“Save the Cat” Series Part 2: Using a Beat Sheet to Rewrite “No Rest for the Wicked”

I started this series based on using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat back in August when I thought I’d trucking right along  in the “Mistress of None” series to the sequel of No Rest for the Wicked. I had planned to focus on plotting a book from the beginning and using that as my way to discuss beat sheets. Instead, after getting feedback from beta readers, I decided NRFTW needed one more round of rewrites before I could move on to the next project. During fall of 2017, I instituted the last of the changes, and the full manuscript has already been requested three times since I began querying in December!

Hopefully, I’ll have some good news on the publishing front soon, but for now, I thought I’d share a little about the experience of my rewriteI’m trying very hard not to give away too many “spoilers,” so forgive me if I am vague on some of the details. I’ve been posting teasers for NRFTW for a while, so check them out if you want a taste of the characters and style. I wrote this series assuming that Save the Cat! and Snyder’s terminology would be somewhat familiar to the reader, but if you need a glossary, here’s a good one. I also just saw the announcement that there will be a new Save the Cat! book coming out in October 2018 that is specifically for novel writers rather than screenwriters. So, add that one to your “wishlist!”

I use a hybrid tool I found on Jamigold.com that integrates Snyder’s 15 beats with the wisdom of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. This spreadsheet injects the concept of plot points and pinch points into the Save the Cat beats and is very effective. I highly recommend Jami’s worksheets.

Background on No Rest for the Wicked

This project began during NaNoWriMo 2016. I’d planned on a series of novellas, but after submitting the original 40k word story to a few publishers and getting their feedback, I decided to expand it into a novel instead. One of the editors suggested Save the Cat to me, and it shaped the way I combined two novellas into one 95k novel.

For the purpose of this post, what you need to know is that my protagonist is Viola “Vi” Thorne, an ex-con woman who is enjoying her “retirement” in 1870’s Sacramento. She can also speak to the dead (a family trait), and their pestering is a large part of what drove her to seek isolation. But even though no one out West should know she can talk to ghosts, one shows up at her ranch and asks for her help. The first half of the story takes place in Sacramento and is centered on that ghost and saving his wife. To deal with her past and the person who told the ghost where to find her, she gets on the Transcontinental Railroad at the Midpoint and travels to Chicago. I’ve planned the series to take place over five novels and she’ll spend some time in various cities across gaslit America.

Listening to Feedback

It’s up to you to decide how to use feedback you get on your writing, but it is imperative that you get some. We all have our blind spots, and especially if you are intimately involved in a story, it’s easy to miss places where there needs to be more. I got great advice from a potential publisher about how to add more tension through giving the reader more information, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, I want to focus on what my beta readers said and how the beat sheet helped me fix their issue.

I had family and friends read the novel version of No Rest for the Wicked. This method won’t work for everyone, but my family has several avid readers in it, as well as people with editing experience. Two of the betas said they had an issue with the same stretch of text on the trip between Sacramento and Chicago, making it impossible to ignore. The problem was that at first glance, the feedback seemed diametrically opposed. One said the section “dragged” and the other said it went too fast and she wished there was a “side quest” or something to stretch it. But who was right?

The kneejerk reaction to any criticism is to feel defensive, and I easily could have declared they were both wrong and left it at that. Instead, I asked myself, “What if they were both right?” So, I sat down with my beat sheet and tried to tease out the answer. They’d used different terminology to describe their feelings of being let down by section between the 50% mark and the 70% mark (Act 2-B), but what they actually both wanted was “more.” More drama to keep the pacing high-energy after the Midpoint, and more plot to enhance the threat of the “bad guys closing in.”

Who Are My Bad Guys?

During the first half of the book, Vi had physical altercations with a gang of bandits and outsmarted a smarmy “businessman.” But the moment she stepped onto the train, they were left behind and won’t come into play again until the end of the series, if at all. The baddest bad guys in the series are waiting for her in New Orleans, which she won’t reach until the next book. Though at the Midpoint, the reader does see one of their assassins set out to intercept her. I already had the assassin making an attempt on Vi’s life once she reached Chicago, and I didn’t think I could bring the would-be killer into play any earlier or it would have deterred any reasonable person from continuing the journey. I had given Vi a minor antagonist in the form of an aristocrat who gave her a small issue to overcome, but I’d basically already played that scenario out.

As I looked back over the beat sheet, I realized I was being too literal. Vi didn’t actually need an external bad guy to fight when she was so good at standing in her own way. In the first half of the story, she debates whether to fully engage with her special abilities and decides that she should if she wants to find redemption. But could I find a way to problematize that decision? Could I add some more ups and downs to her emotional journey?

Thinking About Themes

Save the Cat stresses that the best stories have strong themes. But it isn’t enough just to pick a theme, you also need to come at it from lots of different angles. The more different “funhouse” versions of the theme, the better.

For the Mistress of None series, the main theme is “redemption.” In general, we think of it as a positive thing, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. For one thing, to seek forgiveness, a person has to admit that they did something wrong. This is very difficult for the average person, but to highlight this aspect of the theme, I’d made it especially hard on Vi. I made her vocal in her belief she’d done the right thing by retiring (even if internally the reader can see her waver sometimes.) Then I layered on the guilt by giving her several different types of “sins” to atone for. In addition to being a criminal, she let down her former partner and is incredibly stubborn and private. She needed to get beat down during Act 2-B after her peak at the Midpoint, and I had already started to work her over both physically and mentally during her journey.

But I realized in order to give this section of the story the extra oomph it needed, I had to build Vi back up a little and then knock all the way down. She needed to actively feel she’d made the right choice to come out of hiding to seek redemption and believe – even for a second – that she really deserved it. Then it would hit even harder when she found out her life and the lives of those around her were threatened because of the decision she made.

Adding a Subplot

So, I asked myself, “Self, how do I add a subplot to what I thought was a finished story?”

In the planning process, it’s easier to see how to weave things together, but at this stage I was really at a loss. I didn’t want anything to come completely out of the blue, so I decided the best course of action was to go over the section in question and look for chances to add conflict between my core characters. Fortunately for the story, but unfortunately for my quest for a subplot, I had actually already put them at odds with each other in this section, then resolved those issues later in the book. I didn’t want there to be more bickering just to stretch my word count, so I moved on to the secondary characters and any threads I’d left dangling.

I had used the device of a ghost haunting the train to help with some exposition during Act 2-B. Over time, ghosts become tattered and incoherent, and I used an appearance by this old ghost to illustrate the potential future for Vi’s ghost companion and basically left it at that. After all, Vi had retired from finishing ghosts’ “unfinished business” and was only on her quest now for her own selfish purposes. She’d repressed her powers to keep from drawing its attention, which was causing her physical discomfort (beating her down), but I realized there was potential for so much more. If Vi could help this ghost, it could serve to make her feel like she might actually deserve the redemption she seeks.

Adding a Character

I came up with a name, Cassandra, and a backstory for my ghost, but I quickly realized I had no way to convey those essential facts to the reader (or Vi). It was important to her role in illustrating long-term consequences of spirits that Cassandra herself couldn’t do anything but wail incoherently and drift around. Someone was going to need to let Vi in on the ghost’s backstory. But who?

At first, I thought I’d try expanding on an existing secondary character the same way I was expanding Cassandra. I took a short scene between Vi and a porter that had exposition about the aristocrat in it and reworked it to include the information about Cassandra as well. This felt totally forced and really didn’t work. He had no reason to have access to the information or to be sharing it, but he was the only secondary character available. So, I decided I needed to add a whole new person that would have both access to the knowledge, and a reason to talk to her about it.

After doing away with the bad guys in the first half of the book, things had gotten pretty female-centered, so I decided my new character should be male. I wanted him to act as a foil for my curmudgeonly, sarcastic, and secretive protagonist. So, in walked Arthur Sands, a talkative, optimistic newspaper reporter from New York City. He’s on the journey to write about long-haul train travel (reason to be there and to start a conversation), and has an interest in proving the reality of the supernatural as a hobby (reason to know the legend). By choosing a personality with goals so directly at odds with Vi, there was plenty of potential for conflict, and their dialog basically wrote itself.

I decided to have him come into play right as Vi stepped onto the train and shifted most of the scene setting of the “new” Pullman car’s amenities and the exposition about train travel into his words. In my opinion, any time exposition can happen in dialog rather than narration, its the stronger choice. This was an unexpected boon to adding him and reinforced that this addition would make the book stronger overall. Arthur completely replaced the function of the porter later on, so I could drop that device and focus on fully developing his role.

I know above I said I didn’t need to add another person to be a “bad guy closing in,” and I stand by that statement. Though Arthur and Vi are in opposition, his role is primarily to serve the inner strife that Vi is going through. He is a foil who challenges her, but not an antagonist who opposes her. Without him, she wouldn’t be able to help Cassandra, which makes her believe for a moment that she might actually be the good person others tell her she is.

And then, I knock her flat on her face…

The Dreaded Domino Effect

I couldn’t flesh out Act 2-B without pushing the rest of the events further down the beat sheet. I needed to beat Vi into submission to get her to ask for help from someone in Chicago when they arrived, but through the course of adding the subplot, I found that I already had her in that position emotionally before she was put in the worst physical danger. I wanted her to feel somewhat punished for her decision to seek redemption, but the decision to get help needed to feel like the right course. If I hurt her after she made the “right call,” I felt like it undermined that validity of that decision rather than reinforcing it was the best course of action.

So, back to the beat sheet. When I compared the actual word count and how the events were playing out to the “ideal” beat sheet, it confirmed what my gut was telling me. I needed her emotional and physical trials to coincide earlier so they had a chance to play a more integral part in her decision to seek help. Or to use Snyder’s terms, her “All is Lost” moment needed to leave the “Dark Night of the Soul” a chance to come fully to fruition before the “Break into Act III.”

Using a Beat Sheet for Rewrites

I can’t really say anything else without giving away too many details and spoiling the book, so I’ll leave off here. I am using a beat sheet right now to plot my next novel, but as you can see, this tool can also give a great framework for how to deal with problems in an existing manuscript. What I find time and again is that if I sense there is a problem, the beat sheet usually backs me up. Story structure guides didn’t come out of nowhere, they came from examining what makes stories feel satisfying to the most readers. Quality stories tap into something primal, and Save the Cat has a way of making the unseen elements visible. It doesn’t have all the answers; those have to come from the writer. But if you’re thinking about a rewrite, you may find plugging what you have into a beat sheet can help you identify and rectify issues that were already there.

I also used Snyder’s insights while completing the writing and editing of a collaborative project called Army of Brass. I’ll be back again in the next installment of this series to discuss how a beat sheet helped me with the continuity editing process.

Do you have any tools that help you with editing or rewrites? 

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