Still nervous about NaNoWriMo? Don’t be!
This 50,000 words in a month challenge is a bear. But it is manageable with proper planning. If you are just coming to us, check out the first part of this post where I talk about story concepts and character development. If you’re all caught up let’s talk about plot!
Step #3: Save the Cat!
I’ve talked about Save the Cat! before and honestly, I think it is one of the best books on writing I have ever read. I think any beginning writer or anyone who might be stuck would benefit from reading it and writing in this style. Once you read this book, you’ll start to recognize the patterns everywhere. I watched movies & read books and picked out the different elements outlined in Save the Cat for practice and it has totally changed the way I approach writing plot.
It’s formulaic, but all books are- all good books. Readers crave a certain structure when it comes to stories. As a reader, you can sense when elements are off, and that is because they diverge from the beaten path. It is important to always remember that following a proven plot structure does not make you a sell-out or unoriginal, you are using the tools at your disposal for writing page-turning fiction. Your originality will spring from your writing style and all of the hundreds of creative choices that you will make along the way. And as you practice and get better at writing plot structures you will have an understanding and mastery of its rules- and only at that point should you even attempt to break them. Okay- pep talk over.
Without further ado, here are the 15 Beats of Save the Cat:
1. Opening Image
3. Theme Stated
6. Break into Act II
8. Fun & Games
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All is Lost
12. Break into Act III
15. Closing Image
It is important to note that the Set-Up, Debate, Fun & Games, Bad Guys Close In, and Finale are all multi-beat sections where the remaining, single-beat elements make their home.
(I’d like to point out that while the story beats of Save the Cat appear in this order, I do not personally recommend WRITING in this order. More on this to follow…)
I personally like to start with these bigger sections first, especially the Set-Up which is just laying the scene (i.e.- “Here we lay our scene in fair Verona”…) for the rest of the book, I used my “story concept” idea that doubles as my back cover blurb to build this section up. This way we can begin to see that there is a problem with the status quo. Also, we will want to introduce the main character, and possibly the main antagonist.
Then, I identified my climax. I figured this out in my character verb exercise. My main character, Magenta’s verb is “challenge”. The definition of challenge is- a call to take part in a contest or competition, especially a duel. So I thought, that’s it! The climax will be a duel between Magenta and the bad guys. So then the rest of my story will work its way towards that.
Then I backed up to the catalyst. This section ends the setup and launches us further into Act I. But I thought it would be important to Identify my climax before defining what I like to think of as “the beginning of the story” aka the Catalyst.
Initially, I had both of my side characters act as the catalyst. They aren’t fighters like my MC and they might need protection, perhaps they are running away from a mutated dog that is chasing them down and Magenta helps. The catalyst always informs your MC of the problem, it is something that happens to them that alerts them that a change might be needed.
We then move into the Debate phase (the second half of Act I) where the hero is presented with all sorts of reasons why or why not THEY specifically should be a part of the solution to the problem you set up earlier. Of course they should be, otherwise, there is no story. But MC’s are silly and don’t know that they are the MC’s. There should be something holding them back, something pushing them forward, etc. Multiple factors from multiple aspects of the set up that are pushing and pulling them until finally, they make a decision.
This is the Break into Act II. This is always an active decision (remember the active verbs we gave our characters?) made by the character. They must act. Something must change their minds. Now for me, my side character and my MC travel to the “Place of Authority” to report or bring the mutated dog. On the journey Mag realizes what she does not in fact care for Side-Character A. Even though they are to be allies, I’ve decided to inject a little bit of tension between them. They then arrive at this “place of Authority” and they make their case, Mag is relieved to go her separate ways and the story is seemingly over until she notices something suspicious and follows the trail. She then learns that not only does the “Place of Authority” know about the poisoning/mutating of the wildlife, but they are capitalizing on it. Perhaps there is a hidden facility with all of these experiments and captive animals. Well, now she realizes that her home life cannot resume as is- she knows too much now and cannot return to the status quo. And the “Place of Authority” isn’t going to take care of the problem, so she needs to find another means. She hooks back up with Side-character A, and they go on a journey for more information.
This brings us to Fun & Games. You’ll notice the previous beat was the Break into Act II. That means everything so far has been Act I. So now we have entered Act II, which has two parts, bisected by the midpoint. We will hang out in the first section, Fun & Games, from the Break into Act II until the Midpoint. This is a really beefy section and it is a huge part of the reason why we pick up books to read in the first place. This is the FUN, flashy part that we advertise on our back covers that draws someone in. This is Katniss entering the capitol & getting paraded around, this is Luke infiltrating the Death Star to save Leia, this is Harry taking his first classes at Hogwarts. It’s still kind of fun at this point. Your character should still have ups and downs, but not major ones (save those for later).
For me, we will be exploring the woods a little bit more, we will be learning more about the poisoning & mutated animals. So my F&G section will look a little like this: they travel somewhere, they arrive & earn something new, then they must leave & arrive somewhere else & they learn something new & they are forced to leave, and so on and so forth. The plot goes up & down in the action, all the while each time they are forced to leave a location it becomes more and more dangerous for my characters. Their enemies get stronger, the information they learn becomes more devastating until it comes to a head at the midpoint.
Within the Fun & Games section, there is an important beat you will not want to miss. This is the B-story, it is found right after this section begins, usually, your character will meet someone new that was not in Act I at all. This is why I changed my plot so that Magenta meets Side-Character A in the beginning as the catalyst, then Side-Character B in the B-Story instead of both during the catalyst. Your B-story character will remind you of the theme (more on that later) and they are usually a helper. Think Han Solo, Ron Weasley, and Haymitch Abernathy. They will introduce the secondary story, the underlying heart of it which often comes with introducing the main character to the world AS IT IS- not how the MC initially perceived it. This character will add value to the MC’s team often by bringing some sort of knowledge, experience or skill. Additionally, oftentimes there will be a love story if your genre is not already romance. (Han & Leia, Ron & Hermoine, and let us not forget, it was Haymitch’s idea that Peeta and Katniss act like a couple). all of these connections and relationships tell us more about the story (not the actionable plot), but the actual heart of the story, why it matters, who we are fighting for, etc. So while you are bouncing along in your Fun & Games it might be prudent in the slow moments to inject some B-Story elements to develop what you’ve introduced in the B-Story beat.
Great, are you still with me? Because we have finally arrived at the midpoint. Before we dig in, let me say this. The Midpoint is not the Climax. This is not the point of highest tension. It is a pivot point that leads us into the next section, the Bad Guys Close in. So If Fun & Games is, you know, fun, then things begin to get serious from here on out and the Midpoint kicks this off.
Some examples of midpoints: Katniss enters the Hunger Games arena; Harry, Ron, & Hermione defeat the Troll on Halloween; Luke, Leia, & Han escape the Death Star. These scenes all change the course of how things were going, Katniss leaves the F&G of the capitol and enters the Thunderdome, the course of the book now has a different tone; Ron, Harry, & Hermione solidify their friendship & Hermione is an official part of the Gang; Samesies with Leia. You’ll notice that Harry Potter & Star Wars’ midpoints are both rather positive in this sense, whereas in the Hunger Games, Katniss’s midpoint is rather negative, there is no escaping now.
Save the Cat refers to these as False Victories and False Defeats respectively. So Luke & Harry get a win (but it’s not the BIG win- hence false victory), but the story is not over yet, still, things are going to get dangerous despite this.
For the Hunger games, it’s vice versa, Katniss hasn’t lost yet, there is still hope, there is still time to turn things around. But this is the lowest point SO FAR- definitely not a victory, so it must be a defeat. But it is not the last battle and there is still a chance to win.
Your Fun & Games section will be leading up to the Midpoint. If your Midpoint is a false Victory then typically, your Fun & Games section will take an upward path of small victories.
If your midpoint is a False Defeat, then your Fun & Games section will take a downward path of smaller defeats.
For example, Harry gets a wand, he is gifted Hedwig, he gets to ride an awesome train, meets Ron, gets sorted into Gryffindor, he takes his first lessons & flies a broom. These are all really cool experiences that take Harry on a definite upward path. Now it’s important to note that there still needs to be some challenges along the way. For example, Harry learns about Voldemort for the first time, he meets nasty Draco Malfoy, he nearly gets sorted into Slytherin, and he has a hard time in Potions class with Snape. These negative beats help maintain the balance of the Fun & Games, they propel the story forward they create intrigue and maintain conflict throughout the upward path. We can see that the negatives DO NOT outweigh or overwhelm the positives at this point, which is why it is an upward path.
In the Hunger Games, Katniss is separated from her family, she is stuck with Peeta & Haymitch, she has to get interviewed on national television, she has to go through beauty boot camp with Cinna, she has to train with the other competitors, she has to deal with Effie, she has to do the whole show and dance before the Games themselves. This is a definite downward path that leads up to the actual Hunger Games themselves. Now her story is peppered with some positive moments that balance out the Fun & Games section. She has a sweet moment with Peeta when she realizes they are on the same side, she excels in the training and intimidates the capitol, she meets & bonds with Cinna, she wows Caesar Flickerman & the crowds during her interview with her dress- these are contrasting beats that do not contradict the downward path, but accentuate it while break up all of the drudgeries of the capitol.
You’ll notice that the Hunger Games is a much, much darker story than Harry Potter or Star Wars, that is really attributed to the False Defeat & the downward path of the F&G. So if you want a lighter book, go for a False Victory, if you want to go Dark try a false defeat. This isn’t always the case, but this will already lend your plot to a darker or lighter story within the structure itself. Your reader will inherently recognize these patterns even if they cannot explicitly identify them.
I know you’re probably annoyed at this point that I keep shifting back and forth between story beats. But this is typically how the writing process goes. You make decisions, you have to go back and make sure everything is in unison. The Midpoint is a pivotal point of the story, if you change your midpoint, you might have to change your Fun & Games. So it is really important to not get too hung up on writing linearly. You almost have to write all of these sections together in unison to avoid drastic changes and re-writes.
Anyway, identify your midpoint. For me, Magenta & her team finally are able to enter the heart of the wood, the very deepest part that people don’t really go into. It is basically quarantined from the rest of the woods. And this is a False Victory. They have finally arrived but their goal is not achieved and the story is far from over.
Next time, we will cover the Bad Guys Close in & Beyond!