The Query Tracker Blog is thrilled to kick off The Writer's Bookshelf series with a special guest post from author Karyne Norton... see what's on her bookshelf.
SAVE THE CAT! By Blake Snyder
I am a dog person. Cats gross me out on multiple levels, so the idea of reading a book called Save the Cat! was an immediate turn-off. If that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the premise of the book seemed to involve putting every story in a box and making them exactly the same. And aren’t we all working to write the next “unique” bestseller? Besides, I was already an outliner, and all the people who raved about the book were pantsers, so it obviously wasn’t meant for my writer “type.” When I hit a wall with my manuscript, I finally gave in. I’d heard so many great things about Snyder and his “beat sheets” that I had to check him out.
It revolutionized my writing.
For one thing, it was an extremely quick and easy read. I spent much of my time nodding in agreement while reading through his examples and explanations. It just makes sense! The book is technically written for screenwriters, but nearly every concept can be applied to writing as well. He starts out by showing you how to make a killer log-line (or how to scrap an idea if you can’t make a good pitch for it). Then he moves on to categorizing story structures into ten basic genres (and not your typical romance, action, or comedy). Having your log-line and genre determined before you work at mapping your story gives you the broader view that you need to keep all the details focused.
Then he gets in to the meat of his 15 beats (or plot points). Before I bought his book, I downloaded some beat sheets (more on those in a second) with summarizations of these beats. The sheets were helpful and gave me a good idea of what each of those beats represented. But reading the book helped make all of those beats really click for me, so I wouldn’t recommend being satisfied with the beat sheets alone.
In the last sections he explains how to create a storyboard using those beats and then goes through various trouble-shooting questions that people have asked him over the years. I think the storyboard concept works best for screenwriting, but I’ve seen some authors make really great use of this. For me, it ends up being more time consuming and frustrating because I get too focused on having the exact number of cards I need in each row.
Personally I like to have a generic outline with my 15 beats and any other major plot points. With those in mind I can write my first draft. My favorite part of the beat sheet concept is what comes next. I pull out a beat sheet plug in my word count, and start checking to see where in my novel my beats are falling. As long as you have some type of spreadsheet program, you can simply adjust the word count to match your manuscript and you immediately have a personalized beat sheet. These sheets also give you a page count option, but I’ve found that to be less accurate depending on what font you use and whether you write with more or less dialogue.
Just a quick note on these beat sheet links: The Save the Cat! beat sheet was created by Elizabeth Davis, but Jami Gold’s site has multiple beat sheets (including the Save the Cat! beat sheet) for plot points and character arcs and is an amazing resource!
I will admit that I’m a total math nerd, so this is an extremely rewarding process for me. When the numbers are fairly close, I’m absolutely giddy. And when the numbers are way off, it becomes glaringly obvious where I need to make cuts or additions. For example, in this beat sheet for an 80,000 word novel, it shows that the catalyst (or inciting event) should be around word 8,736 (or page 35). If I go to the inciting event and discover it’s around word 4,000, I know that I’m missing key elements of the set-up. If it’s around word 12,000, I know that I’ve waited too long to draw my readers in and need to do some trimming. I tend to use this as a general guideline, but I’ve seen others get all their numbers within a couple hundred words of each beat. Regardless of how particular you get about the beat sheet, it will end up being the perfect tool for plotting your story structure.
Karyne Norton is a writer, nurse, and photographer. She currently lives in Rwanda with her husband and two sons where they are doing business development for missions. When she’s not fantasizing about chocolate, cheddar cheese, and chips back in the States, she's writing science fiction and fantasy. She loves networking with other writers, and you can get in touch with her on her site.