On Pacing and Structure (Part 5): Save the Cat!

This is part 5 in my series of guides on various structural methods for writing novels and stories. I’m not an expert author or editor; I’m just writing this series of blog posts because I want to research and familiarize myself with the subject more, and maybe teach you a thing or two in the process.

The ‘Save the Cat!’ is a structural method originally developed by a movie screenwriter for screenwriting, and then adapted by a novel writer for novel writing. Personally, I find this storytelling method to be very beginner friendly; if this is your first time using a storytelling structure for a novel, give this one a go.

To write this post, I read the nonfiction book called ‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel‘ to get more educated on the subject before writing this for you. After reading that book (and finding it very useful (you should read the book if you have the chance, the author does a much better job than I at explaining this, going into far greater detail)), I’m going to provide for you a modified form of what I read.

I will be citing ‘Star Wars: A New Hope,’ ‘Eye of the World’ by Robert Jordan and ‘The Forgotten Beasts of Eld’ by Patricia McKillip. Warning about spoilers, and also content warning for Forgotten Beasts, I will be discuss an almost-rape scene which happens therein.

Without further ado, let’s get started.


What is the ‘Save the Cat!’ method? The Save the Cat! method helps an author design/redesign their story. It is significantly different from ‘The Three Act Format’ and ‘The Five Act Format,’ which I have previously discussed, and more similar to ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ Why? because the first two of those methods are generalized, whereas the Save the Cat! method and ‘The Hero’s Journey’ method are much more specific.

Here is a list of the different plot points involved in the StC method. I have slightly modified the original format of the original Save the Cat method, by converting it from being split in 3 Acts, to 5 Acts. Otherwise the format is the same. (Note that having more acts doesn’t actually change the final book; adding more acts makes it easier for me to explain what’s going on to you)

Act 1: The Status Quo

  1. Opening Image
  2. Theme Stated
  3. B Story- Introduction of Flaw
  4. Set-Up

Act 2: Disruption to the Status Quo

  1. Catalyst
  2. Debate
  3. B Story- Introducing the helper character (Can go here)
  4. No Going Back

Act 3: The Road of Trials

  1. Fun and Games
  2. B Story- Introducing the helper character (Or it can go here)
  3. Midpoint Conflict
  4. Bad Guys Close In

Act 4: Character Resolution

  1. All is Lost
  2. Dark Night of the Soul
  3. Relief and Respite

Act 5: Resolution

  1. (Optional Beat: Last Minute Try-Fail Arc)
  2. Finale
  3. Final Image

Act 1: The Status Quo

The purpose of this act is to get the story started. It contains four major plot beats.

Why does this act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the tone of your story
  • To establish the genre of your story
  • To introduce your protagonist, their everyday life, and their preexisting conflicts
  • To foreshadow your story’s theme, and the resolution to that theme
  • To foreshadow the plot(s) of the novel

 


Opening Image

The first beat in your story should be a scene or two which quickly paint a picture of who your protagonist is, what their main conflicts in life are, and a generalized tone of the story. If you have a happy story, write a happy scene. If you’re writing a funny story, write a funny chapter.

When writing a novel, it’s wise to lead make the first few chapters the best chapters in your entire book. Why? Because when people pick up the book in a store/online, they’ll read the first few pages and decide whether they like it or not. For that same reason you include an Opening Image in your novel, to provide an attractive microcosm of your story for your future readers to get hooked on. The key phrase is word is ‘hook the reader!’

Oh, and you know the title of this structure is ‘Save the Cat?’ Well, that has to do with the idea of having your protagonist save a cat (or do another likewise likable action/admirable action/compelling action). Doing likable actions will make the reader more likely to empathize with your protagonist, which is especially important if you want your reader to keep reading. Thus, saving a cat is part of the hook.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the tone of your story (happy, sad, comedic, horror(horror as in dramatic horror))
  • To establish the genre of your story (love story, romance, fantasy, horror(horror as in spooky monster horror))
  • To introduce your main character
  • To introduce your main character’s everyday conflicts

Examples:

  • In ‘Star Wars: A New Hope,’ the Opening Image of the story comes in two parts.
    • First, we see Leia captured by Vader after a brief space battle (Opening Image: Space Opera)
    • Second, we see Luke talking to his Aunt and Uncle, then going to a rummage sale to buy useless desert scrap. (Opening Image: adult man who longs to leave small town life but can’t due to responsibilities.)
    • By including the exciting Opening Image involving Leia coming first, the movie’s viewer buys into the story being exciting. So when the second Opening Image involving a boring orphan farmboy comes up next we don’t immediately tune out.
    • This is called an ‘Ice Monster Prologue,’ in honor of the prologue to G. R. R. Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones,’ the first book in the series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire.’ In that prologue, there is an exciting fight scene with spooky ice monsters. Because we had that exciting fight scene in the prologue, the reader is willing to put up with a slow start to the story.
  • In Garth Nix’s Sabriel, the opening image is of Sabriel, a competent schoolgirl necromancer who single-handedly fights off a zombie from killing her classmates.
  • In Patricia McKillip’s ‘The Forgotten Beasts of Eld,’ the Opening Image of the story comes in one part.
    • We seen Coren of Sirle bring an orphaned boy to Sybel to raise, because the boy is Sybel’s nephew Tamlorn. Sybel, being a wizard living in an ivory tower, has no use for either handsome Coren or her crying nephew, and nearly has her magical animal pets kill them both. She changes her mind. (Opening Image: An emotionally cold wizard woman with magical pets, who wants to be left alone to her magical studies, but the outside world keeps intruding on her.)
    • We establish that her only desire is to capture the Liralen, a spirit of hope.

Theme Stated

Somewhere in this Act you must foreshadow the theme. This is optional, as not all books need a theme. But having a theme makes a story more emotionally engaging and fun for readers, and having a theme doesn’t make a story harder to write, so you might as well add one.

You do not need a separate scene to introduce the theme; you can fold it into another scene.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To add depth to your storytelling,
  • To add depth to your characters, as they explore the theme in their adventure

Examples:

  • In Star Wars, the theme of ‘trusting the Force,’ where the Force is a metaphor for hope and trusting your friends. Early on, it is raised by Leia when she says ‘Help me Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope.’
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ the theme is stepping into a role of great responsibility before you are ready.
  • In ‘Forgotten Beasts of Eld,’ the theme is love triumphing over hate. In the early chapters, that theme is stated when Sybel accepts her nephew into her ivory tower and agrees to raise him.

B Story- Introduction of Flaw

At this point you can optionally introduce the B-story. The original guide would have you introduce it in Act 3, but I think that that is too restrictive of advice. You can introduce it in any of acts 1, 2 or 3. Not 4 or 5; by then it is far too late.

What is a B-Story? A B-story is an important side story, usually involving the protagonist learning an important lesson and growing as a person. It can be a love story between the protagonist and someone else, or it can be a self-discovery plotline, or it can be a plotline where the protagonist conquers their flaws in another way.

When choosing a flaw, consider the theme. What flaw is most appropriate in relation to that theme? If the theme is ‘true love,’ then having a protagonist who has sworn to never love again would be a good choice. If the protagonist is reckless, they must learn patience to overcome their flaw.

In Act 1, display the protagonist’s flaw and how it’s holding the protagonist back in life. Once again, you can integrate this plot beat into another scene. You do not need an entire scene devoted to showing the protagonist’s flaw; try to integrate it into their everyday life in some way.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To show that the protagonist has flaws, and the room to grow out of those flaws.
  • Having a flawed protagonist makes it easier to root for that flawed protagonist. No one likes a superman.

Examples:

  • In ‘Star Wars,’ we see Luke’s flaw of being unwilling to go out on adventure.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ we see Sabriel’s flaw of being a touch ‘act first and think later,’ when she saves the rabbit’s life, and then rushes in to defeat the zombie without any proper weapons.
  • In ‘Forgotten Beasts of Eld,’ we see Sybel’s flaw of being cold.

Set-Up

The final beat in Act 1 is the set-up. This beat’s purpose is for the author to show all the details of the protagonist’s life, and the everyday goings on of the setting. What are the everyday conflicts? Who are the protagonist’s friends? Who are their rivals? What’s their job? What gives them anxiety?

When crafting this beat, remember that you’re trying to create a contrast to the end of the book. If the end of the book has the protagonist being a friend of character A, maybe have them be the rival of character A at the beginning of the book. If the protagonist’s family is well off by the end, maybe have the family on the verge of financial ruin in the beginning of the book. If at the climax they must swim across the rushing river, maybe at the beginning have them afraid of swimming. At this point, you want to begin foreshadowing things.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To set up the status quo of the protagonist, the setting, and the conflicts within that setting, for the purpose of breaking the status quo in future chapters.

Examples:

  • In Star Wars, we see the status quo of Luke being a farm boy who is responsible for nothing more important than second hand power converters. This is a great contrast to him being responsible for saving the galaxy by the end of the movie.
  • In Sabriel, we see the set up of Sabriel being sent a message by her father to rescue him. This, the presence of Death and zombies, along with the context of the dual nature of the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre, shows early on this is going to be a YA adventure story about fighting the undead.
  • In Forgotten Beasts of Eld, we see emotionless Sybel start the story living alone in a mountain ivory tower, content to tend to her magical animals and attempt to collect more animals. When both Coren and King Drede offer her a new home, she turns them down. By the end, this serves in contrast to her freeing her animals and leaving her mountain ivory tower, to live with her heart’s love Coren and his family on the plains.

Act 2: Disruption to the Status Quo

Next up is Act 2. The purpose of Act 2 is to throw off-kilter the perfectly maintained balance of Act 1. Something from the outside world has intruded into the everyday world, and now the protagonist is faced with a choice: take part in the change, or be left behind/overwhelmed/return to the status quo.


Catalyst

First up is the Catalyst. Why does the protagonist’s Status Quo change? Because something from outside of the protagonist’s control forces it to change. The change usually come outside of the protagonist’s control, because if the protagonist was capable of changing their flawed world on their own they would have.

Maybe a war starts, and the hero must choose to enlist or not. Or maybe they meet someone beautiful/handsome, and must choose whether or not to risk heartbreak by seeking a relationship. Or maybe someone is killed, and it’s up to the police department to solve the crime.

In other guides, you might see the Catalyst called the Inciting Incident.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To trigger the plot(s)

Examples

  • In Star Wars, Luke getting the message from R2-D2 which has to be delivered to Obi-Wan is the Catalyst.
    • The Catalyst leads to Luke meeting Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan triggers the plot for Luke.
  • In Sabriel, the catalyst is Sabriel’s father vanishing, and him sending her his weapons so she may take his place.
  • In Forgotten Beasts, the Catalyst is Sybel’s nephew asking to see his father.
    • The Catalyst leads to Sybel’s nephew returning to his father King Drede, triggering the plot.

Debate

Do you stay, or do you go? The protagonist must choose to respond to the Catalyst or not. Maybe the protagonist has to speak with multiple people, asking for advice. Maybe the protagonist jumps off the deep end without giving it a second thought. The purpose of this plot beat is to show the protagonist hesitate, to choose between returning to the status quo and trying something new.

In some novels this is a lengthy affair, taking multiple chapters; in others it happens quickly, or is skipped entirely. This might not take the form of a verbal debate, but something which accomplishes the same purpose- for example, a character might have an internal debate, or there might be no debate at all.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To show the reader that your protagonist is of two minds about something; that going on the adventure (whatever form that adventure will take) is a real choice. By making the choice to continue entirely the protagonist, everything which follows (for good or ill, especially for ill) is entirely on their heads.

Examples:

  • In Star Wars, the debating plot point occurs when Obi-Wan mentions that Luke’s father was a Jedi, and offers to train Luke, and let Luke join the rebel alliance. Luke refuses, on account of the fact that he has family still on Tatooine.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ Sabriel has a debate with Colonel Horyse of the Crossing Point Scouts about whether or not she should be allowed to cross the border to rescue her father. He points out it would be dangerous. Sabriel successfully argues that he must let her through.
  • In Forgotten Beasts, the debating phase takes between Sybel and her witch advisor Maelga. They know that summoning Drede will ultimately lead to Sybel’s nephew leaving, and are heartsick at the prospect of losing Tamlorn. Sybel chooses to summon Drede anyway, because she loves Tam too much to deny him his wish.

B Story- Introducing the helper character (Can go here)

In Act 1, we introduced the protagonist’s flaw at the beginning of the B Story. Now either here in Act 2, or later in Act 3 we can introduce the helper character who will help the protagonist defeat their inner flaw. Maybe this is the love interest, or the mentor character, or the friendly rival, or any one of a hundred different people. It can even be the protagonist going through a self-induced journey of discovery- no helper required!

This story beat is when the protagonist first realizes resistance to their inner flaw. Maybe the protagonist’s prickly nature scares away a potential love interest. Or maybe the mentor character refuses to teach the protagonist a super secret fighting technique until the protagonist has learned humility. Or maybe the rival defeats the protagonist in a duel because the rival used the protagonist’s anger against them. At this moment the protagonist first begins to register “Maybe I need to change and become a better person.”

Remember that you can combine scenes together. In the previous plot point, you had a debate. If it was a literal debate between two people, maybe the helper character important to the B Story could be the person they are having the debate with.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • This is the next step of the protagonist’s internal character arc. They can’t change without introspection, and just like how the external plot requires a Catalyst, this is the Catalyst for the internal plot.

Examples:

  • In Star Wars, Obi-Wan is the Helper character. He helps Luke realize his destiny in trusting the Force.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ the helper character is Mogget, who is introduced when Sabriel arrives at Abhorsen House.
  • In Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Maelga the witch is the helper character. She repeatedly tells Sybel that Sybel is being an ass to everyone around her, encouraging her to not be so cold (coldness being Sybel’s flaw initially) and later on she encourages her to not be so wrathful (her flaw later). Maelga helps Sybel go through her plot arc throughout the story.

No Going Back

The final stage of Act 2 is the Break into 2. This is the moment when the protagonist decides to go on their adventure. The debate is over, the protagonist knows what they want, it’s time to move into Act 3 where the adventure REALLY begins.

Whatever they choose as a result of that debate, that choice is made here. This choice can be made in the same scene as the debate, or shortly after.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To provide the protagonist agency in the plot. After the debate earlier, the protagonist needed to make a choice as to how to proceed. This is either the first plot-sensitive choice the protagonist makes, or one of the first choices. By giving a protagonist agency in the plot, it makes them more likable.

Examples:

  • In Star Wars, when Lukes relatives are killed there’s no going back for him to the life he had before. Luke had to get revenge- thus beginning Act 3.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ the no going back moment actually occurs much later in the novel, in act 3. It is when her father takes Astarael and sacrifices his own life to save Sabriel. After that Sabriel must step up to the plate of defeating Kerrigor. HOWEVER, Mogget states almost as soon as we meet him that there will be no going back for Sabriel to the life she knew before, so the beat still sort of works.
  • In Forgotten Beasts of Eld, there are two ‘No Going Back’ moments.
    • First, when Drede takes Tamlorn with him, there is no going back to life as it was before. Raising Tamlorn warmed Sybel’s heart, and now that he’s gone she feels lonely in a way she never has before. Raising Tam changed her, and she longs for human contact- thus beginning Act 3.
    • Second, when the demon of fear called the Blammor comes to Sybel and confronts her. As she fears nothing, she is able to tame it.

Act 3: The Road of Trials

Act 3 should (usually) be the largest act in your story. It consists of the bulk of the plot. In a mystery story, Act 3 will contain the vast majority of the clue-finding and interviews. In a romance novel, Act 3 will have most of the relationship building between the two protagonists. In a quest fantasy novel, Act 3 contains most of the actual quests/sidequests people like reading about. If you’re writing a tale of redemption, Act 3 will have your protagonist try their best to redeem themselves, only to relapse at the midpoint.

Usually this Act consists of a repeating sequence of micro arcs, or micro adventures. These can include try-fail cycles. The protagonist must defeat small obstacles, learn from their mistakes, try new things, and ultimately triumph, leading up to a climactic midpoint conflict.

At the midpoint conflict, the protagonist achieves a minor victory, or a minor defeat. If they were victorious in the midpoint conflict, then things get worse after that victory. If they were defeated, then things get better after that midpoint conflict.

Why does this act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To provide the backdrop for most of the plot and character development of your novel.
  • In Act 1 you hooked your reader with the promise of something. In Act 3 you pay off that promise.
  • In Acts 1 & 2 you foreshadowed things which would take place later in the novel. In act 3, you begin to pay off that foreshadowing.

Fun and Games

This is when the plot really begins. To repeat what I said just a second ago, in Act 1 you hooked your reader with the promise of something. In Act 3 you pay off the genre expectations you established in Act 1.

In a romance novel, you had a hook promising romance. In Act 3, you fulfill the promise of that romance. In a boarding school fantasy novel, you promised a boarding school in act 1. In Act 3 the protagonist goes to magic boarding school. I could go on, but you get the idea. 

Show your protagonist getting familiar with their new situation, growing into it, changing, beginning their character arc. If you have a training montage, that goes here.

The point of this story beat is payoff. You foreshadowed things early on; now is the moment you start reaping the seeds you sowed.

This story beat can actually contain many, smaller story beats. Think about TV episodes: each episode has an individual story line, but if you combine all the episodes of a season together they tell a greater story. The Fun and Games plot arc is when you tell all those single episode stories, while the entire season story is the story of your novel as a whole.

As a fantasy writer myself, to me the most obvious example of this episodic style would be a sword-and-sorcery novel, where the protagonists must fight a series of battles with monsters and evil doers in the lead up to defeating the ultimate enemy. A sword-and-sorcery novel without lots of random sidequests wouldn’t be as fun.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • This is the meat-and-potatoes section of the story. You decided to write your book for the purpose of telling a story, right? This is the purpose. Journey before destination; this is the journey right here.

Examples

  • In Star Wars, the Fun and Games section of the story begins with Luke going with Obi-Wan to Mos Eisley and meeting with Han. It continues through the section of Luke joining the Rebellion, finding out that Alderaan is destroyed, Luke learning how to use the Force, and ending when the the Falcon is beamed in by the Death Star.
  • In Sabriel, Act 3 actually begins when she crosses the Wall. She has her ‘No Going back’ and ”helper character’ introduction take place in Act 3. The Fun and Games section begins when she crosses the wall, and continues through her rescuing Touchstone and defeating the parasite undead in the small fishing hamlet, and ends when they arrive in Belisaire.
  • In Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the ‘Fun and Games’ consists of Sybel being asked for her hand in marriage by both King Drede and Coren, rivals in war. Both want to use her wizardry to win the war. She turns both of them because she doesn’t want to precipitate a war. The section continues when a mysterious wizard begins hunting Sybel, who is even stronger than at wizardry than Sybel. The section ends when Sybel is magically called by the wizard.

B Story- Introducing the helper character (Or it can go here)

You remember how before I mention that you had to introduce a helper character for the protagonist? If you don’t do that in Act 2, you can do it in Act 3. Re-read what I had written above if you want to see what I have to say.


Midpoint Conflict

The plot has reached the breaking point. The protagonist has gotten stronger and gained new skills while adventuring. There’s a conflict, maybe between your protagonist and the monstrous epic fantasy enemy, or maybe between your protagonist and her white collar boss, or whoever the antagonist of your story is.

One of two things happens: the protagonist wins the fight, or loses it. If the protagonist wins the fight, then in the scenes after this one should be emotional downers. If the protagonist loses this fight, the scenes after this one should be more cheerful.

This is a conflict for the ages, the second best conflict in the story (topped only by the climax battle in Act 5). Remember: all conflict should have narrative stakes and consequences! Don’t have random, inconsequential fights! For this reason, this story beat can involve the death of an important character, like a mentor figure or a best friend.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To up the stakes of the story overall, and provide a taste of the ultimate story climax which occurs at the end of the book.
  • Also, conflict drives reader investment in a story. Too much conflict can desensitize the reader to it, but having a book with a few hard-hitting combat scenes can really drive home

Examples

  • In Star Wars, the midpoint conflict is the heroes being tractor beamed into the Death Star, freeing Leia and turning off the tractor beam. (Note: Star Wars doesn’t perfectly follow this structure. However by studying how a story diverges from a format, you can discover new insight to how a format works.)
  • In Sabriel, the midpoint conflict is Sabriel and Touchstone and Tarceal confronting Kerrigor in Belisaire.
  • In Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the midpoint conflict is when Sybel is summoned by the wizard Mithran, on behalf of King Drede. Mithran was ordered by King Drede to mind control Sybel into being a good queen wife for Drede. Instead Mithran, infatuated by Sybel’s looks and brains, decides to mind control Sybel into his wizardess wife. Mithran nearly succeeds, but his magical control of her fails when he’s distracted by his pre-rape libido. In his moment of distraction Sybel summons the Blammor, the demon of fear, to kill him.
    • Sybel is nearly raped (and mind controlled) in the midpoint climax. Now a lot of people don’t like rape used as a plot point, especially as a point in a female character’s development. That is exactly what happens here. Be careful when using this trope yourselves, you’ll turn away a good portion of your audience using it.
    • Sybel’s character arc goes from being cold (beginning of novel) -> warm (after raising Tamlorn)  -> vengeful (after Mithran).

Bad Guys Close In

If the midpoint conflict resulted in a victory for the heroes, then the next story beat after the battle is an upping of the ante by the opposition. Why? By winning the fight there is naturally some resolution to the story’s tension. The story needs to gradually still increase in tension as it travels from beginning to end, so at this plot beat the tension needs to rise again to compensate for that midpoint victory.

In the midpoint conflict resulted in a defeat for the heroes, then the next story beat after the battle is an relief of pressure by the opposition. Why? By losing the fight more tension is naturally added to an already tense plot. We’re only halfway through the plot, and we don’t want to make things too tense just yet. Give your protagonist (and your reader) a break by having the protagonist have a pleasant chapter or two.

The purpose of this chapter is turn abouts and consequences. Our protagonist put everything on the line at the midpoint, paid the price of victory, and either won or lost the midpoint climax. In this story beat we find out just what they bought when they paid the price. This story beat is usually more about emotional development rather than action.

But no matter victory or defeat, the protagonist’s mental health should suffer in this chapter. They should suffer a setback in their B-plot- maybe they relapsed back into using drugs in the midpoint; maybe the protagonist’s best friend died in the midpoint, and now the protagonist is really sad; maybe the protagonist killed the wrong person in the midpoint, and is now in jail.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • If you had a victory in the midpoint, to make your heroes suffer setbacks so the tension of the story doesn’t relent. In short, this is a narrative turn about.
  • If you had a defeat at the midpoint, to make your protagonist have a moment of relief so your story doesn’t just turn into a pity party. In short, this is a narrative turn about.
  • And as for the B-Plot, the protagonist should experience a setback or relapse in their ‘fatal flaw,’ so that in the next Act the protagonist can have positive resolution to their B-Plot.

Examples

  • In Star Wars, the Bad Guys Close In moment occurs when Darth Vader and Obi-Wan begin their fight with one another. When Obi-Wan dies, this beat (and this act) ends. (Note: Star Wars doesn’t perfectly follow this structure. However by studying how a story diverges from a format, you can discover new insight to how a format works.)
  • In Sabriel, the ‘bad guys close in’ beat is when Sabriel and Touchstone flee from mercenaries in the thrall of Kerrigor after barely escaping Astarael’s music, followed by the reversal of fortune when the Clayr save them and give them the means to escape down to Ancelstierre.
  • In Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the Bad Guys Close In moment is when Sybel returns home and compels Coren into marrying her using the same mind control magic which was almost used against her.

Act 4: Character Resolution

In this Act, the protagonist reaches their narrative low point, have to dig themselves out of the pit they’ve found themselves in. The protagonist lost the midpoint conflict, and in Act 4 they have to emotionally process the consequences of their losses.

In Act 4 both of your plots reach their nadir. For your primary plot, the protagonist is farther than ever away from their goal. For your B-Plot, the protagonist has suffered one or more setbacks to their quest to overcome their personal flaw.

Usually, this act is very short.


All is Lost

And then something really, really bad happens. This is usually an action focused beat, where something really, really bad happens. Maybe the love interest dies. Maybe the mentor dies. Maybe the protagonist loses any hope of their lifelong dream job. No matter what, this is the moment from the protagonist’s nightmares.

If the Midpoint Conflict was a moment of great consequences, this is another such moment, but the consequences of this moment are usually far more personal. If the protagonist lost their car in the midpoint, then they love their loved one here. If the protagonist failed to save a city from burning down at the mid point, then they fail to save their loved one here. In short, with this beat you’re hitting the protagonist where they are weakest.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To kick ’em while they’re down. With this beat we’re trying to break the protagonist, to force them to change for the better. By having a failure at this point, just before the climax in act 5, the tension spikes.

Examples

  • In Star Wars, Obi Wan’s death and Han abandoning Luke and Leia serves as the All is Lost moment. (Note that this intersects with the ‘Bad Guys Close In’ beat and the ‘Dark Night’ story beats. That’s fine. Sometimes story beats bleed into one another.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ the All is Lost beat is when Tarcael (Sabriel’s Father) dies.
  • In ‘Forgotten Beasts,’ the All is Lost beat is when Coren confronts Sybel about using her magic to mind control people, begging her to stop. Instead of stopping, she mind controls him into forgetting so he doesn’t dump her.

Dark Night of the Soul

This narrative beat is a low-action sequence, involving the protagonist coping with the emotional fallout of the bad things which happened in the previous act’s climax and the ‘All is Lost’ narrative beat.

I like to think of it as the inverse of the ‘Debate’ plot beat. If in the Debate beat the protagonist debated whether or not they want to go on the adventure, this is the moment in which they debate whether or not if they want to continue fighting. If you have such an inverted debate, feel free to have the scene mirror the true debate earlier to pay off foreshadowing.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To give the protagonist a moment of introspection. Act 3 was full of action, and Act 4 (with this beat in particular) needs some time to just talk things over. The B-Plot often gets sidelined or forgotten due to it’s internal/introspective nature. This moment of low action is a good moment to explore the protagonist’s feelings after the setbacks they received in the last act.

Examples:

  • In Star Wars, the Dark Night moment occurs when the trio flee the Death Star and join the rebel alliance on Yavin 4. This is a low point because we know the Death Star is going to destroy Yavin 4 next, Obi Wan is dead, and Han takes his money reward and bails.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ the Dark Night moment is when the undead begin attacking the Ancelstierreans at Wall, and they begin losing contact with their outposts. Sabriel and Touchstone must rally the defenses of Ancelstierre in an attempt to find and destroy Kerrigor’s body.
  • In Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the Dark Night moment is when Maelga confronts Sybel about Sybel using her magic to mind control people into agreeing with her, so she can get her revenge against Drede. This mirrors the earlier debate when Maelga and Sybel discussed whether Sybel should send Tamlorn to live with Drede.

Relief and Respite

And then the heroes have a revelation, figuring out how they can save the day! After the emotional lows of the last few chapters, the protagonists have figured out a key secret needed to survive. Maybe the protagonist solves the B-plot, giving them the mental fortitude to take on the A-plot one last time. Maybe the protagonist made a new ally, and with this new friend can take on the enemy one last time. Whatever your story calls for, this is a moment where your protag (and your reader) can take a sigh of relief.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To help resolve the plots. This is a eureka moment, where the hero comes up with a new plan in order to solve all the mishaps which happened over Acts 3 and 4.
  • After so much sorrow, this beat gives the protagonist just enough hope to try one last time to win, instead of giving up to despair.

Examples

  • In Star Wars, the Relief and Respite moment is when the Rebel Alliance roll out their jets and bombers, and prepare to perform the Death Star run. It’s kill or be killed.
  • In Sabriel, the heroes take a breather at Sabriel’s boarding school while they wait for the sarcophagus to arrive. While they wait, Sabriel and Touchstone have a moment alone.
  • In Forgotten Beasts, Sybel realizes that mind controlling people is bad after she summons the Blammor, the same fear demon which killed Mithran, and it nearly kills her. The Blammor kills people who are ‘fearful,’ and Sybel is afraid that Coren will leave her because she’s using her magic to control people. Sybel has a choice: either die, or undergo a revelation and change for the better. She frees her beasts, pulls out of the Sirle vengeance pact, and withdraws back to her mountain.
    • There’s no Relief or Respite in this beat for Sybel. She nearly dies because she’s been doing dark things, and nearly dying is what’s required to snap her out of it.

Act 5: Resolution

This is the final act, where the plots resolve one another. I use the phrase ‘resolve one another’ very specifically; the important life lesson the protagonist gained in the B-plot should be vital in solving the A-plot, and the need to overcome the A-plot should drive the protagonist to triumph over their personal flaws in the B-plot.

Maybe for the conclusion, the protagonist gets what they want, but not what they need, making for an ironic conclusion. Maybe the protag gets both what they want and need, making for a joyous ending. Maybe the protag gets neither what they want, nor what they need, making for a sad ending. How you conclude the story changes how your reader will remember the story afterwards, so give careful thought to what you do at this stage.


(Optional Beat: Last Minute Try-Fail Arc)

Sometimes, after your hero goes through their darkest moment they need to overcome one final obstacle, perform one final penance before they are prepared for the climax. This beat is not in the original Save the Cat! guide, however some stories have this penultimate beat.

At this point the protagonist finally gets their hand on the McGuffin, and are at last prepared to take on the final conflict. This isn’t the most common beat, but as I’ve seen it I feel the need to mention it. A try-fail arc is a story beat where the protagonist tries something, fails, tries again and succeeds. The protagonist advances their game, but not to the point where they can defeat the antagonist quite yet.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To tie up narrative loose ends before the final confrontation. This is basically a narrative ‘busywork’ beat, a moment required to conclude the A-plot.

Examples

  • In Star Wars, there isn’t a last minute Try-Fail arc.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ the last minute try-fail arc is exhuming the sarcophagus from the cairn, try to open the sarcophagus and fail. Instead they deliver it to the school to open it there.
  • In ‘Forgotten Beasts,’ there isn’t a last minute try-fail arc.

Finale

The grand final fight between the protagonist and the antagonist has at last come. This is the moment when the A-plot, B-plot, the theme and the various character arcs all meet up with one another again, to create a satisfying whole.

Maybe focus on comparing the antagonist and protagonist to one another, show how they are similar, how the protagonist became a better person in this story (B-plot) and that is how they won. The antagonist remained stagnant and never grew, and that is why they lost.

Remember that all scenes should serve multiple functions. In the finale, this is most true. The best scenes in a story where multiple storylines converge; make your finale extra special by having all your plot lines converge at once and gain resolution.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To wind up the story! To provide a satisfying conclusion for the protagonist’s plot arc, and the story arc.

Examples

  • In Star Wars, the Death Star run, where Luke learns to trust the Force (and his friends Han and Chewie) so that he can destroy the Death Star against all odds.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ the finale begins when the undead assault the school. The heroes open the Sarcophagus, force Kerrigor to re-enter his body and then gain control of him using Mogget’s ring.
  • In ‘Forgotten Beasts,’ after Sybel freed her magic beasts, they charmed the defending armies of King Drede and the attacking armies of Sirle, laying a glamour on them so they went on wild hunts instead of fighting one another. They took away the war, like a parent taking away a child’s toys. In the end Drede is killed by the fear demon.

Final Image

And then comes the happily ever after. This is the Denouement section of the story, the comfortable let down after the climax of the final confrontation. Take your time, and set up a chapter or two which mirrors the beginning of the story but with the changes to characterization caused by so many chapters between then and now.

Why does this beat exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To show the fallout of the finale of the story. Did your protagonist win their final confrontation? If so, show what rewards your protagonists earned. Did your protagonist complete their B-plot character arc? If so, show how they’ve matured and become a better person.
  • To provide emotional resolution for the reader. The reader has invested their emotions in the characters of your story; the Final Image is the beat point in which you soothe their heart ache and stress, re-assure them that everything is going to be okay.
  • Have this beat mirror the Opening Image. All the foreshadowing you sewed early on pays off here.

Examples.

  • In Star Wars, the medal ceremony at the end is the Final Image, of an upset world turned alright in the end.
  • In ‘Sabriel,’ after Sabriel is killed in the final confrontation with Kerrigor. In death she is confronted by the ghosts of her family, resolving the ‘meeting the high expectation of my family’ plotline. She is then brought back to life when Touchstone kisses her, resolving the romantic plotline between Sabriel and Touchstone.
  • In ‘Forgotten Beasts,’ after Sybel frees her beasts and stops trying to get revenge against Drede, she finds an element of inner peace. This inner peace allows her to be forgiven by Coren, and allows her to at last summon the Liralen, a spirit of hope, her lifelong goal.
    • It is revealed that the Liralen is the same creature as the Blammor. They are hope and fear, Yin and Yang. Sybel could only summon the Liralen/Blammor because she was willing to confront her fears, embrace them, and change for the better in the face of them.
    • Mithran, at one point, also wanted to capture the Liralen. He never could, because he was unwilling to change for the better. That is why the Blammor killed him at the Midpoint Conflict, because he was ultimately beyond repentance. That is why the Blammor killed Drede, because he was unwilling to accept that he did wrong and was unwilling to change.
    • Sybel’s character arc mirrored that of the antagonists: she was willing to use her power to control those around her in hideously evil ways. However Sybel found redemption because she was willing to make enormous sacrifices to change for the better when she was confronted with the evil of her actions.

And that’s the Save the Cat! Method.

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve examined this method, along with the other method, is how loose and freeform story structuring can be. A good story doesn’t need to be beat-for-beat following any one structure or method; the beats can be somewhat out of order, or bleed into one another. So long as your story hits the right emotional moments you’re going to have a good story on your hands.

I hope you’ve found this useful.

 


Resources you can use:

Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Beat Sheet pdf + Examples

 

 

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