Nathan Bransford posted a great piece today about avoiding formulaic storytelling. The Save the Cat! beat sheet to which he refers has been recommended to me by a number of fellow writers, and for good reason: it’s a great way to create a basic novel structure. Here’s an example of what’s on the beat sheet. Let’s say you’re writing a 60,000-word middle-grade or young adult novel. You pull up the beat sheet, key in your target word count, and the sheet calculates some targets for you.
|1||Opening Image||Sets the tone, mood, type, and scope of the project. A “before” snapshot.||1||2||1||600|
|2||Theme Stated||Secondary character poses question or statement to MC that is theme of the movie.||11||2,730|
|3||Set-up||Introduce or hint at every character in A story; plant character tics to be addressed later on.||1||22||1||5,460|
The great thing about it is that it gives you an overall sense of what should happen and when. Obviously (and as Nathan points out), you don’t need to follow this structure rigidly; it’s more like a checklist and set of general guidelines to keep your story on track.
For example, “the Black Moment,” which is our main character’s darkest, lowest point, is slated to hit about two-thirds of the way through the book. The last third is reserved for the solution, climax, and merging of A and B storylines–e.g. the main storyline and the romantic sub-plot finally converge.
But what good storytellers should always remember is that this is what readers are going to expect. When the character starts spiraling into darkness, we’re looking for the upshot. When the solution is reached, we expect our hero to start dispatching all the bad guys in epic, heroic format. When the formula, or the beat sheet, is followed exactly–that’s when I get a little bored. When the story feels predictable. When I see no reason to keep reading because I already know how it’s going to end.
The way I use Save the Cat! is a little modified now. I look to my favorite of the 22 Pixar Storytelling Rules, “Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.”
What’s the obvious thing that should happen next? Yeah? You have that? Now abandon it. Come up with something else. Take us in a totally different direction. (Unless you’re M. Night Shyamalan, in which case, viewers got so accustomed to his plot twists that they actually managed to become formulaic and predictable. How about that.)
It’s easier than you think to mix it up and surprise your readers. Get creative. Throw curveballs. Question your instincts. You can still use the beat sheet to make sure the story hits its “beats” (the things that make readers feel good and safe in your writerly hands) and still wrap up all the loose ends.