I am taking the revolutionary step of planning the next draft of my manuscript. I’m making a complete outline before I start the rewrite. I’ve never done a long fiction outline before. I usually just wing it, with mixed results. Most days it feels like I’m pulling the pieces of my outline out of parts of myself I’d rather not mention. By the way, when I say ‘latest draft’ I mean I’ve decided the novel is a complete tear-down. I’m starting over, essentially writing a sequel to the first one. It’s a long story; email me for the link if you’d like to read about it.
The main problem with my first blind stabs at outlining seems to be that I suck at outlining. So I went back to a classic screen writing manual to find a nice template. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat lists and thoroughly explains the “Fifteen Beats” that can be found in pretty much all successful Hollywood movies. If you haven’t read it, you really should. Snyder wrote it in a bossy, don’t-argue-with-me style that makes it great fun. And it’s a nice starting point for a three act outline. His Beats occasionally require a bit of liberal interpretation to make them work in novel-ese, but they can be used as a basic road map for making any kind of three act story.
Find Snyder’s Fifteen Beats below, along with my brief interpretations of each of them. But don’t trust me. Do your own translating. The source is easy to find. It’s Chapter Four of Save the Cat.
According to the late, great Blake Snyder, these Beats have to be followed precisely in this order to make a good three act movie. I’m still not sure where I come down on that part of his theory. Planning scares me. But the Fifteen Beats intrigue me enough to want to see if I can use them to make a novel.
The parenthetical numbers just after the title of each Beat are the pages in Snyder’s model screenplay where they must take place. I left them in because he’s quite rigid in his views on proper screenplay page counts, part of his overall crotchetiness that gives the book a lot of its readability. Plus, the numbers give you an idea of Snyder’s ideas about the relative size of each Beat.
THE BLAKE SNYDER BEAT SHEET
- Opening Image (1): This corresponds to the hook in a novel. It’s the thing that makes the reader turn past page one. It should be jam-packed with thematic symbolism, but in a subtle way.
- Theme Stated (5): Snyder describes this one just fine for either genre. Within the first few pages “someone (usually not the main character) will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the [story].” (Snyder 73)
- Set-Up (1-10): Even if the exact placement and length of the Set-Up Beat gets adjusted, a story must very quickly establish the characters and setting, as well as the hero’s and the villain’s stakes. This section wraps up with the hero starting to form his or her external goal in a concrete way.
- Catalyst (12): The event that changes everything and leads to the hero onto the path of his/her quest. The catalyst, or inciting event to fiction writers, starts the rest of the story into motion, even if the hero’s still not 100% committed to the cause. A lot of time this gets pushed up to the very first page for a novel.
- Debate (12-25): The hero must hesitate and wrestle with his/her choice (the one triggered by the catalyst). He or she may even try to get out of doing what’s right, which is always more interesting than completely sticking with any life-changing decision that occurred in Beat Four.
I’m certain that Snyder would have a few choice words for the following statement: A lot of times these Beats can be rearranged or possibly omitted if you’re more experimental with structure. On the other hand, I think Snyder would approve of why I’m desecrating his words. It’s because I want to write a book that I can sell for money. That means writing a story that scratches that primal three-act-itch we all seem to have.
I’m going to wrap up here at the end of act one. Look for my translations of Beats Six through Fifteen in the next couple of days.