As ye who follow this blog already know, I’m rewriting my first novel. It’s a manuscript I wrote one November as part of the National Novel Writing challenge—fifty thousand words in thirty days—all written by the seat of my pants.
Not surprisingly, it’s fifty thousand words that don’t add up to a solid plot.
After reading this plotless draft, I knew I had a lot of work ahead, but not a clue as to how to rewrite the mess. It had major problems, but I didn’t know specifically why.
The ship was sinking, and I was ready to bail.
Enter Blake Snyder.
Blake Snyder was a successful screenwriter who wrote Save the Cat!, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, and Save the Cat! Strikes Back! If there’s anyone who knows anything about plot, it’s a successful screenwriter.
“Save the Cat” is a term for the scene in the movie where, as Snyder puts it, “…we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”
Blake Snyder’s secret to a successful story.
Snyder realized that every great screenplay can be broken down into fifteen “beats.” These beats set up the story, force the hero to change, and propel the hero to the moment of win, lose, or draw. Without these beats, the screenplay lacks a spine, lacks a character arc, lacks a compelling story.
Each beat occurs at set points in the script, and Snyder pins it down to the specific pages, starting with the opening image, down to the final moment, with all the turning points in between. He even came up with a beat sheet that we can all use to “beat out” our story.
But what’s the story about?
Good question. If you haven’t nailed the answer, you can’t beat out the plot. Snyder gives clues to help writers narrow down the theme and then come up with a solid “logline” that sums up the story in one sentence. Once the writer has a grasp of the theme and the logline, it’s a matter of mapping out the beats, and breaking the beats into scenes.
At last! A map to the treasure!
Now I knew what to look for, and where to look. To plot my novel, I asked myself:
- Is the opening image opposite from the closing image?
- Is the theme stated on page X?
- Did I set up the hero’s world on pages X – XX?
- Is there a moment that changes that world, and a moment when the hero makes a conscious choice to change course?
- Is there a clear shift into Acts II and III?
- Do the “bad guys close in,” is there a “dark moment of the soul,” do I reveal a solution to stories A and B?
And so on…
I know, sounds like a lot to take in. But Snyder simplifies the process. He gives examples from real movies. I recommend that you do what I did: with beat sheet in hand, and some DVDs of movies in the genre you’re writing, map the beats. They’re all there, just like Snyder promised.
As I read Save the Cat!, light bulbs went off in my brain. All of this applies to novel writing! Just change the page numbers for each beat to match the number of pages in the novel I’m rewriting.
Enter Jessica Brody.
On her site, she provides a template you can download for novelists. Fill in the number of words your novel will be, and the template automatically updates the page numbers to correspond with Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats.
But what if you’re a pantser, not a plotter?
As a seat-of-the-pants writer, am I selling out by following something that sounds formulaic? Here’s the way I look at it: a jazz musician improvises on a melody in a specific key; a dancer improvises based on the music. The form is the bowl that holds whatever recipe we dream up and whip together.
Just get the book!
I can’t recommend Save the Cat! highly enough. No matter where you are in the process of writing a novel or script—from first draft to rewrite—trust me, Blake Snyder is the guide you want for your journey.
In fact, buy all three books. Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies gives a complete breakdown of the fifteen beats for movies, by genre, for “every story ever told.” Save the Cat! Strikes Back! elaborates on the process of building scenes, and offers a slew of advice for when you get into trouble.
Good information. I found the template, put in my estimated number of pages, and voila`! The outline. Now to translate it to my story…
I know, cool, huh? Let me know if you use it!
I never would have guessed a book by that title would be about screenwriting. Sounds useful! Thanks for the review, Diane.
Thank YOU for reading it. And commenting!
I lay out my chapters in summaries then write from there. I’ll have to try the template and see if it lines up! Thanks for sharing:-)
You’re welcome! Let me know if it works for you.
Thanks for the book review! I just added the book to my cart as a birthday present to myself 🙂
Great gift. Enjoy!
I’m glad to hear you’ve found such a helpful ally in the novel-writing challenge you set for yourself. I’m not writing a novel myself at the moment, but if I do, I’ll certainly try to have my protagonist do something that makes everybody like him or her. A cat seems quite challenging for my first attempt, so I may start with saving an ant, or possibly a slug.
I have a feeling that any character you create will be well-loved by your readers, sans cat-saving.
Save the Slug has a nice ring to it. I would totally read that.
Bun, there’s a book in you yet!
I have heard of Save the Cat, like, everywhere and never really knew where it originated. So, this goes against the blog post I JUST wrote, thank you, but I might have to check this book out.
Oh go on, take a peek. And I’ll heed the advice in your post and “just write!”
This is one of my favorite books on writing. I go back to it time and time again. It really does a great job of helping me to stay on track, to keep the plot moving, and it does nothing to squelch my creativity.
So true! I can be a seat-of-the-pants writer, and still use this book as a guide.