What is a Beat Sheet?
You’ve come up with a premise for a novel you can’t wait to explore. You have an idea of the characters, the setting, and even a handful of scenes you definitely want to include. But without a comprehensive plot to string everything together, you can run into problems. Writing yourself into a corner. A series of scenes with no clear destination. Difficulty even knowing where to start.
That’s where a beat sheet comes in. A beat sheet is a form of outlining that helps you clearly define every significant plot point along the way. Not only does it keep your story on track, but it also helps you figure out how and where to add essential ingredients like character growth and theme. It also shows you how to deliver a well-earned ending.
Beat sheets were popularized in 2005 by screenwriter Blake Snyder with his book Save the Cat!. In 2018, author and Writing Mastery Academy founder Jessica Brody adapted the beat sheet for novelists with her bestselling book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.
While there are many approaches writers can take to structure a story, the Save the Cat! beat sheet works well for both obsessive "outliners" and spontaneous “pantsers,” and for those who are some combination of the two! Read on for an overview of the fifteen beats of the Save the Cat! beat sheet that will guide your way through your novel, from beginning to satisfying end.
Act 1: “The Status Quo World”
The first act of the book is to show your reader what your protagonist’s life is like before it’s completely upended. It shows us their goals, their flaws, and what kind of person they are.
The first scene should be an active image where we’re not told, but shown, what your character’s life is like. What challenges do they face that keep them from being happy? The opening scene also sets the tone, so the reader knows what kind of book it will be.
The theme is the lesson your main character will learn by the end. Somewhere early on, a secondary character should make a comment hinting at how the protagonist’s flaws are holding them back. Your character will brush this comment off. But your reader will notice it, because life lessons are universal, and they’ll want to see how this character will learn it.
During the first tenth of your novel, give a comprehensive view of your protagonist’s life. We’ll learn their goal and how they’ve tried to accomplish it so far. We’ll see them at home, work, and play, and see how their flaws manifest in each environment. And we’ll see that these flaws have progressed to the point where life is going downhill, and that if they don’t change, they’ll end up losing everything that matters.
The catalyst is the huge event that happens to the protagonist and changes everything. It introduces the central conflict they’ll be facing for the rest of the story—the conflict your reader picked up the book for. The catalyst should be so life-changing that there’s no way for your protagonist to go back to life as it was. They have to deal with this first.
This catalyst will have been so major, though, that your character won’t be ready to deal with it. The debate beat gives your character a moment to ask questions like: Is there any way around facing this? What are my options? This gives your character, and your reader, a moment to breathe before plunging into the heart of the story.
Act 2: “The Upside-Down World”
The first act of the book showed the protagonist in their comfort zone—and now the second act will put them as far from that comfort zone as possible. With the catalyst, their world has been flipped upside-down, and nothing will ever be the same again.
Break Into 2
Your protagonist has accepted that they must answer this call to action, so with the next scene, show a solid image of them in this brand new world. We see their level of commitment as they enter Act 2.
Your character’s new world will come with a new character or characters who will ultimately help them learn the life lesson, or theme, that we mentioned above. The new character may be a love interest, a sidekick, a mentor, a friend, or even an adversary.
Fun and Games
From now until the midpoint, you’re going all-in on the promise of the premise—that central conflict that you introduced with the catalyst, the reason your reader picked up the book. Show us how your protagonist copes in this new world so far outside their comfort zone, while also building their relationship with the new B character.
The midpoint is a big turning point that changes everything yet again. If your protagonist’s story has been going well so far, they might finally get what they thought they wanted; if their story’s been dire, they’ll feel like giving up. But the midpoint changes the trajectory. Adding a ticking clock is a great way to up the stakes and tension for the second half. As with the catalyst, your protagonist should not be able to go back to life as it was before the midpoint.
Bad Guys Close In
Your protagonist hasn’t learned the theme yet, and this beat is where it becomes undeniable that they will lose everything if they don’t change—usually because, by this point, they have started losing everything. Their refusal to change is destroying them. This is where conflict, stakes, and tension really amp up and any bad guys (antagonists) you have in your story start to close in.
All Is Lost
Your protagonist hits rock bottom. Not only have they lost almost everything, but whatever is most important to them has been taken too—someone’s life, a friendship, the morals they swore never to compromise. And it’s their own failure to change that led them here.
Dark Night of the Soul
Just as in the debate beat, your protagonist needs a moment to process the all is lost beat. But the catalyst beat was something that happened to your character; the all is lost beat is something your character did to themself. So the questions they’re asking now tend to reflect on how they ended up here, with a realization that will force them to see the need for change—and this time, be ready to embrace it.
Act 3: “The Synthesis World"
The last act of the book shows the naïve protagonist from Act 1 fuse with the lessons learned in Act 2 to become their best self—the person neither they nor the reader could have imagined at the beginning.
Break Into 3
Show your protagonist’s conscious decision to pursue the next step—the one where they’ll face their mistakes, resolve all the problems from Act 2, and fix things the right way this time.
Although your protagonist’s new plan shouldn’t go off perfectly, they use all the experience they’ve gained from Act 2, combined with whatever they’ve learned about themself and their flaws from the B character, and prove that they’ve learned the theme—and not just a little, but enough to fix the major problem that almost destroyed them.
In your opening image beat, you showed a scene highlighting your protagonist’s life, complete with the flaws holding them back. Now, in the final image, you’re doing the same thing: a concrete scene from your protagonist’s life, but this time, without the fatal flaws. They’ve changed, and life is now better because of it.
This blog post only shows a brief overview, but if you’d like a more in-depth dive into each beat, check out the book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, as well as the official Save the Cat! Novel-Writing Course inside the Writing Mastery Academy! You'll gain an even deeper understanding of plot and story structure, and understand what makes novels successful. By using these fifteen beats, your next book will have a solid structure with compelling plot points all the way through— and an ending that delivers!