TRITE TROPES: SAVING THE CAT

In Trite Tropes we revisit the classic gimmicks used by writers of every medium, discuss why they were great, why they’re not anymore, and how to make them fresher.

The Trope:

For the uninitiated, saving the cat refers to a gimmick where the main character does something kind (like protecting a small animal) that lets us, the audience, invest deeply in their journey because we now know how good a person they really are. It originally occurred in Aliens, and is so famous and ubiquitous the number one bestselling book on screenplays is named after it. And why wouldn’t it be? Of all the tropes this one’s perfect! In one simple, brief, universally understood act we know everything we need to about our protagonist.

But… it can be a little dull.

bandw

A little? This meal is exciting by comparison

The Trite:

Seriously, for any experience writer/viewer nothing will illicit an eye roll faster than watching an actor save a cat. In my opinion it’s the number one marker for hack writing (right behind adverbs and narration). Some people try to keep it fresh by having the character save a dog. Or a mouse. Or a squirrel! But it doesn’t matter, savvy it ain’t.

Now I’m 100% sure every movie executive in the world loves this trope.

audience

Oh my God, the hero actually saved the cat, what a twist!

Just as I’m positive that Michael Bay fans won’t notice or care when it’s used. But a serious fan of fiction will spit it out the way a snobby douchebag does a too tinny glass of chardonnay.

wine spit

So tinny…

So the question is, can we save the cat in a way that the simple minded folks will like, but will also impress the more discerning reader/viewer? Funny you should ask. Because we can. All we have to do is …

The Trick:

kill the cat.

kitten

I think you meant to type ‘kill the dog’

Nope, you read that right: Kill it. Kill the cat. Sure, you can have the hero try and save the cat, but when they fail, and that feline goes through all nine lives in one go, some important things happen:

  1. The audience knows the hero’s good because they tried to do the right thing.
  2. But because they failed it gives the hero room to grow and change over the story, which provides a well defined and satisfying arc.
  3. But even more importantly, those viewers now know that you’re not fucking around. Anything can happen. Anything. The hero may die. The villain may win. Who knows? You killed a cat in the first five fucking minutes of the story! That’ll keep them on their toes! Unless you’re George RR Martin. Then there’s a very good chance it’ll be the most upbeat part of the book.
George-RR-Martin

Kill ‘a’ cat? I think you meant ‘kill all the cats’

TRITE TROPES: WAKING THE BABY

In Trite Tropes we revisit the classic gimmicks used by writers of every medium, discuss why they were great, why they’re not anymore, and how to make them fresher.

The Trope:

We’ve all watched a movie or TV show where someone, because they’re either angry, drunk, or an angry drunk, make a fuss and wakes the baby. This scene is especially effective at manipulating the emotions of the viewer for two reasons: first, it directs our anger towards one character while eliciting sympathy for the other, and second, it allows the writer to stop the scene at exactly the right moment.

End scene

End scene

It’s brilliant.

It’s simple.

And it works.

But it’s bullshit.

The Trite:

When a baby starts crying you don’t say, “Oh no, now you woke the baby.” You say, “Mother of God, you rat bastard fuckface, now I’m going to stab you in the eye,” because when someone wakes your baby it’s like getting kicked in the testicles by a mule. If you have three testicles. And the mule’s a cyborg. I’m not kidding. I don’t care what the problem is: alien invasion, bank foreclosing on the farm, or zombie Jehovah’s Witnesses, now they’re all exponentially worse because we’ve added a wailing infant to the mix.

angry_baby

The kissable, adorable face of evil

And that’s no small thing. Unlike the Terminator, a T-Rex, or a madman with a gun an angry baby can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be cajoled. It can only be rocked, rocked, rocked until it’s asleep or you’ve been embraced by the loving arms of madness. So the next time you see a couple fight on TV, and one of them wakes the baby, just realize if it was accurate the other person would brain them with a tire iron.

The Trick:

So what’s a writer to do if they want to avoid the cliche but still get the benefits that ‘waking the baby’ provides? Easy. Have the character you want disliked kick another person’s puppy. The smaller and cuter the better.

puppy

Or we could just kick the baby…

Yeah, it’s awful, and I feel bad suggesting it, but it’ll do the trick for reasons I don’t even have to explain (though I will). Instantly the viewer knows which character’s bad and which one’s good, just like when we wake the baby, but their redemption will involve something believable, like petting a sad puppy until it’s happy, as opposed to calming a crying baby, which is harder than drilling a kraken’s cavity.

kraken

Yeah, that looks waaaay easier