scared cat in a tree needs saving

You have to save that darn cat

A lot of feature screenplays have a good “save the cat” moment. But what is that, exactly?

You’ve heard the expression. But do you really understand what a ‘save the cat moment’ is in a screenplay?

The late great Blake Snyder (RIP) may not have fully grasped the endurance of the catchphrase he created when he wrote his now-infamous beat sheet. But endure it has and has become a funny trope.

Remember Danny Glover’s character saving the cat from the opening explosion in Lethal Weapon 3? And Will Smith has had his own dramatic save the cat scene in I Robot.

There are other films where the hero literally saves a cat. It’s an inside joke that is quickly becoming known to broader audiences.

But what’s its purpose?

Snyder explains it as audience manipulation to make subtly sure that they will be cheering for the hero. The moment comes early in the script to engage the audience by showing them the hero is a good guy or gal.

Cement your hero as redeemable

Steve White has kindly pulled together four great examples, none of which involve actual cats. (But all of which concern male heroes, ahem.) You want to create a moment that gives your hero an unmistakable je ne sais quoi that will endear them, regardless of their character’s other activities.

Aladdin may be a thief, but he feeds the hungry kids and saves them from a nasty rich guy.

It’s a pretty simple concept

Most audiences are utterly unaware the writer has manipulated them into falling in love with the hero from the get-go. Or even if they are aware, they don’t mind.

Unless they’re not cat people. Which does worry me a little. Oops. After all, speaking as a dog person (who tolerates cats, but doesn’t watch the videos) let’s face it, that’s a legitimate way to splice an audience. So it’s probably a good idea to make your ‘cat-saving scene’ about something less controversial.

Like a child. Or maybe an elderly person minding their own business.

In one of my scripts, my main character (MC) is busy and generally unlikeable at first. I don’t make her save a cat. She can barely give a quarter to a down-on-his-luck guy who lives in her neighborhood. But she does have a great relationship with her super likable brother, who is a single dad of three girls, including one adopted from Haiti. She gains a little redeemability vicariously from him.

The keys to an effective save-the-cat scene are:

  • It happens early in Act 1 (to establish the MC’s decency)
  • It unfolds naturally (doesn’t feel contrived)
  • Doesn’t happen in isolation (i.e. if there’s a cat in the first scene, it needs to be there for a reason – like Chekhov’s Gun)
  • Doesn’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) literally save a cat (or a dog)

That’s it. You got this. Now you know, it’s impossible to not notice.

Oh, and you might want to read the book. No matter what they say. Just like cats and dogs, there are as many who love it as don’t. And IMO, it’s a terrific tool for beginners that’s both easy to read and funny.

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