who we are as humans?

These are the two questions at the heart of the Save the Cat! story genre called the Whydunit.

page 86-87

These types of stories, whether a classic murder mystery or a detective mystery, they share a common core: a crime that has been committed and a dark secret at the heart of it all. As a writer, it then is our job in these types of stories to keep the reader engaged and to keep them guessing. Because while yes, there need to be twists and turns for the person trying to solve the mystery within the story, it’s the reader who you really need to surprise and it’s the reader who will be changed by what they learn in the book.

If you think your novel fits into the Whydunit category, you’ll need three key ingredients to ensure its success: (1) a detective, (2) a secret, and (3) a dark turn.

page 87

First up: the detective. Mind you, this doesn’t mean someone who is professionally a detective or private investigator. They could be an amateur sleuth. Brody points out that two things need to be true about your “detective”: they have to be wholly unprepared for what they’re getting into, and they have to have a reason for getting dragged into this. Basically, even if your detective character has professionally solved hundreds of crimes, they should still not be prepared for what comes their way in your story. It has to show them something new, or else, what was the point of the story.

The second ingredient is a secret. As you the writer start revealing more things and the detective character keeps discovering things, the main secret will finally be revealed. Unlike the skeleton of the mystery which asks who and why, the secret is the what and the where and the when. The secret will start off small and get bigger and bigger. As the secret grows, so too does the detective’s drive to solve the case.

This leads to the third ingredient: the dark turn, which is that moment when the hero breaks the rules or abandons the rules in order to pursue the mystery or the person who instigated the mystery. Brody says the basic point for this part is to show how this search for the secret or the truth has affected them, and how it will transform them.

There is another element that can be found in the Whydunit, although it is not a requirement, and that is the case within a case, or the detective investigating one mystery only to find that it is linked to another one.

In the end, Brody states that the detective, the secret, and the dark turn all serve the purpose to show us something about the dark side of human nature.

On page 91 we are given a list of popular Whydunit novels. And on pages 92-102, Brody gives us our very own beat sheet breakdown of a novel. For this chapter it is The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. So…the beats we covered in Chapter Two, all 15 of them…we get to see the novel’s plot broken down beat by beat, which gives us a nice example of how the details are all laid out to create a compelling narrative.

Chapter Five: Rites of Passage- When Life Gets in the Way

Another chapter that opens with a spoiler tag for the books mentioned/spoiled in the chapter. This particular chapter focused on a common story theme, which is basically the hero growing and changing, aka the Rites of Passage.

Death, puberty, separation, midlife crisis, adolescence. These are the roadblocks of life that stop us in our path and force us to reexamine who we are as human beings. They’re also the building blocks of an incredible story that will resonate with readers because, hey, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been kicked in the butt by life at some point or other. We’ve all experienced some kind of “life problem” that required us to grow and change in order to overcome it.

page 103

This type of story is so common because we’ve all had life dump all sorts of things on us that we have to work our way through, things that cause us to change and hopefully to grow. Or, I guess, to actually grow, but it’s a question of if that growth is positive or negative. That doesn’t mean that the story needs to be all doom and gloom, because there are light-hearted and comedic tales that fit this story theme as well.

Much like with the last chapter, this one gives us three essential ingredients to a successful Rites of Passage story: (1) a life problem, (2) a wrong way to attack the problem, and (3) a solution of the problem that involves accepting a truth the hero has been avoiding.

Let’s break that down a bit.

Brody says that all great stories involve some sort of Act I problem that includes a wrong way to take care of it in Act II, and solving the problem in Act III that comes with accepting some truth that had been avoided before. What makes the Rites of Passage unique is that the initial problems arise from just being alive.

That life problem is unavoidable because it is simply a part of life, a part of being human. But you don’t actually have to be a teenager to experience growing up. There are plenty of stories with characters in their 20s or 30s who are having to adapt and grow up in some ways. Or, there are stories with a middle-aged protagonist who goes through some big life change and it again forces them to grow up.

Let’s remember that is also a common thing to have heroes who try to fix things the wrong way at first. This is where the second necessary ingredient comes in to play. This shows that the hero is actually resistant to change, but it also gives the story a purpose and a path forward. Because if the hero just accepted the changes humbly and moved forward then what would be the point of the story?

In the end though, Rites of Passage stories are about acceptance, which is the third ingredient for a successful growing up story. Because life isn’t going to change, so the hero had better change instead. Brody says that ultimately, when the hero accepts the change, they realize something about themselves, and in turn, that makes the reader realize something about themselves as well.

As with the Whydunit chapter, here is where we get loads of examples. On page 106, Brody includes a list of popular Rites of Passage novels. And from page 107-117, we are treated to the 15 story theme beat breakdown for The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

These beat breakdowns are fascinating, and I really enjoy having these extensive examples to show off how to use the 15 story beats we read about a few chapters earlier. It’s one thing to hear about what each beat means and what it’s supposed to do. It’s another thing entirely to see it in practice using popular novels in each story genre.

I’m really enjoying this book, and am finding this information very handy. I hope you all are enjoying these breakdowns as well.

Well, that is all from me for today. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.


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