Storytelling to the Beat of a Different Drummer

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by Larry Brooks on February 23, 2010

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.    

{ 25 comments }

Ez February 23, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Amazing. This is super helpful.

I have been struggling to do something similar to the beat sheet for awhile now, but I seem to have no gauge for how many bullet points I need for any given section. Does that make sense? Any suggestions? Do you have a rule of thumb as to how many bullet points you’d have for a chapter, or set piece, or whatever?

Patrick Sullivan February 23, 2010 at 10:33 pm

I’ve heard of scene lists before, but somehow don’t think I’ve come across the name beat sheet. Very interesting.

One thing I’m sure I will struggle with when I try this is figuring out scene lengths, as I’m still bad at figuring out how long a scene will ACTUALLY go and therefor if I’m at the right points for the milestones, due to inspiration (or lack thereof) changing the shape of them to a certain degree, even if the final intent met is still the same, simply with more (or less) depth to that particular piece.

Though I guess as long as you are close, the wiggle room will keep you sanely close to the right target points. Hrm.

Also reminds me of an earlier post of yours about music in relation to writing, seems like the beat sheet is the best place to list music that you see as a perfect accompaniment to a particular sequence.

Larry February 23, 2010 at 11:27 pm

@Ez – I shoot for 12. Give or take a few, as needed.

@Patrick and Ez — remember, each scene has a succinct mission, and the length and details you give to it are all in support of it. Being mission-driven in your scenes is what prevents you from over-writing it, and when you enter the scene at the last possible moment, yet creatively, and with a full blown attack on its mission, you can then create the pace and energy that will propel your story forward. How long should a scene be? As long as it take to complete the mission, do it in a dramatic and unexpected way, with characterization… and nothing else. One scene, one mission. Then on to the next scene. Hope this helps. L.

janice |Sharing the Journey February 24, 2010 at 8:22 am

Your advice to write mission-driven scenes is fantastic for folk like me who love structure, long to achieve great characterisation and are inclined to overwrite. It’s also useful for my daughter who’s facing a year of having to write structured creative pieces under exam conditions.

Congratulations on the Amazon awesomeness!

Robert February 24, 2010 at 8:30 am

@ Larry – Do you mean 12 scenes for part one, 24 for parts two and three and 12 for part 4?

Larry February 24, 2010 at 8:47 am

@Robert — with the caveat that this is a rough and very flexible guideline, yes… 12 each for all four parts of the story. But that’s just the opening target when you begin to expand your concept into a true story. You shouldn’t really have less than 10, and you probably should have more than 16… but allow that “12″ number to guide you.

@Janice — as always, your comments are much appreciated and your support feels like warm hug. Love warm hugs. Back atcha, and give one to that writer daughter of yours, too.

Joe February 24, 2010 at 8:50 am

I’ve recently been reading the “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies” books..and saw they have software. Took a quick glance and they are showing cards, a beat etc.. on their interface.

Have you had any experience with that, or have any comments on the “save the cat” series. Seems in close philosophy to yours.? Solid post, thanks..

Joe

Kathleen February 24, 2010 at 10:10 am

Blake Snyder (SAVE THE CAT) advocates beat sheets. According to him, every story has 15 essential beats, divided among the three acts/four parts. I believe Snyder’s 15 “beats” are similar to the nine story components/plot points/nails upon which to hang structure other architecture advocates…well, advocate. (Please pardon if some of my terms are unconventional. The most difficult thing for me is reconciling the vagaries of terminology between competing/complementary methodologies.)

Larry, your posts ALWAYS are uber-helpful. I lurk more than I participate, but I lurk daily. :-)

Viviane Grainger February 24, 2010 at 11:17 am

Not so long ago I discovered your wonderful site and began to put into practice what you preach. Today’s post let me know that your system is working, as I had been creating a beat sheet for my current project, without knowing that such a thing existed, or that that was what it was called. You must be doing a lot of things right get your followers going down the productive path before you show them the way!

Ez February 24, 2010 at 11:53 am

Heh…I feel silly now that I’ve re read the post. You did after all put 12 beats in between the opening scene and plot point one.

Kathleen, I agree it’s hard to reconcile all the similar but slightly differing story structure methods, but for some reason Larry is the easiest for me to follow.

Kathleen February 24, 2010 at 12:15 pm

@Ez, for some reason Larry’s explanation of beat sheets resonates with me more than any other I’ve read. His explanation of story structure may take a while to embrace (especially for those among us who can outline a story all day long and STILL have the darn plot strike out in an unexpected direction all of a sudden **blushing**), but once one wraps his or her head around the essence, it all makes so much sense. Even a minimal plot map based on Larry’s architecture is an enormous help (and a time-saver). :-)

Mark Lawrence February 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I think the advantage of a beat sheet for me is not so much that it shows what to write but instead shows what not to write. When I began writing as a kid many years ago I just set pen to paper and followed each word with the next. This led to such epics as my never completed Star Wars meets Battlestar Galactica story.
Over time I have learned a lot about structure when writing and the need for planning before setting words down. For me that’s just the best way to maximize my limited writing time.
Having a beat sheet lets me play round with the plot before committing to any one pathway and before investing lots of time.
Thanks Larry for reminding me of the usefulness of having a beat sheet.

Chris February 24, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Thanks to you and your advice, I finally have what it takes to finish this 4-year-old book I’ve been working on . Great Post.

I am now free to execute it at the highest level of brilliance and efficiency (pacing) possible.

I can’t thank you enough.

Larry February 24, 2010 at 3:01 pm

@Mark — well stated, sir. Thanks for commenting.

Thanks for all who have weighed in here, too. Seems like we all have an intuitive connection to the beat sheet approach.

Deb Kincaid February 24, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Larry~Thanks so much for this post. I’m not an experienced fiction writer, but I’m hoping to become one. I’ve read probably close to 20 different books on aspects of fiction writing, and (1) maybe one of them mentioned a beat sheet, and the one that did (2) didn’t explain it in depth like you just did. This has been the missing piece of the planning process, the unexplained mystery I couldn’t figure out. (I’m definitely a planner, not a pantser.) It couldn’t have come at a better time: I start a short fiction class in one week. Thank you, thank you, thank you. ~Deb

zz February 24, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Okay, this is a great blog post. As with your post on problogger – where I first found you – you are brandishing pre-draft structure and planning. I am definately more inclined to chaos, writing first, structuring later. I think I’m secretly afraid that I’ll spend months on crafting an outline and then never write the actual draft (which I’ve seen some of my friends do). But after reading your post, I don’t think I’ve been quite as chaotic as I thought with my WIP, I had something shorter but similar to your “generic beat sheet” floating in the back of my mind. Perhaps I will dabble in a more refined outline for the next writing project…

Chris Pluchar February 24, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Hey Larry,

I just wanted to add that a lot of directors that I’ve worked with live by beat sheets, both in terms of the whole story and in terms of each beat within a scene. Just as you say, it let’s them look at the whole in a succinct fashion, which makes it easier to discern where you have too much, too little, or just the right amount.

Keep up the good work.

Take Care,
Chris

Bruce H. Johnson February 25, 2010 at 8:55 am

Be still, my pounding heart.

We’re talking deep-level design here, folks. One of Larry’s earlier posts went over doing a synopsis. To me, this is a narrative version of the final beat sheet.

Your Six Core Competencies have to have a playing field. This is the Story Structure Demystified plus the other advice you read here on Larry’s blog.

New writers (like I was) tend towards the organic/pantsing method because we didn’t know no better. The ancient idea that an artist has to suffer to be successful applies here — a “pure” pantser will really suffer — and will be classified in the “starving artist” category because nobody can understand what he’s talking/writing about.

Here on storyfix.com (and you can find it on other sites, too) we’ve said that one of the most important elements is a sky-high concept. Keep tweaking it higher and higher, then perhaps you’ll find that game worth playing as a virtuoso.

That’s part of your creative hat. It’s not all working on the artistic side, because you’ve got to do a lot of analytical thinking, too. However, keep bouncing between your artistic and anal-retentive mode. Now you have a basis for design.

Create a plain-vanilla beat sheet: Fire up your word processor. Put in place-holders for the concept, Plot Points 1 and 2, the mid-point context shift and the two pinch points (See Story Structure Demystified). Put in the resolution in Part 4 (you’ve got to know where you’re going or you’ll probably never get there). You don’t have to have the actual PP1 and 2, etc., right now, but have big place-holders staring you in the face because you’re going to have to figure them out — if you haven’t already. Save it as a template.

If you’ve desconstructed good genre stories, it should be fairly straightforward to create the genre beat sheet template with the structure place-holders.

Now you can turn your artistic side loose for a while. Get a decent pass at the three major points and the resolution and then see how that works in the beat sheet. Now you can start filling in the blanks by figuring out gonad-grabbing first scene or so (hook) then how to get from there to Plot Point 1. Plenty of work for the artists here.

The nice part of using an electronic editor is you can move things around easily, remove/hide/expand and all those neat things. Yes, you can even print it.

With your beat sheet, you’ve also got the basis for your elevator speech (“What’s your novel about?” “Three lesbian robots search for happiness in an agrarian future world.”); book cover blurb; and the small, medium and large synopsis.

Larry, me and many other bloggers want to make you a competent writer to start. Get all of Larry’s ebooks on writing and study them. Apply them (including this beat sheet methodology) and you may end up a competent writer — possibly competent enough to get mainstream-published. Our artistic abilities and the market will determine if we become good writers. A blessed few of us might even become great writers.

Go write something great.

Monica February 25, 2010 at 11:17 am

Another great post, Larry. I have been doing something close to this – but not using it to its potential. I create a table of my stories scene-by-scene, including a summary and purpose of the scene. It’s great for giving me an overall view of the story, and helps me see where a new scene might be missing or needs to be moved.

After learning your story structure, I applied it to my current WIP, inserting the PPs, etc., into the table where I thought they landed. I guess I was evaluating there, since it helped me see some flaws in the story.

But I never really went full throttle with it, not like I could have if I made a beat sheet like this. And doing it BEFORE would be terrific. Unfortunately, the first draft is written, so as you said, I will use the beat sheet form to *evaluate* my storyline and find the weaknesses in it. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

One question, Larry. I compared your story-specific beat sheet to the generic one, and it was enlightening. Except for #3: “Show character’s life, what his stakes are.” My brain refuses to wrap itself around the stakes concept apparently, and I was looking forward to your story-specific example to rap my brain with the idea.

But it didn’t. I was confused. #3 said “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.” I don’t see how the stakes are shown here. I thought perhaps they might have been shown in #2, where the store and his wife are shown to be the things important to him. Are Stakes NOT the things important to the hero, the things at risk of being lost?

Gwen Hernandez February 25, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Another great post, Larry, and just as I’m starting to *gasp* rough outline my next MS. The more I write, the more I realize the need for a roadmap. Considering that I’m usually such an anal, organizer, you’d think this would come naturally to me, but in my writing, it doesn’t.

I did go back to my last MS a couple weeks ago and make sure each scene had a character GMC, or specific purpose for being there. Gotta put a plug in for Scrivener which makes all of this so easy.

Anyway, I’m off to try my first beat sheet. Thanks for all the helpful advice and congrats on your book!

Gwen Hernandez February 25, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Oops, too many commas. ;-)

Clint Daniel February 26, 2010 at 10:42 am

Once again, your wisdom has guided me. I cannot do this for this project, for I have already gone 4 pages in, and created a basic outline, but I’ve never thought of a “beat sheet”. Most times when planning, I get bogged down with being in the story; I forget there is a whole other side to the planning (if you choose).

Thank you for giving me the palm-forehead move, making me realize I can describe a scene outside of the point-of-view, in context with the story as a whole. I will definitely try this on my next work, to see if any change occurs in progress.

Gary July 31, 2010 at 4:36 am

Has anyone managed to write up a generic beat sheet for the other parts of a novel? I’d love to see what you came up with or if Larry would be so kind as to give us an idea of what he thinks the other stages entail, beat wise. It would be very much appreciated.

Mitchell Allen September 30, 2011 at 2:41 am

Larry, perhaps it is no accident that this method of organizing our storytelling is called a beat sheet. As someone commented above, your presentation has resonated with me.

Beat sheet gives a context for the technical content of your ebooks – a metronome for story structure.

Thanks for this wonderful website!

Cheers,

Mitch

Markus July 19, 2013 at 7:05 am

I LOVE beat sheets! I started with The Hero’s Journey, then went to Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! books, then lately have founf the best one I’ve yet to use: A Stranger Comes To Town by Adron J. Smitley. I recommend anyone try those, especially the last one, if you’re interested at all in beat sheets for writers. I followed the guidelines of A Stranger Comes To Town for my last novel and i went from start to finished first draft in less than ONE WEEK! It amazes me how much more productive your writing ca be when you have the help of beet sheets =-)

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