Last week, Slate.com ran an article about how Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book is ruining movies. According to that post’s author, “Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. … Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.”
I’ve run enough posts here about beat sheets—and have even created beat sheets to help novelists—that it’s obvious I’m a fan of them. In fact, yesterday I guest posted at Pauline Baird Jones’s blog about how I became addicted to beat sheets. (Pauline chose the guest post prize for her win in my Blogiversary contest—yay!)
So you all knew I was going to have something to say about this article that’s beating up on beat sheets. *smile*
Are Stories Formulaic?
On some level, stories are formulaic. But that’s not due to the existence of beat sheets. Storytelling itself is formulaic: a protagonist faces obstacles. Boom, done. On a generic level, every story has already been done.
That’s the nature of storytelling, and has been the case since the dawn of sitting around a campfire. Beat sheets didn’t create that truth and they didn’t change the definition of storytelling.
What makes one story different from another has always resided in the details. In a quest story, does the protagonist volunteer or are they forced? Is the quest the real goal or a red herring? Will they overcome the obstacles with brains, brawn, or both? Who joins them in their quest and why? Is the quest for themselves or a higher goal? The details change everything.
So for someone to pick on stories being the same because when you strip out the details they all follow the “character faces and overcomes obstacles” formula, I’m going to say “duh.” That’s storytelling.
Did the “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet Change Movies?
Do screenwriters pay more attention to beats now than before the 2005 release of Blake Snyder’s book? Undoubtedly. Partly that’s because we now have names for all the storytelling structures that have always existed. Name recognition works for concepts too.
However, Save the Cat didn’t change storytelling structure itself. Blake Snyder didn’t invent these beats. He was simply the first to lay them out in an easy-to-understand presentation.
What Do Beats Have to Do with Storytelling?
Simple logic demonstrates that a story wouldn’t be a story without many of the beats Blake Snyder identified. Especially when we look at the plot events of the main story, we can’t see any beats we could leave out:
- Opening Image: Stories are about change, so logically we need a “before” to go with the “after” later on.
- Set-up: When else would you introduce the characters? At the end of the story?
- Catalyst: Something has to trigger the change.
- Debate: The protagonist must react to the Catalyst.
- Midpoint: Many of us are all too familiar with the problem of a “sagging middle” in our writing and embrace this opportunity to raise the stakes.
- Bad Guys Close In: This is simply another way of raising stakes before the Black Moment.
- All is Lost/Black Moment: Again, stories are about change, and that requires contrast. Before the triumph of the Finale, we need the darkness of lost hope.
- Finale: Unless the story has a tragic ending, the obstacles will be overcome in some way.
- Final Image: This is the final opportunity to make the story feel like a story, and that means emphasizing the change that has occurred from beginning to end.
Even the ancient Greek epic poem the Iliad by Homer has story events that match these beats. A simplified version of the plot reveals classic storytelling beats:
- Set-up: Introduction to Achilles, the great warrior of the Trojan War
- Catalyst/Debate: Achilles decides Agamemnon’s response to the plague is an insult and refuses to fight.
- Midpoint: Defeat of the Achaean army seems inevitable.
- Bad Guys Close In: Feeling guilty, Achilles sends his best friend into the fight to help out in his place, and his friend is killed.
- All is Lost/Black Moment: Worse, Achilles can’t rejoin the fight himself because the bad guys took his special armor off his dead friend.
- Finale: The gods agree to give him new armor and he triumphs over the enemy.
Yes, storytelling beats are literally classic. *smile* The existence of beats is not suddenly ruining anything.
How Can We Prevent a Story from Feeling Formulaic?
Maybe the real question should be how we can prevent a story from feeling formulaic. After all, if we can’t change storytelling or these beats, we need to write so we’re meeting the storytelling expectations in a unique way.
This is where we see the real failing of some writers:
- Predictability: If we choose the predictable or obvious plot event for each of the beats, readers will feel like they know what happens before it does.
Plot twists and/or exploring the predictable from a unique angle or depth can help us avoid this issue. Depending the laziness of our muse, sometimes the first idea that comes to us will be the predictable one and we’ll have to dig deeper for other ideas.
- Rigidity: If we pay more attention to getting the beats on the exact right page than to the overall story flow, we will create stories with fluff or uneven pacing.
Novelists have more freedom than screenwriters for allowing the beats to land in a page range. We shouldn’t cut short the reaction or set up between beats just to meet a page number. Similarly, we shouldn’t pad our writing just to stretch to a page number either.
One point the Slate article got right was that Jurassic Park doesn’t follow all the beats exactly. Many of the beats I didn’t include up above, like “Fun and Games,” can be more flexible than others. To some extent, not all beats are created equal.
As I mentioned in my post about how those who write by the seat of their pants can use beat sheets, I tend to focus on the big four beats. In Blake’s terms, those are Catalyst/Debate, Midpoint, Black Moment, and Finale.
Every standard story must have those beats, and they must be in that order. For pacing purposes, they should occur fairly close to the recommended page numbers (plus or minus 5-10%). Everything else is more flexible.
In other words, beat sheets are guidelines rather than unbendable rules. Just as our characters shouldn’t be puppets to the plot, we shouldn’t be puppets to the beat sheet. The beats themselves will work for us as long as we recognize they’re only one element out of many that make a story good.
Three-dimensional character development, stakes that matter, motivations that elicit sympathy, writing craft that doesn’t pull the reader out of the story, etc., all play just as big of a part in whether our story will be enjoyable. If we remember that beat sheets are tools and not merely a fill-in-the-blank form, we’ll succeed at carrying on the storytelling tradition. *smile*
P.S. Don’t forget to visit my guest post about beat sheets at Pauline’s blog too. Help her feel that winning “me” (and my guest post) in my Blogiversary contest was a good thing. *grin*
Do you think movies have become more formulaic in the past few years? Do you analyze other stories for their beats? Have you loved any stories that don’t conform to the storytelling beats at all? Do you struggle with not letting beat sheets dictate your story? Or do you simply find them a helpful tool?Pin It