Quote Origin: The Cat Sat On the Mat Is Not a Story; the Cat Sat On the Dog’s Mat is the Beginning of an Exciting Story

John le Carré? Michael Dean? Austin Kleon? James Scott Bell? Apocryphal?

A cat and a dog look warily at one another from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A popular story requires tension, danger, and conflict. A top-selling author once summarized this viewpoint with an entertaining statement about animals:

“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.

This adage has been credited to John le Carré, the famous author of espionage thrillers. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1974 Michael Dean of the BBC interviewed John le Carré (pen name of David Cornwell). The transcript appeared in “The Listener” magazine. Le Carré discussed his method for constructing plots. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

There is the other kind of book where you take one character, you take another character and you put them into collision, and the collision arrives because they have different appetites, and you begin to get the essence of drama.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story, and out of that collision, perhaps, there comes a sense of retribution.

Le Carré made similar statements in multiple interviews during the ensuing years.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1974 “The Globe and Mail” of Toronto, Canada published an article criticizing recent picture books for children. The piece began with a mention of the quotation:2

The cat sat on the mat is not a story, British writer John Le Carré has said. “But the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story.” On that note, phooey and a pox on the publishers who perpetrated this year’s dreary, dreary lot of kids’ picture books and miscellanea.

In 1977 “The New York Times” published an interview with Le Carré conducted by Michael Barber during which Le Carré employed the adage again:3

Q. Is it true that you once compared writing your novels to making a jam roll? You open the pastry out, spread the jam and then roll it up.

A. Well, if I did, I’m already beginning to regret it, but I think as rough principle I always begin with one character and then perhaps two, and they seem to be in conflict with each other. “The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.

In 1997 “The Paris Review” published an interview with Le Carré which included the following exchange:4

INTERVIEWER: What happens then? You have your character; what process follows?

LE CARRÉ: The process is empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within. They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict. “The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.

In 2014 artist Austin Kleon published “Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered” which included an instance of the saying:5

“‘The cat sat on a mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.”
—John le Carré

In 2019 novelist and educator James Scott Bell released an audiobook titled “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction”, and he referred to the adage:6

John le Carre once said “‘the cat sat on the mat’ is not the opening of a plot; ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.”

Mr. Le Carre has it right. The opening page of a novel should draw the reader in with an indication of trouble to come.

In conclusion, John le Carré deserves credit for this adage. He employed instances of the statement which differed slightly during interviews starting in the 1970s and continuing into the 1990s.

Image Notes: A cat and a dog warily looking at one another from Alexis Chloe at Unsplash. The image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to anonymous author whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

  1. 2004, Conversations with John le Carré, Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman, Literary Conversations Series, Interview Title: John le Carré: The Writer Who Came in From the Cold, Interviewer: Michael Dean, Year: 1974, Periodical: The Listener (September 5, 1974; from an interview on BBC 2), Start Page 27, Quote Page 31, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  2. 1974 December 7, The Globe and Mail, Section: Children’s Books, Browsing about in the cat-sat-on-the-dog’s-mat category by Margaret Hogan, Quote Page 35, Column 3, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  3. 1977 September 25, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, John le Carré: An Interrogation, Interview of John le Carré by Michael Barber, Start Page 9, Quote Page 44, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  4. 1997 Summer, The Paris Review, Volume 39, Number 143, The Art of Fiction CXLIX, Interview with John le Carré, Start Page 50, Quote Page 58, The Paris Review Inc., Flushing, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  5. 2014, Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon, Chapter 5: Tell Good Stories, Quote Page 95, Workman Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  6. Format: Audiobook, Organization: The Great Courses, Release date: March 29, 2019, Title: How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Author: James Scott Bell, Narrator: James Scott Bell, Lecture 18: First Pages That Grab the Reader, Location: 7 minutes 6 seconds. (Available via audible.com) ↩︎
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