You may have heard of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel as a guide for writing fantastic fiction. I recommend this book to all authors. Those starting in their writing journey can use it to create a plot that hits readers’ expectations. It’s also a helpful reference for emerging authors to ensure they’ve hit all the plot points or ‘beats’ as Jessica Brody calls them in Save the Cat!
You may be thinking you don’t want your fiction novel to be like everyone else’s. You want to break conventions, stand out from the crowd. Do it!
Even following this magic formula, your novel will be different from any other novel out there, because you wrote it. Your style, your ideas, your characters, your plot are as unique as your fingerprint. More so if you write more than ten novels. 😊
According to Save the Cat!, there are 15 beats or plot points, which I will reveal to you so you can use this to create or revise your novel to include them. The structure of your fiction novel may differ. You may start with a tension filled glimpse into some terrifying situation the character gets themselves into in the middle of your book to get the reader interested in finding out how they got there, but what follows will hit these beats.
Stories told throughout time have used this formula, and whether readers realize it or not, is what they expect and enjoy.
Let’s give them what they want!
The Magic Formula
Beat 1 – Opening Image
Give readers a quick picture of your main character’s fictional world and their place in it. By showing what your protagonist does and a problem or flaw will start the bond between your character and your reader. It’s just a flash of your character in their natural state and one important flaw or situation. This scene also sets the tone, mood, and style of the novel.
Beat 2 – Theme Stated
Offer your reader a hint at what the character needs—what the hero must learn and change about themselves. This hint is best stated by a secondary character, or your narrator, but not your hero, as they don’t know what they need yet.
Beat 3 – Setup
In this beat, you set up the novel and your hero’s journey. You show more of their flaws or the flaws in their world, so they can fix these later. Make the character have personality flaws and be dealing with situations that are relatable. The protagonist is basically bumbling around in their natural state, oblivious to what is going to happen soon. You’ll show how they feel about themselves and the world around them and how others think of them, which helps add to relatability and deepen the bond so they will root for them to overcome the many obstacles you throw in their way.
Beat 4 – The Catalyst
I usually call this the Inciting Incident. Some incident must happen to your protagonist or their world that incites them to act. They don’t act quite yet, but this is the catalyst that sparks them to go on the journey. It must be big, really big. Aliens attack, an earthquake destroys their home, someone is kidnapped or killed!
Beat 5 – Debate
Should I stay or should I go? Your character will contemplate at least two options to show their unwillingness to change.
Beat 6 – Decision
When your character decides to act, that’s the break into act two. Of course, they take up the challenge and begin their journey, or you won’t have a story. Now, the action they choose should be based on what they want out of life, not their need, as the theme states.
Beat 7 – B Story
A secondary plot for this world. New world means a different plot and new characters! Here is where you’ll introduce a helper character, one that serves to help the protagonist learn the theme—their need.
Beat 8 – Fun and Games
The rollercoaster ride! My favorite part. 😊
This will be the bulk of your novel where most of the action happens. You throw everything at them—internal and external conflicts, trials, roadblocks. They either succeed in overcoming or fail miserably with each challenge. Through these highs and lows, your reader will be rooting for your character.
This beat is super entertaining, and tension filled! Your readers will be on the edge of their seat for about 30-50% of your book in this section.
Beat 9 – Midpoint
In the middle of your novel, your protagonist will win big! Yea! However, this will be a false victory. Boo. But you really raise the stakes here! Your character is thrust toward their need, and it sets them up for genuine change.
Beat 10 – Bad Guys Close In
Literally or figuratively, but their false victory will cause a downward spiral. Things just keep getting worse for them. You push them down and down farther still. You will revisit your hero’s flaws and make the character confront them.
Beat 11 – All is Lost
Your main character hits rock bottom. The external conflicts combine with their internal conflicts and slam the protagonist into a pit. They realize that everything bad that’s happened during the novel is all their fault!
Beat 12 – Dark Night of the Soul
Still in the pit at rock bottom, your hero processes what went wrong, what they did to cause all this pain, and how to fix it. This happens right before they figure out how to solve the problem and understand the theme set up in the beginning.
Beat 13 – Aha Moment
The lightbulb goes on above your protagonist’s head! They now know what they need and how to fix themselves, as well as all the problems they caused in act two. This is your break into act three.
Beat 14 – Finale
Aka, the climax! Your hero shows they’ve learned their lesson. They proceed with the plan they came up with during the aha-moment beat. The bad guys are thwarted, their flaws overcome. They are victorious!
Beat 15 – Final Image
Exactly as you would think, this is the last image of your novel. It will be the opposite of the opening image. A flash of how your hero has changed, what their new life or world looks like now that they have gotten what they need.
This magic fiction formula is followed and has been followed in almost every story ever told or written!
Since I’ve learned these beats, I notice every fiction novel, movie, and TV show episode hits them. They may not always be in exact order as the timeline structure plays a part as well, but they are there. Even the subplots and scenes strike these beats! How awesome is that?
Now that you know them, I’m sure, when you read your next book or even watch your next movie or favorite TV show, you will be picking out these plot points.
I hope you will reflect on and refer to this beat sheet for your stories as it will help you meet readers’ expectations.
Kristin Noland – Speculative fiction and crime fiction editor
Brody, Jessica. “Save the Cat! Beat Sheet: Aka The End of All Your Plotting Problems.” Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing That You’ll Ever Need, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, 2018, pp. 24–26.