I found the “Save the Cat” beat sheet about a year ago. I can’t remember if it was recommended at a panel I had been to or if it came up as a suggestion on another blog I read, but I fell in love immediately.
Plot structure has been something I’ve been trying to study more and more over the last few years. I had read articles and books on the Hero’s Journey and Three Act Structure, and even though I could pick the plot points from those out of movies and books, I still struggled to use those structures to outline my own stories.
For one, a lot of examples I found for the Hero’s Journey had male protagonists and some gender bias written right into them. The gender of your protagonist isn’t the most important thing about them, but a large part of my goal is to write stories where the ladies are the heroes. There are definitely more examples now (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc). I still found that Save the Cat was easy for me to learn and apply to my own favorite films and books, without bias.
Until I read Save the Cat and Save the Cat Writes a Novel. I highly suggest getting either of those books, even after you read this blog. I’m going to talk about some of the basics that helped me and share the worksheet I use for personal reference, but the books break it down in a detailed and easy-to-understand way that can’t be substituted in a quick blog post.
I’ve also created a worksheet that I used to have an “at-a-glance” look at my plot for NaNoWriMo, here’s a preview and you can grab the link to the PDF at the bottom of this post.
The Basic Structure
One thing that majorly helped me understand how the Save the Cat structure worked was seeing it applied to one of my favorite movies.
The Winter Soldier is by far my favorite Marvel movie. My husband and I actually regularly cosplay Captain America and Black Widow. I know the movie by heart so when I found a beat sheet for it, it was easy to see how the story elements ran along with the plot.
You can check out the beat sheet for The Winter Soldier and a ton of other movies here. For me, once I could visual the parts and elements of the beat sheet, I could start to create my own.
Here are the basics:
Opening Image – This sets the tone for the book and establishes what the “ordinary world” is like. We get a taste of the main character’s problem.
Set-Up – We learn more about the “ordinary world” before the adventure begins.
Theme Stated – This is the main theme of your story, stated by someone in the story to your main character. They don’t understand the theme yet. That will come over the course of the story.
Catalyst – This is like the inciting incident, it kicks off the action and now things are starting to change for your main character.
Debate – Your character has to make a choice based on the catalyst. The main character may doubt their ability to move forward.
Break into Two – The main character has made their choice and it’s time to start the adventure. The world of act 2 should be an upside-down or opposite world from the “ordinary world” either literally or figuratively.
B Story – The B Story usually centers around a love interest or close friend of the main character. You can have multiple B Stories in a plot. These characters help teach the main character the theme of the story.
The Promise of the Premise – The character goes on their adventure and explores the premise that the book has set out.
Midpoint – This is the point where the main character gets what they think they want, but they realize it’s not really what they need. A lot of act two is your character trying to solve their problem the “wrong” way.
Bad Guys Close In – This one is a little self-explanatory. The bad guys take their shot, whether they are physical enemies, the main character’s insecurities, or other entities. The main character has to keep going and keep fighting.
All is Lost – This is a lot like the Catalyst, it’s a call for the main character to act against bad odds. They may have lost friends, lost their will to move forward, or realized that they’ve spent a lot of time and effort for nothing. They may even lose more in this section, to really shake their hopes and motivation.
Dark Night of the Soul – This echoes the Debate in the first act. The character has hit rock bottom and they have a choice. Give in to the darkness and give up, or try again. Try something new.
Break into 3 – The hero rallies behind a new idea, new motivation, a new will to try. The world of the third act combines the first two acts. It synthesizes the ordinary world and the upside-down world into a new combined world for the third act. Our hero is still the person at the start of the story, but now they’ve gained skill and wisdom.
Finale – The Climax! The main character has learned the theme, they fight and they win.
Final Image – This tends to echo the opening image, but now everything is different. It highlights the change and the journey that has been taken.