This past fall I took two writing courses which focused on plot. You have heard about the first one, Plot and Structure taught by Bethany Nuckolls through the Center for Writing Excellence. The second was a weekend workshop led by Rebecca Petruck applying the beats of Save the Cat to writing a novel. The two courses overlapped--all novels have a Beginning (Act I), middle (Act II), and End (Act III)--but each included different plot points and complemented one another. (Save the Cat was written for screenwriters but Blake Snyder's points have been applied by many novelists.)
Since I've shared some highlights of Plot and Structure I thought I'd give an overview of the Save the Cat beats by analyzing Rebecca's debut middle grade novel, Steering Toward Normal. When I told Rebecca my plan for reviewing the ARC she said, "That's funny. I wrote the book before I learned this model!"
I'll define each beat in italics, using Save the Cat, and then provide the appropriate example from Steering Toward Normal. Sit back and relax, and let's see just how well Rebecca did!
1. Opening Image: "The opening image is also an opportunity to give us the starting point of the hero." It is the "before" snapshot. (p. 72)
Steering Toward Normal opens with Diggy Lawson preparing to welcome the calf he will raise this year. He is mentally preparing himself not to get attached to the steer by naming him. He knows that in just over a year the steer would become steak. "He was an experienced cattleman now. No names, no tears. An eighth-grader shouldn't cry." (p. 2) Despite his resolve, he names the steer "Joker."
2. Theme Stated: "Somewhere in the first five minutes of a well-structured screenplay, someone (usually not the main character) will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie....This statement is the movie's thematic premise." (p. 72)
On p. 13 of Steering Toward Normal, a fellow eighth-grader, Wayne Graf, gets dumped on Diggy's driveway by his drunk father. Wayne's mother died three weeks ago; Diggy's mother abandoned him on Pop's doorstep when he was a baby. Diggy's dad (Pop) approaches Wayne as if he is a spooked animal,
"Wayne looked up at Pop, his face intent. 'Did you know my mom?'"
3. Set-up: "...the first ten minutes [of a movie] 'set up' the hero, the stakes, and the goal of the story..." (p. 75)
In the first 10 pages of Steering Toward Normal, the reader meets Diggy and discovers his over-arching goal to win Grand Champion at the State Fair. His crush, July, won it the previous year and is expecting him to follow in her footsteps. He pledges to win it for her.
4. Catalyst: "It's the opposite of good news, and yet by the time the adventure is over, it's what leads the hero to happiness." p. 77
When Diggy's father, Pop, tells Wayne to come inside the house, the boy demands more information about his mother. "Wayne jerked away. 'My dad's type A, and I'm B!" he shouted like an exclamation. Diggy barely heard Wayne add, 'He says you're my dad, and I have to live here now.'" (p.14) From this point on, Diggy wonders if and when his life will return to normal.
5. Debate: "The debate section is just that--a debate. It's the last chance for the hero to say, This is crazy. And we need him to realize that. (p. 77) ...The debate section must ask a question of some kind. (p. 78)
I think Diggy has two debates going on in this opening section. On one level his debate is about how to accept the fact that Wayne is his half-brother:
After a while Diggy couldn't stand it anymore. "You're letting him stay."
[Pop answers,] "We have to." (p.57)
But a deeper debate which continues throughout the book, is Diggy's question about Pop: "Did that mean he would have chosen Diggy too, if the choice hadn't been made for him?" (p. 49)
6. Break into Two: (or, in other words, the character enters the new world.) The act break is the moment we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and proceed into a world that is upside down from that." (p. 79)
On p. 76, after a heated discussion with Pop over Wayne staying, Diggy hoses himself down. He wants to cleanse himself from his father's touch; and escape from Wayne who has been thrust upon him as his half-brother. But he can't run away--he's in a new world now.
7. B Story: The B Story is often a love story and involves characters that are "the upside down version of those characters who inhabit Act One." (p. 80)
Rebecca helped me figure out this one. I had thought the B-story was Diggy's crush on July. But she said it's the off and on relationship of Diggy's 4-H friends, Crystal and Jason. The fact that they finally choose one another as girlfriend/boyfriend reflects how Diggy and Wayne will end up choosing to be family.
8. Fun and Games: "It is the core and essence of the movie poster...the trailer moments...We take a break from the stakes of the story and see what the idea is about." (p. 81-82)
In Steering Toward Normal, the fun and games include Diggy's obsession with rocket building, Diggy and Wayne playing pranks on each other and on Pop, and the boys staying up late and watching B-movies. Woven throughout is their grooming and training their calves in preparation for the county fair.
9. Midpoint: Half-way through your story, "is the point where fun and games are over and it's back to the story." (p. 84). It's either an "'up'" where the hero seemingly peaks or a 'down' when the world collapses all around the hero (although it's a false down.)" (p.82)
In Chapter 14 (pp. 126-136 out of 317 pages), Wayne raises the stakes by thumbing through old yearbooks in their school library. He finds pictures of Diggy's mom and begins to demand that Diggy try to find her.
10. Bad Guys Close In: "The forces that are aligned against the hero, internal and external, tighten their grip. Evil is not giving up, and there is nowhere for the hero to go for help. He is on his own and must endure. He is headed for a huge fall..." (p. 86)
Wayne persists in trying to get Diggy to contact his mother's family. Diggy wants to be angry with him but empathy for Wayne is growing and Wayne is making him see things he has ignored.
"She could have left you with her parents," Wayne said.
Diggy squinted at him.
"She chose Pop for you. She can't be all bad." (p. 174)
11. All is Lost: "...even though all looks black, it's just temporary. But it seems like a total defeat. All aspects of the hero's life are in shambles. Wreckage abounds. No hope." (p. 86)
Wayne's father comes to Diggy's house and is angry that Wayne won't come back to live with him. "But Wayne lived with them now. When had Diggy gotten so used to Wayne's being around that it was weird to think of him not being around?" (p. 209)
But then... Wayne admits that he's tried to contact Diggy's maternal grandparents and Diggy blows up. "Haven't you noticed, Wayne," Diggy sneered, "you only care about finding my mom when your dad screws up?"
12. Dark Night of the Soul: "It's the point...that is the darkness right before the dawn. It is the point just before the hero reaches way, deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. (p.88)
After Diggy tells Wayne to stay away from him and avoids him in the barn, Diggy's surprise rocket display at July's birthday party goes dangerously awry. Wayne's grandmother wants to take Wayne home and suddenly, "Something in Diggy's gut dropped. He had felt bad before, but now he felt almost sick. He had wanted Wayne to go home for a long time, but hearing Mrs. Vogl talk about Wayne's being without family...Diggy felt like she was wrong, even though she wasn't, really. Was she?" (p. 234)
13. Break into Three: "Both in the external story (the A story) and the internal story (the B story), which now meet and intertwine, the hero has prevailed, passed every test, and dug deep to find the solution. Now all he has to do is apply it. (p.89)
At the county fair, Diggy is a pile of nerves but Joker wins Grand Champion. Afterwards Diggy reflects on the fact that everyone-including Wayne, Pop, and Graf helped him groom Joker--despite the fact that only immediate family was supposed to help him.
After a few weeks of more nervous preparation, he is ready for the State Fair. Although Wayne tried to invite Diggy's mother to the fair, when Diggy looks around the grandstand he realizes that his mother isn't there but, "He had found the ones that mattered." (p. 309)
14. Finale: "It's the turning over of the old world and a creation of a new world order-all thanks to the hero, who leads the way based on what he experienced in the upside-down, antithetical world of Act II." (p. 90)
After the State competition, the boys discuss Wayne's pursuit of Diggy's mother. Diggy says, "Finding my mom won't bring your mom back."
Wayne breathed deeply. When he looked at Diggy, he had tears on his cheeks. "I wish it could."
Diggy sighed. "I know." (p. 312)
In this interchange, Diggy empathizes with Wayne and shows true compassion and acceptance of his half-brother.
15. Final Image: "...the final image... is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it's real." (p. 90)
The book ends with the boys teary-eyed as they load the steers on the packer's truck. Wayne announces that Graf wants him to come back home and Diggy is surprised that he doesn't like the idea. But, Wayne will come back--he's going to keep next year's steer on Diggy's farm. The boys hug awkwardly and Diggy says....
Sorry, I can't tell you. You have to read the book to find out!
But to really find out how Rebecca magnificently weaves a humorous yet touching tale of two half-brothers dealing with the loss of their mothers and learning what family really is---you have to read the book. And here is your opportunity to do that BEFORE the book is released!
By the way, if you are interested in using this format for plotting your novel, you can download a "Save the Cat" worksheet here.
Let's all support Rebecca's debut novel by pre-ordering her book! You know I will!!