The Big Debate (not what you think)

No, I’m not talking about self-publishing vs traditionally publishing. And no, I’m not talking about whether book reviewers should or could be writers too. And no, I’m not talking about the fact that winter has hogged the stage and needs to exit stage left. Or whether I should eat the last homemade chocolate chip cookie.

I’m talking about the Debate section in Act I that Blake Snyder talks about in Save the Cat. Honestly? I’d never heard of this before. And it’s a concept that isn’t really talked about and often overlooked.

Seriously, had any of you heard of it before reading STC?

The inciting incident, or catalyst as Blake calls it, happens in the first couple chapters. It’s an event that turns the protagonist’s world upside down. And between this event and the Act I Climax, our character needs to make the final no-turning-back decision. Is she/he going to do it? Can they?  This is the debate section. And the Act I climax can be what finally convinces our character to say yes.

Why have a debate section?

  • Introduces internal conflict because usually it’s a huge decision. And no real person just runs off to slay a dragon without giving it some thought. (At least I wouldn’t.)
  • It’s a time to draw the reader into the life of the main character and establish the goal, conflict and stakes.
  • Showing your character in conflict makes the reader care. It builds emotion.
  • Showing your character take the time to decide makes your character and story believable.
  • And if your character made the decision right away, you’d be stealing thunder away from your Act I climax.

On my sidebar are links to my break down of How To Train a Dragon and Princess for Hire. Each has a debate section. In HTYD, Hiccup must decide whether he really wants to kill dragons, which at the start, he thought he did. But then he meets Night Fury. During this debate section, I connected with Hiccup and then gasped when he made the decision not to kill and then his dad finally tells him he can.

Do you think about this big debate when writing or revising Act I? Can you think of stories that do this well? Or do you think this concept isn’t needed in all books? Can you think of books you love that don’t have this section? ( I can)


44 Responses to The Big Debate (not what you think)

  1. Kris April 5, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    I think I need to read SAVE THE CAT. 🙂 I hadn’t heard of this concept, though it makes total sense. Thanks Laura!

  2. Donna April 5, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    *sigh* I’m starting to understand the need but the way to get there is killing me. I keep thinking I know what it should be but I also keep learning which leads to rethinking.
    Where I thought at one point I was nearly ready to call my WIP done, I’m about ready to rip it up and start cutting and pasting. Ugh.

    Thanks for your insight. As always.

    • Laura April 5, 2011 at 11:58 am #

      Donna – I know it’s hard when we keep learning and have to keep revising. You’ll get there!

      Kris – It really is worth the read.

  3. Ishta Mercurio April 5, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    I think I need to read SAVE THE CAT before I can say whether I have a Debate section – because I’m not sure if you mean an actual internal or external dialogue that the main character is engaging in, or simply a section in which we show the conflict that our MC is experiencing and show the stages that lead the MC to make the decision that he/she does.

    But either way, I think it’s important to show the MC in conflict at the begining.

    Thought-provoking post.

  4. Andrea April 5, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    Laura, this was one of the things I didn’t know about plotting until I read Save the Cat. When I checked back into my novel, I realized I had the debate, but hadn’t brought it out enough to make it clear to the reader. I think the debate section really does a lot to strengthen a story.

  5. anne gallagher April 5, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    I haven’t read Save the Cat but I should. Although I do have the big debate in my latest book. funny how that worked out.

    And yes, I do think there should be some kind of war waging within the protagonist, otherwise, why would we care. I love hearing (reading) pros and cons, so debating is a must for me.

    Plus I was on the debate team in high school and won all my arguments.

  6. Matthew Rush April 5, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I love this. Thank god it made its way into my novel on its own, because I never would have thought of it. Except … I guess I did, subconsciously.

  7. Suzi McGowen April 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    I’d heard Save The Cat mentioned at a couple of other blogs before, but didn’t buy it (and read it) until reading one of your point by point breakdowns of a story using STC beats.

    I loved it! I was also intrigued by “The Debate” section. It’s not one I’d heard of though I used instinctively. However, after reading the book, I changed my debate scene a little.

    I have my MC flip a coin to decide whether or not to do X. The coin tells her to do it. Since it’s a powerful form of divination in her world, she does.

    In my new version, she flips the coin and it tells her not to do it. She flips again, saying “best two out of three”.

    Here, her debate isn’t with herself or a mentor, it’s with the Gods. Plus, I think it shows better what type of person she is 🙂

    So thank you for your recommendation of STC!

  8. Laura Josephsen April 5, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    I’ve never even heard of “Save the Cat.” >_> But I do love How to Train Your Dragon and that scene with Hiccup’s decision was fantabulous.

    I think a lot of books have that moment. I do love when a character actually thinks about the choice, because everyone has reasons for going on their quests. Sometimes they might be forced into it by outside circumstances, but they still have to decide how they’ll act. I know that I am the kind of person who would totally be a reluctant hero–I don’t want danger, thank you, I want to be home curled up under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate. I think if a character has a debate, it makes them more real and more relatable.

  9. Patti Nielson April 5, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    I think having that conflict is important to a book. It’s the motivation for the character to change. This is definitely something I need to work on.

  10. Laurel April 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    I think I have seen the “debate section” concept in other books on plot, though other authors call it something different. The arguments for it are good–it’s helpful to know what options the character considers and how/why he chooses the course he takes. This information both deepens character and makes the plot more plausible. I’m more willing to follow a character who doesn’t simply react willy nilly, but weighs choices and makes conscious decisions. Some pretty oddball plots can be made plausible if the author sets up well using character internal debate to show why this course makes sense as a best option to the character.

  11. Laura Marcella April 5, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    The first book that came to my mind was the 7th Harry Potter. He struggles with deciding whether to go after hallows or horcruxes.

    I can think of books that don’t have the debate section either…and I must say I like books that have the debate a lot better! It fills the story with tension.

  12. Jenny Lundquist April 5, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    How timely. I have SAVE THE CAT on hold for me at the library. I liked Laura Marcella’s example of the seventh HARRY POTTER book for a debate section. I love the glimpses we get into how a character thinks when they’re faced with a tough decision. I think readers are looking for an “emotional payoff” at the end of the book and giving them a debate section helps to set that up.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for another great post, Laura!

    • Laura April 5, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

      All of you are so wise! Thank you so much for commenting. I might have had this in my work naturally, but not emphasized enough. And Laurel was right – it helps set up the emotional pay off at the end!

  13. Jennifer Hoffine April 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    Another benefit I see of doing a debate is that it makes the character seem more active instead of someone who’s just swept along by circumstances.

  14. Lisa Green April 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Yes! Sometimes I realize I’m missing something, then it hits me – internal dialogue! Ahh, yes, the internal debate. How do these events effect the character? It may not fit exactly as suggested in Save the Cat, but it’s somewhere.

  15. Heather Kelly April 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    See, I have one character well-developed who does debate her choices, the other one is on a quest of sorts, and never debates it. #maybethisnovelshouldbeinthedrawer


    • Laura April 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

      Heather – I think it would be easy on the quest one to go back and using internal dialogue show her debating whether to go on the quest. Maybe she/he knows she needs to do it but hasn’t fully committed. I think sometimes in middle grade the debate section doesn’t have to be very long.

  16. Susan Kaye Quinn April 5, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    I struggle with the debate part – not the need for it, but the containing of it. How much debate and where and when is the decision finally made? I think this is partly because the whole book should be a debate of sorts, around the theme of the book.

  17. Creepy Query Girl April 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    I don’t think this kind of conflict is needed in all books but it certainly works. Adventure/Fantasy/Political Thrillers, etc…probably do well with this kind of major conflict. Romantic Comedies…not so much. At least, in most romantic comedies.

    • Laura April 5, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

      to answer Susan – I think ultimately, you’d want the final decision to be made after the Act I climax or Lock in. They make the final decision and head into Act II having made a proactive decision. Great thoughts here everyone!

    • Kieron October 31, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

      Are you sure about romantic comedies not having a debate section? One of my favourite examples that I use in my screenwriting class is Pretty Woman. One thing that you will notice in the dialogue of the main character between the catalyst and the act break is question marks. In Pretty Woman, Vivian keeps asking “now that you have me here, what are you going to do with me?” Edwards answer is always “I really have no idea.”

      Even in a romantic comedy, the character always goes on a journey. If the main character doesn’t need to take a second to consider the magnitude of this change – then he doesn’t really need the experience at all.

      The journey must be life changing – the most important decision this character will ever make – so we need to show us that he ain’t quite ready for it yet.

  18. Ansha Kotyk April 5, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Add me to the list of crit partners who hasn’t read The Cat… (The Cat in the Hat, yes. Save the Cat, sadly, no) Although it’s been on my to-be-purchased list I have yet to do so. Looks like I need to crack the piggy bank (just another animal metaphor for ya). 🙂

  19. Leigh Moore April 5, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    I keep hearing about this book! Must get it… :o) Thanks, Laura~ <3

  20. Julie Musil April 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    Laura, you are a fountain of information! I haven’t read Save The Cat yet, but in Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell discusses something similar.

    My critique partners have asked for more internal thoughts in key places, and this has highlighted where I needed to add “debate.” They’re great about catching my pacing issues when I’ve become blind to them.

  21. Shelli April 5, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    I think the author of Save the Cat can thank you for a peak in sales. 🙂 I’ll put it on my “to read” list. I just finished Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and while he is rather long-winded, there’s some great information there. I can see how the debate you’re talking about fits in well with the reaction sequence he’s talking about. It makes sense that a character isn’t going to just jump into action.

  22. Ishta Mercurio April 5, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Update: Laura, you have officially made me buy SAVE THE CAT – I’ve ordered it, and it will be shipped to me shortly. I can’t wait to read it now! I feel like I’m missing out on all kinds of awesome writing techniques and tips.

  23. LynNerd April 5, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    I hadn’t heard of this topic either. Very interesting post, Laura, and I love the way you ask your readers a question at the end of the post to pull us into a discussion. My teen character has internal conflict throughout the story and external conflict where she’s actually debating/arguing with her friends, but I’m going to pay close attention to this aspect throughout the next revision. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Melissa Gill April 5, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    I’m a complete Blake Snyder devotee. If I were going to have kids, I’d name one Blake Snyder, but as it is, I’ll probably just name my next pair of mice Blake and Snyder.

    Seriously, if your a writer and you haven’t read this book, STOP, DON’T PASS GO, DON’T COLLECT 200.00. Go now to and order it. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s for screen writers. It will make total sense.

    So yes, I love the debate section. I think it’s so revealing, and such an excellent way to SHOW character. It also ties in with something I read just a minute ago regarding using a characters opinions to develop more complex, layered characters. The debate section does just that.

    Great post! Between you and me, we’ll have everyone in the writing blog-o-sphere on the Blake bandwaggon soon!

  25. Kat Harris April 5, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    I’d never heard of Saved the Cat, but the overall formulaic concept has been used in the production of Hollywood movies for years.

    I guess it depends on the genre in which you write. Fromt what I understand, literary works rarely use the “Saved the Cat” approach. Most others rely heavily upon it.

    I’m under the impression that the formulaic method, itself, is a reflection on the impatience of today’s society.

    Great post!

    • Kieron November 3, 2013 at 3:17 am #

      There’s a difference between formula and structure – Blake teaches structure. Also, it ain’t just Hollywood it applies to; Blake’s storytypes often cite very early examples of structure… Christ, Minotaur and Jason and the Argonauts to name but a few.

      Take Blake’s ‘rites of passage’ storytype; he says it happens in three stages: 1. Life problem 2. The wrong way of dealing with it (usually a diversion from the pain) and 3. Acceptance (God grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change).

      This ain’t formula Kat, it’s life, which is why these stories resonate on a primal level and why they keep being told over and over and why we keep wanting to hear them.

      The ‘golden fleece’ story resonates because we all want to venture beyond the safety and comfort of our small town boundaries and succeed out there in lands distant and alien… whether it’s Jason and his Argonauts in search of a fleece, Frodo with his team to destroy the ring, Luke with his team to destroy the death star, Tom Hanks with his team to find Private Ryan or Little Miss Sunshine with her team to win a beauty pageant… they’re the same movie, structurally speaking.

      You could use Save the Cat to help you write Norbit, but you could also use it to help you write The Godfather. It isn’t formula, just the recognition of the universal truths inherent in effective storytelling, which has been the case since well before Hollywood came along.

  26. Ghenet Myrthil April 5, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    SAVE THE CAT is on my TBR list. This is great advice! I’m happy to say that I have a “debate” in my story. I agree with all of your reasons why it’s important to have one.

    I need to read your plot busters now! 🙂

  27. India Drummond April 5, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    This is something I find difficult, but I’m learning to do. You’re right.. characters NEED to be able to change their mind or be convinced, and make sure the READER is convinced too.

  28. Jennifer Shirk April 5, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    I haven’t read STC yet–but I want to!

    And I never heard of it as “the debate” section, but I know what you’re talking about. And I’ve definitely seen both ways done successfully in fiction. 🙂

    • Laura April 5, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

      I have to disagree that the formulaic approach is a reflection on today’s society b/c the three act structure has been around for centuries. Some writers use it more than others. But it’s about using the ebb and flow to increase emotional impact. And whether writing literary or commercial – who wouldn’t want to do that? Of course, there are always exceptions though. But so far, the books I’ve studied and also really enjoyed, could have been improved if they’d followed it – both commercial and literary. Or what i call literary. Maybe I haven’t read a true literary book. Do people agree or disagree with that?

  29. Patti Mallett April 5, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    Just pulled out my copy and see I had stopped two pages before the “debate” section (which is on p.77). Up to that point, I have seven sticky tabs marking other helpful bits of information. I can see it’s time to dig back into it. Thanks, Paula, for getting me headed in the right direction!

  30. Patti Mallett April 5, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    Laura, I must apologize. I have it in my head that your name is Paula. I see it at the top of the page and then my brain twists it up when commenting. It’s a default in the system from eyes to brain perhaps.

  31. Patti Mallett April 5, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    Laura Pauling. Laura Pauling. Laura Pauling. Laura Pauling. (Unfortunately, all of that practice is no guarantee that I won’t mess up again. But, at least, you will know I am seriously trying to get it right!!!

    (I just realized that you remind me of a college friend by the name of Paula.)

    • Laura April 6, 2011 at 12:00 am #

      I get called Paula all the time. Which is one reason I would seriously consider changing my name around for an author’s name. #iamnotpaula 🙂

  32. Karen Strong April 6, 2011 at 2:47 am #

    Oooh, plot post! 🙂

    I definitely think about the “debate” thing in the first two chapters, although I didn’t realized that what it was called.

    Hmm…I’m trying to think of a book that doesn’t do this…but drawing a blank.

  33. Samantha Vérant April 6, 2011 at 5:54 am #

    Oh yeah, I think of the inciting event immediately! It’s what drives all my stories. In my MG I completely turn my protag’s world upside down and then I shake it up even more. And yes, he debates whether or not he can do the task set out before him — which is leave the only life he’s ever known (the circus) or…

  34. Margo April 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    I think the debate section isn’t necessary, but it adds a powerful element to a story. Makes the story go deeper (and therefore become more memorable) as the character goes deeper. I haven’t read STC yet but as soon as you described the Debate something clicked with me – YES! That’s good story-making stuff there!


  1. How does your inciting incident hold up? – Laura Pauling - April 11, 2011

    […] In a lot of Middle grade and Young Adult it happens toward the front in the first chapter or two. In some books, after the inciting incident and before the protagonist makes the final decision or takes action, he/she experiences the debate. […]

  2. How to create a page turner in your opening chapters. – Laura Pauling - May 23, 2011

    […] Save The Cat, Blake Snyder talks about the Debate section. During the opening, the hero is faced with a question or choice. She/he knows the answer but […]

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