Save the Cat! Beat Sheet: The Act One Beats
In today’s post, I’m going to show you how to use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Beat Sheet to plot the beginning section of your novel.
If you aren’t familiar with Blake Snyder’s work, the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet is a popular story structure template that subdivides the beginning, middle, and end of a story into 15 “beats” or plot points. Each of these beats has a specific purpose and serves a particular function within your over-arching, global story.
But wait, are you really going to tell me to use a formula to write my book!? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of creative writing?
I hear this a lot. But knowing how to structure your story does not make your story formulaic. Think of story structure like an easy-to-follow blueprint that will help you write a story that works.
Story structure helps you determine the order in which the events of your plot happen and, maybe even more importantly, the timing of when they should happen. Combine this with a character who needs to change—and does change—and you’ve got a story worth telling.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how to plot the beginning section of your novel with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Beat Sheet. We're also going to look at how these beats show up in two popular young adult novels—The Hunger Games and Everything, Everything.
A Quick Note on Word Count
Let’s say the average novel is about 80,000-words, and the beginning section is about 25% of those 80,000-words, that means we’re looking at about 20,000-words in this beginning section spread out across each of the beats.
Now, let’s also say that on average, you write about 1,500-word scenes. That means we can plan for about 14 scenes to make up this beginning section.
I always recommend writing scenes between 1,000 and 2,000 words with the sweet spot being around 1,500 words. A 1,500-word scene is long enough to convey what’s happening and short enough to hold your reader’s attention and make them want to continue reading. So, we have about 20,000-words to play with here, and we have about 14 scenes within those 20,000-words.
Now, here’s something really important that I didn’t really understand when I first started using the Save the Cat! plotting method. Some of the beats in the Save the Cat! method will be single scene beats while others are going to be multi-scene beats. I’ll explain more about that once we get into each beat, but just keep that in mind for now.
The Save the Cat! Act One Beats
Beat #1: The opening image (0% to 1%).
The opening image is a single scene beat that shows a “before” snapshot of the protagonist’s life and the flawed world that he or she lives in. So, this is going to occur within the first scene or chapter of your novel.
- In The Hunger Games, this is when Katniss wakes up in her house in District 12 on the day of the “reaping.” We meet Katniss, her sister Prim, and her mother who are poor and underprivileged. Because of that, we understand that Katniss’s number one priority for herself and for her family is survival. We don’t know what the reaping is, but we will soon.
- In Everything, Everything, this is when we meet Maddy in her all-white room where everything is spotless and clean. She tells us how well-read she is and that all her books come from outside and have to be vacuum-sealed and decontaminated before she gets her hands on them. We don’t know why, but we’ll see soon.
Now, one thing I want to point out here is that just because this is a “snapshot” or a glimpse of your protagonist’s life before the story starts, that doesn’t mean you should include a bunch of information or backstory.
You still need to write a complete scene that has a beginning, middle, and end—and that has some kind of arc of change that includes the opening image—or that satisfies the beat sheet requirement of an opening image.
As a side note, you may have heard the advice to “start with action,” which gets interpreted by a lot of writers as “start with explosions and or car crashes” or whatever—but that’s not really what the advice means.
You just want there to be some kind of meaningful action in your opening scene that also communicates to the reader what your protagonist’s life is like right now.
One easy way to come up with your opening image is to consider what kind of person your character will become by the end of the story. So, what big lesson will they learn or how will they change over the course of the story? Then, create the opposite person in the opening image. So, that’s beat number one, the opening image beat.
Beat #2: The theme stated (5%).
The theme stated is another single scene beat in which someone (other than the protagonist) makes a statement or hints at what the protagonist will learn by the end of the story.
In our model of having 14 scenes within the beginning section of the story, this would show up in scene number two.
In this scene, there’s usually a character who tries to “help” the protagonist by giving them advice, which usually contains the answer to all the protagonist’s problems.
Unfortunately for the protagonist, they don’t listen and therefore have to go on the journey that makes up the story in order to transform or to integrate that lesson into their being.
- In The Hunger Games, this happens when Gale suggests that Katniss run away with him, and leave the district before the Capital can ruin their lives any further. Katniss blows him off because she’s not quite ready to rebel against the Capital just yet.
- In Everything, Everything, this occurs quite a bit later in the story than it normally would, and it’s when Maddy’s nurse says something about how everything in life is a risk, even doing nothing. And that the type of risk she wants to take is really up to her. We know by now that Maddy doesn’t really take risks, but this is something she’ll learn to do by the end of the story.
Now as I mentioned with the opening image beat, you’ll want the theme stated beat to occur within an actual scene where something happens, too. In other words, the theme needs to be stated in its own scene—that has a mini-arc of change from beginning to end.
You’ll also want to show how your character thinks and feels about the events of the scene—and specifically how they think and feel about the message that the other character is trying to convey. This is a really important way to show how your character grows over time.
Because, like Katniss or Maddy, they start out feeling one way about the central theme or lesson, and then they feel completely different about it by the end. So, that’s beat number two, the theme stated beat.
Beat #3: The setup (1% to 10%).
The setup is a multi-scene beat in which the reader gets to see what the protagonist’s life and world are like—flaws and all. It’s also where important supporting characters and the protagonist’s initial goal (or the thing the protagonist thinks will fix his or her life) are introduced.
- In The Hunger Games, this takes place over a handful of scenes so, we see Katniss meet Gale outside the border of District 12 and go hunting. We learn that she’s pretty darn skilled with a bow and arrow (which is something she learned from her father who is now deceased), and we learn that although Gale is attractive, there’s nothing romantic between them—or so she says. They talk about how they both dislike the Capital and how they’re both worried about the reaping later on today. When Katniss returns home to get ready for the reaping, we learn a little more about what the reaping is and how the Capital justifies holding it year after year.
- In Everything, Everything, this also takes place over multiple scenes. Here, we learn more about Maddy’s condition, how she can’t ever go outside, and how the only people she sees are her mother, and her nurse—day in and day out. We see that Maddy is very bored and lonely (which is why she reads so many books!), and that she really, really wants a magical cure for her condition that will allow her to go outside.
So, as I mentioned earlier, this is a multi-scene beat which means it takes place over multiple scenes in a row—and this normally occurs from the 1-10% mark or about halfway through the beginning section of your story.
Using our example of 14 scenes that make up the beginning of your story, this would be about six of those scenes. First, we have the opening image beat, and then six scenes after that (one of which includes the theme stated beat). This is also something that also confused me at one point in time so, I wanted to make that clear.
Now, if you're having trouble coming up with scenes here, I heard Blake Snyder say once that you can think about your protagonist’s home, work, and play. So, how can you show your protagonist’s ordinary world in terms of home, work, and play?
I particularly like the example from Everything, Everything here because Maddy is stuck in the house so, the author had to get creative. We see Maddy attend school during the day, then reading and posting “spoiler reviews” of books in her free time, and watching movies or playing board games with her mom at night. It’s a super fun take on this “home, work, and play” idea, actually.
Now remember that for each scene within this multi-scene beat (and for every scene in your story, really), you’ll want to show how the external events of the scene impact your protagonist—so, how does your protagonist process what happens? Or what do they think and feel about what has happened?
This will help you create a cause and effect trajectory in your story—and it’s what will give your story that sense of narrative drive—or that sense that your story is going somewhere.
And that's beat number three, the setup beat.
Beat #4: The catalyst (10%).
The catalyst is a single scene beat in which a life-changing event happens to the protagonist and catapults him or her into a new world or a new way of thinking.
So, after this moment, it should be crystal clear that there’s no going back to the “normal world” that was introduced in the setup.
- In The Hunger Games, this is when Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is chosen as the female tribute for District 12. Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place in the Hunger Games to protect her sister, alongside Peeta Mellark, and we know that things will never be the same again.
- In Everything, Everything, this is when a moving van pulls into the driveway of the house next door and Maddy gets her first glimpse of the new neighbor, a teenage boy named Olly. And right away, both readers and Maddy get the sense that he’s quite different from Maddy—he wears all black, runs and jumps around all wild, and just seems full of life. Their eyes meet through the window and we know nothing will ever be the same again!
The catalyst moment most often comes in the form of bad news because most people won’t change their ways until something bad happens.
The key thing here is that whatever this catalyst moment brings, you want it to be something that happens to your protagonist, not to another character. In other words, whatever happens, needs to directly affect your protagonist and put them on the road toward change.
To pressure test your catalyst moment, you can ask yourself questions like: Can my protagonist easily return to their normal life after this? Or not? If the answer is yes, then that probably means you need to go back to the drawing board or up the stakes somehow.
What I like about The Hunger Games catalyst, in particular, is that we get a really good sense or a really good reminder of what Katniss’s priorities are here. She doesn’t have to volunteer to take Prim’s place, but she does because her number one priority in life is keeping her family safe and providing for them. The only way she can keep Prim safe is to take her place in the games.
So, all the character work Suzanne Collins did before this beat really pays off here. Although the event itself is a surprise, Katniss’s response to the event is not a surprise. And to me, that’s pretty cool storytelling! So, anyway, that’s beat number four, the catalyst.
Beat #5: The debate (10% to 20%).
The debate is a multi-scene beat where the protagonist debates what he or she will do next. So, just like how the setup beat took up the first half of the beginning section of your draft (or the first half of act one), this debate beat will take up the second half of the beginning section (or the second half of act one).
The purpose of this beat is to show the protagonist responding to the events of the catalyst. Usually, there’s some kind of question raised here in direct response to the catalyst -- something like, “should I do this?” or “should I do that?” Or “what happens next?”
- In The Hunger Games, this is when we see Katniss saying goodbye to her family, and getting some last-minute advice from Gale. This is also when the mayor’s daughter, Madge, gives her the Mockingjay pin, which Katniss promises to wear in the arena. The question of the debate section is clear: will Katniss survive the Hunger Game? And if so, how will she survive?
- In Everything, Everything, Maddy can’t help but watch Olly through the window trying to figure out who he is and what (if anything) will come of their eye contact. Olly and his sister try to deliver a bundt cake to Maddy’s house, but her mother has to decline since the house can’t be contaminated with outside germs. Later, when Olly holds up a piece of paper with his email address on it, Maddy has to decide whether to email him or continue on with her sterile, lonely life.
And like I said, this is a multi-scene beat so, if you’re stuck here, consider the three areas of life that Blanke Snyder mentioned—home, work, and play. You'll want to show how the protagonist reacts in all three aspects of their life.
Now, something important to note is that sometimes, the debate section isn't really about the protagonist making a decision. Sometimes it's more about how they're going to get ready for whatever's coming next.
Consider The Hunger Games for example. Katniss isn’t going to change her mind about volunteering to take Prim’s place—she probably couldn’t even if she tried. Here, it's more about how Katniss will prepare mentally, physically, and emotionally to take part in the upcoming blood bath.
So, if this is the case in your story, try shifting the focus to how the protagonist can prepare for what’s coming next, and think about this debate section like I know I’m going out into the "extraordinary world," but am I really ready?
No matter how you write it, this multi-scene beat is all about getting your protagonist (and your reader) ready for what they’re about to encounter in act two. And that’s beat number five, the debate.
Beat #6: Break into two (20%).
The break into two beat is a single scene beat in which the protagonist decides to accept the call to adventure that came during the catalyst beat. So, they're either going to pack up and leave their comfort zone, or try something new, or adopt a new way of thinking.
- In The Hunger Games, this is when Katniss boards the train with Peeta, and their sponsor Haymitch, and heads off toward the Capital. They are leaving the act one world, and going into the new world of act two.
- In Everything, Everything, this is when Maddy emails Olly, and their relationship officially begins. So, here, she’s leaving the act one world -- a world without Olly in it, and entering the new world of having a relationship with Olly. I like this example because she’s not physically going anywhere, but she’s trying something new, she’s taking a step out of her comfort zone and the boundaries of her life, and talking to this interesting boy next door.
I’ve seen that some people include this beat in act two, but I like to think about it when I’m mapping out act one. To me, it feels like we’re closing out one section of the character’s life and opening up a new one. So, I like to think of it as closing out act one, and opening the door to act two. But you think about it in whatever way makes sense to you. I just wanted to throw that out there in case it helps.
And that’s beat number six, the break into two, or the bridge between the beginning (Act 1) and middle (Act 2) of the story.
And that’s it for the beginning beats of the Save the Cat method! If you're ready to move onto the first half of act two, click here to check out the next handful of beats!
If this structure resonates with you, there are a few fantastic books you can check out that go into way more detail than I can go here.
My favorite one is Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody, but there’s also the original Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, too.
And if this plotting method doesn’t resonate with you—that’s okay too! There’s no “right” way to plot out a novel. What's important is finding a method that works for you so that you can finish your draft and get your story out and into the world.