NANOWRIMO – the planning (2)

At the end of the last post, I detailed the story beats thus:

Act 1 – opening before investigation, setup, initial enquiries, decision to progress

Act 2A – maybe side story (love interest?), detailed investigation, first obstacle, 

Act 2B – the investigation gets more difficult, MC suffers biggest obstacle, things look bad, oh – hang on…

Act 3 – new impetus, new ideas, closing in on the culprit, knocking red herrings aside, final disclosure, rounding up, return to normality

At this point, I’m eyeing up one of my favourite processes, which is 100% the key to all of my novel writing in the past five years – maybe longer.

And this is Save The Cat, a strangely-named process created by screenwriter Blake Snyder (RIP):

I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say that Snyder broke up many screenplays into fifteen story “beats” – points which every story must touch on the journey from the opening image to final image. Fortunately, they also drop nicely into my four act story structure:

Act 1: Opening Image, Setup, Theme Stated, Catalyst, Debate, Break Into Two

Act 2A: B Story, Promise of the Premise, Midpoint

Act 2B: Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul

Act 3: Finale, Final Image.

Each beat performs a different function, and may have 1 scene to tell it, or up to 8 scenes. Not all beats are created equal! The number of scenes I allocate are defined by the number of script pages Snyder calculated in his initial studies.

Of course, not every story fits into this exact structure, and many stories are told of The Hero’s Journey, which is totally different (e.g. Star Wars). But I find Save The Cat works great for my mystery stories.

I aim for roughly 40 scenes to tell my story, and for 60,000 words minimum. Which means each scene should have a minimum of 1,500 words on average. These are my guidelines. In my genre, readers prefer smaller chapters (generally speaking, each chapter is a scene; each scene, a chapter.

For my last manuscript, the first in my Witford Market series, I ended up with 42 scenes, 70,088 words for an average of 1,669 words per scene in the first draft. This is just a guide, obviously – the scene needs as few or as many words as it needs. Sometimes my scenes end up at 600 words, sometimes 2,000.

Similarly, although each beat has a nominal ‘size’, they can vary. A lot of the beats are contained within a single scene, but certain beats, such as Debate starts off with 6, and Finale 8. Again, this is just a guideline.

Single scenes I can plan easily. The opening image is just that – the picture I see in my head before all the fun and games start.

The beats with multiple scenes take a little more effort. In my works, I need to get across multiple suspects, tell their stories, plant red herrings, create evidence and alibis, some of which stand up and some which don’t. But I need to do this in an entertaining way, which doesn’t look like a ‘paint by numbers’ crime story.

One thing I’ve found useful this year is to create a planning sheet for each multi-scene major beat: Debate, Promise of the Premise, Bad Guys Close In, and Finale. On this sheet, I print the ‘definition’ of the beat, what it is supposed to do for the story. I then have a box in which I write the Story Purpose – how this beat fits into MY story. I get this from an expanded form of the beats I created earlier. I also have “Coming In” and “Going Out” boxes, which describe the scenes immediately before and after this beat. And then there are a column of boxes, into which I can write a summary of the scenes which reside within this beat. 

It sounds more complicated than it is!

And that is as much as I do before NaNoWriMo begins.

In the next post, I describe how I actually write my NaNo manuscript. It’s not just a case of writing what I’ve summarised!

If you’re interested in discovering many of my hints and tips on preparing for, and actually doing, the NaNoWriMo challenge, please check out my book:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *