DISCLOSURE: AS AN AMAZON ASSOCIATE I EARN FROM QUALIFYING PURCHASES. READ THE FULL DISCLOSURE FOR MORE INFO. ALL AFFILIATE LINKS ARE MARKED #ad
Staring at the blank page is daunting, and decision fatigue is real. When you can write anything, what do you write?
This “paralysis of indecision” that so many writers feel leads them to turn to external resources to help structure their stories.
And with good reason — most films follow the same narrative arc, so why not reverse engineer the model to help your storytelling?
Enter Save the Cat!, a book written by Blake Snyder (available here on Amazon) that takes the classic storytelling structure used in the Hollywood arc and cuts it up into 15 plot points that writers can use to plot their own stories.
These fifteen plot points, written out on their own, are what’s called a beat sheet.
What is a beat sheet?
A beat sheet differs from a film treatment in that it only consists of the film’s main plot points. It’s not used as a sales tool in the same way a film treatment is.
Instead, beat sheets are used by writers to follow their character’s narrative arc throughout a film’s main plot points. In essence, the beat sheet is the spark notes of your character’s Hero’s Journey.
For a different storytelling template to help you with your story structure, you can also check out Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon’s Story Circle method.
What is the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet?
Blake Snyder’s beat sheet from Save the Cat! is broken down into fifteen steps.
The unique thing about Snyder’s beat sheet is that it explicitly breaks down the page number each beat should be on, denoted at the end of each beat explanation.
- The opening image — An opening image that creates a question in the audience’s mind. (page 1)
- Introduction of a theme — We begin to establish the central theme that the film will explore. (page 5)
- Set-up — The “ordinary world” of the hero and their personal goal (whether consciously stated or subtextual) should be introduced. (page 10)
- Catalyst — The inciting incident (why today?) that pushes the story’s plot in motion occurs. (page 12)
- Debate — The hero is hesitant to accept the call to action for the external goal. (page 12-25)
- Break into two — The hero decides to accept the call and enter a new world, beginning the second act. (page 25)
- B Story — We enter a new world, with a new subplot to introduce new character(s) to help the hero with the transition. (page 30)
- Fun and games — A series of challenges begin as the hero tries to achieve their external goal.(30-55)
- Midpoint — The stakes get raised right as the external goal is in sight. (page 55)
- Bad guys close in — The challenges increase as the hero begins to lose (page 55-75)
- All is lost — The hero hits rock bottom and is furthest from their external and internal goal as can possibly be. (page 75)
- Dark night of the soul — In the face of defeat, the hero reconciles with their failure and confronts their fatal flaw to overcome it. (page 75-85)
- Break into three — The hero is energized by a truth that has escaped them this entire time. (page 85)
- Finale — With newfound inner strength and self-awareness, the hero is able to overcome the villains and seize the day. (page 85-110)
- Final image — A final image that mirrors or contrasts the opening, so that the story comes full circle. (page 110)
Why should you use the Blake Snyder Beat sheet?
There are many benefits to following the above formula from Blake Snyder. It’s a great starting point to break any story idea and see if there’s enough material to tell a full narrative arc with a few broad strokes.
You can easily plug your idea into the above beats and flesh them out into a full outline. You will learn very quickly if your original idea misses a few key beats along the hero’s journey.
For example, after you plug your plot points into this beat sheet, you discover your script doesn’t have an ‘All is Lost’ moment for the character to crawl back from.
Therefore, the audience will feel that the final victory comes too easily without the character having truly changed.
The page counter is also a useful tool to self-assess if your script hits the mark after writing it.
Most professional readers have specific expectations for when certain plot points should happen and will take score according to the general page count guidelines Snyder shares.
For instance, if your ‘Break into Two’ moment is on page 45 (as has happened to me), then you know the reader will probably feel that your Act one is running way too long.
Why shouldn’t you use the Blake Snyder beat sheet?
Many writers have criticized the formulaic nature of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, mainly because it dictates the exact page count of when certain plot points should happen in an uncreative, cookie-cutter “write-by-numbers” fashion.
Others prefer story structure tools that are looser, like Dan Harmon’s 8-beat story circle or Joseph Campbell’s 12-step Hero’s Journey.
And there are those writers who prefer the gardener approach — plant some narrative seeds and see what sprouts up along the way.
However, I wouldn’t recommend this approach to first-time writers. I know all too well how easy it is to get 30 pages into a new idea with no idea where you’re going and then spin out because you didn’t have a roadmap of where you were headed.
Why and how seasoned screenwriters use Save The Cat!
Seasoned screenwriters might be more likely to prefer this method, either because they find it more creatively fulfilling or because they detest overly generic plots that are too easy to predict.
Plus, once you become a professional writer, you will likely be asked to provide beat sheets and outlines to share your vision for your project’s story with busy producers and executives who use shorthand narrative framing devices like the Hero’s Journey, Story Circle, or Save the Cat!
As with any writing convention, you should use the Blake Snyder Beat sheet and corresponding page number as guidelines, not an exact science.
In fact, once you become seasoned in story structure, you can play against audience expectations with even greater precision because you know exactly what the audience expects.
See how to write creative pitch decks for pitching your film.
You’ll always need some structure to your storytelling, but playing against expectations is a great way to write compelling narratives that surprise and delight audiences.
Other uses for the Blake Snyder beat sheet
If you really want a clear canvas to paint your story on, you can write as much of your idea as possible and then use the beat sheet to help you only when you get stuck.
You can also plug your favorite movies into the Save the Cat! Beat sheet formula to see how they solve their storytelling problems.
Use the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet for novels.
You can also apply Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to novels.
While books are longer than screenplays and therefore don’t translate to the exact page count that Blake Snyder wrote, you can proportion a book up into percentages equivalent to the Save the Cat! Formula.
This is helpful for authors to see how they can compare and apply the Blake Snyder beat sheet to their own manuscripts and make sure their storytelling is on point.
What about if you are writing an ensemble? Can you still use this formula?
Finally, you can also apply the Blake Snyder beat sheet to writing ensemble scripts, but you have to be creative. StudioBinder points this out in a brilliant video they created that compares the film Avengers: Infinity War against the Save the Cat! Beat sheet structure.
What’s interesting about Infinity War is that there are so many heroes, it’s impossible to give them all satisfying journeys. So how did the screenwriters solve this problem? According to Studio Binder, they gave the hero’s journey to the villain.
For a story to be satisfying to audiences, they need a character they are following, even if it’s a film full of brilliant actors all playing rich characters with their own competing storylines.
One of those characters needs a full arc that the audience can experience alongside them. Both the audience and that character need to leave the theater having changed.
Find that point of view character, and anchor them with the story beats of Blake Snyder, Dan Harmon, or Joseph Campbell.
That way, you should still provide a traditionally satisfying structure to shepherd the audience through the rocky seas of whatever other complicated plot devices or overlapping chaos you want to throw at them.