Nail Your NaNoWriMo #13: Begin to Write It Down

31 Planning Posts in 31 October Days

Not to be confused with begin to write a draft

That’s a form of story planning, perhaps, but it’s not one you can afford to try during this planning month.  Besides, you can’t really begin writing your draft until November 1st, anyhow, just to be clear. 

Story planning isn’t cheating (actually writing  parts of your draft is), it’s empowerment.  It’s working smart as well as hard.

So when I say write it down, I mean write down your plan… in the form of a beat sheet.

A beat sheet is a skeleton outline for a full treatment.  It consists of short bullets that define a specific scene, either in terms of its generic purpose (mission), or what actually happens.  A beat sheet bullet might look like this:

– First glimpse of antagonist (generic/mission)


– Old boyfriend calls out of the blue (specific).

From those bullets you will expand the thinking toward what is, in effect, a sort of mini treatment/summary for the scene itself.  You are done with your planning when you have such a bullet-morphed-into-summary paragraph for each and every scene in your novel.

This approach forces you to do it right: one expositional mission per scene, delivered with characterization.  When you try to stuff more than one primary story point into a scene you are risking pace and expositional power.

Flashback to an earlier post: you can’t accomplish this without an overriding vision for the entire arc of the story. 

Also, it’s critical to realize — to accept and embrace — that this is an interative process, and while the end product will be linear in nature, the process may not be.  You may actually — and actually should — have a clear vision for the final scenes of your story (how it ends) long before you have a clue what the expositional scenes along the way will be.

But you will get there.  Piece by piece, scene by scene… all in context to your vision for the story… and in context to the architectural model that calls for four distinct parts separated by three game-changing story points (PP1, mid-point, PP2).

Now visualize it… literally.  It’s time to write it down.

Your beat sheet is your primary planning document.  The time to begin it is now, after you’ve been working on the Big Picture of your story and you have specific scenes already burning holes in your head.  You’re now ready to write those ideas down and and put them in some semblance of story sequence (structure), in context to the whole.

In effect, you’re about to create the blueprint for your story.  Ideas always preceed and empower a blueprint, and the blueprint (even if it’s just in your head) always preceeds the actual draft… at least, if it stands a legitimate shot at working.

You probably don’t yet know how many scenes your story will need.

That’s okay, you will.  But for now, assume it’ll take 60 scenes.  Divide them into four piles of 15 scenes…each with a separate and critical contextual mission: set-up… response… attack… resolution. The final scene in each of those piles is, in fact, a major transitional story milestone… a plot point or the mid-point, depending on where it lands.

Piles of what?  Consider 3 by 5 cards.  Yellow sticky notes.  Sheets of typing paper.  An open MS Word document numbered 1 through 60.  It all works, the specific form doesn’t matter… as long as it enables you to see your story as a whole, and from a 10,000 foot level.

This is where you can and should change things, find mistakes, experiment.  Much easier done here – and more effective – than during the drafting process itself.

At this point you’re playing God with your story. 

You’re looking down on a string of 3 by 5 cards spread over your dining room table and seeing the whole story, watching it flow, identifying what’s missing, what doesn’t fit, what could be, what to move and where to move it.

Your story was always a puzzle… now you’re actually working with it as one.  Filling in blanks (scenes).  Shifting things, discarding things, adding ideas, expanding and polishing flow, pacing, dramatic tension.

Once you know what a scene needs to accomplish, you are now free — and empowered — to write it with perfect timing and optimal energy.  To blow it out of the water, rather than simply checking it off a list.

And it’s all in context to a goal: four sequences of scenes in context to their respective parts… separated by the milestones.

Because you’re now 12 days into your planning, chances are you know how your story will open, what your First Plot Point is, as well as the Mid-P0int, Second Plot Point and the ending.  You should be close to knowing that by now.  

And if you do know those moments, you also realize they need to be set-up and reacted to, which requires other scenes before and after.  Which means that each of the milestone scenes has from three to five other scenes surrounding it, teeing it up, then paying it off. 

Add that up… simply by nailing your major story points you can immediately identify a third to half of the 60 scenes you’re shooting for (that’s an adjustable total, by the way… just try to keep the parts proportional).  And you’ll be well down the road to creating the connective tissue (scenes) that bridge the story points naturally, organically, in in context to those physics I wrote about yesterday.

This is the most exciting, and important, part of the story planning process.  Dive in and see how quickly you’ll realize that your idea is doable and eciting… or not.

And then watch how the whole thing grows into a fully functional, architectually-effective story that works. One that, come November 1, will be screaming to be written… just as you’ve planned it.

At that point, because you’ve planned it, you’ll be adding value rather than still searching for your story or fixing problems.

Want to review this entire series?  See the middle column under “Recent Posts” (or under “Categories”) for a menu of these NaNoWriMo planning posts.

Wanna workshop?  Free on the weekend of October 29/30?  Ever been to Portland?  Click HERE for details.  Love to have you, it’s gonna be epic.


Filed under NaNoWriMo

11 Responses to Nail Your NaNoWriMo #13: Begin to Write It Down

  1. Lorenda

    FYI – just tried the NaNo main page link in your post and it didn’t work. Thanks so much for putting this together…maybe this year NaNo will be a GOOD experience for me and I’ll have a rough draft instead of a pile of vomit.

  2. Ah, the cards. I’ve been using Scrivener for the past 18 months now, and I don’t know how I managed before. It’s got the cards. It’s ideal for structure. (I’m using a ‘card’ per chapter, with scenes mapped on each card.)

    And now that the beat sheet is, well, thoroughly flogged I’m using the lead up time to ‘warm up’, writing back story scenes which won’t show up in the first draft, but WILL inform the character’s development.

    Not enough people have said this, Larry, but you post a day leading up to NaNo is a huge commitment appreciated by many here. Fantastic stuff.

  3. This is a different approach to planning. I like your idea of the Beat Sheet even if for my method I might keep it blank. Pantsers could stand to have an empty outline sitting next to them just to stay on pace.

    The big challenge any pantser faces is keeping the pace, keeping the beat. It’s easy to wind up overstuffing one part of the story while skimping on another because it was harder to write. Sometimes it’s the climactic Plot Points that are the hardest to write.

    Killing sympathetic characters or finally writing the great love scene can be hard. You know what it is, but some personal pain or embarrassment comes in. It feels like invading their bedroom or it hurts to kill off someone you care about.

    I literally cried at the end of last year’s Nanowrimo novel. I knew it was going to end in tragedy – the fossil that gave me the idea for it proved she died. The story wouldn’t have that much power without the end of that character’s life. But when I got to it, I had to force myself to write it.

    Likewise in one early novel, a critiquer pointed out that I’d spent only 200 words on the great mid-point love scene where a lot of sexual tension broke. Yet I’d spent 1200 words on their getting dressed afterwards including a blow by blow detailed set of costume directions for future fans. In the edits, I reversed that priority.

    A beat sheet might have solved that in the rough draft.

    Thanks for providing yet another excellent tool. I feel like an artist holding up a t-square for the first time – dang that’s useful!

  4. I’m rereading Story Structure this week to get ready for NaNo. The beat sheet was invaluable to me last year. I was floundering around week two and a friend told me about your blog site. Made all the difference in the world; couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you for the awesome posts this month!

  5. It takes 5 weeeks for Amazon to ship Story Engineering to New Zealand. Just as well I havethis blog then isn’t it? Thanking you Larry!

  6. Debbie Burke

    Thank you, Larry, for a month’s worth of outstanding posts. As Tony said, it’s a huge commitment on your part, all to help us who struggle. We do appreciate it.

    Glad you mentioned the old-fashioned, but excellent system of index cards. Being someone who learns better with visual guides, I love index cards, moving them around on the floor like puzzle pieces. Also love Rachel’s wonderful circus tent.

    Thank you again!


  7. Olga Oliver

    Thank you Larry for Rachel’s colorful circus tent. I have all story parts on my 5 x 5 white black board right in front of me, but its certainly not Rachel’s circus Tent. And your idea of index cards in 4 stacks is great. I keep a chapter and scene running synopsis going, printed in small font and on legal size paper, but I see the benfit of the index card stacks. Thanks so much for all your wonderful info.


  8. Pingback: NaNo: Write It Down | Barb Rude

  9. Using index cards is a great way to plot a story. It’s portable and forces you to focus your thoughts because you don’t have a lot of room.

  10. I love your blog, and have been following you since you taught at SavvyAuthors. I got so excited when I saw the Portland reference… but I realized you were talking about the the ‘other’ one… I live near the the Maine one… What a bummer!

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