Save the cat--or not!
Plus: Into the Black Fantastic, The Last of Us, Station Eleven
Welcome to Black history month in North America! I especially welcome those joining us after the Warrior of the Wind announcement. Those of us who like to hang out at the water cooler do so at our private Discord channel. Join in if you wish!
This is a 15-minute read. Highlights:
From the Desk: Into the Black Fantastic
From the Discord: Save the cat–or not!
From the Grapevine: With love from Locus Magazine
For the Road: THE LAST OF US and STATION ELEVEN: Why some adaptations fail, and why others succeed
From the Desk:
On Tuesday February 7 @ 6PM, I’ll be living it up with fellow Black authors Nicky Drayden & Ehigbor Okosun at Hub City Bookstore for an Into the Black Fantastic virtual event. Our fearless moderator will be Desiree S. Evans. I met these three women in Austin, TX at the 2019 Armadillocon, and they’ve been friends of mine ever since. Come watch us talk about how we imagine our worlds in a manner that centers Blackness and its attendant concerns. This event is FREE!
No news this month, but watch out for more announcements! WOTW cover launch may occur sometime in March (or slightly later). Before that, my team @ TorDotCom may offer details of my forthcoming novella, Lost Ark Dreaming.
From the Discord:
Save the cat–or not!
Believe it or not, Susie, this is a question my fiction students ask every time, and the answer I give them is the same one I’ll give you now: The real conundrum is less about hitting standardized plot points at specific times along a narrative, and more about what impact those plot points have, and how you can deliver that same impact whether you use these prescribed plot patterns or not.
That was a word salad, I’m sorry. Let’s try to make it less so.
Save the Cat for newbies
Save the Cat is a screenwriting method pioneered by American author Black Snyder, which makes extensive use of story “beats” and distinctive “genres” (often those affiliated with American TV and film). Out of this school of thought rose the Save the Cat beat sheet, sporting a three-act structure and plot points that could be adapted to fit any story written for the screen. Based on this method, American author Jessica Brody adapted said sheet for novel writing, publishing the book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You'll Ever Need. You can catch all the info you need about this method at savethecat.com.
This method lays out a template into which you may wrangle your story, to help you determine where your story needs strengthening, cutting back, complication, etc. In theory, this makes sense, and has been used successfully by many authors (even if they didn’t know they were doing it).
But what happens when your story (or genre, or style) doesn't quite fit within this template? What then?
The purposes of beginnings, middles & endings
Whether you employ plot points or not, the questions you’re considering while telling a story are the same: What do I offer first, what do I provide after, and what do I save for last?
Beginnings, as a concept, have a few things to achieve.
Hook the reader. Beginnings are not just about starting, but also about making an entrance. This does not necessarily need to be done in a gimmicky or high-octane manner—a reader may be hooked by something as subtle as language or place, as well as by more overt elements like explosive plot events.
Introduce the reader to the story and establish the circumstances. Once hooked, we may then take the reader through a slower establishment of the story’s circumstances. We may also think of this as setup, orientation, etc—whatever terminology you choose is fine.
Raise questions. This, in my opinion, is the key purpose of beginnings: it raises questions that the reader then wants answered by the rest of the story. Who is this character? Why did they make this decision? What has happened to them to make them act this way? How will things play out? And then what happened? The rest of the story’s purpose is to respond to questions like these (if not necessarily answer them), but it is the beginning’s purpose to raise them.
Set the ball rolling. The point that marks the end of the beginning is often a point where the protagonists have demonstrated actions that need resolving. The rest of the journey through the story is a quest to offer responses to and consequences of these actions. But the beginning is what gets everything going.
Offer promises. A type of character or group of characters. A kind of mood/tone or style/language. A genre/subgenre of fiction. Certain kinds of events, themes, tropes–or subversions of them. Aside from just establishing these things, it is the job of the beginning to convey to the reader: This is what you are to expect from this story if you stay with it.
In general, consider beginnings to be part invitation, part demonstration. As writer Jules Horne puts it: “It’s a bit like inviting someone to dance, old-style. You need to attract their attention, take them by the hand, and lead them onto the floor.”
Then, we have Middles, which serve the function of expanding on the beginning and connecting it to the ending. Middles are the longest part of the story, and can therefore be broken up in any manner of ways, depending on the specific story needs, so long as you meet these needs.
Changes, transformations, shifts, discoveries, turns, etc: The best middles offer a change or shift or transformation of sorts, either narratively or character-wise or language-wise or structurally, etc. We often think of this as the story arc, but it could also encapsulate the character arc or narrative arc or even language arc (or all of them together). Whatever happens, there is a transformation or change of direction as, say, characters learn something new, or a change in perspective occurs or an alteration of goals is presented. Without a change or shift of this sort, a story will be more like a report of events and little else. I like to think of these changes as various “hinges” on which the two ends of the story—beginning and ending—rest.
Escalation, tension and/or crisis: These are not requirements for every story, but it can be useful to think of the middle as an opportunity to demonstrate internal or external conflict and escalating stakes. These create tension for the characters and therefore increase reader interest, especially if they mean the characters head toward a crisis of sorts. The stakes and crises themselves don’t need to be dramatic or world-shattering—they can be quiet, subtle, relatively small. But for the characters, in that moment, they should feel large and all-encompassing enough to prompt them into action.
Further information (new, contextual, expanding, conflicting, compounding, twisting, sub-plotting, etc): The middle is where all further information the reader needs to engage deeper with the story goes. This often means a lot of explanation, backstory, description, showing and telling. The key thing to remember here is to balance it all with forward narrative momentum.
The last moment of the middle is the climax. I like to think of it as the highest/most intense point of escalation (escalate - escalate - climax) or critical point of learning and discovery. In this way, the climax acts as a tipping point separating middle from ending.
Then, we have the Ending, which:
Answers/Responds to the big questions raised by the beginning and compounded, escalated and complicated by the middle;
Concludes the narrative by providing us with a Resolution; and
Leaves the readers with an emotional impression (e.g. a denouement).
To plot point or not to plot point?
Now that we’ve laid out these things, if we try to make a structure out of them, we get something like this:
Beginning - Middle - Climax - Ending
Let’s then say we take the beginning and split it into all the things we need to achieve (as listed above). We get:
[Hook - Introduce/Establish (and Offer Promises) - Raise Questions - Set Ball Rolling] - Middle - Climax - Ending
Let’s do the same to the middle and ending.
[Hook - Introduce/Establish (and Offer Promises) - Raise Questions - Set Ball Rolling] - [(Escalation - Information - Change/Shift) * however # of times the story needs] - [Climax] - [Answers/Responses - Resolution - Impression/Denouement].
I promise that if you go look at any story structure out there (Save the Cat included), you’ll find that they all present some approximation of what we’ve just outlined above.
What that tells you is that these templates or structures may be useful, but their prescriptiveness may be more harmful than good. You want to focus on asking questions about the story’s needs, and what needs to be delivered on the page in order for readers to come away with understanding.
(We can talk about how who “the reader” is will colour the way these aspects—hook, questions, escalations, information, changes/shifts, resolutions, etc—are presented and received. But that is for another day.)
So, to answer the question above: To plot point or not to plot point? I say: it’s not about calculating when something should appear in a story—hook on page one, plot turn at 25%, midpoint at 50%, etc. Rather, it’s about knowing that your beginning is done when all the key questions you want to raise have been raised, key characters and locations and events have been set up and established, promises have been offered, and actions that set the story ball rolling have been put on the page. If any of these elements is missing or delivered insufficiently or too late in the narrative, the beginning will read like it’s incomplete or needs a rethink.
And for the middle? Well, how many major shifts/changes will do the story justice? Three is a favourite number for novels written in structures popular in the western world, with the third major shift/change overlapping with the climax. But there are other structures, like the kishōtenketsu of East Asian origin, which has four shifts/turns. Stories from your artistic lineage may have fewer or more—choose whichever works best for the story being told in the moment.
Then ask: what kinds of changes do you want these to be (plot turns, character changes, a twist in event interpretation, emotional or language shifts, etc) and how can you evenly space them apart so as not to feel overloaded toward the beginning or ending? How will you escalate things (events, emotions, language, situations, etc) to lead up to these shifts? How much information needs to be delivered (or withheld and delivered at another point of most impact) to provide context for these escalations and changes? And for the climax: how will this biggest escalation/change leave an imprint on the characters, the story, the reader?
I don’t need to do this for the ending, but you see where I’m going? Your plot layout should be decided by the story’s needs and conditions, and you get to know those by planning, writing, asking questions, and doing that on repeat until the story is done. Then you put the story away, return to it with fresh eyes, and try to do it all over again, raising even more questions, cutting, adding, sharpening, refining, polishing. And then, one day, you stop because there’s no more to do, or an editor pries it out of your hands.
That’s how I do it, at least.
From the Grapevine:
(news from the press & the interwebs)
The good team at Locus published their interview with me as the cover of their February 2023 issue. I’m honoured and excited. I got to talk a bit about everything: my writing and teaching work; my history; my artistic locus, lineage and influences; my past and forthcoming books.
A digital issue costs $5.99, and a print much more, but I’m happy to give folks in the Discord a peek at the interview itself. If you want in on the action, you know what to do!
For the Road:
(a miscellaneous column for useful takeaways) | Last month’s takeaway: Applying to international writing fellowships
Are you, like me, currently watching The Last of Us on HBO? I’m also watching Station Eleven at the same time, and am fascinated by the different ways they tackle their adaptations: a video game and novel, both made into TV shows. They play out in different ways, of course, and successfully so. Which made me kind of want to answer the question: “Why do some adaptations work, and why do others fall flat?”
I try to get into the possible reasons in an Instagram video. There are no captions, and I sound like a penguin sometimes (it was -15C, lol) but watch and see if you agree!
If you have questions or comments relating to this letter (or you’ll like to ask a question that’ll be featured in a future letter), you can drop them in our private Discord channel. Feel free to share this letter with a friend who may find it useful. See you at the next go-around!