How Save the Cat!® Helps Guide My Struggling Students
Teaching, by necessity, requires innovation.
I remember being a student in middle school, learning how to write or analyze a story using the traditional “plot mountain.” You know the one: it has the exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
It’s been around so long that when I began teaching my own writing students, I used the same plot diagram.
As an educator, I began to see some problems, though.
The plot mountain was a great tool when it comes to the basics of stories, but it was too vague to really help students think critically about the story they were reading or writing. It was difficult for students to pinpoint the most meaningful events in the narratives or track a theme or even examine character transformation.
After reading Save the Cat! to help with my own writing, I realized the enormous potential of using Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats (or “beat sheet”) as an educational tool—one that would expand upon traditional techniques and help students feel empowered and successful in both their reading and writing.
The beat sheet really connects to my students because to teach it, I incorporate different film clips and examples.
It doesn’t matter if students struggle with reading or writing; everyone is familiar with the movies, putting us all on common ground. And from that ground, we continue to build our knowledge.
Through the 15 beats, we now have a common language, and by using the beats, I can help students with more specific aspects of their reading comprehension or their writing assignments.
For example, if a student was struggling with writing a story, not sure of where to go next, I would originally ask them about the inciting incident. It would often be a bit tricky for the students to know how to answer that because lots of things “happen” to the main character at the beginning of a story.
By teaching the incident as the Catalyst, a beat that paints a specific and concrete picture, I find students understand that moment as an event that will forever alter the hero’s world as they know it, propelling them toward transformation.
Once the student identifies that beat, other story pieces begin to reveal themselves. Students understand that in the Debate, the hero must react to the Catalyst and make a choice. And when the hero makes that choice and becomes dedicated to the journey ahead… we’ve got our Break into Two. More story elements fall into place!
The beats help students to plan and to write stories easily.
Understanding the beats even helps how students think about the climax of a story. For years, they’d learned that the climax was the “high point” of the story or the part with “the most action” or “the most excitement.” The trouble is, the climax is not always action-packed or exciting, which can make it hard to identify.
Once again, Save the Cat! saves the day. We now look at the climactic moment through the lens of the Finale beat. Students understand how the preceding beats—where the hero hits their lowest of lows, learns a lesson, and is now ready to demonstrate what they’ve learned—build up to the Finale. Here is a much deeper understanding of the climax, with a focus on the hero’s transformation.
Put simply, the beats give the students anchor points on which to attach importance to story events.
My questioning becomes more specific. Instead of asking a student to tell me what is going on in the book they are reading, I can pinpoint what they did and didn’t understand by using the 15 beats.
Beat-oriented questions help my students sort through their thinking and understanding on a whole new level:
Who’s the hero?
What’s their life like at the beginning of the story (the thesis world)?
What needs fixing in their life (stasis = death)?
What big lesson do you think they need to learn (the Theme Stated)?
And the list goes on… beat by beat.
Save the Cat! helps students realize that they could show comprehension in their reading. They just need to view the story through the beats to understand how the hero transforms.
Best of all, I can use a similar line of questioning when they get stuck writing their own pieces.
Personal narratives that once seemed like a chore become something even the most reluctant writer can feel confident tackling.
We identify the life-changing event and their initial reaction to it (the Catalyst and the Debate), discuss the lesson learned from it (the Theme Stated), and who they were at the start and at the end (the Opening Image and the Final Image).
My students realize that they can write! They have a story that only they could tell, and the tools to tell that story are now available to them.
Another thing I love about the beats is that they allow me to differentiate my instruction based on an individual’s needs, so that each student can feel empowered.
With my struggling students, I focus on the major beats. After all, if they can identify these, it will allow them to discover the hero’s transformation.
For students who need to be challenged academically, I now have the tools to help them dig deeper. They can use all the beats to see the web that holds the story together, understanding the interconnectedness.
One of my favorite memories involves a particularly gifted student. I worried that it would be difficult to engage her intellectually. After learning the 15 beats of the Save the Cat! story structure, she excitedly told me that she began watching movies with a notebook in hand, writing down the beats as they occurred.
Years later, when this same student was about to graduate, I received a note from her:
At an uncertain time in my life, you gave me confidence to pursue the things I really cared about. Once you start viewing life as a story, you find reasons to make it a good one. I’d like to consider you my ‘catalyst.’ Thank you.
This past summer, I reconnected with a student from that same class. She was moving on to graduate school, ready to become a writing teacher herself.
That’s what teaching is all about: guiding the next generation of storytellers.
If you’re ready to go on a similar journey, in upcoming blogs I’ll be sharing some strategies you can implement—whether you’re teaching a whole class or your own family members. As always, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] .