Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat revolutionised my writing–or rather, my storytelling. It’s primarily a screenwriting book, but the principles apply just as well to fiction. My favourite part is the Beat Sheet: a list of elements making up the classic Three Act Structure.
Snyder is quite exacting about the timing of these elements, down to the script page number. A story can be more flexible than a film, but this still provides a great sense of timing. Your Act 1 doesn’t necessarily have to finish at precisely 25%, but if it finishes at 72% it’s a good indication that your pacing is off (or your story needs to be a lot longer.)
Some writers find the concept of structure constricting, but for me it was liberating. I would often find myself with cool characters in an interesting scenario, and then sit there wondering what should happen next. Keeping the Beat Sheet at the back of my mind helps me realise what HAS to happen next. It provides a natural progression for the story.
Snyder’s 15 point Beat Sheet can be found here: http://www.blakesnyder.com/tools/
The blog section of the site also provides some fascinating breakdowns of films, which are well worth a look. Once you know it’s there, you start seeing this structural skeleton everywhere–it’s like having X-ray Vision.
I use a 12 point adaptation of the Beat Sheet, and it’s served me very well–even for very short stories. To show a working example, my dark fantasy Never Leave Me, recently published at Daily Science Fiction (free to read here: http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/magic-and-wizardry/michelle-ann-king/never-leave-me) is only 1,280 words long–but the Beats are still there:
Normal World: MC’s current struggles, in their current environment.
The opening paragraph is a reference to fairy tales, both to set the tone for the story and to introduce Katrine’s problem: the reality of her ‘happy ever after’ hasn’t matched her expectations.
Inciting Incident: An event caused by the Antagonist that changes the situation.
The Antagonist here is Aron–even though he doesn’t know it. He provides opposition by not being the kind of husband Katrine really wants. He sets things in motion by going hunting and leaving her behind.
The Challenge: MC debates what this means & what to do about it.
Katrine makes Aron swear not to leave, but it’s not enough–she’s not satisfied. She wants to guarantee it.
Start the Revolution: MC takes action towards achieving their goal.
Katrine goes to the village witch for help.
Reactions & Progress: MC learns info, gains skills, discovers problems.
Katrine learns that the spell she wants does exist, but the witch won’t perform it for her.
Midpoint of No Return: A game-changer, risk or revelation that raises the stakes.
Katrine kills the witch and takes her magic.
Setbacks & Complications: Antagonist fights back, MC is demoralised.
Aron is horrified by what she’s done. Their relationship sours.
All Is Lost: Defeat. The Goal looks lost.
The marriage breaks down completely: Aron no longer loves her and Katrine no longer wants him to stay–but the spell keeps them together.
Bonus Whiff of Death: an image of rotting fruit.
Dark Night of the Soul: Emotional reaction to the All Is Lost moment.
Demonstrating the flexibility available to a short story, the whole beat here is contained in a single line: Katrine wept, and he did not comfort her.
The Comeback: MC decides to give it a final go.
Katrine tries to break the spell.
Final Battle: MC fights the Antagonist.
Unable to loosen the magical binding, Katrine attacks Aron and kills him.
New World: MC in their new situation.
In Never Leave Me, this beat is not actually on the page. It’s still in the story, but it takes place totally in the reader’s mind–which is probably why people have found it so haunting. As is so often the case, the scariest monsters are the ones you don’t describe.
Michelle Ann King writes SF, dark fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her stories have appeared in various venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra Magazine, and Untied Shoelaces of the Mind.
She has worked as a mortgage underwriter, supermarket cashier, makeup artist, tarot reader and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time. Find details of her stories and books at http://www.transientcactus.co.uk
There are plotters and there are pantsers, but usually I find that it’s best to be somewhere in the middle. I find it’s much more important to understand and be familiar with your setting and characters than to know all the details of your plot. This is because you’re writing from that point of view in that place, and those details help you decide what decisions characters make and how they influence the story. With that in mind, I’ll help you create a basic outline.
I prefer to use printer paper for this and to draw my own border near the edges of the pages, but it’s really up to you what kind of paper you use and the aesthetics of your outline. I do however insist that you use paper, not your computer, for this exercise. Paper is much more inspirational and I find it much easier to create background notes and info on a piece of paper than to try to conjure them out of thin air onto a computer.
Look at your factsheet and decide which events are most important to your story. You should start with the three most important: the one that really gets the story started (like your characters finding an ancient relic and learning that they have to go on a quest), the rising action (the turning point in the story, when you feel the conclusion creeping up on you), and the resolution of the story-the final battle and the scenes that follow. Put the first event in big letters at the top of the page, the second one in big letters a third of the way down, and the third one in big letters near the bottom.
Now that you’ve got the main events down, it’s just a matter of filling in the details. Now you go back to your factsheet from last week and start listing the smaller events that need to happen to create the story. These should be in order from first to last-in between the three you’ve already established of course-and in point form. You don’t want a lot of details here, just enough so you know what each event is.
Once you’ve got all the essentials on the page you can start adding fun stuff, new scenes and subplots. Remember that every empty space is a place where you can put a new scene as you’re doing this, but that you don’t want to fill up the page entirely. Why? Because if you fill up the page completely, you won’t be able to add things to this outline as you’re writing and new scenes appear-which makes editing harder.
How do you outline?
Previous Posts in this Series
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a Project
Setting in Early Planning
Characterization in Early Planning
Plot in Early Planning