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Build a Dynamic Plot With a Beat Sheet

Use a beat sheet to make your novel a page turner. Rebecca breaks down what a beat sheet is and how to put it to work in your novel.

What is a beat sheet?

You know in Jurassic Park when Dr. Grant walks into his dig site trailer to find Hammond’s already made himself at home and it was his helicopter that threatened to rebury the dinosaur skeleton? That’s the Catalyst within a beat sheet.

Once Grant and Hammond meet, there’s no going back. Only onward to the island of dinos and dangers.

In Aladdin, it’s when he meets Jasmin, the princess who is trying to escape her royal life. In Taken, Liam Neeson’s daughter leaves the country. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Katniss’ sister is chosen as tribute and Katniss must volunteer to trade places.

Each one of these moments is a Catalyst–a dramatic moment that sets off a whole chain of events for the rest of the story.

That Catalyst is part of The Beat Sheet, an outline method developed by Blake Snyder in his Save the Cat Book. It’s a format that helps authors and screenwriters ensure their stories are urgent, emotional, and full of twists and turns.

How I use this method

I first learned about The Beat Sheet at a craft talk by author Callie Bates and I immediately went home and applied it to a short (but very long at 10,000 words) story I wrote called The Manors. I had two scenes left to write but I was stumped. I had a character I loved—Miranda who was trying to get over her mother’s death and the onward march of change. I had a setting I was crazy about—abandoned mansions where magical happenings take place. And I had a plot. 

Well, most of a plot. There was an exciting series of events and things that happened to my character, but using the Beat Sheet showed me two things: I didn’t have enough causation in the events of my story and Miranda didn’t go through an emotional journey. Once I realized this, I was able to fill these absences in a way that made my story stronger.

I also recently followed the Beat Sheet again for a manuscript I’m working on. I’m 40,000 words in. You’d think that I’d know what’s going on after tens of thousands of words, but I guess not. By following the Beat Sheet, I learned a lot about my main character and my scenes were more emotionally charged than before.

So, you want this magic, special power from our friend Blake Snyder? I thought so.

Breakdown of a beat sheet

Here’s a section by section breakdown of how successful stories work. Use the outline to write out your story. When holes appear, you’ll have the opportunity to fill them in and make your story stronger. I’ll use J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as an example.

  1. Opening Image – The very first image readers take in. It’s more than setting, it should convey the tone of the story and hint at what’s ahead.  Bilbo Baggins’ home is comfy cozy and his family history has very little scandal save a few distant adventurers. 
  2. Theme Stated – The note that is going to hold the entire story together. What is the theme? It’s often said aloud in the main character’s presence, but not understood. Gandalf convinces the dwarves that Bilbo is his choice for the adventure and says, “There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”
  3. Set Up – We get a hint of what is to come as clues begin to build. We learn more about the big quest.
  4.  Catalyst – The moment where everything changes and the meat of the story begins. After oversleeping, Bilbo leaves his home and runs to catch up to the dwarves and they are on the grand adventure at last.
  5. Debate – Your character’s internal struggle when they wonder if they can do what they know they have to. (Note: this was one of the areas I realized I had to strengthen in The Manors) The adventure is getting dangerous and very real as the group is captured by trolls and life on the road is hard. Bilbo wonders if he really can make it.
  6. Break Into Two – We leave our intro world and move firmly into the next act of the story. The group leaves known territory as they arrive safely at the Last Homely House west of the mountains and stay with the elves.
  7.  B Story – This is where a secondary story takes place and where we learn about the challenges other characters face or are introduced to a love interest. Bilbo gets separated from the dwarves after a goblin attack. He finds a ring and meets Gollum.
  8. The Promise of the Premise (or Fun and Games) – This is easy to spot in films because it’s often a movie montage and a song. Are your characters working together to save the world? This is where energetic music plays while they gather supplies. Does your character have a new superpower? This is where she really lets loose and learns to master it. Bilbo uses the ring to escape Gollum and surprise the dwarves that he has saved himself. 
  9. Midpoint – Things are either at a high or a low. Your character might have made gains by this point, but there’s still so much work to do. They are tired and starving  in the Mirkwood Forest and decide to leave the path only to be captured by giant spiders and later by the forest elves.
  10. Bad Guys Close In – Watch out! Things are getting dangerous as the evil doers make progress on their goals and threaten the characters. Bilbo has a dangerous and terrifying conversation with the dragon who then tries to kill Bilbo and blasts the city Dale with his fire.
  11.  All is Lost – A deep dark point for the plot. Bad things have happened and it’s hard to see how anything could be righted ever again. The dragon is dead but the armies are marching, all eager to claim the treasure.
  12.  Dark Night of the Soul – Your character is at their emotional low and just about to give up. Bilbo must decide if he should stay loyal to the dwarves or betray them to do what he thinks is right.
  13.  Break Into Three – A solution is found and your character discovers a new magic, answer, or secret weapon. Bilbo steals the Arkenstone and gives it to Bard and the Elvenking to stave off war.
  14. Finale -The climax of the main plot line. Things go down, but there is finally understanding for the audience of how things wrap up. The Battle of the Five Armies takes place and Thorin forgives Bilbo on his deathbed.
  15.  Final Image – The last thing readers take in, either something providing closure, or a link to the next part of the series. Bilbo returns home, more adventurous and worldly, and begins writing There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Holiday.
If you’re just starting out or looking for a shorter process to whip your plot into shape, I recommend checking out Nicole’s post Three Sentences That Should Define Your Novel.
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