Save The Cat–Save Your Novel: Using Screenwriting Tips & Tricks to Fix (start) Your Manuscript

I CAME TO novel-writing as a journalist/screenwriter, so why (on my current book) I

Marlowe Kitty firmly believes you should Save The Cat

Marlowe Kitty approves

decided to throw storyboarding out with the kitty litter, I have no idea. Today, I print out the mess (and make my ritual Print Out Penance donation to, arrange the pages via a Story Board, create a Beat Sheet and go over the work-in-progress with Save The Cat, and figure out What Is The Point? What’s The Take-a-Way?

I usually approach a book by creating a screenwriter’s Story Board and Story Bible.

This time, I didn’t. For this book, I went with a free-flow-of-thought kinda thing because it’s a mostly true funny memoir, but now I have a mess of disconnected thoughts (yes, the writing is funny–it’s just not in any kind of order), no structure and no visible Through-Line (it’s there–and I have a vague idea of what it is, but today I’ll read, re-read, organize and know for sure). Today it’s time to Fix The Mess–to Save The Cat . . .

Save The Cat method of writing a compelling novel

Save The Cat method of writing a compelling novel

* A Beat Sheet is a quick, down and dirty way to sequence your story, using bullets instead of whole sentences or paragraphs. Those bullets tend to morph into actual sentences and paragraphs.  And when that happen, you have an outline on your hands–woo hoo!

How to use Save The Cat (and Beat Sheets) to save your manuscript:

Here’s where we see our protagonist in her regular, everyday life. The world before the adventure starts. Act One Beats:

Opening Image: Also known as Chris Vogler’s Ordinary World, the Opening Image is the first thing Reader *sees*. Opening Image sets the tone and introduces the hero/heroine, the time-place-and kind of book we’re getting ourselves into. It’s the starting point for the protagonist, and this image is often the opposite of the final image. For example, in the Opening Image of Scoop, we see our protagonist, obituary writer Cauley MacKinnon, ducking under crime scene tape in search of a story that will further her career (to see the example, click here). The End Scene has her with her Big Story, but with a dilemma about how it will change not only her life and jeopardize the lives of the people she loves.

*I usually know my first sentence and last sentence before I start–when I don’t do that ahead of time, I run into trouble–like now.
Theme Stated: The Opening Scene is where we introduce our Theme–often by just stepping right up and telling Reader what it is.

Set-Up: The basic introduction of the World and Characters and what’s wrong in that world and/or character’s life. [The opening scene] and (The Ordinary World)

Catalyst: The trigger that starts the plot. This is the thing that is new and changes what the protagonist knows. [The inciting event] and (the Call to Action)

Debate: The protagonist decides whether or not to do whatever it is he needs to do. [Act One Problem] and (The Refusal of the Call)


Just like the other structure formats, the middle is when the protagonist’s world gets turned upside down and the bulk of the plot unfolds. Act Two is broken into two parts, ramping up to the midpoint and down to the climax. In the first part of Act Two, we’ve got the following beats:

Break Into Two: The choice to act and move the story forward. [The Act Two Choice] and (Crossing the Threshold)

B Story: Often this is where the love story plot or major subplot comes into play.

Fun and Games:
Snyder calls this beat “the promise of the premise.” It’s where all the fun stuff of the premise occurs as the protagonist tries to solve the problem, but before things get really serious. [First half of Act Two] and (Tests, Allies, and Enemies)

The middle of the book. Stakes goes up and the “fun” is over. Now it’s serious.

Act Two: Fun Time is Over--Shit just got Real

Act Two: Fun Time is Over–Shit just got Real

This beat is either a false victory or a false defeat, which will be the opposite of the All is Lost beat. [Midpoint] and (The Ordeal)


After the midpoint, the story heads toward the climax. If the middle was a false victory, the protagonist realizes that he did not win as he thought. A false defeat, he realizes all it not lost. Within the second half of Act Two, you’ll find the following beats:

Bad Guys Close In:
With rising stakes comes more attacks from the antagonist. This is when things start to fall apart for the protagonist. [Second Half of Act Two] and (The Road Back)

All is Lost: The other false victory or defeat, and the opposite of the midpoint. The low point of the story, where everything is stripped away from the protagonist. [Act Two Disaster]

Dark Night of the Soul: The deep soul searching of the protagonist to find the solution to the problems facing him. [Act Three Plan]


Act Three is where it all comes together for the protagonist, and he realizes where he belongs and who he is. The final act is the climax and the events leading up to the climax. Within Act Three, you’ll find the following beats:

Break Into Three: Plot and character arcs merge and the protagonist knows what he has to do to win. [Act Three Plan]

Finale: The climax, where the protagonist takes all the lessons learned and uses them to defeat the antagonist and solve the problem. The world makes sense again based on the experiences he’s undergone in the story. [The Climax] and (The Resurrection)

Final Image:
The ending, showing where the protagonist is now. This will be the opposite of the opening image, showing the end of the character journey and how that helped the protagonist. [The Wrap Up] and (The Return With the Elixir)

Yes–it’s similar to Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, but hey, it’s classic storytelling–the difference is chopping up your story so you can see it better–dissecting it so you can clearly identify all the moving parts.

One of the things I like about this beat sheet, is that the moments/bears/turning points are clearly defined in a way that’s easy to put into practice. They also interconnect and build off each other nicely.

And now . . . off to print out my mess, dissect it, and put it all back together in a coherent order.

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2 Responses to Save The Cat–Save Your Novel: Using Screenwriting Tips & Tricks to Fix (start) Your Manuscript

  1. admin says:

    This is fabulous….. I’m printing this (don’t tell trees) and going in for a decent dissection of my own!!!
    you rock! miss you.