Herd Your CATS

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know that getting a reader inside a lead character’s head is one of the keys to compelling fiction. But it has to be done seamlessly so it doesn’t jerk us out of the narrative and put a crimp in the fictive dream.

Which means we have to learn to handle what I call “Character Alone Thinking Scenes” (CATS) in a deft manner.

The first issue is whether to begin the book with a CATS. As last Wednesday’s first-page critique demonstrated (in my view, at least) the answer should almost always be No.

Why? Because we have to have a little personal investment in someone before we can care deeply about their feelings.

Imagine going to a party and you’re introduced to a fellow with a drink in his hand. You say, “How are you?” and the guy says, “I’m really depressed, man, I wake up every day and the room looks dark and the sun never shines, even though it’s out there, and I don’t see it because of the dark dankness in my soul, and life has lost its meaning, its luster, whatever it was it once had for me when I was young and ready to take on the world. Ya know?”

AHHHH!!!!

Well, the beginning of a book is like walking into a party. The reader wants to meet interesting people. And interest is aroused by what people do. The way you catch readers from the start is through action and disturbance, not feeling and expounding.

I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read over the years that did not begin with a real scene, but instead opted for the inside of a character’s head. What I usually do in such cases is flip the pages until I get to some dialogue, because that automatically means we’re in a scene. And 98% of the time that is the best place to start. (Sure, an argument can be made that a great style might be enough to carry the opening pages. But it better be truly great and truly brief.)

So, re: the opening—save your CATS for later.

Once you’re into the novel there are two types of CATS to herd—active and reactive.

In an active scene, the character is alone but with a major scene objective (something that materially relates to the plot), and thinks while trying to overcome whatever scene obstacles are in her way.

In a reactive scene, the character is alone with a chance to reflect. She may be thinking about what’s already happened in the story, or her current psychological state, or the other characters. When done well, reactive scenes strengthen our emotional bond with the character.

A couple of examples. The first is from Dean Koontz’s Intensity. A young woman named Chyna Shepherd is thrust into the dark world of serial killer Edgler Vess. After Vess murders a family (not knowing Chyna is in the house, too) Chyna sneaks into his motor home in the hopes of saving her best friend, whom Vess has dumped there. Alas, she’s dead. But it gets worse. Vess starts driving away and Chyna is trapped in the back of the motor home.

Her objective now is survival. She must keep her presence in the vehicle a secret, find an adequate weapon, and somehow kill or disable Vess. As she looks for a weapon she makes a grisly find—the body of a young man hanging in the small closet, his eyes and mouth sewn shut.

She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.

In all the textbooks she had ever read no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now – choosing the corner farthest from the closet.

She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.

She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.

She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she did understand.

To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, or even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, most nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games …

Koontz then gives us a page-and-a-half of backstory, filtered through Chyna’s perceptions and thus relevant to the present action. She’s alone, but moving toward her scene goal. Her thoughts—which in real time would flash through her mind but in fiction time are detailed—are part of the action.

Now let’s take a look at a reactive CATS. This is from John Fante’s classic Ask The Dust. Arturo Bandini is a young writer living a meager existence in L.A. He has just decided to he’s going to steal milk off a truck. In his dingy hotel room, he reacts to his decision:

The night came reluctantly. I sat at the window, rolling some cigarets with rough cut tobacco and squares of toilet paper. This tobacco had been a whim of mine in more prosperous times. I had bought a can of it, and the pipe for smoking it had been free, attached to the can by a rubber band. But I had lost the pipe. The tobacco was so course it made a poor smoke in regular cigaret papers, but wrapped twice in toilet tissue it was powerful and compact, sometimes bursting into flames. 

The night came slowly, first the cool odor of it, and then the darkness. Beyond my window spread the great city, the street lamps, the red and blue green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers. I was not hungry, there were plenty of oranges under the bed, and that mysterious chortling in the pit of my stomach was nothing more than great clouds of tobacco smoke marooned there, trying frantically to find a way out. 

So it had happened at last: I was about to become a thief, a cheap milk-stealer. Here was your flash-in-the-pan genius, your one-story writer: a thief. I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. Mother of God. Headlines in the papers, promising writer caught stealing milk, famous protégé of J. C. Hackmuth haled into court on petty theft charge, reporters swarming around me, flashbulbs popping, give us a statement, Bandini, how did it happen?

The scene continues, with Bandini eating an orange, doing some typing, all the while thinking about his prospects as a writer. The chapter ends with Bandini making the milk snatch, giddily bringing the two bottles back to his room, opening one and taking a long drink. And immediately spitting it out. He’d stolen what he hated—buttermilk.

There should be activity in a reactive CATS. It is often innocuous (rolling cigarettes, eating oranges, typing) but it provides the space for emotion and analysis.

The big thing to know about CATS is that they are the best way to control pace. If you need to slow things down a bit, give us more thinking. If you need to pick up the pace, compress the thoughts.

In other words, learn to herd your CATS and the readers will lap up your fiction.

11+

25 thoughts on “Herd Your CATS

  1. The thing I wonder, though, is that a lot of novels do begin with a character alone. The Hunger Games come to mind, and even the second chapter of Harry Potter when we’re first introduced to Harry at ten. How do these authors pull it off? Katniss is doing nothing but putting on her boots and walking to the meadow. Harry’s doing nothing but putting on a pair of socks.

    • hmm – my version of Hunger Games has Katniss waking up to a cold bed and realizing her sister Primm is not there and her concern for her sister (which will later that morning result in her life changing) makes us like her as a character.

    • Katniss is not alone though, right? Prim and her mother are there, and she’s in motion, leaving the house, getting through the fence, on her way for some illegal hunting. The scene is clothed in disturbance from the start—it’s the day of “the reaping.” The scene kicks into higher gear when Gale shows up and the dialogue begins.

      Interesting, as I looked this up in my copy, I see I made a marginal note about the backstory on pp. 5 & 6. The note says: Could have been put in dialogue section that comes next. It reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s advice that everything the reader needs to know can be put in dialogue. While that’s a bit of an overstatement (like his other advice!) it carries more than just a grain of truth.

      • That is true. The Hunger Games is one of my favorite books–and it does start with her waking up, but that is still under the category of cliché–but rereading it the last time, I realized how much of it was in flashback. Somehow Suzanne Collins pulls it off.

        So, is it okay to say that you can start with a action CAT?

        • Yes, what I’m talking about is the “flat” kind of opening where we spend most of the time in the head and in backstory, with no real scene objective. In Hunger Games, she’s got one, and gets to it fairly quickly.

          Lean toward this: act first, explain later. And you can certainly included backstory elements if they are sprinkled in judiciously.

  2. Thanks for a great lesson.

    I often feel that I have nothing to add after reading your post and the great comments that follow. But this morning I had two thoughts.

    The active CATS reminded me of deep POV, and its importance when a character is alone in a scene.

    The reactive CATS reminded me of Dwight Swain’s “sequel.” I struggled to understand all that Swain wrote about sequel. This lesson shines some light on the subject for me.

    Thanks for all your teaching moments.

    • Indeed, Steve, this is very much in line with Swain’s idea of sequel. I know some teachers argue that it’s too “mechanical,” but that’s a misreading of Swain. It’s flexible. A sequel could be a whole chapter, or a flash of thought in a paragraph. Sometimes implied by action.

  3. Writing Deep POV, my characters are “alone” in their thoughts quite a bit, but I do TRY to have them thinking about Important Plot Stuff. And good advice about not starting the book this way. On the flip side, trying to start with a huge action/battle type scene also confuses readers because they have no one to care about yet.

    • Even when alone, thinking, have them engaged in some sort of activity. Vonnegut suggested that every character must want something in every scene, even if it’s just a glass of water.

      • I have a lot of “thirsty” characters! 🙂 But yes, I know what you mean, and using the GMC model, the characters are always seeking the goal of the scene. And their choices, to quote Deb Dixon, should be between “it sucks” and “it’s suckier.”

  4. Beware what I call The Cast of Thousands Syndrome. That’s having way too many people introduced at the beginning so that the reader is totally confused. Like being at a party and being introduced to everyone there as you come in with no hope of remembering or even caring who everyone is. One or two people beyond the POV character are more than enough in that first chapter.

  5. I agree with what’s been said. There is another ‘cost’ to doing a long introspection scene at the beginning. You give up the mystique of the character. Things like where they get their strength or their biggest worry or weakness.
    In real life, we meet someone, we are attracted, then we wonder about them. We want to find out more about them. That’s mystic. Are they a person I want to spend time with or not. Or are they strange and exciting. We writers should do the same thing.
    To sum up, lots of exposition takes away the slow reveal of who the character really is.
    One other thing. A little bit of CAT, especially the active type can be intriguing. I’m talking on short paragraph of 25 or so words, not 25 sentences. All that said, I still prefer dialogue for exposition as long as they aren’t telling each other things they already know.
    Darn this writing stuff is complicated.

  6. It’s kind of like chess, isn’t it? You can learn the basic moves and then spend a lifetime getting better. And you never completely master it.

    That’s what I love about our craft. I love always being able to learn to do something better.

  7. I am a Dean Koontz fan and I loved Intensity, one of his better works. I remember when I read that scene above for the first time. The reader is not in the trailer with Chyna, s/he IS Chyna. I haven’t read the second example by Fante but I liked it. I liked the inner conflict over stealing, but especially the irony of stealing buttermilk, which he hated. I like action or at least some tension on the first page. Unless one has the experience to write reactive, I think s/he should stick with action and conflict right from the start. I really enjoyed your party example. Who would want to be around the party boor from the start? I would walk away as fast as possible.

    • You are so right about action and conflict, Rebecca. They never let us down. On the other hand, going for an interior style at the top can fall flat, even when it’s extremely well-written.

  8. Until I read about Scene and Sequel, I really had no idea how to put a novel together and how an effective use of Sequel can drive the novel forward at a pace that makes sense, i.e., fast when you want it to be and slow when the reader needs to take a breath or two. My first epiphany–in that moment I could see how to link scenes together and when to scatter the sequel throughout a scene and when to linger on it a bit.

    Using the label CATS definitely adds another element for me–an easy way to remember that the character should be doing something while they’re reacting and thinking and deciding what to do next. I get this image of a cat in the stalking position that makes it visual for me, i.e., that cat has a goal. It’s not just lying in the warm sun soaking up the rays and pondering the meaning of life. In my coaching and editing work, I can use your CATS and the morose guy at the party to make my comments more visual for ‘my’ writers.

    I am convinced that you cannot read too much about the craft. Each good teacher has ways of explaining things that reach the student, that give the student yet another epiphany. You may think you already know ‘the stuff’ but a new teacher adds depth to what you already know.

    Thanks so much.

    • Sheryl, I had virtually the same epiphany about scene and sequel reading Jack Bicckham’s book, Writing Novels That Sell. In fact, it was after of that realization that I began to sell my stuff.

  9. CATS – love it. I find it a great way to slow things down. Sometimes a character just needs time to catch their breath and so does the reader.

    I have a story that takes places in 2065. We follows the characters through their everyday present life and that isn’t dealing with history. It is mostly through inner reflection that I show how the country has changed in the last 50 years – it is important to who the character is.

    But there are times when I am reading a novel, and while I appreciate what the character has on their mind, I wonder is this really what a person would be thinking about at this time?

    • That’s one of the big keys, isn’t it Michelle? What would they REALLY think … and yet it has to be somewhat surprising or the reader will think it predictable.

      In 2065 I’ll be working on my 1,067th novel.

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