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Save the Cat Beat Sheet vs. Screenplay Sequences.

Compare two of the best screenwriting structure methods and learn how to elevate your script's structure above the ordinary.

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by Script Reader Pro in Screenplay Structure
May 5, 2020 22 comments
Save the cat beat sheet

Save the Cat Beat Sheet vs. Screenplay Sequences.

Just how useful is a Save the Cat beat sheet (also known as the “Blake Snyder beat sheet”) to the budding writer?

Is it the go-to template that anyone can plug their story in to and get amazing results? Or is it a screenwriting-by-numbers method that’s not much help?

And just what are screenplay sequences? Are you better off using them to structure your screenplay instead? Or do they just make your writing too “mechanical”?

In this post, we’re going to compare both of these structure methods, discuss their pros and cons and reveal how you can combine them to come up with the perfect screenplay structure.

We use the movie Up in the Air as an example for both methods so it might be a good idea to watch or rewatch it first if your memory’s a little hazy.

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Note: Some of the items below may include affiliate links, meaning if you purchase using that link, we’ll get a small commission but you won’t pay a penny extra.

Save the Cat beat sheet 101.

If you’re not familiar with this hugely popular screenplay beat sheet template, here’s a quick overview from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat website itself:

“Blake codified a common structure, a universal key to unlock every successful story: the fifteen story beats of the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.”

(The numbers in parenthesis relate to page numbers in a typical 110-page feature screenplay.)

Opening Image (1)
Theme Stated (5)
Set-Up (1-10)
Catalyst (12)
Debate (12-25)
Break into Two (25)
B-story (30)
Fun and Games (30-55)
Midpoint (55)
Bad Guys Close In (55-75)
All Is Lost (75)
Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)
Break into Three (85)
Finale (85-110)
Final Image (110)

Each of these fifteen beats are said to occur in every successful (and usually mainstream) movie—mostly in this order and somewhere on or around these pages.

If you’re not familiar with what each beat represents, it’s well worth running a quick internet search or purchasing the book Save the Cat and/or Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.

(Full disclosure: this post contains affiliate links, meaning if you purchase something using these links we’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Save the Cat beat sheet example.

Here’s how the Blake Snyder beat sheet template applies to the movie Up in the Air.

(Note: These Save the Cat beats were not decided upon by us, but appear on the official Save the Cat website in their Up in the Air beat sheet.)

Click on the sample above or download the full Up in the Air Save the Cat beat sheet PDF here.

save the cat beat sheet

Save the Cat beat sheet: PROS.

Unlike some screenwriting methods, the Save the Cat beats explain things in a clear and entertaining way that make concepts easy to understand.

But let’s get into what the real pros are of using this screenwriting beat sheet.

1. The Save the Cat beats force you to focus on specific structural elements.

Perhaps the best aspect of the Save the Cat beat sheet is that it makes you consider specific ubiquitous beats in most movie protagonists’ journeys.

It gets you thinking about moments and collections of scenes that impact the hero but that might otherwise have omitted.

For example, these four sections alone are worth their weight in gold to any aspiring screenwriter:

Debate (12-25)

Fun and Games (30-55)

Bad Guys Close In (55-75)

Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)

Each one is an extremely powerful collection of scenes that, if executed well, are guaranteed to enhance any story.

This is because they resonate with readers on a deep level connected to ancient story-telling techniques involving human fears and desires.

We highly recommend familiarizing yourself with all the Save the Cat beats, but implementing these four will really help elevate your script above the ordinary.

2. The Save the Cat beat sheet highlights the importance of the B-story.

Another fantastic aspect of the Save the Cat beat sheet is that it reminds you to include a B-story character.

And, just as importantly, to get you thinking about how he or she impacts the main A-story.

This B-story character is so important because they personify the theme of the movie.

They are the character who, more than anyone else in the script, is responsible for making the protagonist understand the theme and hence change.

In the case of Up in the Air, this character is, of course, Alex. She’s the one who’s most responsible for making Ryan see that he does in fact need other people, love and a family.

Overall, the Blake Snyder beat sheet has contributed a huge amount to bringing the B-story to the forefront of aspiring screenwriters’ minds, which can only be a good thing.

3. The Save the Cat beats serve as a great checklist.

The Blake Snyder beat sheet really comes into its own when used as a checklist after you’ve broken down your script’s general structure.

Once you have an overall idea of how all three acts should play out, it’s a very useful exercise to go back in and make sure you’re including all the right moments in the story according to the screenplay beat sheet template.

For example:

Does your protagonist make choices that result in a “Break Into Two,” “Midpoint” and “Finale”?

Is there a “Fun and Games” section right after we enter Act 2 in which we see the “promise of the premise” in action?

Do we see a moment of quiet despair in a “Dark Night of the Soul”?

If not, why not? Are you deliberately trying to break “the rules” to be more original?

Or would your script benefit from hitting these same beats that are found in most Hollywood movies of all genres?

Save the Cat beat sheet: CONS.

Now, the Blake Snyder beat sheet template does also have some detractors. Mainly, because, well, it’s a template.

So let’s take a look at some of the main concerns we hear from writers.

1. The Save the Cat beat sheet can encourage “structure anxiety” and stifle creativity.

Perhaps the biggest issue people flag up with the Save the Cat beat sheet is that it encourages “structure anxiety”—a known medical condition in which aspiring screenwriters become overly anxious about turning points and page numbers.

The chances of being inflicted seem to increase with every Save the Cat beat sheet example the writer studies.

Eventually, sufferers can wind up ignoring their imagination altogether when plotting a script to focus instead on reengineering it to perfectly fit the Save the Cat template.

As you can imagine, obsessing over things like making sure Catalyst occurs on page 12 or that the bad guys only close in between pages 55 and 75 is not what screenwriting is supposed to be about.

Let’s imagine that the writers of the Up in the Air had written the script according to the Save the Cat beat sheet example. In this case, Ryan wouldn’t meet B-story character Alex at minute 11, he’d meet her at minute 30, where he’s “supposed to.”

And, in the process, his whole character arc would feel like it takes an age to get going.

So always remember to not write a story to fit the script beat sheet, but to write a story and then use the beat sheet for inspiration.

2. Studying Save the Cat beat sheets can sometimes be confusing.

Studying a film’s structure is always going to subjective to a certain extent. But some Save the Cat beat sheets may make perfect sense while others don’t.

Which can raise the question, How do you know which ones are “correct” and which ones aren’t?

For example, let’s take a look at a few debatable moments from the Up in the Air screenplay beat sheet:

Does the Break Into Two really take place at minute 47 when Ryan and Natalie are already firing people? Or should it be at minute 26 when Ryan’s sent out on the road with her?

Does the Midpoint really happen at minute 80 when Ryan invites Alex to the rehearsal? Or in the morning after the boat party when he tells her “Hey… I really like you”—slap bang in the middle of the film at minute 59?

Does the All is Lost moment really occur when Ryan talks Jim into getting married at minute 84? Or when the seismic shift in Ryan’s relationship with Alex occurs moments after he knocks on her front door at minute 93?

When you also consider that the Up in the Air screenplay beat sheet contains a supposed Catalyst who doesn’t arrive until minute 20, a Fun and Games section in Act 1 instead of Act 2, and a Bad Guys Close In section in Act 2 instead of Act 3, it’s easy to see how things can get a tad confusing.

save the cat beat sheet

Save the cat beat sheet

Screenplay Sequences 101.

The general idea behind screenplay sequences is that the traditional three big acts that make up a movie are in fact underpinned by seven “mini-movies”—each running about 10-15 minutes in length.

Each sequence can be thought of as a “mini-movie” because it has a beginning, middle and end that can be thought of as “acts” and a Climax at the end. This Climax brings the protagonist either closer to or further away from their overall goal.

You can read more about the screenplay sequences method here, but for now, let’s illustrate how sequences work by applying them to Up in the Air.

Learning how to write using sequences is best achieved by writing lots of outlines of movies as you watch them on screen.

Simply write a thumbnail sketch of each scene as it plays out, and then break down all the scenes in the resulting document into sequences. You can read more on how to write a script outline here.

You should end up with an outline that’s 3-5 pages long and that gives you a clear overview of the entire movie and how it breaks down into seven sequences.

Screenplay Sequences beat sheet example.

Here’s what the plot to Up in the Air looks like when broken down into sequences.

Click on the sample above or download the full Up in the Air sequences PDF here.

Sequences screenplay beat sheet: PROS.

The above sequence breakdown is just a basic one. You can get much more detailed by breaking each sequence down even further, but for the purposes of this post let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

1. Sequence beat sheets give you a plot x-ray.

There’s nowhere to hide in a story that’s outlined and broken down into sequences. It’s like examining a plot under a x-ray machine.

Every scene is laid out right there on the page, making it easy to see how the plot hangs together.

And the more sequence beat sheets you write, the easier it is to see where all the major turning points land and how the plot breaks down into clear sequences.

For example, in Up in the Air, once the plot’s laid out scene by scene, it’s pretty easy to see how the first sequence sets up Ryan’s life and reaches a Climax (literally) with him meeting Alex.

It’s also something that you feel subconsciously while watching the movie…

After seeing Alex kiss Ryan goodnight the first time they meet, there’s a strong sense that one sequence has ended and another has begun when we see Ryan shopping for ties the next day.

But, as we said, much of this comes with practice and simply breaking down as many movies as you can into outlines.

2. Using sequences make plotting easier.

While the Save the Cat beats are based around the old three-act structure paradigm, the sequence approach goes a step further by breaking it down into seven more manageable 10 to 15-minute “mini-movies.”

Put together, each sequence/“mini-movie” underpins traditional three-act structure, fixing each seemingly free-floating plot point in place.

With the sequence method, you have two extra Climaxes in Act 2—at the end of Sequence C and Sequence E (timings are approximate):

Act 1
Sequence A (15)
Sequence B (30)

Act 2
Sequence C (45)
Sequence D (60)
Sequence E (75)
Sequence F (90)

Act 3
Sequence G (105)

Now instead of getting lost trying to fill 60 pages of plot in Act 2 with only a Midpoint to break it up, you only have 10-15 pages to fill before you hit another Climax.

Overall, sequences give your protagonist a series of small goals to work toward, rather than just one big one at the Midpoint and end of each Act.

3. Using sequences forces you to focus on seven big turning points.

Sequences offer more of a “big picture” overview of movie structure, as opposed to the Blake Snyder beat sheet that zeroes in on sections of the plot and specific page numbers.

Knowing, for example, that you’re supposed to have a character mention the theme around page 5, isn’t much help when it comes to crafting the broad strokes of your story.

With sequences, however, the focus is solely on doing just that—making sure the story contains clear turning points that each deliver a major blow to your protagonist, like so:

Act 1

Sequence A: Ryan meets Alex
(a positive game-changer)

Sequence B: Ryan is forced to show Natalie the ropes
(a negative blow)

Act 2

Sequence C: Ryan shows Natalie he’s still needed on the road
(a positive game-changer)

Sequence D: Ryan starts to fall in love with Alex
(a positive game-changer)

Sequence E: Ryan gets pulled off the road for good
(a negative blow)

Sequence F: Ryan realizes Alex is married
(a negative blow)

Act 3

Sequence G: Ryan winds up back where he started: alone
(a tragic knockout)

Every single sequence ends with a major positive or negative seismic shift in Ryan’s worldview—whether it’s on the A- or B-story.

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Sequences method: CONS.

Just like the Save the Cat beat sheet template, using sequences also has its detractors. So let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Using sequences skips the smaller beats.

Conversely, if you were to rely solely on sequences and focus on the big picture, you may miss out on including those smaller beats.

An advantage of the Save the Cat beat sheet is that it gets you thinking about things like expressing the theme and opening and closing images.

And it forces you to at least consider including sections like the Debate and Bad Guys Close In and so on.

The sequence method, on the other hand, doesn’t. This is why it’s a good idea to learn both and refer to both while plotting a story.

2. The sequence approach can also cause “structure anxiety”.

Just like with the Save the Cat beat sheet template, writing via a sequences beat sheet is also a template of sorts. You’re not exactly winging it.

Aspiring writers often say things like, “The reason why all Hollywood films suck because they’re all following the same template. And sequences are part of the problem.”

It’s true that not every single film is going to fit into a seven-sequence paradigm. Some films have eight. Some nine. Some arthouse movies don’t seem to follow anything resembling a sequence-like structure at all.

And that’s fine. But, again, just like with the Blake Snyder beat sheet, sequences are simply a very common pattern that you’ll see replicated in most successful movies.

Our Up in the Air sequence breakdown is just a basic outline. It is possible to go much deeper and start getting lost in the intricacies of positive to negative turning points and sequences within sequences, etc.

For example, each sequence can be thought of as a self-contained “mini-movie.” But within each movie are three even smaller movies with their own three-act structure, like this one at the end of Sequence A:

Act 1

Ryan arrives in Dallas. At a hotel, he strikes up a conversation with a woman at the bar: Alex Goran (call to action). She’s just like him—a fellow traveler (act 1 turning point).

Act 2

Later, they compare cards. She can’t believe he has an American Airlines concierge card. They flirt about how many miles he’s done (midpoint). Later, they swap stories about the Mile High Club. Later, they arrive at his room (act 2 turning point).

Act 3

After sex, they say they need to do this again and book it in their calendars (act 3 turning point). Alex returns to her room and they kiss goodnight (climax).

While this level of analysis can be useful, it can also be a contributing factor toward “structure anxiety,” so, again, it is best used to tighten up a plot after you’ve worked out the bare bones, not before.

save the cat beat sheetSave the cat beat sheet

Conclusion

So what structure method is better? The answer is neither. Our advice is not to rely solely on one or the other but to use them in conjunction with one another.

Use sequences to nail the big overarching turning points in your protagonist’s A- and B-story.

Use the Save the Cat sample beat sheet to nail those specific beats and passages that make a plot resonate on a subliminal level with audiences.

Be careful not to get stuck in theoryville with either method. Analyze as many Save the Cat beat sheet examples as you like but try not to take them as gospel.

And definitely don’t stifle your own creativity just to follow either template.

We hope you found this Save the Cat beat sheet vs. screenplay sequences comparison useful. Any questions or comments on sequences or the Blake Snyder beat sheet, though, let us know in the comments section below!

save the cat beat sheet

Enjoyed this post? Read more about screenplay structure here…

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay? The Ultimate Guide

No There Aren’t Just 2 or 3 Screenplay Beats in Act 1… There Are 12

How to Use the 500 Days of Summer Script to Master Non-Linear Stories

[© Photo credits: Unsplash, Flickr]

22 Comments
  1. David Lavoie says:

    Do you have a preferred method for writing a script for a Netflix, HBO, Disney+, Prime, Apple TV type of series. I feel like there is a need developing here.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We have a post on how to write a TV pilot that includes some info on structure here.

  2. HK says:

    Peter Dunnes emotional structure book is worth it’s weight in gold. And then some.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the heads-up, HK!

  3. Stephen Olson says:

    My biggest complaint with Save The Cat is that the author is continuously patting himself on the back and using two films to make his point. His script “Million Dollar Check” and the other film “Memento”. What the author doesn’t realized is that Memento is the better film. He believes because his film made more money, it is the better film. However if you were to poll script writers which of the two films would most of those writers know about? It would seem if you want to write a film that appeals to the lower common denominator, you follow Save The Cat to the letter. I prefer “The Screen Writers Bible”.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Stephen. Not sure we’d agree that if you use the Save the Cat beat sheet your movie will necessarily only appeal to the lowest common denominator though.

  4. Lee says:

    I have owned a “Save the Cat” book for over two years now and can confirm how the structure anxiety happens. This is the first book of two I bought just to learn how to write a screenplay. My intent then as it is now, is to just write a screenplay with all the necessary ingredients. I had no intention of selling the script. Instead the learning process has kept me productively busy every day in my retirement years. So, in my learning process I got the anxiety you talk about a year ago and became rebellious to the BS template. I closed the book for awhile and assumed a free range of writing without knowing about sequencing until you wrote about it.
    I even made the Blake Snyder “Board” and enjoyed the shopping process for stick pins, cards, and time wasted but writing in my head while shopping. By now from what I said you must realize that I absolutely love this writing game and wish I had started doing this when I was younger. With that said, I can see that I am on to something and on track to be a successful writer. I thoroughly enjoy your work, don’t stop. I wonder, by the way, would you consider writing a more explicit article on structure?. This term seems ambiguous to me relative to screen writing.
    Thanx, LB sends

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great comment, LB. You can check out more posts on structure here and we’re also going to do another structure showdown between two popular methods soon.

  5. Rúni Djurhuus says:

    I´m writing a feature and I use “Master Screenplay Sequences” combined with Michael Hauge´s “The Heroes Two Journeys“! They work well together

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Rúni! You’re right, Michael Hague’s structure is also a good one. There’s a lot out there, but the trick is to take the best from each rather than focus on just one.

  6. Ainsley Peace says:

    Utilizing others techniques while finding what also works for you is very important. Found some helpful ones here that mesh well with my evolving process.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good to hear, Ainsley – thanks for the comment 🙂

  7. MUTEGETSI says:

    Very useful. Thank you very much!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, glad it helped, Mutegetsi!

  8. Ron says:

    I don’t know which if any is right. The system confuses me and does not support the way I write. It does not go with the flow.But I will get the book and determine if it is of any help. Thanks Ron

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ron – can you let us know what specifically you find confusing? Maybe we can help.

  9. Jeff says:

    I always like the Save the Cat beat sheet but this post has helped me see it much more clearly now. Thanks for all your hard work, I read all your posts religously.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great to hear, thanks for the shoutout, Jeff!

    2. Jenny Lee says:

      Honestly, I’ve no related background or anything about this scriptwriting stuff only passion and ambition but your email and post have been a great help for newbies like me. They motivate me to pursue my once too far dream.

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Glad they’re helping, Jenny – keep at it!

  10. DL Stickler says:

    I simply love the work you are doing to spell all this out. I am a huge fan of your blog and always look forward to your posts. Great work. And thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for being susch a loyal reader, DL 🙂

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