How to Revise for Structure, Part Two

by Jami Gold on February 14, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Cover image of Larry Brooks's Story Engineering

Last time, we discussed Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat craft book and how we can use his writing tools to revise our work.  His beat sheet points out when story events (beats) should occur in a screenplay, and most of his advice applies to all forms of fiction writing.

Whether we dig into the structure of our stories during advance plotting or before post-draft revisions, understanding the big picture of how stories are supposed to flow improves our writing.  So even though my pantsed (i.e., written by the seat of my pants) novel passed the Save the Cat beat sheet test, I wanted to analyze my story from a different perspective.   After all, it’s better to know if a scene should be deleted before I spend time editing it.

Why yes, I’m a perfectionist, how’d you guess?  *smile*

But the truth is that I discovered I loved using the Save the Cat beat sheet to get an overview of my story before starting revisions.  So I found another method for doing this high level analysis.  I even made myself do math.  *shudder*

How to Use the Story Engineering Structure for Revisions

This time, let’s talk about Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.  I first heard of Larry and his approach to story structure when I came across his storyfix blog a couple years ago.

He explains in clear language what turning points are, when they’re supposed to occur in a story, and what they’re supposed to accomplish.  He also brilliantly points out how to use “pinch points” to prevent a sagging middle.  I was thrilled to learn the tips from his blog are now available in book form with Story Engineering.  (And a thank you shout-out to Kerry Meacham and Sonia Medeiros for my copy.)

In the comments of my last post, Julie Glover mentioned using Story Engineering.  Reminded of Larry’s story structure tips, I spent this weekend reviewing the information and…  *dun dun dun*

I made a spreadsheet:

(click for larger image)

That’s right.  I dealt with my dislike of math and copied off of Elizabeth Davis to come up with a spreadsheet based on the story structure Larry Brooks describes in Story Engineering.  Download a copy of my spreadsheet for yourself here:

Story Structure Spreadsheet – Adapted from Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering (2007 .xlsx version)
(Click here for the Excel 2003 .xls version.)

And then…  *sigh*  Because I just can’t help myself, I decided to see what it would look like to combine Elizabeth’s Save the Cat spreadsheet and this Story Engineering spreadsheet.  (Note: Elizabeth’s website has had major issues lately, so if the link above doesn’t work, you can find the .xls version of her STC beat sheet mirrored here and the .xlsx version of her STC beat sheet mirrored here.)

Behold, the Frankenstein of story-structure-overview-planning-plotting-revising-analysis spreadsheets:

(click for larger image)

Maybe I’m the only one crazy enough to want to dig into my story at this level.  But maybe I’m not.  So for those who want to get the complete Save the Cat/Story Engineering overview of their work, I give you:

Master Spreadsheet – Story Structure and Beat Sheet (2007 .xlsx version)
(Click here for the Excel 2003 version.)

You’ll notice the screenplay structure of Save the Cat has a shorter introduction and conclusion than the geared-toward-novels structure of Story Engineering (that is, STC‘s Act One is shorter than SE‘s Part One).  However, it’s more important to make sure events are happening in the correct order and increasing tension and stakes than to make the page numbers work out perfectly.

In my pantsed novel, the specified page for the Story Engineering plot points and pinch points fell during the correct scene, and I’m calling that close enough.  (See? I’m not a hopeless perfectionist. *snicker*)

Refer to my previous post for more tips and suggestions on how these spreadsheets can help us identify pacing issues, theme ideas, and whether scenes are in the correct order.

Now before anyone makes snarky comments about how I was *cough* procrastinating with all that spreadsheet nonsense, let me confirm that once I filled in the numbers for my pantsed novel and made sure I didn’t have any structural errors, I moved on to actual revising.  I’m up to chapter three.  So there.  *smile*

Have you studied Larry Brooks’s approach to story structure?  Does this spreadsheet sound helpful?  Do you prefer Larry’s Story Engineering explanations or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat approach, or do you like both of them?  Is the Master Spreadsheet awesome or overkill?  *whispers*  Do you ever have trouble moving from the “planning” stage to the “doing” stage?

P.S. Are you new to beat sheets? Check out my Beat Sheets 101 post, and check out all my worksheets for writers here.

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55 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Janea S. February 14, 2012 at 9:45 am

Thanks so much for these ideas! I played around with Save the Cat after your last post, and really look forward to adding in these new ideas. I’ve found them very helpful!

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Jami Gold February 14, 2012 at 10:14 am

Hi Janea,

No problem. :) I actually prefer the Story Engineering way of looking at stories–love the idea of pinch points to avoid those sagging middles!–which is why I wanted to create this spreadsheet. I hope it helps. Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal February 14, 2012 at 11:25 am

OMG, Jami! You’re incredible. Thanks so much for compiling these and sharing with us all. :-)

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Jami Gold February 14, 2012 at 11:32 am

Hi Susan,

Eh, insane…incredible…one of those two. LOL! You’re welcome and thanks for the comment!

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Kerry Meacham February 14, 2012 at 11:29 am

Thanks for the shout-out. Two of my favorite writing books, and you are the Mack Daddy….humm…I guess Mack Mamma, when it comes to the spreadsheet awesomeness. I downloaded last week’s, and I am definitely downloading this one. You rock.

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Jami Gold February 14, 2012 at 11:34 am

Hi Kerry,

Thank you. :) I love Story Engineering. I hope these are helpful to everyone. Thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp February 14, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Wow, Jami, that is awesome! I loaded up last weeks and tossed a pantsed short into it and found I was fairly close on structure, which also showed me where I needed to tweak things (perfectionist association card number 14XJ…).

I can’t wait to try out the above but must hang my head in shame for a moment (only A moment). I tried to merge the two last year but never thought of using a spreadsheet *palmhead* Brilliant idea. Thanks for putting this together. Great resource!

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Jami Gold February 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Hi Gene,

I wouldn’t have thought of it either if I couldn’t crib off Elizabeth’s spreadsheet. :) Copying and editing I can do–much less math that way. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins February 14, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Have I told you lately how WICKEDLY AWESOME you are!!! I deal with spreadsheets soooo much at my day job (they call me *master*) that by the time I get home, I honestly don’t feel like having fun with Excel and creating one for my writing. Secret: It was actually on my to-do list to re-vamp Elizabeth’s spreadsheet from last week into something geared more towards a fiction novel.

But alas, you have done it! :)

Thank you, thank you, thank you! *bows* ;)

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 9:43 am

Hi Melinda,

LOL! *blush* Um, thanks. :)

Although if you’re the spreadsheet master, you’ll have to tell me if you find anything that needs corrections. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover February 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm

That spreadsheet is great! I downloaded it immediately. Thanks, Jami. I did a post sometime ago which includes the flow chart I developed from Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering: http://julieglover.com/2011/09/12/a-mostly-pantser-tries-plotting/. That has helped me a lot in checking my pacing and plotting my future WIPs. Thanks for sharing your stuff. Best wishes with your revisions.

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 9:51 am

Hi Julie,

Oh cool! Thanks for sharing the flow chart. :)

Yes, I have that general structure in my head too. For me, the spreadsheet (or the idea of the four Parts) helps me aim for a certain word count. For example, I wanted this pants novel to end up around 85K, so I knew I needed to throw more stuff in the middle until I got near the 60K point. :) Yep, that’s pantsing all right. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Christy Farmer February 15, 2012 at 4:03 am

I love the spreadsheet, Jami! I think the master spreadsheet is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing this! :-)

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 9:52 am

Hi Christy,

Yay! A vote for my Frankenstein spreadsheet. LOL! I hope it helps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Angela Ackerman February 15, 2012 at 7:33 am

Holy chocolate-dipped bacon! This is awesome. So much hard work on your part–thanks for sharing the spreadsheet. And looks like I need to get Larry Brook’s book now, too!

Have you read Writing Screenplays that Sell bu Michael Hauge? That one is really good too. :)

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 9:54 am

Hi Angela,

Holy chocolate-dipped bacon!

LOL! Wow, that’s some praise. :)

I’ve heard about Michael Hauge’s stuff, but I don’t think I have that one. I’ll have to check it out. And yes, I love Larry’s approach–he makes it make sense to me. Thanks for the comment!

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Angela Quarles February 15, 2012 at 7:47 am

I love spreadsheets, so thank you!! I’ll have to put Story Engineering on my TBR list

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 9:55 am

Hi Angela,

You’re welcome! Story Engineering is great. I hope you like it!

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Kris Asselin February 15, 2012 at 8:07 am

This is great–thank you! Huge help!

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 9:55 am

Hi Kris,

I’m happy to help. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Joyce Shor Johnson February 15, 2012 at 8:23 am

This is an amazing and incredibly helpful post! The spreadsheet is a gift, Thank you!

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 9:56 am

Hi Joyce,

I share it to show my love for the writing community. :) Appropriate, as I posted in on Valentine’s Day. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Sonia G Medeiros February 15, 2012 at 10:49 am

I love your spreadsheets, Jami! And so glad Story Engineering was helpful. I love that books so much, I feel like one of those street corner preachers. “Have you heard the story structure news? Has your writing been saved?” LOL

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 11:07 am

Hi Sonia,

LOL! I can relate.

Most people think of structure in terms of plotting in advance, but my experience proves that we can be pantsers and use structure for revisions too. So I guess I’m reaching out to the unwashed pantser heathens with my message of “structure is good for everyone.” LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Rachel Funk Heller February 15, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Jami! I just discovered “Save the Cat” and am so glad you blogged about it. Have you tried the software? I really love it. I’m a big “Hero’s Journey” fan and I like how Blake streamlined the process. I apply all of this after I “pants” the first draft. It is so much fun wasting this kind of time.

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Jami Gold February 15, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Hi Rachel,

No, I haven’t seen the software. (There’s software???) Yes, I love studying the structure of stories. I don’t see it as limiting at all, but rather I see it as the framework to build a story on–the rebar in concrete. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy. S. Thompson February 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Thanks for this info & most especially, for sharing all the hard work & your spreadsheets. I’m gonna dive in for a closer look!

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Hi Nancy,

You’re welcome! I hope it helps. :)

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Shaun May 6, 2012 at 9:21 am

Isn’t the Hook and Inciting Incident the same thing…?

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Jami Gold May 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

Hi Shaun,

That’s a great question! The definitions of many writing terms are a bit wishy-washy, and we tend to use them in slightly different ways depending on the context. Hook and inciting incident are usually two different things, but not always.

Something needs to be on the first page that pulls the reader in and makes them keep reading. I talked about first pages here, and there are other great posts about the hook at Adventures in Publishing and at Roni Loren’s blog.

In other words, the hook is something that (as Roni says in her first point) challenges the protagonist’s status quo. Stories are about change, and readers want to see a promise of change right from the beginning. This does not need to be the BIG change of the overall story. It could be as simple as the protagonist’s day not going according to plan.

At the other end, the inciting incident kicks off the BIG change. Maybe not directly, but it’s the event that puts everything else in motion in a “point of no return–the big story is inevitable” way. Inciting incidents thus can happen later–in the middle of the first chapter or as the chapter one cliffhanger. Agent Donald Maass talks about using “bridging conflict” to maintain tension between the first page and the inciting incident in his Breakout Novel book, and that’s the gist of a hook.

So if the inciting incident happens on the first page or near the first page, it can be the hook. However, in many stories they’re different things. For example, in my novella for the pitch session mentioned in my post about first pages (that I linked to above), conflict exists in the first 100 words–that’s the hook. But the inciting incident doesn’t happen until the end of the first chapter when the heroine meets the hero. I hope that helps. :) Thanks for the great question and the comment!

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Robin May 26, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Hi,

You are terrific. I LOVE the Save the Cat download and tried to download the two referenced in this post and they came out garbled? Did I do something wrong on my end?

Thanks!

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Jami Gold May 26, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Hi Robin,

Ooo, good catch! I’d uploaded Excel 2007 versions of those spreadsheets. I just updated the post to add links for the plain Excel 2003 .xls files. Thanks for the comment!

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Joanna Aislinn June 30, 2012 at 9:08 am

Feel like i’ve been stuck in planning forever, Jami. This spreadsheet looks to be just what I need. Thanks for creating and sharing it!

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Jami Gold June 30, 2012 at 11:53 am

Hi Joanna,

Oh no! I know the feeling. I felt that way with my latest WIP (forever was actually about a week ;) ), but I finally had to push myself forward. Good luck and I hope this helps you. Thanks for the comment!

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Sierra Godfrey July 6, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Jami, this post and all the other plotting and Save the Cat posts are totally fabulous–I just found them all tonight from a link on Twitter. I am in love with your Frankenstein Excel sheet, as I’ve been using STC beat sheets for my last two stories and love them. I will definitely pick up a copy of Storyfix. One question, in your Excel sheet the Catalyst (STC) and the Inciting Event (Storyfix) look like the same thing to me, and I’ve always thought they meant the same thing. What do you think?

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Hi Sierra,

Great question! And I think it’s a matter of semantics. :)

What we (novelists) think of as an Inciting Incident often corresponds to STC’s Catalyst–what happens that creates a point of no return. But the way Larry Brooks of Story Engineering (that’s the name of his book–his blog is Storyfix) looks at the Inciting Incident is a bit different.

His different definition is why he says the Inciting Incident can happen anytime during Part One (Act One) and that it’s optional. You can check Larry’s blog here and here or the book for his own description. But my interpretation on his take on the Inciting Incident is that stories have some sort of decision happen at the First Plot Point (the break into Act Two) or something that explains what the real story is about. The Inciting Incident would be whatever happened before the First Plot Point that forced that decision. Some stories can have multiple Inciting Incidents, while in other stories, the wheels are put in motion before the story opens or the Inciting Incident is the same as the First Plot Point, which is why he says it can be optional.

So to Larry, the Inciting Incident is anything that happens before the First Plot Point that directly forces that FPP. Did I just confuse you worse? :) Let me know if you still have questions. Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you find the spreadsheets helpful!

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Kern Windwraith October 14, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Jami, you are the bomb! I’ve futzed around with spreadsheets a couple of times to try and organize my WIPs, but the results have been spectacularly “meh.” Your spreadsheets are lifesavers! (Or story-savers at the very least.)

I’ve read (and love) Larry’s book, and the Story Structure spreadsheet you’ve created is a terrific synthesis of his approach to story telling. I’ve downloaded it and and started filling it in, and man, is this thing going to save my NaNoWriMo bacon this year!

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Jami Gold October 14, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Hi Kern,

Oh good! I’m so glad you like it. :) Good luck in NaNo and thanks for the comment!

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Mikki_Q October 31, 2012 at 10:35 pm

This. Is. Amazing! Just what I needed–a sort of “coat rack” to hang all the disparate pieces of my story in order to find the flow. Yay for you and your blog!

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Jami Gold October 31, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Hi Mikki_Q,

Yay! I’m happy to help. :)

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Paul Swann May 17, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Well, I am little late finding this page. I use templates for Larry’s work with Scrivener, but I am happy I found your spreadsheet. Thank you for taking the time to produce this. Really like your webpage. Hope you pick up a publisher (maybe you’ve already done so…?)

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Jami Gold May 17, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Hi Paul,

Ooo, now I want to know about those Scrivener templates. I can’t remember if I’ve seen those before. LOL!

I haven’t picked up a publisher yet, but I’m working on it. :) Thanks for the comment and let me know if you have any questions!

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pd workman December 18, 2013 at 9:53 am

I love you!

I have just started using Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to analyse finished works and plan new ones, and have been limping along recalculating page numbers on the calculator app. This is wonderful!

Every time I incorporate a new tool, I just thrill at how amazing my next book is going to be. Tighter plot, better pacing, so exciting!

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Jami Gold December 18, 2013 at 9:56 am

Hi PD,

LOL! Isn’t the auto-math the best? :)

I hope this helps! Thanks for the comment!

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