craft review by Laurel Holman
I’ve got four completely different drafts of my current work-in-progress, a middle grade novel. I keep trying to “fix it,” and each time I embark on a new draft I come up with new solutions that take the characters and plot in wholly new directions. Even after exploring the story from four different angles, I find that none of them feel quite right. What’s going on? And more importantly, what should I do next?
I turned to the famous screenwriting book, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (often used by novelists) for answers. I decided I needed to analyze the high level structure of my story. His method, similar in some ways to Larry Brook’s Story Engineering structure, provides for a series of required “beats” that most successful stories hit, in roughly the same order.
Curious to find out what my novel would look like if I structured it according to Blake’s fifteen beats, I set out to really understand the system by first applying it to published books I’d already read and liked. It’s been an incredibly helpful exercise. I hope this analysis of The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron inspires you.
A note before we start. The Forgetting is a dystopian YA novel with a bit of romance and some violence, but I believe it will appeal to advanced Middle Grade readers who are accustomed to reading other dystopian titles. As writers of Middle Grade, we can learn from the structure and form of this novel even if it is aimed at a YA audience.
Spoiler alert: By the nature of this analysis, spoilers are everywhere. So, if you haven’t read this excellent book yet, do that first, then we’ll meet you back here for the analysis:
Opening Image (Beat 1)
- Nadia, our protagonist, is lying flat on top of the wall that encloses her city, trying to avoid being seen. She is not supposed to go over the wall, but has begun to explore in secret and to forage for extra food. On the day our story opens, she has returned from an expedition only to find leaders of the city walking below. She must lie flat and hope she is not seen, lest she be caught and flogged for disobeying the rules.
Theme Stated (Beat 2)
- What is truth, when we don’t have memories to know it, or to know ourselves? This book takes Nadia on a quest to understand herself and her role in a society where everyone loses their memories every 12 years, except for her. As she reflects on page 13, “We are supposed to write the truth, for no one to see but ourselves. But how easily that truth can be twisted. Bend a little here, omit a little there, make yourself into the person you wish you were instead of the person you are.” Nadia is challenged by her sister Liliya a few pages later to “Change your books. Let Nadia be lost in the Forgetting. Like she was last time” (29). Will Nadia let the Forgetting erase her and sink further into the person she is at the beginning of the book, a silent and withdrawn girl damaged by the experience of being forgotten by all who loved her? Or will she find her voice and decide to be remembered?
Set-Up (Beat 3)
- We learn about Nadia’s past, meet the key players (Nadia’s family, Rose, other townspeople), and start to become familiar with Nadia’s world through a series of flashbacks interwoven with the action.
- We meet Gray who twice implores her, “Don’t forget,” once in current time and also as a young boy (seen via flashback), foreshadowing the drama of the climax.
- Nadia introduces Gray, and the reader, to where she goes when she’s over the wall.
- We become oriented to the world, how its time and jobs and government function. A scene where Nadia narrowly avoids missing the “counting” dramatizes the tight control the city has over its people.
Catalyst (Beat 4)
- Gray catches Nadia crossing the wall and decides not to turn her in, but instead to blackmail her into letting him come with her next time she goes. Note that the catalyst moment occurs very early in the novel (page 6), before the set up scenes, in keeping with recent trends to start the novel quickly. But the implications of it unfold gradually, interwoven with the set-up scenes.
Debate (Beat 5)
- As Nadia explores her new relationship with Gray and tries to decide whether she can trust him, her suspicions about the Council and its leaders mount. Will she trust Gray and ally with him to pursue the truth of their society and its governance? Or will she stay focused on her original narrow goal of protecting her family and keeping them together during the next Forgetting?
Break into Act II (Beat 6)
- Fleeing from Gray’s attentions, which she does not yet trust, Nadia runs and finds herself at the Lost houses. Gray pursues her, and Rose takes them both in. In Rose’s resting room, they finally talk openly, and Nadia makes the decision to trust Gray with her secret: that she keeps her memories through the Forgetting. Together, they realize that everything they have been taught about the Forgetting is wrong. Their decision to steal the First Book–“Okay,” I say. “We steal it together.” (100)–carries us into Act II.
B Story (Beat 7)
- The B Story is the romance between Gray and Nadia, interwoven into the primary A story of Nadia’s pursuit of the truth about her town.
Fun & Games (Beat 8)
- Nadia follows clues, makes discoveries, and pursues her goal of stealing the First Book from the Archives, where she has become an apprentice.
Midpoint (Beat 9)
- Nadia and Gray leave the Festival to go over the wall and enjoy a romantic waterfall swim in the dark. The romantic encounter leads to their first kiss and a joy in the present moment that Nadia rarely allows herself to feel. This blissful high is a FALSE VICTORY, setting up the reversal of the second half.
- The A and B stories come together when Nadia notices an unnatural beam of green light shining on a rock. They investigate together. Nadia and Gray collaborate to figure out the code to the door, and then to make sense of the room that they find inside, which contains clues to the origins of their city.
Bad Guys Close In (Beat 10)
- While puzzling over their findings, they are almost discovered by a shadowy figure by the pond. They trail this person back to the city, confirming what they have begun to suspect: someone in the city–a council member, judging by the black robes–knows about the door and hidden room.
- As Nadia and Gray put the pieces together with the help of what they find in the hidden room, the council closes in on them, stepping up their pursuit of information by putting increasing pressure on Gray and by conducting a search of Nadia’s home.
All Is Lost (Beat 11)
- Janis is lying in wait as Nadia and Gray leave the secret room (p. 290) and captures them by threatening their loved ones if they don’t give her the entry code.
Dark Night of the Soul (Beat 12)
- Watching Janis torture Gray, Nadia does the only thing she can think of to stop it, even though it means sacrificing what means the most to her. She breaks a bottle of Forgetting, knowing that Gray will forget her and that it will erase the joy and love that they have created together.
Break into Three (Beat 13)
- Waking up in a locked room with Gray, who doesn’t remember her, she decides not to give up. “We have to get out,” she says (p. 315), launching us into Act III.
Finale (Beat 14)
- In a rapid sequence of tightly paced scenes, Nadia works with her sisters and Gray to expose the truth of the the town’s history before the next Forgetting erases everything, vanquishing the bad guys in ascending order.
Final Image (Beat 15)
- In a mirror image of the opening (Beat One, where Nadia was isolated and trapped on top of the wall, fearful of being discovered leaving the city), Nadia and Gray now openly walk out of a new opening in the wall, hand in hand, to freely explore the world beyond the wall.
If you’re struggling with a stubborn work-in-progress novel of your own, I highly recommend spending a little time trying to identify these 15 beats in your favorite novels. (Refer to the book, Save the Cat!, for explanations of the beats, or find a summary of the Save the Cat beats here. If you’d like a colorful Save the Cat beat sheet template, scroll down to the bottom of the linked post.) Once you’ve got it down, you can analyze your own novel. You may find that it’s suddenly clear what needs to happen in the next round of edits.
As for me, I invested a few days in looking back through the many scenes in all four of my drafts. From that raw material, I was able to build a beat sheet like the one above, re-assembling, pruning and embellishing my story as needed to craft the most compelling “save the cat version” of my story I could muster. That’s now my blueprint for Draft Five. It may or may not be my last draft, but I’m confident about two things. One, the exercise is a great investment in my writerly learning curve. And two, it’s surely going to get me closer to the amazing story I know is in there somewhere.
Action: Use the Save the Cat beats to analyze your favorite novels.
Evaluate your own novel-in-progress according to the beats. See if adjusting the events of your novel could improve the plot or pacing.
For more about Save the Cat, read contributor Jen Jobart’s craft review, “Save the Cat: Not Just for Screenwriters.” And, check out another example of a Save the Cat Analysis (this one of One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson).
Laurel Holman writes middle grade fiction. A former marketing executive in the software industry, she discovered writing while on a sabbatical and has not looked back. She is an active member of SCBWI and the facilitator of a mother/daughter discussion group for middle school girls. Laurel lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and two children, two cats, and a golden retriever.