The Beat Sheet is a trick I picked up in film school. It covers all the major plot elements (“beats”) of a long form story. Now, Snyder was writing about film, which is much more structurally formulaic than prose, but I firmly believe that taking a good, hard look at structure is essential for any novel, especially if you are writing anything other than hoity toity high-brow experimental literary fiction.
So, if you not in that 0.00001% of writers who are writing hoity toity high brow experimental literary fiction, then the beat sheet is worth your time. At the very least, you’ll notice the formulas and structures that so inescapably pervasive that you probably just took them all for granted.
For myself, I find the beat sheet to come in handy after I have my cool idea, when I’m ready to start fleshing it out into an outline. I find it really helpful to lay out and plan my arcs, especially that dreaded second act. My second acts always end up too thin or too fat, which is unfortunate, because this really is where your reader either falls in love or puts down the books and walks away never to return.
Sometimes, as well, when you’ve finished your first draft, there’s just something about it that feels off. Going through that draft with a red pen, marking out the different beats Snyder outlines, can really help you identify those invisible problems.
The structure below is Snyder’s; the commentary is my own. These are notes I’ve made from my own experience in adapting this to a novel. Snyder is quite specific with regards to when in the film each part of the structure should occur, but I have been a bit more vague. Novels are a much more varied beast than a film.
If you are interested in writing a screenplay, I haven’t repeated all of Snyder’s specifics here, but I strongly recommend you check out his book Save the Cat. It’s an invaluable resource and a fun read.
This is our first page. Not only will we need to hook a reader with this, we’ll probably also want to hook a publisher! Snyder describes the opening image as something thematically significant. The scene we’re writing can go on for much longer than a page, but on the very first page, we need to establish two things: tone and character.
Imagine the reader thinking: “There are a lot of books out there. Why am I reading this one? Whose story is this and how is it being told?”
In film, this is the first ten minutes; in a novel, it’s generally your first 1-3 chapters. In this time, show (don’t tell!) your reader more about the main character(s) and the world they inhabit. We need to know what they want, what they need, and what stands in the way of them getting both of those things.
Furthermore, Snyder argues this is where we need the titular “save the cat” moment: we need a reason to root for our character. Do they help old ladies across the street? Do they save a cat from an air duct aboard a space station? Are they kind to children even though they’re a hardened mob boss?
Maybe the point of our character is that she’s unlikable. That’s fair! But think of yourself as a reader. Why would you keep reading if you didn’t see some hope for redemption?
At some point in these early chapters, we need to know this novel’s purpose. We need at hint that it will all add to something interesting. This is not the moral of the story, so to speak, but rather an indication – perhaps even a subconscious suggestion – of what deeper meanings are at play here.
For instance, in the first three chapters of Katherena Vermette’s The Break, we are introduced to three different characters and get a strong sense of the different trajectories of their lives, how inter-connected (or disconnected) they are, as well as a character reacting to witnessing violence. This will tie in later to the prevalent themes of inter-generational violence.
This is the moment where everything we’ve set up gets turned on its head! This happens at the end of the set up: 10 or 15 minutes into a film, or introduced at the end of roughly our third chapter. (Side note: I firmly believe this is why lots of agents ask for your first three chapters attached to your query. They want to see your set-up and then how you introduce the main conflict. If you drag out your set-up for too long, your reader will get bored – and so will the agent!)
The catalyst is the wrench thrown in the character’s plans, the case that lands on their desk, the meet-cute that occurs in the coffee shop, the lab accident that gives them super powers! Plenty of in medias res stories start here – the classic *record scratch* “Now I know what you’re thinking: how did I end up here?” – which is always intriguing (and the aforementioned The Break is one of them), but we do need to remember to go back and lay our groundwork.
We need that important backstory or development that got us to this moment. For instance, if we join the detective on the scene of the big case, we need to understand what life was like before the catalyst arrived and how the catalyst is flipping the board. Otherwise, how do we know our character is even being challenged? How do we know this isn’t just business as usual?
Very few characters will accept a challenge head-on and with enthusiasm. For instance, I always wondered why Luke Skywalker so happily ran off with Obi-Wan Kenobi after the massacre of his aunt and uncle. I mean, yes: we did establish that he really, really wanted to go join the rebellion and Uncle Owen was an obstacle to that goal, but I mean… that obstacle was straight-up murdered. Cold, Luke. Cold. This was a case of focusing on what the character wants rather than needs, and – I would argue – a huge flaw in Luke’s character arc. (I could elaborate, but I’ll spare you. Ask in the comments if you really want to hear my hot take on Luke Skywalker.)
In the Debate (which Snyder says should last another 8-10 minutes or so, and which I think should be another chapter or two), we really have to drill down into the character. What is it within them that is holding them back from this catalyst? Why are they so resistant to change?
Something I have heard recently, which I think applies beautifully here is that people are not afraid of change; they are afraid of loss. What will our character lose by engaging with this catalyst? Will it be something tangible, like their job or custody of their kids? Or will it be some integral part of their identity?
Admittedly, Act One is difficult. Especially if we have a detailed plot with a series of interconnected events and / or a complicated character who is very much a product of their backstory. How can we know at which time to enter the story? What is the cut-off between backstory and story story?
To answer this, we really need to drill down into what the heart of our story is. What is the character’s true, emotional arc? We might have to lose a lot. That’s why we call it “killing your darlings.”
Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two)
Act Two thus begins after the Debate ends and the character moves into action. This is roughly a quarter to a third of the way through the complete story. To put it into Campbellian terms, this is the hero Crossing the Threshold to enter anew, unknown world. This is Samwise Gamgee taking that “one more step” to go further from home than he’s ever been. (And, as the saying goes, this “unknown world” is not a place, but a state of mind.)
Also, Act Two doesn’t just happen; the character needs to choose to engage with the catalyst. If they – practically speaking – have no choice in the matter and are forced to engage, then how are they now emotionally involved? How can we see them embarking on a journey they might not even know they are taking? How have they begun to change?
Snyder says that the B-Story should be introduced shortly after Act Two begins. It is embedded within and informs the A-Story, and thus should be introduced well after and resolved well before. For Snyder, this B-Story is usually something like the “love story,” which gets used as a vehicle for discussing theme. For instance, how many times have you seen that love interest reduced to the “voice of reason” spewing truths we know the main character won’t listen to until Act Three?
For this reason, I tend to ignore a lot of the B-Story elements when developing structure, as it is so clearly one those film tropes that always calls attention to itself. This is not to say that novels don’t end up having B-Stories, just that I feel, in novels, they need to unfold in a more organic way. In short: they are inessential.
However, if we are working with multiple plot threads, it would be useful to identify which story is our A-Story, which our B-Story, our C-Story, and so on. The point here is that the C-Story had to inform the B-Story, which has to inform the A-Story, and so they must be resolved in that order. If the stories are not this interconnected, then why are they all one novel to begin with?
As an example, referring back to Samwise Gamgee, the B Story in Lord of the Rings begins a short while after the crossing of the threshold into Act Two, when we meet up with Aragorn in Bree. We would have no cause to explore Aragorn’s story were it not for this connection he makes with the hobbits.
The Promise of the Premise
When we picked up The Martian, no one really wanted to read about Mark Watney getting rescued. Of course we wanted him to be rescued, but what we really wanted to read about how he was going to survive on Mars until he was rescued.
The Promise of the Premise is just that! What did we sell our reader on? Is our book about pirates in space? Then this is where we have our goddamned pirates out in space. Snyder also calls this the “fun and games,” because that’s what this should be: the chance to let loose and really explore this new world we’ve just dropped our character into.
This should take us from a quarter or a third of the way into your novel to the half-way point or even a little closer to two-thirds, depending on how much of our novel’s development is plot-based versus character-based.
For Snyder, this happens, obviously, right in the middle of the movie. For novels, which I think need more room to breathe, this isn’t so much a “midpoint” as it is a false ending, and can thus occur as late as two-thirds of the way into the novel.
Snyder frames this as a “false high” or “false low,” but as film tends to focus more on plotting, for the purposes of novel-writing, I prefer to think of it as the character’s first big failure. This failure is how they are finally forced to realize that they themselves need to change before they can achieve their true goal.
Either they achieve their explicit goal and realize the victory is hollow or their first attempt at success fails miserably. Either outcome will result in – perhaps for the first time – some inward reflection.
Bad Guys Close In
This takes place just following our midpoint. The false victory will be revealed as a sham! Or, the hero is even further downtrodden as the bad guys take advantage of their apparent defeat. Again, with Snyder, this tends to be more plot-based, but I see is as the character succumbing to their demons (whether literal and/or figurative).
All is Lost
This is, so to speak, the character in an emotional tailspin. According to Snyder, this is the “whiff of death.” Either the sage or parental figure dies (insert death of white bearded character here), the trusty, road-tripping Cadillac breaks down, or the character stares mournfully off a bridge as if in quiet suggestion of how deep their despair has finally become.
I see this as the character beginning to realize how helpless their situation is. They are starting to panic. Perhaps they even feel like they don’t know themselves anymore.
Dark Night of the Soul
After that tailspin, the character has hit the ground. And not just the ground: rock bottom. And, as we all know, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can pick yourself up again. This is the time to mourn the death that occurred, whether it was their sage or their dashed hopes and dreams, or their lost sense of self. Perhaps it is even mourning what was left behind in the old, known world of Act One.
In the same way that the Debate preceded the Break into Two, the Dark Night of the Soul precedes the Break into Three, and is a Debate of a different sort. Whereas the first debate consisted of the character equivocating what they think they were willing to give up in order to go after their goal, the Dark Night of the Soul is the character figuring out what they really need to give up. This is about the character accepting that change that has taken place or will need to take place within themselves.
This is Dumbo learning that he had the power to fly all along. This is the character completing their internal arc before striving for the superfluous rewards. Emotionally speaking, by the end of the Dark Night of the Soul, the character’s journey is done. Act Three is the icing on the cake.
This is also where the resolution of the B-Story dovetails with the A-Story. For instance, to go back to Lord of the Rings, Aragorn accepting his role as King (the B Story) actually contributes to destruction of the One Ring (the A Story), in that Aragorn leads the army with his epic speech and provides the distraction Frodo needs to get to Mount Doom.
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three)
Structurally speaking, Act Three is remarkably short. For a novel, it could be as much as the last third or as little as the final page. All of this depends on our novel’s balance between plotting and character work. As a rule of thumb, the more it skews towards character, the shorter it will be. As per Snyder, it could be as much as the last third of the film, but again, that is because so much is plotting and action.
As the bulk of Act Three, this is where the lessons learned during the Midpoint failure are applied, this time with different results. This is where all plots that need resolving are resolved and the theme is connected back to what was hinted at in Act One.
The character has become the person we were rooting for them to become all along and now we just get to watch them resolve the main conflict and achieve their goal: fight bad guys, solve the mystery, or save the day.
In many ways, this last page/scene is a mirror to our Opening Image. We should be able to show what has changed from that opening scene. How is the character different? How does the tone inform that? This is a little more than putting a neat bow on things. We want this scene to remind the reader, in some way, of where you started. If they remember and appreciate the journey, the entire experience will be all the more meaningful.
So there you have it. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet adapted for novel-writing. As noted, it’s not as specific as Snyder, for instance, with how many pages you should devote to such-and-such plot element, but I just don’t think that level of structure applies in the same way to novels as to film. With that said, I hope this is useful to you when outlining, as I know it is for me!
Please let me know in the comments below (or contact me directly) if you have any questions or contributions!
Source: Blake Snyder, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, 2005.