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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.


    1. Terrific post. Terrific explanations. Many thanks! And I hope your thumb is okay.

    2. Did I mention I love decoder rings?

    3. Thanks for this, I've been wondering the same thing!




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