You’ve probably noticed that in talking about plot I’ve focused on books about writing screenplays. There’s a reason for that. I’ve found that books on writing screenplay are usually the best when it comes to talking about structure. There are, of course, books that focus on structuring plots for novels and short stories but I tend to use the screenplay writing books more as a rule.
My last post on structuring your NaNoWriMo novel will focus on Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat.
This is one of my favorite books on writing. Not only is it extremely useful for structuring and/or plotting your novel, but its written in an engaging style.
Blake Snyder went on to write two more companions books and I have no doubt he would have written even more but, tragically, he died unexpectedly in 2009.
However, we still have his books and his wisdom and his website is still active and on it you will find a lot of information about Blake Snyder, his books and his theories about writing.
Blake called his first book Save the Cat because his theory that one way to cause the audience to sympathize with the hero is show him or her doing something nice, like saving a cat.
But there’s more to Snyder’s book than just that. In his book he emphasizes the importance of structure. He created what he called the Beat Sheet or BS2. It is comprised of 15 beats or plot points.
I’m going to continue using the movie Avatar as an example because I think it’s interesting to see how different plot schemas can be applied to the same move and that some of the stages from those different plot structures overlap.
Opening Image – A scene that suggests the tone, imagery, genre, and or mood of the story. A kind of snapshot of what the main character and we, the reader/audience, are in store for.
Avatar – We meet the hero, Jake Scully. He’s a disabled veteran who journeys to a distant planet in order to “pilot” his deceased twin brother’s avatar.
Set-Up – This scene expands on the opening image. It presents more of the character’s world and what is missing in his or her life.
Avatar – Jake meets the scientists who run the avatar program. He doesn’t fit in with them. He also meets the other soldiers stationed on the planet. He doesn’t fit in with them either. That’s his problem. He doesn’t fit in.
Theme Stated (happens during the Set-Up) – What the story is about. Usually it’s spoken to the main character by another character. Something similar to “You know what your problem is, bud?” At this point in the story, however, either the main character isn’t aware she has a problem or figures there’s not much she can do about it. The point of the story is to show that’s not the case.
Avatar – The idea of belonging. Of being a part of something larger than yourself. Of being connected to others. We see this theme being reiterated in the explanation of the Na’Vi’s connection to the planet.
Catalyst – This is the scene where life as the character has known it changes. The world before, the Ordinary World, is no more. Change is coming.
Avatar – Even though Jake is “driving an avatar” and living on Pandora, he’s still a former Marine who’s reporting to his superior, Quaritch. It’s not, however, until he’s separated from the others and is discovered by Neytiri, a Na’Vi female, and is taken back to Hometree, where the Na’Vi live, that the world changes for Jake.
Debate: – Because change is often scary this is a step where the main character has doubts about the journey he must take. Can I do this? Am I up to the challenge. Do I have what it takes.
Avatar – This occurs in the movie when Jake is learning about the Na’Vi and some of them question whether he has what it takes to be one of them.
Break into Two (Choosing Act Two) – One thing to keep in mind about these steps and, for that matter, any steps or stages in any plotting structure is that although some have to happen at certain times, nothing is written in stone. You can rearrange, delete or add in your steps. You’re the writer. It’s your story. Write it the way you want.
In the Break Into Two beat the main character decides to take the journey. He or she has left the “Thesis” world and has entered the “Anti-thesis” of the Special World.
Avatar – Jake is moving back and from between the world of the Na’Vi and his avatar body and the world of the humans and the corporation they work for.
B Story –The B story runs underneath the main story. You can use this story to discuss the story’s theme. It’s also, usually, the love story or the story that involves the relationship between the main character and someone (not necessarily a love interest) who is important to them.
Avatar – The relationship (and burgeoning love affair) between Jake and Neytiri is Avatar’s B story. It can also been seen as the growing trust between Jake and the other scientists, especially with Dr. Augustine.
The Promise of the Premise – This is also called Fun & Games. This is where whatever the story promises the reader/audience, whether its action, adventure, mystery, romance, sex, scary stuff, etc. is fully explored. The main character explores this world with all the abandon of a child at play, and the audience/reader explores it with him.
Avatar – We watch Jake learn about the Na’Vi and their world. He learns to hunt and, most exciting, to fly a banshee. The audience came to the movie wanting to see what living on another planet with another species would be like. The movie delivers on its premise. It’s important you do the same in your story.
If you’re writing a mystery, you’d better have a mystery for the sleuth to solve. A romance, we’d better see the fun and the heartache of falling in love. A dystopian novel should show us what exactly has gone wrong with the world and what the characters are going to do about it. If anything.
Midpoint – Snyder has a theory about the midpoint which I find interesting. At this point in the story either everything is going “great” or everything is “awful.” If it’s going great, we know that more than likely that other shoe is going to drop and BAM!, the proverbial caca hits the fan. If it’s going awful, well, the character obviously needs to do something to make it better because at this point he is only halfway home.
In most cases, I think you’ll find that at this point in the story, things appear to be going “great”. The hero has learned the rules of the Special World and it’s not as bad as he thought. He’s feeling really super and decides that it’s going to be nothing but clear skies and smooth sailing from here on in. Yeah, right.
Avatar – Jake is not only made a member of the Na’Vi, but he and Neytiri solidify their love and she tells Jake they are mated for life. Things are going great. But…..
Bad Guys Close In – Whether the midpoint moment was great or awful it doesn’t matter because the bad guys have decided that, for whatever reason, the main character and his/her allies are a threat.
Avatar – In Avatar, the bad guys literally close in. Jake and Neytiri are sleeping underneath the sacred tree where they made love. Netryi is wakened by the sound of the humans advancing on the grove with soldiers and bulldozers.
All is Lost – This is the moment when the main character realizes that it’s about to get serious. As a result of those bad guys having closed in, he or she is about to lose everything and things look even more difficult and impossible than before. In this beat, also, someone or something dies. It can be a physical death or an emotional death.
Avatar – Because the human corporation wants to conduct mining operations underneath the Na’vi’s home, Quaritch orders his soldiers to bring down Hometree, which results in the death of not only Neytiri’s father but hundreds of Na’Vi. Jake also reveals that he started out as a spy for the humans and, as a result, is rejected by Neytiri and the other Na’Vi.
Avatar – Jake literally wanders alone through an ash-shrouded landscape after the destruction of Hometree and the displacement of the Na’vi. He has no place to go. He’s considered a traitor to the humans and a traitor to the Na’Vi. He has no place where he belongs. Remember, the theme of Avatar is about finding someplace to belong and to connect. Jake no longer has that.
Break into Three (Choosing Act Three) – But all is not lost or else the story would stop and the reader/ audience would be left feeling pretty darn depressed. And, also, this is why your main character is your main character. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. Based on a new idea, new inspiration or a last minute kick in the pants, the main character chooses to try again.
Avatar – Jake chooses to tame the Toruk, a dragon-like creature both feared and honored by the Na’Vi. He accomplishes this and flies to where the Na’Vi have gathered, the Tree of Souls. He proves to them he is on their side, he reconnects with them all, including his beloved Netyri, and he marshals all the Na’vi clans to fight against the humans, who are on their way to destroy the Tree of Souls, the heart of the Na’Vi culture.
Finale – This is the beat where the main character incorporates the Theme. Whatever the theme is, it finally makes sense to. As a result, the hero is even more committed to winning the battle and achieving the goal
Avatar – Having fully committed himself to the Na’Vi, Jake goes to battle with them against the humans who are threatening their existence.
Avatar – In the opening image, particularly in the extended version of the movie, Jake is alone and seemingly without purpose. In the final image, he is surrounded by the Na’Vi in a ceremony where his consciousness is transferred from his human body to his avatar body. He has a home now. He belongs.
Here is the beat sheet for Zootopia, a movie that, despite being ostensibly for kids, is a movie that addresses many of today’s current issues and was quite engaging to boot. The website has a lot more examples of movies so if you’re interested in seeing how other genres can be analyzed using the Beat Sheet, check it out.
Good luck with your plotting.
Starting tomorrow I’ll talk about resources for writing in different genres and building the world for your NaNo novel.