Save the Cat Story Structure: Definition and Beat Sheet

The Save The Cat Beat Sheet helps authors to create a plot structure using fifteen plot points. It is a simple novel-writing template that can help outline a novel or film script from any genre.

The Save the Cat beat sheet template assists novelists and screenwriters in creating a successful story arc, with an engaging pace, interesting characters and flawless dramatic structure.

Continue reading to learn more about how to write your own beat sheet using this story plotting system.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What the Save the Cat beat sheet is
  2. The origins of Save the Cat
  3. A beat-by-beat breakdown of each step

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The Origins of the Save The Cat Beat Sheet

The creator of the Save the Cat story structure is Blake Snyder, a speculative screenwriter. His credits include the movie “Blank Check “(1994) and five episodes of the television series “Kids Incorporated” (1993).

The Save The Cat template was first published in Snyder's best-selling Save the Cat (2005) guide to plotting dramatic structure. It is currently in its 34th printing.

Snyder's Save The Cat framework gets its name from the movie “Aliens” (1986). In the film, the audience is incited emotionally, when Officer Ripley's cat disappears. The audience anticipates that the cat may be the prey of a vicious extraterrestrial that is aboard her spaceship. It plays with the idea that if you show your character doing something that makes the audience root for them (such as saving a cat), then the audience will be instantly more invested in those characters.

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What is The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet?

The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet is an elaboration of the classic 3 act story structure. If diagrammed, this story structure resembles a skewed pyramid, with an exposition, an upward path, a climax, a downward path and a conclusion.

Another way to visualize this beat sheet is to use the story cards, organized by each act, like so:

graphic depiction of save the cat beats

These narratives are always character driven with a hero or anti-hero whose mission or adventure is blocked by an antagonistic force. The Midpoint of the story is always the point at which a big plot twist is revealed and the hero realizes they are, for better or worse, in a fight for their life. The second half of the story leads to a final scene, that is either a victory or catastrophe for the lead character.

The Save The Cat Beat Sheet was created by Snyder to help writers learn scene timing, as well as the placement of essential plot points such as an inciting incident, a life changing event, or the a false defeat of an antagonistic force.

A Quick Summary of Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet

The Save the Cat Beat Sheet is a popular story structure template created by Blake Snyder. Here's a brief overview of each of its 15 steps:

  1. Opening Image (1% of the script): This is the first impression of what kind of story the audience is about to see. It's a snapshot of the main character's problem before the adventure begins.
  2. Theme Stated (5%): The theme of the story is subtly suggested, often in a conversation.
  3. Set-Up (1-10%): This section provides more information about the hero's life as it currently is and what's missing from it.
  4. Catalyst (10%): A problem disrupts the hero's life, also known as the “call to adventure”.
  5. Debate (10-20%): The hero doubts the journey they must undertake. It's a last chance for the hero to say “No”.
  6. Break into Two (20%): The hero makes the decision and enters a new world or way of life.
  7. B Story (22%): A secondary story begins, often involving a love interest or a sidekick, that will weave in and out of the main story. It often carries the theme of the story.
  8. Fun and Games (20-50%): This is often where most of the trailer moments are found. The hero explores the new world and the audience is entertained.
  9. Midpoint (50%): A moment of either success or failure that changes the hero's journey in a meaningful way.
  10. Bad Guys Close In (50-75%): If the midpoint was a high, things get bad here. If the midpoint was a low, things start to look up.
  11. All is Lost (75%): The lowest point for the hero. The journey seems impossible to complete, and the hero feels defeated.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-80%): The hero hits rock bottom, wallowing in hopelessness. The hero learns the theme stated back at the beginning.
  13. Break into Three (80%): The hero finds inspiration, often from the B Story, and decides it's time to fight.
  14. Finale (80-99%): The hero confronts the antagonist or whatever stands in their way. The lessons learned in Act Two are put into action.
  15. Final Image (99-100%): A reflection of the opening image, showing how the hero's world and character have changed.

The Save The Cat Story Structure

Here are all fifteen beats that make up the Save The Cat Beat Sheet Template with a further explanation of every beat and the amount of narrative time allotted to each by percentage.

Beat #1: Opening Image (0-1%)

This is a single establishing scene or paragraph that should visually tell the viewers or readers as much as possible about the main character.

Think of it as a “before” snapshot of who your protagonist was before the unfolding of this story.

This scene can be an actual photo or very short clip or even an animation, explaining your protagonist’s world in that “a picture is worth a thousand words” way.

Beat #2: Theme Stated (5%)

In this first 5% of the story, the theme of the hero's story arc is established.

Examples of story arc themes are:

  • Rags to Riches (a story with a happy ending.)
  • Riches to Rags (a tale of ruin.)
  • Man in a Hole (a triumph over an impossible situation.)
  • Double Man in A Hole (a false victory leading to a second conflict and a triumph over impossible odds.)
  • Icarus (a rise, a sabotage by a tragic flaw, and then a fall.)
  • Cinderella (a rise, then fall, then a rise with a happy ending.)
  • Oedipus (a fall, then a rise, a delusion, then a fall.)

This theme can also be referred to as the protagonist's “life lesson.” For instance, the Myth of Icarus is about a man who wants to fly. The story arc details his attempts to do so, by creating himself wings from wax and feathers. The life lesson presented is how too much ambition (flying too high) leads to a fall from grace. At the climax of the story, Icarus flies too high and too close to the sun. His waxed wings melt and he falls to his death.

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Beat #3: Setup (1% – 10%)

Beat #3 delves deeper into the protagonist's life, revealing other characters who may be friends, enemies or a situation that must be addressed. The character may need to leave a toxic job, address a health problem, or take steps to better one's life.

These scenes can also reveal a character's tragic flaw, how he or she self-sabotages, or has misguided expectations about the future.

Beat #4: Catalyst (10%)

At 10% into the story, the main character is catapulted into a crisis through a breakup, divorce, death or invitation. This is a life-changing event, called an inciting incident, and it disrupts their entire world view and forces them to examine their position.

Beat #5: Debate (10%-20%)

The debate that occurs at beat 5 is usually an internal one, where the character wonders, “Where should I go?”, “What should I do next?” Sometimes this scene includes a friend with good advice that is resisted by the protagonist.

The debate is usually triggered by a threatening or looming event. Often the purpose of this beat is to show the protagonist's reluctance to change and have things as they were.

Beat #6: Break Into 2 (20%)

Story beat 6 is the point where the protagonist must rise to meet a challenge or there could be a catastrophe. This also marks the start of Act II.

Alternatively, the main character might be inspired to make a change to reach a personal goal, even though the situation is fraught with obstacles.

Typically this new goal is pursued throughout the first half of Act 2.

Beat #7: B Story (22%)

During the first half of Act 2 the main character usually meets a helper on their journey. This character can be a love interest, rival, new friend or a guru.

The ultimate purpose of this new character is to assist the hero on their life journey.

Beat #8: Fun and Games (20% -50%)

Beat 8 is a long sequence of several scenes that show how the main character's second act works differently from the one introduced in the first act.

This act will either show the character floundering, or succeeding as they seek to meet their goal, depending on the story arc that you have chosen.

Story beat 8 also refers to the “promise of the premise”, that may have been described on the back of the book jacket, or in the tagline of the movie.

For instance, in Jaws (1975) the promise of the premise is that someone will be eaten by a shark. The threat of the shark is there, but the audience is teased by a kid wearing a fake shark fin in the water. A shark is caught, but it is not the Great White that is killing people.

The real killer shark is not actually shown until it attacks a swimmer, forcing the sheriff of a small beach town to act. This is the point at which there is no more fun and games”, and the main character must kill the shark before beach season opens.

Beat #9: Midpoint (50%)

Beat 9 marks the middle point of the story's narrative where the hero encounters either a false victory, or false defeat.

A false victory is when the lead character thinks that they are getting everything they want, but something reveals that this may not necessarily be true. It could be that the victory leads to even more unhappiness. Often the reveal at the midpoint shows that “what we think we want is not the best for us.”

A false defeat is a moment that somehow resonates with failure. The character hits some sort of rock bottom. From the perspective of the protagonist, there is nowhere to go but up. In this type of story arc, the main character must conquer himself in some way, and often this propels the midpoint into a counter narrative that has a happy ending.

Beat #10: Bad Guys Close In (50 to 75%)

The tenth story beat is where the bad guys close in on the protagonist, leading to a catastrophic conclusion. These are sometimes characters that gang up on the protagonist, or villains that send the story arc into a downward spiral.

Sometimes these are internal bad guys, sabotaging the lead character from making the right decisions. At this point in the story, it may be too late for the character to do what is right.

Beat #11: All Is Lost (75%)

Beat 11 is the point in the novel or film where something dies. It could be a literal death, the protagonist's old life, or just the death of the old self.

This scene usually merges seamlessly into Beat 12, the Dark Night of the Soul.

Beat #12: Dark Night of the Soul (75% – 80%)

Beat 12 is a reflective beat that shows how the main character has changed throughout the story. Often there is an element of “transcending the old self” to become someone new.

This is a scene or scene sequence that is a realization of the theme, and shows how the main character may have learned his or her lesson.

Beat #13: The Break Into Three (80%)

At Beat 13 the protagonist experiences some kind of epiphany, where they finally realize what it is that they must do to fix their problematic situation. They are reborn as a more improved version of themselves. This is also the point where we enter Act III.

In some story arcs, the protagonist may realize their flaws, but it may be too late, setting the audience up for a tragic ending.

Beat #14: The Finale (80%-99%)

In the finale, the hero's world is transformed. In happier stories, bad guys are destroyed, people reunited and all is not lost after all.

In sadder story arcs, the demons within win and the character meets the worst possible, and often most ironic fate. 

Beat #15: Final Image (99%-100%)

Beat 15 mirrors the cinematic image or literary paragraph that was created in Beat 1 to introduce us to the character.

This “snapshot”  shows who the hero has become after transcending his situation. It represents the thematic resolution of the entire story arc, and is the “picture that says it all.”

Creating Chapters out of Save the Cat

All of the beats seen above could be viewed as an example of “obligatory scenes”, meaning scenes that absolutely must happen. However, some of these scenes take place relatively quickly, and would only represent one chapter, or even part of a chapter. And there should ideally be more chapters to flesh out the gaps between them.

So with that in mind, I thought it would be a fun exercise to see what your outline might look like with the main beats of the Save the Cat template thrown in, but including chapters where appropriate to draw out the tension, slow it down where needed, etc.

Obviously, there are a ton of different ways you could do this. Here is one possible example (I've labelled the main Save the Cat beats as “Obligatory”):

  • Chapter 1: Opening Image (Obligatory)
    • Our hero is seen in their ordinary world. For instance, a young farm boy dreaming of adventure.
  • Chapter 2: Introduction to the Hero's World
    • More of the hero's everyday life is explored, giving readers a deeper insight into the hero's aspirations, family, and friendships.
  • Chapter 3: Set-up (Obligatory)
    • This provides necessary background information and sets up the upcoming conflict.
  • Chapter 4: Catalyst (Obligatory)
    • The inciting incident that sets the story in motion, like the arrival of a mysterious stranger with a dangerous secret.
  • Chapter 5: Reaction and Consequences
    • The hero's initial reaction to the catalyst and the immediate fallout from this event.
  • Chapter 6: Debate (Obligatory)
    • The hero faces doubt about the upcoming journey, wrestling with the decision before them.
  • Chapter 7: Break into Act Two (Obligatory)
    • The hero makes the decision to engage with the new, special world, kicking off the main part of their journey.
  • Chapter 8: New Friends and Enemies
    • The hero begins meeting allies, enemies, and mentors as they navigate this unfamiliar world.
  • Chapter 9: B Story (Obligatory)
    • A subplot starts, often involving a love interest or a similar secondary story thread.
  • Chapter 10: Fun and Games (Obligatory)
    • The hero starts to experiment with their new situation, leading to triumphs, failures, and many lessons.
  • Chapter 11: Lessons Learned
    • More about the hero's growth as they learn from their experiences.
  • Chapter 12: Midpoint (Obligatory)
    • A crucial event that alters the hero's mission, raising the stakes.
  • Chapter 13: Hero's Resolve
    • The hero's response to the midpoint, showing their determination and growth.
  • Chapter 14: Bad Guys Close In (Obligatory)
    • Problems arise as the antagonists start causing more issues for the hero and their allies.
  • Chapter 15: Personal Revelation
    • The hero has a moment of personal insight or a revelation that changes their understanding of their journey.
  • Chapter 16: All is Lost (Obligatory)
    • The lowest point for the hero where everything seems lost, both in terms of their external goal and their internal journey.
  • Chapter 17: Dark Night of the Soul (Obligatory)
    • The hero deals with the fallout from the previous disaster, grappling with their failure.
  • Chapter 18: Inner Resolve
    • The hero musters their courage and finds a new determination to succeed.
  • Chapter 19: Break into Act Three (Obligatory)
    • The hero decides to confront the antagonist, heading into the final confrontation.
  • Chapter 20: Final Preparations
    • The hero and their allies prepare for the upcoming final conflict.
  • Chapter 21: Finale (Obligatory)
    • The climax of the story where the hero faces the antagonist and their biggest fears.
  • Chapter 22: Aftermath
    • The hero and their allies deal with the immediate fallout from the climax.
  • Chapter 23: Final Image (Obligatory)
    • The final chapter mirrors the opening image, showing how much the hero and

Should You Use the Save the Cat Beat Sheet?

Whether you are writing a novel or film script, the 15 beats that Blake Snyder suggests can help you write a seamless first draft without one unnecessary scene. This 15 point universal structure applies to every type of genre, whether it be a love story, tragedy, or comedy.

A good beat sheet can help you devise an intriguing theme or life lesson, a captivating character arc and a tight plot with turning points in all the right places. It is a great blueprint for any character-driven story; it helps you create the essential context needed to craft dramatic structure.

So should you use it?

As with any story structure, the most important thing is to experiment and see if it is right for you. Try outlining your novel and seeing if the basic beats of Save the Cat work for your story. If not, try outlining with a different narrative structure.

A great tool to help you plot your novel is Plottr, and outlining software built specifically for authors who need help plotting the novels.

A great feature about Plottr is that they have pre-built templates for a number of different plotting structures. While this does not include a Save the Cat Template (yet), you can easily build your own outline based on Save the Cat in Plottr.

So basically, if you want a guide that will hold your hand through the entire process, making it much easier for you, then I recommend you check Plottr out.

Check Out Plottr

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