Readers 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
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?
After 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.