Want to save your novel? Then listen to the Muse and Save the Cat.
April 22, 2013
The Muse caught me in mid-sentence on my writing machine. It was as though he didn’t care how I had written, re-written, re-structured, or polished the sentence.
“I’ve read your novels,” he said.
I didn’t doubt it for a minute.
“You’ve got a problem,” he said.
I didn’t doubt that either.
“You’ve committed one unpardonable sin,” he said.
I started to defend myself.
Then I thought better of it.
Most times, my Muse does little more than preach and pontificate.
Occasionally, he gets something right.
Maybe this time he would.
“What mistake did I make?” I asked.
“You didn’t save the cat,” he said. “You didn’t save the cat in any of them.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“That’s the most critical thing you can do when you open a novel,” he said.
“Save the cat.”
I poured another cup of coffee and waited for him to explain.
I knew he was dying to tell me.
“It’s a trick every screenwriter in Hollywood uses if he wants a good script,” the Muse said. “It dates back to the silent movie era. The hero comes walking down the street and sees a little girl crying.
“’What’s wrong?’ he asks.
“’My cat’s in the tree,” the little girl says. ‘She won’t come down.’
“So the hero smiles, climbs the tree, rescues the cat, brings it down safely, and hands the cat to the little girl.”
The Muse grinned.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” he said.
“Sounds like a waste of time to me,” I said.
“When you first introduce your main character,” the Muse said, “you need to let your hero do something nice to someone or for someone. It doesn’t have to be big. It’s never part of the plot. But if the hero does something nice, the reader immediately knows this is a good person. He or she is someone readers can root for. You don’t have to tell them. They know it. It’s an impression that won’t leave them no matter how flawed or sorry your hero might be. Let me explain.”
“I hope you do,” I said.
“Did you see the Al Pacino movie, Sea of Love?” he asked.
“When the movie begins,” the Muse said, “Al is a cop running a sting operation. He and his team are on the bad side of town, offering free tickets to a New York Yankee game. They’re trying to draw out a bunch of parole violators and arrest them on the spot. It’s a good sting. But Al notices one lawbreaker coming in with his son because the guy wants to take his little boy to a New York Yankee game. Al quietly lets him go because he doesn’t want to arrest the man in front of his son. Every kid needs to think his daddy is a good guy. Al flashes his badge and whispers, ‘Catch you later.’ The man nods and walks away with his son. Here is a hard-nosed, hard-boiled tough New York cop, and you know he has a soft spot. Beneath that rough exterior is a man you immediately know you like. Al Pacino saved the cat. The scene took about five seconds, but the image lasted the whole movie.”
“That doesn’t sound difficult to do,” I said.
“It isn’t,” the Muse said. “But hardly anyone does it.”
“They’re too busy jumping into the action or some love scene
.” He paused then asked, “What are you writing now?”
“A little mystery,” I said. “I call it Deadline News.”
“How does it start?” he asked.
“It opens with an old doctor and a small town newspaperman in a boarding house bedroom where an old lady has been murdered.”
“How did she die?”
“Did you save the cat?” the Muse asked.
“I don’t guess I did,” I said. “I didn’t even know the damn cat was running loose.”
“It’s not too late,” he said. “Which one is your main character, the doctor or the newspaperman?”
“All you have to do,” the Muse said, “is have the reporter reach over and straighten the quilt or blanket on the bed, then pick up a photograph that the lady has on the night stand and wipe the dust off. You can even have him straighten a picture hanging crooked on the wall. He can make an off-the-cuff remark the there will be people coming in, and no woman wants anybody to see her room in a mess. This allows the reporter to show her some respect. It’s not a big deal, but the readers know that the reporter is a caring soul, so they figure it’s all right to care about him.”
“What if the sheriff gets mad at him for disturbing the crime scene?”
“What’s the time period?” the Muse asked.
“The nineteen thirties.”
The Muse laughed.
“Don’t worry,” he said.
“Crime scenes weren’t treated like crime scenes in the nineteen thirties,” he said. “They didn’t have DNA and a lot of fingerprinting techniques in those days.”
“Let the sheriff worry about the killer,” he said. “You just save your novel. All you have to do is save the cat.”