February 9, 2012

How to Use the “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet for Revisions

Cover image of Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat"

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.

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[…] points of view. I’d like to draft initial character goals and arcs, attempt to use the Save the Cat Beat Sheet (every project I try; every project I abandon it). Scribble in my cheapie story notebook to get […]


[…] for each scene that will keep you focussed later on. Jamie Gold does a comprehensive blog about it here. She also has a bunch of different beat sheets in her resources for […]


[…] a beat sheet at the ready, revising it often as I write, and track my adherence to the form using a beat sheet excel spreadsheet. But it wasn’t until I read Peter Dunne’s book Emotional Structure that I realized the […]

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