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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Save the Cat Summer: Word Counts, Page Counts, and Overlapping Beats

I have downloaded your Save the Cat spreadsheet and I am a little confused by the page numbers and word count. Why is there some overlap? Does it mean that for a 50,000 word novel the opening image should go from page 1 to 2 but the set-up is also from page 1 to 18? Is the 'theme stated' section simply a one-page event occurring on page 9? What happens on pages 19 - 21? The same questions also apply to the word count columns.

First off, I have to apologize to the person who asked this question, because I had to do a lot of thinking/deciphering/interpreting/asking around to answer it.

And because I'm not Blake Snyder, I still don't have a definitive answer. I don't even know that there is one. But here's my thinking on the matter.

First, a look at the mechanics of the Save the Cat beat sheet for novels.

The way the beat sheet for novels came about was this--I wanted to use the beats of Save the Cat, but I was sick of having to do the math in my head every time I changed something. So I created a spreadsheet that would do the math for me.

That's really its only function.

For example, here's a look at the first three beats of the original Save the Cat beat sheet:

1. Opening Image (1):
2. Theme Stated (5):
3. Set-Up (1-10):

In order to make the formula work for novels, I converted the original page numbers to percentages, based on a 90-page script, and then applied those percentages to the word count:

1. Opening Image (1% of Word Count):
2. Theme Stated (5.5% of Word Count):
3. Set-Up (1%-11% of Word Count):

The page count comes from taking the word count and dividing it by 250, which is the average number of words per page.

It's important to note that word counts/page counts will not always be in agreement with each other, especially if you're routinely heavy on narrative or dialogue.

If the discrepancy is too much, if you are like me and have something like a 183 words per page average, or if you just really prefer page numbers to word counts, it's an easy fix. All you have to do is replace the contents of that cell with:

=(A9/your words per page average goes here)

You're probably wondering, "Well, if it's not accurate, why is it there?" And the answer is, because a long time ago, someone who preferred page counts to word counts asked for it, and I never bothered to take it out, because oh my god all those merged cells.

Same with the chapter boxes.

So yeah. The word counts are accurate. The page counts are usually pretty accurate. But if you experience a huge discrepancy, that's why.

OK! Now about that overlap!

If you look at the Save the Cat formula, it's a pattern of hard beats (BIG MOMENT happens on page X) followed by spans (lots of smaller moments happen between pages X and Y).

My own interpretation of this span-beat-span pattern is that it creates a slow build up of conflict and tension, followed by a sudden !!!!!! moment.

The opening image (span) builds up to the theme (hard beat). The Set Up (span) builds up to the Catalyst (hard beat). The Debate (span) builds up to the Break into Act II (hard beat).

The hard beats are the BIG beats. The BIG moments. If your book is a roller coaster, the hard beats are the drops, twists, turns, corkscrews, moments of free fall.

The spans are a little more vague. They're not just one scene--they're a collection of scenes. But they're important in that they set the tone and context for those BIG moments. They are what make the BIG moments BIG. To go back to the roller coaster analogy, part of what make the drops thrilling is the slow climb to the top.

So why is the beginning bass-ackwards?

Well, I don't know for sure. But here's how I look at it. And remember, this is just my interpretation, not written in stone, or anything. But I like to look at the Opening Image as nested within the Set-Up. Two hard beats nested within a span, like this:

3. Set Up (1%-11% of Word Count)
  • 1. Opening Image (1%)

  • 2. Theme (5%)

  • Basically, the goal of the first 11% of a book is to a) orient the reader, b) clarify the book's theme, and c) introduce everything that will come into play in the A story.

    For example, look at The Dark Knight.

    The Opening Image is The Joker's heist. It's a powerful scene. It sets the tone and pace of the movie. You know what you're going to get from the movie by watching that opening scene.

    The Theme takes place during Bruce Wayne's dinner with a pre-Two Face Harvey Dent.

    "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Harvey Dent

    But the Set-Up isn't as easy to pin down. The first 11% of the movie is smothered in it, from Harvey Dent's two-face coin, to the nickname he had while he worked Internal Affairs, to the distrust he has in cops because he worked in Internal Affairs, to the brief mention of Ramirez's mother being in the hospital again, to the tie-in between The Joker and the mob and eventually Harvey Dent, himself.

    It's all important. And it's all Set-Up. But the reason it's in the order it's in is to provide our brains with the infrastructure necessary to process the information.

    "Here's a shit ton of information," Set-Up says. "And here's the Opening Image and Theme decoder rings you'll need to translate it."

    I'm going to stop there for now because I totally just sliced my thumb open by accidentally sticking it into my desk fan. (I know, right?) But I hope that helps answer your question about why there's overlap in the beginning. I don't have an answer for the gaps between beats. Those make me nervous, too. I always feel like I'm left to my own devices for X number of pages, like my book is entering some weird book black hole from which it might never escape. But it always comes out OK. My advice? Tread water until you're back on dry land. Worst case scenario, it's crap and you have to rewrite it. Best case scenario? It's the most awesome thing ever. Either way is one step closer to getting to done, which is really all that matters.

    Wednesday, August 8, 2012

    The Kindness Project: The Be and the Do

    A couple of weeks ago, I went through an indescribably rough patch that basically sucked all the good stuff out of me and replaced it with fear and worry panic and sadness. There was also a mad cleaning binge in there somewhere, which is a surefire sign that Things Are Not All Right.

    On the third day, a friend of mine rang me up. "I wish I could do something."

    "There's nothing to do," I told her. "It's enough that you're willing to just be, you know?"

    When the world falls out from under us, sometimes the thing we need most isn't someone to fix the problem. (Because let's face it, some problems can't be fixed.) We need someone who's willing to go through it with us.

    Someone who's willing to be and not do.

    Because of the two, the being is harder than the doing.

    Everyone wants to do something. But how many want to be something?

    It's something I struggle with. And I didn't even realize it until I had nothing but being left.

    Kindness Challenge: Be something for someone.

    The Kindness Project Participants

    Friday, July 13, 2012

    The Kindness Project: Selfish Kindness

    The Internet is a very unkind place.

    Sure, you can talk all you want about how the writing community or YA community or whatever-the-hell community you belong to is, like, oh my god, so supportive, but that hasn't been my experience. The circle jerk of lick-you-lick-me? That I'm more familiar with.

    I guess that's why this post has been so hard to write. (And why it's late, natch.) Right now I can't find it in me to believe that people--not necessarily the people blogging today (er, the day before yesterday) but people in general--really want to be kind to one another.

    Years ago, a mommyblogger friend of mine was invited on a mission trip to Cambodia. The idea was that she would go, take a few pictures, write about her experience, raise awareness for the charity. The backlash was enough to make her give up her online presence. That was the first time I'd ever heard the term "poverty tourism".

    Not that the concept of people doing kind things for selfish reasons was all that foreign to me. But still. Until then I'd never considered that the people "raising awareness" for these charities really didn't give a hoot about them. For them, it wasn't about the charity or the people supported by the charity. It was about the exposure. It was about--God, I really do hate this word--marketing. Selling something. Promoting themselves.

    So I've been struggling. I struggle every time I see someone on Twitter begging for help and not getting it, because they're not important enough to be talked to in open forum. I struggle every time a notice comes in that an RWA contest is short on judges, and see the inevitable response of, "Gee, I'd love to help, but what's in it for me?"

    And that's the thing, isn't it? Gee, I'd love to help, but...

    Kindness--genuine kindness--isn't always clean or neat or tidy. It won't always fit into your schedule; sometimes it will take your schedule and blow it the fuck up. It won't always leave you feeling good; sometimes it will hollow you out and break you. Kindness is costly. Kindness is exhausting. Kindness tracks dirt in the house.

    There was a time in my life when I had far less responsibility than I have today, and I remember thinking I was so busy. Too busy. Too busy to help people, too busy to do things that didn't benefit me. I don't think it's a coincidence that this period of my life was also one of the unhappiest.

    I was selfish then. I try to be less selfish now. But I wonder if that's enough. I wonder if it makes a difference. I wonder if I'll always be this angry that there are more people who would rather look the part than be the part.

    I don't have any answers yet.

    Other Kindness Project Posts:

    Sunday, July 1, 2012

    Save the Cat Summer: 7 Beat Sheet Myths Busted

    Myth #1: You have to fill in ALL! THE! BEATS!

    Truth: No one expects you to know everything about your book before you write it. So focus on what you do know--even if all you know is intangible, like a mood or a feeling--and then start writing. Those blank spots will fill themselves in as you learn more about your book.

    Myth #2: Theme doesn't matter.

    Truth: Don't overthink or undervalue theme. It is the mirror in which the events of the story are reflected.

    I would be willing to wager that all of us, at one point or another, got a quarter of the way through a book and thought, "I understand what's going on action-wise, but I don't know if it's good or bad, or why it matters."

    Theme is what the book is about. Theme is the story you're telling, the question you're asking, the point of it. Theme gives us the proper context in which to experience the myriad of events that will transpire throughout the rest of the book. Which is why it's front and center.

    The good news is, theme isn't something you add to a book. It's something already there, a question your subconscious keeps trying to answer off and on throughout the story. All you have to do is find it.

    Myth #3: If your beats aren't lining up just so, your book is broken.

    Truth: SAVE THE CAT is a screenwriting book, and the beat sheet, in its original form is intended to show how one can efficiently squish a story into roughly 90-110 minutes of film. We book people, on the other hand, have a little bit more leeway.

    A more accurate way to look at the Save the Cat beat structure is to think of it as a recipe. Here are all the ingredients you will need to make for a satisfying dish. You can flavor to taste.

    Myth #4: Some people just don't have the plotting gene.

    Truth: Plotting, like most everything else, can be learned. Instead of giving up on plotting altogether, ask yourself why you have such an aversion to it. Is it because not knowing what happens next makes you nervous? Or because knowing too much ruins the story for you?

    "That doesn't always work for me" is better than "I can't do it" any day.

    Myth #5: "Formula" is a four-letter word.

    Truth: Math, science, the universe, and pretty much everything else is made up of some kind of formula. Your DNA? A formula. Your favorite beer? A formula. The way your mind works when coming up with stories? A formula. The beat sheet is no different.

    Myth #6: It's impossible to cram the happenings of a 400 page book onto one beat sheet page.

    Truth: Can't fit your whole story onto one beat sheet page? Easy. Use more than one beat sheet. Separate your action plot from your romance plot from your subplots and map them each out individually.

    Myth #7: This isn't working for me, so I must be doomed for failure.

    Truth: Not every book on writing will help every writer. Everyone's different. There are hundreds of books on writing out there. They won't all help you. But a handful will. Keep reading and trying new things until you find them.

    Tuesday, May 15, 2012

    The 7 Point Plot System aka Save the Cat for Pantsers

    ETA: Don't worry about having to keep with the links! I've compiled a list at the bottom of this post!

    One of the things I hear most about Save the Cat is that it's damn complicated and what the shit is a theme and why does it have to be in the form of a question? This is a BOOK, Liz, not a freaking episode of Jeopardy!

    Pantsers especially, I've noticed, are hella skeered of the beat sheet. And I guess I can understand why. Breaking your book down into 15 steps when you don't even know what your book is about yet does fall under the heading of "intimi--wait for it--dating".

    But fear not, you writerly peoples, you! For there is a solution for you heathen pantsers!

    The 7 Point Plot System

    Developed by Dan Wells, who attributes it to Star Trek RPG, the 7 Point Plot System gives you all the goods of Save the Cat, but with fewer, less intimidating steps.

    Here's what it looks like:

    The 7 Point Plot System

    The beginning. The mirror image of the end.

    Turn 1
    Introduces conflict and bridges the gap between the Hook and the Midpoint.

    Pinch 1
    Something bad happens.

    Bridges the gap between the Hook and the Resolution.

    Pinch 2
    Something even worse happens.

    Turn 2
    Bridges the gap between Midpoint and End.

    The climax. Everything in the story leads to this moment.

    There's more to it than that, but I'm not going to go into it because he does it so much better. Fortunately for you, the workshop presentation is on YouTube!

    He's even made the PowerPoint slides available for download: 7 Point Plot System slides!

    I would strongly recommend watching the workshop and going over the slides if you have a free hour this weekend, because not only does he go over the different steps using examples from Harry Potter and The Matrix, but he also goes into some hardcore layered plotting, and breaks it down in a way that it's so simple to use, even for the most die-hard pantser.

    (For those of you saving it for later, here's a direct link: 7 Point Plot System. You can also download a PDF of the PowerPoint slides here: 7 Point Plot System PDF.)

    How it Works with Save the Cat

    I've been over this a hundred times with Liz Poole, and I can say unequivocally, it matches up near perfect with Save the Cat.

    Here's the breakdown:

    7 Point Plot System
    Save the Cat
    • Hook
    • Opening Image
    • Theme Stated
    • Setup
    • Turn 1
    • Catalyst
    • Debate
    • Pinch 1
    • Break into Act II
    • B-Story
    • Fun & Games
    • Midpoint
    • Midpoint
    • Pinch 2
      • Bad Guys Close In
      • All is Lost
      • Black Moment
      • Turn 2
      • Break into Act III
      • Finale
      • Resolution
      • Final Image

      So you can see, it matches up pretty well. For a better example, I went ahead and did a Beat Sheet and 7 Point Plot worksheet for Wicked (the musical, not the book):

      (If you hate Scribd, don't worry--there are links to downloadable PDF versions of these at the bottom of this post.)

      7 Point Plot Worksheet - Wicked
      Save the Cat Beat Sheet for Novels - Wicked

      If you're one of the people who tried Save the Cat and it just didn't work for you, I hope this helps to fill in that gap. These days, I find it's easier to scratch out a loose plot using the 7 Point Plot system, work with the story for a few pages, and then fill in the blanks on the Save the Cat beat sheet as they come to me. A lot of the intimidation that comes with the Save the Cat beat sheet comes from the feeling that you have to have this enormous chunk of information before you even begin writing, and I like how the 7 Point Plot System simplifies that so that you're only working on one aspect of the plot (action, romance, betrayal) at any given time.
      Part 1 of the Story Structure (7 Point Plot) workshop: YouTube
      Story Structure (7 Point Plot) slides: PowerPoint | PDF

      Beat Sheet example for "Wicked": PDF
      7 Point Plot example for "Wicked": PDF

      Save the Cat Beat Sheet for Novels: Excel

      7 Point Plot Worksheet (Printable): PDF
      7 Point Plot Worksheet (Layered): Excel

      Thank You
      I love that so many people have found the Save the Cat Beat Sheet for Novels helpful. As always, if you have any questions or comments (or corrections!), feel free to let me know.

      More beat sheet stuff is coming this summer! It's gonna be awesome!



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