The Save the Cat beat sheet, created by Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder, is a tool writers can use to create a framework for their fiction. Initially created by Snyder for writing screenplays, the principles of structure, plot, characterization, theme, and pacing apply to the work writers and novelists do while working on their projects. The save the cat bit refers to the moment in stories when the protagonist of a movie (or novel, short story, etc.) does something to merit the audience (or reader) to cheer for someone, such as if that person is “saving a cat.”
The beat sheet, in essence, is a tool that lays out or outlines where, exactly, every important event should happen. The structure is broken down into 3 parts (the 3-act structure)—a beginning, a middle, and an end—and within those three sections are 15 plot points, known as “beats.” As writers, we know that plot is about causality, i.e., this happened, and because of it happening this happened, and so on (remember E.M. Forster’s “the king died and then the queen died of grief” example), so keeping that in mind it’s easier to understand what the importance of each beat is when it comes to what they represent.
So, let’s get into the specifics of Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet.
Because Snyder created the Beat Sheet for screenwriting, he was able to more precisely show where each beat in the screenplay should take place. What I mean by that is, the formula he created lays out, in detail, on which page of the screenplay the beat will (or should) happen. Screenplays are written differently than novels: they’re usually 90-120 pages, and they’re broken down into scenes. This makes it easier to understand where the beats should go. For fiction it’ll work a little differently, as the same formula for a structure won’t equate to a precise one-to-one relationship. But the overall concept is the same. When I look at the Save The Cat Beat Sheet, I view it more as a loose outline for what should be where in a novel, rather than naming the exact page where it should be.
So here are Snyder’s 15 steps for the Save The Cat Beat Sheet structure (note that the % refers to the % of where we are in the screenplay or novel. So, for example, if we’re at the midpoint of the novel, we would be at 50%):
Opening Image (1% into the script or novel): Let’s the reader in on what’s coming. It’s an introduction to the character and potentially what the problem they’re facing is going to be.
Theme Stated (5% into the script or novel): The theme of the story/novel is provided to the reader.
Set-Up (1%-10% into the script or novel): This is where the reader gets a peek into the protagonist’s life, and where other, secondary characters are introduced.
Catalyst (10% into the script or novel): In Freytag’s Pyramid, this is known as the Inciting Incident. It’s the event that sets everything in motion.
Debate (10-20% into the script or novel): Our protagonist debates whether or not to go on the journey or to take action. She can bail, of course, but then we have no story.
Break into Two (20% into the script or novel): The protagonist of our story goes for it. They go on the journey, take action, or do whatever it is they must do to initiate the adventure.
B Story (22% into the script or novel): A second plot or story is then introduced and interwoven into the first one, often to complement the theme of the original story. Supplemental characters are often introduced.
Fun and Games (20%-50% into the script or novel): The protagonist explores the new world and the challenge before them.
Midpoint (50% into the script or novel): Our hero fails or succeeds in some aspect of the journey, and the stakes are raised.
Bad Guys Close In (50%-75% into the script or novel): Depending on how things went for our hero in the midpoint of the novel, things change. If the midpoint was positive, we now go negative; if the midpoint was negative, we now go positive.
All is Lost (75% into the script or novel): This is where our protagonist is at her lowest. Our hero feels defeated and hopeless.
Dark Night of the Soul (75%-80% into the script or novel): Our protagonist hits rock bottom and is unsure of how they’ve arrived at the position they find themselves.
Break into Three (80% into the script or novel): Our hero realizes something that propels them forward in their journey, possibly from something in the subplot.
Finale (80%-99% into the script or novel): Our hero conquers whatever mountain or hurdle it is that they faced—an antagonist, getting the job, overcoming their fears, etc.
Final Image (99%-100% into the script or novel): This is where we understand what has changed in the protagonist’s life/situation since the start of the novel.
It’s easy to see why a writer might want to experiment with the Save The Cat Beat Sheet. It provides a structure for the writer to follow, and it’s been proven to work. Personally, I don’t use any structure when I write, other than a loose 3-Act structure. I enjoy the process of writing, without what I feel are constraints imposed on my process as I write. But that may not be what works for you. You may be someone who enjoys and benefits from strict outlining and structure, and that’s fine. The whole goal of what we’re doing is to get to the same finish line, i.e., completing a novel (or book or screenplay).
Besides Snyder’s Save The Cat Beat Sheet, there are other structures you can use that may work better for you, depending on your preferences. We’ll go into detail on those in the future, but for now, here’s a quick view of the other options available to you as a writer.
Those options include:
The above diagram provides all you need to know about Freytag's Pyramid, from a basic steps perspective. But you can read more on our previous post by clicking the above link.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Here are the Story Circle’s 8 steps:
A character finds herself in a zone of comfort. Her life is boring and not much is going on.
But she wants something. Her desire for something causes her to take action.
She enters an unfamiliar situation. The character crosses the threshold to pursue what they want.
She adapts to the new situation.
She gets what she wants, but getting what she wants comes at a cost.
Now that she has what she wants, she pays a heavy price for getting it. New challenges present themselves to her.
She returns to where she started out in the beginning of her story.
She’s changed, and she has grown in some form or fashion.
Three Act Structure
The three act structure is exactly what it sounds like. There are three acts:
Act 1: Exposition, Inciting Incident, Plot Point One
Act 2: Rising Action, Midpoint, Plot Point Two
Act 3: Pre-Climax, Climax, Dénouement
The three act structure, in essence, is Freytag’s Pyramid, for it follows the same basic elements in the same basic order. We’ll get more into the three act structure in a future post.
In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things.” You can think of the in medias res structure as the story of your novel beginning in the middle of the plot. The benefit of this structure is that you throw your reader right into the thick of things, probably in scene, which draws them in and keeps them interested. Some questions are posed, and you, the reader, want to know why. Backstory is added later, to get you up to speed, but you’re already invested by what’s happened from page one.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) is probably the best-known structure in literature because, for many years, it was (and probably still is) what’s taught in high school and university classes. The essence of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is that there is a departure, and initiation, and then a return. Meaning that a hero gets a call to adventure (leaving behind what is familiar to him), goes on that adventure (where he learns to maneuver his way in an unfamiliar world), and then returns home (to the familiar world he left behind).
In his well-known book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell lays out 17 stages of the hero’s journey, broken down into each stage. Not all stories/novels will include all 17, nor does the structure require the order of the 17 stages is followed. Historically, there have been many movies and books that have followed Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, one of the most famous movies being Star Wars, which was created by George Lucas.
Seven-Point Story Structure
In 2013, at the Life, the Universe, & Everything conference, Dan Wells, a sci-fi author, introduced the seven-point story structure. Now, if you’ve read this far, you realize that a lot of the different structures share terminology, and the basic principles of what experienced writers already do when they’re writing.
The Hook: Pull the reader immediately in with an interesting beginning, world, etc.
Plot Turn 1: Something happens that thrusts our hero into the adventure.
Pinch 1: We learn what the conflict is (the inciting incident), and maybe our hero’s antagonist jumps into the fray.
Midpoint: Something major happens, and our hero goes from reaction to action.
Pinch 2: Something doesn’t work out for our hero. Everything appears lost.
Plot Turn 2: Our hero goes head-to-head with their antagonist (whether it be an enemy, a mountain, themselves, whatever).
Resolution: Everything is resolved, and everything goes back to normal, our hero having transformed in some manner.
John Gardner’s Fichtean Curve
Last but not least is Gardner’s Fichtean Curve. Gardner was an interesting man. He was a novelist, essayist, university professor, and literary critic who died in a motorcycle accident four days before he was to get married, back in 1982. He was only 49. But he wrote GRENDEL, which was a retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. At any rate, he’s a giant in the world of fiction and nonfiction, and his posthumous book, THE ART OF FICTION (1983), is a classic.
Gardner’s Fichtean Curve is pretty straightforward. It includes the 1. Rising Action, 2. The Climax, and 3. The Falling Action. Two-thirds of the story or novel will be the rising action. During that time, there will be one crisis after another, which are the plot points (this happened, and so this happened because of it, etc. Then we hit the climax of the story, when our hero is faced with her ultimate challenge, which gives her the most trouble. Then we come to the falling action, where everything is wrapped up in a nice little bow, and everything is resolved.
As a writer, it probably makes sense, at some point in time, to experiment with each option. Writing is a long game, and there are many things you can try in order to best execute the act of writing your fiction.
I know that I’ve gone from writing longhand with pen and pencil on paper, to writing in designated, one-novel-only notebooks, to then working on a word processor to then working on a better word processor to using computers, then printing out drafts, revising on hard copy, typing the revisions back up into the Word document, and then repeating it all over again. And that’s just me experimenting with the actual tools I use in this whole writing business. (I’m told writing longhand is when I do my best work, but I’ve learned to write pretty well on my computer, so I’m sticking with that). That's my process for writing and revising my novels.
When it comes to how you structure your novel, however, the importance of your decisions is that much more impactful to the final product. Many of the above structures obviously share traits and characteristics that your fiction can’t be produced without—they’re just presented in the work in different ways. The Save The Cat Beat Sheet, like the rest of the structures available to you, are yours to manipulate as you see fit. You are the writer, so you are god over your novel’s characters, the plot, the scenes, and so on. That includes how the 15 beats are constructed. Don’t be afraid to not lock yourself down into the precise formula you see before you. For me, doing that would be the end of the enjoyment I derive from writing, primarily the surprise at the things my characters do that I wasn’t expecting them to do.
So go on. Give it a shot. Maybe the Save The Cat Beat Sheet is the right structure for your novel. If it’s not, try another. But write. Always, always write. You can always go back later and outline based on what your novel is trying to tell you it is. That’s how I get it done, and it may be how you get it done as well.
If you’re seeking some book coaching or are ready for your novel to get edited prior to publishing it or submitting it to agents, send us an email at Support@novelmasterclass.com to discuss your book project.
Cully Perlman is the author of a novel, THE LOSSES. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Bull Men’s Fiction, The St. Petersburg Review, Real South Magazine, Avatar Review, Creative Loafing, Connotation Press, The Good Men Project, Pioneertown, El Portal, and more. He was a 2013 semifinalist for his novel-in-progress, LOS BEAUTIFUL, as well as on the short list of finalists for the 2012 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Competition for his novel, THE LOSSES. He has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story Contest, won the Writer’s Digest Dear Lucky Agent contest for a novel, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open.
Cully holds the following degrees, and would love to help you on your way to publication:
MFA - Creative Writing, Fiction – University of Tampa
MA - Literature in English – Georgia State University
BA - English Literature – Florida International University
MBA - Market Strategy & International Business, Regis University