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Save the Cat Beats: Is This the Best Story Structure?

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As an aspiring novelist, I’m always on the lookout for tools and techniques that can help me craft compelling stories. Recently, I’ve become fascinated with a story structure called the “Save the Cat” beats, devised by screenwriter Blake Snyder. In this article, I’ll give you an in-depth look at this approach from my personal perspective as a writer experimenting with it for the first time.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What the Save the Cat beat sheet is and where it came from
  • A breakdown of each of the 15 Save the Cat beats
  • An example beat sheet for a popular novel
  • My thoughts on the pros and cons of this structure
  • Tips on how to make the Save the Cat method work for you

I was initially skeptical about Snyder’s very prescriptive approach to storytelling. However, as I started working through the beats and applying them to novels I love, I realized the Save the Cat method has merit. While it may not be a perfect fit for every story, it provides an insightful blueprint on pacing, character arcs, and plot structure.

What Is the Save the Cat Beat Sheet?

The Save the Cat beat sheet is a story structure devised by screenwriter Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Snyder analyzed hundreds of commercially successful films across every genre to identify beats or story events that most of them had in common.

He codified these into a 15-beat template that became known as the Save the Cat beats. The beats outline the key plot points and pinch points in a screenplay, including the opening and closing images, the catalyst, the midpoint, the darkest moment, and the resolution.

The term “Save the Cat” refers to the idea that the audience needs to see the hero do something sympathetic early on. By having the protagonist “save a cat” — or do any act that makes them likable — right away, the audience becomes invested in the character and stays engaged as the story unfolds.

While Snyder created this beat sheet for screenwriters, novelists soon realized its potential for crafting novels as well. The percentage markers Snyder assigned for a 110-page screenplay can be translated into proportional sections of a book.

Where Did the Save the Cat Beats Come From?

Screenwriter Blake Snyder published his famous book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need in 2005. The book draws on Snyder’s experience as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, with credits including Blank Check and episodes of the TV series Kids Incorporated.

Snyder found that most commercially successful films shared certain story beats or plot points in common. He mapped out when these beats occurred in the screenplay — for example, the opening image on page 1 and the catalyst around page 10. This allowed him to develop a blueprint for pacing out a compelling screenplay.

The term “Save the Cat” itself comes from the movie Aliens. In the opening scenes, Ripley rescues a cat, instantly making her likable. Snyder argues that clearly establishing your hero’s sympathetic qualities up front through an act like “saving a cat” helps hook the audience.

While initially controversial, the Save the Cat method spread rapidly in Hollywood and is now one of the most well-known screenwriting structures. For novelists like myself, it provides an intriguing model to examine.

What Do I Mean by “Beat”?

When I refer to a “beat” in the context of the Save the Cat structure, I’m talking about a story event that changes the situation for the protagonist or advances the plot and action in some meaningful way.

Not every scene in a novel will be a distinct beat. A beat encapsulates a significant occurrence like the catalyst, a setback, an epiphany, etc. Beats have shapes to them, so you move from the rise of the action at one beat to the fall at another in a purposeful sequence.

Snyder argues a good beat can be summed up in 1-2 sentences. For example, for the Opening Image beat: “Nick Carraway arrives in New York from the Midwest eager to find his fortune.”

If you find you need a whole paragraph to explain what happens at a beat, you may need to distill it down to the most essential plot point. The Save the Cat beats provide signposts that orient the reader and give the story shape.

A Quick Overview of Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet

Before we get into what each beat involves, here’s a high-level overview of the 15 beats in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet:

  • Opening Image (Page 1) – An establishing shot that sets up the protagonist’s world.
  • Theme Stated (Page 5) – The theme is hinted at through dialogue.
  • Set-up (Pages 1-10) – We learn more about the protagonist’s life before the adventure.
  • Catalyst (Page 12) – An inciting incident that disrupts the status quo.
  • Debate (Pages 12-25) – The protagonist hesitates to act.
  • Break Into Two (Page 25) – The protagonist commits to the adventure, entering Act Two.
  • B Story (Page 30) – A subplot is introduced, often involving a romance.
  • Fun and Games (Pages 30-55) – The protagonist explores the new world.
  • Midpoint (Page 55) – A major twist raises the stakes.
  • Bad Guys Close In (Pages 55-75) – New obstacles arise and things go wrong.
  • All Is Lost (Page 75) – Disaster strikes and all hope seems lost.
  • Dark Night of the Soul (Pages 75-85) – The protagonist struggles with despair.
  • Break Into Three (Page 85) – The protagonist rallies for a final push.
  • Finale (Pages 85-110) – The protagonist competes their quest.
  • Final Image (Page 110) – A snapshot of the new status quo.

As you can see, the Save the Cat beats map out a complete story arc from the ordinary world at the opening to the new world order at the end. Let’s look at what each beat involves in more detail.

An In-depth Save the Cat Outline

To better explain each story beat in the Save the Cat method, I’m going to break down the beats as they might apply to Suzanne Collins’ popular YA novel The Hunger Games. Obviously, I’m simplifying here for illustration purposes!

1. Opening Image

The opening image on page one gives the audience a snapshot of the protagonist’s ordinary world before the adventure begins. This beat sets up the status quo and shows any problems the protagonist is dealing with in their regular life.

The Hunger Games: We meet Katniss waking up in her bed in District 12, worrying about how she’ll provide food for her family that day.

2. Theme Stated

Early in the story, around page 5, the theme is hinted at through dialogue or description. This foreshadows the lesson the protagonist will learn on their journey.

The Hunger Games: Katniss’ friend Gale criticizes the Capitol’s exploitation of the districts, indicating rebellion will be a theme.

3. Setup

Over the next few pages, we get more context about the protagonist’s everyday life and relationships. Details about who they are before change strikes are important here.

The Hunger Games: We learn Katniss illegally hunts to feed her family and trades with Gale at the Hob. We meet her sister Prim and mother.

4. Catalyst

The catalyst on page 10 is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion and disrupts the status quo. This is the “call to adventure.”

The Hunger Games: Prim is chosen as a tribute for the Hunger Games, and Katniss volunteers in her place.

5. Debate

Now the protagonist debates whether or not to accept the challenge presented by the catalyst event. This creates dramatic questions that power the story.

The Hunger Games: Katniss struggles over whether she made the right choice to volunteer for a fight to the death she doubts she can win.

6. Break Into Two

Halfway down page 25, the debate is settled as the hero commits to the adventure, crossing the threshold into Act Two and the special world of the story.

The Hunger Games: Katniss accepts she must compete in the Games for her family’s sake.

7. B Story

The B story subplot is introduced around page 30, providing a break from the main action. This often involves meeting a romantic interest.

The Hunger Games: On the train to the Capitol, we start to see the relationship dynamic between Katniss and Peeta emerge.

8. Fun and Games

Over the next 20 or so pages, the protagonist explores the new world, masters skills needed for the quest, and often wins some early victories. The central conflict is developed.

The Hunger Games: Katniss arrives in the Capitol, trains for the Games, impresses in her evaluation, and bonds more with Peeta.

9. Midpoint

At the midpoint on page 55, new information causes a big twist. False victory becomes false defeat. Stakes are raised.

The Hunger Games: Rule change: Two tributes from the same district can live if they are the last two standing, so Katniss sees Peeta as a threat now, not an ally.

10. Bad Guys Close In

From pages 55-75, tension mounts as the hero struggles and the antagonist seems to have the upper hand. Things go wrong, doubts arise.

The Hunger Games: As the Games begin, Katniss faces life-threatening dangers from natural disasters, injuries, and murderous rivals.

11. All Is Lost

At the 3/4 mark, a devastating loss occurs where the quest seems failed. The protagonist hits rock bottom.

The Hunger Games: Katniss is attacked by the Career Tributes and gets trapped up a tree, with no way to get down safely.

12. Dark Night of the Soul

Wallowing in despair, the hero faces internal demons, confronting why they have failed. The theme is restated.

The Hunger Games: Stuck in the tree, Katniss reflects on Prim and her goal to return home, rallying her determination.

13. Break Into Three

Inspired, the hero usually has an epiphany on page 85 and decides to make one last desperate push toward victory.

The Hunger Games: Katniss drops the tracker jacker nest on her enemies, shaking up the game.

14. Finale

From pages 85-110, the protagonist puts their new plan into action for one last fight. They use lessons learned to prevail.

The Hunger Games: Katniss forms an alliance with Rue then resolves to defy the Capitol’s wishes with Peeta. After losing Rue, she decides they both can live.

15. Final Image

The last snapshot on page 110 shows how the hero has grown and changed. It often mirrors the opening image in some way.

The Hunger Games: Back home, Katniss embraces Peeta, accepts she has changed, and secretly defies the Capitol one last time.

Mapping out a story beat-by-beat like this helps ensure your novel has solid pacing and hits the key moments readers expect. While you don’t have to follow Save the Cat exactly, let’s look at some pros and cons of this approach.

Should You Use These Beats?

Pros of the Save the Cat Structure:

  • Gives a strong blueprint for plot and pacing.
  • Ensures you have an emotionally compelling catalyst and climax.
  • Reminds you to include essential elements like stakes and twists.
  • Provides clear guidance for shaping the all-important midpoint.
  • Offers an easy-to-follow model for novices and pros alike.

Cons of the Save the Cat Structure:

  • Level of detail can feel restrictive for some writers.
  • Following it rigidly may make some novels formulaic.
  • Works best for heroic protagonist-driven plots.
  • The page counts don’t necessarily translate perfectly from screenplays.
  • Subplots like the B story may feel shoehorned in.

For me, the Save the Cat beats work best as a loose guideline rather than as a rigid prescription. Tweak the details as needed to suit your particular story. Focus on nailing the most crucial beats like the catalyst, midpoint reversal, and dark night of the soul.

Personally, I found the catalyst, debate, and aftermath the most helpful beats to map out. These let you zero in on your inciting event and its implications. The Save the Cat structure pushes you to think about character transformation arcs and dig into dramatic questions.

Ultimately, I’d recommend writers experiment with the Save the Cat method to see if it aligns with your creative process. Don’t be afraid to deviate from it too! Blake Snyder developed it for screenplays first and foremost. You may need to adapt it for your novel’s pacing and story needs as I did.

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