Question: What is “Save the Cat”, and how can I use it to outline my story?



Fiction writers often hear the terms “story structure”, “plot structure”, or “story arc”, but sometimes underestimate how important they are in writing a great story. For a story to feel complete and satisfying to a reader, there are certain elements that are essential, and these components must happen in an order that give the story a clear beginning, middle, and ending. A story’s structure directly affects the way the plot unfolds and how the characters, conflicts, and world are introduced to the reader.

One way to ensure your story includes all of the fundamentals is to start with an outline. More experienced writers may not need an outline to guide them as they write, but if you are writing a fiction story for the first time, or even a memoir (which should read like fiction!), planning your story out before writing can set you up with a great foundation or roadmap to follow. It can help alleviate any writer’s block and save you a lot of time and effort, especially when you get to the editing stage.

Save the Cat is just one of many story structure methods that writers can use.What is “Save the Cat”?

There are several different story structure models that a writer can use to outline or plan a story. Some of the more popular include “Freytag’s Pyramid”, “The Hero’s Journey”, and “Save the Cat”. Originally created for screenwriting by Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder, Save the Cat is a three-act story structure. It is named for the moment in the set-up of a story where the hero does something to endear himself or herself to the audience.

Save the Cat is one of the more detailed story structure methods because it breaks storytelling down into 15 essential elements or “beats” across the three acts – your beginning or Act I, your middle or Act II, and your ending or Act III. This method has come to be widely accepted by both screenwriters and fiction writers as a “go-to” framework for story planning.

Here is a detailed breakdown of the three Acts, and the beats within each:

ACT I – 25 – 30% of the story

  1. Opening Image – The snapshot that immediately introduces your setting and main character. It’s your opportunity to “hook” the reader and set your story’s tone. This is a scene or paragraph where “show, don’t tell” is important.

  2. Theme Stated – Your story’s central idea, message, or life lesson. Can be stated by your main character or by a side character through scene or dialogue.

  3. Set-Up – A deeper look at your main character’s present world – his or her flaws, other characters in his or her life. Introduces the conflict and main character’s desires or goals.The first act or beginning of your story needs to grab the reader and set the story up.

  4. Catalyst – Also called the “Inciting incident”, this is the life-changing event that disrupts your main character’s world and sets your story in motion. There’s no going back.

  5. Debate – The main character resists the challenge that is presented by the catalyst. Will he or she follow through on the call to action? Or, is he or she reluctant to change?

ACT II – the largest section of the story at around 40%

  1. Break Into Two – The main character must rise to the challenge or face serious consequences. He or she makes the conscious decision to act.

  2. B Story – A new side character is introduced that establishes a subplot. Can be a love interest, rival, new friend or a mentor. This subplot should run alongside the main plot for most of the story.

  3. Fun and Games – A long sequence of scenes that deliver on the premise of the story. Your main character struggles or succeeds as they attempt to reach the goal.

  4. Midpoint – A moment of false hope or false defeat for your main character that raises the stakes.

  5. Bad Guys Close In – The tension escalates and either the antagonist (villain) is winning, or your main character’s flaws are working against him or her.

  6. All is Lost – The moment where everything comes crashing down and it seems there is no way forward for your main character. He or she hits rock bottom.

  7. Dark Night of the Soul – A moment of reflection, where your main character must look inward and find the strength to move forward. There is a scene or two that displays a realization of your story’s theme.

ACT III – 25 – 30% of the storyYour story's ending must show a transformation in your character and satisfy readers.

  1. Break Into Three – There is a new optimism to keep pushing on. Your main character develops a new, improved approach to battling the conflict.

  2. Finale (climax) – The highest moment of tension where your main character’s goal is either won or lost. In happy endings, the antagonist is destroyed, whether internal or external, and the main character reaches the goal. In not-so-happy endings, the main character fails to reach his or her goal, but still undergoes an important transformation.

  3. Final Image – Your final impression on the reader. Must show clear change in the main character, and the final image will often mirror the opening image.

To learn more about Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, you can find his book HERE. You can find the series counterpart by Jessica Brody, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You'll Ever Need, HERE.

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