The Backseat Writer

Save Me, Save the Cat!

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.





  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Backseat Writer on Writing Contests

So you’ve got a manuscript.  It’s ready.  You love it. Of course you do.  You’ve always loved it.  That’s why you spent the last [insert appropriate number of years] alone in front of your computer with it. And, truth be told, you’re critique group refuses to look at your first chapter “just one more time” because, even though they continue to be your best cheerleaders, it’s all they’ve seen from you in over a year and they’re a little sick of it.

What do you do?

Sounds like you might be ready to enter a writing contest.  Contests come in all shapes and sizes.  Some require reading fees, some don’t.  Some offer big cash payoffs, while some offer invaluable professional feedback, or trips to big name conferences.  Some even offer that elusive white whale that pretty much all of us “unpubs” are seeking:


How do you know which one is right for you?  Well, like pretty much everything else in the writing world, it takes research and patience and proper preparation.   And you have to decide what you’re looking for. Make sure the contest you enter is right for you.  For example, if you’re looking for professional evaluation of your work, don’t enter a contest that offers only a cash prize with no feedback.

Hey, wait a minute.  It just occurred to me that Yellow Bird just opened a contest where the winner gets a full manuscript evaluation from a professional editor.  What a coincidence!  Here’s the link:

But getting back to the sometimes confusing world of entering writing contests:  I am no all-knowing expert.  Wait!  Don’t stop reading, I’m going somewhere with this.  I’m no expert, but I can offer some perspective on how not to do it.  (Steep learning curves seem to be a life choice for me.)  Anyway, I made a fundamental mistake:  I ignored all the good advice I was getting and just took the random “scatter gun” approach to entering.  I didn’t bother to read what was already published in/by the periodical or publishing house sponsoring the contest.  I didn’t look at the past winner samples.  I didn’t bother to research the judges in any way.  I just opened my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine to the contest deadlines section in the back and went down the list.   I entered anything and everything that looked like I might be eligible for, regardless of whether or not my writing seemed like a good fit.

What did I get for my trouble?  I ended up spending a bunch of money on reading fees and accidentally subscribing to a lot of literary journals (some offer subscriptions in exchange for their reading fees).  But that’s all I got, besides a steady stream of heartbreakingly generic “thanks but no thanks” rejection emails.

So, if you’re interested in supporting the struggling literary publishing community with wasted entry fees, then, by all means, do it like I did.  But, if you’re looking to increase your chances of actually winning, then take the time to do the research before you enter.  Don’t enter your YA fantasy into a literary fiction contest.  If you’ve got a procedural detective story, you probably shouldn’t submit it to a historical fiction contest.  And memoirs rarely win short story contests.  Make sure you know what you’re spending your money on.

Or, you could just find a contest like Yellow Bird’s.  Did I mention it already?  I can’t remember.  Just in case I didn’t, here’s the link:

It’s wide open to any and all comers.  The only thing we’re looking for is good writing.  So send us your middle grade dystopian, your memoir of the years you served in Afghanistan, your bodice ripping romance.  Whatever!  If the writing rocks, then you’ve got a shot.  So polish up that first chapter and get it to us before July 31st.  You can’t win if you don’t enter!

The Backseat Writer reads Katherine Catmull

If you’re reading my personal blog at, then you’re familiar with my new Backseat Writer series. In it I invite you to read along with me as I satisfy my fiction addiction. The basic idea is that I will periodically post about what authors do that works well. In other words, I’ll read like a writer and write about it. I encourage you to join in the discussion so long as you keep your comments positive. This series is not about bashing anybody. It’s about delving into what authors are doing right, so that we can all learn how to write better.

This is my second post aboutKatherine Catmull‘s debut novel,Summer and Bird. I’m now about a hundred pages in to this middle-grade fantasy and I continue to be amazed by her use of language.  In particular, near the beginning of her tenth chapter she employs a wonderfully apt metaphor to describe the thoughts of one of her protagonists: “She pushed and dug at the pain in those stories over and over, the way you dig at a loose tooth, tasting the blood.” Nice. Visceral. Even without knowing the context, you get a pretty good idea of what the character’s feeling.

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