My Favorite Plotting Book EVER* (*Contains Cats)

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.

Disney 7656

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.

Find Save the Cat! on Amazon and visit Blake Snyder’s website here.

19 thoughts on “My Favorite Plotting Book EVER* (*Contains Cats)

  1. Kim says:

    I love hearing you chat about Disney. I was a CP in 97. I had the same hideous Vista Way furniture, and browsed the Virgin bookstore on a regular basis. It had just opened its doors back then. (Not the point of your post, I know, just waxing nostalgic.)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Oh don’t worry—I love a good old wax nostalgic as well! 🙂 I think it’s SUCH a shame Virgin Megastore closed. Apparently there’s a bowling alley or something there now. (WhatEVER!) I’m going in a few weeks for a visit so I’ll get to see the horror for myself. But where else can you get what you used to be able to get in VM? Not just in Downtown Disney but anyway in Disney at all? *tear*

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    This book came highly recommended by a friend, a budding screenplay writer and film director. It is very funny and easy to read, and so full of great tips, which, as you say, are applicable in any kind of writing. I didn’t realise the author has died.

  3. Kerri Wood Thomson says:

    Robert McKee’s book has been staring at me from my bookshelf for over a year. It was recommended, but I don’t know if my brain can handle it. Save the Cat! sounds like a perfect alternative!

  4. Rebecca Nolen says:

    I agree with you about this book. I just discovered it. I’m sad to hear that the writer died. He seems so real coming from the pages of his book. I agree also that the beat sheet is unbeatable!

  5. T.K. Marnell says:

    This looks really fun, and if I hadn’t already spent more than I can afford on craft books this month, I’d definitely pick it up. The one thing I would keep in mind, though, is that pacing a 2-hour movie isn’t exactly the same as pacing a book that takes people several days to read. Rather than a single midpoint, novels typically have two points of no return: the first near the beginning to jump-start the action, and the second near the end, building up to the final *bang*.

    Imagine if Bilbo Baggins spent the first half of The Hobbit bumming around The Shire, pooh-poohing Gandalf’s party tricks and wild tales of gold-hording dragons. Nope, he kicks around for a few pages and then the dwarves show up. Once his adventure starts, he can’t just abandon his companions, forget about the treasure and head back home. The first Door of No Return has closed. Then the second Door is literally a door in this case: once Bilbo finds the secret entrance to Smaug’s lair and wakes the sleeping dragon, the dominoes won’t stop falling. He has to help slay Smaug and survive the ensuing war over the mountain before he can go back to his quiet little hole in the hill.

    You’ll find a similar pattern in most successful novels. The “Old World” section is short; no more than 1/5 of the book (Bilbo sets off with his new friends in chapter 2). Then the final push to the resolution starts with about 1/5 left to go (Bilbo wakes the dragon in chapter 12, at about the 3/4 mark). Basically, we move the “midpoint” principle to the end of a short Act I, put an even stronger one at the beginning of Act III, and devote most of the meat to Act II in the middle.

  6. CaliFornia says:

    I have a ton of writing books on my bookshelves, and those two are both keepers. See if your local library has the audiobook version of Story, it may provide a better experience for you.

  7. jpmclean1 says:

    Thanks. I will definitely be adding Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” to my must-read reference shelf. I would never have zeroed in on a screen-writing book for tips on writing novels, but because of your enthusiasm, I checked out the book’s “Look Inside” and I’m hooked. I haven’t even seen Al Pacino’s role in the movie that Snyder used as an example for saving the cat, but he made his point crystal clear in HD and I’m grateful. It was sheer coincidence that my hero saved the cat in book I, but I’m thinking that now I need to go back and look at book II?? It’s not too late to save a cat in that one and I’m not sure my hero did….

  8. Tim McGregor says:

    I love Save the Cat! Blake’s beat sheet is the quickest, most effective tool to take a germ of a story idea and test whether or not you have a story. It’s saved me a lot of time nailing down a good story from just a ‘cool idea’.

    I started using STC to script movies (even had a few produced) but now I use it for writing novels. I even use Blake’s storyboard to chisel out a full outline.

    I always enjoy your posts, Catherine. Now I’m kinda giddy that your a Blake fan too!

  9. sequinsandcherryblossom says:

    I downloaded Save the Cat on your recommendation and have just finished reading it. I think it’s great – I learned huge amount and enjoyed it too. Thank you! (I found T.K. Marnell’s comments above a useful addition too).

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