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Weekend Writer: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: Chapter Two – The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet aka The End of All Your Plotting Problems by Jessica Brody

Hey all, Sam here.

So my plan had been to make today’s Weekend Writer post cover the next two chapters of the book, but considering that Chapter Two is over 50 pages long, I feel like that would end up being way too long…which means that I’m going to go for another double dose of Weekend Writer this week…and that might continue throughout this book. I like making the deep dive take one or two months instead of three or four. One book every one to two months means that I can get through 6-12 books on writing craft in a year.

I hope that is okay with all of you…not that many of you are out there reading these posts. But for the few of you who are reading these, I hope they are useful to you. At the very least, they are helpful for me, though, which is really cool. I like continually learning about writing, both ways that enhance how I already write, but also I’ve always found it useful to study other approaches to writing too. Sometimes you’ll see something from another perspective and you can adapt it into your own method, and honestly it always feels like a victory to add another tool into your writing toolbox.

Anyway, so far, after reading a whopping two chapters (plus an introduction), I’m feeling really good about this book on writing, and it’s actually making me want to dive into my own writing projects and see how I can improve upon what I’ve already done and how to make my writing life easier going forward.

Let’s go ahead and jump into the breakdown for Chapter Two of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody.

SAVE THE CAT!® by Blake Snyder is a popular screenwriting book series and storytelling methodology used by screenwriters, directors, and studio execs across Hollywood. Now, for the first time ever, bestselling author and writing teacher, Jessica Brody, takes the beloved Save the Cat! plotting principals and applies them to the craft of novel writing in this exciting new “workshop style” guide, featuring over 20 full beat sheets from popular novels throughout time.

Whether you’re writing your first novel or your seventeenth, Save the Cat! breaks down plot in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step method so you can write stories that resonate! This book can help you with any of the following:

Outlining a new novel
Revising an existing novel
Breaking out of the dreaded “writer’s block”
Fixing a “broken” novel
Reviewing a completed novel
Fleshing out/test driving a new idea to see if it “has legs”
Implementing feedback from agents and/or editors
Helping give constructive feedback to other writers

But above all else, SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL will help you better understand the fundamentals and mechanics of plot, character transformation, and what makes a story work!

Chapter Two: The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet aka The End of All Your Plotting Problems

First, I know I mentioned this last week with the first chapter, but again, this chapter includes a spoiler announcement, letting you know every fiction book that will be talked about and spoiled within the chapter, which is just very respectful and cool. I like it.

As Brody starts this chapter, she compares writing a novel to a long cross-country road trip, and she talks about how it feels overwhelming to think about a trip from San Francisco to New York, much like when writing a novel you think “I have to write how many pages” or “I have to write how many words.” But in the end you can’t think that way. For a road trip, you just think about what distance you have to cover for each day or each leg of your journey, and for writing a novel you can break it down by act or by chapter or by scene.

I think this concept really fascinates me because I have done long trips like this. While working with Colorworld and doing conventions, I had to be in Boston for a convention one weekend, and then the next weekend I needed to be in Seattle for another convention. It was a lot of very long days in the van, and you know you’re going not going to get a lot of sleep in an actual bed–made even worse for me since I don’t sleep well in most vehicles, but especially not a fully-loaded cargo van, and every pit stop is only going to be for a few minutes, just long enough to fill up the gas tank, go to the bathroom, and grab a very quick bite to eat. Granted, yes, this was for work. I’m sure if I was planning a cross-country road trip as a vacation, I’d have a much nicer time, and I’d probably make several stops at museums or tourist attractions or whatever.

Thankfully, when it comes to writing a novel, we have boos like this one to keep us on the right course, so we don’t veer off into random detours and such. That is why this chapter is focused on the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, the basic breakdown of your novel into a three-act structure with different story beats within each act that will set your characters and your plot up for success.

Your beat sheet (or novel road map) can be as detailed or as sparse as you want. You can use the beat sheet before you start writing, somewhere in the middle, when you’re feeling lost, or not until you’ve finished your first draft and are going back to revise. Like I said before, I’m not here to change your process; I’m here to enhance it. The structure has to be added in at some point. And this, my friends, is your structure cheat sheet.

Read it. Learn it. Love it!

The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet is divided into three acts (or parts), which are further subdivided into fifteen total beats (or plot points).

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Act 1

  1. Opening Image (o%-1%)
  2. Theme Stated (5%)
  3. Setup (1%-10%)
  4. Catalyst (10%)
  5. Debate (10%-20%)

Act 2

  1. Break Into 2 (20%)
  2. B Story (22%)
  3. Fun and Games (20%-50%)
  4. Midpoint (50%)
  5. Bad Guys Close In (50%-75%)
  6. All is Lost (75%)
  7. Dark Night of the Soul (75%-80%)

Act 3

  1. Break Into 3 (80%)
  2. Finale (80%-99%)
  3. Final Image (99%-100%)

There it is…and Brody decided to go with percentages instead of word count or page count, because this structure can be used for short stories, novellas, and novels of all sizes. Obviously the midpoint will be in a different place for a 350 page novel versus an 800 page epic fantasy novel. So percentages work better all around.

Act One

A three act structure is nothing new; a lot of stories follow this basic outline. But Brody suggest that we look at it another way, not as acts, but more like worlds or states of being, and your hero–you know, the one we worked on with Chapter One last week, they’ll have to travel through these worlds to become who they need to for the story.

Act One is the place where the hero begins. In it we see the status quo of things in the beginning, where the hero is at the start of their journey, before anything and everything starts to change for them.

1. Opening Image

This first point provides a brief snapshot of your hero and the world they are a part of. This should be the first 1% of your story, the opening scene or chapter. The opening image introduces the reader to the hero, and helps them to understand what kind of person they are and what kind of a journey they’re about to go on. It also will set the tone for the story, as well as giving an idea for the style and the mood. This will let the reader know if it will be suspenseful or funny.

Brody emphasizes though that this is an opening image, and that it gives us a view of the hero, a visual representation of their flawed life. Don’t open with an inner monologue or an info dump. Open to the flawed hero in action. Show the reader how those flaws are messing with the hero’s life.

Note that this particular beat has a mirror beat, aka the Final Image at the end, which bookmarks the story, and the beats should be completely different…because your hero will have been on a journey that has changed them.

It should also be noted that this is a single-scene beat. It isn’t meant to take that long. Other beats will be multi-scene beats, but this one is mean to just give an idea of how things are at the beginning.

2. Theme Stated

On to beat two, which is meant to briefly allude to the transformative journey the hero will take and what flaws they will eventually conquer, and this will go somewhere in the first 5-10% of your story.

Often this hint at the journey that is about to happen or the lesson that is to be learned will come from a secondary character. Here’s the important part…it will be subtly mentioned, just enough to plant a tiny seed in the reader’s brain. Your hero might not even really pay attention to it. What matters is that there is a little hint for the reader as to what the story is really about, what the theme is.

So, there’s your flawed hero. They’re traipsing around the Act 1 world, being flawed, making stupid decisions, generally leading an imperfect life, and then someone (usually a secondary character) comes up to them and says, “You know what would really fix your life? This!

Your hero is essentially presented with the answer to all of their problems right there at the beginning of the book. But do they listen?

Of course not!

They completely, 100-percent ignore this person. Because at the start of the novel, your hero is resistant to change. They hear the theme stated and they go, “What the heck does he know? He doesn’t know me.” That’s why it’s often best to have the theme stated by a secondary character–a passerby, a fellow traveler on the bus, a nemesis–as opposed to someone close to your hero. This is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s easier for a reader to believe that the hero would ignore the theme if it’s stated by a stranger or someone the hero doesn’t necessarily know or trust.

page 33

People don’t change because someone tells them to change. It happens when they begin to see their flaws for themselves, and it makes them go on a transformative journey. So as a writer we have to make that journey believable.

3. Setup

This point simply sets up your hero’s life and the status quo of their world before everything changes for them, and this will take up the first 10% of the story. This is a multi-scene beat, so you have time to establish everything that is needed for this beat.

The setup is pretty important. You have to establish your hero, what kind of person they are, what their goals and wants are. And you also have to set up the characters of their beginning world. These are your A Story characters, which means they represent that external story (the A Story). This section is also where you show the hero’s flaws and how they affect all aspects of the hero’s life.

In case you don’t remember from Chapter One, your hero needs to have flaws. They cannot be someone who is perfect. You need to show all the flaws of the hero and their world. Showcasing this gives the readers an idea of what all needs to be changed and addressed throughout the story.

And the hero can’t stay in this part of their life, this part of their world forever. The setup also needs to showcase the need for change to come their way. If something doesn’t happen soon then the hero is pretty much doomed.

This is called the stasis = death moment. It’s the moment that comes somewhere in the Setup beat that shows the reader that change is imperative; otherwise, things are going south. Fast.

Whether you employ a specific stasis = death moment or you just impart a general sense of urgency, without the obvious need for change in the hero’s life, it’s difficult to get your reader to continue on the rest of the journey with you. So it’s your job, in the Setup, to plant the seed in the reader’s mind that change is crucial. That staying in this status quo world for much longer just isn’t an option.

page 37

This stasis = death moment leads us to the next story beat…

4. Catalyst

The Catalyst disrupts the status quo world with some sort of life-changing event, and takes place around the 10% mark of your story.

So after spending the beginning setting up your hero and the world, this is when you change it up, knock it down, and cause a scene.

Catalysts often come in the form of bad news (a letter in the mail, a phone call, a death, getting fired, being diagnosed with a deadly disease). Not always, but often. Why? Because most people won’t change their ways until something bad happens. Bad news often paves the way to good things. Without any bad news, your hero would be perfectly content just going about their flawed little life, being their flawed little self. Maybe even forever! But would your reader be just as content? No. Your reader wants to see something happen. They want action. They want a twist. They want drama.

page 38

This is a single scene beat where something happens to change the hero’s path. Something happens to the hero. This event is a wake up call, a way to open their eyes and change their worldview. The Catalyst needs to be BIG. Conflict makes for good story. You want the reader to think “Whoa” when the Catalyst happens.

If you wonder if your Catalyst is big enough, just think about if your hero can go back to their old life after it. If they can go back to what they were doing, then the Catalyst wasn’t big enough.

5. Debate

The final beat of Act One shows how your hero is resistant to change and/or it prepares your hero for the break into Act Two, and it should be at roughly the 10-20% mark.

But why do heroes debate? Why can’t they just get their life-changing news and move on? Because it’s not realistic. Pondering and weighing options and gathering more information is what we do as humans and heroes. Remember, no one accepts change right away. No one goes, Oh well, I guess my status quo life didn’t work out after all; time to change my ways!

page 39

Again, this is a multi-scene beat. It shows how the hero is resistant to the change that has been thrown at them. Now, sometimes the debate isn’t about a decision about whether or not to stay or go. Take Katniss in The Hunger Games. After volunteering in her sister’s place for the Hunger Games, there’s no turning back, no deciding not to go. The debate section for Katniss is in the preparation and training to enter the arena.

Things are changing for the hero. And whether they are debating about acting or not acting, or they are preparing for the journey, the next part of the story is going to be something completely different for them.

Okay…so yeah, I’m realizing that this is going to take quite a bit more time to type up, and it’s going to end up very long….so I’m going to pause in the middle of Chapter Two here.

I’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of Chapter Two, and then I’ll come back on Sunday with Chapter Three…so you’re getting a whole weekend of Weekend Writer. That’ll be fun.

Well, that is all from me for today. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.


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