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Dodging the Cliché Bullet

August 6, 2013 by Kiersi

Matrix Cosmo by Pargon (flickr)

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.


  1. I love when my characters surprise me by doing something I didn’t plan at all. I think if they surprise me, they’ll surprise my readers too. 🙂

  2. I agree! I don’t always follow my outline 100% because sometimes characters just surprise you. Or sometimes, I find that my dialogue is too on the nose (a writing professor once said to me it’s not what’s said in dialogue, but what’s meant). I think that readers have become accustomed to 3 act structure in story telling (except when it comes to Tarentino. That dude does whatever he wants and people still love it), so it’s good to adhere to that somewhat, and if you need to break the rules then do it, as long as you do it well.

    • Kiersi says:

      That’s some smart advice about dialogue. (In real life, I don’t think we always say exactly what we want to say, either!) I think three acts are still a great way to go, because even a good plot twist still fits. Sometimes I do a 5-act structure, though. And yeah! Tarantino rocks it!

  3. beverlydiehl says:

    Characters DO have a mind of their own.

    The one rule that sticks with me is “Heroes are supposed to be heroic.” That is the ending, whatever it is, MUST be resolved by the hero doing something/overcoming something/realizing something, or in some romances, by the heroine and hero joining forces to defeat the baddie, since they would have been overcome fighting him/her solo. A story that ends with the solution “She wins the lottery/ the aliens catch cold and die (ending of War of the Worlds)/somebody says something (that they could have said 15 chapters ago) is NOT satisfying to the reader.

    • Kiersi says:

      I like that! “Heroes are supposed to be heroic.” Absolutely. And cop-out endings (that’s what I would call winning the lottery) always bug me. You’re right–takes away a lot of the satisfaction if the hero can’t do something awesome to dispatch the baddies!

  4. I think it comes down to making our stories unique. We all tend to naturally slip into cliché and familiarity, or even structure. There is nothing wrong with structure, but we must continue to challenge ourselves as writers to make sure that our stories as well as our heroes are unique. How far are we willing to go by allowing the hero to hit rock-bottom before he redeems himself? And how deep are we willing to dig within our own selves to make this story as different as possible, but still respecting the true nature of the story? Great post Kiersi!

    • Kiersi says:

      This is so true, Gina! I like this part about “how far are we willing to dig within our own selves”? It’s true. It really requires some self-analysis to see what tropes we’re falling into, and push ourselves to do better! Thanks for the great comment.

  5. My outlines keep changing until I feel it’s ‘right.’ Throwing curveballs is a fantastic feeling. And I love Pixar’s Storytelling Rules.

    • Kiersi says:

      Isn’t it? I like a flexible outline. It’s important to be able to change up what’s expected and see how your characters respond!

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