The challenge in writing - teaching it and learning it - is that it is so subjective. I studied plot structure in different ways before the Save the Cat approach clicked for me. I share the Save the Cat structure to help guide you because I think it is incredibly accessible. That said, there are other plot structure options for you to consider if you’d like to try another.
Blake Snyder was a screenwriter who broke down the “beats,” or critical moments in effective scripts, in a way writers could adopt to strengthen their own writing. His strategies have been adopted for novel writing, too, most notably in Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel text, which I highly recommend. Essentially, the strategy breaks down the plot structure of stories into 15 beats.
As we enter the world of publishing, it’s critical to keep in mind the value of intellectual property. The breakdown of beats for screenwriting and novel writing is not my intellectual property. For that reason, I am going to go guide you to Blake Snyder’s intellectual property to continue exploring these ideas.
Here’s what I’d like you to do. Visit www.savethecat.com. On the upper left, click on “Free Tools.” You can review the “Get Started” link if you’d like. I have shared some introduction with you, but this also will introduce you to the concepts.
The bulk of the information can be found in the Beat Sheet Mapper. I’d like you to first read through the summaries of each beat. These summaries are very brief since I am sure their goal is for you to purchase the book (the book can likely be borrowed from a public library near you, and it is available in our college library collection). Nevertheless, the beats are explained in very basic terms in the Beat Sheet Mapper. I will also include a video of Jessica Brody explaining the beats more in the Additional Resources at the end of the chapter.
After you have read the summary for each of the fifteen beats, I want you to click on the Beat Sheets link under Free Tools and locate a beat sheet for a movie or book you know well. There are many options here. When you find a story you know well and read the beat sheet, you are likely to understand the beats much better, so that you can apply them to your own writing.
At the end of this chapter, I will also share an interactive spreadsheet an author has shared online that is a great tool. If you notice when you study the beats on Snyder’s website, there are percentages attached to the beats. Screenwriting is very precise. The beats must appear at the perfect moment. While novel writing has some flexibility, authors must still keep the pacing of their stories in mind. If the stories are paced too slowly, reader will become bored and perhaps put down the book!
If the pacing is too quick, readers may not have time to process the information, and likewise, feel unengaged with the story. The spreadsheet I will share in the Additional Resources allows authors to input the word count or page numbers for their text (reference the word counts discussed for novels in the first chapter to plan accordingly) and then follow the pacing carefully.
So not only do the beats help you ensure your story includes relevant turning points and emotionally satisfying moments for readers, but they also keep authors on pace to deliver the best story they can to readers.
As you draft, keep in mind that the word counts will be approximate. You have to leave room for revision and polishing. But if your Set Up is meant to be 6,000 words according to the chart, and you’ve reached 15,000 words without getting to the catalyst, you are probably off the mark.
I also want to note that I have written nearly ten books with the beat sheet structure as a guide, and I still reference the definitions and text often. Reviewing this website, video, and or the text is not a "one and done” situation. You should review these materials often in developing your premise and plot, but also as you write and revise, too.
While the Save the Cat strategy works for me, I realize it may not work as well for you. Other options for studying plot structure include reviewing the Hero’s Journey, which has been discussed heavily online in blog posts, websites, and then also in several craft texts. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell are other plot-teaching favorites if you’re interested in exploring them.
Plotting Craft Books
If the beats are not “clicking” for you, consider these other craft books that focus on plotting a novel. Check them out through your local public library at no cost!
- The Anatomy of Story, John Truby
- The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri
- The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
- Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell
- Story Genius, Lisa Cron
- Story Structure Architect, Veronica Lynn Schmidt
- Scroll through the beat sheets collection on SavetheCat.com. Locate a beat sheet for a movie you love, but don't read the beat sheet. Once you know the beat sheet exists, you are good to move to the next step, without reading it. Watch the movie for the beat sheet. In a notebook while you watch, jot down the moments in the story that you feel qualify for each of the beats you’ve studied. Then, after you finish watching, access the beat sheet again on Snyder’s website. How close is the beat sheet you created to the one posted? Did the exercise help you better understand the beats?
- Start your own beat sheet. Using the resource from Jami Gold, input your expected word count based on the age category and genre of your novel. Then begin filling in your beats. Depending on whether you are a pantser, plotter, or plantser, this process may or may not be natural for you. Nevertheless, work to develop at least the major beats such as the Catalyst, Break Into 2, B Story, Midpoint, Dark Night of the Soul, and Finale. Remember, this is a starting point, and writing is revising. You can change any of this as you see fit, but progress can only be made by starting!
- Do some plot research on your own. Search online for craft books about plot. Read samples of those books if you’d like through Amazon’s Kindle sample feature. Borrow some from your library. Discover an explanation of plot that works for how you think about writing. Utilize the exercises available in those resources to further explore your plot ideas.
10 Tips for Plotting a Novel
How to Plot Your Way Through a Novel Series
"Chapter 4: Plotting Your Novel" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.