Save the Cat!
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I used to wonder why I couldn’t finish a single novel. I wrote nearly every day, sometimes for hours, sometimes thousands of words at once, but I never got anywhere. My folders were filled with tens or even hundreds of stories left unfinished, waiting for the day that I might return to them.
So what does that have to do with saving cats? Save the Cat! (Yes, with the exclamation point.) by the late Blake Snyder is all about how to structure a compelling story with characters you want to root for—put simply, characters who “save the cat”. It bills itself as “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.” That’s right. It’s all about screenwriting, not even a novel-writing how-to, but it’s the best book I’ve ever read about story structure. And trust me, I needed it.
The Problem with My Writing
Here’s the thing. When I started writing, I had no clue what I was doing other than that I enjoyed it. I hated outlines and didn’t understand plot. And when I did outline, we’re talking ten page documents that became mini-stories in themselves. It was bad.
Inspiration alone is not enough to make a book.
When I started a new novel project, it would be for some spark of inspiration—character, setting, even a line of dialogue—but inspiration alone is not enough to make a book. I would get going great for the first page or forty, then realize I had no clue where the story was headed.
I had no plot. Nor did I have the faintest clue how to construct one.
What STC! Taught Me (And the Problem with Old-School Outlines)
Like I said, I used to write outlines so long they could have passed for books in themselves. I could point out a lot of problems with that method, but the biggest was that after expending all my passion writing the outline, often I found I had no more energy left to write the book itself.
After expending all my passion writing the outline, often I found I had no more energy left to write the book itself.
So I quit outlining.
I then found simpler methods—you’ll even find templates for the eight-beat method if you scroll back in time here on The Novel Plan—but things didn’t really hit home until the day I picked-up Save the Cat! at my local library.
Save the Cat! taught me how to structure a story in a way that made me want to actually write the thing—by breaking every story into the same fifteen beats.
Blake Snyder’s 15-Beat Sheet, the “BS2”:
- Opening Image: The Opening Image shows the character in their “before” moment, setting-up the thing that the main character is lacking or needs. You get a hint of the “stasis-death” that will consume them if they can’t remove their own “glass shard”*.
- Theme Stated: Blake says this is where the theme is stated, usually to the main character, but the main character doesn’t yet understand it or can’t accept it. However, I personally think the theme should be stated throughout the story in less obvious ways. I don’t think it needs to be called-out specifically at this point—though it can be.
- Set-Up: This is where exposition and detail as well as smaller, precursor catalysts may occur to help move our hero from the world of Act One to the world of Act Two. Like the later beat, Fun and Games, the Set-Up beat explores the before world of Act One.
- Catalyst: The first external force that sets the character in motion. There may be many catalysts within a larger one or leading to it, but this is the big moment that sparks the character’s debate.
- Debate (Stasis = death): The reluctant hero faces their own doubts. Internal conflict. They explore all the reasons for not taking on this quest, not moving forward in the direction the catalyst has pushed them. Usually there is something at stake for them, for someone they care about, or for the world. If they refuse the call to adventure, there is a price to be paid. If nothing else, their own “glass shard”* will fester. This is why stasis = death. If the character stays where they are, in stasis, then they will physically or metaphorically die.
Another note: Exploring the stakes is why Lord of the Rings works so well. The reader and audience fall in love with The Shire through Frodo’s eyes and see how very much there is to protect against evil, how much is at stake.
- Break into Two: The moment the character has completed their debate and now the story moves forward into the upside-down world of Act Two, the antithesis of Act One.
Crucial note: It must be the main character’s choice to move into the world of Act Two. They must debate and choose this quest, this story on their own.
- B-Story: This is where the love story blossoms. Theme is debated with B-story character, usually the love interest.
- Fun and Games (Promise of the Premise): Although Blake lists this as a concise beat, Fun and Games can and should happen throughout the story. This is where Neo learns Kung Fu in The Matrix but also the “car chase” of high fantasy where Frodo is trying to outrun the Nazgûl in Lord of the Rings. Fun and Games more overtly delivers the promise of the premise than Set-Up does in Act One.
- Midpoint: All story lines intersect here. Stakes are raised. This moment will either be a false defeat or a false victory, depending on what kind of story it is. This is the beat that is mirrored in the finale but inverted in the “All is Lost”.
- Bad Guys Close In: Internal and external forces mount against the hero. The team and relationships are strained as they are weakened from the inside. The bad guys show their strength. Things start to slip downhill.
- All is Lost: The opposite of the Midpoint, this is the moment where in a standard storyline, the hero loses everything they ever had. Blake also says there needs to be either a physical or symbolic death—the “Whiff of Death”, which clears the way for the fusion of Act One and Two into Act Three, the world of synthesis.
- Dark Night of the Soul: This is the character’s reaction to All is Lost. During Dark Night of the Soul, the main character is hopeless and considers giving up. As Blake says, “We must be beaten and know it to get the lesson.”
- Break into Three: After digging deep down into the extent of their predicament and thanks to help from the other characters found in B-Story (love story/love interest), the main character finally knows how to defeat the bad guys.
- Finale: This is where hero must gather the team and storm the castle. In the face of an unexpected twist, the “High Tower Surprise”, they must use the knowledge they’ve learned to overcome the problem that has defeated them before. And as Blake says, “It’s not enough for the hero to triumph, he must change the world.” This is where it happens.
- Final Image: The Final Image should mirror or evoke the Opening Image, but show how the character has grown and their situation has changed since the story began. This beat is the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis worlds of act one and two.
“It’s not enough for the hero to triumph, he must change the world.” —Blake Snyder
Let’s talk about the Glass Shard: There’s something wrong in the hero’s internal world that manifests in the physical world. They must fix their situation in the world around them in order to dig out their glass shard.
Example: In The Matrix, Neo works a dead-end desk job but senses there’s something greater wrong with the world. He’s dissatisfied being a slave to his corporate masters. He becomes an illegal hacker by choice, but it’s still not enough.
His glass shard is his dissatisfaction with the world as it is. This manifests in the plot as his desire to escape the big machine world—The Matrix—that everyone is stuck in.
Where to Go From Here
In the future, I plan to talk about how I structured my ongoing work in progress using Blake’s BS2. I calculated the percentage of story where each beat should fall and then set a target wordcount for my story. From there, I was able to translate beat locations from screenplay to novel page counts.
In the meantime, if you’re like I was and having trouble finishing a story, or perhaps you’ve finished stories but they seem to be lacking a structure, I’d highly recommend reading the original Save the Cat! book by Blake Snyder.
Until next time,
PS—Follow me on Twitter @CDGMcGee