Just Beat It! Using a Beat Sheet to Plan Your Story

It’s the second day of Blogging From A to Z, so for the letter “B” I’m going to that nifty little writer’s tool called the beat sheet.

BB is for Beat Sheet

Have you heard of it?

save the cat
amazon.com

If you’ve read the book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, then you know what I’m referring to.

Snyder designed the beat sheet for screenwriting, but the same concepts apply and can be adapted to novel-writing. A good story should follow a certain beat to keep the reader engaged.

What is a beat sheet?
A beat sheet is the skeleton of your story, the milestones that occur at specific points to propel the protagonist through the story. Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is composed of the following 15 beats:

  1. Opening Image. This is the first impression of your story. It sets the tone, mood, and scope of the story. The Opening Image should contrast with the Final Image to show the reader how much has changed over the course of the story.
  2. Theme Stated. This is where a secondary character poses a question or makes a statement that is the theme of the novel. The question is typically posed to the hero since he or she is the one who must embark on a journey to discover the answer to that question.
  3. Set-up. This is where we learn about the world (establish normal), the characters, the goal of the story, what the hero has at stake, and how and why the hero needs to change to achieve that goal.
  4. Catalyst. This is where a life changing event occurs that becomes an obstacle to the hero achieving his goals.
  5. Debate. The hero faces a difficult decision where the likely solution presents a point of no return. Should I stay and deal with the status quo? Should I move toward the goal and face certain danger?
  6. Break into Two. This is where the hero has chosen to act and move toward his goal. This world is dramatically different from the one established in the set-up.
  7. B Story. This is where the love story or other major subplot occurs. It gives the reader a breather from all the previous tension.
  8. Fun and Games. This is where the tone is lighter. This is the heart of the story, where we take a break from the stakes and see what the story is really all about.
  9. Midpoint. This is the midpoint of the book. The fun and games are over. This will either be a false peak where the hero seemingly wins or a false collapse where the world crashes down around him.
  10. Bad Guys Close In. This is where the antagonistic force regroups and prepares for another attack.
  11. All is Lost. This is the opposite of the midpoint false peak or false collapse. This is where defeat seems certain, where all hope is lost. It is often where a whiff of death occurs.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul. This is where the hero laments his predicament, the point before he makes one last-ditch effort to save himself and everyone else.
  13. Break Into Three. This is where the hero applies all he has learned on his journey and discovers how he has to change to win (character arc).
  14. Finale. This is where the story wraps up and ends in triumph for our hero. The hero and the world have changed for the better.
  15. Final Image. This is the opposite of the Opening Image to show how much has changed since the hero embarked on his journey.

To download a copy of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, visit his website. There is a wealth of information on the site to help you. You can also find example beat sheets for popular movies to help you understand the concept and how it works.

The calculator on this website allows you to plug-in the projected number of pages in your novel so you can plan what to write and when. If you’ve already completed your novel you can enter the actual pages to see how it matches up. But if you’re like me, you might want to create your own beat sheet in Excel (my preferred tool for such things).

story engineering
amazon.com

After reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks I couldn’t decide whether to continue to use Blake Snyder’s story structure or the one developed by Larry Brooks. I wanted to merge the concepts of both and started to create a beat sheet in Excel. Fortunately (before I lost my mind trying to merge the two), I happened upon the Master Beat Sheet by author Jami Gold where she does just that. (Word of advice: before you decide to create something from scratch, save yourself some time and Google it to see if it’s been done before). Jami has written extensively about beat sheets and is another good source for beat sheets and how they work.
What are your thoughts? Do you use a beat sheet or do you think it’s a bunch of B.S.? 🙂

If you have used one, did it prove helpful in writing your novel?

 

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34 thoughts on “Just Beat It! Using a Beat Sheet to Plan Your Story”

  1. This is great Melissa thank you. Never heard of a beat sheet – as I was reading your post I was thinking of my WIP and imagining putting it through the steps you mentioned and seeing the usefulness of it. I’ll check out Blake Synder’s link.
    Garden of Eden Blog

    1. Glad to hear that! I love my how-to books. Which ones have been most helpful to you? I was referencing part of Stephen King’s On Writing for another post I’m doing for A to Z and had to force myself to put it down 🙂

    1. I agree! I read Save the Cat from cover to cover in one sitting last month, Up until then I had only read the chapter related to the beat sheet but it was all very helpful (I especially enjoyed the part about loglines).

  2. Oh that’s perfect, I’m a sucker for a good to do list! I like how thorough it all is, if only I’d done all this prior to Camp NaNoWriMo I’m sure it would be going far smoother! Are you taking part by the way?

    I haven’t done the beat sheet thing yet, I’d heard of it but never looked into it. I’m trying all sorts of different techniques though to see what produces the best results for me. I suppose that’s the trick with writing, there’s no one strategy fits all, it’s all about making it fit for you….

    1. Yes, I signed up for Camp Nano to keep myself disciplined to write daily and stay focused on my goals, but I haven’t input my novel info yet so I don’t have any cabin settings/mates. This is my first time participating. How about you?

      And you’re right about writing strategies. We’re all different so it is all about finding what works best for you. It’s been a bit of trial and error for me, but I’m starting to settle into a routine.

  3. Save the Cat, Larry Brooks, Jami Gold’s Beat Sheets. Yep, sounds like we’ve been following the same path. I understand story structure so much better now. Glad you’re part of the Insecure Writers Support group.

  4. I need this. Are you on commission for Blake’s book? Because his sales will increase after people read your post. Thank you for introducing me to the Beat Sheet.

    1. Ha! Ha! No, I’m promoting it solely on the basis of goodwill 😉 It’s been very helpful with my writing and I thought others could benefit from it as well. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  5. Fantastic post! I only just learned about beat sheets a few days ago, and man are they eye-opening! I haven’t read Save the Cat (it’s now on my list!), but just from the preliminary reading I’ve been doing … man, it’s crazy how practically every movie out there follows this formula! I’ve started trying to look at movies from a beat sheet perspective … it’s a great way to build a compelling story, but at the same time, I find that it can get a bit predictable after a while. That’s actually one of the reasons I really liked Game of Thrones (books and show) — it’s just so all over the place, and stuff happens seemingly at random, and you never know when a character’s randomly going to die, or a castle’s going to fall, or etc. etc. etc.

    1. After reading the book, I can’t help but notice the beats in a story or movie now. I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t read or watched Game of Thrones, but it’s on my TBR/TBW lists. From what I’ve heard about the show, the beat that’s followed is: develop a great character, have the readers/audience fall in love with that character, then kill the character. 🙂

      1. Hahaha more or less, yeah. I suspect the whole series might be following something resembling a beat sheet, but it’s so crazy convoluted that I wouldn’t know even if it was.

  6. Hi Melissa, I just wanted to tell you I finally got around to reading Save the Cat! What an incredible book. Super informative and entertaining! Thanks for putting me on to this resource. 🙂

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