Today we’re taking a look at Blake Snyder’s infamous piece of advice for making your protagonist likable: save the cat, from his book by the same name. This is one of my favorite books on screenwriting, and this is one technique in particular that stands out.
Basically, the technique calls for your hero to ‘save a cat’ or do something heroic that makes the audience root for that character. This technique also has a flipside for villains, called “kick the dog,” in which the villain does something cruel that makes us hate him.
This technique is surprisingly effective, and can be found in hundreds of films. But in order to make your film stand out, you need to utilize this technique in a way that’s
3 Tips for This Technique
1. Think Outside of the Box. In order to hide the fact that you’re manipulating the emotions of the audience, you have to make your Save the Cat moment fresh and interesting.
2. Use With Character Introductions. If at all possible, try and work in the Save the Cat moment in conjunction with the introduction of your hero. In the first episode of Dexter, we see him kill a murderer mere minutes into the pilot. Right off the bat, we like this guy. Sure, he’s morally ambiguous — a killer murdering a killer, what a great gray area — but that only adds to the complexity of his character.
3. Use with a Reversal. After we meet Dexter, he tells us, “My name is Dexter — Dexter Morgan and I’m going to kill this man tonight” on the third page of the pilot script. It’s not until page five that we realize that the man he plans on killing has murdered children. A Save the Cat reversal is even more powerful than just the Save the Cat moment alone because it completely hides the manipulation and instead surprises the audience. The use of reversals throughout all six seasons of Dexter is part of the reason the show is so successful.
Drawbacks of this Technique
Making your characters likable in the minds of your audience is critical, but it can argued that the Save the Cat technique is emotionally manipulative, and irrelevant when your lead character is an anti-hero.
But even the Walter Whites of the world need to have a family to fight for, or else they’re just your run-of-the-mill villains instead of a complex and compelling anti-hero.
All writing is emotionally manipulative in a way — after all, we are creating fictional characters and putting them in situations in order to illicit an emotional response from the audience. The Save the Cat method is deceivingly simple, but if done incorrectly the audience may be taken out of the film if they realize they’re being manipulated.
So smooth over the technique with plenty of surprises along the way for maximum effectiveness.
Best of luck!