So, I’m a pantser. That means I write my plots as I go along and write by “the seat of my pants.” That leaves me oddly vulnerable to writing scenes that have little to do with building tension in my plot. I shamefully admit to having to cut thousands of words from my manuscripts because I don’t always have a plan, or at least not a good one.
I’m currently writing an early-elementary story about the 1925 diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska. (The keywords to spark your memory on that story are Balto, Togo, sled run, and Iditarod.) While doing research, I learned about
Native Alaskan clothing;
the history of aviation in Alaska;
the history of missionary work in the Seward Peninsula;
the breeding, care, and maintenance of sled dogs;
the history of dog-sled racing in Alaska;
the use of sled-dogs in France during WWI;
the storage of antitoxin in minus-forty-degree weather;
moose behavior in winter;
Arctic wolves (they weigh less than North American gray wolves);
….and much more.
Much of that interesting history and research sneaked its way into my book. However, I’m currently more than 2,000 words over my contract, and I have two more chapters left to write.
Where did I go wrong? And how can I best fix the manuscript?
I’ve read a half-dozen books about creating plot. None of those methods stuck. But one that I recently read is epoxy in my brain. Why did it affect me? Because it uses scenes from popular movies to reveal the fifteen key elements needed in any modern story. I can remember those steps because I can recall those scenes, which the author calls “beats.”
The original book—Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need—was written by screenplay writer Blake Snyder. The book Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need was written by Jessica Brody. Jessica adapted the original work for novelists.
The title comes from the well-known trope “saving the cat.” This is the scene in which you introduce the good side of your main character, or protagonist. While your character has flaws that make her relateable, she also has a good side. Readers need to be reminded of that. Your lead character needs a scene in which she takes the time to save a kitten stuck in a tree. This scene builds empathy with your readers.
Now, see how easy it is to remember the “save the cat” image? The rest of the fifteen scenes or “beats” are easy to recall as well. Now when I read novels or even watch a TV drama or movie, the names of the fifteen scenes pop into my head during the appropriate beats, and my writing skills are reinforced almost effortlessly.
Jessica offers plot help for a variety of genres. For each of the fifteen beats, she identifies scenes from several movies, most of which were adapted from novels. While I wasn’t familiar with many of the stories in each genre, I’d been exposed to at least one. The example of the beat for presenting a life-or-death battle was from the Hunger Games when Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s spot in the Games. I can remember that scene. I cry every time I see it.
I made a personal list of fifteen scenes that resonated with me and their corresponding beat. Now when I’m washing the dishes while simultaneously working on fixing my Alaska story in my mind, I can recall the must-have scenes (and almost in order).
Jessica is also good at math. She tells you how to calculate approximately what percentage of your book should encompass each beat/scene. That way, your story has a compelling pace and isn’t bogged down. Now I know that among the 2,000 words I need to cut from my work in progress, most of them need to come out of one scene. I spent too long describing the perils of the Alaskan wilderness. When I did the math, I also discovered I’d written too many words setting up my life-or-death beat (I actually had three beats!)
Save the Cat Writes a Novel is so popular that you can probably find it at your library. There is also a blog post where you can download a cheat-sheet for the fifteen beats and get a free starter kit. I hope you find it as helpful as I have. I leave you with a warning: Jessica says Save the Cat is the last book on novel writing you’ll ever need—but she’s writing another one, and I’ll probably read that one too!
Marianne Hering was a founding editor of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine. Since then she’s been writing for children and editing Christian books for adults. Find out more about the Imagination Station book series that has sold more than 1 million copies at MarianneHering.com. To schedule a free 30-minute children’s book coaching call, email HeLovesMeBooks@gmail.com. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.