Novel writing rules – part 2

My previous blog discussed the first of three books dealing with rules for writing novels. In this one, I talk about the second — Save the Cat.

As I presented before, the situation is summarized by the famous quote by W. Somerset Maugham –

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Nevertheless, I plunge on.

Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, is a book about writing screenplays. As one might expect, not all of the material there applies to novels — things which have a much broader scope. But I think it is an interesting exercise to examine what is presented through the lens of a novelist.

The first five chapters cover many aspects of screen writing:  developing the logline, ten movie genres, characteristics of the movie protagonist, and so on. There is a lot well worth reading there, even for the novelist, but for my purposes here, I will focus on chapter six: The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics.

Immutable Laws — is that on topic or what!

I found that some of the immutable laws apply to novel writing and some did not. Here’s the roll call

Save the Cat — applies

“The hero has to do something when we first meet him so that we like him and want him to win”

When I look back at some of the reviews of my first novel, Master of Five Magics, written over thirty years ago, I am struck about some on the comments that said that the hero, Alodar, was driven, competent, etc. but he was also arrogant — not a likeable character.

Now I never had Alodar kick old ladies out of the way or stomp on babies, but there it was — arrogant. Who knew?

Shortly after finishing my read of Save the Cat, (within hours)  my wife and I saw the movie “Me Before You”. In the very first scene, the male protagonist is hurrying off to work, and as he crosses the street is hit by a car and becomes a paraplegic. But in a single line tossed off to his wife as he had left the apartment had been something like, “I will take care of dinner tonight”.

Wow, I marveled. He had saved the cat!

In the second scene, the female protagonist who would eventually become the caregiver for the injured man tells two women standing before her counter at a bakery  something like, “They have fewer calories if you eat them standing up.” The customer guilt is swept away. She too had saved the cat!

Thereafter, I paid much closer attention to the structure of the movie than I had ever done before, and was agog at how much advice of the book had been followed in the screenplay. The movie was written by the author of the novel, which is unusual I guess, but either Jojo Moyes was also a reader of the book or she has incredible screen writing instincts.

So why not go ahead and save the cat in a single protagonist centered novel? It only takes one line or so, and if no big deal is made of it, it should only help.

Now, before reading Save the Cat, I had already finished my revisions to the second edition of Master of the Five Magics, and it was cast in concrete for the production process. I hurriedly reread what I had written in the new Chapter Two, and to my relief, coincidentally there happened to be a line or two that might qualify as following the rule.

Yes, cat saving is definitely something to be aware of when writing a novel.

The Pope in the Pool — applies — but how does one do it for a novel?

Bury the “backstory or details of the plot that must be told to the audience in order for them to understand what happens next.”

Well, OK. No argument on the validity of this one. But how does one do this? How does one bury essential information so that it does not get in the way?

The book does go further than just stating the rule. It presents a technique that works for movies — have some interesting visual going on for the viewers to watch while the explanatory words are happening as a voice-over — like the pope taking a swim in the Vatican City swimming pool.

Double Mumbo Jumbo — doesn’t apply

“Audiences will accept only one piece of magic per movie”

This is a rough one to follow in a fantasy novel, although it probably has merit for a more general audience. What Snyder is saying is something like – “Magic, OK. but magic and aliens, and time travel and …” is definitely not OK.

Laying Pipe — applies

“Audiences can stand only so much pipe”

Snyder defines pipe as all of the initial setting structure that is necessary in order for the story to get off the ground.

My reaction to this was, “of course, but in so doing one is creating downstream problems that in movies are solved by Popes in the Pools. Not so easy to follow in an novel.

Too Much Marzipan — maybe applies

I suppose that all of us writers aspire to be more than just formula hacks — churning out prose that does not have literary value. So we introduce little tidbits along the way and they all tie together in the final satisfying reveal of what is actually going on.

Perhaps having something like:

The nursemaid who vanishes when the castle is stormed and Destiny’s Darling is kidnapped. – Turns out she secretly was his aunt and gave him a crucial power needed in the climax.

The sword that could never be drawn except in uncontrollable rage? – It was forged from no less than steel taken from the ruins of the castle.

The feather he wore in his cap? From his guardian wren who had sang at the protagonist’s cradle side

that are all crucially needed for the hero to defeat the dragon in the end.

Snyder says, “You cannot digest too much information or pile on more to make it better.”

Clearly, I was guilty of this in Master of the Five Magics. My editor, Lester del Rey, in analyzing the first draft of Master of the Five Magics said something along the lines of

“OK, you have set up five types of magic in detail and have Alodar move from one to the next. But why? What is the purpose of all of that?”

So for my second draft, I wove back in the threat of demons and what the wizards had prepared as a defense. It answered del Rey’s question, but at the expense of a huge long exposition at the end of the book, violating Snyder’s rule.  I knda liked what I did, but perhaps it was too  much marzipan.

What would I do differently now? I do not know. Even after reading Save the Cat, I don’t know.

Watch out for that Glacier – applies

Snyder says that the danger to the protagonist always has to be imminent. Gradually getting closer just does not hack it. Heros need challenges right here and now. Sure, the aliens are going to be here in a decade or so, but right now, he has to deal with the boa constrictor that is swallowing him. If he is in a movie for which the danger is not immediate, Snyder’s instinct is to yell out in the theatre, “Watch out for that glacier!”

The Covenant of the Art – applies – but, gosh, everybody

Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story”

Well, sure the protagonist must change. However, except for the bad guys who remain bad, Snyder says that everyone else must change. That’s a tall order.

Keep the Press Out – does not apply

Do not have exposition or advances in the plot occur though the actions of the media.

Summing up

These brief paragraphs do not do Snyder’s book justice. It is a very enjoyable read. Totally unacademic in tone, breezy, funny, and chocked full of examples. While I was reading it, I found myself repeatedly thinking, “That’s why I enjoyed that movie so much,” or “That’s why I did not.”

A treasure trove of advice for the novelist as well as the screenwriter. Highly recommended.

Next time I will be finishing this series by discussing The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester








© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

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