Tag Archive: Save The Cat

15 Story Beats to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel on Track

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or pantser, you might come to a place mid-month where your story feels like it’s gone off the rails. A lot of people will tell you to plow through! Just keep writing! It’ll work itself out! But I think better advice is to check in with your basic story beats. It doesn’t matter if you plan them ahead of time or figure them out partway through writing. The important thing to know is that these beats are an extremely useful tool to avoid writer’s block, mushy middle syndrome and general NaNoWriMo fatigue.


Originally posted on Nov. 3, 2014. Revived on Oct. 23, 2016.

*Note: Basic Beats based on Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” method.

1 – Opening… shows where the protagonist is at the beginning before they’ve gone on a journey that will change them to the person we see in the Final scene. For example, if your hero starts off loveless, she will find love in the end.

  • Do you even have a change? If not, that’s probably why your story has stalled. Think about how this story will change the hero and your writing will find its direction.

(For more, check out “3 Steps to Creating Character Change”)

2 – Theme… is the heart of your book as opposed to the plot. Not knowing the theme or having too many themes is a common reason stories get muddled and bogged down. Figuring out the theme will give your novel a purposeful direction, so ask:

  • Why are you writing this story? Deep down, what is the one thing you’re trying to say with this novel?

  • What is the value at stake in this story? Why does it matter?

(For more, check out “Theme With a Capital T” and “The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme”)

3 – Set-Up… establishes the protagonist’s world, introduces supporting characters, reveals protagonist’s personal problems and the stuff she’ll need to fix by the end in order for that vital character change to take place.

  • Did you set up the character’s goal clearly? No clear goal is a common reason stories ramble.

  • Did you set up the stakes? There needs to be consequences if the hero fails. Stakes drive stories!

(For more on stakes read “6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story has Real Stakes”)

4 – Catalyst… is also called The Inciting Incident. This event disrupts the character’s world and starts the story. Without it, there’s no story. For example, in “The Hunger Games” the catalyst is when Katniss’s sister’s name is selected for the games. If another kid’s name had been selected, there wouldn’t be a story – Katniss would just keep on hunting and hanging out with Gale in her district. Life would remain the same.

  • Does the catalyst change your protagonist’s life? If not, figure out what will. Stories need to be life-changing!

5 – The Debate… is when the protagonist decides how to proceed after the Catalyst. This shouldn’t be an easy decision. To go on the journey, or not to go on the journey? Of course, she has to go for there to be a story, but doubt adds tension and stakes, which help move the story forward.

  • Did your character debate going on her journey? What could have been holding her back and how can that add layers of tension to your novel?

6 – Break Into Act II… This is where the protagonist leaves her familiar world behind and goes on the journey to achieve a goal. The key to this beat is that the protagonist must choose, not be forced or tricked into action.

  • Is your character pro-active? Passive characters are common culprits in stories that drag.

7 – B-Story… Often this is the love interest, but can also be a sidekick or a mentor. This ally guides the protagonist and is often instrumental in helping him learn the Theme, i.e. what he needs to do to survive and win the story.

  • Does your B-story character challenge your hero? Maybe they can spice things up with conflict and humor!

(For more check out “What’s a B-Story? And Why that Lame Love Triangle Doesn’t Cut It”)

8 – Act II part 1: Fun & Games… is the promise of the premise. If your novel was a movie, the F&G section would be featured in the trailer. For instance, in a romantic comedy, this is where the two love interests clash.

  • Do you have enough conflict? Sometimes a story meanders simply because it lacks conflict. Repeat after me: make your characters suffer!

9 – Midpoint… right smack in the middle of Act II, this is usually a False Victory where the protagonist thinks she’s achieved her goal but she hasn’t. It’s here that the stakes are raised and the bad guys start to close in on the protagonist.

  • Do you have a Midpoint, a turning point that is like a tent pole holding up the middle of your story? If you’re meandering through the mushy middle, probably not. For help, read “Mapping the Mushy Middle

10 – Act II part 2: Bad Guys Close In… Both internal problems (hero’s issues) and external problems (bad guys) tighten their grip and get closer and closer to thwarting the protagonist’s goal.

  • Quite simply, are things getting progressively worse for your hero? Don’t just pile on new problems; make sure the problems escalate.

11 – Crisis / All Is Lost… is usually a False Defeat. If at the Midpoint the protagonist thought that she’d achieved her goal, this is where she thinks she’s utterly and completely failed.

  • What is your All Is Lost moment? It’s easier to keep your story on track if you know the big disaster you’re writing towards.

12 – Dark Night of the Soul… is the emotional fallout of the crisis wherein the protagonist loses all hope. The worst thing about this beat is that she knows it’s her fault. The hero that resonates is not innocent and blameless and perfect; she has flaws just like we do. And despite her best intentions, she had a hand in her own defeat.

  • Has your hero failed? Does she think it’s her fault? How can you make this the lowest moment of her life?

13 – Break Into Act III… Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute action or advice from the B-story ally, the protagonist digs deep to find a solution.

  • How does your hero move past her defeat? Having even a rough idea of this crucial moment will help focus your story.

14 – Act III Finale… From what she’s gone through and what she’s learned (i.e. Theme), the protagonist forges a third way and conquers her problems (both internal and external).

  • How does your hero win in the end? Again, you don’t have to have all the details, but knowing the basic ending (i.e. hero finds love, hero captures bad guy, hero leaves home for college) is invaluable for getting you through to The End.

15 – Final Scene (aka THE END)… is the opposite of the Opening scene and proves a change has occurred. There’s no point to a story if it doesn’t change the hero’s life.

  • What is your final image? What does your hero look like after this journey is over? How have they changed?

So if you’re ever struggling with your story, check in with these beats and make sure you’ve got the answers. Of course, the answers may change as you are writing, and that is totally fine. I keep a version of this beat sheet with me at all times. I look at it whenever I get off-track and revise it when necessary. Of course, during NaNoWriMo you don’t have time to revise what you’ve already written, but it’s still helpful to note what you will change and write the rest of the novel as if you’ve already done so.

Now good luck with NaNoWriMo, everyone!


For more on basic beats, outlining and story structure, check out the recommended posts:


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6 Questions to Make Sure Your Story Has Stakes

Once upon a time I was working on a revamped novel idea – a fun, scary, action-packed revenge story. It was going to be great. I was feeling especially confident after reading this blog: “Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers.” I pictured myself pounding out this simple revenge story while my other novel, a more complicated mystery-thriller, percolated. What a swell plan, and then I noticed something was missing…

STAKES. Holy moly! There were no stakes! And I don’t mean that my vampire hunter heroes forgot their wooden stakes. No, the problem was if my vengeful hero didn’t get her revenge… oh well. Shrug. No biggie. She’d survive. Though all the other points made by the above blog are spot on, like having a proactive hero with a goal, an absence of story stakes can be the revenge plot’s downfall. Beginner writers beware!

But wait, don’t revenge plots inherently have high stakes like dangerous situations and even death? Yes, but putting your hero in life-threatening danger during their quest is a scene stake not a story stake. Every scene needs stakes (aka consequences), but the overall story needs ONE BIG CONSEQUENCE if the hero fails to achieve his goal. It doesn’t matter how many scene stakes you throw at your hero if the overall story stake is missing.

Note that story stakes must be dire enough to make the reader care. If all that happens to the heroine upon failing is she feels crummy, well, so what? In SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder explains that stakes need to be “primal”, such as survival, hunger, love, protection of loved ones, and death, to ensure that the audience is invested in the hero’s quest. I struggled against this advice. I mean, come on, does what’s at stake always have to be love or death or survival? So I thought about all my favorite books and TV shows and films, and oh my gosh, yes, the answer is a resounding YES. And the most common primal stake? Love. Even if the story isn’t a romance, even if it’s a life-or-death action flick, love is often a big story stake. This might be why most stories have a love subplot. But the love doesn’t have to be romantic. It can also be paternal or platonic. Just make sure your character cares about someone, then jeopardize that relationship or the actual life of that person to create or raise stakes.

Of course, it’s not just revenge plots that can overlook story stakes. It can happen in any genre. So, to make sure it doesn’t happen to you (and me – again), I’ve made a handy Story Stakes Checklist…

Story Stakes Shark

1)   If the protagonist fails, what happens? Would she lose a loved one, or die tragically, or get her heart irrevocably broken? Would her home be destroyed? Would evil rule the world? Something bad must happen if the protagonist fails to achieve her goal.

2)   Is this the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist? What is your protagonist most scared will happen if he doesn’t achieve his goal? What would figuratively or literally kill him? Or both?

3)   Are the stakes tangible? Will an actual action happen if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal? Will his lover dump him? Will he be sent to jail and separated from his family? Love, like all stakes, loses its power if it’s not connected to a concrete event.

4)   Are the stakes worth fighting for? Your protagonist can’t “kind of” want her goal. Achieving her goal must mean everything to her! Failing would ruin her life! The protagonist can’t be ambivalent to the stakes.

5)   Who else cares about the stakes? If only the protagonist cares, the stakes may be too small. Think about the other characters in the story. Do they care if the protagonist fails or succeeds? At least one should or else the protagonist might be a drama queen with trivial stakes. Stakes cannot be inconsequential.

6)   If your protagonist succeeds, does she save the day? Avoiding the stakes must feel like a giant victory!

Making readers care about your story and protagonist is difficult to pull off, but with primal story stakes it’s possible. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, figure out the stakes before you start writing, because without stakes, you won’t have a compelling story, and it’s best to find that out before you’ve written tens of thousands of words. Trust me.


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Solutions for Common Writing Mistakes: Runaway Word Counts

Writer Sulutions: Word Counts


“A lot of first-time children’s novels are too long.” Charlie Sheppard, editor of Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Recently I read a post in the Guardian. They interviewed some of the top editors in children’s fiction to discover the most common mistakes made by new writers.

{I’ve included a few of the Guardian quotes here, but I recommended reading the full piece.}

The article is illuminating, and it turns out almost every single issue they mentioned I’ve battled in my own writing.

Today, I’m starting a new series: Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes. I’ll be examining a common writing mistake and explaining why it’s a problem. Then I’ll lay out a step-by-step plan for dealing with the issue in your own work.

First Common Mistake: Word Counts

Although the Guardian interviewed children’s book editors, this one is for everyone! While book lengths are fluid in self publishing, they are fixed in all but the rarest of cases for those looking to break into traditional publishing.

Why are word counts such a big problem? The costs of printing and distributing longer books has just gotten too high, and most new writers can’t garner the necessary level of confidence from a publisher to gamble on a 150,000 word tome. Not when the publisher can increase their chances of turning a profit by printing two or three shorter books.

“First-time writers commonly mistrust their own writing…. First drafts are often too long and prone to repetition.” Kirsty Stansfield, editor of Cow Girl by GR Gemin

Since agents and small press editors know the score, they all expect to see your word counts in your query letters, right next to your genre and target age range. And they will reject your query without reading a word if the word counts are missing, or if they are unrealistic. This holds true for counts that are too low as well as too high.

If you don’t believe me spend some time reading any one of the many agent hashtags on Twitter, like #TenQueries, #500Queries, #1000Queries, #MillionQueries or #QueryLunch, and you’ll see just how common this complaint is.

Publishing pros (rightly so) feel the word count is one clue to a writer’s industry acumen. They don’t have the time or the interest in teaching new writers the basic skills anymore. Especially when there are thousands of writers in the slush pile who are meeting their word count expectations.

There is lots of information out there on ideal word counts; but here’s what Writer’s Digest has to say on the score.

If your project is too long, you can follow this step-by-step plan to revise your manuscript down to a realistic word count.

Step 1: Start by crafting a beat sheet outline.
This system of outlining is from Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and it’s the perfect tool for any revision editing. Heather wrote directions for creating your own beat sheet here. This method helps you see exactly were your novel hits (or misses) all the plot point milestones. If any milestones are missing, stop worrying about your word count and start figuring out how to plug your plot holes. You can find some help for that problem here. However, if your plot checks out, this step should help you pinpoint if your novel is structurally too heavy in one of the acts.

Remember perfect novel structure is approximately:
First Act: 25%
Second Act: 50%
Third Act: 25%

Step 2: Chances are in step 1 you realized you front loaded your book. Don’t worry, this is a common mistake. Remember that second editor’s comment? New writers tend to include too much repetition, and it’s usually up front in the form of an info dump or an unnecessary prologue.  Excessive backstory and world building is not helpful to the pace of any story. Tips for revising your opening here. And revamping a prologue that’s not working for you here.

Hopefully, once you have your book’s beat sheet and the beginning in shape, your word count is in the normal range and you’re ready for a fresh beta reader or two. If not, it’s time to create a plan for clearing out any remaining dead wood.

Step 3: Any scene that’s not included in your beat sheet outline is a prime prospect for cutting. Heather recently taught all of us how to test scenes for their value to the story. Turns out, there are some pretty simple litmus test for if a scene works to advance the plot or if it’s extra and it needs to go. Every scene should move your story forward in two different ways, find out more here and here.

Step 4: Create a new beat sheet for your revised novel and use it for any final edits. If you followed this plan, you should be well on your way to a trimmed, healthier novel.

Trimming your story is not easy. You worked hard to craft every sentence and each one feels important to you. I do understand. The longest historical novel I’ve written was over 140,000 words and I needed to cut it down to around 90,000 to pitch it to agents. It can be done.

What about you? Do you have a great tip for reducing your word count? Or are word counts something you never lose sleep over?

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/tips-for-runaway-word-counts/

Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Mapping the Mushy Middle

Last week I wrote about how to Create Character Change and the importance of making sure your character’s flaw is foiling her in Act II. This led one of my fellow Write On Sisters to comment that the “mushy middle” is a hard section to write. That it is. Robin wrote about it here from a baker’s perspective. Now it’s my turn to put a screenwriter spin on this difficult section of the manuscript.

I used to be completely confounded by Act II. I’d read Syd Field and knew there was something smack dab in the middle called a “Midpoint” where the character is farthest from their goal. But that definition always seemed a little vague. It wasn’t until I read Blake Synder’s SAVE THE CAT books that I gained some clarity about what actually happens in Act II.

Screenwriter’s Disclaimer: I’m going to talk STORY STRUCTURE! Plotters, you’ll like this. Pantsers, maybe not, but remember, even if you don’t plot your novel ahead of time, you can use this knowledge during the revision stage.

Before we start, here’s a Basic Story Structure Refresher:

ACT I – Set Up: Establish world, meet characters, introduce flawed protagonist, then throw an inciting incident at her that upends her world and propels her into…

ACT II – The Journey: This is your story! This is the teaser section for your movie/book! This is where sh*t happens! So why is this section often so boring? Because the writer is lost!

ACT III – The Big Finale: Protagonist has figured out what’s preventing her from succeeding (her flaw) and goes on to win! (Or lose if you’re writing a tragedy.)

Act I and III are the short acts. Act II is 50% of the story. That’s a big section, easy to get lost in if you don’t know where you’re going. We need a map. I like to map out my story before I start writing, but you can do it during the revision stage too.


A child’s rendering of my mind’s Act II options.

The most important thing to figure out is where you are going. The destinations in Act II are the MIDPOINT and the ALL IS LOST, and they’re mirror images of each other.

The writer can take one of two paths in relation to the hero’s goal: 1) the MIDPOINT is a False Victory where hero gets what they think they want, or 2) the MIDPOINT is a False Defeat where hero loses what they think they want. This was a revelation for me! Instead of just wandering around Act II putting obstacles in front of my hero and making her clash with the antagonist until all hell breaks lose in the Act III Finale, the hero has a major success or failure mid-story!

Think of this Midpoint as a tent pole – it props up the story and gives it shape.

Classic story structure often has a False Victory Midpoint (path 1). For example, if your hero is running for president, at the Midpoint they’ll be leading in the polls. But because this is a false victory, something happens to send their approval rating plummeting until at the All Is Lost moment it looks like they don’t have a chance in hell of winning the election. Notice that mirror image thing? If at the Midpoint your character is riding high, at the All Is Lost they’re in the depths of despair, and vice versa.

Now for some random examples of this off the top of my head…

HUNGER GAMES False Victory: Katniss gets the highest score of all the tributes and has a real shot of winning. False Defeat: Katniss and Peeta are trapped and starving and going to lose the games.
TITANIC False Victory: Rose and Jack hook up and the ship is sailing. False Defeat: Rose and Jack are separated and the ship is sinking.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST False Victory: Wolverine gets Professor X and Magneto to work together. False Defeat: Magneto betrayed them and is ruining everything!

Now that we know where we’re going, we can fill in what happens along the roads to our destinations. If your hero gets what she wants at the Midpoint, you know that on the road there she will be encountering hardships that she overcomes. If your hero doesn’t get what she wants at the Midpoint, the road will be littered with her failures.

And after the Midpoint on the way to the All Is Lost, it’s the same thing. If she’s heading towards defeat, the bad guys are closing in and she’s failing miserably, but if she’s heading towards a false victory she thinks she’s overcoming her adversaries.

Avoiding a “mushy middle” is first and foremost about knowing where your story is going. Secondly, it’s about keeping your hero on the road and not wandering down dead end streets or getting lost in the swamp. I’ll give nitty-gritty tips on that next week.

Next Up from Heather… How not to get lost in Act II!

Click here for more posts from Heather.


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Ignorance is Bliss: Breaking Writing Rules, Continued…

I’m an impostor. I know it. And I can’t believe no one’s called me out on it. I pretend to be a writer but I can’t claim erudition when it comes to writing. I’m a student of science and math, the rules of which I’ve studied extensively and understand. I love the rubrics of math. I never could understand why people are so math phobic. Math is easy. Pythagorean theoremThere’s nothing subjective about math. The rules never change. Two plus two always equals four. A hundred is always a hundred, whether you count frogs, rose petals, or stars and whether you express it as an exponent or a factor of a larger number. Science has a little more artistry attributed to it, a bit more finesse. But the scientific method is the first commandment in that world and everyone knows the parameters, the independent and dependent variables, the controls, and judges the outcome in identical fashion. Okay, I’ll stop. I sense your eyes glazing over. With writing however, other than those associated with spelling and grammar, I didn’t know there were any rules!

As I reflect, I can’t believe I had the nerve to write a novel in the first place. I’ll admit that the idea for my first book literally possessed me and I spent endless days in sweatshirts and yoga pants, drinking coffee and ignoring my friends and family. It was winter and easy to avoid the scrutiny of those close to me because everyone was buried under the shroud of dark and dreary days. And, honestly, I never thought I’d ever show it to anyone. It took months before I admitted it to my sister. But then I grew more confident as each new reader expressed a love for the story.

A friend suggested I join her writers group. They’d met in an MFA program and once again I considered myself a charlatan. The first time I read a chapter out loud the sound of my heart pounding in my head nearly drowned out my voice. But they liked my writing and my story and encouraged me to pitch the book to agents. I even attended a NYC Pitch Conference with one of them and then went on to a writer’s workshop weekend, all the while pretending to be a real writer. That’s when I had the sudden revelation that there were rules. I’d written the “Hero Model” and never knew it existed. My protagonist saves an old man who is about to be set on fire in the beginning of my first novel. I’d used the “Save the Cat” technique without knowing it had a name and had been identified by Blake Snyder in his book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. At one workshop an agent encouraged us to Kill our Darlings, and I thought her incredibly clever to coin such a phrase and proceeded to cut some parts from my novel that I loved, but I knew had to go. Little did I know she was quoting William Faulkner! Duh!

As I continued to dissect my novel for others and defended its plot points and character development, I found I’d followed almost all the rules without any prior knowledge. But now, I worry about the rules, and frequently find myself paralyzed to the point of not wanting to write at all.

And so I’m forced to ask the question: How could this possibly have happened? How could I have produced a fairly respectable manuscript without any formal education? Is it because I’ve seen a million movies and read a million books? Could that be enough to spawn a writer? Is it something that’s in a person’s DNA? Something God-given? Or is it an unforeseen force of nature, like lightning flashing in the darkness? I believe anyone can be born with a gift, but it takes a lot of hard work to nurture and develop it.

People tell me all the time that I have the right to call myself an author because I’ve actually written a novel, four and two halves to be mathematically correct. But it’s hard to say that out loud when you haven’t been formally educated in writing or made your mark in the publishing world. It’s like when you dance at the innocent age of three. You have no concept of the waltz, the polka or the dougie. You just express yourself to music, do whatever you feel like, joyfully, unabashedly and with pride. Then, you grow up and realize people will judge you by a set of standards. People might laugh at you and you’ll be embarrassed.

And you stop dancing. Little girl dancing in studio

Perhaps I’m just reflecting on the olden days when it seemed like people just wrote. I saw an interview a few months back and I wish I could recall the writer’s name. He was a crotchety old guy, a famous author, and it was obviously an interview that happened many years ago. He said something to the effect of: I just write the story and then I give it to somebody else to put in all the commas and fix shit. Maybe it’s just the usually writer paranoia. To quote Robert De Niro at the Oscars Sunday night, “The mind of a writer can be a truly a terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

I guess in some ways, it’s not a total surprise. People can figure out that two plus two equals four without someone teaching it to them. And I don’t mean to simplify the art of writing to that level. Maybe it’s more like art. There are techniques you can learn in painting, drawing and sculpture, but the true essence is in the passion for the work. If you over think methodology or study what others have done too much, you lose the raw emotion and thrill of discovery. My writing has always been more like the delight of a child who believes she can dance, yet may never become a real ballerina. And so, I guess I’ll keep dancing even if I never make it to the stage. I’ve had my moments when I’ve been criticized and disparaged for not following convention and even for the reverse, too many clichés or overused tropes, but my fingers keep prancing on that keyboard at a frenzied pace. For the joy is what makes it worthwhile. In some ways I feel like a hypocrite, giving advice here about how to write. I guess I’ll assuage my guilt by saying take what you like and ignore the rest. I say we reclaim our independence and write what we feel like writing, and let the rules be damned.

(Coincidentally, just this week Writer Unboxed posted a similar discussion called MFA vs. NYC vs. DIY. Check it out here.) 

Up Next from Caryn: Friday Inspiration: Homage to Shirley Temple





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What’s a B-Story? And Why That Love Triangle Doesn’t Cut It

Before I explain what a B-Story is and why it’s crucial, here’s a list of what it is not:

  • Comic relief that is inconsequential to the main story.
  • A side plot that has nothing to do with your hero.
  • A tacked-on love story to appease those who say YA needs a love triangle.

These are not B-Stories; they are filler. And a novel is long enough without pointless filler! The B-Story must count! It must mean something! It must affect the hero! Why? Because the B-Story is the novel’s THEME.

That’s right, Theme, also known as “the meaning of the journey” or “what your hero needs to learn.” For more information about Theme read this, but for now let’s stick to what it has to do with the B-Story…

This line from Blake Synder’s book SAVE THE CAT! STRIKES BACK says it best:

The A Story is the hero’s tangible goal, what he wants. The B Story is the hero’s spiritual goal, what he needs.

As always, it’s best to demonstrate what this means by using an example, like THE HUNGER GAMES. I know, I know, I always refer to Suzanne Collin’s novel, but that’s because it’s just so damn brilliant. Even better, it has a B-Story love triangle that’s an actual plot and not lame filler. So let’s refresh the story elements of The Hunger Games

Theme: Freedom through rebellion.

A-Story (Katniss’s tangible goal): Win the Hunger Games.

B-Story (Katniss’s spiritual goal): Show the Capitol they don’t own her.

So that’s the purpose of the B-Story? Now who are the characters involved? Usually B-Story characters are love interests or friends or mentors, people who help the hero and give the hero the insight he/she needs to win in the end. In The Hunger Games, the B-Story is Katniss’s relationship with Peeta.

(I considered that the B-Story could be Haymitch since he is literally Katniss’s mentor, but it’s Peeta for the reasons listed below…)

Peeta isn’t the B-Story just because he’s the love interest (along with Gale), but because he does 5 Crucial Things That the B-Story Character Must Do:

1)   He brings up the Theme. Remember that scene the night before the Games start where Katniss and Peeta talk on the roof? On page 142 Peeta says, “I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” and Katniss just replies, “That’s how the Games work.” Peeta already knows what Katniss needs to learn, but Katniss hasn’t got it yet. She even says as much when he asks, “Don’t you see?” and she replies, “A little. Only… no offense, but who cares, Peeta?” Katniss isn’t yet the rebel Peeta and all of Panem need her to be.

2)   He talks about Theme with the hero. Throughout the story, Peeta talks about not letting the Capitol control him and being his own person, especially when he and Katniss reunite in the cave.

3)   He nurtures the hero. The B-Story character is always there for the hero, nurturing, helping, supporting, etc. In Peeta’s case, he literally makes it his mission to protect Katniss and keep her alive in the Hunger Games.

4)   He teaches the hero the lesson/theme. Through his actions and opinions, Peeta influences Katniss not to play by the Capitol’s rules and be a pawn in the Games.

5)   He helps the hero win in the end. Peeta is there in the Finale, fighting by Katniss’s side and participating in the suicide trick. B-Story characters need not be physically present in the Final Battle, but they must have helped the hero get there.

So that is the difference between a true B-Plot Love Story and a lame, tacked-on love story – the love interest helps the hero learn the THEME. If the love story is just a pleasant distraction, kissing scenes in between fight scenes, it’s not a B-Story.

Of course, as I already said, the B-Story doesn’t have to be a love story. The B-Story character can be a mentor or a friend too. The only rule is this person must be the hero’s ally and help the hero learn the lesson/theme.

In conclusion, the purpose of the B-Story is to show that the true reason for the journey is not the tangible goal (win the Hunger Games), but the spiritual lesson that can only be found through the B-Story (the real win is not being a Capitol pawn).

Next Up from Heather… What is in a novel scene that is not in a screenplay scene? I’ll tell you next week as I adjust my Sticky Note Outline to accommodate it. ** Update: my Sticky Note Outline is still being revised, but I did figure out the Theme of my novel – FINALLY! So instead of blogging about scenes, I will blog about Theme.

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Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

If you’re a visual person, Outlining Method #3 is for you! I call it The Wall of Sticky Notes, because that’s how I build it. Others create a Corkboard of Cards. In the business of screenwriting, it’s simply called “The Board.”


The beginnings of my Board. I’m still filling in the holes.

As you can see, it has four lines: Act I, Act II part one, Act II part two, and Act III. This is based on Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat method, which some people say is really a four-act structure. Whatever you call it, the point is the lines should have an even amount of scenes in them.

Each sticky note or index card represents a scene. More on what a scene is in the next post; for now, we’re just going to get “stuff that happens” up on The Board.

If you did Outlining Method #1 or Outlining Method #2, you will already have stuff to put up on the board. These are likely not proper scenes yet, but that’s okay. For instance, if we use the Hunger Games Basic Beats as an example, the Catalyst is: “At the reaping, Katniss’s sister Prim’s name is picked.” Write that on a note/card and stick it on the Board. It’s not a full scene, but for now just get the main story points up there.

Also put any ideas you have about the story on The Board. If you know at some point that your protagonist needs to discover their best friend is a liar, write “Hero discovers BFF is a liar” on a note/card and put it roughly where you think that needs to happen.

Once you have all your story beats and ideas on The Board, start thinking in scenes. For example, where/when/how does your protagonist discover her BFF is a liar? Flush out the details a bit, but keep each scene on one note/card.

When you’re done, you should have around 40 cards (i.e 40 scenes), 10 in each row, give or take a card. In a screenplay, this structure is pretty strictly followed given that films need to be a certain length, but there’s more room to play in a novel. Still, you want to keep each line roughly the same length. I’ll explain why below.

The Board is a visual person’s dream and an excellent tool for any writer. It makes it easier to see the whole story (especially if you color code your plots), and in turn reveals problems you may need to fix.

5 Story Problems The Board Reveals:

1)   Holes – Are you missing stuff? Do you have two side-by-side scenes that don’t connect? For example, does your character abruptly go from being in love to breaking up with her boyfriend? You have a story hole! You’re missing the scene that shows your character falling out of love.

2)   Long Sections – Is your first line way longer than your other lines? This is quite common and is a sign that you have way too many scenes in the Set Up. Spend too much time setting up (Act I) and your readers will get impatient to start the journey (Act II).

3)   Short Sections – This is most commonly seen in the fourth line (Act III), where a writer wraps up the story too quickly without addressing all the things that were set up in Act I.

4)   Forgotten B Plots – Did you totally forget about your B Plot for ten scenes? This is easy to see if you color code your plots. Rearrange your notes/cards so your plots are more evenly spaced.

5)   Weak Turning Points – In The Board, the end of each line* is a Turning Point (i.e. a plot point that spins the story in a new direction). So make sure that these scenes are pivotal. In TV they’re often called the cliffhangers before the commercials.

  • End of line 1: Break Into 2 scene – this is the moment the hero decides to go on the journey. Make it a big deal! End of line 2: MidPoint – this is the scene where the hero thinks he’s achieved his goal but hasn’t, and stakes are raised. Make the stakes huge! End of line 3: Break Into 3 – this is the scene where the hero figures out what he needs to do to win and heads into the final battle.

So that’s the benefit of The Board – you can see these story problems more easily than scrolling through a linear document on your computer. For visual people, this way of outlining is super helpful.

Next Up from Heather… How To Turn Sticky Notes into Proper Scenes.

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Story Edit Using The “Save The Cat” Basic Beats

Whatever your writing process, whether you outline or dive straight into prose, there’s one step we all must do – story edit. There are innumerable things to edit in a manuscript, but let’s start with the bones of the story. After all, adding metaphors and sensory descriptions won’t matter if the story is weak.

So bring out that handy Basic Beats chart. Fill it in. Even if you used this to outline your novel, things probably changed when you were writing, so update it.

Just filling in The Basic Beats will reveal missing or flimsy story elements. Bam! You’re already editing!

Once you have all the elements, start asking questions. The first one I usually ask is: “Did this story change the protagonist’s life?” Start to answer by comparing the Opening and the Final Moment…

B6 Chart_Fotor1)   Is the protagonist we meet in the Opening different from the protagonist we see in the Final Moment? i.e. Alcoholic -> Sober. Needy -> Independent. If yes, great! If no…

2)   Is the Catalyst something that will change the protagonist’s life, and in turn change the protagonist? If not, you need a stronger Catalyst. What must happen to bust the protagonist out of her old way of being and into a new way? If the Catalyst is strong but you still don’t have a character change, the problem could be the Set Up…

3)   Have you set up a protagonist that needs to change? If the protagonist starts out perfect, she has nowhere to grow. Every first-rate protagonist has something personal to overcome. Figure out her flaw/issue and you’ll discover how she needs to change. Which leads to Theme…

4)   Do you have a Theme that the protagonist needs to learn in order to identify her flaw/issue and win in the end? If no, take a look at the Dark Night of the Soul… If yes, did they learn it? Why not? The problem might be the B-Story…

5)   Dark Night of the Soul… Why did the protagonist hit rock bottom? What personal flaws prevented her from succeeding in this story? What does she need to learn about herself to get out of this mess? Whatever it is, that’s the Theme.

6)   The B-Story character is the ally who metaphorically slaps the protagonist upside the head and points out how she’s screwing up. If your protagonist doesn’t change, maybe she just needs someone to help her realize she needs to change. Characters can’t change if they’re not forced to face their faults. And if they don’t change themselves, they can’t change their lives, resulting in an unrewarding story.

So using The Basic Beats chart to story edit allows you to easily see how everything connects. More examples… If your Finale falls a little flat, inspect your Set Up and ask yourself if you gave the hero enough problems, and if you addressed those problems in the Finale. If you don’t have a Mid Point, look to the All Is Lost moment and figure out what the opposite of that would be. If you’re missing the Debate element, check out the Set Up for conflicts that would make the protagonist pause before Breaking Into 2.

In conclusion: check the chart, cross-examine every element, and make your story stronger! That’s how to use the Basic Beats to story edit.

Next Up from Heather… Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats. Because the old adage is true: actions speak louder than words.

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Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

Just as there are many ways to write a novel, there are many ways to outline a novel. You can use all the methods, one of the methods, or none of the methods. The choice is yours! Go nuts with the freedom! Myself, I use all of the outlining methods I will explain in the next few posts. I treat them like stepping stones, each step preparing me to write that novel. Kind of like psyching myself up to jump off a cliff! I start by hopping into the shallow end of a pool, then I cannonball into the deep end, then I dive off the diving board, and finally, when I’ve gotten the basics down, I head to the lake, find a wicked high cliff, and jump!

But even if you prefer to write on the wild side and just jump, the following outline method is handy during editing to figure out what might be missing from your story or how to make your story stronger.

Save-The-CatNow without further ado, the first outline method: the Basic Story Beats!

The Basic Story Beats are from a screenwriting book called “Save The Cat” by Blake Snyder. I’ve read a lot of books about writing and they all talk about 3-Act structure, blah, blah, blah, but this book is the best because it doesn’t just list what beats are needed, it explains why those beats are important. I’m just going to summarize the beats below, but if you want more details, check out Snyder’s books.

But wait! What’s a beat? It’s a plot point that moves the story forward. For example, “Anna skips school with her crush” is a beat; “Anna daydreams about her crush” is not a beat. The first is an action, something that happens. The second is not.

So here we go…

Opening Image… shows where the protagonist is at the beginning of the story. This is important to set up because the protagonist must change by the end of the story.

Theme…  is what your book is about. Usually spoken to the protagonist, often without the protagonist realizing that what is said will be key to her surviving the story.

Set-Up… establishes the protagonist’s world (family, school, work) and introduces supporting characters. This is also where the protagonist’s personal problems are revealed, the stuff she’ll need to fix by the end of the story in order for that vital character change to take place.

Catalyst… is also called The Inciting Incident. This event disrupts the character’s world and starts the story. Without it, there’s no story. For example, in “The Hunger Games” the catalyst is when Katniss’s sister’s name is selected for the games. If another kid’s name had been selected, there wouldn’t be a story – Katniss would just keep on hunting and hanging out with Gabe in her district. Life would remain the same. The catalyst is a moment so big that it changes the protagonist’s life.

Debate… is when the protagonist decides how to proceed. Should she go on this journey? Should she refuse the journey? Of course, she has to go for there to be a story, but doubt adds tension and makes the protagonist more human, which strengthens the story.

Break Into Two… Act Two, that is. This is where the protagonist makes the choice to leave her familiar world behind and go on the journey to achieve a goal. The key to this beat is that the protagonist must choose this course of action, not be forced or tricked into it.

B Story… character is introduced. Often this is the love interest, but can also be a sidekick or a mentor. Basically, the protagonist needs an ally. This ally guides the protagonist through to the end and is often instrumental in helping the protagonist learn the Theme, i.e. what she needs to do to survive and win the story.

Fun & Games… is the promise of the premise. If your novel was a movie, the F&G section would be featured in the trailer. For instance, in a romantic comedy, this is where the two love interests clash.

Midpoint… is usually a False Victory where the protagonist thinks she’s achieved her goal but she hasn’t. It’s here that the stakes are raised and the bad guys start to close in on the protagonist. (The Midpoint can also be a False Defeat, but that’ll take a whole other blog post to explain.)

Bad Guys Close In… Both internal problems (inside the protagonist’s team or within the protagonist herself) and external problems (bad guys) tighten their grip and get closer and closer to thwarting the protagonist’s goal.

All Is Lost… is usually a False Defeat. If at the Midpoint the protagonist thought that she’d achieved her goal, this is where she thinks she’s utterly and completely failed.

Dark Night of the Soul… is where the protagonist has lost all hope. The worst thing about this beat is that she knows it’s her fault. The hero that resonates is not innocent and blameless and perfect; she has flaws just like we do. And despite her best intentions, she had a hand in her own defeat. The protagonist has to be beaten and know it in order to have a revelation that saves her, which leads to…

Break Into Three… Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute action or advice from the B story ally, the protagonist digs deep to find a solution.

Finale… From what she’s gone through and what she’s learned (i.e. Theme), the protagonist forges a third way and conquers her problems (both internal and external).

Final Image… is the opposite of the Opening Image, proving a change has occurred. After all, what’s the point of the story if it doesn’t change the protagonist’s life?

So those are the Basic Story Beats. As you can see, this is not a step-by-step beat sheet of all your novel’s plot points, nor is it a scene-by-scene outline. Those are the next steps. These beats are just the main elements of a story.

*For more detailed explanations of these story elements, read the whole “Save The Cat” series, or check out my blog posts about Theme and B-Story.

Next Up from Heather… Have doubts about whether bestsellers such as THE HUNGER GAMES, SHINE, and I HUNT KILLERS have all the Basic Story Beats? Let’s find out!

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