I came across the phrase, "Save the Cat," in a blog on how to salvage a manuscript. It's a plot development technique. I could tell that much from the context of the blog. So I had to look it up to learn more. The phrase was coined by screenwriter Blake Snyder and became the title of his widely-read book about scene development.
I at first thought that saving the cat referred to the final hurrah, the climax. This presupposition stems from the fact that I am a cat person. Saving the cat is the most important outcome, right? If the cat is saved, everything else has to be just fine. It's a great way to tie up a plot and satisfy readers.
But I was wrong.
A "Save the Cat" scene quickly connects the reader to your character, so the reader is willing to go along for the ride. “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him,” says Snyder.
Steven W. White, a novelist, teacher, and blogger (noveldog.com) gives movie examples with Save the Cat scenes. One is from "Hang 'Em High," a violent, bloody movie of revenge. Revenge movies don't work unless the audience really likes and can identify with the main character. So the first sixty seconds of "Hang 'Em High" shows Clint Eastwood's character driving a small herd of cattle over a river crossing. After all are across, a little calf is lying in the shallow water, unwilling to get up. Eastwood rides out to the the calf and gets off his horse to squat beside the little one and hold its face, almost kissing him on the nose. The first line of dialogue is "I guess I'm gonna have to carry you, huh?" And he picks up the baby in his arms and wades him back toward shore. This moment convinces the audience that the fellow who turns out to be a revenge-exacting badass has a soft side, a very likeable side.
Save the Cat scenes can come in anywhere, but if the hero of a novel is one with a bit of shame about him, like Charley Bristow in my novel, "The Lark," he needs a scene to display his nobility. My editor, Barbara Brannon of Bookadelphia Publishing, spotted this right away. She said some readers might chalk up Charley as a skirt chaser and put the novel down right at the beginning, but at her suggestion to think of a way for Charley to become more noble early in the plot, I created a minor character, Wes Farley, who makes an offensive comment about Charley's mother while the guys stand around the pool table one night. Charley faces down the weaker man and has him groveling an apology. He throws out the line, "Everyone's different on how they field life's curve balls," and he walks away, telling Wes to forget it and admonishing him to be more careful about how he talks about people's mothers. Brave and noble. And we're better prepared for April, Charley's mother, when we meet her.
So I Saved the Cat and didn't know it. Nice to have a new label for the craft of writing. New to me, anyway.