How to Save The Cat
"Save the Cat" is a phrase that has recently taken ahold of the writing community. The original save the cat was for theatrical manuscripts, but has been adapted by many authors to work well as a structure for their book's story structure.
Save the Cat generally focuses around 15 story beats (often plotted on a beat sheet), but the phrase gets its name from the idea that you should showcase a redeeming quality early on to help your reader relate to your protagonist. For example, saving a cat from a tree.
Save The Cat's story structure
Like we mentioned above, Save the Cat leverages 15 beats, although some are often wrapped up together into a single beat. These beats help provide flow and structure to your story. The thirteen beats are:
- The Opening Image
- State the Theme
- The Catalyst
- The Debate
- Break into act two
- The B Story
- Fun and Games
- The Midpoint
- The Bad Guys close in
- All is lost
- Darkest Night
- Break into Act 3
- The Finale
- The Final Image
If that seems like a lot, hang in there. We'll go through each of these and help you find a home for them in your story.
The Opening Image
The opening image takes place at the beginning of your book and usually last a few pages at most. The idea here is to set up the opening scene that your protagonist lives in day after day. This helps establish the context for the reader and often times, you'll want to this to feel as familiar as possible so your reader can relate to your protagonist and become hooked!
State the Theme
The second beat to hit is the "State the Theme" beat in which, shockingly, you state the theme. That's not to say that you should hit your reader over the head with the theme, most readers wouldn't enjoy that. For example, in the book Catcher in the Rye, Mr. Spencer says, “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Outwardly, Holden pretends to agree, but he doesn’t buy into this. To himself, he thinks: Game my ass. Some game. This is J.D. Sallinger stating the theme of Catcher in the Rye in a wonderfully subtle way, but its in a way that sticks and can easily be recalled when the reader makes it further into the book.
The Setup is all about building a picture of the world that your protagonist lives in. Introduce their friends, enemies, accomplices, and family. Introduce the setting and take a moment to remind the reader that your protagonist isn't happy or satisfied with their life as it currently stands, but they probably think they are.
One of the BlueJay staff members has an excellent example of this in his novel. James doesn't feel like he can step up and make his own choices. He feels like he needs to be commanded and told what to do, as if thinking on his own would be terrible. And the most important part, he's okay with this. In fact, he's happy to be bossed around by his parents, teachers, or his girlfriend.
The Catalyst is what shakes the foundation of your protagonists world. Don't skimp here. Really shake that foundation. If your story is about a man becoming a vampire, this is when the part where he gets bitten and starts his transformation.
The Debate is an internal (and sometimes external) debate between the protagonist from before the catalyst and the protagonist from after the catalyst. If your protagonist was just bitten by a vampire, the debate might be "Do I end my own life to prevent myself from becoming this monster?" but often times its simply an attempt for the character to struggle between going back to who they used to be and who they are now.
Break Into Act Two
Act two is where the fun and games (literally, theres even a beat in this act named "Fun and Games") really start to take place. Act two is the main substance of your novel. If your book is about superheroes, this is where your crime fighting (and introducing the villians) will take place. If it's a romance, this is where the romance begins between your protagonist and their partner (likely the person from the catalyst that shook their life up)!
The B Story
The B Story is the second story inside of your story (queue the inception memes). Generally, this story is a love story but does not have to. For example, in the Matrix the B Story is the growing love story between Trinity and Neo.
Fun and Games
Fun and games is the beat that stretches your plot. It's where you'll write about all the awesome things that your protagonist can do/experience in their new life after they've embraced themselves post-Catalyst. In a superhero book, this is where your protagonist might crush some bad-guys or save children from a burning orphanage. Most importantly, it shows them succeeding (and sometimes failing) in their new life.
The Midpoint is an interesting beat to hit. This is the point where the protagonist will get what they think they've been trying to find all along. Going back to our Transmute example from earlier, James's midpoint is finding someone who will just tell him what he needs to do instead of expecting him to make that decision for himself. What's important is that the protagonist gets what they want, but not what they need to be fulfilled. James wants someone to tell him what to do, he needs to realize that he's capable of making decisions for himself.
The Bad Guys close in
Now that your protagonist has hit the Midpoint, you'll run into the next beat. This is where the bad buys start to close in. They may be metaphorical, culutural, or just a specific person set on hurting your protagonist. Whomever (or whatever) it is, they're closing in on your protagonist and they're closing in fast.
All is Lost
The bad guys have closed in and they've kidnapped the prince! The kindgom is in shambles without their heir and feudal life as we know it is falling apart. All is lost is the beat that happens towards the end of act two and sets up for the darkest night. All is Lost is often a literal loss to the protagonist, usually a loved one or a mentor (think Obi-Wan or Gandalf).
The darkest night is usually an internal debate or a realization of fact that comes with the "All is Lost" beat. When Gandalf falls fighting the Balrog, the wise wizard that had lead the motley crew of Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves and Humans is no longer with them. Can they make the journey without him? Some have their doubts.
Often, the darkest night involves bickering between the party members, yelling, fights and sometimes a party member abandoning the cause. This really helps drive home the idea that "All is lost" and "we should just give up."
Break into Act Three
But your protagonist wouldn't just give up! Not after they've come so far. They'll struggle and dig at anything they have to continue the cause in the name of their fallen mentor or loved one. And that's exactly what they should do during this beat. Frodo knows where the ring has to go. He's heard it many times at this point, and he knows he's headed in the right direction. Despite the darkest night and the bickering and fighting, Frodo pushes on. He won't let his mentor die for nothing.
The finale is where your protagonist takes on all of their foes. They've gained new tools and discoveries and, while harnessing those tools and discoveries, the protagonist from act one and act two meld together to become a force of reckoning upon their foes. In the Matrix, Neo "unplugs" from the Oracle's logic and faces the head agent by himself. This finale should be a climatic ending for your story. Don't skimp on this!
The Final Image
To wrap things back up, we end on another image, similar to the opening image we started with. However, this is the final image. This image stands to show how our protagonist has changed since the beginning. An effect that we particularly like to see here is using the same (or similar) backdrop from the opening image and putting our newly synthesized protagonist right in the middle of it, like Frodo returning back to the shire.