Save The Cat! Troubleshooting Common Plot Problems With Jessica Brody

story structure
Save The Cat! Troubleshooting Common Plot Problems With Jessica Brody

What’s the difference between the All Is Lost beat and the Dark Night Of The Soul Beat? Does it matter if my Catalyst comes earlier than 12%? How do I know which beats are single-scene beats vs. multi-scene beats? If you’ve had any of these questions about the Save The Cat! plotting method, you’re not alone.

In today’s episode, I’m sharing a conversation I had with Jessica Brody, where we talk about some of the most common mistakes writers make when outlining, writing, and editing their books using the Save The Cat! method. 

Jessica is the author of the #1 bestselling novel-writing guides, Save The Cat! Writes A Novel, Save The Cat! Writes A YA Novel. She’s also the founder of the online writing school, Writing Mastery Academy and the author of over 20 novels for teens, tweens, and adults. 

I’m a huge fan of Jessica’s books, and I was so excited to have her on the show. I work with so many writers who love using the Save The Cat! method to write their books, and I thought it would be fun to get Jessica’s expert opinion on some of the most common mistakes I see writers make when using this method. 

If you missed my previous deep dives into the Save The Cat! plotting method (or if you need a quick refresher), you can find them here: 

Now, let’s dig into my conversation with Jessica Brody, where we talk through some of the most common plotting problems writes have when using the Save The Cat! method.




Transcript: Save The Cat! Troubleshooting Common Plot Problems With Jessica Brody

SAVANNAH: Welcome, Jessica! And thank you so much for coming on the Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast!

JESSICA: Hi, Savannah! Thanks so much for having me. Super excited!

SAVANNAH: Sure! I'm very excited to chat with you today because you authored one of my most favorite craft books—two now, actually. Save The Cat! Writes A Novel, and Save The Cat! Writes a YA Novel, which I have been pouring over—it's right next to me on my desk. And I know many of my listeners are giant Save The Cat! fans, so I know this episode is going to be a big hit. Can you give us a quick overview of who you are, what you do, and things like that?

JESSICA: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for that great intro. I'm so excited to know that you like the books. I'm Jessica Brody, and I started out writing novels—I've written over 20 novels now—but it didn't come easy to me at the beginning. I struggled a lot with structure, and when I found a screenwriting guide called Save The Cat!, it totally changed the way I looked at story. It made sense to me. I started using Save The Cat! to structure my own novels, and that's when I actually started to sell novels to publishers once I had learned the laws of structure. So, I've been using it ever since. And since then I've written two novel writing guides based on the original screenwriting method. I also teach writers in my Writing Mastery Academy, which we can talk more about later. And yeah… I kind of split my time between writing my own novels and then helping writers write their own.  

SAVANNAH: We'll link to all that in the show notes for everyone listening. I’m a member of your Writing Mastery Academy, Jessica, and I love seeing how you break down your process in there. So, if you’re listening and you’re not a member—and if you want to see how Jessica uses Save The Cat! to write her novels, that’s the place to go. You can also get $20 off an annual membership using code FWME. So, we'll link to all that, but what I want to do in today's episode is talk through some of the most common mistakes writers make—and pitfalls I see writers fall into—when using Save The Cat! to brainstorm, outline, write, and edit their novels. And I've boiled it down to the three main ones. So if it's okay with you, Jessica, I want to dig into those and hear your thoughts. 

JESSICA: Fantastic. I'm excited to hear what you think the three are because I have my own ones, and I want to see if they line up. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, that'll be really fun! So we'll have to compare notes at the end. But one of the main things I see… I used to edit a lot of outlines, and people would send them in, and there would just be a lot of external stuff. So they would use Save The Cat! as a guideline, and they say, okay, you know, these moments call for something big to come in and change the character's life, or this is when, you know, the climax is that moment, the hero and the bad guy go up against each other, right? So, I would see all these external scenes and these things, you know, on the page, and then it's kind of like, it's just a lot of stuff, right? So there's like a lot of stuff happening. It kind of fills what the beats are asking for, but there's that piece of like… Why does this matter or how does this affect the character? That seems to be lacking. And one thing I love about your Save The Cat! books is that you talk about the types of protagonists we see in each genre. So, check these three things off, and this will help you think about your character in a way that they’re going to grow and change. They have a flaw and then an arc they go through. Do you have any advice on how to take that external stuff that we put in the beats and bring it back to character?  

JESSICA: Yeah, I mean, that's such a great one. And I honestly haven't talked a lot about that, but I do write about it in the book. But that's a really good observation that you would see someone kind of attack the beat cheat from an external point of view. And it makes sense. I mean, when you look at Save The Cat! method, it was based on a screenwriting method. Screenwriting is all visual, it's all external, and things are happening to the character, but it has to be portrayed by the actor. And it does come out in the writing. But as novelists, we have this opportunity—this golden, wonderful opportunity—to get inside a character’s head (we call it interiority)—to see how each one of these external plot points are changing them. It's the part of writing that I love the most. It’s that kind of deft hand it requires to externally show something happening and then allow the reader to piece together how it's changing the character without really spelling it out for the reader, which we call telling (instead of showing). So really, the beat sheet is designed to help you construct external plot points that are designed to change your character. And that's why I tell writers that it's easier to start with a character first, at least those three things—we've got the flaw or the big problem that the character is facing, the want or the thing that the character is externally pursuing, and the need, which is really what they require to internally transform by the end of the story. And if you come into the beat sheet with those three things in mind as kind of the pillars or the rudders that guide you, it's a lot easier to design plot points for that character. So, if you have a character who really needs to learn how to trust, for example, then yeah, one of those external plot points needs to be a betrayal because that's the thing that's going to really test them and push their boundaries. So, there are about five beats in the beat sheet, I call them the foundational beats—I talk about this in the book as well. Those are the external plot points that trigger all of these things, that kind of are tent poles in the story. They direct the story, and they turn the story in different directions. So you can call them the five major turning points. And those are the Catalyst, the Break Into Two, the Midpoint, the All Is Lost, and the Break Into Three. These are the places where you really want to lean on external devices. Things happening from the outside to the character. For example, you don't want your Catalyst to be something like... My character realizes that… Because that's an internal thing for somebody to realize. You want the Catalyst to be… This happened to my character, therefore causing them to realize something. I guide people to really lean into external, but then you've got all this space in between those five plot points, which are spread out throughout the beat sheet, where those things impact your character internally. And, of course, other external stuff is happening too, but those are kind of the big ones. So that's how I approach it in terms of the external internal dance. I call it the dance of structure.  

SAVANNAH: I love that too. And I always tell people like, when in doubt, think about the external and internal for every scene. It's going to exist in every scene, so force yourself to say, okay, this happened, and it's impacting my character this way. And I pulled up an example from Save The Cat! Writes A YA Novel… One of the examples is in The Fault In Our Stars where Hazel and Augustus meet. This is a Buddy Love story—and I teach all kinds of genres on this podcast, but let’s say you were writing a story like this… You need to bring your two main characters together. So, in the book that Jessica wrote, she talks about how bringing these two characters together is the Catalyst. They shake each other up because they each touch on the other’s flaw. So, that’s a great way to ensure that the Catalyst matters for some reason, right? It’s not just like she meets this hot guy at therapy. It’s like she meets this hot guy at therapy and he triggers her because their flaws are opposite sides of the same coin. 

JESSICA: Absolutely. Yeah. 

SAVANNAH: So I think that's really cool, and I like everything you said about, you know, having those three ingredients and just brainstorming them too before you plot. And let's say you are a plotter that, you know, writes all the external stuff first… Just bring it back to your character in every scene. How are they thinking about things? How are they feeling? How are they reacting? And you should create that nice chain of events. 

JESSICA: Yeah, because that's what makes the external plot points matter. If a big bomb goes off at your Catalyst unless it's putting someone's life at stake or someone's life who the main character loves at stake, it doesn't matter to the character, and therefore it won't matter to the reader either. So making sure that every one of those external plot points has personal stakes for your character is key. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And then, just a quick follow-up question because I might be wondering if I'm someone listening... You said there are these big moments that are driven by the external, and then we have those internal beats, like the Debate where it's like your character's kind of processing and reacting. The other thing I see sometimes is they'll take this part too literally. So it's all very internal, and there's not a lot of stuff happening. So any thoughts to add other than just making sure you combine external and internal in every scene? 

JESSICA: You know, I think that's a great observation as well because, yes, as novelists, as I said, we have this golden opportunity to get inside the character's head, and a lot of times, we just take that, and run with it, and we just live inside their head for pages and pages and pages. And that's not very interesting to read about. So I always, you know, kind of press people to say, okay, where is this scene taking place? Where can you interweave action with the internal reflection that's going to make that internal reflection not only come about more organically but also make it more interesting? So, for example, if your character is, you know, debating about whether or not they should go on some big journey, have them be at their house listening to a conversation with their parents or their family, and they're thinking… Oh my God, I would have to leave all of this behind! You know? So that's triggering that kind of internal strife within them because of what's happening around them. I think it's really key where you place those scenes in order to create that conflict within your character as opposed to… It's never very interesting to just have your character sit on a park bench alone and think. Always find ways that you can interweave it with some kind of action which will make that thinking a lot more dynamic. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, it's what we need to do to get the beautiful result of novels that work, but it's also the hardest part about our jobs is writing novels, you know? 

JESSICA: Absolutely!

SAVANNAH: The second thing I wanted to run by you is the Fun And Games and the Bad Guys Close In beats because I see writers struggle so much with these. And first, I thought we could focus on Fun And Games. The main thing I see is that people do is that they don’t put conflict in these beats. Because they're supposed to be fun, right? What are your thoughts?

JESSICA: Great question. Now the Fun And Games and the Bad Guys Close In beats… If you're out there and you're struggling with them, you are not alone. These are the hardest beats. And not just because they're the longest beats. But that is part of it because they're very long. There's a lot to fill there. And I know a lot of writers wish they were broken down into further beats. What I do to break them down… Just as a little side note… To break down those long beats into smaller beats, I think of what I call sub-goals. So every Fun And Games and every Bad Guys Close In should have a goal that's kind of driving the character through this entire long beat. And you can always break down big goals into smaller goals, and smaller goals can have smaller conflicts that get in the way which make the big goal harder. So that's one thing, and that kind of ties into how to make the Fun And Games beat a little bit more… Have a little bit more conflict in that the thing that makes it fun. Now, it’s not necessarily that the character is having fun. Of course, they can, and we see that in books a lot. But most of the time, the thing that makes it fun for the reader is because the character is completely out of their comfort zone. And that's the whole point of Act 2, is to take them away from their safety and the comfort of Act 1. And the whole point of Act 1 is to establish that comfortable zone so that when we move into Act 2, we're like… Whoa, this is uncomfortable! This is different! And, you know, there are some fantastic examples of moving from Act 1 to Act 2, and you see a lot of it very starkly in fantasy, like in Shadow and Bone, when she leaves her world as a map maker and enters the world of Grisha, you know, that's kind of a really stark example. The Hunger Games, obviously, she enters the capital. These are really obvious ones. But then you have subtler ones, like in The Fault in Our Stars, when, you know, she was alone, and now she's in a relationship, and that is a completely different world. So just watching the character flounder or struggle or have to figure out the new rules of this new world is organically going to trigger conflict. And then the other kind of key ingredient is to make sure that the character is following some type of goal and that you are throwing obstacles in the way of that goal, and that is going to make for conflict as well.  

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I know that in Save The Cat! World, you guys call this the promise of the premise, right? So it's kind of like what the readers are seeing on the back cover copy. Like I'm thinking of Harry Potter because I love that example of Fun And Games where it's like… He's at Hogwarts, but it's definitely not easy for him. Like there's a lot of conflict, right? It's all the fun stuff… It’s the world that we're getting into that we were promised by that back cover. But it's not like Harry's just kind of floating around exploring hippogriffs and like, you know, having fun on his broom. There are a lot of challenges—because like Jessica said, he's a total fish out of water. So I think my default for this stuff is like… In every scene there needs to be conflict. So, just because the beat is named “Fun And Games,” that doesn't mean there's a lot of fun and no conflict.

JESSICA: Absolutely. 

SAVANNAH: And then in the Bad Guys Close In beat, that's also a multi-scene beat, right? I see a lot of writers only focusing on the external. And then they have trouble because they're like… I can only show so much of bad guys closing in on my protagonist! And so they struggle with escalating the conflict and stakes. They ignore the internal bad guys because they just don't know any better. What are your thoughts on that multi-scene beat?

JESSICA: Yeah, you know, I see a lot of people kind of get confused about the term Bad Guys Close In. You know, this was originally in the screenwriting guide, I didn't come up with this term. When people have trouble getting their head around it because maybe 1) they don't have real quintessential “bad guys.” I tell them to just think of it as conflict closes in or tension closes in. It's where the world starts to seem smaller—and I don't mean in like fantasy world, just that the walls seem to be closing in like all of the stakes are rising, everything is just getting more and more difficult and like claustrophobic for your character. And the way we really use that external idea is we show how it affects the character because they haven't yet dealt with that flaw that we established way at the beginning. They haven't yet overcome their fear or their limited belief or learned to forgive the people they need to forgive, or whatever it is you've put them in this story to do internally. That hasn't happened yet. And all of the things you're devising to throw at them should be, like, pressing on that wound that, you know, like, just exacerbating that flaw. And that's what makes it feel like the walls are closing in. Not just because there are bad guys with, you know, guns or whatever you've chosen to envision. Because once again, if those don't have personal stakes, they don't mean anything. So just make sure that whatever you're closing in on with your character, it has personal repercussions for them. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And to use that example, it is very hard to… How do you escalate when bad guys are at the doors with guns? Like, how do you escalate that so many times in a row? It's going to be very challenging unless things start to affect the character. And unless we're seeing kind of the consequences of previous decisions that are all coming into play now, you know, it's kind of like… What's the saying roosters coming home to roost or chickens coming home to roost, right? It's like that time in the story. In some in romance stories, you'll see like breakups, you'll see like side characters kind of slip away, and things like that. So you have all these different levers for how you can make it feel claustrophobic and more tense, more pressure and all that. So it's not quite as literal as “bad guys” over and over. 

JESSICA: Right. I love that term lever. That's a really great term. There are lots of things you can do that are not quintessential “bad guys” and they're not kind of classic conflict. It's really about brainstorming what's going to affect your character personally.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, even information can help. Like learning that you thought something was going to work out, and it's not. Or it's losing a resource or a friend… so you can play with all of these different things to create that building pressure. 


SAVANNAH: But speaking of things that can be taken a little too literally, one thing I also see is that people worry if they don't have everything perfectly lined up with the percentages. They worry about, you know, my catalyst comes at 9% instead of 12%. Is this the end of the world? What would you say to those writers?  

JESSICA: That's one I hear a lot, too, actually. So that one is one that aligns for both of us. The reason I put so many examples in the books—and there's ten full beat sheets in each book so you can really see that these guidelines are guidelines and they're not, you know, set in stone. And just to clarify where I even got the percentages… I took the averages of the books I read. So, I read a ton of books across genres, across time periods, and I said, okay, here's where the Catalyst falls. Here's where the Bad Guys Close In. I laid them all out by percentage of where they appeared in that book, and then I took an average. And so of course, there's going to be some that are way earlier and some that are way later, and there's different reasons to do that. I have a whole section in the new Save The Cat! YA book. But all about when to use a late Catalyst and when to use an early Catalyst because that's one that will shift around a lot. You mentioned the Catalyst… I get this question so often. Where you should start to “worry” is when your percentages are off by a large amount. So if you've gotten like to page 70 and you haven't hit a Catalyst yet, even if you're going to write a 700-page novel, that's pretty late to put in the story, you know? Or if you're doing… Let's say you're just forgetting about the beats, and you just wrote a messy first draft—which is what I often recommend. And you're going back, and you're kind of seeing where everything is laying out, and you're looking at your Midpoint, and it comes at 40%. Maybe you haven't built up to that Midpoint yet, you know? And maybe it's coming a little too soon, and then your second half is dragging. And then if you ever get beta readers to give you feedback or some early readers, a lot of times what they're saying It's going to correlate almost exactly to the beat sheet. When you hear someone say, you know, the second half really drags, look at where your Midpoint is. Maybe it's too early. Maybe your All Is Lost is too late. And therefore, you've got this long section that's not really doing much for your story. Or, you know, the beginning was really slow, but then once they took off on their adventure, it really took off. Okay. well, that's probably lining up with your act one being too long. So just kind of using it as a diagnostic tool to help you find problems and not necessarily as a rigid rule book prison that you should be locked into. That’s not what it’s for.

SAVANNAH: Writer’s prison! Yeah, I also like to think of it as a diagnostic tool or kind of like an assistant in a way because it's kind of like… If you don't know what to do next, you can pick up one of the books or the Save The Cat! beat sheet and just say, okay, this is kind of where I'm supposed to go based on what story structure tells me. And so what are some ways this could come out, right? It's like your little assistant reminding you of the roadmap you're trying to follow. And then, when you're editing it, it's exactly what Jessica said. You can use it to say which sections are too long, too short, or where do I maybe need to rethink something, you know? So it's not like you're totally going to ruin everything if your Catalyst is 2% earlier or if you have like one extra scene in Act 1—maybe that works for your story. Maybe you'll hear that it doesn't, which is also why it's important to get beta readers and, you know, feedback on your story. But, let's see, so there's also another FAQ that I'm just thinking of… People are sometimes confused about multi-scene and single-scene beats, which is why I love the two craft books that you wrote because you really lay it out which ones are single-scene and multi-scene. So in, like, a multi-scene beat, when you're writing your own novels, let's say it's the Debate, do you have any tips for, like, raising the stakes? Because I like what you said earlier about how in the Bad Guys Close In and the Fun And Games you think about micro-goals. So something like that… Do you have something for us about how to go through multi-scene beats in a way where you don't lose your mind?

JESSICA: Yeah, absolutely. And just for anybody who hasn't read the books, I'll just clarify really quickly. A single scene beat means that the beat happens in one scene, and so those are actually those turning point beats that I mentioned earlier. The Catalyst, the Break Into Two, the Midpoint, the All Is Lost, and the Break Into Three. There are a few other ones, but those are the big ones. So they happen, and then they're over. And sometimes they'll happen in a paragraph in a novel, but really it's one scene. And then the multi-scene beats are the kind of longer stretches that span between those single scene beats. So they connect those beats together. And so those are things like the Debate that connects the Catalyst and the Break Into Two. And the reason I clarified them so explicitly in my books is because they confused me for years. Because I don't think Blake Snyder ever actually said single scene, multi-scene. Those were terms I came up with to wrap my head around it because I kept going… What's the difference between the All Is Lost and the Dark Night Of The Soul? They feel like the exact same beat. Well, the All Is Lost is a single scene beat. It's the external thing that happens to your character in a single scene. And then the Dark Night Of The Soul are the multiple scenes they have to wallow in the aftermath. And so I use those terms for my own benefit and then put them in the books. I'm glad they're helpful! So with the multi-scene beats… It is usually about… How am I going to get to the next single-scene beat? So, you know, if you have a Catalyst, the Catalyst and the Debate and the Break Into Two are kind of the perfect ones to look at. So something happens to my character at the Catalyst. They're going to have to make some kind of big decision at the Break Into Two that's going to send them into a new world or way of thinking or way of doing things. So now I've got these scenes to string those two together. So what do I need to do to organically get my character from those two points? So those are questions you can ask yourself. Like what's going to convince my character to do what I want them to do so that it doesn't feel contrived? What are the organic things I can throw at them to convince them, you know? What else can happen to them in that Debate that kind of pushes them further towards the decision they want them to make? So it's all about creating those organic paths to the next beat. And a lot of times that does come with goals and micro goals. With the debate specifically, you know, I like to kind of put my characters in different places so they can debate among different things. So if it's, you know, whether or not they're going to set off on a road trip with their ex-boyfriend—which is in a book I wrote—I have them actually, you know, going home and remembering things that happened with the ex-boyfriend. I have them at school, almost bumping into the ex-boyfriend and kind of having to navigate that. There are a lot of places you can put them where they can organically debate this decision that they have to make.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I actually love that example because reminds me of another question that I'm sure other people have. In that scene you just talked about where your character goes home, and she's thinking about her boyfriend and stuff like that... She still has a goal in that scene, so it's not like we're just seeing her sit on her couch for no reason. Tell me if I'm wrong. But she either wants to like escape the world, make dinner, or just come home from work… Whatever it is, we know what she's doing, and she's thinking about the boyfriend and the memories while she's doing it.

JESSICA: Absolutely. And that is one of the quickest ways you can amp up any scene, no matter what's happening in it, is to give it a goal. And like you said, the goal can be as small as having to make dinner or get a cup of coffee, or they can be as large as, you know, breaking into a bank vault for a heist. A lot of people hear scene-level goals, and they think… Oh my gosh, I have to make these huge goals for every scene! No, it can literally be I just want to get a cup of coffee, but my ex-boyfriend is in the line! Do I really want that coffee? How badly do I want that coffee? And then that organically triggers internal debate all while you have this goal of getting the coffee. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I love that too. That goals could be simple. And in the example that she's at home, imagine the characters at home, and she's just like… I'm so glad to be home I'm gonna distract myself by organizing my photo albums and making coffee so that I don't think about my boyfriend. The conflict is her memories of the boyfriend coming up. So it can really be whatever you want as long as it spurs conflict that, you know, has an impact. It's not just like conflict for conflict's sake. It's triggering that wound. 

JESSICA: I actually learned that lesson in one of my very, very early novels. And it was the third novel I wrote, called The Karma Club, and it was my first YA novel. I had this scene in my head, and I was so excited to write it. It was these three girls, they were going to break into this other person's house, and they were going to mess with things. And they were, you know, trying to exact revenge. And I was so excited! I wrote the scene, and they break in through the window, and then they do their little thing, and then they escape, and then I read it back, I was like… This is so boring! Why is this so boring!? I didn't enjoy writing it at all. And I realized it had no conflict. They were breaking in the window, there was no one home, so there was no one to hear them. You know? It was so easy! So then I just went back and rewrote it. It's like, oh, surprise, the mom's home, and the window's locked, and the thing that they need to replace is actually the wrong color, and they don't have that color, and like, all the things I could think about. And that's really fun, is what can you throw at your character to make it difficult.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I think that's where a lot of writers have trouble because they don't want to make things difficult, right? I'm guilty of that too. Do you have tips for people who struggle with that? Since you've like literally been in the trenches struggling with that?  

JESSICA: Well, now I just love it. But I think a part of it comes from wanting to make the scene easy to write. I mean, at least for me, it's like, okay, I want to get this through this scene so I can get to the next scene and the next scene.  Putting in conflict… It makes the scene a little bit harder to write. It's trickier. You have to balance more elements in the scene as opposed to just having your character go from A to B to C to D. You have to go from A to Z to D to E, you know? And you're constantly weaving. So just think, you know, am I avoiding conflict? Because I personally don't want to write a harder scene. And then, you know, I think it's just about challenging yourself, too. I can do this. I can write a harder scene. Every time you write a scene you don't think you can write, even if it doesn't turn out the way you want it to, every time you write something hard, it changes you as a writer, and it makes you a better writer. Because I guarantee, no matter how it turns out, you will learn something about yourself and about how you write. And, honestly, you know, I've written 20 novels. With every scene I write, I learn something new. I'm like, oh! I didn't know I could do that. 

SAVANNAH: I think it's true that our imagination rises to the challenge, so we have to let that challenge exist in order to come up with the gold. And it was funny because not yesterday but the day before, I was talking to a writer who finished her first draft, and she was really averse to any conflict. Like the place her characters went to—the new world—was all about peace, so no one had conflict there. And then her character was very peaceful and all that. And we were working together as coach and writer, and I kept telling her that we needed conflict, but it was her story… So fast forward eight months later. She had put her novel down, and she read it, and she's like, I'm starting to see the purpose of conflict. She learned that through the experience. She really didn't want to. And now she's starting a new story. And she's like, I have so many good ideas for conflict already. So I think it's totally true what you said is sometimes you just have to like get messy with it and try, and then you'll learn something, and you'll never be the same writer again, usually for the benefit.

JESSICA: Absolutely! Yeah. 

SAVANNAH: I'm curious, what were the… I know we had one common mistake or pitfall overlap. Is there anything else that's coming to mind where you're like, Ooh, this is a good one we should talk about? 

JESSICA: You know, I think the Fun And Games one was a good one, you know, about thinking that it has to be all fun and it can't be, there can't be conflict. I see that one a lot. The confusion between the All Is Lost and the Dark Night Of The Soul that I had as well when I first started is also a common one. I'm trying to think. Oh, the other one I hear a lot is people, and this is completely grounded, like I get this comment 100%, is people, particularly when they're first starting to get published, they say to me, well, I can't put the Catalyst at 10% because most agents will only read 30 pages. So if the catalyst doesn't come to page 40 or 50, I'm going to be sending them 30 pages of nothing.  And that's when I, you know, kind of take a step back and say, okay, well, let's look at what you consider “nothing.” Like, what are you filling your Setup with? And maybe it's not, you know, maybe nothing and not enough is happening in the Setup. So I think there is this misconception that the Setup is kind of this ho hum, everyday life, nothing happens. It's all very boring. And we can get to the exciting stuff at 10%. Well, in today's day and age, sorry to say, no one's going to get to page 40 if there's nothing happening in 40 pages. Maybe decades ago, before there was TikTok and all of our, you know, distractions. So either your Setup has to be just laden with cool stuff… And the way I tell people to do that is to make sure that your character is pursuing something on page one, which we talk about as the starting goal. Make sure that you are creating intrigue around why they want this and around why they might be flawed. I think there are some really cool things writers can do at the beginning of a story, even if none of the “big stuff” has happened in order to draw the reader in. And that has a lot to do with a trick I call Hiding The Ball, which is that you don't give your reader everything right off the bat. You don't start the story going, here's Mary. She has trouble with trust. She's lost, you know… She's broken up with 10 guys. You show her in the line at the coffee shop darting out, even though she wants coffee, because there's a guy standing in line. That opens up questions. Why is she darting out of the coffee shop? What happened with that guy? And anytime you can get your readers to ask questions, you get them to keep reading because they want to know the answer. So that's one I hear a lot is just that the Setup is kind of boring, and I usually challenge them then to not make it boring. Don't let it be boring. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And I see that too, where it's kind of the same things we've been talking about, there will be scenes with no conflict. There are scenes with a lot of backstory. And kind of like what you're saying, just because it's a Setup doesn't mean that we don't still want to follow the typical rules of like what, you know, what we need to do in all of our scenes. We need conflict. We need interiority. We need that chain of events from A to B. And that's another thing I think we can do too is like look at where we're going in that Catalyst. You know what that's going to be. And then you have to kind of think backward from there. So if you have, let's say, four to five scenes between the opening and the Catalyst or whatever that number is, that's not that much time to get your character to the Catalyst. So things kind of already have to be, you know, not totally perfect. And we can definitely get a glimpse of that, like you're saying. And on that example that you just shared about the character in the coffee line who she sees her ex, my brain just keeps going... Cause I'm like, then she goes outside, and you know, she's avoiding another guy. How many guys did this girl break up with? That sounds interesting to me right away. 

JESSICA: I would read it too. You know, on the other hand, you look at high fantasies like A Six Of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, and the Setup is like two gangs meeting in an alley over this turf war. And believe it or not, that is the Status Quo for this character. This is what his daily life looks like. And yet we are so intrigued because we're brought into this very unique world. So from like, you know, the “normal” day of a girl who's avoiding exes to turf war in a magical fantasy city. It's not just in magical fantasies that have a unique Status Quo world… We can bring people into them in an interesting way that is still engaging, even though th big event has not happened in either of those worlds. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I think something you said is key there, too, because it's not just about flashy stuff or about conflict. Both Jessica and I are gonna be like broken records saying that it all has to come back to your character. So, you know, something that might not be as flashy as a turf war is interesting based on the interiority a character's giving us and how they're interpreting events. So you don't always have to have something super flashy, but it does have to be personal and affect the protagonist. 

JESSICA: Right. 

SAVANNAH: Okay. So anything else that you wanna add? Any other Save The Cat! tips that you would just share with the world? I know that's like a lot of pressure to ask, other than I'm just gonna say, go get Jessica's craft books because they are my favorite. In previous episodes, I broke down some of the Save The Cat! beats with examples and they were some of the most popular episodes, so I know you guys love Save The Cat! Go get Jessica's books! Anything to add, Jessica? 

JESSICA: You know, the only thing I would add is... And I'm sure you figured this out, too, Savannah, when you were breaking down examples… That that is the quickest way to learn the method and to learn the secrets of storytelling is to break down other stories, particularly ones that you really admire. Because the biggest question you can ask about a book you like is WHY. Why did you like it? Why did the author do it this way? Why did the author make this choice? Why is this the Catalyst versus something else? Why does this affect the character so much? And when you start looking through stories with that lens of WHY, it unlocks the story for you. And so, you know, people come to me all the time. They're like, can you tell me what the Catalyst of X, Y, Z book is? And I've either never heard of it, never read it, or probably not going to read it. And I'll say, you know, I haven't read that one, but what's more valuable than me telling you is for you to figure it out yourself. And that's not like a dismissal. It's more of an invitation. Because honestly, the only reason that I understand story the way I do is because I have broken down so many stories. I mean, you see how many I've broken down in the books. I have a Save The Cat! course that has a whole bunch of more examples. And with every story I break down, I learn something new. Like, oh, that's a cool way to do the Midpoint. I'd never thought about that. So I just invite you to do that as well, and it doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to be right. It can just be your interpretation, but just putting on those story structure glasses and looking at stories… It's going to help you understand your own.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I love what you said about asking why. I love asking why to everything, probably to an annoying point. But what's great about Save The Cat! is that Jessica's translated it for novelists. There's also the original Save The Cat! book by Blake Snyder, and if you don’t want to read a bunch of books and spend a bunch of time, you can do the same exercise with movies and TV shows to at least get your toe wet—and then you’ll probably get addicted and want to dig into books. But that's a great way to learn, it's one of my favorite activities, but I'm a huge nerd, so, you know, I don't expect everyone to be like me and Jessica… But I was just working with a romance writer last year, and she was like, I'm gonna watch every new Hallmark romance, cause she wanted to write a story like that, and by the end of it, she's like, I've never felt so smart, and like, so good about my time watching TV than I did that week, and it helped her unlock the story, so, um, Yeah, I think it's totally fun.

JESSICA: I love it. She can join our nerd club for sure. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. Anybody's allowed in our nerd club. But okay. So to wrap this up, Jessica, thank you so much for coming on the show. I'm so appreciative of everything you shared. And I know that my audience is going to love this episode. But before I let you go, can you tell us about The Writing Mastery Academy?

JESSICA: Fantastic. Yes, is my membership, Writing Mastery Academy. So essentially, as a member, you get access to all of my online courses, as well as all the courses I've produced with other instructors. I think we're up to 13 or 14 courses now. We have courses on fast drafting, Save The Cat! , revision, character development, publishing, self publishing, traditional publishing, anything you could want. And you get access to all of those. Plus, you get access to our monthly live webinars and all of the recorded webinars we've ever done. And our online community, which is a fantastic, super supportive group of writers who will answer questions and brainstorm with you. We have critique groups in there. We have writing sprints in there. It's just a really fun place to hang out as a writer. And I think we have a discount for your listeners as well, which you'll put the code in the notes. If I try to remember it, I'll get it wrong. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, we'll put the code in the show notes, but I have it right here. It's coupon code FWME. So F-W-M-E for Fiction Writing Made Easy. And you let me know that’s going to be $20 off the annual membership. So, we will put that in the show notes as well as where you can find Jessica around the internet. We’ll also link to the two craft books Jessica wrote—Save The Cat! Writes Novel and Save The Cat! Writes a YA Novel as well. But thank you again, Jessica, so much for being here. I loved nerding out with you about this stuff. 

JESSICA: Thank you, Savannah. I can't believe how fast that time went! This was super, super fun. I'm really grateful to be on the show.

SAVANNAH: Maybe we'll do another one someday and dig into more Save The Cat! 


SAVANNAH: All right. Thank you so much! 


Final Thoughts

My favorite takeaway from this episode was what Jessica said about using the Save The Cat! method as a guideline, not a rulebook. I also loved that she talked about studying your favorite stories to a) better understand the Save The Cat! method and b) to help you write your own fiction, too. I wholeheartedly agree—and often encourage my students to do the same.

To learn more about Jessica Brody and to get your hands on Save The Cat! Writes A Novel, Save The Cat! Writes A YA Novel, or any of her fiction, you can visit her website or follow her on Instagram. You can also check out The Writing Mastery Academy if you want to learn directly from Jessica herself. Use code FWME for $20 off an annual membership.

And if you want to join me in the Notes to Novel course—and learn more about how it can help you brainstorm, outline, and write your first draftyou can click here to get all the details!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →