Or the theme of your novel, at least.
There are dozens of formulas to choose from when you start writing fiction. There’s the hero’s journey, the three act structure, the seven point story structure, and so many more. It can be overwhelming, there is no doubt. And to add to the confusion, they aren’t all appropriate for every type of story. Every genre has its own go-to structures. Romance has Romancing the Beat and Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Mystery has the 12 Chapter structure. Lester Dent’s Pulp Formula is great for short stories.
But one of the most popular fiction writing formulas around right now is Save the Cat. Save the Cat:The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need was originally written by Blake Snyder for screenwriting. In Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, Jessica Brody transformed Snyder’s formula for writing novels. This is the version I’ll be talking about today.
“Save the Cat!” is a formula for crafting a novel, beginning with an intriguing opening image. We meet our protagonist, glimpse their world, and an event (the Catalyst) knocks things off-kilter. They question this change (the Debate) before diving into a new reality, marking Act Two. Here they encounter adventures (Fun and Games), face a significant turning point (Midpoint), and wrestle with increasing pressures (Bad Guys Close In), leading to a crisis (All is Lost) and a period of deep introspection (Dark Night of the Soul). Act Three commences with an ‘aha’ moment (Break into Three), then builds up to the climactic showdown (Finale). The narrative wraps with a closing image, reflecting the opening but showcasing the protagonist’s transformation.
For this post, I’m going to focus on using Save the Cat and ChatGPT to dig into the theme of a novel and explore how the theme will play out over some of the important beats. I won’t be going through all the beats, because that’s not what I did when I used it for the project I was working on. But it could easily be used on every major beat to help craft a really compelling story that keeps the theme in mind throughout.
Below is my exchange with ChatGPT. It starts with some conversation about figuring out the theme of a story I already had in mind, and continues with how to have those themes play out over the course of the novel. By doing this, I could more clearly see what each of the options would look like and make a decision on how I wanted the story to go.
ME: I’ve decided to use Save the Cat to structure this book. I was working through it and there is a part I’m having trouble figuring out that I was hoping you could help me with. At around 5% there should be a Theme Stated beat – a statement made by another character that hints at what the hero’s arc will be (what they have to learn or discover). I’m kind of imagining something about family is forever or something that hints at the found family aspect of the story but I don’t know for sure. Basically she has been kind of a loner and she and her father have been separated from the rest of the father’s family for most of her life and now through the things that happen in the story I want her to find connection and a family and a purpose again. But there’s also a family secret that ties it all together too. It turns out that the grandmother had an affair with someone long ago, and that person is her father’s real father. And this is the secret that the father found out that made him cut ties, but the main character never knew it. Also, the main character is currently having an affair with a married man so she is in a similar situation but on the other side so she can understand the grandmother’s position a lot more. Can you help me brainstorm what the theme of this story might be?
GPT-4: Absolutely, I can help you brainstorm possible themes. Given the elements you’ve described, here are a few potential themes:
- Secrets and Revelations: This theme revolves around the idea that hidden truths often shape our relationships and identities in profound ways, even if we’re not aware of them. The key statement could be: “Truth may be buried, but it always finds a way to surface.” This theme reflects both the grandmother’s and Marion’s situations as they’ve both had affairs and kept them secret, but eventually these truths come out and deeply affect their lives and relationships.
- The Cycles of Mistakes and Understanding: This theme implies that people often repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, but understanding these patterns can lead to growth and reconciliation. The theme-stating beat could be: “History tends to repeat itself, until we understand why.” In this case, Marion finds herself inadvertently echoing her grandmother’s choices. Understanding this connection could help her learn about herself and reconcile with her family history.
- Found Family and Belonging: This theme emphasizes that family is not always about blood ties but about love, support, and understanding. The theme could be introduced with a statement like: “Family is less about blood and more about love.” Even though Marion’s father wasn’t biologically related to his presumed father, the fact remains that he was raised as part of that family. Similarly, Marion, despite her distant relationship with her father’s family, finds a deeper connection with them throughout the story.
- Redemption and Forgiveness: This theme focuses on the idea that understanding someone’s past actions can lead to forgiveness and healing. A character could state: “Understanding is the first step towards forgiveness.” As Marion comes to terms with her own actions and understands her grandmother’s, it gives her a chance to forgive and rebuild her relationships.
Remember, a theme isn’t just a word or a statement—it’s a thread that runs throughout the story. Whatever theme you decide on, it should be reflected in the character arcs, subplots, and resolutions in the story. It’s not just about saying it—it’s about proving it through the story’s events and outcomes.
ME: These are all great choices! The next question I have is,, what might the following beat look like for each of the themes you suggested: 80% Break into 3 – aha moment where she realizes what she has to do to fix problems from act 2 and also fix herself.
GPT-4: Certainly, here’s how the “Break into 3” moment might look like for each of the suggested themes:
- Secrets and Revelations: In this case, Marion could find a hidden letter or diary from her grandmother, in which the grandmother speaks openly about her affair, her love for her biological son (Marion’s father), and the pain of her secret. This gives Marion a deeper understanding of her family’s actions and her own. She realizes that the only way forward is to bring this truth into the light, despite the consequences, just as she must do with her own secret affair.
- The Cycles of Mistakes and Understanding: Marion, seeing the mirror of her actions in her grandmother’s history, realizes that she is in a cycle of repeating the same mistakes. She sees the damage this secret did to her family, and she doesn’t want to carry it forward. She decides to break the cycle: she ends her own affair, decides to reveal the family secret, and advocates for open communication within the family to prevent future similar occurrences.
- Found Family and Belonging: After spending a significant amount of time with her newfound family, Marion comes to realize that despite the deception and pain, they are all bound by a sense of shared history and love. The secrets and scandals don’t change the bonds that have been formed. The “aha” moment is that family isn’t defined solely by blood, but by shared bonds, love, and support. She decides to acknowledge the past but not let it define them, choosing to strengthen the bonds with her newfound family and also end her affair, choosing meaningful relationships over deception.
- Redemption and Forgiveness: Marion, having lived through her own scandal, comes to understand the complexity and depth of human emotions, the mistakes one can make when overwhelmed, and the cost of carrying the burden of these mistakes. She realizes that forgiveness is the only way forward—for her grandmother, for her father, and for herself. Her “aha” moment involves her deciding to reveal the family secret, forgive her grandmother, end her own affair, and seek forgiveness from those affected by her actions.
In all cases, remember that the decision should not be easy for Marion. It should be a struggle, symbolizing her growth and the weight of the situation she’s in. Also, keep in mind that her decision and its execution should lead to the climax of the story.
ME: Excellent! And similarly, what would the following beat look like for each of the themes: 80-99% The Finale – prove they’ve learned the theme by enacting the plan she comes up with in previous beat.
GPT-4: Of course, here are potential final acts for each of the proposed themes:
- Secrets and Revelations: Marion decides to organize a family gathering where she reveals the secret of her grandmother’s affair and her father’s real lineage. She also confesses her own affair and breaks it off. The family reacts in shock, but eventually, there’s a sense of relief as old wounds can now begin to heal. Marion also publishes an article about her family’s history, the secrets kept, and how the revelation led to their liberation, showcasing her acceptance of the truth.
- The Cycles of Mistakes and Understanding: Marion ends her affair and confesses it to the man’s wife, feeling it’s her responsibility to break the cycle of secrecy. She also gathers her family to reveal the secret about her father’s lineage, urging everyone to learn from the past and break their own cycles. The finale could involve Marion starting a workshop or writing a column in her food magazine about understanding and breaking destructive patterns in family and relationships, signifying her understanding of the theme.
- Found Family and Belonging: Marion addresses her family about the past and emphasizes the love and support they’ve provided despite not being blood-related. She ends her affair, realizing the importance of genuine relationships over superficial ones. The finale could show her becoming more involved with her father’s family and their town, organizing community events, and writing a book about found families and their importance, indicating her acceptance of her found family.
- Redemption and Forgiveness: Marion takes it upon herself to gather her family and apologize for her mistakes while also revealing the truth about her father. She also seeks forgiveness from the wife of the man she was having an affair with. The finale might include a ceremony where she and her family members symbolically forgive the grandmother and each other. Marion might then write an article or a book on the importance of forgiveness in family relationships, demonstrating her commitment to forgiveness and redemption.
In each scenario, Marion actively takes responsibility for her actions and the uncovering of her family’s secret. This should prompt other characters to confront their own issues and work towards resolution and healing. It’s important to remember that even though this is the finale, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything ties up perfectly – family conflicts can take time to heal. The focus is on the steps Marion takes towards a resolution.
I didn’t love the ideas ChatGPT came up with for the last plot point, but they did spark an idea about how I wanted to close the book and it worked perfectly with the redemption and forgiveness theme, so that’s the one I chose. I could have gotten to this point on my own eventually, but it may have taken me many thousands of words of poking around in the dark.
The thing I love about using ChatGPT like this is that it takes a lot of vague ideas that you’re bouncing around and makes them more concrete. By envisioning how each theme might look in the important beats that come near the end, I was able to envision what each one meant for my story and choose the one that fit the best. Yes, I’m sure there are endless possibilities when it comes to theme, and you can always push ChatGPT harder if you don’t like what it comes up with right away. But I was satisfied with this, and worked it into the outline, which led to me unlocking several other important beats very quickly. It’s sort of like sketching out a drawing before creating a huge canvas. You get fast lines in, see how you feel about each one, and then make quick decisions about what direction you want your project to go.
The beauty is that instead of this process taking days or weeks or months, with ChatGPT you can run through any number of “sketches” for your project in minutes, and move on to actually creating the thing. Give it a try, the next time you want to incorporate theme into your outline!
Want to learn more about writing with ChatGPT? Check out my AI for Authors series that covers fiction and creative nonfiction!
Some of the links contained in this post may be affiliate links. When you click and make a purchase, I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you.