All stories contain a certain architecture. To understand your story, learn how to “beat it out.”

Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the 44th annual Compassionate Friends Conference. For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, Compassionate Friends supports parents, grandparents, siblings, and others as they grieve. 

The conference was an opportunity to bear witness to some heartfelt grief stories, share my own, and immerse myself in the conversations people are having around loss, acceptance, and letting go. 

Grief is a story we live. Sometimes the pain is so profound, it’s like crawling through a reedy swamp. The going is messy and slow; it’s hard to see what’s ahead. 

This lived story has an architecture that’s frequently represented by stages or seasons. There are common experiences that happen during the early, middle, and later stages. Along the way, people grow. 

When you’re hurting, it can be difficult to know what stage you’re in or how to make it to the next one. 

While I would never conflate grief with storytelling, writers frequently experience similar struggles. The process of writing a story can feel overwhelming. We can get so attached to the words on the page or so mired in what they mean, that our revision process feels slow and messy, and it can be hard to see what’s ahead. 

As writers, we can turn to Blake Snyder and Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need for support. 

So far, we’ve talked about loglines and building the perfect character

“Let’s Beat It Out!” is likely Snyder’s most popular chapter. In it, he discusses the three-act structure (which he describes as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis) and then shares his invaluable beat sheet where he maps out the moments every story needs. He even gives you page numbers so you’ll know precisely where certain elements should occur. 

The page numbers he refers to are based on the screenplay, which is always one hundred ten pages. You can simply extrapolate based on the size of your manuscript. 

Because I want you to read this invaluable chapter, I’m only going to talk about one of its many important points: The Six Things that Need to Be Fixed. 

The first act of a story establishes the ordinary world. This is the world before the big, life-altering event that catapults your character onto their quest. Act one always ends on a plot point that’s frequently called the point of no return. 

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the point of no return is the moment when Gandalf tells Frodo his uncle’s ring is the One Ring forged by the evil Lord Sauron.

In The Hunger Games, it’s when the game begins. 

In The Glass Castle, it’s when Jeanette Walls’s family arrives in Welch, West Virginia. 

Most writers struggle with the first act. Some find the revision process downright painful. They worry about what to include and how much backstory to share. 

That’s where Snyder’s Six Things that Need Fixing come in handy. 

Snyder’s phrase “stands for the laundry list you must show—repeat SHOW—the audience of what is missing in the hero’s life. Like little bombs, these Six Things that Need Fixing, these character tics and flaws, will be exploded later in the script, turned on their heads, and cured.” 

He uses the Tom Hanks movie Big as his first example. At the beginning of the movie, our main character, Josh Baskin, isn’t tall enough to ride a certain ride. He’s awkward around girls and he sees being a kid as a total drag. 

The point of no return occurs when Josh’s wish to be big is granted. 

At first this is grand, but eventually, those things that need fixing show up in hilarious ways.

In the final act, those six things are what get resolved.

He realizes being big isn’t as great as he originally thought. Even adults struggle with girls, and while adults might be able to do what they want, that freedom comes with responsibility. 

Snyder maps additional movies so you can see their beats and how each screenwriter tackles his concepts. 

These beats can work for all prose genres, including memoir.

If you’re struggling with how to tackle your opening, or you’re trying to revise a first act that’s too long (psst: if it’s over 70 pages, it’s probably too long!), read the chapter then ask yourself the following questions:

What six things need fixing in my main character’s life? 

What act-one scenes illustrate these problems? 

If more than one scene illustrates the same problem, which one is essential?  

While some scenes plant an important seed that blossoms later in the story, many scenes that serve the same purpose can be deleted. 

Cutting those scenes might feel painful at first, but your story will be stronger, which will increase your reader’s satisfaction. 

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve reached summer’s halfway point. I’m heading to the beach for a little R & R, so I’ll see you soon. 

While I’m gone, consider what stories you’re currently living out. 

How do they impact your writing life and the stories you tell? 

How are you caring for yourself as you live them? 

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