I’m going to start off by saying that this is going to be a long post, but if you’re having trouble plotting, or figuring out why a story/novella/book isn’t working, then you should definitely stick with me.
It’s been quite a while since I last put up a post here on The Million Words, and I’m sorry for posting a day late! I’ve missed my last few deadlines, mostly because the first few months of this year have been extremely transformative. After years of taking care of my father, we’ve moved him into a nursing home, though not before a several month-long hospital stay in which we thought he might die. I’ve also had to change day jobs twice in the last year, completely without warning. It’s been a fun time.
In all of this, I’ve also done a complete overhaul revision of the first Aleister Crowley Shadow Council Archives novella. (Oh yeah, did I mention that I’m now under contract for 4 novellas? AHHHHHHH!!!!!!) and let me tell you guys, that was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire writing career. Not only did I need to cut it down by about 10,000 words, but I also had to completely restructure it because the beats were ALL wrong. And what beats are those you ask? Well settle in, because that’s what we’re here to talk about!
First thing’s first, I highly recommend purchasing a copy of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book about screenplay writing, but it translates very easily into any other kind of writing. It’s also got all kinds of exercises and whatnot throughout that can really help you grasp what he’s talking about. I highly recommend it.
To give you the brief rundown of the meat and potatoes of the book, most stories we love boil down to a set of 15 beats over 3 acts. And those beats are as follows.
- Opening Image – The first impression of the story.
- Theme Stated – What the story is really about
- Set-up – The establishment of the hero, the stakes, and the goal of the story
- Catalyst – The thing that sets the story in motion
- Debate – The MC’s struggle with what to do
- Break into Two – The moment that spurs us into the second act of the story
- B Story – The secondary story that carries the theme of the piece
- Fun and Games – The heart of the story. This is where most of the scenes in a trailer for a movie come from.
- Midpoint – The dead center of the story. Usually ends in a victory for the hero.
- Bad Guys Close In – The bad guys regroup after the midpoint and plan to come for the hero. This is also the section where we may begin to see some internal strife for the hero’s team.
- All is Lost – Also labelled “False Defeat”
- Dark Night of the Soul – The darkness before the dawn of the finale. Generally bleak reflection after the false defeat.
- Break into three – The beginning of the third act
- Finale – Y’all know what this is
- Final Image – The opposite of the Opening Image. The proof of the change the story has wrought.
And there you have it. The 15 beats of good story telling. Take a good hard look at the books, shows, and movies you love, and I’ll bet you can find this structure is the majority of them. And yes, I know I didn’t give all that much information on each beat. If you want more, pick up a copy of Save the Cat!
It was the illustrious John Hartness that told me to read Blake Snyder’s book, and I’m extremely glad he did. See, when you get right down to it, the Shadow Council Archives novellas are pulp fiction novellas, and pulp fiction has a general structure to it. Sure, you can bend the rules a bit and change things up, but you must know what the rules are first before you can successfully go outside them.
So I looked at the novella after reading the book, and I knew there was a lot wrong with the story as it stood. The first thing I did was take a good hard look at each chapter separately and figure out what beat it would fall under. And oh boy, was that story a mess. The B Story didn’t start until right before the Midpoint. I had all my Fun and Games where I should have Bad Guys close in, etc. I became very glad that I use scrivener. It was super easy to move the chapters around into the proper beat order.
I then took a look at how long each section was, and it looked like many of those sections were a bit too long. But by how much? In Save the Cat!, Snyder breaks down the beats to what pages they should cover in a 110-page screenplay. A novella is close to that in page count, but it’s definitely a bit longer. And a full novel length work is WAY over that. Also, working in scrivener makes it much harder to look at page count, so I needed this broken down into word count. So how do we translate that?
Easy! I broke it down into percentages first.
So here’s those beats again, with the percentage of the story they take up/land on.
- Opening Image – 0%
- Theme Stated – 0% – 4%
- Set-up – 0% – 9%
- Catalyst – 9%
- Debate – 9% – 21%
- Break into Two – 21%
- B Story – 21% – 27%
- Fun and Games – 27% – 50%
- Midpoint – 50%
- Bad Guys Close In – 50% – 67%
- All is Lost – 67%
- Dark Night of the Soul – 67% – 77%
- Break into three – 77%
- Finale – 77% – 100%
- Final Image – 100%
With this list, it’s extremely easy to break down the beats into word counts. For the Shadow Council Archives novellas, our target word count is round about 35,000. So, let’s apply that total to these percentages and see what the beats should look like in terms of word count.
- Opening Image – 0 – 250/300 (first page word count)
- Theme Stated – 0 – 1,250
- Set-up – 0 – 3,250
- Catalyst – 3,250
- Debate – 3,250 – 7,500
- Break into Two – 7,500
- B Story – 7,500 – 9,500
- Fun and Games – 9,500 – 17,500
- Midpoint – 17,500
- Bad Guys Close In – 17,500 – 23,500
- All is Lost – 23,500
- Dark Night of the Soul – 23,500 – 27,000
- Break into three – 27,000
- Finale – 27,000 – 35,000
- Final Image – 35,000
After I did this, I was in business. This is much easier to apply to the manuscript. You can take this and break down each section into how many words it should roughly cover. E.g., the Fun and Games section covers 8,000 total words.
As it turns out, the Fun and Games section was where I had the most issue. The manuscript sat closer to 45,000 words. And after I moved everything around, I realized that I had about 15,000 words worth of Fun and Games, putting my percentage at 33% of the story. Since that section should be 8,000 words of a total 35,000-word novella, that section should actually cover 23% of the story. So, I had a full 10% too much F&G, so I knew that most of my cutting was going to come out of this section of the novella. This also meant that this would be where I’d lose the reader if it didn’t change. At that 23% mark the reader would start to think, “Okay, this is fun and all, but let’s get to the point”, and that next 10% might make them put the book down. Ergo, it needed to change.
By now I know that there are a lot of ruffled feathers. “Story telling isn’t about percentages, it’s about soul and creativity.”
You’re right, it is. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be a structure to your creativity. In the same way that giving different writers the same prompt will result in a myriad of different stories, if every writer followed this beat sheet to the tee, you’d still get all kinds of different stories. Think of it in terms of painting. Teaching artists brushstroke, color mixing, and medium techniques doesn’t mean they’ll start to all paint the exact same things. These beats are your techniques, and how you hit them is what makes your story unique.
So there you have how I used math to figure out how to fix my first novella, and I hope you would have some questions. Or at least to tell me off for daring to mix math and storytelling. So leave your comments below, and I promise I’ll get to them. And let me know if you would like to see more posts about this process in the future!