Our special thanks to novelist Jessica Brody, author of The Karma Club, for today’s inspiring blog and beat sheet:
When a friend first introduced me to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, as an aspiring screenwriter recently turned aspiring novelist, I turned up my nose slightly and said, “No, thanks. I’m through with all those how-to screenplay books. I’m writing novels now.” And yes, I felt about that smug about my decision to make the switch, convinced that novels would be easier to write because they were so unstructured. So “free thinking,” if you will. Nothing had to happen by page 12 or page 50. I was happy to report it was a no-outline-needed format. The story was yours to invent as you went along. Granted, I hadn’t exactly sold any novels yet but that was beside the point.
But my friend was persistent, insisting that this particular screenwriting book was different than all the rest and that I might even be able to apply it to my novels. And I must say I’m grateful that he was so relentless because Save the Cat! ended up saving my career.
At the time this conversation took place, I had about two years of rejection letters piled up from various literary agencies and publishers, all claiming my books were “too much voice and not enough story.” If I could change one thing about Blake Snyder’s first masterpiece it would be the subtitle. This is not just a screenwriting book. It’s a storytelling book. I feel very strongly that the cover page should read, “The Last Book on Storywriting You’ll Ever Need.” Because after reading it and implementing its brilliance into my novels, I proceeded to sell five novels in four years. The first two (which are commercial fiction in genre) released from St. Martin’s Press in 2008 and 2009, the third (a young adult novel) released this year from Macmillan Children’s, and the next two (also young adult) are slated for 2011 and 2012.
And I owe all five of them to a simple little thing called “The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.” Or the BS2.
Yes, it also can be applied to novels. And yes, it turned out I was wrong: Novel writing is a very structured discipline. Or at least it has been for me. It may not come down to exact page numbers like a screenplay often does, but the need for some kind of structure is very real and present in the world of publishing. And the Save the Cat! beat sheet was the structure that felt the most organic to me.
Now I never write a single word of a new manuscript before I have my trusty 15 beats securely plotted and “boarded.” I quickly found that it saves me loads of time further down the road when it’s time to revise. Because moving around a few index cards on my bulletin board sure as hell beats rewriting 200 pages of thick prose. (And believe me, I’ve done both.)
To demonstrate how I use Blake’s handy beat sheet to outline a novel, I’ve listed out his 15 beats below and then a brief description of how each beat plays out in my latest young adult novel, The Karma Club (omitting any spoilers, obviously!). The Karma Club is about a teenage girl who is tired of waiting for Karma to “get off its butt and do its job,” so she and her friends vow to give Karma a helping hand by getting back at the people who have wronged them. But they soon discover, when you mess with Karma, Karma messes back…
A quick note: All the screenwriters out there will probably notice that there are no page numbers listed in my beats. Although I have created a spreadsheet that uses the beat sheet’s screenplay page numbers to calculate novel page numbers, based on the estimated length of the manuscript I’m currently working on, I usually only use the page numbers as a guide, as novels are somewhat more lenient in that way. But more often than not, the beats tend to fall within 5-10 pages of my estimates, proving that stories tend to naturally flow within the structure of the BS2.
Opening Image: A glimpse at our main character before life throws her a curve ball and she’s forced to change. As Blake says, the opening image is the “before snap shot.” In The Karma Club, this is where we see Maddy’s life for the first time. It’s relatively on track. She has the perfect boyfriend, good grades, great friends, etc, but she’s also a little bit shallow. She’s obsessed with popularity and believes that this is the only thing that is missing from her life.
Theme Stated: In movies the theme is usually stated in an offhand remark or question posed by someone other than the main character. In The Karma Club, I used the prologue to establish the theme of the book which of course is, “Karma.” Good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished.
Set-Up: The set-up occurs in the book over the first few chapters. It’s the calm before the storm. The events leading up to the big “curve ball” that will be thrown at the main character at any minute. In The Karma Club, these are the events leading up to the big “Loft Party” (a party thrown by the popular kids) that Maddy has been trying to get into for years.
Catalyst: Curve ball! The unexpected event that occurs in the main character’s life that throws everything off track and will inevitably force her to change. Without this event, life would just keep going on the way it was and nothing would ever happen—i.e., a very boring story! In the book, this is the moment when Maddy catches her boyfriend cheating and her seemingly perfect world crumbles to pieces.
Debate: What will the main character do about this unexpected curve ball that life has thrown her? It’s unrealistic for a character to just say, “Oh, well, life sucks, I guess I’ll have to deal with this unexpected event.” Real life people always fight change. And therefore, so should characters. Which is why the debate section is so organic in any story. In my books there’s always a section where the main character will “debate” what they’re going to do about the big thing that just happened to them. And Maddy does exactly that. This is the point in the story where she starts to realize that Karma can’t always be counted on to punish bad deeds.
Break into Two: Just like screenplays, I break my books into three acts. And just like screenplays, Act 2 is always the hardest! (At least for me!) And as Act 2 is typically supposed to be the upside-down version of Act 1, in this beat, my main character has finally decided what to do about this new turn of events. This beat is the moment Maddy decides to start a club whose sole responsibility is to give Karma a helping hand and get some much-needed revenge on the people who have wronged her and her friends. It’s her solution to the curve ball that life has thrown her. And now we’re catapulted into the next section of the story.
Fun and Games: As a writer, this is one of my favorite sections to watch in a film or read in a book, but one of my least favorite to write! For some reason it’s very hard for me. Blake calls this “the promise of the premise.” The reason we go to see the movie… or in this case the reason we want to read the book. These are the scenes that we are teased with in the movie trailer, or on the jacket flap of the book. In The Karma Club, this section contains the hilarious revenge schemes that the three main characters come up with and implement. The girls taking Karma into their own hands.
B Story: As Blake explains, the B Story usually refers to a secondary story line that’s not directly related to the main story (although they will inevitably merge by the end). In most movies, this is the love story. Or a new friendship that blossoms. In The Karma Club, it’s a love story. And to avoid spoilers, that’s all I’m going to say about that!
Midpoint: We’ve reached the middle! Blake says it’s usually either a “false victory” for the main character—the character thinks she has won and defeated whatever happened in the catalyst section—or a “false defeat”—the character has tried but failed and lost all hope. In The Karma Club, this is the moment when the girls think they’ve won because they’ve managed to get Karmic revenge on all of the people who have wronged them. But as the book is only half over, obviously it’s a “false” victory…
Bad Guys Close In: The title of this beat is my favorite. But it’s also another very hard one for me to write. This is the section where things start to go wrong (if it’s a false victory) or start to turn around (if it’s a false defeat). As most BS2 users know, the “bad guys” don’t necessarily have to be actual “guys.” In this book, the “bad guy” is actually “Karma” itself. The girls have been “messing” with Karma and Karma does not like to be messed with.
All Is Lost: The bad guys have closed in, won, and now “all is lost” for the main character. Or at least that’s the way it seems. For Maddy, Karma has come back to bite her in the butt in ways she never expected and it seems that her world has collapsed… yet again.
Dark Night of the Soul: The so-called “depression” that the main character falls into because All is (seemingly) Lost. She’s given up hope of anything ever being right again. We all go through this from time to time when things don’t go as planned. And Maddy is no exception.
Break into Three: But! Our story can’t end on a sad, depressing note! The main character must prevail! This is the moment when the story launches into the third and final act. When the main character has her big “aha! moment.” She finally figures out what went wrong and how it can all be fixed. Blake says this is usually with the help of the character from the B Story. And without giving away any spoilers, I will say that Maddy finally figures out how to get herself out the mess she made and she enlists her B Story character for help.
Finale: The last few chapters of the book/minutes of the movie where the main character puts her action plan into effect! And voila! It works! To avoid revealing too much, I’ll leave it at that.
Closing Image: The mirror image of the first beat (the opening image). The character should be different now. She should have grown, matured, learned a few things about life. Her life should be “good” again but not in the same way it was at the beginning. And she should now understand why her life wasn’t really as “good” at the beginning as she thought it was. Blake refers to this as the “after snap shot.” In The Karma Club, Maddy is happy, her life is back on track, but surprisingly, it’s a very different track than she originally imagined when the story opened.
And there you have it. The 15 beats of the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, applied to a novel. It’s probably no wonder readers often tell me my books read like movies. Bonus points for anyone who reads my next book, My Life Undecided (which releases in June) and can spot the 15 beats. I promise they’re in there!
And to make my books seem even more like movies, I also love producing my own movie-style book trailers, containing realized scenes from the book. Please visit my website to check out the trailer for The Karma Club featuring a special cameo appearance by Deepak Chopra! There I also have tips for aspiring novelists and information about my forthcoming online seminar series about how to sell a novel to publishers.
Next week’s blog: The Memento Beat Sheet