Monday, February 17, 2020

Plotting With the Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you write the "movies" in your head, this story structure might be the one for you.

I love story structure, and I've studied so many different templates and concepts since I first started writing. Even if the structure isn't for me, I almost always find something useful in it I can add to my process. I think it's also important for writers to understand how story structure works so they better understand what goes into crafting a strong story.

I've discussed the Three-Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey,, Hague's Six Stage Plotting Structure and Joyce Sweeney's Plot Clock. Now it's time for screenwriter Blake Snyder's ever-so-popular Save the Cat Beat Sheet.

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. There's also a novel version, with Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.

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 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: 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. if it was 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 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.

Any questions or comments on this beat sheet structure? 

*Originally published October 2013. Last update February 2020.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  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.

    1. this is such a typical man move - to comment on an article that deals with a specific kind of scriptwriting with something completely unrelated like an ancient dramatic form that barely anyone uses nowadays and then asking "do you know about this highly specific type of analysis of an outdated form? No? I must be the only intellectual around here then". This is why we women get tired of men. Women barely use someones work as a platform to get on our own high horse and spray the world with our wisdom aka jerk off intellectually at our own special knowledge. this is what you just did. women (including me) are tired of men slowing down our conversations and our intellectual exchange with their constant need for approval. it's so boring.

      ps *as a cultural scientist I can tell you that Aristotle's Poetics have been deconstructed already starting in the Middle Ages. Every epoch has its own rules or, if you look into modern times, the deconstruction of these rules.

    2. Ha! Where's the like button! :)

    3. good response.

  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.

  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:

    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.

    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!

  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)?

    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.

  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.

    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 :)

  13. Love the article, and the comments! I have a "beat sheet" form that mentions "save the cat" but I had no idea what that was talking about. I've already written a novel, which is now in revision stage(s), and I think this information will still be very useful. I think these basic beats are in the story, but because I wasn't intentional about it they are often not clear enough. I have a problem with things happening in my head that never make it into the actual words of the story. This will help me clarify and reinforce those major plot points, and know which extraneous points can be cut or re-purposed.

    1. Thanks! You probably have good structure instincts and hit the beats naturally. I've found the templates and various structure options helpful during early plotting and then revisions. Good reminders of the important points to hit.

  14. The STC Writes a Novel was a good take on the structure approach, and I especially appreciated the Five Point Finale breakdown for the Third Act. You once suggested I start from the ending to find the story I wanted to tell, and this breakdown helped me narrow that down. Working backwards, the story and plot emerged, and a long collection of scenes called a first draft. Revisions start this week. What a journey!

    1. I like that breakdown as well. It goes into more detail than most other structures. Oh good! I'm so glad this helped you. I was thinking about you and your story the other day.

  15. Useful guide, especially as this morning Save The Cat! Writes a Novel arrived in the post - to help me tidy up my draft manuscript. I used a three act structure - tepmplate from KM Weiland - to write the first few drafts. But I have used the Hero's Journey in the past too.

  16. This was superb, Janice. Thank you for taking so much time helping us. And from someone who has read STC, STC2 and STC3 (fancier titles, for sure, but you get the idea), as well as Jessica's STCWAN, it can be a wee bit overwhelming. Your "Bottom Line" analysis of (1) Beginning, (2) Middle and (3) End, while overly-simplified, is the PERFECT way to not forget the absolute basics of good storytelling. I like that you "took the pressure away" saying, just be sure you have the basics and trust your instincts. Again, thanks....and Happy Writing!

    1. Most welcome. Sometimes simple is better to help new writers get their structure feet under them, and the more complicated aspects come later :)

  17. Wonderful structure help, Janice. I am working on a memoir of events that happened to my autistic son after my husband died, and in trying to stick to what really happened, I've come up with a boring tale. My writing coach has advised me to "change it up"; this really helps!

    1. Thanks! That's great advice. There's a difference between telling a story and relating facts.