The Beat Sheet

The Beat Sheet

Hey, everyone. I’m not dead, I’m just kind of quiet these days. I’ve been having some health struggles, and my livestream has been on hiatus pending some travel as well as a computer issue, so things have been pretty dead.

However, a friend of mine mentioned she’d tried to read about the Beat Sheet and felt a little lost in the explanation. I’ll be the first to admit that some people explain it in such a complicated manner that you’d need a literary degree to get it. And even then it’s questionable.

So, as per my usual thought process, my intent here is to break it down into simplicity. I did not come up with the Beat Sheet–that’s Blake Snyder, a renowned screenplay writer. In fact, the Beat Sheet was written for screenplay writers, so once you see this formula, you’ll never look at a story the same way again. I’d apologize, but I’m not really sorry for that. If you’re a writer, you need to look at story in an analytical manner. It can make going to the movies a little less exciting sometimes, since you can predict a lot of the plot, but I still enjoy it.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t know the Beat Sheet, it’s an outlining tool created by the aforementioned Blake Snyder. The essence of it is that it boils any story down into “beats”. These are the major points of the story. The function of this for writers is that it gives you a rough road map of where you should be and what your next beat should entail.

I know, you’re already squawking that it seems so limiting, and what about your creativity, and all that. But listen, we’ve been writing stories for thousands and thousands of years, and most of them follow the three-act structure. It’s just how we function as storytellers. This Beat Sheet is just a different distilling of that same structure that every story you’ve ever read (that’s any good) has. It’s how we, as a species, tell stories. I’m not limiting you, I’m giving you a canvas, paints, and a brush. You can put whatever you want in any collection of colors on that canvas, but the canvas and paints and brush and equipment are still the same.

Without further ado, let’s get into the Sheet.

Opening Image

This is the first thing we see in the story. In a movie, it’d be the opening shot or scene where we have our first contact with the world and with the characters in it. It should be something that catches the attention because you need to have something readers will want to stay in. This opening image is usually a scene. It’s not even a chapter long.

Set-Up

This is where we learn about the character’s life and world as it is, before the events of the plot, before things change. In video game terms, this is the tutorial. We learn about the way our world here works and what’s in it. You get a feel for things here and do a little world development. This is about a chapter, maybe two. (My chapters are about 1,700 words, so your mileage may vary.)

Theme Stated

This may have been done during the start-up. You don’t need to do this separate of the set-up phase. Though it can be done afterward. This doesn’t have to be a large section. It’s where you mention what the message of your story is. Don’t overthink it. The theme of your story might be something as simple as your main character wanting to find a love interest or something like that. While this sounds literary and hoity, it really means it’s kind of the space where you give the reader an idea of what kind of story you’re talking about.

Catalyst

This is where your story takes off. It’s where your female lead meets the man she’s going to marry or where the farmboy leaves the farm to become a great hero. Whatever kickstarts your story into happening is happening here. It’s the big leap from the world you’re in to the world you’re going to be creating through the story.

Debate

Change is scary. When the catalyst happens, your character will have some time where they have to figure themselves out and deal with what’s happening. They will deal with that reality in one way or another. Which is what the rest of the book is about. If they choose n ot to face whatever’s happening with the catalyst, then we won’t have much of a story. Even if they run from the catalyst, that can be part of the Debate.

Break Into Two

This is where we hit act two. That’s the hardest act for most writers to write. Welcome to it! This is where the character really starts their journey. We leave the world we established as their norm in the “Set-Up” beat and enter into where we are going. The character steps out onto the road and chooses to do the thing that will change their life.

B Story

This is where, if there’s going to be one, there’s a secondary story budding. If it’s a romance, we might be seeing the beginnings of a secondary plot. Maybe their conflict. If it’s another kind of story, it may prove to be a romance. Other times, it might be another things. “B” stories are a wide range of possible stories, and it’s a thing you can decide if you want to start or not. It’s not required.

The Promise of the Premise

This is the fun part of the story. It’s where the main character explores this new world, and the audience gets to enjoy it with them. This is exciting and a place where the reader and the character can enjoy the experience. It’s also where we get a full view of the world in the best way. If you’re going with the B Story, this might be where the romance is developed and begins to bloom.

Midpoint

Here’s where we hit a point in the story with two possible directions. Either everything in the world is great, or everything is terrible. Either the character has what they want, and it’s great or they don’t get what they thought they were at all and it’s awful. However, if they’re miserable it might be because they’re getting what they need and don’t realize that.

Bad Guys Close In

At this point in the story, all the negative things start creeping in. Whether the character was great or awful in the middle, things are changing. We have the antagonist, whoever (or whatever) this is, ramping up their work. Tension at this point needs to start climbing toward the climax of the story.

All Is Lost

This is the opposite of the midpoint, if everything is great. At this point, the character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained (or are afraid they have), or they realize everything they have now has no meaning. Whatever it is, they have a hard, sharp realization where something changes. Whether it’s the character being trapped somewhere and believing all was lost or whether they’re dealing with a huge falling out with the romantic interest or… what have you, it’s up to the story. But something big is going down.

Dark Night Of The Soul

Just after the realization that everything has gone wrong and that “all is lost” the character will grieve. They may feel hopeless, or desperate. They’ll be lost. And they are mourning. A mentor, a goal, a romance… something is gone, and they’re hurting from it. However, at this point, the closing of act two, they need this loss in order to pick themselves up and try again.

Break Into Three

They come through this period of mourning and discover a fresh perspective. Something changes and punches through whatever drew them into the dark night. They choose to try again and move forward. Things change. Progress is made because it can’t rain all the time.

Finale

This is where the tension is at its peak. The character has escaped certain doom and misery. They are now doing what needs to be done and finishing their fight. Everything between the “A” story and the “B” story is coming together here, and they are using that strength to create an ending for themselves. If this is a series, this doesn’t mean every single thread is wrapped up, but the main story is heading there.

Final Image

The last moment of the story where we see how everything has changed. Where the character is now. The moment that defines their future.

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8 thoughts on “The Beat Sheet

  1. Hey, Beth – Sorry to hear about those pesky health problems tormenting you again. It’s obvious, however, that they haven’t affected your excellent brain and your editorial skills. This post seems to be tailor made as a yardstick against which I can measure the completed first draft of my novel. Thank you! HB

    1. Thank you so much, Helen. I’m surviving as far as my health goes. Just a lot of doctor’s visits, and new medications and all that to try. I’m so glad you have found this helpful and useful for your writing. I had a friend tell me they found the Beat Sheet’s explanation hard to follow, and I thought if they were struggling, others might be, too. 🙂

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