Blake Snyder calls this the “Save the Cat” rule, referring to the scene in a movie (just about any movie) where the hero does something to let us know that he’s worth rooting for. While we may like a character well enough, a heroic moment gives us a reason to invest in her.
It’s not a literal save. (Though Will Smith does save a cat in I, Robot. So does Sigorney Weaver in Alien(s).) It’s when the cop-on-the-take may give an old homeless guy money for lunch. The ice-queen socialite visits her dotty grandmother once a week. Even the revelation of a droll sense of humor can make us want to root for a character who might on the surface seem unsympathetic. (See: The Godfather, and any Quentin Tarantino movie.)
Some rules of thumb for “Saving the Cat”:
1) If your protagonist acts like a jerk, give him/her a reason to do so.
2) Give us a reason to like her, even if we don’t like her present actions.
3) Show us, don’t just tell us.
4) Show us early, or we might not make it that far.
5) Don’t forget to give us a reason to root for your likable hero, too.
I’m curious: What’s your favorite ‘save the cat’ example from a book or movie?
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