Strengthening Plots with Save The Cat’s Story Categories

In Save The Cat!, Blake Snyder presents ten categories for stories:

  • 🦖Monster In The House: A metaphorical or literal monster is on the loose in an enclosed space.  (Alien, Psycho, American Psycho)
  • 🏆Golden Fleece: The protagonist embarks on a quest, but finds something greater than their original objective. (Rocky, Finding Nemo, Star Wars)
  • 🧞‍♂️Out Of The Bottle: A magical blessing or curse teaches the protagonist a lesson. (Freaky Friday, Mary Poppins, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
  • 🚨Dude With A Problem: An average person is faced with a sudden event and winds up struggling to survive. (North by Northwest, Die Hard, Apollo 13)
  • 🎭Rites Of Passage: The protagonist undergoes the trials and tribulations of life. (Lost In Translation, Trainspotting, Napoleon Dynamite)
  • 🍒Buddy Love: The protagonist and their counterpart make each other’s lives whole. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Free Willy, Titanic)
  • 🔎Whydunit: A detective obsessively pursues a dark secret. (The Manchurian Candidate, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Chinatown)
  • 🃏Fool Triumphant: The protagonist is underestimated by everyone around them, but ultimately prevails. (The Princess Diaries, Legally Blonde, Forrest Gump)
  • 🎪Institutionalized: The protagonist must decide whether to submit to a group or separate from it.  (The Godfather, Office Space, Dead Poets’ Society)
  • 🎖Superhero: The protagonist battles their nemesis, but finds that their power sets them apart from regular people. (Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Incredibles)

Any story that has any level of subplot has elements of more than one category: on a superficial level most stories sound like Dude With A Problem, and Buddy Love is present in scores of subplots. But most stories fundamentally align with one of the categories, and those that resist categorization tend to be poorly structured and suffer for it. The easiest way to categorize a story is to look for the Core Question (also known as the Major Dramatic Question, Story Question, Central Story Question and so on). This is a question about the main goal of the story that can be answered with a yes or a no.

For example, in The Wizard Of Oz the Core Question is “Will Dorothy find a way home?” She and her friends go on a journey to find the Wizard, making it a classic Golden Fleece. In The Lord Of The Rings, it’s “Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring?” Also a Golden Fleece. For The Hunger Games it’s “Will Katniss survive the Games?” Dudette with a Problem.

Plenty of stories are nowhere near as clear-cut as these examples, and batting around which category a movie belongs in is a common pastime for Save The Cat! fans. The categories aren’t important in and of themselves: rather, they’re tools to help refine and tell a good story, and they can also help identify weaknesses in stories.

Take Sarah J. Mass’ Throne of Glass, which can be clearly placed in one category but strays from its expectations over the course of the story. Although the book has a lot going on — murder, romance, friendships, secondary points of view — the Core Question is “Will Celaena surpass the other contestants in the Tests and become the King’s Assassin?” The other subplots could theoretically be cut, but without that competition, there’s no book. If she was an average person it could be Dudette with a Problem, but Celaena has been trained as an assassin from childhood. Plus, competitions with a prize at the end tend to indicate Golden Fleeces. Each category has certain elements that make it what it is, and Golden Fleeces’ elements are:

  •  “A road” – a literal or metaphorical path on which the hero travels
  • “A team” – the people who support and change the hero on her journey
  • “A prize” – the ostensible point of the quest, which turns out to be less meaningful than the lessons learned on the quest itself

Throne of Glass has all three: the road is the competition itself, the team is made up of the prince, the captain of the guard and the visiting princess, and the prize is the opportunity to escape prison and win her freedom after four years of service. So at its heart, the story is a Golden Fleece.

Knowing what the Core Question and the category are, we have some idea of what we’d expect to see: Celaena participating in the Tests and having meaningful experiences in subplots. However, the competition itself is de-emphasized more and more as the book continues. Towards the end, one part of the competition is dismissed with a sentence: “Amidst her worrying, another Test passed without incident or embarrassment.” Another Test is flat-out cancelled. The question that caught readers’ curiosity in the first place is sidelined in favor of scenes where Celaena goes to the ball, searches for a murderer, plays piano, kills a monster, gets a puppy, trains with the captain of the guard, eats candy and so on, until the climax where we witness the last Test. If you’re suspending belief and caught up in the subplots, you might barely notice this. But if those scenes aren’t working for you, you might start thinking “Hey, wasn’t she here to participate in a contest? What happened to that?” 

For me, Throne of Glass was a 5-star book — what can I say, I am a sucker for characters going to the ball and eating candy — but if readers expect to read about a contest, and that contest is quietly de-emphasized over the course of the book, then on some level we’re going to feel like our expectations weren’t met. It’s easy to forgive if we like the story, but if the reader isn’t buying into it, then the ways in which it doesn’t meet expectations loom all the larger. This is reflected in critical reviews of the book: although it enjoys a high rating on Goodreads overall, the most liked review is one star, which makes the same point in a rather more snarky way.

Shifted: Siren Prophecy 1 has a slightly different problem: it has two Core Questions for the main character’s plot arc, meaning that the reader continually feels confused and their expectations can’t be satisfied. The story kicks off when the teenage Myreen defies the rules she’s lived with all of her life and goes to a party after dark. She comes back to find her mom has been killed by vampires. This creates a straightforward Core Question: “Who killed Myreen’s mom and why?” It also suggests a host of other questions: “Is Myreen next? Did she somehow bring it on herself by breaking her mom’s rules? Will she seek revenge? How can she protect herself against vampires?” We have an innocent hero, a sudden event and, very likely, a test of survival: classic Dudette with a Problem.

However, a teacher from a special school for shifters immediately swoops in and whisks Myreen away from the scene of the crime. Once Myreen gets to this school, she becomes preoccupied with coping with her previously unknown mermaid powers, dealing with bullies, making new friends and navigating flirtations. So the bulk of her story falls into the Institutionalized category, with the core question being “Will Myreen learn to control her powers and find her place in shifter society?” The loss of her mother is never far from her mind, but she doesn’t seem curious about why her mother was targeted, who was behind it, if she too is a target, how she can strike back, and so on. Her mother’s murder is what kicks off the story, but it’s soon pushed to the side in favor of high-school hijinks and the story suffers for it.

Most readers have never heard the words “inciting incident,” couldn’t tell you the difference between an iconic hero and a transformational hero, and don’t care why some stories are told in first person and others in third. But they know on some instinctual level if a story seems off, and if our heroine is preoccupied with hot boys and mean girls three days after her mother was murdered by vampires, the story can’t ring emotionally true. Myreen’s plot has two story questions, and trying to treat them with equal weight means that neither one really works. 

Reducing stories to ten basic categories might feel grating, because it’s in our nature as writers to want to do something new and amaze readers with our brilliance and creativity. But using these categories as tools can help our stories feel more accessible and coherent. If you’re writing a story, which category does it fit in? Which category is your favorite to read or watch? (Institutionalized and Golden Fleece are mine.)

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