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Outline your NaNoWriMo Novel Using the Save the Cat! Story Structure

Save Your Cat! is a 15-beat story structure that you can use to outline your novel, which works very well with Scrivener.

If you're planning to participate in this years National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), or if you are just getting ready to start writing a novel, there are two ways to approach the task. You could be a pantser - a writer who progresses "by the seat of their pants," without any planning - or you could be a planner, someone who prepares an outline, which could be just key points, or granular details. Or, you could be a plantser, someone who uses a bit of each approach.

If you do want to plan your novel, one good way to do so is to use the Save the Cat! story structure. Even if you are a pantser, examining your completed first draft through the lens of this structure can help you revise your novel.

Here's how the Save the Cat! story structure works.

What is Save the Cat?

Save the Cat! is an approach to storytelling developed by Blake Snyder, originally for screenplays. This structure breaks down a story into 15 beats, or plot points, which describe the hero's journey to discovery, that, in one way or another, is at the heart of most novels. Jessica Brody adapted this for novels, in her book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.

What's up with the cat?

Blake Snyder coined this phrase to describe the scene, at a beginning of a story, which gets us to identify with the main character. If the protagonist saves a cat, they can be seen as a good person. As Snyder has said, "The hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win."

The hero doesn't really have to save a cat; the cat is a metaphor. Doing any kind of good deed labels the hero as a good person. But, hey, saving a cat is always a good thing.

Beats and plot points

The Save the Cat! structure is based on 15 beats, or plot points; these are the key elements of a story, each of which can be very short or fairly long. Generally, a beat or plot point is a single action in a story that advances that story. Each one is a sort of fulcrum, a stage at which change is effected. As you'll see below, some of the beats are brief, others take up a large proportion of a novel.

The 15 beats of Save the Cat!

Each of the 15 beats is a guidepost to moving a story ahead, and the overall structure also divides a story into the familiar three-act structure. Each beat takes up a certain percentage of your story; it could be just a single scene, such as the Opening Image or Final Image, or it could cover a quarter of your novel, such as Fun and Games, which is where most of the action occurs.

Act 1

  1. Opening Image (0% – 1%): An image of what your hero is like as the story opens.
  2. Theme Stated (5%): Hints of where the story will go, what the hero's arc is, and what the hero must learn or discover, both internally and externally.
  3. Setup (1%-10%): An exposition of the hero's life before it changes in the story, which must show why the hero is reluctant to change.
  4. Catalyst (10%): The inciting incident that makes the hero set out on their quest.
  5. Debate (10% – 20%): The hero asks themselves whether they should go on the journey that the catalyst has presented.

Act 2

  1. Break Into 2 (20%): The hero decides that they will, indeed, embark on their journey. This is the beginning of the second act of the story.
  2. B Story (22%): One or more new characters who will assist the hero on their journey are introduced.
  3. Fun and Games (20% – 50%): This is the heart of the action, as the hero confronts difficulties and progresses toward their goal.
  4. Midpoint (50%): The middle point of the story, which culminates in a false victory or a false defeat for the hero.
  5. Bad Guys Closes In (50% – 75%): The hero's path becomes more difficult, as they have to confront their deep-rooted internal flaws.
  6. All Is Lost (75%): The hero faces despair at the low point of the story, but there is nowhere to go but up.
  7. Dark Night of the Soul (75% – 80%): At the depths of despair, the hero figures out how to solve their problem and move ahead to resolution.

Act 3

  1. Break Into 3 (80%): This is when the hero realizes they can solve the problems presented in the second act, and better themselves.
  2. Finale (80% – 99%): All is resolved, as the hero accomplishes their journey, both external and internal.
  3. Final Image (99% – 100%): An image of what your hero is like as the story concludes, mirroring the Opening Image.

In Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Jessica Brody analyses a couple dozen novels in "beat sheets," that look at how their stories fit into the Save the Cat! story structure. These include novels by Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, John Green, Jojo Moyes, and many others. This helps better understand how the Save the Cat! structure works in fiction.

Using Save the Cat! with Scrivener

The Save the Cat! story structure is fine on paper, but it's even better in a Scrivener project. When starting your novel, you can create a new project with each of the 15 beats of Save the Cat! in the Binder. You can then examine this structure in Scrivener's Outliner, or in the Corkboard, as in the screenshot at the top of this article. (You can flip back and forth between the Binder, Outliner, and Corkboard, depending on how you want to view your project.)

I created folders for each of the 15 beats, and I can now start writing in new text files in each folder. You may want to change the names of the folders to match your story, to make your project more personal, and as you progress, you may want to add more folders to break your story down into smaller elements.

The Save the Cat! story structure is a good way to plan a novel, or to revise a first draft. It's not the only way to envisage a story structure, and it may not be right for every story, but if you're starting out on your first novel, it's a great way to work with a framework that you can build on.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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