Plotting Your Novel Using Save The Cat!
Save the Cat is one of the most popular ways of drafting screenplays and novels in modern storytelling. The original Save the Cat was penned by Blake Snyder in 2005 where he coined the famous phrase. In it, he maintained there were fifteen key story ‘beats’ over ten different genres that make for bestselling scripts and compelling stories.
What’s a story beat?
Think of a story beat as a defining or critical moment for your characters and your story. They are a series of ‘checkpoints’ your story should hit to ensure a satisfying and well-paced arc for your novel. ‘Saving the cat’ refers to the idea that your hero must do something early on in the story to make them likeable, i.e. saving the cat. Of course, your hero doesn’t actually need to save felines, they just have to do something… heroic.
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel
In 2018, Jessica Brody, an author and writing teacher, adapted Snyder’s screenwriting concept and applied it to writing novels. While the principles are the same, there are some differences in the way she approaches the method. In this post, we’ll focus on Brody’s adaptation of the Save the Cat method for the art of novel writing. We’ll take a high-level look here to give you the basics, but I highly recommend purchasing the book where she goes into much further detail about the beats and genres and gives examples of how various bestselling books have used them. Brody also offers an online course to teach you all about how you can Save the Cat in your novel writing. As a Dabble subscriber, you’re eligible for an exclusive offer to receive 50% off your first three months of Brody's Writing Mastery Academy subscription ($18 savings) OR $30 off a yearly subscription.
The 15 story beats of Save the Cat
Save the Cat breaks your story down into fifteen key moments, even going so far to explain at what percentage of your novel that beat should occur. The beat sheets are divided into three acts which are then further divided into the corresponding beats. You can download versions of the beat sheet on various websites and this amazing resource plots popular movies against the beats to show you how this method is applied. You can also try the beat sheet calculator where you enter the page count of your novel and it will outline on which page you should be hitting each of your beats. Act 1
- Opening Image (0% - 1%): This gives us a moment-in-time snapshot of your protagonist and their current place in their world.
- Theme Stated (5%): This is a hint of what the character’s growth arc will be. This might be the lessons they learn or the ways they grow and change over the course of their journey. This is usually revealed by a character who isn’t your protagonist.
- Set Up (1%-10%): This is the ‘before’ of your story. Who is your hero and what is their status quo? Where are the flaws in their life? This is how their life looks before the ‘change’ of your story comes. Here is where we’ll meet some of the supporting characters and come to understand your hero’s goals. One of the most important tenets of this section is how you show your main character’s reluctance to change and what they might lose if they don’t.
- Catalyst (10%): Often called the ‘inciting incident,’ this is the moment where your main character is thrust into a new state of normal. It needs to be significant enough that there is no returning to their previous state of being.
- Debate (10% - 20%): Of course, what’s a story without a little internal conflict? Here is where your hero is going to decide if they answer the call of the catalyst. It also reinforces the idea of their hesitancy to change.
- Break Into 2 (20%): This is when your hero decides that, yes, they are in fact going to turn their life around and accept the challenge life has thrown at them. It’s time for that quest, that new job, that new relationship, or whatever life has thrown their way.
- B Story (22%): This refers to the introduction of a character that will ultimately support your protagonist in their journey towards change. This might be a positive or negative force, but one way or another, this character will become significant.
- Fun and Games (20% - 50%): As the name implies, this is where things really start to get good. Here’s where we see your character operating in their new environment. It might suit them or it might be torturing them, but this represents the main premise of your story.
- Midpoint (50%): Obviously, this is the literal middle of your novel. It’s also a point where the stakes get raised and your hero experiences a false victory or a false defeat.
- Bad Stuff Closes In (50% - 75%): Depending on if your midpoint was a victory or a defeat, this is either the negative arc where things get worse and worse or a positive one where things seem to get better and better. But what it really means is things are about to hit the proverbial fan.
- All Is Lost (75%): Either through internal, external, or both types of factors, this is the very lowest point for your hero.
- Dark Night of the Soul (75% - 80%): Just before the dawn, your hero grapples with the events that have happened. This might be where they find a solution to their problem or their path finally becomes clear.
- Break Into 3 (80%): The moment of clarity when your hero realizes how to solve everything that has been building since the beginning.
- Finale (80% - 99%): Obviously, everything is resolved. Evil has been vanquished. Flaws have been righted. Things have been conquered. Your hero is in a better place than when they started all the way back in Act 1.
- Final Image (99% - 100%): This is the ‘after’ shot of your story and is usually the reflection of your opening image. Some refer to this as the denouement.
The 10 genre types of the Save the Cat method
In addition to the story beats, Save the Cat also focuses on ten different genre types. These aren’t the genres you might be familiar with (i.e., fantasy, mystery, science fiction, etc.) but rather ten different structure types you’ll find in most published novels.
- Whydunit: A mystery to be solved (this doesn’t have to be a murder and a detective, though it often is) that reveals some fundamental facet of human nature.
- Rites of Passage: Your hero endures the common heart-breaking experiences of what it means to be human. Life, death, addiction, finding themselves, loss, anxiety, etc.
- Institutionalized: Your hero finds themselves inside an already established structure such as a group or society and must decide whether to join or escape, change it, or destroy it.
- Superhero: An extraordinary character living in an ordinary world and what that means for their destiny.
- Protagonist with a Problem: Sometimes known as the ‘chosen one’, your ordinary hero finds themselves thrust into the world of the not-so-ordinary.
- Fool Triumphant: Your underestimated, perhaps misunderstood, hero finds themselves pitted against something that finally proves their worth.
- Buddy Love: Someone whose transformation comes about by meeting someone else. Could be human or otherwise. A pet. A friend. A love interest.
- Out of the Bottle: A story about a regular hero who is temporarily in possession of or touched by magic. The story arc revolves around them learning to appreciate their reality.
- Golden Fleece: A ‘quest’ or ‘road trip’ type story where your hero (along with some friends, maybe) sets out to find something and discovers themselves in the process.
- Monster in the House: A monster (of any kind, be it supernatural or not) threatens your hero in an enclosed space or limited circumstances, and they must find their way out. Often the monster is the manifestation of someone in the story.
Pros & cons of the Save the Cat method
Obviously, a method like Save the Cat isn’t going to work for everyone in every situation. Pros of Save the Cat
- A clear way to outline with a structured plan
- Can help you outline a novel from start to finish
- Can help you identify problems in your arc and why something might not be working
- Uncovers methods that have worked for bestselling novels
- Perfect for plotters
- Can be useful in the editing process
- Great if you’re getting started on your novel writing journey and need clear guidance on what makes a compelling story
Cons of Save the Cat
- No method is the be-all, end-all of drafting and plotting—there are many ways to create a book, and this is just one of them. Find some of our other plotting method articles on the Dabble Blog.
- This structure might be too rigid for you and could feel limiting
- If you’re more of a pantser than a plotter, this might not be an ideal method for you (pantsers might prefer to work backwards and plot their beats against their first drafts rather than coming up with them beforehand)
- Not all stories will work with these beats at the stated moments, and there are many bestselling novels that don’t follow this structure. For example, there are plenty of books where the highest or lowest point doesn’t come at exactly 50%—this doesn’t mean they’re wrong
How to use Dabble with Save the Cat
It’s easy to build your novel using the Save the Cat method with the Dabble plotter tool. Start by using the index cards to outline the fifteen beats for your story as shown in the graphic below.
Once you’ve done that, you can jump into writing, or you can take it one step further and apply those beats to each chapter of your story, as shown below:
The result will look something like this:
That way, when it’s time to work on the first draft, you can see clearly where you are in the relation to each beat for your story:
We hope this will make drafting a breeze as you prepare your future bestselling novel! Haven’t tried Dabble? Try the premium features here for 14 days. It’s totally free with no credit card required.
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