Monthly Archives: February 2010

Storytelling to the Beat of a Different Drummer

Introducing My Very Favorite Creative Writing Tool

Whether you’re a plotter or a plodder, a planner or a pantser, organized or organic … at the end of the writing day we are all faced with the very same daunting question: what do we write next?

From that outrageously complex question springs other key questions and issues.  Such as: where are you in this story?… what will further the dramatic tension best at this point?… have you characterized in parallel with exposition?… is your next idea the best creative choice among the options?

This, of course, implies you even know what your story options are at any given point, something you can’t effectively do until you completely understand where the story is heading. 

It would be great to have a tool help us know.

Well, there is one.  It’s called a beat sheet.

The search for structure is inescapable. 

Every choice you make creates your story’s sequence.  If you aren’t careful you can easily find yourself writing in circles, or worse, going nowhere. 

Or almost as bad, going somewhere ineffectively and inefficiently.  The latter can kill your story as quickly as the former.

The use of a beat sheet is a means of avoiding all these disasters.

A beat sheet – as in, the beat of each story point — is a list of short, bulleted descriptions about each scene in your story.  It could be stated that if you have 60 scenes, then you could create a beat sheet with 60 entries that describes the mission, or the content, or both, for each of those scenes.

Each entry on the beat sheet describes what the scene does in context to story exposition.  It explains why it is there. 

Whether you do this before or after you actually write those scenes is up to you.  I advocate story planning, but this is a great tool for either process.

The Pre-Draft Beat Sheet

If you create a beat sheet beforehand, you’ve just executed a detailed story plan, and presumably have done so in context to a working knowledge of story architecture, with each part and each story milestone functional and in the right place. 

When they are, each scene you’ve identified is already pre-wired to be the right content in the right place, leaving you free to execute it at the highest level of brilliance and efficiency (pacing) possible.

The Post-Draft Beat Sheet

If you do a beat sheet after you’ve completed a working draft – in other words, you’ve just made up your story as you went along, using your intuitive sensibilities to guide you – then a summary beat sheet is a way to evaluate your story quickly and from a high level, which becomes a tool for any further revision you may, as a result, realize is a necessary next step.

If there’s a better way to write it, the beat sheet will expose it to you.

Either way it becomes, in effect, a blueprint for an outline. 

Even if you hate the word.  Even if you skip the outline altogether and just write from beat sheet itself.

Each bullet on your beat sheet can and should expand to a descriptive sentence, which in turn evolves into a summary paragraph about the scene in question. 

To get a better feel for this, let’s look at two flavors of beat sheet – generic and story-specific from the same story.  One, usually a pre-draft version, describes the mission of each scene.  The other, useful as both a pre-draft and post-draft version, reveals the specific content of the same scene.  

The lists here comprise the entire Part 1 sequence of a novel or screenplay, with an assumption of 12 scenes required to get the job done prior to and including the First Plot Point.  The number of scenes expands as necessary as the beat sheet develops.

Notice that these are just bullets.  For organic writers already breaking out into hives here, be reminded that this is sequencing only – something you’ll have to execute sooner or later – and that it leaves you free to explore and flesh out the narrative that drives toward these expositional goals.

To better see this, you need to know the through-line (elevator pitch) for the story itself, which is something you absolutely should know before you begin any beat sheeting, outlining or even organic writing process:

What if a man finds out his wife is having an affair, and in the course of trying to learn more about it she is murdered, with all signs pointing to him as the killer?  He must escape the police and the actual killer long enough to prove his innocence and expose the truth of his innocence.

What better way to illustrate a generic beat sheet than a generic story idea.

Generic

1.         Prologue – preview of forthcoming problem.

2.         Intro character and his life prior to facing problem.

3.         Show character’s life, what his stakes are.

4.         Off-stage flash of approaching antagonism.

5.         Hero’s first hint of darkness.

6.         Hero timidly enters the darkness.

7.         Hero is warned to stay away.

8.         Hero confronts the jeopardy.

9.         Hero falsely reassured.

10.       Hero doesn’t buy in, goes stealth to see for himself.

11.       Major darkness thrust upon him, everything changes.

12.       He finds himself unjustly accused (this is Plot Point One).

It’s interesting to note that this generic Part 1 beat sheet could be applied to any number of stories, some having nothing at all to do with the above elevator pitch.

Which brings up an interesting application – when you deconstruct another story and create a beat sheet (as an exercise or planning process) that is generic, you can then apply the same bullets to your story idea to find inspiration about – here’s the answer to that question – what to write next.

If it worked for that story, perhaps it can work for yours, too.  Especially if you’re struggling with what to write, and in what order.

Once you’ve completed a generic beat sheet, you can make it specific to your story with adding a little more information and focus. 

Story-Specific

1.         Man and woman in hotel room, wildly making love; we see her wedding ring on the counter next to the man’s wallet.  This is a prologue, we aren’t sure who is who.

2.         We meet our hero, who runs a successful retail boutique founded and owned by his wife.  She’s the face of the business, he does all the hard work.

3.         We see that she gets all the glory and money, while he gets little credit or appreciation.  But the employees know.  There’s trouble afoot.

4.         Wife says she’s got a meeting downtown.  Kisses him, leaves, but goes to hotel rendezvous with lover.  One of the other employees sees her there.

5.         That employee tries to tell hero what’s up, but without betraying the wife, who is the Big Boss.  She has a crush on hero herself.  (Foreshadowing here).

6.         Hero now follows his wife a few days later, but finds nothing wrong.

7.         Hero confronts his wife with his suspicions, she denies.  They argue.

8.         Hero goes to hotel, shows bellman his wife’s picture, he recognizes.

9.         Confronts wife, she says this was where her meeting was.  More anger.

10.       Employee assures him she’s lying.  She saw her with a lover.  There are seeds of an attraction between them.

11.       Days later, he follows wife to different hotel on a tip from the employee, breaks into room… finds his dead wife inside.  Touches things, incriminates himself carelessly.  Calls the police, then…

12.       Employee finds him waiting in lobby, whisks him away… says police are already looking for him, they think he did it,  he’s been framed by his wife’s lover, and she’ll help him until he can prove his innocence.  She’ll explain how she knows all this later.

Of course, in the end it’s the psycho employee who killed the wife, trying to get the hero for herself and blame the wife’s lover for it.  But the wife’s lover isn’t having it, and because he has much to hide, and unbeknownst to the whacko employee with the crush on our hero, he’s trying to kill them before they can expose him as part of it all.

Hi-jinks ensue.

Remember, you should always be developing a beat sheet in context to an existing idea or concept, hopefully a powerful one. 

And if you aren’t, this can be a way to land on one, which then requires further development of it before it becomes a viable story sequence.

The beat sheet, then, is a tool for exploring and finding your very best creative options.

The Evolution of Your Beat Sheet

The list become a fluid and growing tool as you add and discard story ideas that deepen the stakes, heighten the pace, focus character and set up an ultimate showdown that pays off character arc along with the reader’s empathetic and emotional investment.

If you’ve written this story organically, you can use a summary beat-sheet to determine if, in fact, your choices were the best options at that point in the sequence, something you really have no way of knowing in the moment of composition.

If you settle for your draft without evaluating it structurally, you are putting all your chips in your in-the-moment storytelling instincts.  The beat sheet is a tool for backstopping that decision process.

This tool, combined with brainstorming, the deconstruction of similar stories, maybe even the drafting of a few chapters, is part of a creative process that you must, also at the end of the writing day, make your own.

If you’re anything like me, you may find the best sheet to be the most empowering thing you can do along the way.

Thanks for the overwhelming positive response to the announcement of the release of my new novel.  Your support has pushed the book to a rank as high as 3,800 on Amazon.com, a rather amazing Day-1 performance for a small press title.    

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For Your Consideration – Announcing the Release of “Whisper of the Seventh Thunder”

thunder front cover only jpeg

An Edgy, Secular Apocalyptic Thriller from USA Today Bestselling Author Larry Brooks… a.k.a, the Storyfixer.

Any writer who tells you that the release of their latest novel isn’t cause for both excitement and self-doubt is lying through their clenched teeth.  It’s been six years since my last book, and while my storytelling chops are still lubricated, the whole author-on-tour thing is a bit rusty.

In my case there are many layers to that anxiety.

First, this story was literally several decades in the making.  It was a concept that hatched before I’d published anything, and developed over time alongside my emerging writing skills, for better or worse, and a bloodied ego.

It’s a story that remained the centerpiece of both an innate fascination with all things religious and prophetic, as well as a lingering doubt that I was up to it.

I tell people it took this long because the story was always bigger than my ability to write it well enough.  That I wanted to establish some credibility as a published novelist to set the stage for this, my Big Story, the one I told myself I was born to write.

Funny how things turn out.  I first had to publish a couple of paperback thrillers with nearly naked women on the cover to get here. 

I was also more than a little frightened by the material itself. 

Over the years I’ve had ministers and psychics alike tell me I’m treading tricky ground here, messing with the fictionalization of things both Biblical and supernatural, not to mention political, and the last thing I wanted to be was the puck in a game of supernatural ice hockey. 

In fact, that very notion – a writer stuck in the middle of dark forces because of something he’s written – became the heart of the concept itself.

Dan Brown hasn’t been struck by lightening yet – at least, if you don’t count his $300 million payday – so maybe I’ll live to see the movie version.

Part of the self-doubt, too, is asking my Storyfix readers to give it a shot. 

I’m lucky to have this venue, and to have you reading it.  In some ways this is like someone you know having published a book, and let’s be honest, that’s one of the reasons any author launches a website in the first place.

Yet, while I’m confident in the story and my execution of it, it does present an interesting opportunity to walk the walk of all this six core competencies talk I’ve been slinging into the universe. 

And for you to be judge of how that works.

That said, if you like thrillers, if you enjoy speculative fiction, if you want to see if I can deliver the goodsI’ve been pontificating about here, or if you’re simply interested in the karmic quid pro quo of the free information and coaching offered here on Storyfix…

… then please, click HERE to order the novel from Amazon.com.

Here’s the elevator pitch:

Whisper of the Seventh Thunder” is a thriller ripped from today’s headlines with roots into what many believe might be the coming apocalypse.

When Gabriel Stone’s devout wife dies in an unlikely airline disaster, he finishes the novel she had warned him not to write, as it would challenge and even defy the will of God. The story he writes goes inside and behind the Bible’s Book of Revelation to reveal startling connections to covert operations that are, quite unknown to Stone, about to tear the world’s political tapestry to shreds.

As the book nears publication Stone suddenly finds himself the pawn in a war between superpowers and supernatural forces, each with hidden agendas beyond his comprehension and stakes that pivot on his ability to accept the unbelievable and stop the unthinkable.

Whisper of the Seventh Thunder” is a story that is as personal as it is global in scope, juxtaposing choices that are at once spiritual and survival-dependant, with nothing short of our very souls hanging in the balance.

At the Core of the Concept  

The novel’s conceptual heart leverages two of the more mysterious and foreboding verses in the New Testament: 1 John 2:18, which tells us there have been many prospective anti-Christs, and could imply that others might follow… and Revelations 10:4, which is the instruction to the author, John (while in political exile on the Isle of Patmos), to seal up what the seven thunders have shown him, to not write it down as he had the other visions, perhaps implying it is a key to the specific time and nature of the end of days.

But don’t let that scare you away.  This isn’t a religious book, any more than The Davinci Code or The Omen were “Christian” books.  It’s a story about how some people respond to what they believe and desire, and the consequences that come from it. 

To be honest, Borders did have it initially categorized in the Christian Fiction section – nothing at all wrong with those books, by the way – which wasn’t accurate and has since been fixed.  Had it not been fixed, my novel would have been the first book on that shelf to have the word f*ck in the dialogue (only once or twice, though, I swear).

Yeah, I’m goin’ straight to hell for that one.  Then again, God forgives all who ask, and He knows that this is how real people talk sometimes.

But I digress.

When Stone fills in these blanks he unwittingly lights an apocalyptic fuse that only he can understand and ultimately defuse.  But the cost of doing so hangs in the balance between untold worldly fame and wealth, versus his very soul.

You can read the first review of the novel HERE.

You can visit the book’s website HERE to read a longer synopsis of the story, and see what’s fact and what’s fiction.  What’s fact is pretty scary in its own right.

One final note. 

My previous novels were major paperback releases from a big-time New York publisher.  This novel is being published by a new small press – Sons of Liberty Publishing – with a courageous vision for bringing out stories that don’t flinch or blink in the face of issues that might make some folks squirm or shy away.

Which means, while the book is already available from Amazon.com and other online venues, your bookstore may or may not have it in stock.  If they don’t, though, they can certainty order it for you.

Your support is most appreciated and I’d love to hear your thoughts, either here or via an online review.

Thanks for tolerating my little moment in the publishing sun.  We’ll get back to more storyfixing forthwith.

(Storyfix is an Amazon.com affiliate.)

Read the latest online review of Story Structure – DemystifiedHERE.

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