Save the Cat: A Bridge To Story

photo courtesy of Flickr's vgm8383
photo courtesy of Flickr’s vgm8383

(I am on mad, crazy deadline and traveling this week, and so posting a ‘re-run’ from the old, Shrinking Violets blog. Forgive me! Hopefully it will be helpful to some of you. I will be back next month with our regularly scheduled original posts. <g>)

Save the Cat: A Bridge To Story

Much like the budding individualists I write about, I have a love/hate relationship with structure. A closet rebel, I get twitchy whenever told I must follow rules or take a particular action. And what is structure, other than a cohesive, integrated set of rules?

When I am writing, I want to create and play and not be encumbered by this banal concept of rules and structure. I want to be freeeeeeee. Or at least until my Work In Progress becomes a sprawling formless mass that threatens to envelop the entire west coast. Right about then is when I acknowledge that a little structure, judiciously applied, can actually be MORE freeing than an absolute absence of structure.

It’s kind of like a baby who is at the crawling stage. You can let him have free reign of the house, but you will have to intervene every 30 seconds and wear yourself out and crush his soul in the process. But! If you were to put up baby gates, well then, you are free to step back and let the little fellow roam freeeeeee, just as he was born to do—knowing that the gates will keep him in place.

Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT plotting template, referred to by those in the know as the Beat Sheet or the “BS2,” is my writerly version of baby gates.

As consumers of story, we all have a very strong, intuitive sense of the elements that need to be in place to make a book or film satisfying. But as writers, sometimes intuitive knowledge isn’t enough to create a gripping, compelling narrative drive. For that we need help.

One of the things that I especially love about the beat sheet is that it takes narrative structure out of the lofty realms of literary criticism or writer’s workshops and puts the structure in terms that any reader would understand. Which is exactly as it should be, for that is who we are ultimately writing for—the reader—and Blake’s terminology and definitions help remind us of how the reader will experience the various stages of our story.

There is a question that many writers like to ponder: Which is more important, plot or character? Of course, the correct answer is that they’re both equally important; in fact, plot = character, for if you change one, you change the other.

I have come to believe that there is a similar correlation between narrative and structure. Story = structure. If you change one, you change the other. Without structure, there is no plot and without plot, there is no story, only a character study or an existential experiment. Without plot, characterization fizzles, since characters are best defined through their actions.

A story is an ephemeral thing—ideas, make-believe characters, things that never happened. It is all illusion and lies. What makes it all hang together in a believable, cohesive unit is structure. And if you get the structure right, it creates the foundations of the bridge you will need to bring the reader effortlessly from the beginning to the end.

The set-up, the catalyst, the midpoint—those are all the rivets that hold the bridge together. They make the imaginary world strong enough, real enough, that the reader can be carried from the beginning of our story to the end.

The beat sheet works like an all-purpose bridge. I have used it to write a short, 18,000 word chapter book and an epic 120,000 word historical fantasy, and it worked equally well for both.

The other thing? I write kids books, and kids and teens are a tough audience. They are sophisticated consumers of story–from books and comics, cartoons, movies, graphic novels, and video games, they are constantly immersed in story. In fact, they are probably the most sophisticated audience ever in terms of having an instinctive sense of narrative, and the incumbent expectations that stuff will happen, and it will happen sooner rather than later. So even if you are lucky enough to hook them, you need to keep moving along at a steady clip.

Starting a brand new book is always daunting. Whatever will I have my character do in all those blank pages? As I stare down that long corridor of empty pages, I have two choices: I can panic, which I often do, and run away to clean out the pantry, pluck my eyebrows, and scrub the kitchen grout. Or I can pull out my Save the Cat! Beat Sheet and jump start my process, one beat at a time.

With well over 14 books behind me, I know enough about myself as a writer to know that beginnings and endings are easiest for me. I know what to do with those. But middles now, middles are HARD. They are longer, for one, and much less inherently defined. Which leads me to what I think is the true genius of the Beat Sheet: the way Blake breaks down the middle of the book into Fun and Games, Midpoint, then Bad Guys Closing In.

As a reader, I am most likely to give up on a book once I enter the second act. If nothing is happening, if I get no sense of forward momentum or increasing tension, I often give up. This is the point where I expect the book to deliver on the premise of the promise, and if it doesn’t, I am sorely disappointed.

Which is why Fun and Games is such an apt description for the first half of the middle. As a writer, it reminds me to let go and have fun with this joyous thing called writing. To look for cool ways to thrill, amaze, and move my reader.

But my absolute favorite, can’t-live-without-part of the beat sheet is Bad Guys Closing In. All the truly brilliant ideas are deceptively simple. The beat sheet is no exception. This is the hardest part for almost every writer I know. In beginning manuscripts, it is one of the most common mistakes, jumping nearly from the middle to the end, without including the steady build-up of tension and stakes as the antagonistic forces of the story increase to the point of nearly breaking our hero.

Bad Guys Closing In tells us precisely what we need to do with this part of the book, what has to happen — but in only five words, so clearly it is not a formula or blueprint that will stifle your creativity. It is simply a better definition of what “middle” means. It not only conveys the mood and flavor of what happens, but tells us precisely what sort of scenes need to come here.

There are other story structures that do some of this, too; the Hero’s Journey springs immediately to mind, but for me, it is too structured to use early in the process—it forces me to look at a developing story in too rigid a way. It is much better applied to my story during later drafts. (Yes, I am a bit of a writing process slut. There! I’ve admitted it! And a children’s writer, to boot.) But the beat sheet is the one I always reach for first.

And lastly, probably the most important thing to remember about structure tools like the beat sheet and The Hero’s Journey is this: They are not artificial constructs dreamed up and constructed in some esoteric ivory tower or studio to be applied to stories. They have sprung up organically from years and years of studying stories and myths that have been written over thousands of years. They are, at their core, a reflection of the very human trials and tribulations we go through in our quest for a better understanding of our own lives. They are a map of the human experience, and since the human experience is infinite, so too are the ways you can use this tool.

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. Denise Willson says

    Thanks for sharing, Robin, especially on the run. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  2. says

    When I had my “big idea” for a book five years ago and took the first 20 pages to some writing friends, they said things like, “I love the MC’s voice” and “Great descriptions … I can really see the setting” and then — “But where is this going?”

    Me: “Well, it’s sort of … just going!”

    Them: “Okay, we know you didn’t mean for this to happen, but knowing that, how do you expect us to care about your MC and her situation if we have no inkling of the stakes?”

    Me: “Because you just … do?”

    Them: “No.”

    Me: “I know … how about a prologue?”

    Them: “NO.”

    Then one of them said, “Get Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat.'”

    So I did. I multiplied all the page counts for the beats by 3 and suddenly the story unfolded before me as if it had been there all along. Meandering (mostly) ceased. Now I find myself getting compliments from other writers on pacing! I had to put my WIP aside for three years, but because I had this structure in place, coming back to it has been easy and the first draft will be done by mid-January.

    Blake Snyder’s template is a gift to all who find themselves aslog in the great, swampy middle, and he himself was a gift to the writing world in general.

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  3. says

    Robin – this is so helpful! (It may be an older post, but it’s new to me!)

    I hate structure, too, and my works in progress always try their darnedest to turn into “sprawling formless masses.” I think it is because I have a problem with taking advice; I don’t want to be bossed around about my own precious story and how I should be writing it. But in recent years, I’ve realized how much I do need those baby gates.

    I started a novel in 2006 when I was studying for a semester at Oxford – it was going to be brilliant, and for the years I worked on it, it was! It was time-travel and history, young lovers and a haunted moor, castles and monks and second chances. I just dove in. And I never got out of the middle. It sprawled. And I started writing something else, and actually completed that something else, because I paid more attention to the boundaries and where I was straying from the beaten path.

    I will definitely be looking to “Save the Cat” as I continue on in my other projects and ultimately return to the time-travel and moors novel. Maybe this time, I can claw myself out of the middle!

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  4. says

    Good stuff, and it’s great to meet another writing process slut! (Hey, maybe we could create a support group and hold anonymous meetings in the dingy basement of some rundown building, drinking bad coffee and sharing our slutty pain with each other. But I digress…)

    Snyder gave excellent advice, and one of the books from his Save the Cat series (I think it’s called Save the Cat Goes to the Movies) does a great job of giving examples in the form of famous movies that fit his various templates and “beats.”

    Another great and slutworthy resource to consider is the audio CD and/or video DVD set that Michael Hauge and Chris Vogler put together, called The Hero’s Two Journeys. Hauge and Vogler are both proven story structure experts, and although they each have different methodologies, they found a lot of common ground with each other. Together they developed a joint workshop that is both entertaining and helpful. Highly recommended!

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  5. says

    To each their own! I’ve read _Save the Cat_ and I think it’s helpful to have in the back of my mind, but I’ve discovered I can’t consciously write/plan to it (of course, I’m also a pantser, albeit one who is trying to get better at planning). I attempted to plan out my beats according to the beat sheet, and wound up tossing probably close to 60% of those scenes (and I may be conservative with that number).

    That said, while a whole bunch of new stuff took the place of what I tossed, my book does follow, more or less, the “big” points of Blake’s structure. And in my current revisions, I am rearranging some scenes to better crank up the tension in what would be “bad guys close in” (though for me, “Sh** gets worse” is a better descriptor, as the subplots more solidly intertwine with the in with the a-plot and combine to make things worse for my MC).

    I think the future, I’m going to plan out the big turning points and write to those, but let the “littler” scenes develop as they may.

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  6. says

    I’m so happy you chose to repeat this blog, Robin! I just bought and read Save the Cat last weekend in preparation for NaNoWriMo. Glad to hear the Beat Sheet works for kids’ books. Thanks.

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  7. Melissa Lewicki says

    I tried to combine his beat sheet with the three act structure AND with the hero’s journey. I think I hurt myself….

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  8. says

    I’ve been writing off and on for ten years, with 4 novels complete and none published (though I’ve had some success with magazine articles). This year two things hit me: 1. I have to learn and actually apply what I learn. 2. Structure is not optional.

    So I’ve been learning structure. I’ve read Larry Brooks, KM Weiland, Stanley William, and just started reading Save the Cat. All vary a bit, but all come to the same conclusions. The books and movies that sell follow certain rules. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we more interested in expressing artistic freedom or in selling our books? I believe you can have both. Structure is not a prison. It serves to keep our focus. To keep the story moving forward.

    I’m glad you re-posted this. It ties in perfectly with yesterday’s post concerning NaNoWriMo. I don’t know if I coined this acronym, but I’ve decided that September and October (at a minimum) need to be NaNoPlotMo(s). This job takes discipline. And you can’t have discipline without structure. Thanks for the post!

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  9. says

    This is helpful – I use the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, but I always flounder with the Fun & Games beat….probably because I’m trying to make it into NO Fun & NO Games. It stresses me out because it’s so undefined! Maybe I should use your approach, and view it as permission instead of missing direction.

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  10. says

    Great post, Robin. I’m a new WU reader, but even if I were a veteran, I’d want to read this again. I happen to like structure, boundaries, rules, probably because I was Convent-schooled. Structure gives shape; far better than having an amorphous mess. I discovered SAVE THE CAT a couple of years ago, and used it to clean up my middle. I also use the Nine Box method and the Hero’s Journey.

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  11. Cal Rogers says

    Thanks for introducing me to Save the Cat. Never heard of it, though I am familiar with the concept of a beat sheet as it applies to screenplays. And I LOVE your baby gate analogy. “Fun & games and then the bad guys move in” reminds of something John Grisham once said, when asked how he comes up with his stories. He puts his MC in an impossible situation, and then spends the rest of the story struggling to get him out of it. Seems to have worked well for him.

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  12. says

    Structure is critical for me. I use Dramatica (I know, I’m boring on the subject) because I can only write on a tiny piece of the whole puzzle at a time, and yet I need to know that all the structure is solidly out there, so that the energy I use creating a puzzle piece isn’t wasted.

    The structure was created in 2000, got one major revision around 2005, and is something I use every single day I can write.

    Within my Scrivener files, I have spaces for all the STC beats, and the structure from the Hero’s Journey, so I can make sure that they all play nice together.

    Screenwriters do this, too, so that whatever the listening studio executive’s preferred system is, the pitch can point out that the structural beats are there.

    For those of us who are plotters, knowing the structure is solid takes a lot of the worry out. I admire pantsers – and could never imitate them.

    I think it is the way your brain is wired – fortunately there are readers and writers across the full spectrum.

    Alicia

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  13. says

    Robin, I love Save the Cat, too! For me, outlining and structure makes all the difference– like having a map for your journey vs. just finding your way by instinct or meandering around. Sure, you may misread the map and get off an exit early or late– and discover something amazing in the process– but without the map and the plan, you’d never have made that discovery at all. At least I wouldn’t have! :)

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  14. says

    I love and need structure. Before I found it, I wasted pages of writing. I didn’t know where certain events were supposed to fit! I tried four different variations until I landed on the one I feel most at home with, which is by Larry Brooks. But the third attempt was Blake’s. I was entranced! I dogeared almost every page, highlighted like crazy, and even went to his website to thank him for writing it…

    …only to discover he had died, like, 3 days before. I was heartbroken! He was barely 50! It’s a tribute to his vision that the Save the Cat people have gone on, a vibrant organization still teaching people about the beats.

    Conversely, Slate Magazine just recently ran an article suggesting that Blake’s structure has been bad for movies, in that they’re all slavishly following it, that a screenplay now MUST follow his structure to the letter or it won’t be bought. Here’s the link: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/07/hollywood_and_blake_snyder_s_screenwriting_book_save_the_cat.html

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  15. says

    I never thought I had “structure” or plot – but I do – it’s only that I go about it in such a rambling chaotic round-about way – a way that some people would think is a whole lotto trouble – but, it works for me – I had to learn to trust my own process – that when I read “how to” books, I would seize up, become disoriented. My weird brain is how it is – someone once asked me, when I described how my bran “works” … “So, you have a learning disability?” I was taken aback, but then I smiled and said, “Well, I suppose I do . . . .” An unnamed one, but there you go. Trust my process. Let go and do. Show up. It’ll all work out in the end.

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