Monday, June 27, 2011

Save the Cat: A Bridge To Story

So here is something I am learning about myself--it is very hard for me to blog about externally focused marketing type stuff when I am deep into my discovery draft mode. Therefore, today you are getting a post that I originally wrote when I was invited to guest blog over at Blake Snyder's blog (author of SAVE THE CAT).  Also? Since I am hip deep in the discovery draft, I am feeling especially indebted to this wonderful plotting tool!

Save the Cat: A Bridge To Story

Much like the budding individualists I write about, I have a love/hate relationship with structure. A closet rebel, I get twitchy whenever told I must follow rules or take a particular action. And what is structure, other than a cohesive, integrated set of rules?

When I am writing, I want to create and play and not be encumbered by this banal concept of rules and structure. I want to be freeeeeeee. Or at least until my Work In Progress becomes a sprawling formless mass that threatens to envelop the entire west coast. Right about then is when I acknowledge that a little structure, judiciously applied, can actually be MORE freeing than an absolute absence of structure.

It’s kind of like a baby who is at the crawling stage. You can let him have free reign of the house, but you will have to intervene every 30 seconds and wear yourself out and crush his soul in the process. But! If you were to put up baby gates, well then, you are free to step back and let the little fellow roam freeeeeee, just as he was born to do—knowing that the gates will keep him in place.

Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT plotting template, referred to by those in the know as the Beat Sheet or the “BS2,” is my writerly version of baby gates.

As consumers of story, we all have a very strong, intuitive sense of the elements that need to be in place to make a book or film satisfying. But as writers, sometimes intuitive knowledge isn’t enough to create a gripping, compelling narrative drive. For that we need help.

One of the things that I especially love about the beat sheet is that it takes narrative structure out of the lofty realms of literary criticism or writer’s workshops and puts the structure in terms that any reader would understand. Which is exactly as it should be, for that is who we are ultimately writing for—the reader—and Blake’s terminology and definitions help remind us of how the reader will experience the various stages of our story.

There is a question that many writers like to ponder: Which is more important, plot or character? Of course, the correct answer is that they’re both equally important; in fact, plot = character, for if you change one, you change the other.

I have come to believe that there is a similar correlation between narrative and structure. Story = structure. If you change one, you change the other. Without structure, there is no plot and without plot, there is no story, only a character study or an existential experiment. Without plot, characterization fizzles, since characters are best defined through their actions.

A story is an ephemeral thing—ideas, make-believe characters, things that never happened. It is all illusion and lies. What makes it all hang together in a believable, cohesive unit is structure. And if you get the structure right, it creates the foundations of the bridge you will need to bring the reader effortlessly from the beginning to the end.

The set-up, the catalyst, the midpoint—those are all the rivets that hold the bridge together. They make the imaginary world strong enough, real enough, that the reader can be carried from the beginning of our story to the end.

The beat sheet works like an all-purpose bridge. I have used it to write a short, 18,000 word chapter book and an epic 120,000 word historical fantasy, and it worked equally well for both.

The other thing? I write kids books, and kids and teens are a tough audience. They are sophisticated consumers of story–from books and comics, cartoons, movies, graphic novels, and video games, they are constantly immersed in story. In fact, they are probably the most sophisticated audience ever in terms of having an instinctive sense of narrative, and the incumbent expectations that stuff will happen, and it will happen sooner rather than later. So even if you are lucky enough to hook them, you need to keep moving along at a steady clip.

Starting a brand new book is always daunting. Whatever will I have my character do in all those blank pages? As I stare down that long corridor of empty pages, I have two choices: I can panic, which I often do, and run away to clean out the pantry, pluck my eyebrows, and scrub the kitchen grout. Or I can pull out my Save the Cat! Beat Sheet and jump start my process, one beat at a time.

With well over 14 books behind me, I know enough about myself as a writer to know that beginnings and endings are easiest for me. I know what to do with those. But middles now, middles are HARD. They are longer, for one, and much less inherently defined. Which leads me to what I think is the true genius of the Beat Sheet: the way Blake breaks down the middle of the book into Fun and Games, Midpoint, then Bad Guys Closing In.

As a reader, I am most likely to give up on a book once I enter the second act. If nothing is happening, if I get no sense of forward momentum or increasing tension, I often give up. This is the point where I expect the book to deliver on the premise of the promise, and if it doesn’t, I am sorely disappointed.

Which is why Fun and Games is such an apt description for the first half of the middle. As a writer, it reminds me to let go and have fun with this joyous thing called writing. To look for cool ways to thrill, amaze, and move my reader.

But my absolute favorite, can’t-live-without-part of the beat sheet is Bad Guys Closing In. All the truly brilliant ideas are deceptively simple. The beat sheet is no exception. This is the hardest part for almost every writer I know. In beginning manuscripts, it is one of the most common mistakes, jumping nearly from the middle to the end, without including the steady build-up of tension and stakes as the antagonistic forces of the story increase to the point of nearly breaking our hero.

Bad Guys Closing In tells us precisely what we need to do with this part of the book, what has to happen — but in only five words, so clearly it is not a formula or blueprint that will stifle your creativity. It is simply a better definition of what “middle” means. It not only conveys the mood and flavor of what happens, but tells us precisely what sort of scenes need to come here.

There are other story structures that do some of this, too; the Hero’s Journey springs immediately to mind, but for me, it is too structured to use early in the process—it forces me to look at a developing story in too rigid a way. It is much better applied to my story during later drafts. (Yes, I am a bit of a writing process slut. There! I’ve admitted it! And a children’s writer, to boot.) But the beat sheet is the one I always reach for first.

And lastly, probably the most important thing to remember about structure tools like the beat sheet and The Hero’s Journey is this: They are not artificial constructs dreamed up and constructed in some esoteric ivory tower or studio to be applied to stories. They have sprung up organically from years and years of studying stories and myths that have been written over thousands of years. They are, at their core, a reflection of the very human trials and tribulations we go through in our quest for a better understanding of our own lives. They are a map of the human experience, and since the human experience is infinite, so too are the ways you can use this tool.


S.A. Larsenッ said...

Fantastic post and so timely for me!! I have this book and recently started reading it. I've completed a YA novel, which is receiving some promising interest as well as one of my picture books. But now, I've started three separate projects, all that seem to stall as I approach the middle. I guess it's time for me to really study the beat sheet. Thank you so much!

Kenda Turner said...

I also have this book, but haven't read much of it. But your review here has convinced me I need to not only put in at the top of my reading pile, but use it! Thanks...

liz michalski said...

I've never heard of this book, but am always direly in need of structure. I'm adding it to my list!

Dave's Girl said...

For story structure, I suggest go see Kal Bashir's excellent 510+ stage Hero's Journey at

R.L. LaFevers said...

The middle is definitely the danger zone, salarsen! Hope you find the book as helpful as I did.

Ha, Kenda! I'm glad we don't have to confess in public how many books we own that we haven't cracked open yet...

Liz, this is structure for the Structurally Impaired! Seriously!

Sarah, 510 stages!!! The mind boggles! Gah. Most books don't even have that many PAGES!

Michelle Gregory said...

thanks for posting. i went to Blake's blog and spent 30 minutes perusing his posts that applied STC to movies. i may have to get this book.

Anonymous said...

This is a really timely post for me! I'm currently doing a lot of reading about story structure, including a screenplay approach.

I've heard so much about this book... I'll have to add it to my list of resources to check out.



Anonymous said...

Ooooh...I have saved this info to help when I start setting up my next book. Looking at it, surprisingly, I would say at least parts of the book I just finished (well, first draft...certainly the "book" isn't finished) actually fall in these sections pretty well--but I think that was just the product of reading so many books (and watching so many movies) I suppose. Actually starting out with a PLAN would be such a smart thing to do...ha!

Sarah Stevenson said...

I'll have to look for this one! I like the idea of being able to prod a little structure into my plot from the beginning, without feeling like I'm fencing myself in completely. (Outlines do make me twitchy...)

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