Tuesday, October 15
Plotting With the Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure
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.
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 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?