While Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! (StC) was intended for screenwriters, it’s long been recommended to storytellers of all stripes, so it was only a matter of time until someone wrote a version specifically for novelists. Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long. Snyder published his book in the ancient year of 2005, but it wasn’t until 2018 that Jessica Brody hit the scene with Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (WaN). I was pretty hard on the original, but maybe the intervening 13 years have been enough time for the advice to crystalize into a more useful form.
Just kidding. It’s still nonsense, albeit a slightly different flavor of nonsense.
The Overpromising Is Out of Control
Snyder was big on overpromising when he wrote StC. The book’s tagline is “The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.” Once you crack it open, you’ll find vague claims about being able to write movies that are both critically acclaimed and financially successful. Maybe you’ll even be as successful as Miss Congeniality. Somehow. Anything’s possible!
Brody saw that overpromising and asked Snyder to hold her beer. WaN retains a similar tagline, portraying itself as the last book on novel writing I’ll ever need, but that is only the beginning. Chapter two is titled “The End of All Your Plotting Problems,” which is pretty ambitious considering I have a lot of plotting problems. Throughout the book, Brody heaps praise upon her and Snyder’s method, describing it as ancient wisdom and a “secret storytelling code.”
You don’t have to read too far to find the height of WaN’s overpromising though. On page seven, we encounter this gem of a paragraph.
And now, after plotting countless novels using the Save the Cat! methodology and teaching thousands of other authors how to do the same, I’ve come up with an easy-to-follow, step-by-step process for teaching novelists how to harness the power of that storytelling code and turn it into compelling, well-structured, unputdownable novels. And I’m sharing it all with you here in this book.
Well, that’s gotta be the last word, right? No one would make a claim like that without the ability to back it up! But wait, according to Brody’s website, she teaches online courses in novel writing, including one that’s specifically on the WaN method. Why would anyone need those if this book is already an easy-to-use, step-by-step process for writing an unputdownable novel? Are they just for the especially unskilled authors who don’t understand WaN’s genius?
Sarcasm aside, I’m reminded of a catchphrase from Sawbones: cure-alls cure nothing. That podcast is about debunking fake medical practices, and we can apply a similar lens to writing advice. Storytelling and medicine are both extremely complicated, and anyone claiming to sell you a complete solution for all problems is, at best, way too optimistic.
If WaN actually worked the way it claims to, we should be seeing a new crop of awesome books by new writers who couldn’t understand stories before but do now. It’s been four years, and as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened. WaN does have glowing blurbs from several authors on its sales page,* but they were all quite successful before this book came out.
Ordinarily, this would be a ridiculously high standard for any source of writing advice. But WaN specifically claims it can work miracles, and I haven’t seen any miracles yet.* There’s also a lot of emphasis on Brody’s own success as a writer, which is always funny in this kind of book. If I thought that authorial success made someone good at giving advice, I’d go to Stephen King or James Patterson!
So WaN is obviously not living up to its own hype, but maybe it can still be useful in a less exaggerated manner? Probably not, because…
Brody Doesn’t Care About Plot
Early in the book, Brody divides stories into exterior and interior arcs, the “A Story” and “B Story,” respectively. This is perfectly reasonable, and unlike Snyder, she actually explains what those terms mean. Amazing! Granted, she also claims that all stories have this split, which is an oversimplification, but close enough. Most novels will have an exterior conflict, what we would call the throughline, and an interior one, usually the protagonist’s character arc.
What’s less reasonable is when Brody then says that the external conflict doesn’t matter, and it’s the B Story that a novel is “really about.” This bold assertion is backed up by… nothing! Brody simply lists a bunch of novels, then declares that they’re really about the main character’s arc. Or at least, they’re about what Brody thinks the main character’s arc is.
Stephen King’s Misery isn’t about an author held hostage by a toxic fan; it’s about a man learning to write a really good book! Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One isn’t about the video game fighting and ’80s cultural references; it’s about Wade learning that real life is more important than games. Brody treats her statement like an axiom that serves as its own evidence.
It’s weird having to explain this, but no one can unilaterally declare what a book is about. It’s like declaring what the most important part of a house is.* People will often give different answers when asked what a story is about, and eventually, a consensus is reached. That consensus often reflects the external conflict, which is why most people will say that Lord of the Rings is about destroying the Ring of Power and defeating Sauron, rather than saying it’s about eventually failing to resist temptation.
This disdain is a recurring problem for WaN. While Brody summarizes a bunch of different A Stories, she has almost nothing to say on how they work or how to craft one. A number of sections can be entirely summed up as “plot happens here,” with the rest being left as an exercise for the student. You can read all 341 pages of this book and have no better idea of how to make a plot than when you started.
To Brody, the external conflict is just “what plays out on the surface.” It’s window dressing for the real action of character arcs, which she absolutely loves. In some of her summaries, she’ll even leave out critical plot details like why the villain was killing people, because that’s all plot stuff, not actually important. If that’s her preference as a reader, no problem, she’s free to focus on whatever she enjoys most. But for the rest of us, the plot is still pretty important. To give writing advice, you have to separate your own taste from objective criteria, which can be difficult. Brody doesn’t seem to try.
But she does have a lot to say about character arcs, so maybe WaN is useful for those? Well…
The Character Arc Advice Is Confused
Brody cares about character arcs a lot. She calls them the “true soul of a novel.” They’re clearly her bread and butter. Most of her example novels have heavy-duty character arcs. In the rare instance she picks a book that doesn’t have such arcs, she tries to make whatever arc it does have sound deeper and more important than it really is.
That kind of passion is a decent place to start, and some of her advice is pretty good. In particular, WaN details a process by which the protagonist has an internal problem that they first try to solve the wrong way, only making things worse. This process teaches the character a lesson that helps them actually solve the problem later. That’s a cool idea and could work very well.
Of course, it comes with the ever-present WaN asterisk that it’s useful for some stories. Brody pitches it as a universal constant, but it won’t always fit. Sometimes you want an arc where the character tries to fix things the right way first, but fails to do so for some reason. Even so, you can get a good arc out of Brody’s method.
Unfortunately, the advice gets a lot more chaotic from there. Brody uses the character goal method of storytelling, but an extremely weird version of it. She says that all characters need…
1. A PROBLEM (or flaw that needs fixing)
2. A WANT (or goal that the hero is pursuing)
3. A NEED (or life lesson to be learned)
This is already confusing because these items are all interchangeable with each other. A flaw that needs fixing is inherently a lesson to be learned, and a character could easily want and need the same thing. It’s also not clear if the parentheses is something that the character can have instead of the all-caps word, or if it’s an explanation. Is Brody saying that a character should have either a problem or a flaw that needs fixing, or is she saying that a character’s problem is a flaw that needs fixing?
Speaking of flaws, Brody is one of many writing advice givers who goes entirely overboard with them. She describes flaws as a “laundry list” and thinks they should define the character’s “entire world: their work, their home life, and their relationships.”*
That is, to put it mildly, too many flaws. If you follow Brody’s advice, you’ll end up with characters who have far more problems than the story can possibly resolve, even in a novel. This will leave your story feeling scattered and your readers unsatisfied. If you raise ten problems in the beginning, but only have time to resolve five of them, readers will wonder why you brought the other five up at all!
We also have to remember that not every protagonist needs to have flaws. The idea that they do is a weird myth that won’t die no matter how many times it’s disproved. It’s true that most stories are better if the character has an emotional arc to complement the external conflict, but overcoming a flaw is just one type of arc. For example: Frodo’s arc is about resisting and then falling to the One Ring’s temptation, which is a strong arc, but few people would describe Frodo as “flawed” at the beginning.
The Fake Genres Are Even Faker
If there’s one thing Brody cares about even less than plot, it’s Snyder’s 10 fake genres from StC. I sympathize, as the only thing Whydunit and Golden Fleece are good for is making fun of how obviously fabricated they are. But wait, you say. Brody spends 198 out of 341 pages on these genres, more than half of WaN’s length. How can I say she doesn’t care about them?
First, where Snyder defined each genre to a hyperspecific degree, Brody makes them so broad that nearly any story could be part of nearly any genre. For example, the Golden Fleece genre requires “(1) a road, (2) a team, and (3) a prize.” The road can be any location where the adventure takes place, and the team can be any number of characters. The prize is a little more specific: it has to be something important enough for the characters to seek it, and also give the hero an opportunity for their all-important character arc.
Under those criteria, Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl is clearly Golden Fleece. It takes place in a location: the protagonist’s town. It has a team of the protagonist and her ghost grandmother. Critically, it has a prize: the grandmother’s necklace. Finding it will allow her to rest and stop haunting the protagonist. More importantly to Brody, searching for the necklace gives the hero time to complete her character arc of having confidence in herself rather than depending on ghost magic.
Twist: that was a clever ruse on my part! You see, Twenties Girl is actually Brody’s example for the Out of the Bottle genre, despite it being a perfect match for Golden Fleece. The justification is that Out of the Bottle stories are those which have the character temporarily gain some kind of magic item or companion, like a ghost grandmother. Twenties Girl does meet that criterion, but you know what else does? Lord of the Rings, with Frodo temporarily being made guardian of a magic ring. Naturally, Brody puts LotR in Golden Fleece, because that genre is basically her dumping ground for high fantasy.
This kind of pattern repeats countless times across the genre chapters. The Hunger Games is classified as Dude With a Problem, while its sequel Catching Fire is labeled as Institutionalized despite being similar in almost every way. The Girl on the Train is supposedly a Whydunit because of the mystery, but it could easily be Rite of Passage, as Brody defines “rite of passage” so broadly that the hero overcoming alcoholism very much qualifies.
Brody is even aware of this issue, and in a section called “Bleeding Genres,” she basically acknowledges that the distinctions don’t matter because “Novels are complex. They don’t always fit neatly into just one category.”
Hey, that’s true! Stories do often blur the line between genres, both real genres and Snyder’s made-up ones. But if Brody thinks so, why does she spend so much time dividing books by genre?
Mostly, she doesn’t. Despite a considerable amount of text spent on how each genre is super special and an eternal storytelling truth, her actual examples barely mention them at all. At the end of each genre chapter is a detailed breakdown of a famous novel, but those are just ten opportunities for Brody to reinforce her basic approach to storytelling. If you mixed them up, you’d be hard pressed to remember these books are supposed to be in different genres, let alone which specific genre they’re from.
While I can’t know what happened behind closed doors, this certainly looks like a case of contractually obligated inclusion. Brody wasn’t hired to create just any writing advice book; she was hired to create a Save the Cat! writing advice book. That means Snyder’s genres have to be in there, even if they’ve been diluted until they’re barely recognizable.
Unfortunately, this is still a problem for WaN. Even if they’re super vague, these sections push the idea that broad storytelling choices should be made at the genre level. Plus, it’s just a waste of everyone’s time. A huge section of the book is little more than padding where Brody pays lip service to Snyder’s weird ideas before largely discarding them.
The Examples Are Dishonest
WaN uses lots of examples from famous novels, as you would expect from any book of writing advice. Conceptual lessons can only take you so far. Eventually, you need to show those concepts in action, and it helps to use stories that people have heard of. We do that at Mythcreants all the time.
The problem is that Brody’s portrayals of these stories are often blatantly inaccurate. Sometimes, this is evident because of major inconsistencies in her own summaries. In other cases, I just happen to have read some of her examples recently and can tell they’re different than what she describes.
I first noticed this pattern in the WaN breakdown of Bridget Jones’s Diary. In this description, the main character’s mother is briefly mentioned as an overbearing annoyance, someone the protagonist occasionally has to deal with while on romantic misadventures. But then Brody claims that the novel’s darkest moment is when the mother is accused of a serious crime.
That doesn’t sound very dark. If the protagonist has any warm feelings toward her mother, they aren’t mentioned. It certainly seems much darker when our hero discovers her first boyfriend cheating on her, and then later when her second boyfriend stops returning her calls. Maybe in the actual book it’s different, but Brody makes a bigger deal about the hero’s emotional angst during her romance problems than when her mother is randomly wanted for questioning.
This problem pops up even more in Brody’s description of The Martian. She claims that only a certain section of the book is about Watney “figuring out how to survive on a lifeless planet,” when that’s the entire novel. In another section, she lists a specific moment as one where Watney faces the fact that he might die, but that’s also the entire novel!
The most blatant error is when Brody claims that Watney’s big flaw is being “cocky,” a problem he has to overcome. This is simply untrue. Watney is confident, but never cocky, and he doesn’t have much of an arc at all. He’s just as confident at the end of the story as he was at the beginning.
A number of other examples appear throughout WaN. It describes Katniss as being unlikable until she volunteers as tribute to save Prim in Hunger Games, which isn’t true. She’s gruff, but that’s not the same thing. WaN also credits Ready Player One as having a message about real life being more important than video games, which is questionable at best, considering that every positive development in that book is due to a video game. The list goes on.
People interpret stories differently all the time, but some of these are so blatant that it’s hard not to view them as intentional. The advantage of fudging examples is pretty obvious, as it allows Brody to claim that a bunch of popular novels are already following her method, so obviously the rest of us should too.
WaN is also either unable or unwilling to critique popular stories. I don’t think I saw a single critical comment across all 341 pages. So Brody can’t argue that The Martian would be better if Watney had a character arc, an argument I’d probably agree with! She can only claim that he already has one because that’s in line with her ideas about storytelling.
It’s also possible that none of this is intentional and we’re just looking at a lot of wild misinterpretations. But if that’s the case, it amounts to the same thing. Whether through malice or incompetence, WaN distorts the facts to appear more profound than it really is.
Reading WaN after StC is a real trip because they’re written with such contradictory worldviews. Snyder’s book is defined by out-of-touch commercialism. If a movie made money, it is a good movie* and you should want your movie to be like it. In contrast, Brody’s book is full of literary snobbery, where little things like plot and worldbuilding are mere garnishes on the spiritually nourishing meal of character.
Normally, these two viewpoints would fight it out in an epic clash for all to see. Instead, we have out-of-touch commercialism interpreted through literary snobbery. The house Snyder built is still there, but the fixtures and furniture have all been switched. I didn’t even have time to get into how Brody interprets Snyder’s beat sheet. That’ll have to wait until next week, because right now I’ve had about all the overhyped writing advice I can stand.
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