Thanks to Rachel Savage, our resident genius process graphicsmeister.
Well, she’s done it again.
Rachel – she of the recently-applauded circus tent story structure graphic – has designed two extensions of that potent visual storytelling analogy (“the major story milestones are like poles supporting the weight of a massive tent, beneath which exists the universe of your story” – graphic by Rachel, analogy by moi), both of which facilitate your ability to actually discover, explore, optimize and then chart the course of your novel or screenplay on a single page.
Using designated spaces found under the tent canopy, which identifies the four parts of your story and assigns them to quadrants that are separated by defined plot points, you have room to list your 12 to 15 scenes-per-Part in bullet form.
Or longer than bullets if you can write really, really small.
This is a beat sheet on steroids.
What I appreciate most about these tools is the fact that they follow the natural flow of effective creative thinking as you move forward with your story development process.
It’s always a sequence. Even if you do it out of sequence. Such as… during your beat sheeting (i.e., the planning of your scene sequence) you get a better idea for Part 3 that causes you to go back and re-engineer Parts 1 and 2.
That’s how it works. Almost always. It’s a good thing. When you stop getting better ideas you’re either done or dead.
Shifting gears here is much more efficient — and effective — than rewriting an entire draft.
Or even worse, having that better idea somewhere down the line and not rewriting the draft in favor of just finishing it differently than you’d planned.
That doesn’t work. Hardly ever. Because rewriting an entire draft is just… well… daunting.
Rejected manuscripts are full of mid-course corrections. Published manuscripts never show signs of one.
Read that sentence again.
Do this process of creative sequencing right, in the form of a beat sheet (or a flow chart or little yellow sticky notes on your office wall), and you won’t have to rewrite your draft. Because you’ll have the story nailed before you start one.
Just buff it up and start working on your agent pitch.
Why does this work?
Because you can’t really nail down the mission and dramatic content of your scenes until you’re solid on your story’s major milestones – so goes the theory, and in practice this becomes an after-the-fact truth even if you’re a radical pantser – which, if you know what you’re doing, you already understand are not things you can just throw into your story wherever you want.
Minor plot twists, yes. Go to town on them. But the major ones… non-negotiable.
This is why Rachel has created space above the tent (literally) to work on those.
See it HERE.
The second graphic is a tricked-out version of the first, adding the even higher and absolutely necessary process of defining your story’s concept and through-line, as well as its theme.
See that one HERE.
Same thinking applies: you can’t really create optimal story milestones until you completely understand the nature of your story and can express it in a succinct, compelling elevator pitch.
Your elevator pitch will suck, by the way, until you know your story, inside and out.
And you can’t create the right scenes until you know those story milestones.
Beat sheet or draft, either way it’s still true. One or two sheets of development notes in bullet form (which easily expands into an outline), or 400. Your call.
Failure to do so dooms your story to random acts of narrative.
And random doesn’t cut it if you intend to publish.
Until we reach that point on all of the above – your story is defined, refined and tested before launch – everything we do in the way of thinking, beat sheeting, outlining and scribbling little notes on circus tent graphics, or even writing entire drafts, is nothing other than engaging in the essential process of searching for our story.
The great mistake of unpublished stories is that the writer becomes guilty of one of two things: quitting before you get to the best possible creative choices (also known as settling, sometimes under the guise of impatience, this being the inherent risk of pantsing and/or development-via-drafting)… or not understanding and/or failing to recognize what works and what doesn’t.
That understanding drives toward what I call the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.
Whether you like or use that story model or not, one thing is true: you won’t publish until you write a story that adheres to its principles.
No matter what your genre.
All six of them.
No exceptions. Even if you feel you don’t need to engage in even the quickest moment of story planning, if it all just pours out of your head onto the page in perfect, optimized, brilliantly compelling form.
The person who does that is a one-in-a-million prodigy. Like Beethoven writing sweeping, timeless symphonies from behind deaf ears.
Good luck with that.
Or you just got lucky.
Good luck with that, too.
If you liked this article, you can share it with other writers by Tweeting, Stumbling or Digging It. Which would be much appreciated by the author, who continues to work toward growing this site. Thanks for being here today. Comments always welcome.