Save the Cat! Beat Sheet: The Act Two Beats (Part 2)
In today’s post, we’re going to continue going through the 15 “beats” of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Story structure template. Specifically, we’re going to focus on the beats that make up the second half of act two, or the second half of the middle section of your story.
If you need help plotting out the first half of the middle section of your story, check out this blog post and podcast episode.
Now, 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.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how to plot the second 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 second 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 2)
Beat #10: The Bad Guys Close In (50%-75%)
The bad guys close in beat is a multi-scene beat in which the external and/or internal bad guys really start to close in on your protagonist.
And depending on the type of story you’re writing, you may have external bad guys and/or internal bad guys.
A horror story is going to be more about the external bad guys--like the monster or alien closing in on the protagonist. While something like a romance novel will likely be more focused on the internal bad guys--like the protagonist’s belief that she’s undeserving of love.
This multi-scene beat starts right after the midpoint, and makes up about half the scenes in the back half of act two. So, in our fourteen scenes that we’re playing with in the back half of act two, this would be the first eight scenes, or scenes twenty-nine through thirty-six overall.
After the Midpoint happens, and the protagonist realizes he or she needs to change their tactics in order to get, achieve, or accomplish whatever it is that they want, it’s time to implement their new plan.
But here’s the thing… Because they haven’t learned the theme of the story yet, their new plan is still going to be flawed.
As they move forward, the external events of the plot will keep challenging them in ways that they’re still not equipped to deal with. So, this is the section where the consequences of all their flawed plans and decisions start to catch up.
Now, one thing that’s really cool is that you can use your Midpoint moment to inform your Bad Guys close in beat. So, if the Midpoint of your story was a false victory, this section will be a downward path where things get worse and worse for the protagonist. If the Midpoint was a false defeat, this section will be an upward path where things seem to get better and better for the protagonist.
But that being said, either way you go here, the protagonist still needs to deal with their internal obstacle, or that false belief or wound that’s holding them back. So, even if appears to be an upward path, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. They still have that inner obstacle or wound or false belief to deal with.
So, let’s take a look at our two case studies:
- In The Hunger Games, we had a false defeat Midpoint so, here, we have an upward path where things seem to get better and better. Even though Katniss is still dealing with the external bad guys of the capital and the other tributes, things are starting to look up for her. She’s having some wins, right? She forms an alliance with Rue, and together they blow up the supplies that the career tributes are hoarding around the cornucopia. During their mission, Katniss learns that the Career tributes shot Peeta and left him for dead somewhere in the arena. Objectively this means one less person to kill, but truthfully it reminds Katniss that she owes him for saving her, and that she could have helped him.
- In Everything, Everything, we had a false victory Midpoint so, this is more of a downward path where things seem to get worse and worse for Maddy. First, Maddy’s mom finds Olly’s rubber band bracelet inside their house, which leaves no doubt in her mind that Olly has been inside their house before, and which also confirms that Maddy’s been lying about the boy next door this whole time. Because of this, Maddy’s mom takes away her internet privileges and fires Carla. When school starts again, Maddy sees Olly less and less. And one day, he comes home with another girl (who’s just his lab partner, but Maddy doesn’t know that yet), and Maddy realizes that she’ll never be able to compete with a “normal girl.” To top this all off, Maddy witnesses another fight between Olly and his father, which prompts Maddy to buy two plane tickets to Hawaii so that they can run away together, and be happy away from everything that’s trying to keep them apart. Essentially, Maddy thinks she can only be happy if Olly is in her life.
Now, you might be wondering, how am I supposed to fill up these eight scenes?
And my advice is to look back at your midpoint and keep your character’s overarching story goal in mind. So, up until now, they’ve been trying to accomplish that goal, but failing, right? Then, the midpoint occurs and injects some kind of new information or circumstance into the plot. So, now what? Now how will they try to accomplish their main story goal?
And then, 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 again, you can learn more about writing scenes in episode #40 which I will link to in the show notes.
As I mentioned earlier, your story is going to lean one way or the other on the external versus internal bad guy spectrum. It all depends on your genre. But the main point here is that you’re putting pressure on your protagonist--pressure that grows, complicates, and escalates, until he or she hits the worst moment of the story--the all is lost moment.
But anyway, that’s beat number ten--the bad guys close in beat.
Beat #11: The All is Lost (75%)
The All is Lost beat is a single scene beat in which your protagonist hits rock bottom. So, something happens to your protagonist that, combined with their external and internal bad guys, pushes him or her to their lowest point.
In the fourteen scenes we have planned for the back half of act two, this will be scene number nine, or scene number thirty-seven overall.
So, no matter which direction your protagonist was headed in the last beat, the bad guys close in beat, all protagonists must be brought to an all is lost moment.
And whatever it is that happens, it must feel bigger than anything else that’s happened in the story so far--it must seem insurmountable to readers, and it must feel insurmountable to your characters. So, make this moment count because it’s a really important one.
And the reason it’s important is that it’s really hard to change (when you don’t want to change) unless you hit rock bottom first.
So by this point, your protagonist has tried everything to accomplish or get that specific thing that he or she thinks will bring them happiness and fulfillment, but guess what?
Even if they got or accomplished that specific thing, it wouldn’t solve all their problems. So, they have to hit rock bottom here, and then realize that what they really need to overcome is their internal obstacle or outdated worldview or false belief.
Therefore, to execute this beat successfully, you’ll want to include something called the whiff of death. So, this is the point in a lot of stories where characters die or almost die. And there’s a reason for this--it’s not just a box to check on a list of things that need to happen.
For example, if a mentor figure dies during the all is lost moment, it forces the protagonist to carry on and solve the rest of the problems or confront the antagonist alone. It forces them to look deep within themselves and come to the realization that they’ve always had the answers-- or that they've always had the powers or the ability or whatever is necessary this whole time.
But that being said, there doesn’t have to be actual death in your story.
There can be just a whiff of it, like a metaphorical death or the death of a lifelong friendship or a project or even an idea. Whatever it is, something must end because this is the moment when your protagonist’s old way of being or thinking dies so that a new version can be born.
So, let's take a look at our two case studies:
- In The Hunger Games, this is when Rue dies. Rue gets killed by another Tribute, and Katniss is deeply affected because she’d grown to care for Rue like a little sister. And because of Katniss’s internal obstacle--because she was so focused on her on own survival--Katniss wasn’t there to protect Rue at this critical moment. So, this is the worst moment for Katniss thus far.
- In Everything, Everything, the all is lost moment is when Maddy collapses in the hotel room in Hawaii. Her heart literally stops, and she has to be rushed to the hospital. So, again, this is definitely the worst moment for Maddy.
Now, one last thing I want to point out is that whatever happens in this beat, it should happen to your protagonist, and it should at least somewhat be his or her fault, too.
The reason for this is because your protagonist hasn’t learned the lesson or the theme of the story yet. So, whatever actions they’ve taken before this moment, or whatever mistakes they’ve made along the way, everything has culminated in this moment.
In other words, even if the action itself isn’t the character’s fault, the predicament they’re in should somehow be their fault. Your protagonist should in some way be responsible for this all is lost moment, otherwise there’s not really a lesson to be learned in this pivotal moment.
Looking back at our case studies, Katniss hesitates to head back to Rue because she’s so focused on her own survival. Maddy lies about being on some medicine that will allow her to safely go to Hawaii because she thinks her happiness depends on being with Olly. As a result, she ends up in the hospital.
So, hopefully, you can see how in each case study, the protagonist is at least partly responsible for the all is lost moment because of their internal obstacle or wound.
And that’s beat number eleven, the all is lost beat.
Beat #12: The Dark Night of the Soul (75%-80%)
The Dark Night of the Soul beat is a multi-scene beat that shows how your protagonist reacts to whatever happened during the all is lost moment.
In our plan of fourteen scenes for the back half of act two, this would be the four scenes following the all is lost moment, or scenes thirty-eight through forty-one overall.
So, just like the debate section we went over back in act one, this is a similar beat where the protagonist thinks about what just happened and maybe even wallows a bit.
Your protagonist’s specific reaction really depends on what kind of person they are so, some characters will wallow while others may do something completely different. So, you’ll just consider who your protagonist is and how he or she reacts to bad news and bad events before writing this section.
Now, one thing I want to mention here is that just because you have several scenes that show how your protagonist is dealing with this defeat or with whatever happened during the all is lost moment, it’s not just sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. That would be boring.
So, even though your protagonist is pretty down on life and depressed about whatever happened during the all is lost moment, something deep inside of themselves is taking everything in, analyzing all the information, and considering their next move. So, this is the moment where the final clues fall into place, or when the protagonist sees something (or someone) in a new light, or when the truth finally becomes clear.
And because of that, this multi-scene beat usually includes some kind of epiphany where the protagonist learns the theme of the story and figures things out.
So, they have to face the truth. They’ve gone about things in the wrong way, they’ve made some mistakes, and now, the only way forward involves internalizing the story’s theme and leaving their internal obstacles in the past.
And like the debate section in act one, this dark night of the soul beat raises a question--What will the protagonist do now? What’s the plan?
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss loses it after Rue’s death, but instead of focusing on her own survival, she takes some time to decorate Rue’s dead body with flowers and pay her respects. While doing so, she thinks about the promise she made to Rue and vows to win the games for her. This is also where Katniss receives a gift of bread from Rue’s district, District 11, and says a public thank you to them.
- In Everything, Everything, we learn that Maddy is still alive and she’s in the hospital. Her mom arrives and flies Maddy back home. Once there, Maddy breaks up with Olly over Instant Message and she essentially rejects the theme by saying she’d rather be alive, home in her room, than out there in the world trying to live. After Carla gets rehired, everything seems to go back to normal until Maddy gets an email from her doctor in Hawaii who informs Maddy that she was never sick—or at least she doesn’t have the disease her mom said she has. Maddy confronts her mom, who denies everything and claims that the doctor just doesn’t understand. It’s here that Maddy has her big epiphany because, when she shares all this with Carla, Carla admits that she’s had some doubts about Maddy’s mom's mental and emotional stability.
And on that note, I should mention that in some stories, this beat is where the protagonist moves back to the familiar world in order to recalibrate and move forward. So, they might go home to where they grew up, reunite with an old friend, or whatever they’d do when they’re feeling lost and wallowing.
But if you do something like this in your story--if you have your protagonist go back to the familiar world, things shouldn’t feel like they did before.
In fact, you should use this moment (and the return to the familiar) as a way to highlight how much your protagonist has already changed. They’re not who they were in act one anymore. There’s no going back. And sometimes, this is part of what will help push your protagonist into act three, too.
So, that’s beat number twelve, the dark night of the soul beat.
Beat #13: The Break Into Three (80%)
The break into three is the bridge between act two and act three.
It's a single scene beat in which the protagonist finally takes action to fix things or accomplish things in the right way.
So, because of everything your character has gone through in the story, and because of the dark night of the soul they just went through, he or she finally knows how to fix everything--including themselves.
And of our fourteen scenes that make up the back half of act two, this break into three beat is the very last scene in act two, scene number fourteen, or scene number forty-two overall.
Up until this point, throughout the whole middle of the story, the protagonist has avoided learning the lesson of the story. They’ve gone after what they wanted, or what they thought would bring them happiness or fulfilment, instead of addressing what they need. And because of that they’ve tried to fix their problems in all the wrong ways.
But this beat is all about facing and acting on the truth.
So, hopefully, in the multi-scene dark night of the soul beat, you’ve brought your protagonist to a point where they finally understand the theme or lesson of the story.
Now it’s time to show them acting on whatever decision they made in the last scene. So, it’s this decision or this plan that will carry them into Act Three as the new person they’ve become.
Just like the break into two beat that we went over in act one, this beat is going to be the bridge between act two and act three. So, you only get one scene to do this.
And just like I mentioned in act one when we went over the break into two beat, this decision to move into act three really needs to belong to your protagonist.
Someone else can present the decision to your protagonist, but he or she needs to be the one to make the actual choice. In other words, your protagonist needs to be proactive about moving themselves into act three. And really, this is about a) giving your character agency, and b) showing readers that your protagonist has learned the theme or lesson of the story. So, just keep that in mind.
Now, let’s take a look at our two case studies:
- In The Hunger Games, the Capitol announces a rule change that says there can be two winners of this year’s Hunger Games, not just one. Because Katniss has learned that there’s more to life than just surviving, she decides to go find Peeta and save him alongside herself, even though it will be much harder than surviving on her own.
- In Everything, Everything, Maddy takes the biggest risk of her life when she asks Carla to order her a blood test that will finally expose the truth about her illness. It’s clear that she’s determined to find the truth, one way or another, and that she’s learned the lesson of the story. Some risks are worth taking even if they expose hard truths.
And that’s it for the second half of the beats that make up the middle section of a story. I'm going to dig into the beats that make up the end of a novel soon, so stay tuned for that.
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.