There are a hundred iterations of the quote “every story has been told before.”
But more often than not, the quote isn’t used in the context of lamenting that there are no fresh ideas. Au contraire! It’s much more commonly used as a comment on how we humans—since our dawn—have enjoyed telling and retelling certain kinds of stories. Variations of the best stories tend to surface (in different forms, with different characters, different details, and different settings) and resurface through the ages.
What makes these satisfying, enduring stories recognizable as ones that we’ve heard before (and wouldn’t mind hearing again)?
The answer—as disappointingly boring as it may sound—is structure.
Allow me to make an argument for why “structure” is actually sexy, beautiful, absolutely magical, and definitely not restrictive!
“Structure” is what signals our brains to identify that what we’re watching, listening to, or reading is a story… as opposed to a scientific article or a witness testimony or a dictionary entry. It’s the intangible, inexplicable thing that once had John Updike cryptically remark that there is “a strange predictability to fiction.” In other words, we intuitively recognize something as a story when we register that it has the structure of one… and we react accordingly. We’re compelled to stay for the ending. We emotionally invest in the journey we realize we’re being taken on.
That’s the magic and the basic function of “structure.” Let’s see “formula” try to do that!
And this is why—when laying out your narrative—you should consider structure your friend. It does the work of telling your audience that you’re presenting them with a story. And within this sound framework, you’re absolutely then free to create, innovate, and embellish to your heart’s content. Structure is not restrictive. It is supportive.
Herein lies the secret to the popularity and success of Blake Snyder’s ubiquitous 15-beat Beat Sheet that lays out the language of storytelling for writers worldwide. All said and done, what Blake did was articulate and demystify a basic structure that’s the bulwark of the vast majority of narratives, from classic works of literature to modern blockbusters. He identified that just about EVERY story—family-friendly, controversial, dramatic, comedic, animated, live action, in a book, on a screen, etc., etc.—will hit 15 story beats, almost always in the order they appear on his beat sheet. With his bestselling book Save the Cat!, he made this structure easily understandable and readily available to anyone who wants to try their hand at storytelling.
(If you’re more of an audiovisual learner, or if you’ve already read Save the Cat! and could use an engaging deep dive on the beat sheet and Blake’s 10 story genres, the “Cracking the Beat Sheet” online course lets you learn structure at your own pace—now available at savethecatcourses.com.)
What I’m getting at is this: if you’re considering adopting Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet as a starting point to craft your next narrative work, do not be deterred by the people who claim that your story will run the danger of being “formulaic” if you apply structure. You are no more in danger of restricting your story with structure than The Big Sick was in danger of being restricted to the plot points of How to Train Your Dragon or Gone Girl or Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby… all of which we’ve been told were structured with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet!
At the end of the day, structure will tell your viewer or your reader that they’re now on a journey: one that has a starting point, one that promises a sequence of stirring events, and one that will ultimately culminate in a satisfying ending. Structure tells them that what you’ve created will be well worth their time and emotional investment.
And at the very, very, very end of the day… what storyteller doesn’t want that?
Jennifer Zhang is a screenwriter and filmmaker who wrote, produced, and sold her award-winning debut feature The Evil Inside shortly after working with Blake Snyder and adopting Save the Cat! storytelling principles in her screenwriting. She is the instructor featured in the “Cracking the Beat Sheet” online course, and in 2021 has garnered early festival buzz for her feature-length independent thriller Charon, which has picked up multiple official selections and “Best Writer” nominations.
About Save the Cat!
Save the Cat!® is the bestselling story methodology introduced by screenwriter Blake Snyder in 2005 with his first book, Save the Cat! Snyder’s acclaimed ideas, methods, and software have provided thousands of writers with the resources they need to develop their screenplays and novels.