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Save the Cat! Writes a Novel Beat Sheet

Sabrina Lowney

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I’ve been reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, and thought I’d start a thread for discussing it… because I have a lot to say... slash ask.


I’ve been focusing right now on figuring out my whole catalyst-debate-break into 2 sequence, and so I’ve examined that part of the Save the Cat! beat sheet and the examples in the genre sections quite a bit.

If the catalyst is supposed to be something that “disrupts the status quo world with a life-changing event,” a lot of the examples don’t seem very life-changing. The book says, “The Catalyst will crash land in your hero’s life and create so much destruction, your hero will have no choice but to do something different” (top of p38). And the author says to ask the question, “Can my hero easily return to their normal life and continue doing what they were doing after this happens?” (bottom of p38).


And for the more fantasy/mystery/thriller examples examples in this section of the book, the section of the beat sheet run-through discussing the catalyst in particular, that seems to be true: “A dead body is found at the museum," (The Da Vinci Code), “the king proposes,” (The White Queen), “an arrest is made on an eighteen-month-old cold case,” (Memory Man). The first has someone die, which you can’t go back from, and the last has a cold case becoming active again. The second means the relationship the characters had prior to the proposal cannot continue; either she accepts and that’s one road or she declines and that’s another, but either choice shifts the relationship.

Another example was “an innocent boy is shot by the police” for The Hate U Give. This doesn’t cause the character to do anything different, but it changes their view of the world irrevocably, and they have an increasingly difficult time ignoring racism, which in their status quo world they barely seemed to even see.

But the rest of the examples seem like The Hate U Give only more so; the only “destruction” is knowledge, and the only ‘can’t go back’ is the fact that you can’t un-know something. For instance, the book uses Me Before You as an example a lot, and the catalyst for that is listed as “a woman gets a job as caretaker for a quadriplegic man,” which seems pretty weak because she could aways quit and would her world be so different if she did? Same with “a dying girl meets a quirky boy at a cancer support group” for The Fault in Our Stars. The changes caused by entering into a new relationship, one you could leave at any time (except that I suppose in The Fault in Our Stars, the main character’s parents might prevent her from leaving the support group) are slow-burn. So it doesn’t seem that disruptive.


And the examples from The Help and Everything, Everything are the same way. In The Help, the catalyst is supposedly Skeeter asking Aibileen to participate in the book. But Aibileen initially says ‘no.’ And there’s no event during debate that seems to cause Aibileen to change her mind; she just does (maybe there is the actual The Help book, but Save the Cat doesn’t mention anything). But if she didn’t change her mind, couldn’t she go back to her ordinary world? Isn’t that the whole idea of a Call to Adventure versus Crossing the Threshold; at the first stop, you have the capacity to return with the only change being the possibility that you’ll regret your decision, but once you’ve crossed the threshold, there’s no going back.

In Everything, Everything, the catalyst is supposedly Maddy seeing Olly moving in and them meeting each other’s eyes (and presumably falling into insta-love). Olly can’t un-move in, I suppose, so Maddy will continue to see him from afar, so that’s a permanent change, though what effect it has on Maddy’s status quo world’s operation, I’m not sure.


And for debate, the book says Aibileen’s question is ‘will she participate in the book?’, but it claims Maddy’s question is “Who is this boy and what (if anything) will become of this?”. If the possibility that 'nothing will become of this' exists, how much of a “life-changing event” can it possibly be?


In Hunger Games, the book says the catalyst is Katniss volunteering, and the break into 2 is her arriving at the Capitol. She can’t un-volunteer, so that makes sense. But I don’t know what there is to debate. The author says it’s more of a preparing beat. And arriving at the Capitol signals, I guess, some sort of reveal of the consequences of her decision, a physical entry into the act 2 world. It almost seems more like there’s three things happening; the catalyst seems like it’s when Prim is chosen (happens to Katniss), the debate is “will Katniss allow Prim to go/what will she do to protect Prim from this?” and the answer, the break into 2, is when Katniss volunteers in Prim’s place. But those are all consecutive one-two-three within the same chapter of the story, so I guess there’s not much room for a debate beat proper. So instead the story goes into the sort of “preparing for the consequences” beat, which isn’t really a debate at all.


So if there is a real debate, then it’s more of a Call to Adventure and the possibility of turning it down exists. But if the debate goes by very fast, then it’s more of a preparation for entering act 2 beat, and there’s no possibility of going back.


Going through the genre examples, in The Girl on the Train, the catalyst is listed as “Rachel wakes up on a Sunday morning—after blacking out from drinking—to find a lump on her head, blood in her hair, bruises on her legs, and vague memories of going to Blenheim Road the night before” (p94). And the debate isn’t really given; the book says “The big Debate question of the novel is: What happened on Saturday night, and what will Rachel ultimately do about it?” (p94), but that’s different; that’s the question of the novel not a question in response to the catalyst.


The question of Hunger Games could be, “what will Katniss do to protect Prim,” the same as the smaller debate, but only because her reaction to the smaller debate doesn’t solve this main question and is more of a manifestation of this main question (since Prim could be chosen again). Perhaps a better one for the first book as a whole would be “What will Katniss do about the injustice caused by the Hunger Games?”. The ultimate answer being trying to cheat with the poison berries move.

In The Help, just based off the beat sheet provided in the book, the small, post-catalyst debate is “will Aibileen participate in the book” and the larger question it is a part of is “will Aibileen stand up for herself?” which in the end, she does (described in the Final Image/Aibleen section on p139).

Similarly, in Everything, Everything, the whole-story debate is (or sounds like it is) “will Maddy sacrifice her relationship with her mother in favor of one with Olly?” and in the end, yes, she pulls the plug on her mom’s secret and physically leaves her and her home to be with Olly in New York.


So the debate question of The Girl on the Train as a whole might be “what happened Saturday night” but I don’t think the post-catalyst debate is this. The book says, “it isn’t until Rachel learns that Megan went missing on Saturday night that she finally gets her act together and decides to do something about it” and this amorphous (the beat sheet doesn’t say what it is) decision to “take action and try to solve […] the mystery of her possible involvement in Megan’s disappearance” is listed as break into 2 (p95). If her decision to investigate the disappearance and her possible involvement in it is the break into 2, then the real debate is not “what happened Saturday night” but rather “will Rachel try to find out what happened Saturday night?”.

How this changes her world… well, I guess even if she decides not to investigate, her otherwise status quo world would still be under the shadow of the possibility of the police or something showing up to talk to her and maybe accuse her of the thing she’s afraid to suspect. But there’s also the possibility that what happened to her has nothing to do with Megan, in which case nothing would happen as a consequence of Rachel ignoring what seems essentially like a call to adventure.


The Kite Runner’s catalyst, Assef’s rape of Hassan and Amir’s cowardice, is of course a real catalyst because neither Amir and Hassan can never return to the relationship they had prior to this incident.


In Harry Potter, the book says Hagrid’s arrival is the catalyst (and the precursor/lead up to this is the arrival of the letters). And then like the Hunger Games, there’s not a debate so much as a ‘preparing for the consequences’ of the choice beat, where Harry goes to get his school supplies and everything. But maybe the letters coming is the catalyst, and the question they provoke is "will Harry get to read his letter?”, which is answered when Hagrid arrives and forces the Dursleys not to intervene any more. And from this moment on, Harry is in the magical world with Hagrid, but the same way that Katniss is in the Hunger Games world—it’s basically inevitable that Harry will go to Hogwarts and that Katniss will fight in the arena, but they haven’t physically left the status quo world—Katniss is literally still in the district or on the train, while Harry’s passage in the magical world is dependent on Hagrid and Hagrid gives him back to the Dursleys at the end of the preparing beat, at which point he has to get onto the right train platform alone.

It’s almost like if the debate is very short, and the break into 2 thus very early, there’s a second break into 2. Or maybe if the debate and its answer are folded into the catalyst (Katniss volunteering in the same chapter as Prim’s choosing, Harry accepting his chance to go to Hogwarts soon after the letters start arriving), the debate beat becomes a preparation beat instead, and has different characteristics and doesn’t have a question that is answered by the break into 2. Rather, the break into 2 then signals that the character’s choice as been accepted by the world, so to speak. Like, they said yes I want to do this, and then there’s a period where the possibility of something coming up to prevent them from doing that occurs, but the break into 2 signals that this possibility won’t happen. Their choice stands.


So I guess what I’m thinking is that maybe the character’s reaction to an event, the choice they make in break into 2, determines the catalyst. And perhaps the nature of the story marks some event as being the thing that kicks it off, even if that thing in of itself is not particularly dramatic or life-changing, or has the potential to not be particularly life-changing. Like, in The Girl on a Train, Rachel wakes up covered in blood, which seems dramatic, is only life-changing because of her reaction; the potential for her to ignore it and move on is there, but the character and the fact there needs to be a story keeps that from happening.

In Everything, Everything, Maddy chooses to contact Olly, a choice that only occurs because of their from-a-distance meeting when he moves in, making that the catalyst. It changes her life only because of it kicks off her obsession with him—the beat sheet describes her spying on him from afar as a precursor to emailing him. So I guess maybe it’s not so much their meeting that’s the catalyst so much as the fact that Maddy has a crush on him from the moment of their meeting onward that’s the catalyst. The crush is what makes it impossible for her to go back to her normal life and ignore the catalyst.


The Help still seems weird; it’s only a catalyst because Aibileen eventually says ‘yes’ but the beat sheet doesn’t explain what causes her to change her mind. Maybe some event happens that is part of the status quo world, but affects Aibileen more than usual because of her secret knowledge that she’s been offered a chance to do something about her situation? So, much like The Hate U Give, the idea of the catalyst is that the choices that were already embedded in the status quo world become harder to bear, and are perhaps seen as more insidious for an institutionalized story, in the wake of the catalyst. For Starr, seeing her friend get murdered by a cop changes how she sees more minute instances of racism. Perhaps for Aibileen, the possibility of speaking up for herself via Skeeter makes the daily decision not to speak up harder. The status quo world itself isn’t affected, or and even the character’s actions within the status quo world don't change; instead, only their mental view of the status quo world changes, and this changed view makes changed action inevitable, in the end.


Perhaps Everything, Everything is more like this than Hunger Games, too. And Maddy’s crush isn’t on Olly so much as his behavior. The beat sheet says “From the very moment she first sees Olly, he is in motion. Constantly moving, jumping and running ‘wild’ through life. He is the polar opposite of Maddy, someone who is literally stuck in one place” (p200). Maybe seeing Olly provokes in Maddy the longing to behave the same way, and to have the freedoms he has, and knowing he has them makes living with her limits harder, and her crush on Olly is just a manifestation (at the beginning) of her desire to have his life. She’s like the capuchin monkey in the fairness experiment; it’s harder to accept getting cucumber slices when she can see Olly getting grapes.

Of course this only sort of makes sense, because from the beginning of the beat sheet Maddy’s already described as being obsessed with the outside world and reading a lot. In that respect, the books are also her attempts to get the grape, and Olly is just one more. The only thing about him that’s special is that unlike the books, eventually he does change something. All of the Buddy Love examples seem to have similarly weak person-meets-buddy catalysts, where change becomes a possibility because of the meeting but the meeting does not actually have much effect in of itself.


Which is why, though the book doesn’t say this, there seems to always be a reason the buddies are kept in each other’s lives. The book describes a “complication”, something that keeps the buddies apart, as being key, but it seems that just as important is whatever is keeping them together. Otherwise, why doesn’t the complication end things? How do things even get started? Something has to not just cause them to meet, but keep them in proximity.

In Me Before You, it’s that Lousia works for Will. In The Fault in Our Stars, if I’m remembering right, it's that Hazel and Augustus are the same support group. In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, it’s Greg’s mother’s pushing of him to befriend Rachel. In When Dimple Met Rishi I think it was that they got teamed up for a summer program group project. I didn’t read Because of Winn-Dixie or It Had to Be You, but I’d guess that the dog keeps the relationship going, or perhaps the dog gets adopted and then the Opal owns and is responsible for it, and in It Had to Be You, the previews I’ve seen made it seem like the coach needed the woman’s input/okay or something to make decisions. In Twilight and Everything, Everything both, only insta-love and the fact that they live nearby (closer in Everything, Everything, at least) keep them together.


Maybe it’s the Save the Cat book’s language just makes the catalyst seem like it needs to be more of a bombshell than it actually needs to be. Perhaps few things in life, even in fiction, are actually impossible to ignore.


For instance, from what I remember of The Hobbit, I’d say the catalyst was probably when Bilbo is asked to go on the adventure. A call to adventure, literally. But in the classic hero’s journey, there’s a refusal of the call (and the meeting of the mentor) before the actual crossing of the threshold. In this scheme, it seems like the point of no return is the crossing of the threshold, rather than the call to adventure, as the Save the Cat beat sheet says.

Bilbo does refuse the call (or does he? Well, he does in the movie which is what I saw most recently), but ultimately changes his mind after what I guess would align with the debate beat. If Bilbo hadn’t changed his mind, there would have been no adventure. Similarly, in The Help, if Aibileen hadn’t changed her mind about participating in Skeeter’s book, her life wouldn’t have been impacted, either.


To get a better feel of all this, I decided to try and turn it into a flowchart, which… kind of worked. It’s pretty messy, but I thought I’d share them. There's two versions: the original version which doubles as a Save the Cat beat sheet cheat sheet, and a pared down "essentials" version where I deleted a lot of the details about the different beats so it would be easier for me to see the flow of them. I made the charts in a mind-map program called Scapple (Scapple homepage), so if you have that program you can open the documents directly and fiddle with them if you so desire. Otherwise, I've attached pdf versions as well.

save the cat flowchart essentials.scap save the cat flowchart.scap save the cat flowchart essentials.pdf save the cat flowchart.pdf

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This is long and my brain is uncaffeinated and i'll try to get to everything, but it might take a few edits or posts to get to everything you've laid out above. 

The thing I want to address first is the Status Quo. The way I see it, there are two types of Status Quo, external (how your world functions) and internal (your own patterns of thought and the typical manner of how you go through your life). Either of these can be the one that's shattered by the catalyst. For something like The Hate U Give or Me Before You (neither of which I've read, so I'm going off what you've said above) involve the obliteration of the internal status quo, and are just irrevocable as The Da Vinci Code's obliteration. Both the characters patterns of thoughts have been changed by the events and while perhaps you could argue there's nothing physically stopping them from going back to how things were, the can't (and won't) mentally go back. They are just as unable to live their lives as in the more concrete examples. Or if they try to do so, it causes them intolerable pain and dissonance, which, because this is a story, has to be resolved by moving forward. That's why they're the protagonist of this story.

If I may use an analogy, catalysts in stories can be a lot like catalysts in biology and chemistry. In a chemical sense, a catalyst is a substance that, in short, makes a reaction go better. For example, platinum metal is used as a catalyst in engines to catch toxic hydrocarbons and hydrogen monoxide and turn them into the less harmful CO2 and water vapor. Oxygen atoms and carbon monoxide atoms hit the catalyst (platinum metal) surface, the reaction happens, and then the new compounds, CO2 and H2O, leave the platinum surface. Where the analogy lies is this catalysis only happens with the right components (CO and O2) and the right catalyst (Platinum metal). So just as the above reaction wouldn't work if you had nitrogen gas instead of oxygen, a story's catalyst might not work unless you have the right protagonist. Similarly, using another metal, (eg. Palladium, another common catalyst in chemistry), would not result in catalysis. The analogy there would be that not every narrative catalyst will trigger the reaction in a protagonist. 

tl;dr: sometimes narrative catalysts might only be catalysts for certain protagonists and that's okay. It's why that character is your protagonist in the first place.

Something else I also wanted to bring up regarding the catalyst, particularly one that damages an internal status quo, is that the characters might not know it's the catalyst at first. For them it might only be in hindsight that this was the moment where things changed (Hazel and Augustus from TIFIOS for example.) And I think that's fine, because as author's we have the advantage on our characters. Writing is inherently non-linear because of the drafting and editing process. We see the expanse of the story as a whole, where a character does not, and can thus pinpoint a point of no return for them. 

I will try to return to the rest of your post in a while, but I wanted to get something out soon 🙂

ETA: I just looked through your flow chart, and I really love what you've done there. I might keep a copy on my desktop for reference

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I like your idea about internal and external status quo. Basically, Hazel is not the same person after meeting Augustus as she was before, even though nothing externally has changed. And yes, the characters and the story have to fit together in such a way that x catalyst inevitably produces y reaction regardless of what result might be obtained with a different character. Not everything has to be big and splashy, I suppose, even if the Save the Cat's dramatic language kind of makes it seem that way.

But if the catalyst is supposed to provoke some specific question, it seems like ideally that question should be something more than "what will become of this?". Then again, maybe it's the nature of a beat where we're waiting for a reaction to a previous beat to have a question that boils down to "how will this character react?". I guess the difference is whether there's an obvious course of action, which would produce a specific question (à la "will Aibileen agree to work on the book?") versus no specific course of action, which would produce a vaguer (more vague?) question along the lines of "what now?".

Intuitively, I feel like a more specific question should be 'better' in that it propels the story in a certain direction where as a vaguer question isn't headed anywhere in particular. But thinking about it more logically I don't know that's true.

In Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, my first thought would be the catalyst is when Agnieszka is chosen to be her village's "tribute" to the wizard called the Dragon, but looking back through the book, that actually happens in Chapter 1, at the end of page 13. So maybe it's part of the setup.

Uprooted is 435 pages long. 10% would be, what? Page 43, maybe? In Uprooted, page 43 is the middle of the scene where Prince Marek tries to assault Agnieszka, and she uses the spell the Dragon cast on her to give her fancier clothes to give herself a whalebone corset that essentially armors her and surprises the prince long enough for her to grab a tray and hit him with it. The Dragon walks in, and he and Agnieszka are now temporarily on the same team to try and heal the prince. At the end of the scene, the Dragon reveals he chose Agnieszka because "Those with the gift must be taught: the king's law requires it" (p47). Basically, at roughly 10% is when Agnieszka finds out she can do magic. The question is probably, "will Agnieszka embrace magic?" because at first she's horrified to discover she can do it. Break into 2, at 20% would be page 87 or so, and on page 87 is when, I believe, Agnieszka first uses magic for small things (as opposed to trying to protect herself or the village or another person), using it to just clean up her room. So the answer is yes, she does embrace being a witch.

So in short the catalyst would probably be Agnieszka finding out she's a witch (partly because she uses magic to repel Marek, but mostly because the Dragon tells her so, since she initially thinks he's somehow made her magical). The debate would maybe be "will Agnieszka embrace her magic?" and the answer at Break into 2 is yes, because she uses it to do something that even at the catalyst she could have insisted on doing by hand. So that is actually a pretty life-changing catalyst and question.

I wish I had a copy of Mirage by Somaiya Daud because it also has the main character being kidnapped in the setup but I don't remember anything of any import happening until the midpoint; the entire first half was basically one long aimless slog waiting for something to happen to the protagonist. But perhaps there was an identifiable catalyst and debate equally as specific as Uprooted that I just don't remember, and Mirage's meandering pace came from other aspects and wasn't tied to having a ""bad"" catalyst or something.

In Uprooted then, the catalyst and debate and break into 2 are all related to the interior status quo that you described, since the exterior ordinary world was already changed in the setup, and part of the character arc. I know the plot serves to propel the characters along the arc, but I was imagining the beat sheet was those plot points. In Uprooted, it's more like the beat sheet, for these beats anyway, is the character arc, which sometimes co-occurs with a more action-y scene, like the catalyst, and sometimes is more the reaction to an action-y scene, like the break into 2. The debate, of course, isn't one thing, but I guess it also doesn't have to be something the character is even conscious of.

I think I'm going to try getting The Help from the library; then I can try to identify what makes Aibileen change her mind, and if it's something she makes a conscious decision about or if, like Agnieszka being tired from the crazy things that happened during the debate section that made her see magic as something useful rather than something dangerous and scary, it was something more unconscious.

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To just wrap up on internal vs. external status quo, I think which one the beat sheet would refer to is gonna depend a lot on the sort of story you're writing, and you might also tie it into psychic distance a little. Something like A Series of Unfortunate Events, with it's very distant psychic distance the plot beats are all going to be events. It's literally a story about bad things happening to the Baudelaires. The Fault in our Stars is a book about relationships, so the beats will be mostly about character arcs and even plot point based beats are going to be more about the character's internal change than the event. I imagine which sort of beats a book favors depends on whether it's more plot driven or character driven.

Also, I want to say that Uprooted is one of my very favorite novels and I'm thrilled you brought it up. I'm inclined to agree with you that in most cases, a more specific question is better as it gives the story momentum and direction. A potential exception would be something where the a question of "Will character do...?" is far less interesting than "How will character do...?" I can see this happening in a archetypal mystery (like original Sherlock Holmes) where the catalyst would be the crime being brought to the detective's attention. Of course the detective will take the case, but often starting with a dirth of clues allows us to see and enjoy the detective's cleverness all the more. The other example I could think of would be with a long running series, where, similarly, the question of what the protagonist is going to do doesn't feel much like a question, just inevitable. I haven't read the Dresden Files book Changes recently, but I think the momentum in that was not, "will Harry step up to try to save the kid?" By this point we've been in Harry's head for 12 complete books. We know exactly how he's going to respond to that question and so a  better source of drama and tension is, "how the hell is Harry gonna find a way through this dumpster fire of a situation?" Since the question is open ended and there's no obvious way forward is provided at the catalyst, we get to be surprised by the choices he makes. 

I can't say I've read Mirage, so I can't comment on whether it has a catalyst that poses a clear question. I'm trying to think of mediocre books I've read and what they provided. Unfortunately, I don't have the patience to finish books I don't like anymore, so it's been a while since I've read anything that didn't grab me. Also my memory for things that don't interest me is absolutely terrible, which isn't helping me. Homestuck worked with a "And what will they do now?" question, but it was parodying text adventures and trying to get Homestuck to fit into any literary patterns tends to be...problematic. I mostly get my narrative fix from video games these days, and my favs definitely have clear questions: "Will Joel agree to take Ellie across the country to meet the Fireflies?", "Will Shepard be able to get the other council races to support building the Crucible?", "Will Jack embrace plasmids in order to survive Rapture?" 

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  • 2 weeks later...

At first I agreed with what you said about "how" questions but now I'm not sure. Yes, the Dresden books and, really, any serialized type of thing like that, I think, there's not much of a question of "will character answer the call to adventure." Because yeah, we know Harry's going to take the case. But how he'll resolve the conflict feels more like a question that fuels the whole story, rather than just moving us from the catalyst to the debate to the break into 2. In the Save the Cat examples, it seemed like the catalyst question was effectively over and done with by the break into 2. Unfortunately I don't remember any of the Dresden books well enough to talk about them.

In Save the Cat, the example of the Whydunit, which is effectively the mystery genre, is Girl on a Train, which falls outside of the typical detective story format that Dresden and all manner of TV shows like Monk, Psych, Ellery Queen, Death in Paradise fall into. In the case of Girl on the Train, the 'detective' is not actually a detective of any kind, but rather an ordinary person. So of course they have to be pushed, to have a reason for investigating something. Whereas the standard cop show format, à la Death in Paradise or NCIS or Bones or Castle or Ellery Queen or any other number of cop shows, is the case essentially arrives on their desk and they have to solve it. Even with Psych and Monk, Shaun and Gus insert themselves into (from what the viewer's see) any case they can, and Monk is called in as a consultant on especially difficult cases, or otherwise inserts himself into them. Only a few times are more interesting shenanigans employed to coerce the characters into taking an undesirable case.

So then my question would be, do detective mysteries even have a proper catalyst-debate-break into 2 sequence the same as other genres? Is the debate instead a preparation beat, or is there even something like that? If the catalyst is being presented with the case, is the debate/preparation when they initially investigate and realize there's more going on than meets the eye? In many of these shows, there's often a point where the case is introduced, and then some beginning investigation, and then a point where they decide yes, it's murder. Is that the break into 2, when the death is determined to be foul play, and thus a murder investigation can proceed? So then the debate/preparation is really more of a preparation, in that it's about gathering initial information about the case and victim. You could say the question, then, is "is it murder?" but with these types of shows the answer is always yes.

You said we know going in that Harry would take the case, and that's true, but I guess I'm not convinced it's important that the question is a "real" question, is something the reader/viewer doesn't know the answer to. In a book like The Help, which I just finished, Aibileen's question was "will she agree to participate in the book?" and I felt like it was a forgone conclusion that she would. Of course I knew that's what happened going in, but I think actually in many cases when the question boils down to "will the hero accept the call to adventure" we all know the answer will be yes. It's a question in terms of the timing of the plot, but not in terms of something whose answer is actually unknown. We know Bilbo will go with Gandalf and the dwarves. We know Harry will help the person. We know Monk will take the case. Even in Uprooted, we know Agnieszka will be taken by the Dragon and we know she'll do magic, not just from the back cover but because we know the character will make whatever choices necessary to facilitate the continuation of the story. The answer to the question is not a mystery.

It's like when we're near the climax and there's a question of whether the character will die. We know they won't. We know if the bad guy captures them and is about to kill them, something will jump in at the last second to save them, because without them there's no story. That's what was parodied in Redshirt by John Scalzi. Perhaps the question exists for the character but doesn't relate so much to the reader, who already knows the answer.

That still leaves the question (ha!) of what the question is for the Dresden books, but I assume there must be something that changes in the direction of the story at the break into 2 that can then be considered as an answer to some previous question. And maybe it's not will he take the case, but something more complicated, maybe relating to how he views the case and its importance or difficulty or something. I haven't read a Dresden book in years so I don't remember but now I'm curious.

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I think you bring up a very good point, especially when trying to determine what this "question" really is, and whether it counts if it's a forgone conclusion. A difference that strikes me between The Help and a Dresden book or Bones etc. is that in The Help, the character has a question of whether they will participate in the book might be forgone to us as the reader, but it seems like the character was unsure, and thus is was a question. I just happened to be listening to book 5 of Dresden today, and I'm now about 1/3 through, so we would have hit the catalyst by now. In this story, Harry's come face to face with a fallen angel and his friend Michael and the other Knights of the Cross have told Harry that he's needs to stay out of the mess with the fallen angels cause they've heard it foretold that he'll perish if he intervenes. What I think was the catalyst here was when Harry afterwards spoke to an oracle spirit which gave him the full prophecy, of which the Knights only had the first part of--if he intervenes he'll perish, if he doesn't the Knights and all of Chicago will bite it. I suppose there is in a sense a question there--will Harry listen to his friend or try to save him and the rest of Chicago? But Harry had no intentions of backing out even before hearing the full prophecy. This felt more like a revelation of the true stakes of the conflict and the moment when both the reader and Harry knows that some fate has been locked. 

I'm not sure what the break into two is here. I feel like I'm in act 2 as we're dealing with the Red Court duel subplot. Maybe it was the sending out Bob for intel and hunkering down to do prep work and make potions? Which was then interrupted by Ivy's arrival. 

On 4/3/2019 at 7:18 PM, Sabrina Lowney said:

The answer to the question is not a mystery.

No, it's not a mystery to the reader in all those cases you listed. But in many cases, it's still a question to the character, hence why a question like, "will Neiszka use magic" is still compelling. I think something like this beat sheet can get really complicated because both the meta (meaning the book or story as concept, an artifact in a medium in which we use language and tropes to entertain and sometimes instruct, and that is part of a large library of similar artifacts) and the diagesis (meaning everything existing within the story as the story's own reality or the character's own reality) are necessary facets of a story to consider when plotting and writing it. 

So while we know Neiszka is going to end up using magic (meta knowledge both from the back of the book and that we know this is a story), she doesn't. Contrast to something like Bones or another procedural, in which both the audience and the characters know they'll take the case. 

I'm not sure I'm even trying to make a specific point here, just engage with the points you're making. 

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A question to the character makes sense. Thinking about procedurals, maybe the question for the characters isn't whether they're going to take the case—since they know that they would if they could, either because it's their job or because that's just who the character is—but rather "is it a case at all?"

Many of these shows typically have some period before the incident the characters are investigating is officially deemed a murder investigation, and while we, the audience, know it's murder, the characters don't know for sure. In Monk, for instance, there are many episodes where the cops are ready to say 'welp, looks like an accident' but there's something about the crime scene that makes Monk say it's murder, or that he's simply unconvinced that it's an accident, and the rest of the show is trying to figure out what really happened.

And in the case of book 5 of the Dresden Files, it sounds like maybe the question is about whether Harry will be able to 'take the case'? I swear I read that book but it sounds only vaguely familiar now.


EDIT: I don't know that I'm trying to make a specific point, either. I'm more trying to think "out loud" about the catalyst/break into 2, how it works and what its patterns are, and see what other people's thoughts are.

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Yeah, I think I fall more into the article's camp regarding the beat sheet or really any formula. Understanding narrative and the typical ways narratives play out and work is essential to writing a good story, but trying to shove it into a mold always seems...insufficient to me. Not useless necessarily, but limiting in a way that's not great for my understanding of whatever narrative I'm playing with. 

But this is also me and I may have a Thing about people telling me how to do things >.>

The writing advice that sticks with me tends to be the most abstract and nebulous "advice," like Neil Gaiman's words of wisdom saying that you have to actually finish things. Or Joseph Fink and Jeffery Crannor talking about how you don't have to write things only once, an artist doesn't draw their figure just once and call it good. You're allowed to practice.  Or my sister-in-law saying that she knows being ultra successful is a matter of luck more than it is a matter of talent, but if she needs to be struck by lightning then she's gonna put as many things out in the storm as possible. 

I think my take away is that beat sheets like this can be helpful prompts, and helpful skeletons for conceptualizing a full story arc when you're starting and need some direction. But it's not going to give you a full grasp of how narrative functions and can be played with. I think that can only come with consuming media (it doesn't have to be just books, though books should definitely be among them if you want to write novels) with an analytical eye, and having conversation about why the author is doing what they're doing and how it serve (or doesn't serve) the narrative. It helps to build a vocabulary to talk about these things. Most people have a lot of the basics: symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, character arc, story arc... Building more vocabulary gives you more tools to work with, because on some level, most people know that there is a reality that is self-contained within a story, but knowing that there's a word for it (diogesis) makes it easier for your brain to imagine what you can do to it or what the implications of it are or how you can use it to make a statement.

...This got rambley so I'm gonna stop now. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

I've been mulling this over and I think I've decided where I stand. The Save the Cat! beat sheet is, for me, interesting and entertaining to apply to finished works as a way of breaking down something big into its component pieces and seeing how different sections of a story have different purposes and how those sections lead into one another and fit together. It reminds me a lot of syntax diagramming, breaking down sentences into their component phrases and those phrases into their component parts, seeing how complex sentences are built out of essentially simple rules regarding the placement of arguments and their adjuncts.

But if I was given a syntax tree and asked to fill in the words at the ends of the nodes, that would be... frustrating. Doable, but not elegant. You run into the wall where humans don't actually think about structure when constructing utterances, and trying to force me to is like playing madlibs and then I'm suddenly being incapable of coming up with a single adverb. The structure is unconscious and therefore trying to build up from that skeleton consciously is an essentially unnatural process.

Katherine has said she's found plotting from the beat sheet to be a process that prompts new ideas about the way the story should be structured, but so far for me it's felt like trying to construct a sentence from component word categories, and consequently the process has felt confining and stilted. It's no longer about, as Rosie called it, the diagetic story of characters acting and responding to events in their world, but becomes more about the meta story (I hope I'm using these words right) and how those actions interact with and lead to the theme. 

The lovely, orderly world of syntax starts to break down a bit when it encounters (*shudders*) pragmatics, and people start eliding whole swaths of sentences that can be inferred from context. I think the lovely, orderly world of the beat sheet also starts to distort when it comes into contact with many (perhaps most) actual novels. But it's still interesting to see what is distorted and in what way, and whether there are any genre-specific distortions that tend to happen and how, if a book leaves out something the beat sheet implies is crucial, the story adjusts to "losing" that element.

Also, I think as a list of plot points that are generally used, it's still potentially useful as there are more than the five-point plot of beginning-pp1-midpoint-pp2-end and thus more 'tent-poles' to aim at. But once it starts talking about percentages and what page things fall on, I start to lose interest. I think that's nice for guiding an analysis of a published book, and likely I'll find it more useful when I get to the editing stage, but right now feels hypercritical when I'm just working on getting a finished draft.

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I like all of your thoughts and think I am in your camp of using a beat sheet feels artificial and confining for me, and most of it's use is in analyzing a complete text as a way into understanding it, or a if you're struggling, a source of suggestions of where you might go next. Perhaps @Katherine could chime in more to describe what's so helpful about it in her writing. My initial thought would be that it could be focusing for someone who's initial creative process is more nebulous. My process is already pretty structure focused, and I typically either start with an ending or the ending is one of the first concrete things I decide on. My trouble with plotting is typical more in the minutia of trying to decide what specific event or scenario should happen at certain parts of the story, rather than wondering what the point or goal of the next scene. 

To illustrate what I mean I'll use an example from the manuscript I'm working on right now that i did a brief STCWAN beat sheet for. We're in act two and my detective has gotten her first clue and is off to try and find her missing woman and piece together who bought the slaves so she can find the woman's daughter. According to the beat sheet, this is the part "where the detective finds the most clues and the story builds to a false victory or false defeat." Which is not actually very helpful. Before taking a look at the beat sheet, I already had the concept of Darling does stuff and ends up at the place where she finds Miri and figures out who Primary Antagonist is. The beat sheet didn't helping me get the specifics I needed: Darling follows her clue to a sketchy textile warehouse where she for the first time encounters her future spouse a fully sentient robot and the two of them piece together Darling's direction from there, which takes her out of the city. Then there's one or two stops along the road (A camp and/or tavern) to stop and sniff out a lead to the place she'll find Miri and Antagonist's identity. 

On 4/29/2019 at 1:12 PM, Sabrina Lowney said:

But it's still interesting to see what is distorted and in what way, and whether there are any genre-specific distortions that tend to happen and how, if a book leaves out something the beat sheet implies is crucial, the story adjusts to "losing" that element.

I agree that part of the interest for me is to look at texts that don't follow the rules, and what they get out of breaking them. Because while the beat sheet is a pretty good example of how most stories are put together, texts that defy those patterns are often just as if not more informative than texts that hit their beats squarely. Homestuck (which is a webcomic, not a novel, but it's still a written text) is always what I like to use when thinking about exceptions, because Homestuck breaks almost every single writing rule in existence. It certainly does not follow the beat sheet, or any real act structure, 3 or otherwise (well it sort of has seven acts, but listed out it goes: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Intermission, Act 4, Act 5 Act 1, Act 5 Act 2, End of Act 5 & Intermission 2, Act 6 Act 1, Act 6 Intermission 1,  Act 6 Act 2, Act 6 Intermission 2, Act 6 Act 3, Act 6 Intermission 3, Act 6 Act 4, Act 6 Intermission 4, Act 6 Act 5, Act 6 Intermission 5, Act 6 Act 6 Act 1, Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 1, Act 6 Act 6 Act 2, Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 2, Act 6 Act 6 Act 3, Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 3, Act 6 Act 6 Act 4, Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 4, Act 6 Act 6 Act 5, Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 5, Act 6 Act 6 Act 6, and FINALLY Act 7). And yet it was/is wildly successful, and while I was sort of disappointed with its ending, it's still one of my favorite pieces of literature ever, hugely in part to how intentionally and transparently it breaks narrative convention. While I know I needed a solid background in understanding stories to get as much out of it as I did, but I'm pretty confident in saying that the text that taught me the most about writing was the one that euphorically mangled the rules. 

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