The Story Beats
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
By now, I’ve mentioned the story beats several times over a couple of different posts, and it’s a safe bet that I will continue to do so due to their importance in storytelling. The story beats are very useful tools for writing stories. The thing is, not everyone knows about them. I didn’t even learn about them until a few years ago.
The beats are something that largely go unnoticed by readers when the writer did their job right. However, when a beat is messed up, readers will sense, even if they don’t know why. That is how important the beats are, and once you know them, there is no going back. Whenever you read a book or watch a movie, you will be paying attention to the beats and the pacing, which can be a bit distracting.
A Formula for Telling a Story
The idea of a formula for telling a story can put a lot of people off. I certainly didn’t care for it when my friend introduced me to the idea. I think I fought it off for about a year or so before I was forced/guilted into learning about it when he bought me a book on the subject. Then I started reading, and things started making sense.
The fact of the matter is that story beats have always existed, just there wasn’t really a name for them. Storytellers are often subconsciously aware of at least some of the beats and know to hit them at certain points. This is why you can look at pretty much any well-known story from a century or more ago, and you can match it up with the beats.
One particular beat that I’ve been aware of for years, without realizing it, can most easily be identified in romantic comedies. Every single movie or story in the genre has a moment near the end where something goes wrong. There’s an argument or a misunderstanding, and the relationship seems ruined. Every rom-com has this moment, and it’s a beat. In the Save the Cat! format, this is called the All Is Lost moment, and it falls around 75% of the way through the story.
Once you understand what the beat is, you can identify it in every story.
The Save The Cat! Format
Save The Cat! is called this due to the old comic trope of having the hero perform a heroic deed, such as saving a cat from the tree, at the opening of a story to show audiences that they are the good guys.
The format itself was created by screenwriter Blake Snyder in 2005 with the idea of helping screenwriters structure their scripts. Well, it worked and a few years later most of Hollywood was following the formula to create better stories.
In total, there are fifteen beats within the Save the Cat! format. Each beat falls at its own specific point within every story. Some of the beats, such as Fun and Games, are several scenes long, while others are only a single scene in length. I’ve seen movies where certain beats, are only a minute or so in length.
The Story Beats and where they fall within the story are as follows:
Opening Image (1%) – This beat introduces the audience to the world.
Theme Stated (1 - 5%) – This is where the theme of the story is introduced, which is the lesson the main character will learn. It is usually introduced by another character, but the main character doesn’t listen.
The Setup (5 – 9%) – This is more world-building, focusing on the hero’s life.
The Catalyst (9 – 11%) – This is an event that changes the main character’s life. Something that they can’t ignore that starts them moving on their journey.
The Debate (11 – 23%) – At this point, the main character isn’t fully convinced that they should start the journey, and have to really think about it. They know starting this journey will change everything and they don’t know if they want that yet.
Break Into Two (23%) – This is the start of Act 2 and where the main character chooses to move forward and start their journey.
B Story (23 – 27%) – This is where a secondary plot point comes in, sometimes it’s a romance. This is also when B Story characters, people who will help the main character get through their journey and learn the lesson introduced in the Theme Stated beat, are introduced.
Fun and Games (27 – 50%) – The journey has been started and the main character is usually enjoying things. They are off on an adventure and things are fun. This is the longest beat since it is the entirety of the first half of the second act.
Midpoint (50%) – The middle of the story, usually marked by a false victory, the bad guy has been beaten, or a false defeat, the bad guy has triumphed in some way. They are false because the story isn’t over yet.
Bad Guys Close In (50 – 68%) – It doesn’t have to really be bad guys closing in, but things start getting tougher for the main character, and often worse as well as the beat goes on.
All Is Lost (68%) – Something truly terrible happens that often causes the main character to give up and return to their old world/life at the start of their journey.
Dark Night of the Soul (68 – 77%) – The main character is back where they started, reflecting on everything they went through, and even though they are trying to be comfortable/happy with their old, normal life, they realize they no longer can live like that. This is where the lesson from Theme Stated at the beginning is finally learned and accepted by the main character.
Break into Three (77%) – This is the start of the Third Act, and where the main character commits to the learned lesson and sets out to finish their journey once and for all.
Finale (77 – 99%) – The final confrontation of the story, which can be broken up into five sub-beats
Gathering the Team – The main character gathers the friends who have helped them along the way and plans how they are going to fix things.
Executing the Plan – The main character executes the plan but…
High Tower Surprise – There is one final twist to deal with that the main character hadn’t expected. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Professor Quirrell shows up and he has Voldemort living on the back of his head!
Dig Deep – The main character has to fully embrace the lesson they learned to succeed, thus showing they have grown over the course of the story and create a new plan for success.
Execution of the New Plan – The main character uses the new plan, and it works, the bad guy is defeated.
Final Image (99 – 100%) – The audience is shown what the journey has led to, and how the main character has ended up after the journey.
If you want to learn more about the beats from Save the Cat!, I highly recommend Jessica Brody’s book Save the Cat! Write’s a Novel. This is the book my friend got me, and it hardly ever leaves my writing desk nowadays and I always take it with me when I go somewhere. It is an invaluable tool and a fun read.
Why I Love the Beats
The Beats have been very powerful tools with helping me and my writing. In various different projects of mine, there were parts that just weren’t working for me, and I could never figure out why. Then I learned about the Beats and realized that the scenes weren’t working because they were happening at the wrong point in the story. I moved them around, and suddenly the scenes worked.
On top of that, as I’ve mentioned in other articles, knowing the beats helps with plotting out the tory and when facing writer's block. Knowing the beats gives me an idea of what should come up next and can help guide my thought process.
The beats also help with pacing. Since they are all percentage-based, they can give you a good idea of whether or not you are spending too much or too little time on a particular scene. Some story elements need to happen fast to be effective, while others need to be drawn out to get their point across. All of that has to be proportional to the rest of the story.
Whether you like the idea of a formula for storytelling or not, the beats work. They can be applied to any story out there. Knowing them can greatly improve your writing.