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Using the “Save the Cat” Format to Develop Your Story

Some of you who are familiar with Screenwriting may have heard the name Blake Snyder. Blake originally popped on the scene back in 1989 when he sold his scrip “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” – which he sold for a half million dollars. He eventually went on to write a dozen more screenplays.

Along with his screenplays Blake developed a series of books called “Save the Cat. The Save the Cat books found that stories all followed a particular pattern. Movies that do NOT follow the format are actually not very good. All the best movies actually FOLLOW the SAve the Cat format.

What about novels?

Jessica Brody followed up with a book for novelists “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need”. Jessica made a similar connection with great novels. Great stories all seemed to follow the Save the Cat format.

I highly recommend checking out either Blake or Jessica’s series of books as they both get into more details than what you’ll find here. Regardless, I’ll provided some of the high level detail here.

Save the Cat

The whole Save the Cat concept is centered around a series of necessary plot points or beats. Blake and Jessica show that great stories all have these. And although I was skeptical at first, once I learned the beats I can’t stop recognizing them as I watch stories.

Following Jessica’s beat structure, the Save the Cat structure begins with:

The Opening Image

The opening image essentially begins your story by providing a snapshot of your hero in his or her world.

Theme Stated

The Theme Stated is a scene briefly and provides a hint to your hero’s story arc. The arc is what your hero needs to learn by the end of the story. If your hero doesn’t learn your story will fall flat. Your story may be about a hero fighting aliens but that’s only the premise of your story. And yes folks are going to read your story based on the premise…but all great stories have an “inner goal”. In the Theme Stated someone (usually another character) will state what your hero needs to grow.

In Bridget Jone’s Diary, a question is posed to Bridget at a party: “How does a woman manage to get to your age without being married?” The question implies that it’s Bridget’s fault that she’s not married. In the end Bridget learns (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t have to change herself just to get a husband.

Setup

The Setup is required to demonstrate to the reader your here’s Act I world. It points out your hero’s faults. This is the world before we journey off to the road to growth.

The Catalyst

The Catalyst is the necessary scene where your hero is flipped into a new direction. This is where your hero is forced to leave his comfort zone. In the film Jaws, this is where a shark comes out and feasts on beach goers on their fourth of July festivities.

The Debate

After being thrown into a new direction there is a scene or scenes where your hero has a debate. The debate is usually in the form of a question, asking whether your hero should go? Sometimes it can be a preparation beat. For instance, when Harry Potter is invited to go to wizard school there is no question that he is going. Harry goes to Diagon Alley with Hagrid in preparation for attending Hogwarts.

Break into 2

This is the official move to Act II. Your hero is leaving the familiar world of Act I to a new upside down world of Act II. The Break into 2, is the point where your hero makes that jump. In Harry Potter, the Break into 2 is the point where he boards the train for Hogwarts, officially leaving the Muggle world of Act I.

The B Story

So if your story is a hero fighting evil aliens then your B Story is the story centered around your hero’s growth. At this point of your story, your hero will meet some helper characters whose job it is to help your hero learn the theme.

Fun and Games

This is where the premise of your story comes out — the reason why your readers picked up your novel. This is where your hero fights with the aliens.

There are two general directions that your hero can take here. Your hero is either on an upward path or a downward path. He or she is either winning or losing. So if your hero is fighting aliens then the plot shows your hero winning. This doesn’t mean that your hero flounders but it does mean that in general there is a gradual rise to success. Alternatively, your hero can be on a losing streak. Things get bad for your hero gradually. This happens to your hero up until the …..

Midpoint

The midpoint is literally the midpoint of your novel. It is marked by either a FALSE VICTORY or a FALSE DEFEAT.

If your hero was on a gradual upward winning path then the midpoint of your novel is marked by a FALSE WIN. It’s called a false win because –you guessed it — your character doesn’t actually win. Winning for your character can only come in the form of learning his or her inner goal and applying that knowledge to reach their goals.

Likewise if your character has been floundering during the Fun and Games beat then your midpoint results in a false defeat.

Example: In the story with your hero fighting the aliens –let’s say your hero’s arc is related to his lack of confidence (he doesn’t believe he can fight the aliens) and as a result he keeps running away. The fun and games portion of your novel is set with gradual defeats. His friends are dying, his town is devastated, and his family is lost. We would set up the midpoint with a false defeat — perhaps his best friend is killed.

It’s a false defeat because at this point we think things are over for our hero….but if it were then our story would be dead. We know that ultimately your hero will learn his arc and will defeat the aliens. But not yet!

Bad Guys Move In

Soon after the midpoint the “bad guys” start moving in. It doesn’t have to be literally bad guys but it could. And it isn’t only the external bad guys – this is where the internal bad guys come in.

Your hero has been doing things the wrong way up until now. to recap your hero’s Act I world shows him or her living with some flaw. A problem happens (Catalyst) and your hero tries to solve things using their own (flawed) ways (Break into two). Now after the midpoint, those same flawed ways begin to wreak havoc on your hero. For example, if your hero finds drinking as a coping mechanism (flawed way) for solving problems, the Bad Guys Move In beat involves your hero attempting to drink his/her way out of the problem.

….and of course that doesn’t work!

All Is Lost

Now that your hero attempts to fix things (the wrong way) the result is terrible. Your hero has lost everything. They are at the lowest point in the story. Bad guys have moved – it appears that your hero has lost.

Dark Night of the Soul

This is a quiet “reflection” beat that follows the All is Lost, where your hero takes time to think things out. Your hero reflects on their mistakes and finally learns the theme. Your hero learns that they were doing things the wrong way and now he or she is going to go through real change. Your hero’s arc has come full circle.

Break Into 3

Your hero comes up with a plan to fix everything and make things right. The plan will be a reflection of a theme learned. Your hero no longer will be doing things the wrong way.

Finale

This is the beat where your hero’s plan is put into action. This beat is also where friendships are mended. Your hero will gather the troup and “storm the castle”. The dragon is slain, the princess is saved.

Final Image

This is where your hero is now you show them in their new world. It is literally an inverse image of the opening image.

Your Hero Saving the Day!

That is it. There really isn’t a way to cram everything related to Save the Cat into one article so I plan on writing more in-depth analysis. There really is a lot more detail that we can go into. So if you haven’t done so please SUBSCRIBE to make sure you don’t miss anything!

Take care, and KEEP WRITING!

Writing: Why getting old is no reason to put if off!

Let’s face it we ain’t getting any younger!

Occasionally I’ll come across a writer in 50s, 60s and yes 70 and older. They’ll tell me they wish they could spend their time writing. Some of these folks want to write memoirs and some of them believe they can write the next great novel.

I love encouraging writers and so I’ll tell them to get started, to which they reply (usually while chuckling), “I’m just too old. Maybe if I were thirty years younger.”

This is utterly complete nonsense. The EXACT reason you decide NOT to write is the SAME EXACT reason why you should be writing. Really!

And here are several reasons why:

It’s all about the EXPERIENCE!

FIRST, the older you get the wiser you become. That may sound like a cliché but the truth of the matter is that as a mature person you have had the necessary life lessons to make a substantial impact on your audience. You see, anyone can write but it takes someone with years of experience to convey the truth of a particular situation. Older people have experiences that younger people do not normally experience. Death of loved ones, the loss of a job, the onset of disease and the battles that get them through it – are just some of the benefits of writing.

Really good writing come deep down inside. When you draw on personal experience you are much more likely to resonate with your audience. Ten years ago, I had the misfortune of losing my job as the company I worked for went bankrupt. As I drove home a myriad of questions and thoughts raced through my head. My mouth was dry. The driving had become almost automatic as my thought engine raced to make sense of the new situation I was in. My wife was out of work as well and we were living in a rental – and I had a 3 year old daughter. Survival instincts kicked in!

If I ever come across a scene where a character loses a job suddenly with similar circumstances I would certainly fall back on my own experience to build reality and build empathy with the audience.

You’re a better writer!

For many of us as we get older we get better.

You may have had the unfortunate experience of working in a dead end job for 30 years but I’ll bet you got a lot better at writing emails or anything for that matter. If you’re an avid reader the writing becomes more intuitive. Your vocabulary improves with every year.

If you have been toiling with writing for the last 30 years (but haven’t yet written anything) you most likely purchased books on writing. And some of you have attempted to at least jot down a few lines. This all adds up over the long run.

Writing isn’t Gymnastics!

If this blog were on Gymnastics and you’re somewhere in your mid-seventies with aspirations of making the olympics…well things would be different. Our bodies age. Yes they do. Our skin gets wrinkled and our teeth and hair fall out. But our minds continue to get stronger. Of course for some of us our minds slow down a bit but I like to think of it as a super computer with a hard drive that’s been filled with tons of experiences.

Others do experience more serious issues but that’s not everyone and if your mind is up finding and reading this then most likely you’re fine.

There are a lot more reasons why old age shouldn’t put you off to writing. IF you have any of your own please feel free to comment!

Show Don’t Tell

What does it mean to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’?

If you’re new to writing you most likely came across the multitude of articles that point out the importance of showing the reader as opposed to telling the reader the story.  The reason for the heavy emphasis comes down to the reality that readers are put off by having the story told to them.

Consider the following:

Telling:

Mellisa put on her shoes then ran to the door.  When she opened it she saw it was Jake her ex boyfriend.  He was the last person she wanted to see because he dumped her on their last date.  She slammed the door shut.

Showing:

Mellisa grabbed her shoes and ran for the door. Jake? “Seriously?”  she lashed out.  “I thought it was over?”  Before Jake could explain the door was already shut.

Most readers will find the second one more pleasing.  The reason is that it elicit’s a visual of the scene.  Readers, especially voracious readers, tend to prefer passages that paint the picture.  Fast readers tend to be more visual.  Telling causes them to slow down.  The only visuals they see are the words themselves.  This ends up taking them out of the story….and from then the likelihood they will stop reading increases.

Here’s another example.

Telling:

Mario quickly put the car in fifth gear and then proceeded to pass the other car – a corvette.

Showing:

Mario slammed the stick shift in high leaving the corvette in the trailing cloud of dust.

Which one elicits a visual?  Of course the second passage.  We can almost smell the burning rubber!

When editing your writing ask yourself if you are telling the reader what’s happening.  If so, rewrite it.  Practice will definitely make you better at this.

Of course there will be times when you will tell the story to the reader.

Here’s a passage from the novel I’m working on:

Todd’s leg was on fire.  Blood trickled down around the knife and down his leg.  He took a deep breath and then pulled it out.

The last sentence could have been written like:

He grasped the knife with both hands and felt the blade as it slid out.

It would have worked but I elected to put in the “telling” simply to change things up.  Too much colourful language will cause the reader to get tired and adding a bit of telling changes the pace.

Telling occasionally also has the effect of keeping things ‘natural’.

Try changing things up when you edit but if you have to err, err on the side of showing.

How Writing is Like Saving for your Retirement

Years ago I remember dad telling me to start putting cash away for retirement.  I remember scoffing at the idea, not because I thought there was anything wrong with it but because it just seemed so far off in the future.

Today I see things different.  As I approach retirement I realized that every cent I would have put in would have amassed along with some interest.  The later you wait the less interest you can draw on.  The point is you want to start contributing as soon as possible….because you will have more to draw on later on.

Writing

A lot of writers, especially newbies to the craft see writing as a quick transition into a lifestyle.  There will always be exceptions to the rules but for the majority of writers — good solid writing only comes from the interest accrued from writing.

The next time you sit down to write keep in mind that the effort will pay off.  Even if the writing project doesn’t amount to anything the mere effort you put in will add to your skill level.  This applies whether your writing is very good, good, mediocre or just plain lousy.  Yes, even the worst writing will later pay off.  At some point you will look back and say “Ughhhh!  I wrote that!”  the real writer will look at that and say “GREAT!  I’ve improved to the point where I can recognize bad writing!”

Admin

Simple Exercise to Drastically Boost your Writing Output!

There is one exercise that can:

  1. Improve your writing, and
  2. Boost your output

I will be  ‘walking the walk’ in writing this article.  I’m currently timing myself.  Why? Because I have been slowing down.  That’s right, slowing down and breaking my own rules.

You see, all of us have a tendency to fall into our Comfort Zone.  This is that zone where we become complacent. Like all areas of our life we eventually want to reduce stresses.  That’s why we would rather sleep in than get up a half hour early and go for a run.

If you imagine your comfort zone as a circle surrounding you.  When you traverse that boundary things tend to get tough.  If requires work.  However, a special thing happens when you continuously push yourself to do more than what makes you feel good.  That’s right your comfort zone circle expands.

So back to walking the walk.  What’s that about?  Well, I am pushing myself to increase my writing speed.  Normally I write comfortably at about one to two thousand words a minute.  Today I’ve been raising the bar.  I’m writing some four thousand words an hour.  Of course doing this takes work.  For starters, I had to gradually work my way up.  The way to do this is to practice, practice and practice.

To do this properly you should:

  1. Write as fast as you can for a specified amount of time (i.e. like 15 minutes)….and time yourself.
  2. To ensure you are improving you will need to keep track of your writing speed.  I use an excel spreadsheet to write down my writing speed.  Now sometimes I write for 15 minutes and other times I may go a full hour.  You’ll need to normalize your speed and so similar to the way you would keep track of your driving speed (miles per hour) you can express your writing speed as words per hour.  So if you write 200 words in 15 minutes your words per hour (or WPH) is 200 x 4 = 800 WPH.
  3. Finally keep pushing yourself to surpass your speed.  If you start off writing at 800 WPH try pushing yourself to write faster.
  4. When writing – just write!  That means no stopping to go back and fix errors.  There’s a time for writing and a time for editing.  Nows the time to lay down your first draft. There will be plenty of time later on to go back and edit.

So here’s the walk the walk surprise.  I’ve been using this method to write this article.  As of NOW the word count is 418.  The time writing is 7 minutes.  So my WPH is (418 x 60)/7 = 3583 WPH.  That’s not bad.

Now you try it.

Here’s an exercise.  Write 15 minutes non stop trying to write as fast as you can.  Tomorrow try it again but this time try to go a little faster.

‘Free Flow’ Writing – A sure way method to improve your creativity!

Many years ago (back in 1986) I read ‘Creativity  The Magic Synthesis’ by Silvano Arieti.  This work had a profound effect on my confidence in my pursuit of the arts.

Arieti argued that Creativity is a gift but that it cannot be manifested without hard work.  I begged to differ on the idea that we live in a society of ‘gifted’ individuals.  I wholeheartedly believe that we are ALL GIFTED to be what we DESIRE TO be.  I also don’t mean being mediocre in attainment of our pursuits but rather being truly excellent in our craft.  However, and here’s the ‘but’, Arieti’s ‘formula’, requiring the artist to put in considerable effort.

I approach the writing art more from the Anthony Robbins perspective – where you can truly achieve anything you want provided you:

  1. Know what it is what you want.
  2. Take action, take MASSIVE action towards attainment of your goal
  3. Notice if the action you are taking is working or not
  4. If it isn’t – change your approach

….but I digress!

Back to the title of this article “Free Flowing”.

Those familiar with Silvano Arieti’s work will know that he studied schizophrenic patients.  He would make observations where his patients would describe something and that thought would ‘morph’ into a related concept.

For example:  Patient A would start talking about her cat.  The conversation would go something like this:

I love my cat George.  He’s only two years old but I feel like he’s been my friend all my life. I named him George because of George Washington.  There really isn’t any reason why I picked Washington.  I guess its because I did a paper on Washington back in the seventh grade.  I was twelve years old in the seventh grade.  We lived in the Bronx and dad drove a bus.  He loved his job but I don’t think mom was crazy about him being a bus driver.  He had an accident and was in the hospital for a week.  Luckily no one died.  

Arieti noticed that Schizophrenic patients would often flow from one idea to another.  Something would link the two thoughts.  In non-schizophrenic discussions people normally know to keep the idea flowing from the topic sentence.  They may (and often do) shift to a related thought but then will circle back and keep on the main topic.

How can this help you as a writer?

The concept of ‘Free Flowing’ is on some very subconscious level an element of creativity.   When momentarily inhibiting your conscious reasoning your subconscious takes over and something truly amazing happens.  You begin to pull up associations that are truly creative.

This method of writing may not appeal or even work for everyone but it always does accomplish bringing out elements that one would not normally not accomplish when writing in the natural and reasoning mindset.

Will it work for you?

You can try this exercise:

  1.  Begin with the intent to sit down and write for a predetermined amount of time.
  2. Begin with a topic sentence and then write freely.
  3. Don’t stop!
  4. Don’t try to think too hard!
  5. Allow yourself to write pure garbage.
  6. Allow the thoughts to flow and even drift from one topic to another.
  7. Repeat steps 3 to 6 above.

If you did this correctly you will have created something pretty interesting.  a lot of it may be totally unusable – and that is absolutely normal.  However, you may have achieved some or potentially all of the following:

  1. You may have one or more ideas for stories
  2. You may have wonderful lines of writing that are not only usable but absolutely genius!
  3. You may have developed or fleshed out background for an existing story or for a character.

I hope you enjoyed this.  Please let me know in the comments section if this actually helped.

Thanks and keep writing!

Phil

How do I know if I am truly a writer?

It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them  think you were born that way.
– Ernest Hemingway

Some athletes are “born athletes”.  To say someone is born that was is to suggest that they have some genetic disposition.  Athletes have varying skill sets that were at one point essentially to their survival. Successful hunters had to run many miles with sudden sprint bursts. Genetic selection has led way to some great runners.  Those same legs make for some other great athletes like cyclists.  Having strong upper body strength has had similar phylogeny like great swimmers. Some athletes are not genetically gifted with strength but rather a disposition for not being susceptible to injury.  As such they can train harder and longer and that hard work has made them successful. Success in athletics is really in some large part a result of genetics.

But can writers be “born writers”?   Can genetics help you?  I don’t think so but feel free to leave a comment.   Writing is something that has only recently come on the world stage.   And fiction writing has only been around for a few hundred years.

Then what makes good writers?  I believe it’s a willingness to succeed.  Sure, some of us have had advantages growing up.  These advantages have led to some succeeding early in their twenties.  For others, writing came only later on in life.

But only because you didn’t have a great start doesn’t mean that you can be a good or even a great writer.  You just need to really want it.

Develop Stunning Characters

There are books written on the subject of character development. The reason is quite simple – characters form the central stage upon which you paint your masterpiece. Characters create the mood for your story. They inject the energy that is needed to innervate the action which carries your novel from start to finish. Without character development you have only words. A great novel with poor characters is called recycled paper!

Characters take on a life of their own

Some writers like to sit down and work out a full life’s worth description of their characters. Even going as far as describing their underwear or the date they lost their first tooth. However doing so can create too rigid a profile. A good character should be developed with respects to:

Appearance (including sex, height, weight, eye color, skin color)
Occupation (do they work at McDonalds flipping burgers? or lead a major corporation as the CEO?)
Values (respect rights of others? Or is he a chauvinistic womanizer?)
Goals (immediate goals – like paying the rent for the month; long term goals – swim the English Channel)

Answering these questions help seed a character with enough traits that allows him or her to grow during the development of the story. Not knowing some details is good. That’s because the character grows into requiring the right trait at the right moment. This provides the writer with spontaneity and injects fresh new life into a story.

When should character development occur?

The ideal place to work out your characters would be right after you decide what it is you’re writing. Mind you knowing what you have written may mean you have an idea for a central character or two, character development isn’t that. It’s delving deeper into the part of your character that others (like your readers) will never know.

Some writers work differently. They sometimes start a story with a character in mind and move from there. Woody Allen has made a franchise out of developing stories purely from character. Anyone of his characters goes on living outside of the story. You are convinced Woody can pen another 20 minutes at any random moment of the characters life – and it would be as exciting as any moment selected to represent the movie!

Creating characters before the story comes to be

A useful tool writers sometimes employ is to create a database of interesting characters. One way is to create an index card for each character and jot down some details about the character. Some writers go as far as to go searching for a photo to attached to the card. In the end the writer develops a database of dozens to hundreds of available characters. When the moment comes, the writer simply auditions the character for the role in the story.

This audition can be in the form of a real verbal dialogue. To do this begin a dialogue in a new document that looks something like this:

Writer:

So you want to audition for the role of Sheriff in my latest book “Treasures”?

Character John

Yea. Think I’ll pull it off.

Writer:

What makes you so confident?

Character John

For starters I’m not afraid to shoot anyone.

You get the picture…the dialogue goes on and the writer is able to create a map of exactly why the character fits the bill for the new story idea.

Killing the Cliché

Which story would you prefer?

Story A:  “Found Footage” film about a group of teens visiting the abandoned insane asylum.

Story B: “Found Footage” film about a group of teens breaking into a highly restricted military hanger.

Despite the overdone found footage genre I bet a number of you would still prefer Story B.  The insane asylum, or abandoned prison, etc., has been overdone to death.

Definition:

Cliché – when a writing tool is used over again to a degree that it loses it’s sense of appeal.

What made the original terminator so great?  For one thing it was creating an ending that seemed at the time to defy a typical ending.  When the truck crashed into the terminator and exploded into flames – everyone thought that was it.  Ending it then would have been okay but the story defied the typical cliché and progressed into a new climax – now the terminator was walking and Kyle Reese and Sarah Conner were on the run again!

How come hitting someone on the head always renders the person unconscious?  Wouldn’t it be refreshing for once if you hit someone on the head and instead of falling outright or (the other cliché) not having any effect – stumble in pain?  Or why is it that women are always victims and men are always perpetrators?  Or at least they are depicted that way over and over again.

Clichés can ruin a good story – to do away with them is ask: “what’s too normal about this?”  If it is – get rid of it!

Using Subtext in Writing Dialogue

Some people just have a knack for writing dialogue, however it takes more than just a “good ear”.   There are other important elements that go into effective dialogue writing.

Some writers may believe that eavesdropping on  a conversation on a subway car provides instruction for how dialogue should be written.  Sure it may sound great.  After all how much more real can you get than hearing people engaging in real conversation?  Surprisingly their conversation may sound great but it will rarely make it to an award winning work of art.  Why?  Because writing good dialogue that makes readers fall in love with your characters and drives them to want to continue and finish your novel involves Subtext elements.

To understand what Subtext is all about, consider the following dialogue:

 

MARY:    “What did you do to your hair?”

KATE:  “I tried something different.  Do you like it?”

MARY:  “Well, to tell you the truth – no.  It makes you look like a hooker.”

KATE: “Well you don’t have to be so mean about it.”

Now consider the same exchange but with subtext:

MARY:  “Did you forget something?”

KATE:  “What?”

MARY:  “Red Lipstick, and shoes and dress to match? You know something to go with your new hairdo. “

While the first exchange falls flat, the second one provides more dramatic style.  Mary simply suggests that Kate looks like a hooker rather than tell her.  But even then, the subtext could be even more subtle.

Let’s look at the following exchange between a couple who hate each other – on the day of their wedding anniversary.

BILL:  “Happy Anniversary Honey.”

JANE: “Twenty years already.”

BILL:  “Twenty happy years.  We should celebrate.”

JANE: “It’s so underrated.  Let’s do something we both enjoy.”

BILL: “Agreed.  There’s a ball game this afternoon.  I’ll see if Pete wants to go.”

JANE: “And I’ll ask Betty if she’d like to go to the mall.”

In this exchange, “Something they both enjoy” translates into something that doesn’t involve each other.   It works because it falls under the rule of showing not telling.  We are showing the feelings each other have for each other.

Next time you write dialogue ask yourself the question Can I write this exchange by showing how the characters feel without being direct? In other words can you use subtext to convey the dialogue?