Introducting The Beat Sheet
Lesson 4.2 – The Beat Sheet
You’ve heard (read) me use this term before. The “beat sheet” is a way to sequence your story, using bullets instead of whole sentences or paragraphs.
Very quicky, though, those bullets becomes sentences and paragraphs. And when that happen, you have an outline on your hands.
People hate outlining – you know you do – because it requires you to do the underlying story planning required to answer all the tough questions about your story. Once you know those answers, an outline is a piece of cake.
And an outline always starts as some form of the “beat sheet.”
To start, open up a blank page on MS Word (or whatever you write on), and make a list from 1 to 60. These are all going to be scenes, and you can add and delete as necessary.
At scene #1, entitle it, “the opening.”
At scene #2, entitle it, “the hook – if that didn’t happen in scene #1.”
At scene #12, entitle it “First Plot Point.”
At scene number 20, 21 or 22, entitle it “First Pinch Point.”
At scene # 30, entitle it “mid-Point.”
At scene #36 or 37, entitle it “second Pinch Point.
At scene#44, entitle it “the Lull.”
At Scene #45, entitle it “Second Plot Point.”
These scenes are the first that you plan. Every other scene, developed in context to whatever part it is in (because all four parts have different contextual missions for their scenes), you are creating narrative exposition that links these scenes.
Remember, too, that every scene has an expositional narrative mission to accomplish. And it’s not just characterization. It’s a piece of narrative fuel that adds information that moves the story forward.
Every number is a bullet. It can be one work, like: sex. It can be two words, like, “kills wife.” It can be anything you want, so long as you know what it means.
You don’t even know need to know what the scene will be yet. What you are planning here is the mission for the scene, the information it delivers to the story and to the reader. Once you know that, you can continue to plan. You don’t know how she “kills the wife,” just that she does.
That’s the beauty of mission-driven scene creation. Once you know the mission, you are then free to create the most dramatic, unexpected, creative delivery vehicle of that mission possible. Quentin Tarantino is a master of this… watch the opening of “Ingloreous Basterds,” which takes nine minutes. But it has but one singular narrative mission. And Tarantino optimizes the hell out of it.
That’s the key to this thing we call storytelling. To make every scene the optimization of its mission. Not just to give information or fill a space. But to create a microcosmic moment that strikes the reader as compelling and memorable.
The Beat Sheet as Story Skeleton
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.
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.
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.
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