WriteOn: Beat Sheets

I’ve tried using a beatsheet before, and here’s the biggest mistake I made the first time: I treated it as the only thing the story needed. I worked diligently enough to cover the beats, and I ended up with an unsatisfactory result in the synopsis (and it was even more obviously lacking when I wrote it down).

The beats can be necessary to fill out a specific story shape, but they are not sufficient to create a whole story. Maybe it works for movie scripts, what’s what save the cat was originally the goal (there’s even a novel-specific sequel to meet the varying demands of a book-length work), but it could also be what’s causing movies to feel a lot like the numbers since the book’s release.

The beats make the story enjoyable, but the spacing between the beats is at least as important as hitting the beats.

My enlightenment came while working on a paranormal love story. Romanticize the beat is an excellent guide to love story form (and author Gwen Hayes even includes a novella-length example in the book) (here’s a blog post listing the beats). I had tried a sweet romance, it didn’t work at all (again, the beats may be necessary but they’re not enough) but when I used it as a guide to the A plot (i.e. the romance) in a paranormal romance during Also Ensuring a good B-plot (that is, world events) allowed me to see my blind spot. Not only do you have to hit the beats, they’re just there to make sure your story fits the form the beatsheet suggests – but there can be plenty of space between beats if the story needs it.

When you pierce save the cat Analysis posts you may see, what I’ve done is that while they can find the beats in the stories, almost always parts are skipped or discarded because they’re part of the story without being beats to hit the story shape.

This is the first point.

The second point I wanted to make is that the beats don’t have to take this particular form. That is, the suggested beats serve a purpose in the story that gives the story its shape. Does the hero have to despair? No, not necessarily, success shouldn’t look certain at this point. But it doesn’t have to howl desperately in the rain for it to work.

My favorite example is betrayal. It’s a cheap and easy way to pull off a plot twist or story-altering reveal and bring heroes and villains back into conflict. It’s an excellent midpoint moment in Act 2, “everything just changed,” or an excellent revelation at the Act 2/Act 3 transition to trigger the Dark Night of the Soul. It is used a a lot ofand sometimes it doesn’t make sense.

It is not the betrayal that matters, nor that a friend is now an enemy. The important change in history is that it changes the context and adds or creates a new conflict. The traitor doesn’t to have to be an enemy or a deceiver of the enemy.

My favorite version of this particular trope is in the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy (small spoiler). In particular, when Drax (team member) makes a space call to Ronan the Destroyer (villain), it’s selfish and perfect in character — and doesn’t mean he’s working for the bad guys. He’s still a team member and will remain so in the sequels. But it’s entirely in the character to set the challenge, and it serves a similar purpose in the story. The villain shows up, the chase continues, they don’t get away, there’s a new fight (which also keeps the villain relevant), and the team falls apart as a result – only to get back together for the third act. All the value of a betrayal without Drax ever changing sides.

That’s my second point.

But I want to close with a thought: beatsheets are really just guidelines. They’re a handy yardstick for making sure a story fits a specific shape and atmosphere. No more, no less. To me, they’re more useful for figuring out why a story feels flat or something seems missing and what it is, rather than mad libs for filling out the story.

They are also a new invention. Many, if not most, authors have never used or heard of a beatsheet, and the classics were definitely written without them. Like all types of writing advice, they are a tool that can be used or discarded depending on what you need, what you want to achieve, and the problems you need to solve.

Have fun writing!

Exercise: A beatsheet is the length of a story that’s too big for an exercise, so let’s bring the fight scene beats back up:

  • Square A & B
  • A justifies superiority over B
  • The fight turns and B now beats A
  • B defeats or disarms A.

Pick two beats (e.g., “A&B match” and “A establishes superiority over B”) and find the things in between that aren’t covered by the beats. What short story fits in between that’s not just filler? (For example in The Prince’s Bride duel, Inigo and The Man In Black demonstrate their mastery in action and in relation to fencing masters.)


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