A Pantser’s Guide to Beat Sheets

by Jami Gold on July 9, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Map with text: A Pantser's Guide to Beat Sheets

I’ve mentioned many times that I write by the seat of my pants. I’ve also expressed my love of beat sheets—by creating several of them. I have beat sheets that focus on plot points, another focused on character arcs, and yet another focused on romance arcs.

Wait, someone who writes by the seat of her pants likes beat sheets? The ultimate tool for plotters? This may seem like a contradiction. In fact, it probably is. I’m a walking contradiction. *smile*

So how exactly does a pantser use beat sheets without driving the muse crazy? This is a big part of my “Lost Your Pants?” workshop, which I’ll next be offering in the fall. However, I want to share some pointers here.

Using Beat Sheets After a First Draft

I first wrote about using beat sheets when I started revisions on one of my stories. I’d never used a beat sheet before, but I’d just finished drafting my first pantsed novel, and I was convinced this story was a hot mess.

During the drafting process, plot events seemed random, I never had any idea what the point of a scene was until I reached the end of the scene, and the characters never did what I thought they would. Er…in other words, the experience was completely normal for a pantsed story. *smile*

But at the time, I was a recovering plotter and didn’t have any experience with pantsing a novel-length story. The uncontrolled chaos freaked out my perfectionist, OCD, ultimate-planner-in-real-life self to no end.

Desperate to fix my “broken” story, I turned to the Save the Cat beat sheet during the revision process. I identified the turning points (beats) of my story and analyzed where they happened in the story’s word count. Lo and behold, all the turning points were there—and for the most part, in the right place too.

Nah, I couldn’t have gotten it right. The drafting process felt too chaotic for actual order to be occurring behind the curtains. So I created a beat sheet based on Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering to double check. Yep, still good. Wow.

(Note to self: Trust my muse. Muse to self: Duh.)

Not every author or every story will have things turn out as good—naturally—when pantsed. That’s where beat sheets can help us figure out what’s broken.

Do we have a problem with the overall story or just one section? Is the pacing problem caused by events happening too slowly, or do we just need to add more conflict to what we have? Can we change our word count by focusing on one or two scenes, or do we need to tweak the whole story to make it work?

As I mentioned in those posts linked above, we can use beat sheets during revision to:

  • Check our story structure:
    • Do we have a story arc with a beginning, middle, and end?
    • Do we have the necessary plot turning points?
  • Check our pacing:
    • Are the plot turning points close to the right place?
    • Do we need to add tension at any beat?
  • Check the overall story:
    • Are we properly emphasizing turning points?
    • Do we need to adjust word count overall or in certain sections?

Since those posts, I developed beat sheets for character arcs and romance arcs as well. (Use the Michael Hauge worksheet for character arcs.) Those can help us in similar ways by analyzing the other elements of our story.

Using Beats Sheets to Create a First Draft

After my successful experience with pantsing that story, I was a pantser convert. However, I wondered if I could lessen the chaos-induced panic by using beat sheets during the first draft. Here’s where things get trickier for those of us who write by the seat of our pants.

I don’t want to piss off my muse by plotting things out in advance too much. He gets grumpy if I try telling him what to do. *smile*

I go into depth with the process I developed to plan “just enough” in my “Lost Your Pants?” workshop. (Link leads to a sign up page to hear when registration opens.) One aspect I teach is how to use story beats to decide on a direction.

I draft faster when I have a general idea of where the story needs to go. Knowing I should head “north” is better than picking a random direction (and lets me avoid feeling completely lost), but I still let my muse figure out the details of how to get there and what actually happens once I reach that point.

Like I discussed in my post about thinking in concepts, we don’t have to know the details to ensure a scene will work. Similarly, we don’t have to know the details to ensure we’re heading in the right direction.

By studying beat sheets, I know that around the 25% mark, I need to have a big turning point forcing the character from their “old,” ordinary world to their “new” world. That could mean they need to be forced into a new setting, a new situation, or dealing with new information. At this point, their problem might change or the stakes might increase, and that would lead to new goals.

A plotter would probably know exactly what that turning point will consist of. Pantsers, on the other hand, might have only a vague idea.

For my last work in progress, I knew the heroine had to realize that she’d be better off working with the hero instead of against him. That’s it. Nothing to freak out the muse. *grin*

But that little bit helped me draft the first 25%. Obviously, she had to start off working against him for there to be contrast between old and new. And obviously, she had to have reasons for believing that antagonism to be necessary. Endless scenes could meet those author goals, and having that direction helped me write scenes with a purpose.

Pantsers can figure out the vague concepts behind each of the four main beats:

  • End of the Beginning/First Plot Point (around the 25% mark)
  • Midpoint (around the 50% mark)
  • Crisis/Black Moment/Second Plot Point (around the 75% mark)
  • Climax (from around the 80% to the 99% mark)

If we know the direction to head in for each of those sections of the book, we might be less likely to be led astray by shiny plot tangents. And by keeping the beat sheet percentages in mind, we’ll know if our next scene should bring the characters closer to or keep them further from that turning point.

For example, just a few days ago, I was stuck on what the next scene in my current work-in-progress should be. I checked the word count to see how far I had to go before getting close to the next beat. Oh look! I was only a couple thousand words away.

I knew the turning point would happen at the end of a scene, so that meant I could start the turning point scene. (My muse: “Duh. Again. There was a reason I wasn’t giving you any other ideas.”)

For me, this technique alone has increased my word count substantially. I’m still a slow writer, but this is how is won NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) with 60K words in a month. I don’t lose words to plot tangents, and I draft faster with a goal to aim toward.

Ta-da! Ways for pantsers to use beat sheets that (hopefully) won’t freak out our muse. Pantsers can start by using beat sheets during revisions, and then if the beat sheets seem helpful, we can vaguely think about story structure during drafting. Not too little, not too much, just right. *smile*

(While you’re here, don’t forget to comment on my Blogiversary post for a chance to win “me.” Want me to beta read for you or pick my brain about a writing or story problem? Now’s your chance! *grin* I’ll be picking three winners—will you be one of them?)

If you’re a pantser, have you experienced the chaos-induced panic? How do you deal with that? Have you used beat sheets? Were they helpful to you or did they freak out your muse? For plotters, pantsers, and everyone in between, do you use beat sheets for drafting or revisions or both? Do you have other suggestions for how we can use beat sheets?

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26 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Teresa Robesona July 9, 2013 at 5:51 am

You know, Jami, this is like calculus to me: it all makes sense when the prof is explaining the idea and then I go and do homework on my own and all of a sudden, everything becomes ancient Greek to me and I don’t understand a word of it. :P

Or maybe it’s just my pre-morning-coffee brain talking…

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Jami Gold July 9, 2013 at 9:23 am

Hi Teresa,

LOL! Honestly, this stuff often flies over my head until I have a chance to apply it to a homework project (work in progress). This is the kind of stuff I can help you with from your earlier contest win though, so let me know when you need a homework session. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 9, 2013 at 7:38 am

Hi Jami!

When I read the SAVE THE CAT beat sheet, my muse was freaking out SO MUCH and he was screaming his head off :O Yeah, he refuses absolutely to be defined by such precise timers and categories, because he wants to be absolutely free and to go by his feelings only about what would work best where. Lol. But surprisingly, this desire for complete freedom doesn’t make my stories chaotic or even postmodern. I typically let my stories go wherever they want, but they always, invariably become a pretty conventionally structured tale. For example, for my Nanowrimo story, it was the expected “normal world”–> something changes–>whole world changes –>danger –> victory (after this arc, a second similarly structured arc happens before the story concludes.) So yeah! It’s funny that I and my muse really go :O and O_O;; and D: at beat sheets, yet our complete spontaneity always turns out to be a conventional structure. Strange.

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Jami Gold July 9, 2013 at 9:30 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, that’s what I’ve found too–that my muse does not want to think about this stuff, but that my innate story sense carries through for the most part. :)

That’s why I gave the example I did. Knowing that the heroine has to realize something isn’t a “traditional” Save the Cat style story beat. It’s more character arc than plot arc. But just having that general concept in the back of my mind keeps me heading in the right direction.

Honestly, I trust my muse enough that I’d probably end up with the same story regardless. So knowing those “beats” isn’t actually for him–he knows the right direction to go. :) But seeing that high-level map of story highlights calms my inner editor and (mostly) prevents that panicked feeling. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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ChemistKen July 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I firmly believe in getting the outline all worked out with the necessary plot points ahead of time, but I’ve also discovered that most of my best ideas coming while I’m in the middle of writing. So I’m constantly having to rewrite the outline to keep up with the changes.

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Jami Gold July 9, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Hi ChemistKen,

LOL! Yeah, I discovered that if I had things too plotted out, I didn’t listen to that “I get the best ideas while writing” voice of my muse. My perfectionist nature is too strong, I think. :) So I don’t let her out at all for the drafting process.

The important thing is figuring out what works for us. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Adams July 9, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I’m a panster. I can’t work with beat sheets or three act structure. Those structural elements turn the process too mechanical for. The result is that I end up focusing on where things should fit according to the structure and writing to them instead of how the story should properly flow. I just use four questions to move from scene to scene: How is this scene caused by the last one?; How does this scene ratchet up the tension of the last one; What is the setback?; and How does this scene end unexpectedly.

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Jami Gold July 9, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Hi Linda,

I understand. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, my muse/subconscious has all this stuff figured out already, and more often than not, I have to remind myself not to worry about it. :)

Those are great questions to ask! I’d usually know the answer to the first one, but I often wouldn’t know the answers to the rest until I finished the scene. The important thing is that we each find what works for us. :) Thanks for sharing your method and thanks for the comment!

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Linda Adams July 10, 2013 at 3:14 am

Oh, a lot of times I don’t answer them until I’m halfway or more through the scene.

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Jami Gold July 10, 2013 at 9:17 am

Hi Linda,

*whew* That’s good to know. :)

They’re great questions–ones we should be able to answer at some point for our stories. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Morgyn July 11, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Jami, have experienced the same thing, measured WC, checked beats and been thrilled to find was spot on time. I can outline my head off, but when drafting, out of sight, out of (my) mind, ignore it and follow my instincts.

Important overall point — using the ‘beats’ to see when WC has to (invariably in my case) go down.

Great post!

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Jami Gold July 11, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Hi Morgyn,

Yes, those of us lucky enough to have a strong, intuitive sense of story structure often hit those beats by instinct. Even so, as you said, it’s a good check for pacing purposes. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taffy July 15, 2013 at 4:43 pm

I LOVED this post and the worksheets. Thank you so much for your work here. I’m a total pantser and love the freedom to write and write and write. But I’m open to try an outline or a beat sheet. I tried the beat sheet against my MS I just finished and it helped me move chapters around to make it more consistent and flow better. Thanks again!

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Jami Gold July 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Hi Taffy,

Yay! I’m happy to help. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda Martin July 22, 2013 at 4:05 am

I recently wrote a post about how hard it is to reconcile structure with pantser writing. This post is my answer, thank you. I hadn’t come across beat sheets before, so these are really helpful. Like you, my Muse does alright left to her own devices, but she has a problem with back story. For both my complete romance novels, the story started with the boy meets girl scene, but then dumped a huge amount of backstory directly after to explain how tbey got there. For both novels I ended up pushing the meet-cute several chapters in, so I could more fully explore life pre-new-man. Now I read that, with romance, my Muse was right and the meet is meant to happen on the first page. We’ve had a big falling out, both insisting we are right. So I’m off to read your romance arc beat sheet to settle the dispute!

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Jami Gold July 22, 2013 at 11:39 am

Hi Amanda,

Yay! I’m happy to help. :) And I’m glad your muse is as stubborn as mine when it comes to being right. LOL! Thanks for the comment and good luck!

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Stephanie Stamm July 23, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Your books sound great!! And thanks for the beat sheets for pantsers post!

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Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Hi Stephanie,

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

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