I used lessons learned from Save the Cat while finishing up the writing and editing of the collaborative novel, Army of Brass. (Available now!) I wanted to write a case study of sorts about using a beat sheet for editing rather than plotting.
Background on Army of Brass
During 2017, I worked with the Collaborative Writing Challenge to coordinate a Steampunk novel called Army of Brass. The collaboration originally had 30 rounds of chapter submissions by up to 5 authors each round. (This system changed toward the end of the book, but that is a whole different story.) As the coordinator, it was my job to choose which chapter would go into the book each week and keep the authors informed through my notes. When it was all over, I also did the first round of continuity editing to make sure everything was cohesive. It’s got cool gadgets, awesome airships, and a coup, just to name a few elements. It is written in the 3rd person, limited, past tense, and uses several POV’s throughout. Here’s the tagline: When the mad conqueror haunting Elaina’s dreams invades her adopted homeland, the real nightmare becomes what she’s willing to do to stop him.
Applying the Beats
As worked on the project, I built an outline. This was both because I wanted to keep track of the different writers, but also because I wanted to track the story’s timeline. I know not everyone likes a spreadsheet as much as me, but even if you are a pantser, I recommend creating a reverse-outline before you head into draft 2. When the final submissions came in, I decided to see how well we fit the beat sheet. I found an amazing excel spreadsheet set up for novel writers that reflects the approximate word and page count for Snyder’s beats on Jamigold.com that was a huge time-saver. It does all the math and adjustments for you based on your goal word count.
There were two instances when the beat sheet came into play during my continuity edit. Snyder mentions a primary and a “B” story, but this narrative was so complicated I actually identified distinct C and D stories as well.
- A story – The main protagonist and the alliance between the Tinkerers and the Cartographers
- B story – A cadre of blacksmiths traveling to meet the protagonist
- C story – the king and the conspiracy against him in the capitol
- D story – the invading army on the march
With so many different locations and intertwined storylines, the chapters did a lot of leap-frogging between locations and people to keep them all moving. Many of the chapters submissions were split between multiple POVs, which is something I personally loath. I tried to limit this as much as possible during the selection process, but I often had no choice. So, before I ever applied the beats, I looked at opportunities to split chapters into a single POV wherever possible and check that against the story’s timeline. Basically, if there were at least 1000 words in a POV, I gave it a chance to stand alone.
In some cases, the chapter was simply split and left in place, but other times I actually picked up and moved chapters by several thousand words. Basically, I had a big beautiful ball of awesome elements, but they needed to shifted around in order to have the biggest impact on the reader. For instance, the reader finds out the blacksmiths were on their way in Ch 1, and met the king a couple chapters later. The king gives the order to an advisor to go to the smiths and tell them to turn back. This was a great plot element, but the problem was the reader hadn’t met the smiths yet.
Originally, they didn’t show up until a few chapters later, which meant there was no chance to have an emotional reaction to the king’s order. So, I upped the emotional ante by swapping the first B story chapter and the first C story chapter. This meant the reader was already personally invested in the smith characters before an obstacle was put in their way. Plus, this put the king’s chapter in the perfect position to act as the “catalyst,” AKA the life-changing event that knocks down the house of cards. It was a perfect fit for the overall plot arc! And I didn’t have to alter the text itself, just the order of events.
Adding More Fun
I noticed as I compared what we created to the “ideal” beat sheet that we were missing out on a chance for more “Fun & Games.” This is Snyder’s term for the “promise of the premise,” or basically the parts of the story that would get a reader the most excited. It’s the part of the book all about the fun of the world and characters that has been created. By the end of the war, this book has by far the biggest body count of any I’ve ever worked on, so I was glad for a chance to lighten the mood a little. I wanted to give the reader a little more wow before we got to the woe.
So, I took a look at the text to see if there were any threads I could pull on to find something to add. This was especially likely to happen in a project where people didn’t all see the full text, but I used this same method for my edit of No Rest for the Wicked. It’s amazing how often we writers leave ourselves breadcrumbs!
In an early chapter of Army of Brass, one writer planted a fantastic seed of an idea that didn’t get “watered” by anyone who came later. The capitol city in our Steampunk world had architecture full of gears and what looked like moving parts, and there were local myths that the city could move. But by the end, we had airships and giant fighting automatons, but no walking buildings! On first glance, there was no way to easily work a giant mobile city into that part of the book without disturbing the rest of the narrative. Luckily, there was a village introduced around the right time and it lay in the path of an army. Things clicked into place and I realized that I needed to get that village up and walking rather than just letting the army march in unhindered. Suddenly, the book could deliver on a promise we’d made, and it provided a way to foreshadow elements of the ending (even though it had already been written!).
I contacted the writer who had first invented the village and got her okay before I made this change. By making a few alterations to her chapter and changing a couple little details to ones that followed, I could make a whole new chapter fit right where it needed to go. Was it truly necessary to the plot? Not really. But I think the readers will be really glad to have some more fun and games before things got deadly serious in Act III. And in addition to adding richness to the story, I upped the word count in such a way that the later beats actually ended up corresponding even more closely with Snyder’s advice.
An Excellent Editing Tool
So, if you have already finished a manuscript and you think Save the Cat has nothing to add at such a late stage, I beg to differ. It can be just as helpful – maybe even more – to make it part of your editing process as using it to plot from the beginning of a project!
Have you ever used a beat sheet or other type of outlining tool during the editing process?