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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
…kill the cat.
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:
- The audience knows the hero’s good because they tried to do the right thing.
- But because they failed it gives the hero room to grow and change over the story, which provides a well defined and satisfying arc.
- 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.