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

DIALOGUE or DO THEY SPEAK IT?

Having too much narration in your story is a lot like keeping a rotary phone in your house; both are heavy, slow, and no longer practical for their original use. But unlike narration rotary phones can still come in handy, like if you want to beat a home invader to death (assuming you could lift it…

phone

… which you can’t because that’s impossible).

See, kind of like the rotary phone narration was once an all purpose tool. It allowed anybody to write, and write well. But like other terrible ideas; racism, sexism, and murdering a rabbit as a pregnancy test, narration is no longer socially acceptable. Audiences have become more savvy. They expect better. Now we need to manipulate their emotions to bring them personally into our tales, and the only way to do that is with action and dialogue.

I know I beat those two drums a lot, but it’s a fact. And for those of us who want to write full length novels it’s vital. Because when you narrate you tell, and with action/dialogue you show. Which is as stark as the difference between hearing about how fun a concert was, and actually going to it. So I’m going to give you two examples, the first complex and the second simple, but both will show, not tell, why narration when overused is poison to your pen.

Mary entered the room and everyone in the place stopped speaking. Some were perplexed, others amazed, but nobody knew who she was. Each group of people she passed whispered among themselves about this mysterious, beautiful stranger.

You see what just happened there. I told you about the moment. I summarized it. Which basically meant I stood between you and the occurrence and reported it to you. Not a lot of fun. Now let’s see what happens when we create the same scene with dialogue and action…

Mary entered the room and the partygoers went silent. She descended the staircase, and as she passed the groups of people they began to whisper among themselves.

“Who is she?” one woman said.

“Her?” a gentleman said. “I hear she’s the heiress to a German baron, but had to leave Hamburg because of a scandal involving the Prime Minister.”

“No,” another lady said. “She’s the president’s secret illegitimate daughter.”

“Not daughter.” Another partygoer shook her head. “She’s the president’s mistress. My tennis coach’s masseuse knows her driver’s girlfriend.”

Mary heard the last one and smiled. Not even close.

Can you spot the difference? In the second example it’s like we’re at the party with Mary. We’re walking along side her as the rumors swirl. We don’t need to be told she’s mysterious because the people’s reactions clearly show us that. And we’re just as perplexed as they are. We feel the same way.

And this is why narration is such a dead fish, and why three hundred pages of it is like an ambien overdose. It not only severs all emotional ties between reader and story, but stops all forward momentum (your book’s pace) like Freedom Force’s Stonewall.

High fives to the three people who got that reference

High fives to the three people who got that reference

But if you’re still not convinced about how awful narration is let’s apply it not to fiction, but to a simple joke…

A priest runs into a member of his church, and says, “John, I haven’t seen you in months!”

John says, “Sorry Father, I stopped going to church. It’s just so full of hypocrites.”

“Yeah,” the priest says, shaking his head, “but we can always find room for one more!”

Funny right? Let’s see if narrating the joke makes it better or worse…

A priest ran into a former churchgoer and they exchange a few, humorous words.

 

Ahhh, good stuff! But seriously, if you can avoid narration in your writing, do it. Everyone will thank you.

sam Jackson

Narrate that again, I dare you, I double dare you motherf%@ker, narrate that one more God damn time!