Using “Harry Potter” to Understand “Save the Cat” Novel Structure
November is National Novel Writing Month. If you’ve ever tried to write a novel, you’ve probably heard of Jessica Brody’s guide to novel structure, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. While it’s frequently recommended that writers acquaint themselves with this structure plan, I’ve found it can be a little difficult to apply it to my own writing. So get your quills ready. This one is for the Rita Skeeter in all of us.
So what is Save the Cat? It’s a popular story structure used in writing that divides the story into three acts and 15 “beats.” While you, like me, might be a little skeptical about using a formula to lay out your book, don’t despair. Even books not written with this structure in mind can be applied to the concept, which suggests to me that Save the Cat gets at the basics of the narrative structure itself (beginning, middle, end, etc.) rather than creating a whole new one. Personally, I find this a bit easier to grasp when looking at an example, but I would definitely recommend checking out a detailed outline of what each beat should represent. You can find that here or click one of the buttons at the bottom to find a copy of Brody’s book.
So let’s get to it. Here is my version of Save the Cat as it applies to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
Act 1 – Harry’s life before he knew who he was, the ways in which it begins to change when he learns the truth.
- Opening Image (0–1%) – Vernon Dursley heads to work at his normal job. Everything is as it should be in his life.
- Theme Stated (5%) – Vernon Dursley doesn’t think Harry (or the wizarding world) could impact his life: “It couldn’t affect them…. How very wrong he was” (SS 8).
- Set-Up (1–10%) – Harry lives a miserable life with the Dursleys. We see how little he fits in and how little the Dursleys care for him. Mysterious letters start arriving for Harry, which the Dursleys will go to great lengths to keep him from reading.
- Catalyst (10%) – Hagrid knocks down the door to the hut on the rock where Harry and the Dursleys are staying and changes Harry’s life forever by telling him that he’s a wizard, that he has a place at Hogwarts, and that his parents weren’t killed in a car crash.
- Debate (10–20%) – Harry goes to Diagon Alley with Hagrid and stocks up on school supplies. He spends the rest of the summer anxiously awaiting the school year and the Hogwarts Express.
Act 2 – Harry arrives at Hogwarts. His whole life is different – he’s famous, for one – and a daunting but entrancing world begins to unfold.
- Break Into Two (20%) – Harry literally ventures into a new world as he crosses the barrier onto platform nine and three-quarters. He has left behind the Muggle world and stepped into the world of wizards where everyone seems to know his name.
- B Story (22%) – Harry meets both Ron and Hermione on the train. He and Ron instantly connect, whereas Hermione establishes herself as a bossy know-it-all. Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle push in, and Malfoy introduces himself. Harry chooses not to be his friend, solidifying what will be a long and tumultuous rivalry.
- Fun and Games (20–50%) – Literally fun and games in this case. Harry is Sorted into Gryffindor. Harry and Ron explore the castle. Harry is selected to play on the House Quidditch team.
- Midpoint (50%) – Harry, Ron, Neville, and Hermione discover that a giant, three-headed dog is guarding something in the castle. Soon after, on Halloween, they face down a mountain troll, and Harry sees that Snape’s leg has been injured.
- Bad Guys Close In (50–75%) – The trio is certain that Snape is getting closer and closer to stealing what the dog is guarding. Harry realizes that the person they’re looking for is Nicolas Flamel and that the dog is guarding the sorcerer’s stone.
- All Is Lost (75%) – The team learns that Hagrid told a stranger in a cloak how to tame Fluffy, and they’re certain that stranger was Snape. Nothing except for Quirrell’s resistance to Snape’s repeated attempts and coercion now stands between Snape/Voldemort and the stone.
- Dark Night of the Soul (75–80%) – The trio goes to tell Dumbledore what they’ve learned but discovers he’s been called away to the Ministry of Magic.
Act 3 – Harry is determined to stop Snape from taking the stone.
- Break Into Three (80%) – Harry decides he has to stop Snape and Voldemort. He, Ron, and Hermione head to the third-floor corridor.
- Finale (80–99%) – The trio breaks through the staff’s defenses. Harry carries on to the final chamber, where he faces Quirrell and Voldemort and uses his knowledge of the Mirror of Erised and his pureness of heart to save the stone.
- Final Image (99–100%) – The Dursleys await Harry at King’s Cross. They are no longer the frightening figures they once seemed, and Harry is not the boy he once was.
So whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, just starting out or deep in the writing trenches, I hope this example has been helpful. Good luck out there, and happy writing!