Here’s our second recap of writing workshop activities from the Bixby Library. Really this post is #1a since we discussed beat sheets on the same night as one sheets, but it’s enough info for a second post. Our second installment of preparation for Nanowrimo!
Whatsa Beat Sheet?
“Beat sheet” is a term I’ve appropriated from Jay Dubberly, who seems to have borrowed it from Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, who may have stolen it from the industry or may simply be referring to the idea of story “beats,” and rhyming it with a synonym for a page. Very nearly infinite variations exist with alternate names (like “outline”) and the thing to do for aspiring writers is to find the organization that works best for YOU.
The “shape” of stories is remarkably similar through genres and formats, even though Snyder’s beat sheet, and Jay’s derivative beat sheet, specifically respond to the structure of Hollywood movies. You may be familiar with the appropriate illustrative example, Freytag’s pyramid. Variations, of course, exist and alternative plot types, but before eschewing the standard and rejecting the conventions, master the typical approach (it is popular and conventional for a reason). That mastery will further enable later experimentation.
How do I start using beat sheets?
The easiest way to familiarize yourself with how a beat sheet works is to analyze a favorite work on the same format and genre as you wish to work in (i.e. sci fi movie, mystery novel, or graphic novel memoir, etc.), identify the story beats as listed below, and then learn from what works and apply it to the story you want to tell.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. One story in three acts=fifteen beats (for Blake Snyder). Here are the beats and brief descriptions for each:
In film, the brief opening image contrasts with the closing image. In a novel, we get “promises,” a sense of what is to come. Touching on theme, change, and the world as it is at the beginning of the story.
The argument in which your story sets its stakes should be explicitly communicated. In film, it is often stated overtly to the protagonist.
The status quo of the world is shown. Sometimes broken down into three elements: home, work, play. What does your protagonist do in those three realms?
The thing that enters this status quo and introduces change. Often something from outside that world.
Your protagonist mulls the options of responding to the challenge and refusing to change. Resistance to change is conventionally the first reaction.
After mulling the possibility of refusing change, the protagonist barrels forward and begins the challenge of trying to overcome her problem.
BREAK INTO TWO
Act two begins with a change in location, either a physically different place or the same location drastically different. The change is driven actively by the protagonist’s choice to DO something in response to the problem.
Just about 30 minutes into every movie, we get a “break” from the main character. The love story, some new characters, a breather from the main story line, often an oblique discussion of the theme.
FUN AND GAMES
The “promise of the premise.” What makes your story idea so exciting? This section is usually the place where things go well and are fun for the protagonist and audience. That doesn’t mean it’s as easy as pie. Struggle is essential to our identifying with the protagonist.
At the middle of the story, we should find a dramatic reversal. If things are going well, we reach the apex of that trajectory (what the protag “wants” are achieved) and then the reversal brings a sudden low (the protag realizes there is more to learn).
BAD GUYS CLOSE IN
Dramatically the opposite of Fun and Games. The antagonist/bad guys get to experience success and the protag has a tough time. Tries, and fails convincingly, for those familiar with Cory Doctorow…
ALL IS LOST
Death moment. Someone or something close to the protagonist dies.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Temper tantrum or hissy-fit. The protagonist cannot see how they can go on or get through the mourning.
BREAK INTO THREE
The answer is discovered, main and B-stories intertwine. We see the potential synthesis that will come in Act 3.
Things get wrapped up. Often multiple layers to the confrontation with bad guys. Plan A, failure, plan b, failure, final 1-on-1. Resolution is included here.
We see in the echo/opposite of the opening image how much the world/characters have changed and what it means.
First Alternative Structure
From the 1-3-5 Story Handbook. The proponents suggest one story, three acts, five changes and break the story into fourteen beats. You can readily see the similarities. Check it out:
THE UNEXPECTED CHANGE
THE RETURN OF THE MAIN OPPONENT
THE FINAL BATTLE
THE FINAL CHOICE
A Second Alternative
From John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. He organizes story structure into seven steps. A variety of approaches to the act of writing a long narrative emerge from varying levels of detail in the outlining stage.
WEAKNESS AND NEED
Read the following post that details stepping up from a one sentence idea to a longer outline/treatment. When you’re ready, fill in a beat sheet for your story. Bring it to the group to discuss.