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Sunday, June 10, 2012

How to Face the Blank Page (another angle)

by Susan Chapek

Like my Route 19 neighbor Cynthia, I hate facing a blank page. Ever since I discovered the late, great Blake Snyder, I don't have to. Because as soon as I get a notion that might possibly become a story, I fill that first, blank page with the Beat Sheet template derived from Blake's masterwork Save The Cat.

My personalized version of Blake's template* looks something like this:

Now all I need to do is fill in the blanks. I don't have to do it in order. I don't have to flounder with voice, tone, or tense. I know I'll probably change some entries later—sometimes after the first draft is complete. But slowly or quickly my first page fills up, the Beat Sheet template helping me build a strong story skeleton with the ankle bone connected to the leg bone, and so on, all in proper order.

Once the page is full, it's easy to start fleshing out the beats.

I know. Save the Cat is a screenwriting method. But I'm not the first writer to notice that the plot structure of commercial feature-length movies is an elegant match for the structure of middle grade novels. (Compare STC's template to Tracey Dils' description of the MG form in You Can Write Children's Books.) Blake's template also works with genre novels (suspense, romance, etc.) for any age group.

There are some writers for whom Blake's method might not work:

1) If you never need an outline, you won't need STC. (I've heard about writers called pantsers, and I believe they exist, just as I believe in fairies; if you're a pantser, you probably won't connect with Blake's conviction that the bones need to be there first. You probably have no fear of the blank page, either.)

2) If you consider your stories character-based, you may feel that Blake's method focuses on plot rather than characters. (I disagree. In fact, the title Save the Cat derives from one of Blake's tools for creating an empathetic MC.)

3) Finally, if you're wrangling the multiple subplots of a long, complex novel, the STC template isn't detailed enough. (Of course, when your masterpiece becomes a feature film, the screenwriter will slash it or wrench it around to fit into the STC template, or something very similar. Just sayin, be prepared.)

So who will benefit from Blake's Beat Sheet? (1) The writer who comes up with a terrific first scene, and then rambles on aimlessly from there (or stalls in place, rewriting Chapter 1 for months). (2) The writer struggling to connect a great Beginning with a great Ending; Blake's method shows you in clear stages just what should happen in the Middle, and when. (3) The writer who finds the standard arc of story structure (goal, obstacle, turning points, climax, resolution) too general to be helpful. (4) The children's writer frustrated by plot methods designed for building complex, adult novels. (5) The writer with a messy first draft who needs a guide to the fix. (6) The writer who wants to analyze existing novels to see what makes them work—but doesn't know how. I've been all of those writers at one time or another.  

The best part of Blake's template is its simplicity. You're required to keep the template on one page. You're forced to hone in on the essentials.

Wait. Changed my mind. The best part of the template is how it won't let you cheat. If I find myself inclined to skip a beat, or unsure what it should be, or unable to express it in one sentence, or repeating an earlier beat, or telling myself that this story doesn't need to fit the mold because it's different from every other story—ruh roh! The sin always turns out to be in my plot, not in the template.

The Save the Cat series is also a great guide to honing your pitch, finding the perfect title, or creating and testing the strength of your hook (in screenwriter's parlance, your "poster").

*Permission is not granted for this image to be duplicated, forwarded, or "pinned" in any manner. This image is not an exact copy of my own template, or of any image from Blake Snyder's books or web site.


  1. Darn good way to get going on this journey. I must confess that I fear templates even more than the blank page, but I *do* think this is useful.

  2. I like to start with a chain of events, then fill them into STC--then a full outline! Keeping the bases covered. Never fear the blank page!

  3. Vonna, yes! The Template also works backwards, as it were, to test an arc you've already built. Shows the weak spots and gaps, if any.