How to Use the “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet for Revisions
Before I start, thank you to everyone who commented, tweeted, and emailed me with support after my last post about losing my cat. You all have filled me with virtual hugs and put a smile on my face. Thank you. *hugs back*
In fact, after writing that post and reading your notes, I was feeling good enough to begin a revision from hell, i.e., my pantsed novel. This week I’ve started preparing my revision strategy with an attack plan worthy of a SWAT team.
I’ve revised novels before, but those stories were plotted in advance. I’ve revised a pantsed novella before too, but plot threads and big picture issues are much easier to follow in a shorter story. This novel-length story was pantsed from beginning to end, so I dreaded figuring out what it would take to get it into shape.
Save the Cat‘s Beat Sheet to the Rescue
My plan started with reviewing Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat writing craft book. The book is geared toward screenwriters, but 95% of his tips work for novellas and novels too. Most importantly, his “beat sheet” is great for organizing a story.
Many people use his beat sheet (or one like it) to plot out a story before drafting, but I’ve recently found that using it on a completed draft forces me to see the story from a different perspective. In other words, his beat sheet can be useful during revisions too, especially on a pantsed draft.
Analyzing where the beats of a story fall gives us an overview of the structure of a story and makes sure turning points and scenes are showing up in the right place. And the easy-peasy way to get that 10,000 foot view of our stories is to fill out Elizabeth Davis’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet Spreadsheet for Novels. (Click through the link to download her Excel file.)
(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 beat sheet mirrored here and the .xlsx version of her beat sheet mirrored here.)
(click for larger view)
I know some of you are saying, “Excel spreadsheet? Ack! That’s too close to math.” For the longest time, this file sat neglected on my computer for that very reason. But this spreadsheet is so shiny it sweats glitter as it does all the hard work for us.
We fill in the word count for our story project, and it figures out what page number each beat should fall on. It does the math to make sure Acts I, II, and III, along with the Black Moment and everything else, are all taking up the appropriate percentages of pages. Genius, I tell you. Genius.
What Can the Beat Sheet Tell Us?
Okay, but we hear all kinds of “rules” as writers. So one of our first questions should be, are those percentages legit? Or were they pulled out of someone’s posterior?
I decided to compare the spreadsheet’s recommendations (which in turn, are based on Blake’s recommendations) to a completed story. I went through my recently polished novella to see how well the story events I entered for the Description of each beat matched up with the page numbers. Besides, I’ve always thought I have a good instinct for plotting and structure, and I figured this was a good way to test that assumption. *smile*
Honestly, I was shocked at how well the page numbers lined up with events from the story. The Catalyst, Midpoint, and Black Moment (Dark Night of the Soul/Break into Act III) all hit on the exact pages they were supposed to. Huge turning points completely pantsed and they were in the right place. *whew*
More importantly, that test tells me there probably is something to those percentages. Too long in one section can lead to a reader getting bored, or a sagging middle, or any other of a hundred structure issues.
How Can the Beat Sheet Help Us with Revisions?
Now I can hear you saying, but are those exact page numbers that important? Does it really matter if Act II starts on page 60 or 75?
Yes and no. Obviously, the longer the story, the more flexibility we have. A beat for the Catalyst happening a few pages early or late in a 85K word novel won’t affect the reader much if it’s a page-turning story.
However, if we see the set-up is taking 10 pages too long (or even 3 pages too long in a shorter-length story), that might indicate a pacing problem. Maybe some of our set-up should be tightened or moved to later in the story. Maybe we have too much backstory.
In other words, these page numbers should be treated as guidelines, not hard and fast rules. But when we’re planning revisions, an overall picture can reveal pacing issues or where we might need to rearrange scenes.
Other Ways to Use the Beat Sheet
After verifying the accuracy of the percentages, I went back and entered the information for my pantsed novel. It wasn’t too bad, a few events off 2-3 pages here and there, which is within 1% on a 300 page story.
But I also saw some events—which weren’t intended to be major turning points—falling on the turning point pages. I’ll have to take a closer look at those.
Do I need to adjust pages to get the major turning points where they “should” be? Are they close enough to not worry about? Is my pacing off? Or was my subconscious messing with me, and these “minor” turning points have more significance than I assumed?
If it’s the last one, I’ll have to flesh out those minor turning points more. Maybe my muse was trying to tell me something about how the theme should play out by having a “minor” turning point taking up the spot where a major turning point is supposed to be.
And that’s the kind of analysis I love doing with revisions. Already I can see that I don’t state the story’s theme as blatantly as Blake Snyder suggests. Apparently, I’m more of a “show” the theme than a “tell” the theme kind of writer. *smile*
We can also use the beat sheet spreadsheet to dig into feedback from beta readers. If we hear that pacing seems slow in one section, analyzing the beats in that part of the story might help.
Or what if we want to increase or decrease our word count? We could enter our ideal word count in the spreadsheet and revise to match the page numbers.
I’m probably touching on only a fraction of the possible ways to use beat sheets and this spreadsheet with this post, so share your tips in the comments.
How do you kick off revisions? Do you plan in advance or just dig in? Have you used beat sheets before? How do you use them? Do you use them during the drafting stage, the revision stage, or both? Any beat sheet tips to share?
P.S. I have several beat sheets available on my Worksheets for Writers page.
- If you like Larry Brooks’s (of Storyfix) approach to plot structure, check out the Story Engineering beat sheet.
- If you like Michael Hauge’s teachings about using “Identity” and “Essence” for the character arc and want to combine that internal journey with the external plot, check out the Six Stage Plot Structure beat sheet.
- If you write romance, check out a beat sheet specifically developed for the romance arc (with matching Scrivener template).
- If you’re new to beat sheets, check out my Beat Sheets 101 post and my Basic Beat Sheet (with matching Scrivener template).
thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve been working through Alexandra Sokoloff’s Books on Screenwriting Tips for Novelists and she (among others) recommended Save the Cat, and so I ordered it last week and am about to start reading it. I love spreadsheets, so thank you for that link! I’ve been trying to do the math on my own and I hate math 😛
I’m a pantser, so I do this kind of thing on revision, but I didn’t know of these until recently so am applying it to my 3rd draft. For my first revision, I did create index cards to see the big picture and that helped a ton…
I’d heard great things about Save the Cat for a long time too, but I’ve just recently started digging into it with a specific “homework assignment” in mind. 🙂 Sometimes I read craft books and the lessons sink in, but not very deep, so it really helps to have a WIP I’m actively working on to apply the information to. I hope the spreadsheet helps! 🙂
Wow! I’m about to finish my 2nd draft and starting to take a heavy look at my plot. This post is super helpful! I’m a hardcore pantser. I haate sitting for hours plotting before I wrote. I can’t wait to start fiddling with this spreadsheet!
My main problem is my novel starts with the catalyst. Guess i need to put in some scenes before that.
It depends on how you define Catalyst. We definitely want some hint of a story question/problem in the opening scene, otherwise there’s no goal or drive for the protagonist.
Blake describes the Catalyst as the event that takes the story problem and brings it front and center, where the rules are first changed. We hear inciting incident for this event sometimes too. The opening scene might show what’s important to the heroine and why. The catalyst is when the first serious threat is made to take that away from her. I hope that helps–thanks for the comment!
I completely pantsed a novel as well and then went back and put the skeleton (structure) in. I was happy to find a spine there already; however, I used Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering structure to find the plot points that I needed to hit and flesh things out. I will definitely be looking at the Save the Cat beat sheet you linked to. I really enjoyed that book and agree that its advice is great for novelists too. Thanks, Jami.
Oh yes, I love Larry Brooks’s structure as well. I have Story Engineering but haven’t read that one yet. I guess I should, huh? 😉 Thanks for the comment!
I heard from quite a few people that I needed to read “Save the Cat” so I ordered it around Christmas. It sat on my sofa table for about a month and I’ve now misplaced it in the disaster I call my office. Tonight when I get home from work, I am going to find it and finally read it! Thanks for the kick in the pants.
I am in desperate need for a plan to “fix” my NaNo book. I started November with a germ of an idea and a few characters. November was a crazy panster haze. I’ve never written with less of a plan in mind. Hopefully, I’m not as far off as I fear.
Took some time on my extended lunch break to plot out my WIP (the aforementioned NaNo piece) using the Beat Sheet. Mine pretty much follows the sheet. I still have to weed through # 8 Fun and Games (or what I like to call Faerie Shenanigans Ensue), but I’m sort of on track. Yay for me!
Oh yay! 🙂 Happy to help!
I hope you discover some good bones in your story too. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!
I’m in the middle of the first round of revisions for a recently completed novel, and I’m appalled at how many times I used the word “try”. What I thought would be a bit of relatively minor surgery for my first pass has resulted in a lot of hair pulling and whimpering.
That’s how I roll, though. I go through and find my overused words and edit them out. Then I stick it in a drawer and forget about it for a while. A long while 🙂
By the way, what exactly do you mean by “pantsed”?
Ugh. Overused words kill me. I’ve gotten much better at avoiding “that,” although I still do a “that” check on every blog post before hitting “publish.” 🙂 I’m less good about weeding out “even,” “still,” and “just.”
“Pantsed” is a term meaning “by the seat of your pants.” In other words, some writers plot out a story in advance. In their head, they know not only the characters, premise, and core conflict, but they also have thoughts about most of the big scenes and turning points. Some writers go so far as to outline the whole story. Other writers will have a character and a premise…and that’s about it.
In my novella, a spam comment to my blog inspired the story, and those 8 words became the first part of the first sentence. When I started, that’s all I had. 8 words. 🙂 The rest flowed from there. Does that answer your question? Thanks for the comment!
Totally. Now I know I’m a pantster!
🙂 No problem. I’m a “whatever works.” LOL!
OMG! This couldn’t have come at a better time! I just started revisions on my first “plotted” novel AND just started reading Save The Cat. Thank you! Thank you!
Great! So happy I could help. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Ty ty ty 😀
I love excel spreadsheets.
You’re welcome! I love how clean this spreadsheet makes the analysis. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
In all the novels I’ve analyzed with Blake’s beat sheet the stated theme is the hardest to find. And I think that’s one area that if we can fit it in naturally than great. But this beat sheet is for movies and movies are a bit different. Our theme is throughout the entire book and doesn’t necessarily need to be stated on a certain page but if we can….why not do it?
Thank you for that insight! As I said, I’ve just recently started analyzing stories against this beat sheet, so I wasn’t sure if my experience was “normal” or not. Like you mentioned, movies are different than stories, so books have more options for how to allude to the theme–internal monologue, etc. Thanks for the comment!
I’m a huge fan of Blake Snyder and the beat sheet. But I hadn’t seen it in spreadsheet form! #verynice I was cracking open Save the Cat again just yesterday, checking things over. (And I use it all the time in pretty much every draft). Great post!
I happy to help! I hope the spreadsheet makes things easier for you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve read ‘Save the Cat’ but haven’t begun using the beat sheet in my revision or plotting stages. As you know, I started out as a complete pantser but now I’m leaning more towards the plotter. But still, a good beat sheet is needed on both sides of the fence.
With revisions I normally work through the novel several times, each time focusing on one particular aspect: plot, characterization, grammar, etc. With the best sheet, I’m sure that process may become a little easier, especially if I use it during the plotting phase first then follow back around during revisions.
Thanks again! 🙂
I like applicable advice, which is why I dug out that poor, neglected spreadsheet as I was reading along in the book. 🙂 I hope it helps. Thanks for the comment!
I’ve read and love Save the Cat, Snyder is brilliant. I’ve looked at using the beat sheet but got lost in the math transforming it from screenplay to novel length. Thanks for the links to the Excel sheet, it looks awesome and I can’t wait to test it out on some of my shorter projects. I have one in particular that is ready to be revised and was pantsed originally so it will make for a solid test. Will let you know how it works out.
By the way, I normally plan out longer works (40k or larger) and pants anything shorter. Since I can write through the shorter works in a couple days it is easy to just run with the concept or idea that spawns the story then to spend weeks planning for a two to four day write.
Yes, please let me know how the spreadsheet works for you. 🙂 I hope it helps!
And I agree about how shorter works are easier to pants than longer ones. My novella was a breeze to revise even though I added about 7K words to it. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I use sticky notes on a timeline with the % points laid out on it when I plan a novel so I don’t need to do so much revision later because I’ve written the whole thing with a strong plot arc already, but I used an excel spreadsheet to plot the emotional arcs of the characters in one novel (which I shelved) and that was really helpful. I guess I’m a plotter these days, but I always allow myself the freedom to diverge from the plan.
I always diverge from the plan too. 🙂 The main thing with plotting vs. pantsing in my own experience has been knowing whether a scene has a point before I write it. LOL! Luckily, my muse seems to know what he’s doing. Thanks for the comment!
Liz’s beat sheet is seriously the best thing on the internet for writers – she was awesome to do this. I definitely filled it out for the first draft of my WIP and you’re reminding me to do it for this rewrite!
Yes, the spreadsheet is awesome. 🙂 I’m glad I could help others learn about it. Thanks for the comment and good luck on your revisions!
Thanks for such a great post, Jami! Can’t wait to give it a go.
No problem. 🙂 I hope it helps!
A new strategy for my monster revision of a pantsed project and it includes a spreadsheet! The only that could have made my inner dork happier is if you’d found a way to incorporate a Venn Diagram. Thanks!
LOL! Sorry, no Venn Diagram. 🙂 I hope it helps with your monster revision too. Thanks for the comment!
[…] Jami Gold: How To Use The “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet for Revisions. Excellent downloadable sheet with this post that you’ll want to check […]
[…] Jami Gold has an awesome spreadsheet linked in her post How to Use the “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet for Revisions […]
I have heard about Save The Cat for a while and know of published authors who swear by the beat sheets. Thanks for the spreadsheet link! Can’t wait to try it out 🙂
Love the post Jami and will include it in next week’s blog love 🙂
No problem. 🙂 I hope it helps! Thanks for the comment!
[…] spreadsheets I’ve seen can be found through Jami Gold’s site this week in her post How to Use the “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet for Revisions Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggMoreStumbleUponRedditTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]
This sounds like a great idea. I already love STC for plotting. I’ll have to check out the spreadsheet. Thanks, Jami!
No problem. 🙂 I’ve decided I love using this method to get a story overview before starting revisions. Thanks for the comment!
This is SO cool! I’ve used James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure as a guide, and I also use index cards. But I’m going to save that beat sheet for novels and maybe use it next time. Thanks!
My desk is too messy to use index cards. They’d all get lost. 😉 I hope this helps! Thanks for the comment!
[…] Gold shows us How to Use the Save The Cat Beat Sheet for Revisions. Awesome spreadsheet link included in Jami’s […]
[…] Writing Stuff 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 […]
I’ll have to take a closer look at this best sheet than my phone allows, but it sounds just like advice given in The Plot Whidperer which I’ve been reading. When I check my completed novel against those beat markers, I was shocked to see how closely they lined up. And though I am a plotter, I knew absolutely nothing when I wrote that book. I wonder if that sort of thing can be intuitive???
I haven’t reviewed the Plot Whisperer, but I think that author is coming to the local conference (Desert Dreams) in April. I’ll have to check that out. And yes, we’re exposed to stories all the time with books, movies, TV shows, etc., that it is possible to have an intuitive sense of what needs to happen next in a story arc. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
This is awesome! Thanks for the reminder of the beat sheet. I’m starting revisions today, and think I’ll give this a shot. I’m still fumbling around for the best way for me to get it all right, so who knows. This might be the very thing I needed!
I hope the spreadsheet helps. 🙂 I’ve really enjoyed seeing the big picture from it. Thanks for the comment!