Lydia Sharp is with us today to share some tips on how to use Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet to help with story structure, so please read on!
Ever since I discovered Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder back in 2009 (which was actually less of a discovery and more of a recommendation by the fabulous Therese Walsh), I’ve never approached my first drafts in the same way again. I used to be an all-out pantser, with only a vague idea of where to begin and where the story would end up on the final page, but no idea whatsoever of how to get there or what needed to happen through the middle.
First, I get an idea for a concept and a specific main character to navigate the plot–this is where I hone my logline and 2-3 paragraph pitch. Then I write a possible opening scene, to get a feel for the main character’s voice. Then I create the Beat Sheet.
A Beat Sheet is not meant to be a strict outline. It’s more like a frame of guideposts that light your way from draft to draft. Here is my Beat Sheet for Twin Sense:
PROJECT TITLE: Twin Sense
GENRE: contemp YA; sub-genre: romantic comedy
WORD COUNT GOAL: 12,000
LOGLINE: Twin Sense is about a girl who must untangle herself from the love quadrangle she created with her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s twin brother, and her boyfriend’s twin brother’s ex-girlfriend.
START DATE: December 2011
FINISH BY: February 2012
Before I go any further I’d like to emphasize how important it is to have a word count goal before you start. This affects how you break down your Beat Sheet, which will in turn help you write a more focused first draft. Twin Sense is short, so I had very little room to develop one section before it was time to move on to the next. If not for the Beat Sheet I could have very easily gone astray between turning points, resulting in major revision woes on the second draft.
And since the Beat Sheet was meant for screenwriters, not fiction writers, you must calculate the word count milestone for every beat. This is how many words you should have written when you reach each major turning point. But remember this is just a guideline. There is plenty of room for flexibility, especially in a first draft. I also suggest giving yourself a deadline if this is a story not under contract with an editor-issued time frame. Deadlines have a way of motivating you.
Twin Sense has a total of 12,000 words, and there are 110 minutes in a Beat Sheet. Here is how that (roughly) translates:
Opening and Setup: 0 – 1300 words – inciting incident; set the tone – contemporary, teen romance, humor
Theme stated; all major players introduced
Catalyst: 1300 words – new element introduced that forces MC to make a choice
Debate: 1300 – 2700 words – MC unsure of which path to take; unsure of new relationship
Break Into Two: 2700 – 3300 words – MC makes the decision to avoid making a decision (haha)
B Story transition; running gag introduced
Promise of the Premise: 3300 – 6000 words – MC waffles between two love interests, not realizing the mess she’s creating until it’s too late All minor players are introduced or referenced by now
Midpoint: 6000 words – MC realizes the mess she created; now the decision she was avoiding is even more difficult to make
The Big Squeeze: 6000 – 8000 words – stakes raised by outside forces; things the MC thought she knew for certain are now questioned
All Is Lost: 8000 words – an easy solution is clearly impossible; any solution seems impossible
Dark Night of the Soul: 8000 – 9300 words – MC reflects on her situation; seeks solution even if it means personal sacrifice
Break Into Three: 9300 words – MC decides to move forward despite any consequences. Everything the MC needs to reach the resolution at the climax has been introduced by now, even if she doesn’t realize this until the moment she needs it during the finale
Finale: 9300 – 12000 words – MC fights for what she wants; chaos ensues; story resolution
Closing Image: 12000 words – wrap-up; circle back to the beginning/emphasize theme
(Sorry I had to get really general in the second half to avoid giving away spoilers!)
Notice that each beat only requires a single sentence about what I planned to happen there. This is what gives my creative juices room to flow as I move through the first draft. If you get too detailed in this planning stage it doesn’t usually help much because you end up changing most of those details as you write in “story mode” rather than “brainstorming mode.”
For those of you who are novelists and tend to have trouble writing short fiction, you’re probably making cross-eyes at those numbers, I’m sure. In the average novel, the catalyst occurs right around the 10,000 word mark. In Twin Sense, 10,000 words is almost the entire story–the catalyst occurs less than 1500 words into it. This is why I believe writing short fiction is an excellent way to practice your brisk pacing skills.
Once I have this rough outline written, I reference it throughout the process of writing my first draft. I’m an obsessive word count checker, which may seem counter-productive, but it actually helps me finish my drafts more quickly because I don’t allow myself to run astray. That isn’t to say that I don’t write extra scenes or notes. I do all of that, and it helps tremendously with plot development, character development, and for brainstorming unique twists and turns. But all of that stays outside of the story document until I figure out how to use it.
After the first draft is complete and then major revisions are done, I tighten everything up to make sure it adheres to the story structure as closely as possible without feeling formulaic. If the average reader (not someone who studies the craft of writing) is able to “see” your structure, then your story isn’t ready yet. Blend and weave all the story elements in such a way that it feels like one, solid piece, instead of a bunch of little pieces all tossed together into a box labeled “story.”
It should flow naturally from point to point, never feel forced. Work as many drafts as necessary to make this happen. Beta readers are priceless at this stage.
After Twin Sense was accepted for publication, my editor suggested a lot of cuts (to help with pacing) and a few scenes were completely revised. This, of course, affected the overall structure, so the adjustments continued. I had to make sure my new changes didn’t mess up the flow or inadvertently shift a turning point to the wrong place.
In other words, revisions can create an imbalanced structure if you don’t go back and readjust. That is why you need to think about structure from the time you first think up a story idea all the way to your final edits before publication. It stays with you every step of the way, no matter what your story’s genre, type, or length.
So that’s my story structure process, but every writer has their own. Do you use a Beat Sheet? If so, how? If not, what do you use (if anything)?
Lydia Sharp is a novelist and short fiction author who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. Then she got tired of finding sand in her clothes so she moved further inland, but she’ll always call Ohio home. Laughing is her favorite pastime. Kissing is a close second. Lydia is also a regular contributor to the Write It Sideways blog and the award-winning Writer Unboxed blog. Her recent release, Twin Sense, is now available for purchase.
As girlfriends of the Taylor twins, Layna and Sherri have only been friends by association. But when Sherri breaks up with Keith (for real this time), and Kevin gives Layna a promise ring (whoa, what?), Layna’s whole world spins off balance. She avoids Kevin’s unwelcome pressure to commit by spending more time with Sherri.
Without the twins around, Layna and Sherri are tempted to go beyond friendship status. Then Keith tries to win Sherri back, and Kevin apologizes for rushing Layna. Now she’s stuck inside a double-trouble love quadrangle that has her reaching for the consolation cheesecake. The only way to sort out this mess is to make an impossible choice—between the one she wants and the other one she wants—or she might end up with no one.