How to Use the “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet for Revisions

by Jami Gold on February 9, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Cover image of Blake Snyder's

Before I start, thank you to everyone who commented, tweeted, and emailed me with support after my last post about losing my cat.  You all have filled me with virtual hugs and put a smile on my face.  Thank you.  *hugs back*

In fact, after writing that post and reading your notes, I was feeling good enough to begin a revision from hell, i.e., my pantsed novel.  This week I’ve started preparing my revision strategy with an attack plan worthy of a SWAT team.

I’ve revised novels before, but those stories were plotted in advance.  I’ve revised a pantsed novella before too, but plot threads and big picture issues are much easier to follow in a shorter story.  This novel-length story was pantsed from beginning to end, so I dreaded figuring out what it would take to get it into shape.

Save the Cat‘s Beat Sheet to the Rescue

My plan started with reviewing Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat writing craft book.  The book is geared toward screenwriters, but 95% of his tips work for novellas and novels too.  Most importantly, his “beat sheet” is great for organizing a story.

Many people use his beat sheet (or one like it) to plot out a story before drafting, but I’ve recently found that using it on a completed draft forces me to see the story from a different perspective.  In other words, his beat sheet can be useful during revisions too, especially on a pantsed draft.

Analyzing where the beats of a story fall gives us an overview of the structure of a story and makes sure turning points and scenes are showing up in the right place.  And the easy-peasy way to get that 10,000 foot view of our stories is to fill out Elizabeth Davis’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet Spreadsheet for Novels. (Click through the link to download her Excel file.)

(Note: Elizabeth’s website has had major issues lately, so if the link above doesn’t work, you can find the .xls version of her beat sheet mirrored here and the .xlsx version of her beat sheet mirrored here.)

(click for larger view)

I know some of you are saying, “Excel spreadsheet? Ack! That’s too close to math.”  For the longest time, this file sat neglected on my computer for that very reason.  But this spreadsheet is so shiny it sweats glitter as it does all the hard work for us.

We fill in the word count for our story project, and it figures out what page number each beat should fall on.  It does the math to make sure Acts I, II, and III, along with the Black Moment and everything else, are all taking up the appropriate percentages of pages.  Genius, I tell you.  Genius.

What Can the Beat Sheet Tell Us?

Okay, but we hear all kinds of “rules” as writers.  So one of our first questions should be, are those percentages legit?  Or were they pulled out of someone’s posterior?

I decided to compare the spreadsheet’s recommendations (which in turn, are based on Blake’s recommendations) to a completed story.  I went through my recently polished novella to see how well the story events I entered for the Description of each beat matched up with the page numbers.  Besides, I’ve always thought I have a good instinct for plotting and structure, and I figured this was a good way to test that assumption.  *smile*

Honestly, I was shocked at how well the page numbers lined up with events from the story.  The Catalyst, Midpoint, and Black Moment (Dark Night of the Soul/Break into Act III) all hit on the exact pages they were supposed to.  Huge turning points completely pantsed and they were in the right place.  *whew*

More importantly, that test tells me there probably is something to those percentages.  Too long in one section can lead to a reader getting bored, or a sagging middle, or any other of a hundred structure issues.

How Can the Beat Sheet Help Us with Revisions?

Now I can hear you saying, but are those exact page numbers that important?  Does it really matter if Act II starts on page 60 or 75?

Yes and no.  Obviously, the longer the story, the more flexibility we have.  A beat for the Catalyst happening a few pages early or late in a 85K word novel won’t affect the reader much if it’s a page-turning story.

However, if we see the set-up is taking 10 pages too long (or even 3 pages too long in a shorter-length story), that might indicate a pacing problem.  Maybe some of our set-up should be tightened or moved to later in the story.  Maybe we have too much backstory.

In other words, these page numbers should be treated as guidelines, not hard and fast rules.  But when we’re planning revisions, an overall picture can reveal pacing issues or where we might need to rearrange scenes.

Other Ways to Use the Beat Sheet

After verifying the accuracy of the percentages, I went back and entered the information for my pantsed novel.  It wasn’t too bad, a few events off 2-3 pages here and there, which is within 1% on a 300 page story.

But I also saw some events—which weren’t intended to be major turning points—falling on the turning point pages.  I’ll have to take a closer look at those.

Do I need to adjust pages to get the major turning points where they “should” be?  Are they close enough to not worry about?  Is my pacing off?  Or was my subconscious messing with me, and these “minor” turning points have more significance than I assumed?

If it’s the last one, I’ll have to flesh out those minor turning points more.  Maybe my muse was trying to tell me something about how the theme should play out by having a “minor” turning point taking up the spot where a major turning point is supposed to be.

And that’s the kind of analysis I love doing with revisions.  Already I can see that I don’t state the story’s theme as blatantly as Blake Snyder suggests.  Apparently, I’m more of a “show” the theme than a “tell” the theme kind of writer.  *smile*

We can also use the beat sheet spreadsheet to dig into feedback from beta readers.  If we hear that pacing seems slow in one section, analyzing the beats in that part of the story might help.

Or what if we want to increase or decrease our word count?  We could enter our ideal word count in the spreadsheet and revise to match the page numbers.

I’m probably touching on only a fraction of the possible ways to use beat sheets and this spreadsheet with this post, so share your tips in the comments.

How do you kick off revisions?  Do you plan in advance or just dig in?  Have you used beat sheets before?  How do you use them?  Do you use them during the drafting stage, the revision stage, or both?  Any beat sheet tips to share?

P.S. I have several beat sheets available on my Worksheets for Writers page.

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79 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Angela Quarles February 9, 2012 at 7:10 am

thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve been working through Alexandra Sokoloff’s Books on Screenwriting Tips for Novelists and she (among others) recommended Save the Cat, and so I ordered it last week and am about to start reading it. I love spreadsheets, so thank you for that link! I’ve been trying to do the math on my own and I hate math :P

I’m a pantser, so I do this kind of thing on revision, but I didn’t know of these until recently so am applying it to my 3rd draft. For my first revision, I did create index cards to see the big picture and that helped a ton…

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Hi Angela,

I’d heard great things about Save the Cat for a long time too, but I’ve just recently started digging into it with a specific “homework assignment” in mind. :) Sometimes I read craft books and the lessons sink in, but not very deep, so it really helps to have a WIP I’m actively working on to apply the information to. I hope the spreadsheet helps! :)

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febe February 9, 2012 at 7:51 am

Wow! I’m about to finish my 2nd draft and starting to take a heavy look at my plot. This post is super helpful! I’m a hardcore pantser. I haate sitting for hours plotting before I wrote. I can’t wait to start fiddling with this spreadsheet!
My main problem is my novel starts with the catalyst. Guess i need to put in some scenes before that.

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Hi febe,

It depends on how you define Catalyst. We definitely want some hint of a story question/problem in the opening scene, otherwise there’s no goal or drive for the protagonist.

Blake describes the Catalyst as the event that takes the story problem and brings it front and center, where the rules are first changed. We hear inciting incident for this event sometimes too. The opening scene might show what’s important to the heroine and why. The catalyst is when the first serious threat is made to take that away from her. I hope that helps–thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover February 9, 2012 at 7:55 am

I completely pantsed a novel as well and then went back and put the skeleton (structure) in. I was happy to find a spine there already; however, I used Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering structure to find the plot points that I needed to hit and flesh things out. I will definitely be looking at the Save the Cat beat sheet you linked to. I really enjoyed that book and agree that its advice is great for novelists too. Thanks, Jami.

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Hi Julie,

Oh yes, I love Larry Brooks’s structure as well. I have Story Engineering but haven’t read that one yet. I guess I should, huh? ;) Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong February 9, 2012 at 9:00 am

I heard from quite a few people that I needed to read “Save the Cat” so I ordered it around Christmas. It sat on my sofa table for about a month and I’ve now misplaced it in the disaster I call my office. Tonight when I get home from work, I am going to find it and finally read it! Thanks for the kick in the pants.

I am in desperate need for a plan to “fix” my NaNo book. I started November with a germ of an idea and a few characters. November was a crazy panster haze. I’ve never written with less of a plan in mind. Hopefully, I’m not as far off as I fear.

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Buffy Armstrong February 9, 2012 at 11:29 am

Took some time on my extended lunch break to plot out my WIP (the aforementioned NaNo piece) using the Beat Sheet. Mine pretty much follows the sheet. I still have to weed through # 8 Fun and Games (or what I like to call Faerie Shenanigans Ensue), but I’m sort of on track. Yay for me!

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Hi Buffy,

Oh yay! :) Happy to help!

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Hi Buffy,

I hope you discover some good bones in your story too. :) Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Amanda February 9, 2012 at 11:33 am

I’m in the middle of the first round of revisions for a recently completed novel, and I’m appalled at how many times I used the word “try”. What I thought would be a bit of relatively minor surgery for my first pass has resulted in a lot of hair pulling and whimpering.

That’s how I roll, though. I go through and find my overused words and edit them out. Then I stick it in a drawer and forget about it for a while. A long while :)

By the way, what exactly do you mean by “pantsed”?

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Hi Amanda,

Ugh. Overused words kill me. I’ve gotten much better at avoiding “that,” although I still do a “that” check on every blog post before hitting “publish.” :) I’m less good about weeding out “even,” “still,” and “just.”

“Pantsed” is a term meaning “by the seat of your pants.” In other words, some writers plot out a story in advance. In their head, they know not only the characters, premise, and core conflict, but they also have thoughts about most of the big scenes and turning points. Some writers go so far as to outline the whole story. Other writers will have a character and a premise…and that’s about it.

In my novella, a spam comment to my blog inspired the story, and those 8 words became the first part of the first sentence. When I started, that’s all I had. 8 words. :) The rest flowed from there. Does that answer your question? Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda February 11, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Totally. Now I know I’m a pantster!

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Jami Gold February 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Hi Amanda,

:) No problem. I’m a “whatever works.” LOL!

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Virginia February 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm

OMG! This couldn’t have come at a better time! I just started revisions on my first “plotted” novel AND just started reading Save The Cat. Thank you! Thank you!

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Hi Virginia,

Great! So happy I could help. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Irene Vernardis February 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Ty ty ty :D

I love excel spreadsheets.

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Hi Irene,

You’re welcome! I love how clean this spreadsheet makes the analysis. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Laura Pauling February 9, 2012 at 2:06 pm

In all the novels I’ve analyzed with Blake’s beat sheet the stated theme is the hardest to find. And I think that’s one area that if we can fit it in naturally than great. But this beat sheet is for movies and movies are a bit different. Our theme is throughout the entire book and doesn’t necessarily need to be stated on a certain page but if we can….why not do it?

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Hi Laura,

Thank you for that insight! As I said, I’ve just recently started analyzing stories against this beat sheet, so I wasn’t sure if my experience was “normal” or not. Like you mentioned, movies are different than stories, so books have more options for how to allude to the theme–internal monologue, etc. Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Kaye Quinn February 9, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I’m a huge fan of Blake Snyder and the beat sheet. But I hadn’t seen it in spreadsheet form! #verynice I was cracking open Save the Cat again just yesterday, checking things over. (And I use it all the time in pretty much every draft). Great post!

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Hi Susan,

I happy to help! I hope the spreadsheet makes things easier for you. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins February 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Hi Jami!

Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve read ‘Save the Cat’ but haven’t begun using the beat sheet in my revision or plotting stages. As you know, I started out as a complete pantser but now I’m leaning more towards the plotter. But still, a good beat sheet is needed on both sides of the fence.

With revisions I normally work through the novel several times, each time focusing on one particular aspect: plot, characterization, grammar, etc. With the best sheet, I’m sure that process may become a little easier, especially if I use it during the plotting phase first then follow back around during revisions.

Thanks again! :)

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Jami Gold February 9, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Hi Melinda,

I like applicable advice, which is why I dug out that poor, neglected spreadsheet as I was reading along in the book. :) I hope it helps. Thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp February 9, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I’ve read and love Save the Cat, Snyder is brilliant. I’ve looked at using the beat sheet but got lost in the math transforming it from screenplay to novel length. Thanks for the links to the Excel sheet, it looks awesome and I can’t wait to test it out on some of my shorter projects. I have one in particular that is ready to be revised and was pantsed originally so it will make for a solid test. Will let you know how it works out.

By the way, I normally plan out longer works (40k or larger) and pants anything shorter. Since I can write through the shorter works in a couple days it is easy to just run with the concept or idea that spawns the story then to spend weeks planning for a two to four day write.

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Jami Gold February 10, 2012 at 8:53 am

Hi Gene,

Yes, please let me know how the spreadsheet works for you. :) I hope it helps!

And I agree about how shorter works are easier to pants than longer ones. My novella was a breeze to revise even though I added about 7K words to it. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Tahlia Newland February 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm

I use sticky notes on a timeline with the % points laid out on it when I plan a novel so I don’t need to do so much revision later because I’ve written the whole thing with a strong plot arc already, but I used an excel spreadsheet to plot the emotional arcs of the characters in one novel (which I shelved) and that was really helpful. I guess I’m a plotter these days, but I always allow myself the freedom to diverge from the plan.

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Jami Gold February 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

Hi Tahlia,

I always diverge from the plan too. :) The main thing with plotting vs. pantsing in my own experience has been knowing whether a scene has a point before I write it. LOL! Luckily, my muse seems to know what he’s doing. Thanks for the comment!

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Sophia Chang February 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Liz’s beat sheet is seriously the best thing on the internet for writers – she was awesome to do this. I definitely filled it out for the first draft of my WIP and you’re reminding me to do it for this rewrite!

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Jami Gold February 10, 2012 at 9:10 am

Hi Sophia,

Yes, the spreadsheet is awesome. :) I’m glad I could help others learn about it. Thanks for the comment and good luck on your revisions!

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Lacey Devlin February 9, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Thanks for such a great post, Jami! Can’t wait to give it a go.

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Jami Gold February 10, 2012 at 9:11 am

Hi Lacey,

No problem. :) I hope it helps!

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Lynnette Conroy February 10, 2012 at 8:59 am

A new strategy for my monster revision of a pantsed project and it includes a spreadsheet! The only that could have made my inner dork happier is if you’d found a way to incorporate a Venn Diagram. Thanks!

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Jami Gold February 10, 2012 at 9:12 am

Hi Lynnette,

LOL! Sorry, no Venn Diagram. :) I hope it helps with your monster revision too. Thanks for the comment!

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Christy Farmer February 11, 2012 at 10:56 am

I have heard about Save The Cat for a while and know of published authors who swear by the beat sheets. Thanks for the spreadsheet link! Can’t wait to try it out :-)

Love the post Jami and will include it in next week’s blog love :-)

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Jami Gold February 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Hi Christy,

No problem. :) I hope it helps! Thanks for the comment!

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Stina Lindenblatt February 13, 2012 at 8:54 pm

This sounds like a great idea. I already love STC for plotting. I’ll have to check out the spreadsheet. Thanks, Jami!

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Jami Gold February 13, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Hi Stina,

No problem. :) I’ve decided I love using this method to get a story overview before starting revisions. Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Musil February 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm

This is SO cool! I’ve used James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure as a guide, and I also use index cards. But I’m going to save that beat sheet for novels and maybe use it next time. Thanks!

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Jami Gold February 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Hi Julie,

My desk is too messy to use index cards. They’d all get lost. ;) I hope this helps! Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy. S. Thompson February 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I’ll have to take a closer look at this best sheet than my phone allows, but it sounds just like advice given in The Plot Whidperer which I’ve been reading. When I check my completed novel against those beat markers, I was shocked to see how closely they lined up. And though I am a plotter, I knew absolutely nothing when I wrote that book. I wonder if that sort of thing can be intuitive???

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Hi Nancy,

I haven’t reviewed the Plot Whisperer, but I think that author is coming to the local conference (Desert Dreams) in April. I’ll have to check that out. And yes, we’re exposed to stories all the time with books, movies, TV shows, etc., that it is possible to have an intuitive sense of what needs to happen next in a story arc. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda February 17, 2012 at 10:37 am

This is awesome! Thanks for the reminder of the beat sheet. I’m starting revisions today, and think I’ll give this a shot. I’m still fumbling around for the best way for me to get it all right, so who knows. This might be the very thing I needed!

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Hi Melinda,

I hope the spreadsheet helps. :) I’ve really enjoyed seeing the big picture from it. Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins February 17, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Still learning to embrace structure, and it’s slow going, but better than staying stagnant for sure.

Taurean

P.S. You and this blog have been tagged-

http://www.talkinganimaladdicts.com/2012/02/okay-im-tagging-myself.html

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Hi Taurean,

Yes, structure may or may not work, but we know stagnant doesn’t work. :) Thanks for the tag and the comment!

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Elle Strauss February 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Thanks so much for passing the link along. I love Save the Cat!

I’m working on revisions right now, so this is great timing. :)

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Hi Elle,

No problem. :) I hope it helps!

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Chihuahua0 February 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Hmm…I read this blog a while ago and forgot to follow it.

Now I’m following this.

…Now I can read the blog post. :p

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Hi C0,

LOL! I’m glad you were able to find it again. Thanks for the comment! :)

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Henya March 22, 2013 at 7:55 am

Have been following your blog for years. Learned so much from you. Still am. This post is beyond. I appreciate your generosity in sharing your knowledge. Just started writing my third novel, and this sheet came in time to help me file my thoughts neatly for this project. Always went by feel. Now I have something concrete. Thanks!

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Jami Gold March 22, 2013 at 9:21 am

Hi Henya,

Aww, thank you for the kind words. :) I’m happy to help. Thanks for the comment!

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Carolyn Schriber March 22, 2013 at 10:46 am

I just tried to download Elizabeth’s Save the Cat Beatsheet from your blog link, but all I get isa a message that says “Database Error.” Has it been removed? Is there somewhere else to download from? Help!

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Jami Gold March 22, 2013 at 10:50 am

Hi Carolyn,

It looks like Liz’s whole site might be down. I’ll email you the Beat Sheet and keep an eye on whether it comes back up. If not, I’ll host the beat sheet here with credit to Liz. Thanks for letting me know!

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starrzz November 2, 2013 at 5:34 am

i like these.. helpful.. the basic sheet made it all ‘click’… it took me a while for my left brain to understand the numbers and page sequence and the right columns… i didnt understand.. but ithink i got it…! this is really helpful… i know what i am writing and what its all about i just have to put it in right sequence…

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Jami Gold November 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

Hi Starrzz,

If you have any questions at all, please let me know. I’m happy to help. :)

Actually, I’ve been thinking of a Beat Sheets 101-type post, with how to read them, what the different columns mean, how to fill them out, etc. I’ll probably work on that in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for the comment!

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Pamela March 23, 2014 at 10:35 am

Thanks, Jami, for the wonderful spreadsheets. Looks like Liz’s site doesn’t include her STC beat sheet. How can I find a copy to download to my excel?

Thanks, and I’ll see you in the Website workshop!

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Jami Gold March 23, 2014 at 11:10 am

Hi Pamela,

Yes, Liz’s webhost has had countless issues. (I keep telling her she should switch to TechSurgeons, my host. ;) ) I’d host the STC spreadsheet here, but I don’t want to step on her toes. :)

If people contact me, I send them the file directly. (Assuming they give me the correct email address. One person emailed me in a panic last week, but my reply to them bounced for a non-existent email address. I can’t help them in that case. *sigh* And letting me know if they want the .xls or the .xlsx version helps too.)

Don’t worry, I’ll send you the file. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Ashley July 28, 2014 at 11:52 am

I feel a bit silly and naive for never having even CONSIDERED a beat sheet before this (I vaguely think I’d heard of them somewhere…) but this will definitely help with my current WIP, which is by far the most ambitious project I’ve ever taken on. In fact, it’s looking like turning it into a 3-book series will do it the most justice. In a case like that, would you recommend a separate beat sheet for each book, or is it still all one arc and you have to try to divide it up as best you can?

Along the same lines, how do you manage a beat sheet when you have four main characters with separate arcs (and separate love interests)? Obviously all their “Turning Point 3″ moments can’t come on the same page, and my instinct is that the pacing would work better if they weren’t all exactly consecutive, either.

Would appreciate any advice you have, but anyway, thank you so much for this! Your site is giving me so many great ideas!

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Jami Gold July 28, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Hi Ashley,

Don’t worry, I didn’t hear of beat sheets right away either. :) There’s no instruction manual for becoming an author, so we all have to learn along the way.

As for your first question, it depends on the type of series you want it to be. Some series are written so each story is a standalone. In that case, you’d want a separate beat sheet for each story.

Some series are written so each story ends on a cliffhanger and book 2 doesn’t necessarily make sense without book 1. In that case, you’d want a beat sheet for the series, and the series would almost be like a long version of a “serial” story.

Some series are somewhere in the middle–each book may or may not stand alone, but they do each have a beginning, middle and end. That ending means they don’t have cliffhangers, but they often have loose threads that carry over from one book to the next. In that case, I’d have a beat sheet for each book and one for the overall series.

As far as handling multiple characters and beats, it can get a bit tricky. :) As a romance author who juggles hero and heroine characters, my instinct is to look at the story arc for determining the main beats. Each character might have a “dark moment” as part of their character growth, but maybe one character’s Black Moment matches with the overall story’s Black Moment. That one would be the “official” beat for the beat sheet.

Not every important plot/character event is one of these major story turning point beats. And that’s okay. After all, all our scenes should have a beginning, middle, and ending like a mini-story–so something important happens in each of them. :) But that doesn’t mean that event is important enough to turn the entire story.

Let me know if that doesn’t make sense. I might be convinced to do a blog post digging into the issue. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Ashley August 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm

That makes a lot of sense, thanks. It doesn’t necessarily make it any EASIER (lol), since now I have to think about what things can happen to an individual character that will change the course for all… but it’s good to have another way of looking at it.

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Jami Gold August 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Hi Ashley,

LOL! I understand. There’s a lot of learning and practice to get things right, and even multi-published authors struggle to make their stories come together. Each story can be its own struggle. (Isn’t that comforting… ;) ) Good luck with your story and thanks for the comment!

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