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.


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)


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)

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)


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? 

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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  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.

    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.

  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!

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  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.

    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).

  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.

  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.