Writing to the Beat: Translating Story Beats to Any Genre

jami-goldReaders of my blog know I’m a big fan of beat sheets, even creating a beat sheet for romance stories. Because of that, writers ask me what beats they should include in their mystery, thriller, or *insert any genre here* stories.

Unfortunately, I’m not an expert in other genres, but I can share a few guiding principles to help us apply the major beats to any genre.

Story Beats 101

Beats are simply plot events that change the course of a story. Some plot events change a story’s direction more than others, making the story turn to focus on a new conflict, obstacle, stake, or goal. The major beats serve an essential function—a storytelling purpose that applies to all stories.

To keep this post a reasonable length, we’re going to focus on the four major beats. These four beats are found in virtually every story of every length and every genre. By understanding the function of these beats, we’ll better know how to translate them to our genre.

Major Beat #1: A Starting Point for the Main Conflict

The first major beat occurs around the 25% mark of our story (the end of Act One in a three-act structure). The function of this story event is to drag the protagonist into the situation or force a choice to get involved.

In a romance, characters first have to get together. No one will believe in a romance where the characters don’t interact. Readers want to see the banter, the power struggles, and the sexual tension.

So this plot event forces the characters to spend time together. They could work on a joint project, be trapped in a snow storm, be chased by a villain, etc. Whatever the specifics, they’re dragged into a situation that creates an opportunity for romance.

Other genres drag the characters into different situations, such as:

  • Mystery: an event establishes the protagonist’s reason to take on the “case” (assigned, volunteers because it’s personal, etc.)
  • Thriller: an event solidifies the protagonist’s desire to stop the bad guy (expert, personally threatened, etc.)

Major Beat #2: The Midpoint

story beats, story structure, save the cat, plotting

The second major beat occurs around the 50% mark of our story. The function of this story event is to change the protagonist’s goals/choices or add new stakes.

In a romance, the characters often “commit” to the relationship at this point. They might say “I love you,” exchange their first kiss, or admit their longing for each other. Each of those options adds stakes to the potential relationship and likely changes the characters’ goals.

Other genres use events that similarly affect goals, choices, or stakes:

  • Mystery: a second murder occurs, the protagonist discovers a new personal connection, etc.
  • Thriller: the threat now has a “ticking clock,” the protagonist becomes more personally involved in tracking the villain, etc.

Major Beat #3: The Black Moment

The third major beat occurs around the 75% mark of our story (the end of Act Two). The function of this story event is to steal the protagonist’s hope for a solution.

In a romance, this is often the “boy loses girl” moment. They lose trust in each other and/or the potential of the relationship. They might break up, have a big fight, or lose each other a different way (kidnapping, etc.).

In other genres, an event similarly makes the protagonist give up or fear they can’t win:

  • Mystery: the protagonist is kicked off the case, the next victim in the murderer’s sights is friend/family, etc.
  • Thriller: the protagonist loses the trail, the villain has acquired all the weapon’s pieces, etc.

Major Beat #4: The Story Climax

The fourth major beat takes up much of Act Three, from the 80-95% mark of our story. The function of these story events is to force the protagonist to face the antagonist.

In a romance, the characters face and overcome their fear. They might reject their fear’s power over them by revealing it to the other, or they might change their priorities to sacrifice for the other. Whatever the specifics, readers are shown proof of how the characters are willing to fight for the relationship.

Other genres feature different styles of showdowns:

  • Mystery: the protagonist unravels the last clue, confronts the bad guy, solves the case, etc.
  • Thriller: the protagonist outwits the villain, stops the bomb, prevents disaster, etc.

Although this is a simplistic look at each beat (a character’s internal arc brings more layers), hopefully this helps us understand how we can structure our story. Whatever our genre, if we keep the purpose of our story beats in mind, we’ll know what we need to accomplish at each point of our story.

Do you have any questions about how story beats apply to your genre?

jami-picture-200-x-300_framedAfter muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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13 Responses to Writing to the Beat: Translating Story Beats to Any Genre

  1. Sieran says:

    Just a comment on romances: Yeah it seems like most romances written in this century tend to have the lovers confess near the 50% point, and they would have their first sexual encounter near the 25% mark. I was impressed once when these two characters didn’t do anything physical until the 50% mark! I’m not anti-sex or anything, but as a demisexual, I still find it strange that characters would have sex BEFORE saying I love you…

    Anyway, what I wanted to say was, for a lot of romances I read in my childhood, the heroes would meet (or start paying more attention to) each other near the beginning. In the middle, they get to know each other more deeply and may become friends by this point, if they weren’t already. The climax would typically be when the characters would confess their love and get together. I believe this kind of romance arc is more common in YA or middle grade books nowadays than in adult romances, right? (I think the Percy Jackson series followed this kind of pattern, though it isn’t a romance per se.)

    On the black moment, though I like this beat, I believe I have read some stories that lack a black moment (don’t remember which stories), yet I still thoroughly enjoyed them… Not trying to make a general statement about this beat, haha, but maybe in certain kinds of stories, the black moment may not be absolutely necessary for an engaging story? I don’t know. Or maybe there was a black moment but I didn’t notice it.

    Random comment: I think the mid-point is actually my favorite beat, lol! I love rising complications, new goals, new character revelations, etc. But I like the other beats too.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Sieran,

      When the first sex/love scene occurs definitely depends on the story, no doubt. I still see romances with that scene in any which beat, including the Climax. So I’d agree that romances are able to cross that line earlier in the story structure than years ago, but I wouldn’t call it a given (and certainly not required) to have it before the Midpoint. 🙂

      As for the Black Moment, how “black” it gets is certainly up to the tone and mood of the story. And so much of what makes this moment feel tragic depends on how much “fallout” readers experience, so there’s a lot that authors can do (or not do) to make this beat work for their story.

      The point–at least for stories with character arcs–is to push the characters to do something they couldn’t do before in the Climax. And something needs to trigger them into knowing that giving up isn’t an option (because on some level, they tried giving up before and couldn’t). Whether that trigger has to be a black, tragic, metaphorical death is another matter. 🙂

      The better I understand the Midpoint, the more I love that beat too, so I understand! LOL!

  2. Mark Marderosian says:

    One can say one knows all this…and then it is presented clearly & precisely like this and one realizes that helpful outlines and reminders of the basics are SO important. Thanks very much for writing and posting this!

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Mark,

      I know what you mean. 🙂 Even thought I know all this stuff, backwards and forwards, I still find new insights every time I explain it to others. Maybe that’s one reason I love to help others with this stuff. LOL!

  3. Sarah W. says:

    Extremely useful writing tool, thank you Jami! I have checked out and adapted your romance beat sheets, thank you for putting in the time to make them!

  4. :Donna says:

    Jami, THANK you for this! 😀 SO helpful 😀

  5. Pingback: How Do Story Beats Work in Our Genre? | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  6. Story structure is such a bugaboo, and so critical to creating a story that works. I love your beat sheets, Jami! They bring what could be an overwhelming task down to a manageable level :).

  7. Thank you! You’re making me think a little differently about the four acts of the thriller I’m writing. 🙂

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