Tuesday, October 15

Plotting With the Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week we discussed both the Three-Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey, and now it's time for screenwriter Blake Snyder's ever-so-popular Save the Cat Beat Sheet. (Up next is Hague's Six Stage Plotting Structure) While Snyder's format was designed for movie screenplays, writers have adapted it to the larger novel format with great success. You'll notice how this also fits into the same basic story structure as what we looked at so far.

If this structure appeals to you, I recommend buying the Save the Cat book, which goes into more detail that I can do here. (ya know, those copyright laws and everything). It's a great book to have on your shelf no matter what your process is, actually.

Snyder breaks down storytelling into three acts similar to the Three-Act Structure, with very specific turning points in each act (called beats) similar to the Hero's Journey. In a screenplay, these beats are so precise it even says what page they should happen on, but there's a little more flexibility in a novel. Most folks convert the screenplay ratios into novel sizes and work from there.

I’ll add in [brackets] where this aligns with the Three-Act Structure and (parenthesis) for the Hero's Journey for comparison.

ACT ONE

Like the structures studied so far, this is where the protagonist's regular life is seen. The world before the adventure starts. Within Act One, you'll find the following beats:

Opening Image: The first thing seen. This will set the mood and tone of the story. It's the starting point for the protagonist, and this image is often the opposite of the final image. For example, if a character starts out alone with no friends here, the final image will be him surrounded by friends. [The opening scene] and (The Ordinary World)

Theme Stated: Early on, the theme is introduced, often by stating it outright.

Set-Up: The basic introduction of the world and characters and what's wrong in that world and/or character's life. [The opening scene] and (The Ordinary World)

Catalyst: The trigger that starts the plot. This is the thing that is new and changes what the protagonist knows. [The inciting event] and (the Call to Action)

Debate: The protagonist decides whether or not to do whatever it is he needs to do. [Act One Problem] and (The Refusal of the Call)

ACT TWO – A

Just like the other structure formats, the middle is when the protagonist's world gets turned upside down and the bulk of the plot unfolds. Act Two is broken into two parts, ramping up to the midpoint and down to the climax. Within the first half of Act Two, you'll find the following beats:

Break Into Two: The choice to act and move the story forward. [The Act Two Choice] and (Crossing the Threshold)

B Story: Often this is where the love story plot or major subplot comes into play.

Fun and Games:
Snyder calls this beat "the promise of the premise." It's where all the fun stuff of the premise occurs as the protagonist tries to solve the problem, but before things get really serious. [First half of Act Two] and (Tests, Allies, and Enemies)

Midpoint:
The middle of the book. Stakes goes up and the "fun" is over. Now it's serious. This beat is either a false victory or a false defeat, which will be the opposite of the All is Lost beat. [Midpoint] and (The Ordeal)

ACT TWO - B

After the midpoint, the story heads toward the climax. If the middle was a false victory, the protagonist realizes that he did not win as he thought. A false defeat, he realizes all it not lost. Within the second half of Act Two, you'll find the following beats:

Bad Guys Close In:
With rising stakes comes more attacks from the antagonist. This is when things start to fall apart for the protagonist. [Second Half of Act Two] and (The Road Back)

All is Lost: The other false victory or defeat, and the opposite of the midpoint. The low point of the story, where everything is stripped away from the protagonist. [Act Two Disaster]

Dark Night of the Soul: The deep soul searching of the protagonist to find the solution to the problems facing him. [Act Three Plan]

ACT THREE

Act Three is where it all comes together for the protagonist, and he realizes where he belongs and who he is. The final act is the climax and the events leading up to the climax. Within Act Three, you'll find the following beats:

Break Into Three: Plot and character arcs merge and the protagonist knows what he has to do to win. [Act Three Plan]

Finale: The climax, where the protagonist takes all the lessons learned and uses them to defeat the antagonist and solve the problem. The world makes sense again based on the experiences he's undergone in the story. [The Climax] and (The Resurrection)

Final Image:
The ending, showing where the protagonist is now. This will be the opposite of the opening image, showing the end of the character journey and how that helped the protagonist. [The Wrap Up] and (The Return With the Elixir)

As you can see, no matter what structure format you use, they all have very similar moments and turning points. Elements from one can usually be found in the others, even if they're called different things or only mentioned tangentially. For example, the Three-Act Structure includes the All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul moments, even though they might not be spelled out as clearly as they are in the Hero's Journey or Save the Cat Beat Sheet formats. But that, "it's darkest before the dawn" cliché is a major part of storytelling. The hero almost always has to feel beaten before he can find the strength to carry on.

One of the things I like about this beat sheet, is that the moments/bears/turning points are clearly defined in a way that's easy to put into practice. They also interconnect and build off each other nicely, and Lydia Sharp has a fabulous post on using the opposite turning points in the Save the Cat Beat Sheet to plot that's well worth the read.

I'll highlight the final structure on Friday, then it's on to the next question! I think that one will be a roundup of some of the smaller questions. And speaking of...

Any questions or comments on this beat sheet structure? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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22 comments:

  1. I've noticed most of the movies and tv shows today are following this structure. Too much of the same thing is not always good. I think it says a lot when people think outside the box.

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    1. It does indeed. That's the downside to following one of these too literally, but they can be helpful if you use them as loose guides.

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  2. I've devoted most of this year to studying structure. Recently I picked up "The Moral Premise" which combines many of the more popular structures, including "Save the Cat." But the author also ties in the Moral Premise, which guides every aspect of the story. All of these authors have one thing in common: they recognize what works. When we understand structure and apply it, it gives us the creative freedom to write spectacular scenes without concern that we're heading off in the wrong direction. Keep up the great work, Janice!

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    1. Exactly! There's a rhythm and flow to a great story and when we hit those points stories sing. There's a lot of leeway to how we do that, and if we understand the basic principles it makes it a lot easier.

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  3. Great summary of the Save the Cat method. And you're right that many of the different plot structures have similar plot points.

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    1. Thanks! It really does all come down to the same basic idea: set up a problem, struggle to solve that problem, finally solve that problem. Everything else is personal preference.

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  4. Thanks for all the plotting information! LInked to these blogs for my writing students.

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    1. Thanks so much! It was fun going through them all.

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  5. Hey, I always wondered about the Cat! Thanks for posting. Highly tweetworthy!

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    1. Thanks! It's a great book, and I highly recommend it. There's so much more there than I can post online.

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  6. Thank you for covering each of these! This has been super helpful.

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    1. My pleasure. I've always enjoyed plotting and structure, so this was a lot of fun for me.

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  7. Just noting that this is an outliner's method for writing, and not necessarily for pantsers. Thinking about a 3 act structure is a good way for me to wreck my story because then I'm thinking that I need to have X in the story here, not about what the story really needs to be about.

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    1. It is indeed. I assume pantsers won't be outlining and avoid these structures. Though Jami Gold does like this format during revisions.

      I've put pantser disclaimers on outlining articles before, but maybe I should be better about putting them all (grin).

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  8. While we are at outlines, did you know someone has analysed the Classic Roman Comedy five act structure as actually (tension+relaxation*)^3?

    Two major parts that act like tension + relaxation. Let's call them A and B.

    Each of them has a similar structure, let's call it a b for A and c d for B.

    And each of these four, but now we will get to Arabic numerals: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8

    AND three mid acts are actually a relaxation acted out in parallel with a tension:

    Act I = 1
    Act II = 2+3 in parallel (midway in A, crossing over a and b)
    Act III = 4+5 in parallel (between A and B, crossing over b and c)
    Act IV = 6+7 in parallel (midway B, crossing over c and d)
    Act V = 8 = relexation part of d, which is relaxation part of B.

    I have read an author claiming this is the secret of Menander and perhaps also Plautus and Terence.

    Have you tried it out?

    I think my own fan fic novel is too far gone for this one.

    AND, I wonder what to do about great chunks like A and B in order for the formulation of them not to be too abstract to work with.

    * As per Aristotle's Poetica.

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  9. I use "Screenwriting Techniques for Authors" by Alexandra Sokoloff. It seems to be much the same but one can never study too much. I'm off to buy this one for my craft library.

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  10. You wrote (more or less) "The middle of the book. Stakes goes up and the 'fun' is over. Now it's serious. This beat is either a false victory or a false defeat, which will be the opposite of the All is Lost beat. [Midpoint] and (The Ordeal)."

    If you look at the Alien beat sheet midpoint, it doesn't seem to me that your explanation that the Midpoint and All Is Lost Beat are opposites of each other. Please take a look at this breakdown for the movie Alien (1979), which came from Save the Cat Goes to Hollywood:

    http://gordonnapier.com/alien-save-the-cat-beat-sheet/

    The Midpoint was when the chest burster comes out of Kane and runs away. That's not a false victory, unless you take Kane eating beforehand and everyone thinking he's fine. But that wouldn't make sense because the midpoint is when "things get serious" as you noted (and the creator, Blake Snyder noted). So you'd have to say it's when the thing bursts out. That's freaking serious. Then you would say it's really a false defeat (nobody knows what will happen next but it's going to be bad - it's a false defeat).

    Now, go to the All Is Lost beat for Alien. Ripley discovers that the Company (Weyland Corp.) knows this alien is a badass and really wants to bring it back to study (presumably as a bio weapon). That's a defeat moment as well. So I don't understand why you are saying the Midpoint and All is Lost Moment are opposites of each other. If you could clarify that I'd appreciate it.

    I'm still trying to find a good plotting device that I understand. Thought this might have been the one since everyone watches movies it would be easier to figure out how the plotting device work because of all the examples.

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    1. It's a general guide, not an absolute template. Not every movie is going to fall into this exactly, though many successful ones do.

      Personally, I don't use this structure--I find it too restrictive. I prefer a modified Three Act Structure that fits my personal plotting style. In that, I have the "midpoint reversal" in the middle, which does something unexpected and shakes up the story. I feel this gives a writer more freedom while still providing guides for plot turning points. Something surprising should happen in the middle and take the story in a new and unexpected direction, but what that is can be anything.

      I think the midpoint and the All is Lost moment are more often mirrors of each other, than opposites. Whatever happens in the middle frequently leads to that dark moment when everything looks bleak for the protagonist. It's the surprise that causes things to get so bad the protagonist considers giving up (generally speaking, as I said this doesn't always hold true).

      In the Alien example, the midpoint surprise is the alien itself and how deadly it is. This triggers the all is lost moment because Ripley sees how deadly it is and knows bringing it back is bad. And sacrificing her crew for this weapon is wrong. To me, they work because they build off each other and ultimately give Ripley the strength to fight (it's be ages since I've seen the original Alien, so forgive me if I don't remember the exact details. I'm more an Aliens gal, which is a beautifully put together film, especially the director's cut :)

      If you're looking for a structure, I'd suggest looking at the various options and picking and choosing aspects that fit how you like to tell your stories. Let these various structures guide you, and inspire you, but mold them to your personal tastes.

      In essence, all you need structurally is a beginning (the general setup and introduction of the characters and the problem), the middle (the attempts to solve that problem and how it all goes wrong), and the ending (how the protagonist resolves the problem after being pushed to almost giving up). What you do within that general scope is up to you and how you like to craft your story.

      Hope this helps!

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  11. Thanks Janice for that detailed explanation and your advice! So with Alien (1979) would you say that the Midpoint and All is Lost beats are not opposites of each other but are going in the same direction? They went from the Midpoint from being bad (egg has hatched. Baby Alien comes out of guy's chest, scurries across table and out the door) to much, much, worse in the All is Lost beat (the baby Alien grew to human size, it's still got acid for blood, it killed our leader and other members, and the android is telling us the company anticipated this and we will will not survive)?

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    1. Most welcome. Yes, that's how I would see it. The midpoint is like a preview of what horrible thing Ripley will face in the end.

      You could probably take it even further and say the alien represents the "monster" of Weyland. It symbolizes the evil company Ripley has to fight to survive. We get the first glimpse of that evil at the midpoint, and then see how it affects Ripley the entire second half and how she decides to fight it (and why she should fight and not just give up).

      Also keep in mind that this story is about overcoming the "evil monster," (it's horror after all), so if you were writing, say, a romance novel, your turning points would illustrate these concepts differently. What's a dark moment in a horror movie is different from a romance, even though the character faces a similar emotional struggle. It's about facing weakness and flaws and wanting to give up, and how the character decides to deal with that moment. It's the moment when the protagonist realizes they can't walk away without serious consequences.

      When you're looking at all these various structures and turning points, keep in mind what they conceptually mean--for example, a "battle" is just a struggle of one person/force trying to win against another. You can struggle over whether or not to eat the cupcakes and ruin your diet, and in the right story, that can be a "battle" and work just fine for the plot point. It helps not to think of these points literally and adapt them to the type of story you're writing.

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  12. Wow. :) Thanks for that information! I can see why your site is called "Fiction University." :) I used Alien because I want to write horror and the beat sheet Blake put together in the movie was both interesting and confusing. But now I'm not confused on that point (midpoint vs. all is lost) thanks to you. :)

    I think a story about someone agonizing over whether or not to eat a cupcake and ruin diet is hilarious. I don't think I could pull a novel out of it, but I think the idea would make a pretty funny short story if it was spiced up a bit! Kind of reminds me of when in Ghostbusters (the original) when the team unwittingly summons a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow man as the device of their destruction. :D

    Soo, you're a 1986 Aliens fan? I liked everything in the movie except how in the beginning they portrayed the USCM as a bunch of trigger happy knuckleheads. But once they left the reactor and the sentry guns ran out of ammo, they started behaving more like soldiers.

    I think it would have been more interesting if the soldiers were more like the Weyland-Yutani Commandos in Alien 3. After all, it was supposed to be a "rescue" mission (even though in reality, Ripley was lied to AGAIN - the evil corporation wanted to bring an alien back for study). So I think if they sent the commandos and they failed, the corporation would have realized how truly dangerous the aliens were.

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    1. Glad I could help :) Oh yeah, Aliens is one of my favorite movies of all time. There's a fantastic documentary about making it (and I can't for the life of me remember the title right now), that goes into how the actors playing the Marines trained together to build that camaraderie, and how they decorated their lockers and armor themselves to suit them and the character. It's fascinating stuff.

      The Marines didn't bother me, because I viewed them as psyching themselves up and getting ready to go into a dangerous situation. Once there, they were all business and doing their jobs. And no one really believed Ripley anyway, so they didn't think they'd need elite troops. Though the Marines did put a hurt on those aliens. There were just too many of them and they were unprepared and had bad leadership with a green Gorman :)

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