It was September 2006 and Ihad just moved to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t have much money, no car and my job hadn’t commenced yet, so I basically knew no one. I spent most of my days wandering around Downtown Disney, tracing a path which always ended up in the Virgin Megastore on Westside (which is no longer there, sadly). Upstairs there were magazines, a bookstore, and a cafe: the perfect place for me. The bookstore wasn’t the kind where you could walk in with a book you wanted in mind and find it there on the shelf, though; this place was more of a let’s go in with an open mind and see what we find type of place.
One day I found Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Synder and started to flip through it. Not only did it make me laugh, standing there in the aisle, but it also explained story in a way I could understand, and used examples from movies I was familiar with to show that like it or not—and done consciously or not—all the movies that leave us feeling really satisfied, that have us walking back out into the light after seeing it in the movie theatre and saying to our friend, ‘That was really good, wasn’t it?”, adhere in some way to these principles.
Even though I shouldn’t have been spending any money at all, I just had to buy the book so I could take it back to my crappy little apartment and read the rest.
Have I shown you this before? This was my crappy Orlando apartment (the one I shared with partying Russians who never locked the front door). I believe that’s called 80s Office Chic.
Which is where I discovered that this screenwriting book is amazing for plotting commercial fiction.
It’s even more amazing if you’re asked for a chapter-by-chapter outline, as I once was, before I’d even written a word of the book.
Need a one-page synopsis? Or your entire book down pared down to just three paragraphs? Whip out Save the Cat!, flip to the beat sheet page (my copy now just falls open there) and fill in a sentence—one sentence—for each of the fifteen beats. Divide into three, jazz up a bit and there you go: your one-page synopsis.
And if you can’t fill in a sentence for each of those fifteen beats? Then your structure might have a weak spot. There’s room to improve.
Putting The Fun Back Into Story
If you’ve read Story by Robert McKee, Save the Cat! is like that only in a language you’ll understand and a length that won’t fry your brain. Save the Cat! is actually a fun read, and something you’ll return to again and again. The book isn’t that thick, even. Story is just too much for me. I can’t take it all in. It also seems to squeeze all the fun out of it, every last drop, until it just gets so technical and nit-bitty that it can only leave you feeling totally overwhelmed (I think).
Another thing I love about Snyder’s books is that he assumes you know what you’re doing. He takes it for granted that idea, characters, etc. are all already there. His beat sheet is more of a test, something you can lay down over the story you already have to check it for structural integrity, for weak spots and holes.
Now, yes, I am aware that I’m supposed to be writing books, not screenplays. But if you write commercial fiction, there is no real difference between you and a screenwriter in terms of the plot beats you should aim to hit. Only the novelist, I think, faces a much deeper, wider and darker chasm (100,000 words) than the screenwriter does (120 pages) and so if there’s help out there, why not take it? Especially when most of us have a great idea for a beginning, a vague idea for an end, a cast of characters and not much else.
How are you going to fill in the middle, eh?
‘Story Structure’ Does NOT Equal ‘Formula’
Let’s just take a moment here to address those of you whose teeth are already grinding and eyes are already a-rolling at the thought of doing anything to our work other than letting it run free and wild across the blank pages of Pretentious Meadow. A beat sheet isn’t about writing to a formula. This is about the elements of story which, if you’ll recall, is what all this is supposed to be about in the first place.
For example, let’s say that I came rushing up to you, breathless, and said, “Oh my god, you will not believe what’s just happened to me. I was sitting in traffic, right? Waiting for the light to turn red. Next thing I know this guy comes running up to my window and starts pounding on the glass!”
And then I abruptly stop talking.
What would be your reaction?
Wouldn’t it be to ask, “Yeah, and? What happened then?”
Because every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I clearly left out the ending of my traffic tale. Therefore, it doesn’t sit right with you. You know it’s missing something. You knew it as soon as you heard it, because you’re wired for story. So you have a natural, human reaction to hearing the beginning and middle of a story: you look for the end.
This is exactly what Save the Cat! and other “plotting” books, devices and advice is all about. The only difference is that they go much deeper than the basics of beginning, middle and end. For instance, Snyder can break a story into two halves (Opening Image <- Midpoint -> Final Image), four quarters (Act I, Act II Part 1, Act II Part 2, Act II) or fifteen by way of his famous beat sheet (see the first Save the Cat! book for this).
But you can just take what you want or need, and leave the rest. For example, when planning my current WIP I thought of the story like this:
- Half way through is the “midpoint”, where the hero does something that means he can never return to his “Before” life, a point of no return
- Act II up until the midpoint is all about the hero being proactive, moving into a new life (without committing to it)
- Act II after the midpoint is all about the hero resisting the (inevitable and permanent) change that’s up ahead
- Act I is the “Before” or Old World, where if the hero keeps doing what he’s doing, life will be pretty sucky
- Act III is the hero deciding to move into his “After” or New World, and settling there
- At each turn (end of Act I, midpoint, end of Act II) there’s a significant stakes raise, greater than the one before.
My constant re-reading of Save the Cat! helped me fill in all the other bits as I went along, but when you’re first faced with the question Is this idea enough for a novel?, being able to figure out if your story has a beginning, middle and end can save you a lot of staring-out-the-window time.
I’ve mentioned this book before, but I wanted to post about it again because I recently re-read the other two books in the series, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat! Strikes Back, and remembered just how wonderful they are. Tragically Snyder passed away suddenly at the age of just 51 before Strikes Back had even hit the shelves, but not before he’d become famous (and appreciated!) in screenwriting circles and was traveling all over the world to help other writers with their scripts.
So if you’re struggling, give Save the Cat! a chance and see what it can do for you. At the very least, it’ll make you giggle.