Routines For Writers is thrilled to have Larry with us every Tuesday of this month. In addition to these wonderful teaching posts, and in celebration of the release of his new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling,” Larry is offering our readers a special gift. Just contact him at Storyfix (storyfixer @ gmail.com), mention Routines For Writers and show him the receipt for your purchase of his new book. He’ll send you a free copy of the ebook“101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.” (I’ve read most of both books. They are great!) Thanks, Larry!
Introducing The Beat Sheet
A guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com
Part One of two. Check back next week for the Big Payoff.
Say the word “outline” in a writing conference crowd and you’re likely to end up in the parking lot helpless tied up by all the available toilet paper in the hotel. Even hint at it and some people go off as if you’d had the utter gall to say the words “liberal” or ”right wing whack job” at a fund raiser.
Too bad, too, because outlining is a misunderstood term. Big time.
I’ve enthusiastically advocated story planning, which doesn’t necessary require a written “outline”… just a clue as to what you’re doing, and going to do, which are very different things. When they encounter the concept, people sometimes assume I’m referring to outlining. In which case they attack with a 36-roll package of Charmin and an attitude.
Allow me to clarify: in order for your story to work, you need to have discovered what your story is. And it won’t happen by just starting out with a blank page and a full coffee pot, any more than you can get to Paris from Los Angeles by driving east without a map or a credit card.
Okay, you actually can do that. It’s just that nobody will pay you money to ride along. Which, in case you just got out of bed, is the analogy at hand – you’re trying to write a story that someone will want to actually read, or even buy.
If you use a draft (instead of an outline) as the search tool to find your story, then I promise you there can be only one of two outcomes: you will need to rewrite the draft once you do find the story… or (perhaps better here, because), the draft used as the search tool, which may mistakenly now believe works, won’t.
Same outcome, really. But in one case the seat-of-the-pants writer knows what she’s doing (she begins a new draft now that she’s found her story)… and in the other, the writer is operating either in a shadow of ignorance (forgivable if the writer is new at this and/or hasn’t been enlightened), or in the abyss of defiance (they don’t believe there are really are principles underlying what makes a story work, they think they can just make up their own story physics, the equivalent of literary finger painting).
Drafting or outlining, it’s all just an obligatory first phase of story development. You’re stuck with it, just as you’re stuck with one of those two outcomes should you choose to search for your story in a draft rather than using more efficient methods.
One of which I’m about to describe.
Enter “the beat sheet,” a way to discover, explore, revise and perfect the sequence your story. And, it works just as well as a story search and discovery tool as it does a fine-tuning instrument.
A beat sheet is a sequence of short bullets rather than entire sentences (like, literally, “boy meets girl, love at first sight”) to describe the mission of a moment of a scene in your story, you can actually construct your story, front to back, using three of four pages. It’s a placeholder, a mental yellow sticky note, that allows you to put a particular brick into the wall your are building, but without building the wall first.
Once you get the sequence of bullets right – which means you know this story, you’ve worked it out, you feel it, you’ve tried options and have landed on the best creative choices, and with optimal tension, pacing and power…
… and now you’re ready to write this story…
… you can expand these bullets into sentences and entire paragraphs, which become the raw material (call it an outline if you want, just don’t tell your pantser friends) for the scenes themselves.
Or not. You can also begin to write a draft from this point, using only the beat sheet bullets, skipping the dreaded outline altogether.
So is it outlining, or not?
Well, it is and it isn’t.
When it isn’t, this process of creating story beats is what organic writers like to say they prefer to do in their head. In the moment. On the fly.
And when that happens effectively – which it must if you are to write a decent story organically – it is absolutely no different than writing it down first as a series of bullets… or even as an outline.
Sorry, it’s all just story planning by another name. Nobody gets out of the pantsing party alive.
Which means, there should be no toilet papering of writing teachers anymore. At the end of the day a successful story, although taking separate routes to get there, ends up functioning in one, highly principled way. Just like an airplane – it’s gotta have wings, it’s gotta have power, and even though it looks like a giant arachnid, it’s using the same principles and physics as the Boeing 737 that took you to Grandma’s house last Christmas.
Professional authors know what the path toward a successful story looks like. Some of there are pantsers. Some are outliners. And some combine both, using a beat sheet.
But all of theme use the same set of storytelling physics.
With beat sheeting, a bullet does not a full scene make.
Which means, if you use only that bullet as your starting point, you can pants your way to the end, over and over again, to your heart’s content.
Or you can write the bullet down and then expand it into an outline for the scene.
Either way works, because when the scene’s purpose and content is defined in terms of it’s placement, and in context to what came before and will come after – which it must if it is to work well enough – then it doesn’t matter. Either way, you’ll have that key, almost magic ingredient already nailed down: the mission of the scene, both expository and otherwise.
Here’s how it looks.
To start, open up a blank page on MS Word (or whatever you write on), and make a list from 1 to 60. These are all going to be scenes, and you can add and delete as necessary.
At scene #1, label it, “the opening.”
At scene #2, label it, “the hook – if that didn’t happen in scene #1.”
At scene #12, label it “First Plot Point.” You’ll come back to scenes 3 through 11 later. We’re just hitting the major story milestones here, and what we’re hitting them with is a purpose and a functional role in the story sequence.
See, you’re already orders of magnitude of a process which doesn’t embrace the underlying principles of story structure.
At scene numbers 20, 21 or 22, label one of them: “First Pinch Point.”
At scene # 30, label it: “mid-Point.”
At scene #36 or 37, label it “second Pinch Point.
At scene#44, label it: “the Lull.”
At Scene #45, label it: “Second Plot Point.”
Notice there is no content yet. Just like a house with the studs up, you only have the vaguest notion of what the finished house will look like when it’s done.
But, because those weight bearing, wind-resistant studs are in the proper place, anchored to the foundation (your story’s concept and theme) solidly, you know the thing will at least pass inspection.
Whether it’ll end up on the cover of House Beautiful… that’s still up to you.
These scenes are the first that you plan.
Or, if you hate the word, they’re the first that you think about, with a goal of determining what they are and what they contain, in context to the mission of the particular milestone. Which means, you need to understand that a “first plot point” is a very different thing than, say, a pinch point or a context-shifting midpoint.
And if you don’t understand those terms, you’re in a bit of a literary pickle, because all you’ve got going for you is an intuitive sensibility (usually developed from the novels you’ve read and perhaps studied), or pure blink luck.
For every other scene, which will be developed in context to whatever story quartile it is in (because all four parts have different contextual missions for their scenes), you are creating narrative exposition that links these milestone scenes.
Like putting sheetrock up over those studs.
It’s critical to understand and embrace the truth that that every scene in your story has an expositional narrative mission to accomplish. And it’s not just characterization (which is incumbent upon every scene in the story). Rather, it’s a piece of narrative fuel that adds information (story exposition) that moves the story forward.
Every number on your list is a story beat.
It can be one word, like: sex.
It can be two words, like, “kills husband.”
It can be several words: “kill husband while having sex.”
It’s less important that you write it down than it is that you know what the scene needs to do. And if you don’t, just keep working on the other beats. Because it is the connective tissue that will lead you back to the undefined scene/beat and show you what it must be and what it must do.
It can be anything you want, so long as you know what it means.
Larry Brooks is the author of “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.” He is also the creator of Storyfix.com, recently named as the top writing website.