Story telling has a long history, that is likely older than the written language. For as long as we’ve shared our experiences, there has been a certain structure to a story. There are many theories and methods of telling a story, and this one is not my own. It comes from Blake Snyder and his Save the Cat method of preparing and/or analyzing a movie script.
While writing a novel is different from writing a script, the 15 beats of the Save the Cat methodology can serve as a guide to checking the basic overall health of any story, whether it be the message of a business, the structure of a good joke, or an epic novel series.
Understanding this structure has helped me write faster, better, and longer. Like a long distance runner, writing a novel takes perseverance, training, and a goal. If you don’t understand the goal of your writing, it’s hard to keep going back every day, or three times a week to add another 1000 words. No marathon runner wins a marathon without practice and training, and no author ever finished a best selling book on the same day they started it.
There have been many times I’ve gotten half way through writing a story and can’t continue, because I can’t figure out how it will end. But now, it is much easier to write the novel outline by knowing the structure the novel should have. I don’t construct the outline using the 15 beats in order. Instead, I usually use the following process:
Beats 1, 3, 4, and 5. These define the start of the book.
1. Opening Image – This is how the hero first appears to the reader, and should start on page 1. It gives the reader a brief introduction to their situation, and it includes what is missing from their character and/or goals in life. Luke Skywalker lives on a small farm on an unimportant planet and wants to get out among the stars. He’s whiny, and perhaps a bit lazy.
3. Set-up – This includes the introduction to the entire world, including the bad guy. What is the problem with the world that the hero has to fix? The Empire rules the galaxy through fear, and the damsel in distress has information that can strike the first blow against it, but she needs help.
4. Catalyst – Something happens to drag the hero out of their current life and into the conflict. This is most often something that upsets the delicate balance of the serene life (or crummy life) that the hero has been living. Bilbo leaves the Shire, and Frodo inherits the One Ring, as well as Bag End.
5. Debate – The time for a decision is upon them. The hero (or heroes) must make a choice, or have the choice made for them. The catalyst now grows into something they cannot ignore. Frodo learns that the Black Riders are looking for the ring, and have his name and address. Time to run!
Sometimes these first four steps are the hardest. It requires the writer to know and understand the goals, ambitions, desires, and flaws of the hero and the villain, as well as the world in which they act. Now that the hero must act, what action or goal do they set out to accomplish? Luke must get the droids to Alderan. Frodo must get the ring to safety. The reason this section is the most important and the place to start, is that it defines the rest of the structure. I often revise and refine this section as I create the rest of the outline, but without this section properly in place, with healthy characters, and a good understanding of the world they live in, the plot structure will fall apart.
Those of you who pay attention will notice I skipped over #2 – Theme Stated. This is because at this point, I’m not certain of the theme. It usually comes to me later. I don’t write my books by starting with a theme, though other people do. That is because in order to start with the theme, the characters, conflict, and world must be built around it. Instead I write with a purpose in mind. The theme of the book isn’t as important to me as the message of the series. For me, the story is a vehicle to entertain the reader while I demonstrate an example that makes my point. For the Warriors & Watchmen Series, I’m trying to help the readers understand the prophecies of the Second Coming. They are difficult for most people to understand, and I believe I have a gift of comprehending difficult concepts, like Isaiah’s prophecies, and making them easier for others to understand. For the Dragons’ Bane Chronicles, I’m mostly trying to entertain the reader, but also show that in the end, it is the small and important things that undo the greatest of evils.
Next week I will continue this journey of how to set up a novel outline to avoid writers’ block.