The Pros and Cons of Using the “Save the Cat!” Story Structure

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Reedsy 2023

Rose Atkinson-Carter

Rose Atkinson-Carter of Reedsy discusses the pros and cons of using the Save the Cat structure in your writing.

Have you ever written down an exciting story idea, only to push it to the side because you didn’t know where to begin? There’s an infinite number of ways to tackle the plot of a story, but if you’re looking for an organized, tried-and-true structure that some of your favorite authors and screenwriters might have even used, consider “Save the Cat!”

In this post, I’m going to explain what this popular story structure is, as well as some of its pros and cons to help you determine whether to use it as you write.

What is the “Save the Cat!” story structure?

In his 2005 book Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder shares different ways to make a script more compelling and marketable. This writing manual — whose title refers to a heroic moment in a story that endears protagonists to audience members, such as saving a cat from a tree — is perhaps best known for its explanations of the “Save the Cat!” story structure.

The popular structure makes use of a list of 15 beats, or moments that change the course of a scene or character, to build more engaging stories. These beats include “Catalyst,” “Debate,” “Bad Guys Close In,” and “All is Lost,” among many others.

Over a decade after Snyder’s first book was published, author Jessica Brody adapted the “Save the Cat!” story structure in her book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. In addition to going over the 15 beats Snyder originally came up with, Brody also explains the importance of percentages when using “Save the Cat!” while writing a novel.

The “Catalyst” or inciting incident beat, for example, should take place 10% into the novel; therefore, if you plan on writing a 300-page book, the inciting incident should take place at around page 30. These percentages may prove useful in particular to writers who struggle with pacing, since enough space is given to setting up the story and other important elements before the midpoint and other key moments take place.

Here’s a breakdown of the 15 beats:

  1. Opening Image (0-1%): An opening snapshot of your protagonist and the world as they know it.
  2. Theme Stated (5%): The central theme or lesson of the story is introduced. This hints at what the protagonist will eventually discover or learn before the story ends.
  3. Setup (1-10%): The protagonist’s everyday, flawed life is described in more detail. Supporting characters are also introduced.
  4. Catalyst (10%): Something happens that sets the story in motion, such as a death, breakup, or special invitation.
  5. Debate (10-20%): The protagonist reacts to the Catalyst but is reluctant to take action.
  6. Break Into 2 (20%): The protagonist decides to accept the call to action.
  7. B Story (22%): The subplot kicks in, introducing a character or several characters who help the protagonist in their transformation.
  8. Fun and Games (20-50%): The protagonist is in the throes of their challenge or journey.
  9. Midpoint (50%): The stakes are raised.
  10. Bad Guys Close In (50-75%): Things start going downhill for the protagonist.
  11. All Is Lost (75%): The protagonist hits rock bottom.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-80%): The protagonist reflects on their defeat and how they reached rock bottom.
  13. Break Into 3 (80%): The protagonist figures out what they must do to set things right, become an improved version of themself, and move forward.
  14. The Finale (80-99%): The protagonist conquers the “bad guys” (internal and/or external) using the plan they made in Break Into 3.
  15. Final Image (99-100%): A snapshot that mirrors or contrasts the story’s opening image. This snapshot shows a transformed protagonist whose life has changed for the better.

Now that we know what this popular story structure is all about, let’s dive into some of its pros and cons.

Pro: “Save the Cat!” is easy to use and follow.

As long as you understand the structure’s 15 beats, have an idea of your story’s beginning, middle, and end, and can do basic math, “Save the Cat!” is pretty straightforward. It’s especially helpful for plotters who prefer planning everything in detail before jumping into their first draft.

Imagine writing the first half of your story without a plan, only to find serious plot holes and missing key details upon closer reading. “Save the Cat!” can help you avoid spending too much time on fixes and revisions by having you come up with a structured, compelling plan before you even tackle your story’s very first page.

Con: “Save the Cat!” might feel too rigid and restrictive.

If you’re more of a pantser than a plotter, “Save the Cat!” might not be for you. Instead of going with your instincts and letting your story unfold naturally, you’ll have to follow what someone else says — potentially hindering your creativity and writing process.

While countless writers have used “Save the Cat!” to help them pen their own stories, many others — including successful authors such as Haruki Murakami, George R.R. Martin, and Margaret Atwood — don’t use any kind of story structure whatsoever. So if your gut is telling you to make things up as you go, you might just have to trust that.

Pro: “Save the Cat!” helps establish compelling protagonists.

Do you struggle with creating dynamic characters? “Save the Cat!” can assist with that! While coming up with your story’s different beats, you’ll have to consider the different ways in which your protagonist changes from beginning to end. What spurs this character to take action? How do they get back up after hitting rock bottom? What lessons do they learn before the story comes to a close? “Save the Cat!” will help you answer these questions and more.

Remember that your protagonist doesn’t have to literally save a cat for your reader to see them as a dynamic character  — there are different ways they can “save the cat,” such as deciding to help out someone in need or serve as a source of support for their family. The aim is to have your reader feel compassion for this character early on in the story so that they feel both attached to them and compelled to find out what happens next.

Con: “Save the Cat!” does not work for every genre.

While Brody managed to adapt Snyder’s original screenwriting method for novel writers, “Save the Cat!” cannot be used for every single story out there. For example, if you’re hoping to self-publish a novel with poetic, loosely connected vignettes about the simple, domestic life of a newlywed couple, it’s unlikely that your protagonists will face a high-stakes challenge, hit rock bottom, and eventually conquer any bad guys.

“Save the Cat!” isn’t the only story structure out there. From structures such as the Three-Act Structure and the Seven-Point Story Structure to Freytag’s Pyramid and the Fichtean Curve, you’ve got an overwhelming amount to choose from. But if you’ve been struggling to put pen to paper, a reliable, trusty structure might just be what you need to help you get started — after all, we all have to begin somewhere.

(c) Rose Atkinson-Carter

Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace and blog that helps authors with figuring out how to hire a ghostwriter, how to design a book cover, how to use a book writing template, and more.

About the author

Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace and blog that helps authors with figuring out how to hire a ghostwriter, how to design a book cover, how to use a book writing template, and more.

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