Save the Cat! Beat Sheet: The Act Two Beats (Part 1)
In today’s post, I’m going to show you how to use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Beat Sheet to plot the first half of the middle 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.
The great thing about this plotting method (and story structure in general) is that it 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 recipe for writing a story that works.
If you need help plotting out the beginning beats of your story, check out this blog post and podcast episode.
Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at how to plot the first half of the middle 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 middle section is about 50% of those 80,000-words, that means we’re looking at about 40,000-words spread across each of the beats in the middle section of your story. For now, we're going to focus on half of those words, so about 20,000 of them.
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 the first half of this middle 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 Two Beats (Part 1)
Beat #7: The B-Story (22%)
The B-Story beat is the very first beat in act two following the break into two beat. Of our fourteen scenes that make up the first half of act two, this will be scene number one, or scene number fifteen overall.
This is a single scene beat that introduces a new character (or characters depending on your story) who will ultimately help the hero learn the lesson of the story.
- In The Hunger Games, the love story between Katniss and Peeta is the B-Story. And although romance has been hinted at before, this B-Story really kicks into gear when Peeta confesses his feelings for Katniss during the televised interview with Cesar Flickman. Katniss is furious that Peeta did this, because a) she doesn’t know if it’s true or just manipulation, b) she knows she’ll have to kill Peeta in order to survive the Hunger Games, and this just makes that eventuality feel more difficult for her. But eventually, Peeta will help Katniss see that there’s more to life than just survival.
- In Everything, Everything, this is actually an overlap of the Theme Stated beat when Maddy’s nurse, Carla, tells Maddy that everything in life is a risk, including doing nothing. And that it’s up to each one of us to decide what type of risks we’re willing to take. We’ve already learned that Maddy doesn’t take any risks because of her condition, but here, we see that if she really wants to live a life—not just stay alive—she’ll have to find the courage to take some risks. So, Carla is the B-Story character who helps Maddy navigate her relationship with Olly, and all the risks that come with being his friend
So, how do you come up with the "right" B-Story character for your story?
The main function of the B-Story is to help the protagonist learn the lesson of the story. Typical manifestations of the B-Story character are a nemesis, a mentor, a friend, a family member, or a love interest so, you can start there.
The main thing to consider is that you really want this b-story character to represent the change to come and/or the new way of thinking. So, sometimes it's best if the B-Story character is someone who the protagonist would never have met or noticed in their act one world. And the reason for this is that If they were in your character’s act one life, then why wouldn’t they have changed before now?
An example of this is Peeta in The Hunger Games. Peeta has lived in District 12 his whole life, and although he did have a few encounters with Katniss in the past, it isn’t until they’re both representing District 12 as tributes that Peeta takes on a bigger role in her life.
You might be wondering, is it okay to have multiple B-Story characters?
And the answer is YES! As long as they’re both fulfilling the function of the B-Story character role. Otherwise, when it comes time to edit your draft, you’ll likely end up cutting one of them.
A good example of this is in Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series. Both Ron and Hermione help Harry to learn the different lessons of the stories in different ways. So, that's beat number seven, the B-Story beat.
Beat #8: Fun and games (20% to 50%)
The fun and games beat is a multi-scene beat in which we see the protagonist really sinking in and adjusting to their new world. And they’re either succeeding or they’re failing.
Those are your only two options.
They’re either loving it or hating it. They’re either grateful that they made the decision to go on this adventure or they’re bummed, and missing their old way of life.
In our plan of fourteen scenes in the first half of act two, this will be about twelve of those fourteen scenes.
A lot of the writers I work with get confused by the name of this beat. They think because it’s called "fun and games" that it has to literally be just fun and games for their character with no conflict whatsoever. And that’s not true.
Every scene in your novel needs to have conflict in it otherwise it’s going to be boring. And conflict doesn't always mean bad stuff has to happen, or there needs to be a big explosion.
If your character wants something, but is presented with two equally good ways of getting it, and will miss out on something with either choice, that’s conflict. So, sometimes it’s about conflict in terms of what that character wants right now and what they’re expecting to happen.
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss is definitely on a downward path. She enters act two firmly believing that her sole purpose and goal is to survive the games and get home to protect her sister. Because of her internal obstacle, she thinks the best way to do this is to train hard, work alone, and do whatever it takes to win the games. So, this part of this fun and games section happens when we see Katniss undergo training, mentoring, and a few glamorous makeovers. She has a sweet moment on the roof with Peeta when he tells her that he knows he reiterates the theme and talks about how he probably won't survive. And then it’s literally fun and games (for the reader anyway) when Katniss and the other tributes enter the arena. I won’t go through every scene in detail, but essentially, Katniss’s first plan is to avoid getting attached to any Tributes (since she’ll have to kill them) and focus on surviving the Games. She grabs her supplies and camps out in a tree overnight, alone. The next day, she sees that Peeta has entered into an alliance with the Career tributes, and thinks that all his talk about dignity the night before was all just a ruse to manipulate her. Katniss continues to survive alone, but she experiences setback after setback, from dehydration to nasty encounters with the Tracker Jackers.
- In Everything, Everything, Maddy is on an upward path of fun and games, exchanging emails and then instant messages with Olly. They talk about small things like their favorite books and movies to more serious topics like Maddy’s disease and Olly’s abusive father, etc. We see that it’s not just Maddy that needs Olly, he needs her, too. Eventually, Maddy asks Carla if she can meet Olly in person and if they can keep it a secret from her mother. Carla says no at first, but eventually changes her mind because, as she said earlier—some things are worth the risk! When Maddy and Olly do finally meet, it’s clear that their feelings are no longer platonic—they’re falling for each other. After finally meeting Olly, Maddy starts feeling nervous because she realizes that she wants something she can never have—a real relationship with him. However, Carla convinces Maddy not to break it off with Olly because it’s fine, she and Olly can just be friends. That only lasts for about a second because the more Maddy sees Olly, the more she falls in love with him. They get closer and closer, and Maddy’s behavior starts to change—she’s more tired than usual, and she’s skipping quality evening time with mom so that she can IM Olly. Maddy and Olly meet again and touch for the very first time. This brings up a big question for Maddy—what would it be like to kiss Olly? Could she really do it?
One thing to note is that this section isn't always about the character experiencing fun and games-- it’s really about the reader experience them instead. What happens in this part of the story is the "promise of the premise." In other words, it's probably part of the reason why they were drawn to the story in the first place. And, if you think about it, reading about a character’s struggle is interesting and engaging for readers--it's fun and games.
Something important you’ll want to decide here is whether this section takes your protagonist on an upward path closer to success at the midpoint, or if it’s more of a downward path that brings them closer toward failure at the midpoint.
We’ll talk more about the shape of act two over the course of the next few beats, but this is one of the key decisions you’ll need to make because whatever path you choose here, upward or downward, it’s going to affect the next beat as well as the rest of act two, too.
Now, you might be wondering, how the heck am I going to fill up twelve scenes!?
In this section of your story, your protagonist is going to repeatedly try and fail to get whatever it is that they want, or whatever he or she thinks will solve all their problems. So, here, you'd want to show your protagonist attempting their initial plan for achieving their goal or for attacking their problems.
As the plot throws continual challenges in their way, your protagonist will keep failing because of their internal obstacle.
But they don’t give up. They try and they fail, they try and they fail… so, entering act two, this is why you need to be crystal clear on your character's overarching goal. And then consider how he or she might go about accomplishing that goal.
As you write each scene, ask yourself... What would my character do next based on what happened in this current scene I’m writing, and based on how they feel about what just happened in that scene. So, based on what just happened, and how they feel about it, what’s their plan? And, that’s beat number eight, the fun and games beat.
Beat #9: The midpoint (50%)
The midpoint is a single-scene beat in which three super important things happen. First, this is where the fun and games beat culminates in either a false victory or false defeat. Second, this is where the stakes are raised making it even harder for your protagonist to go back home. And third, this is where the A and B stories cross.
Let's look at the difference between a false victory and a false defeat first.
A false victory means that the protagonist has been succeeding in the new world so far, and here at the midpoint, they have a false victory.
They’ve seemingly won or achieved something significant, maybe everything they’ve been wanting, everything seems to be working out according to plan. But since they haven’t learned the theme of the story yet, it’s a false victory because their inner obstacle is still there.
A false defeat is the opposite so, if they’ve been floundering around in the new world so far, this would culminate in a low moment for your protagonist.
Maybe they seem really far away from achieving their goal. Or maybe they achieve it and it doesn't feel good at all. Maybe they even feel like giving up.
No matter how you write it, it’s a false victory or a false defeat because the story isn’t over yet. They still have to learn the lesson of the story.
The reason why we need either a false victory or a false defeat here is because we want to up the stakes in the story. That’s the second function of the midpoint.
So, the fun and games section was all about chasing what they want--or that external thing they want to accomplish or get. Now the midpoint ups the stakes and the protagonist realizes time is running out or they can’t mess around anymore. It’s time to get serious.
And the cool thing is that we can look to our genre for guidance! For example:
- This is where love stories ramp up. Depending on the heat level of your story, this could be a first kiss, two people sleeping together, a marriage proposal, a declaration of love… really, anything that takes things to the next level.
- This is where a ticking clock might be introduced. Especially in something like an action story or a horror story. So, whatever happens gives rise to some kind of deadline by which the protagonist has to act. It ups the stakes by putting a time limit on things.
- This could be where a fun plot twist occurs in the mystery or thriller genres, and where readers and the protagonist realize they don’t even know half of the story (or the problem) yet. For example, something could happen that no one saw coming, and it puts pressure on all parties involved.
The third function of the midpoint is to cross the A and B stories. So, the A story is your external plot. The B story is the inner character journey, represented by that B-story character or subplot.
Because of this, the midpoint often changes the direction that the story is headed in. This is also where the protagonist starts to shift from chasing their wants to letting go of the thing they want in order to figure out what they need.
This is not going to happen in one scene, I’m just saying this shift usually starts to happen here. Regardless, they realize things haven’t been working so they must change tactics or plans again. It’s now even harder for them to go back to their act one world, and the person they were before.
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss stumbles to the ground after being stung by Tracker Jackers. She knows the Career Tributes are coming for her, so when she sees Peeta coming towards her, she panics. But instead of stabbing her with his spear, he helps her escape. The stakes are raised, and the A and B stories cross when Katniss realizes that Peeta just saved her life. Maybe this means he wasn't manipulating her after all? Maybe he really does have feelings for her? This is a false defeat because Katniss knows they both can't win the Hunger Games. So, what's the point of caring for someone if they have to die so that you can survive? Katniss learns the answer to this (and the lesson of the story) later. This moment causes Katniss to change tactics because she now realizes her best chance of survival is to join forces with the other Tributes, even if she knows that she will still have to kill them in the end.
- In Everything, Everything, the midpoint occurs when Maddy and Olly kiss for the first time. This is a false victory because, just a few pages later, Olly gets into a big fight with his dad, and his dad punches Olly in the stomach. Because of this, Maddy runs out the front door to help Olly, even though her mom is screaming at her to stay inside. Essentially, she’s risking her life for Olly here. And when this whole moment is over, Maddy’s mom realizes that Olly is not a stranger to Maddy—they actually know each other. But how? Maddy continues to lie to her mother and says that Olly is just her online friend.
So, to recap the midpoint beat, there are three main functions to consider. First, we want the fun and games beat to culminate in a false victory or a false defeat that raises the stakes. Second, we want the stakes to be raised so that the protagonist cannot possibly go back to their act one world (and who they used to be). And third, we want the A and B stories to cross here so that the protagonist can start shifting away from chasing the thing they want, and move one step closer to chasing what they ultimately need. And that's beat number nine, the midpoint.
And that’s it for the first half of the beats that make up the middle section of a story. If you're ready to move onto the second 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.