Blake Snyder positioned the beat sheet as absolutely essential to Save the Cat! (StC), but, despite that, he didn’t really talk about it much. Instead, he moved on to a list of increasingly bizarre writing rules. In contrast, Jessica Brody devotes most of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (WaN) to that very same beat sheet. She doesn’t have any writing rules to take up space, and as we covered last week, her genre chapters are mostly an excuse to apply the beat sheet to different stories.
Unfortunately, a higher word count hasn’t improved the beat sheet much. It’s still the same quasi-outline it was in StC, except with more equivocation on what each section means. Okay, that’s not entirely fair: Brody did officially divide it into acts instead of just counting on us to puzzle out that “Break Into 2” meant starting act 2 rather than chopping the story in half. Oh, and now we have percentages instead of page numbers!*
- Opening Image (0 TO 1%)
- Theme Stated (5%)
- Setup (1% TO 10%)
- Catalyst (10%)
- Debate (10% TO 20%)
- Break Into 2 (20%)
- B Story (22%)
- Fun and Games (20% TO 50%)
- Midpoint (50%)
- Bad Guys Close In (50% TO 75%)
- All Is Lost (75%)
- Dark Night of the Soul (75% TO 80%)
- Break Into 3 (80%)
- Finale (80% TO 99%)
- Final Image (99% TO 100%)
Isn’t it a beauty? Now, let’s talk about why it won’t help you.
Several Points Are Meaningless
A common motif between StC and WaN is for Brody to take an obviously nonsense point of Snyder’s, initially phrase it the same way he did, and then backtrack to say that actually, the point could mean a bunch of different things. This does obscure how silly the initial idea is, but it also makes Brody’s definition so vague as to include almost anything that could conceivably happen.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Debate, where Snyder imagines a hero literally spending 10 minutes deciding whether to go on the adventure or not. Obviously, most heroes don’t do that, and suggesting they should is a nonstarter. Brody’s version of the Debate keeps Snyder’s definition but then says it could also mean things like investigating what’s going on, preparing for the adventure, or already being on the adventure. Great, so in this section… things should happen. Got it.
Speaking of extreme vagueness, we have Fun and Games. Snyder imagined this as a long, low-tension sequence where the hero just messes around for a while, which he claimed would fulfill the “promise of the premise.” The closest match in a real movie would be how many superhero origin stories include a section where the protagonist experiments with their newly acquired powers. These sections trade tension for novelty, which can work, but you’ll notice that most stories don’t have anything like them.
Brody is way vaguer than Snyder. She keeps the idea of fulfilling the promise of the premise, but since she gives no idea on how to do that or how to come up with a premise in the first place, you’re left entirely on your own. There’s nothing to distinguish this section from any other part of the story, and indeed, a lot of Brody’s examples make no distinction.
Most notably, she says that in The Martian, the Fun and Games is Watney learning to survive on Mars, and in The Hunger Games, it’s Katniss learning to survive in the arena. You may notice that in both cases, that’s the entire book! Instead of saying anything specific, Brody’s beat sheet takes 30% of your novel and says “plot happens here.” What a fundamental part of storytelling.
Speaking of fundamental, Snyder once noticed that some movies shift gears about halfway through, so now we have the Midpoint. In StC, Snyder argues that this should contain a “false victory,” but he was extremely light on what that meant. Brody expands the idea, saying that there can be a false victory or a false defeat, by which she apparently means a real victory or a real defeat, since few of her examples have anything false about them.
Her description is so broad that any instance of the hero winning or losing something near the middle of the story would qualify. You can see how it would be easy to find examples of that in most books and also why it doesn’t mean anything.
Finally, the fakest point on the entire beat sheet is the Dark Night of the Soul. Snyder barely talked about this section, describing it only as the moment following All Is Lost, but Brody goes further, saying that it should portray the hero “wallowing” in their grief. But as an example, she describes Katniss mourning Rue’s death, which isn’t wallowing by any definition; that’s just being sad that a sad thing happened.
Brody then backtracks, again, and says that any reaction to a bad event can qualify. Hmm. So, my characters should react in some way when a negative event occurs? Perhaps in the context of who that character is and the specific event in question? Wow, I could never have figured that out on my own!
Once again, in an attempt to make Snyder’s ideas less obviously silly, Brody has made them so broad as to be essentially meaningless. This won’t be the last time either.
Other Points Omit Vital Instructions
Not every point on WaN’s beat sheet is so vague as to be meaningless; a few even have glimmers of good ideas in them. The only problem is that ideas are all they have. Brody almost never gives us even the basics on how to accomplish the thing she’s talking about.
This is super prominent in the B Story section. Here, the hero is supposed to meet a side character who will help drive their internal arc. Why this should specifically happen 22% of the way through the book is anyone’s guess, but it’s not a terrible idea, as a lot of character arcs benefit from having someone on the outside to push things along.
So how should I design this supporting character to assist with the hero’s arc? Eh, uh, hmm. Who knows? Brody gives a few examples of love interests, then mentions the possibility that the supporting character might “inspire” the hero to grow and change. How that inspiration works is left as an exercise for the student.
The only concrete suggestion Brody gives is that the secondary character could have the same flaw as the hero but to a higher degree, providing the hero a lesson on what might happen if the problem isn’t resolved. That’s something, but it’s not even a dent in the huge number of potential character arcs out there!
This same process plays out in the Midpoint, where, in addition to fitting in false victories/defeats, the A Story and B Story are supposed to “intersect.” Those are Brody’s terms for the exterior and interior conflict, respectively, so it’s not a bad idea. Those two plots should relate to each other; otherwise, one will feel like a distraction from the other.
But the only instruction Brody gives is that characters associated with the A Story should briefly meet characters associated with the B Story. She means this literally: they should physically meet in a scene. I have no idea how this constitutes an intersection or what value it adds to the story. It sounds more like advice for the two arcs to quietly pass each other by, like ships in the night.
Believe it or not, that’s a step-by-step instruction manual compared to Break Into 3. Here, the hero is supposed to have a “breakthrough” where they figure out a new course of action that will win the day. Whether this corresponds to the A Story or B Story is unclear, but whatever! What’s important is that we’re finally going to get some instruction on how the hero figures out a solution to their problems.
If you believed that, I have a fictional bridge to sell you. There’s no instruction on how to do this, just that you should do it. It’s especially irritating because solving your hero’s problems is one of the toughest jobs an author has. If the solution is too easy, no one cares. If it’s too difficult, no one believes it. Brody thinks you already know all that and your real problem is not knowing which chapter the solution should appear in.
The Final Image has a similar problem. Snyder envisioned it as an actual image that would show how much the character has changed, somehow. Brody uses the same idea, even though we’re no longer discussing a visual medium. I believe she’s referring to what us plebeians would call an “epilogue,” which she thinks should be used to demonstrate that the hero has successfully completed their arc.
That’s not really what an epilogue is for,* but more importantly, how am I supposed to do that? Brody’s main example is Katniss getting on a train at the end of The Hunger Games, which somehow demonstrates that she’s a rebel now. Except she isn’t. She won’t become a rebel until late in the next book, so I have no idea what Brody is talking about.
So much of Brody’s instruction is like this. Instead of telling you how to do something, she thinks the hard part is figuring out where to put it. Like you’ve already completed your masterful oil painting, and now you need a little advice on where to hang it for the best lighting.
The Rest Are Just Confused
Finally, we get to a select few beats where Brody gives some actual instruction on an idea that could be helpful in certain circumstances, but she prescribes them far too broadly. Like Snyder, Brody often sees a specific story element working in the wild, then extrapolates to putting it in all stories all the time.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the Catalyst. Any other book of writing advice would call this the inciting incident, as it’s clearly inspired by the Hero’s Journey. But we’re in the Snyderverse now,* so everything has to be uniquely branded. Brody describes this beat as a disaster that forces the hero to do… something. She’s not super clear on what, but we can extrapolate that the “something” is getting involved in the main plot.
In The Hunger Games, this is Prim getting picked for the arena and Katniss volunteering instead. That book matches Brody’s description to a T. Prim is Katniss’s little sister, so this is a disaster of the highest order, and it also forces Katniss to take a specific action. It even happens at about the right place in the book for Brody’s percentages.
What Brody misses is that this Catalyst or inciting incident is a means rather than an end in itself. The purpose is to get the protagonist involved in the main plot, and the method Brody outlines is just one way to do that. In some books, the hero is already involved from the first page, like Watney in The Martian. He’s trapped on Mars before the story even starts, so there’s nothing in the book that corresponds to a Catalyst. Or you could look at the Game of Thrones model, where Eddard is slowly drawn into the growing power struggle between the other Great Houses. There’s no single event to identify there and certainly nothing that matches the disaster Brody wants.
The Setup section is similar, though a little less blatant. Here, Brody says to establish your hero’s world before the Catalyst, which is already making a bunch of assumptions, because not all books have Catalysts. Effectively, this is the character’s backstory. And yeah, if the character’s backstory is important, you should spend some time establishing it.
But if the backstory isn’t important, you’ve just wasted the first 10% of your book, which is a long time. Often, once the hero sets off on their adventure, the friends and family they left back home don’t matter anymore, so they don’t warrant all this setup. That’s why Lord of the Rings really should have spent less time messing around in the Shire.*
WaN’s advice has nothing to differentiate what kind of story you’re working on, so you’re just as likely to end up with pointless filler as important setup. A similar problem pops up in Break Into 2, where Snyder and Brody both say the story should move into a “new world.” Snyder is pretty clear that this means a new location, while Brody is more evasive, saying it can be a “metaphorical” new world. Most of her examples still involve a new location though.
It’s true that many books feature a flashy change around this point in the story, and in most cases, the reason is to add more novelty. That’s why the first Narnia book starts with an old manor in the English countryside, then moves to an enchanted world with witches and talking animals. The manor had some novelty, but the magic kingdom has a lot more. It’s also part of the plot, because if it wasn’t, no amount of novelty would keep it from being an annoying distraction.
Brody doesn’t understand the purpose of switching worlds like this, so there’s nothing specific about how to make the new world interesting or novel. It’s changing worlds for the sake of changing worlds. Following Brody’s advice, the Pevensie children could have gone through the wardrobe and ended up in Cleveland instead of Narnia, as that would still be a new world! Likewise, not understanding novelty means that WaN can’t account for the times a story might switch worlds outside the 20% mark. You only get one new world per book; does it look like we’re made of worlds here?
By far my favorite is the All Is Lost moment, which Snyder and Brody are fairly consistent on. They describe it as the hero hitting rock bottom, where everything has gone wrong in their life and they are at their lowest point. They even both phrase it in terms of the hero’s character arc, with this beat supposedly leaving your protagonist ready for their big change.
I just watched Legally Blonde, and it has a moment exactly like this where Elle quits her legal internship after being sexually harassed by a man she looked up to.* She leaves the case she was working on and is about to give up on her dream of becoming a lawyer entirely. Things are worse for her now than at any other time in the movie, and it even happens at about the right place. It lines up so well that I’d bet dollars to donuts Snyder got the idea from watching this scene.
Here’s the thing: most stories do not have a moment that lines up like this. Instead, they have moments where bad things happen to increase tension. The bad guys get stronger and harder to beat; the conflict escalates so the hero is now fighting for lives other than their own; a character dies to make it seem more likely that other characters might also die. These moments happen throughout most stories, but they get more intense as the climax nears, because that’s when tension needs to be highest. This can give the impression of an All Is Lost moment, but usually it’s part of a continuing process.
Brody doesn’t understand the purpose of these moments, which is why in her 1984 example, she describes getting arrested as Winston’s lowest moment. His actual lowest moment comes much later, when he betrays Julia under torture. The arrest is simply to raise tension.
In these beats, Brody is following Snyder’s proudest tradition: seeing that a storytelling element exists but not understanding why it works. It’s like realizing that heating a scalpel before surgery means less chance of infection, but because you don’t know what germs are, you throw all your medical equipment in the fire hoping for a similar result. Anything not made of metal is damaged or destroyed, and the patient can still get infected, because you didn’t know to wash your hands.
Brody Leaves Out Everything Important
We’ve covered what’s wrong with the advice Brody gives, but even more important is the advice she doesn’t give. Specifically, she barely touches on the most important aspects of storytelling, and some of them she leaves out entirely. That’s a pretty glaring problem in a book that sells itself as the last word on novel writing.
Let’s start with characters, shall we? Brody is heavily devoted to character arcs, but she has almost nothing to say on making characters likable. The one time she addresses the topic, her advice is to give them one “redeeming quality, action, or hobby.” Her main example is a story where beta readers didn’t like her protagonist, and her solution was to give the protagonist drawing skills. That’s not redeeming in any sense of the word!*
This is actually a regression from Snyder, who, for all his problems, had a pretty good understanding of likability. Brody barely seems interested in the topic. And for all her focus on the hero learning lessons, I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to resolve a character arc using the WaN method. I’m supposed to give the hero a lot of flaws, and then they learn a lesson, but how do I match the lesson to the flaws? How do I make the reader care? Maybe the answer is buried in the book somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.
As for plot, Brody’s only advice is to base the A Story on something the character wants, and then the rest will apparently take care of itself. Despite summarizing a bunch of different books, there’s nothing about making the main plot compelling or how to keep it going across the length of a novel.
The closest Brody gets is her “bouncing ball” theory of plotting, which is the idea that the hero should face an alternating series of victories and defeats. If you already know how conflict and tension work, you could make an exciting story that resembles Brody’s idea, with the losses raising tension and the victories providing brief respites. If you don’t have that knowledge, then victories and defeats will be equally boring, because they aren’t building up to anything. And that’s assuming you know how to construct conflicts at the scene level.
If you somehow manage to construct a working plot anyway, Brody’s advice for resolving it is pretty slim. By the beat sheet’s end, she’s lost most of the distinction between the A and B Stories, so it’s often hard to tell what she’s even talking about. Then she introduces a series of climactic “sub beats” that aren’t even on the main sheet, but apparently those are optional.
But this is a wealth of information compared to worldbuilding, on which Brody has exactly nothing to say. In 341 pages, worldbuilding isn’t mentioned even once. There’s nothing about designing believable cultures or cool environments, not a word about magic systems. It would be easy to conclude that Brody just doesn’t like speculative fiction, but she’s written several fantasy and scifi novels, so I don’t know what’s going on there.
Ordinarily, a book on writing advice wouldn’t need to cover every important aspect of storytelling. Instead, it could specialize in whatever topic the author wanted to write about. But WaN is supposed to be the last book on novel writing you’ll ever need, so it doesn’t get any slack. A book making that kind of claim should at least include all the basics, but instead, Brody assumes you already know how to write a novel, then sells you a bunch of bells and whistles on top of that. Also, most of the bells and whistles are broken.
Following This Sheet Will Only Waste Your Time
I’m not convinced that anyone has actually finished a novel using WaN’s beat sheet, but what would happen if you tried? Assuming you weren’t already an expert, you’d start with a character who has a whole laundry list of flaws, many of which you don’t have time to address. But it’s fine; you gave the character a neat hobby, so readers are sure to care about them anyway.
Then, you have a bunch of exposition where nothing is happening, because you need to establish all the people in your hero’s social circles. Once you’re done with that, it’s time for a disaster that will somehow motivate your hero to do something.
It’s hard to project further, because Brody has so little advice on how to craft a plot. But there’s a long section where the story meanders around because Brody’s only direction is to fulfill the “promise of the premise,” and your hero meets some extra characters who are related to the internal conflict in an unspecified way.
Finally, something bad happens that might be the worst thing your hero has ever experienced, or it might be a more commonplace problem. It’s okay though, because your hero pulls a solution out of thin air and then learns a lesson. How many of the hero’s flaws does that lesson address? Only Brody knows.
It’s ironic that Brody has an entire section where she bridles at the beat sheet being called a “formula,” because a real storytelling formula could be pretty cool. The fear is that it would make all stories the same, but it might just as easily serve as a base for authors to build on top of, the same way open-source rules do in the TTRPG community.
We won’t find out today though, because WaN is definitely not a novel-writing formula. It’s more like a novel-writing blender. You put ideas into it, and it shreds them into a nearly unrecognizable form. And at the same time, Brody and Snyder before her have the gall to tell you that they’ve figured it all out. If you read their books and still can’t produce a masterpiece, it must be due to some fault in your character.
Not only is this book a waste of money, it’s a waste of self-esteem. It’s hard enough to struggle through writing on your own; now, you can do that while also being lectured on how easy it is with this one weird trick!
The bad news is that this kind of extreme overpromising is pretty common in books on writing advice. I’ve seen it from a host of other books, blogs, and podcasts. The reason I’m covering StC and WaN rather than any of those others is that thanks to Snyder’s popularity, these two books are already well known, so I don’t have to worry that I’m giving them free press.
The good news is that we’re finally done with Save the Cat!, hopefully forever. Brody does have a new book coming out about YA novels, but I probably won’t cover it. After all, WaN has already taught me everything I need to know, right? What more could there be to learn?
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