Do Beat Sheets Lead to Formulaic Writing?

by Jami Gold on July 23, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Page of math formulas with text: Are Beat Sheets Too Formulaic?

Last week, Slate.com ran an article about how Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book is ruining movies. According to that post’s author, “Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. … Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.”

I’ve run enough posts here about beat sheets—and have even created beat sheets to help novelists—that it’s obvious I’m a fan of them. In fact, yesterday I guest posted at Pauline Baird Jones’s blog about how I became addicted to beat sheets. (Pauline chose the guest post prize for her win in my Blogiversary contest—yay!)

So you all knew I was going to have something to say about this article that’s beating up on beat sheets. *smile*

Are Stories Formulaic?

On some level, stories are formulaic. But that’s not due to the existence of beat sheets. Storytelling itself is formulaic: a protagonist faces obstacles. Boom, done. On a generic level, every story has already been done.

That’s the nature of storytelling, and has been the case since the dawn of sitting around a campfire. Beat sheets didn’t create that truth and they didn’t change the definition of storytelling.

What makes one story different from another has always resided in the details. In a quest story, does the protagonist volunteer or are they forced? Is the quest the real goal or a red herring? Will they overcome the obstacles with brains, brawn, or both? Who joins them in their quest and why? Is the quest for themselves or a higher goal? The details change everything.

So for someone to pick on stories being the same because when you strip out the details they all follow the “character faces and overcomes obstacles” formula, I’m going to say “duh.” That’s storytelling.

Did the “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet Change Movies?

Do screenwriters pay more attention to beats now than before the 2005 release of Blake Snyder’s book? Undoubtedly. Partly that’s because we now have names for all the storytelling structures that have always existed. Name recognition works for concepts too.

However, Save the Cat didn’t change storytelling structure itself. Blake Snyder didn’t invent these beats. He was simply the first to lay them out in an easy-to-understand presentation.

What Do Beats Have to Do with Storytelling?

Simple logic demonstrates that a story wouldn’t be a story without many of the beats Blake Snyder identified. Especially when we look at the plot events of the main story, we can’t see any beats we could leave out:

  • Opening Image: Stories are about change, so logically we need a “before” to go with the “after” later on.
  • Set-up: When else would you introduce the characters? At the end of the story?
  • Catalyst: Something has to trigger the change.
  • Debate: The protagonist must react to the Catalyst.
  • Midpoint: Many of us are all too familiar with the problem of a “sagging middle” in our writing and embrace this opportunity to raise the stakes.
  • Bad Guys Close In: This is simply another way of raising stakes before the Black Moment.
  • All is Lost/Black Moment: Again, stories are about change, and that requires contrast. Before the triumph of the Finale, we need the darkness of lost hope.
  • Finale: Unless the story has a tragic ending, the obstacles will be overcome in some way.
  • Final Image: This is the final opportunity to make the story feel like a story, and that means emphasizing the change that has occurred from beginning to end.

Even the ancient Greek epic poem the Iliad by Homer has story events that match these beats. A simplified version of the plot reveals classic storytelling beats:

  • Set-up: Introduction to Achilles, the great warrior of the Trojan War
  • Catalyst/Debate: Achilles decides Agamemnon’s response to the plague is an insult and refuses to fight.
  • Midpoint: Defeat of the Achaean army seems inevitable.
  • Bad Guys Close In: Feeling guilty, Achilles sends his best friend into the fight to help out in his place, and his friend is killed.
  • All is Lost/Black Moment: Worse, Achilles can’t rejoin the fight himself because the bad guys took his special armor off his dead friend.
  • Finale: The gods agree to give him new armor and he triumphs over the enemy.

Yes, storytelling beats are literally classic. *smile* The existence of beats is not suddenly ruining anything.

How Can We Prevent a Story from Feeling Formulaic?

Maybe the real question should be how we can prevent a story from feeling formulaic. After all, if we can’t change storytelling or these beats, we need to write so we’re meeting the storytelling expectations in a unique way.

This is where we see the real failing of some writers:

  • Predictability: If we choose the predictable or obvious plot event for each of the beats, readers will feel like they know what happens before it does.

Plot twists and/or exploring the predictable from a unique angle or depth can help us avoid this issue. Depending the laziness of our muse, sometimes the first idea that comes to us will be the predictable one and we’ll have to dig deeper for other ideas.

  • Rigidity: If we pay more attention to getting the beats on the exact right page than to the overall story flow, we will create stories with fluff or uneven pacing.

Novelists have more freedom than screenwriters for allowing the beats to land in a page range. We shouldn’t cut short the reaction or set up between beats just to meet a page number. Similarly, we shouldn’t pad our writing just to stretch to a page number either.

One point the Slate article got right was that Jurassic Park doesn’t follow all the beats exactly. Many of the beats I didn’t include up above, like “Fun and Games,” can be more flexible than others. To some extent, not all beats are created equal.

As I mentioned in my post about how those who write by the seat of their pants can use beat sheets, I tend to focus on the big four beats. In Blake’s terms, those are Catalyst/Debate, Midpoint, Black Moment, and Finale.

Every standard story must have those beats, and they must be in that order. For pacing purposes, they should occur fairly close to the recommended page numbers (plus or minus 5-10%). Everything else is more flexible.

In other words, beat sheets are guidelines rather than unbendable rules. Just as our characters shouldn’t be puppets to the plot, we shouldn’t be puppets to the beat sheet. The beats themselves will work for us as long as we recognize they’re only one element out of many that make a story good.

Three-dimensional character development, stakes that matter, motivations that elicit sympathy, writing craft that doesn’t pull the reader out of the story, etc., all play just as big of a part in whether our story will be enjoyable. If we remember that beat sheets are tools and not merely a fill-in-the-blank form, we’ll succeed at carrying on the storytelling tradition. *smile*

P.S. Don’t forget to visit my guest post about beat sheets at Pauline’s blog too. Help her feel that winning “me” (and my guest post) in my Blogiversary contest was a good thing. *grin*

Do you think movies have become more formulaic in the past few years? Do you analyze other stories for their beats? Have you loved any stories that don’t conform to the storytelling beats at all? Do you struggle with not letting beat sheets dictate your story? Or do you simply find them a helpful tool?

Pin It
53 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Melinda VanLone July 23, 2013 at 6:15 am

I like your rebuttal! No I don’t think the problem with Hollywood is beat sheets or a sudden strict adherence to story structure where none existed before. I think the problem with Hollywood is, just like Big 6 Publishing, they don’t want to take a risk on an unknown or new story (they might lose money!) so they keep rehashing/remaking/redoing old ones (well gee they loved it 5 years ago, lets milk that cow again!).

Seriously just how many times do we really need to see Spiderman/Superman/Batman/DieHard/Name Your Remake? It’s not the beats of the story that is the problem, the problem is their unwillingness to go out on a limb with something new so they beat the dead horse of something old. That’s why it feels as though they’re ruining things…because they aren’t trying NEW things.

And we, the paying public, have only ourselves to blame when we flock to the theaters to pay for the 15th retelling of Spiderman instead of that unknown, strange sounding movie we might or might not like.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 9:37 am

Hi Melinda,

So true! They keep using the same premises, characters, bad guys, etc.

As I was writing this post, I kept thinking of that movie from a couple years ago, 500 Days of Summer, I think. That movie had two structures, chronological and beat-based. The writers could take the chronological snippets of time and shuffle them around into a story that still worked because the basic, main beats were there in the right order regardless of the chronology being “out of order.” If that case doesn’t prove that the beats themselves work, no matter the creativity of the movie, I don’t know what would. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Davonne Burns July 23, 2013 at 7:58 am

Excellent points. I just finished reading Save the Cat last month. While I knew there were specific plot points that needed to be addressed it was nice to see them laid out in an easily accessible format.

The beat sheet has been helpful, not just when I’m writing scripts but with my novels as well. I agree that the main problem with Hollywood movies is not the formula it is the execution. They are afraid of originality, which is why they are tapping into the comic book industry so deeply. They want ready made fandoms that guarantee a return on their investment.

It’s also something I see happening in the publishing industry with pull-to-pub. They are taking fan fiction from well established fandoms and publishing it as original, yet familiar, yet different.

We have to be on guard against falling into that trap as you stated. Going with the first so-called problem is most likely going to be the most common way to approach it. We have to be willing to dig deeper and look harder for ways to make the beats work in unique ways for us.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 9:41 am

Hi Davonne,

Great point about their wish for ready-made fandoms! Yes, it’s hard to build an audience from nothing–we all know that. 🙂

And as you said, that’s unfortunately the same thing happening with fanfic and the pull-to-publish rush. (Even as I was reading your comment, when I got to your “ready-made fandom” line, P2P fanfic was exactly where my mind jumped to as well.) *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Carradee July 23, 2013 at 8:04 am

The formula isn’t in using the beat sheets. It’s in using related devices for specific story beats. For example, relative/friend/mentor death works as “Catalyst”, but it isn’t the only possible Catalyst. But if a bunch of stories all use relative/friend/mentor death as Catalyst, it’ll come across as formulaic.

Beat sheets are descriptors, not definitions. As some folks have already pointed out, Blake Snyder wasn’t the first one to describe story structure. There are other possible methods of describing story structure.

They’re guidelines, not formulas.

Someone—I’m pretty sure it was Shanna Swendson—had a good blog post a while back that pointed out how one of the Alien movies actually fit romance story structure, even though it wasn’t a romance. (I don’t have a link though, unfortunately.)

Sure, some movies are coming across as formulaic, but Save the Cat isn’t the reason for that formulaic feeling. Similar devices is the reason.

But those similar devices is normal. Things go in phases. Things happen in life or the world that get people thinking along similar lines. Maybe some of them even know each other. They start tackling it some different ways.

Even in my own writing, the different story worlds feature similar devices. My urban fantasy and epic fantasy series both have female cat shapeshifters as important characters. Their personalities have some similarities—they are both cats—but the end result is very different, and not only because the magic systems differ.

So if you look at my stories a certain way, a lot of them are related. But if you look at them another way, they’re not related at all. It’s all in how you view them.

The same is true for when I’m trying to find stories in the same vein as one of mine. The “comparable authors” list looks very different, depending on if I’m looking at style, tone, setting, content, themes, etc.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 9:54 am

Hi Carradee,

Exactly! If we use the same devices over and over with only the characters changed, it will feel formulaic. It’s the same issue with trying to call fanfic original–if exchanging characters wouldn’t change the story, it’s too generic. 🙂

Even if we’re feeling lazy, the least we can do is use the devices at a different point in story. 🙂 Look at Star Wars–that had a mentor death, but it wasn’t used in the Catalyst spot (I haven’t analyzed the beats, but I’d guess it was in the Bad Guys Close In or All is Lost/Black Moment spot). That alone makes the emotional turning points of the story different enough that it stands out in our mind.

And don’t get me started about trying to find “comparable authors.” LOL! I’m awful at that for exactly the reasons you mentioned. It all depends on the viewpoint we take. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Melissa Maygrove July 23, 2013 at 8:58 am

Great post. I agree. 🙂

It would be interesting to take the top grossing movies and put them up against a beat sheet. Same goes with books.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 10:06 am

Hi Melissa,

Yes, it would. 🙂

On the other hand, since it’s all about the execution, we could take a flop, like the Green Lantern movie I analyzed, and still find all the beats. The beats will just be weak and stupid.

Just as beats don’t “ruin” a good movie, they won’t “save” a bad movie either. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Marcy Kennedy July 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I’m a big fan of beat sheets as well. I follow a slightly altered version of Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering “formula” when I write (and when I edit). One thing that I loved about his newest book, Story Physics, is the two examples he gives of bestselling books that follow his pattern perfectly.

The two books? The Hunger Games and The Help. I’d be hard pressed to think of two more different stories. They follow the “formula” and hit all the beats, but no one would say they’re formulaic or that they’re similar because they do.

I’m actually going to stop this comment now before I get into a full fledged rant on short-sighted articles like the one on Slate.com. I hate to think about how many authors/screenwriters are now going to throw structure out the window and then wonder why their stories aren’t selling. (And I just know I’m going to end up with some client who I’m going to try to talk structure to in order to try to fix issues in their story who’s going to quote that article.)

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Hi Marcy,

Ditto–I’m a bigger fan of Story Engineering than Save the Cat. I especially love Larry Brooks’s idea of Pinch Points. I haven’t picked up Story Physics yet, but that’s another great example of how the beats themselves aren’t limiting at all.

LOL! Yes, I know what you mean about the rant thing. I had to cool off for a couple of days before I could write this post. 🙂

The sad thing is that the writers who will be most susceptible to doubting story structure after that post are the ones who desperately need to understand it, the newbies and anti-rule people. *sigh* That’s exactly why I tried to point out that the beats are the essence of storytelling–we can’t get rid of them and still have a story. Let’s hope people don’t believe that article. *fingers crossed* Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Gary Kriss July 23, 2013 at 12:15 pm

The only tool that can make writing formulaic is the mind.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Hi Gary,

Very true! Writers need to avoid going for the cliche and predictable beat events, not avoid the beats themselves. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

Reply

Pauline Baird Jones July 23, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Thank you for the lovely shout out for your wonderful visit to my blog. I still squeeing that I won you. 🙂

I can only ditto the comments about Hollywood’s short sightedness. During my brief foray into H-world, I learned two things.
1. Never ask someone if they read your script. They have people for that.
2. You will get “notes” from everyone, possibly even the cleaning staff, but you can counter them by using Hero’s Journey buzz words. (LOL)
I’ve learned to push past the first few ideas, when panstering my way through my plot. The first thing that comes to my mind has usually come to every other writers’ mind, too. I push myself and I push my plot. Hard. It’s much easier to roll back from extreme than to make boring fun.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Hi Pauline,

LOL! Thank you for the lovely welcome on your blog. 🙂

Regarding your #2… *snort* Yep, I can see that.

Great point about how it’s easier to roll back from extreme than to make boring fun. 🙂 That’s what I tell myself about my voice too. If I have a line that might be “too voice-y,” I try it anyway because it’s easier to delete than to push a voice that isn’t there. Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Megan Ryder July 23, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I love beat sheets to help keep me focused and ensure the story stays on track. but they do not tell me exactly what to write. I decide what goes in each beat. As a result, I think we have gotten too predictable and formulaic in what we choose to put in those sections. If X worked for one movie that was a huge blockbuster, then it must be the key to success so i’ll use it too. That is what leads to predictability and what feels like a formula. I always loved what Donald Maass said – make a list of 20 things that could happen and throw out the first 6-10. they’re too obvious.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Hi Megan,

Exactly! Ooo, thanks for sharing Donald Maass’s advice! That fits perfectly with this discussion.

It all comes down to making those details that define our unique story as specific and connected to these characters and plot points as possible. If it would work in another story, it’s too generic. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Michael Gordon July 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm

I’ve read Synder’s Save the Cat, Truby’s Anatomy of Story–22 steps…, Brooks’s Story Structure, and whole bunch of other books about story structure. I think everyone should study structure. It’s foundational, just as learning to draw circles, triangles, squares, etc for drawing.

I think the biggest problem the author of the article mentioned in Snyder’s beats ruining movies is what I’m seeing too. From my experience with working with a lot of aspiring authors, there are many people that think structure will “save” their story. OR that if they follow the steps of Synder, Field, Vogler, Campbell, Brooks etc. then they will have a great story. This sells lots of non-fiction books on the craft of writing and influences industry professionals (especially in the movie business) but all in all, when you see structure for what it is it only gets you so far, about this far:

http://acitr.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/faceless2.jpg

Everyone looking at that image can see it’s purpose. It’s even dressed up, but it has no life. Life starts and creates structure, not the other way around…otherwise cars would be creating their own race. 😀 Structure serves its purpose in helping to create a recognizable form that can have movement, but it doesn’t ensure beauty and wonder. Again, everyone looking at that picture can recognize it, but there is nothing compelling about it. (I think this is what the author of that article probably intended.)

That being said, neglect a study and use of structure and try, just try to have people fall in love with a blob story. 😉

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Hi Michael,

I agree that every author should study story structure at least enough to understand it. As you said, it should be considered foundational to writing stories.

I also agree with you that structure and beats alone won’t save stories. As I mentioned in the post, structure is just one element of what makes a story good. Like your analogy, structure is the bones of the story, but what people are going to pay attention to when reading are all the other elements.

I’ve edited a story that had beats and structure, yet they added up to story that didn’t work on a thematic or premise level. A real understanding of story structure would include not just the structure itself, but also an understanding of why that structure exists, what purpose each beat is supposed to serve in the story, and whether a story’s beats do their best at serving that purpose. Once again, details make the difference. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Linda Adams July 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm

I think people are gravitating to the 3 act structure because it’s trendy. We have a guy who published a book on structure, and suddenly everyone’s going, “Wow! I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing that.” (For the record, I really hated Story Engineering. It is ONLY writing book I have ever hated.)

And I think it’s entirely arbitrary.

The act structure started in theatre, in part because people needed a break to go to the bathroom , and the sets needed to be changed. But a play might have 1 act, 3 acts, or 5 acts. For films, they needed to change the reel because the film ran out. TV was to insert commercials, and they had to have high points to make you come back in case you went channel surfing. And every single one of these has one thing in common that a novel does not have: A set time it has to run.

So trying to match up a 3 act structure to a novel doesn’t make sense to me. All the venues used it had technical reasons that had nothing to do with storytelling!

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Hi Linda,

I know people who hated Story Engineering because of the author’s voice and attitude. Eh, I ignored that part and skipped to the actual information. 🙂

That said, I agree that the three-act structure is less applicable to novels. You’ll notice that I didn’t list Blake’s “Break into Act II”-type beats above. LOL! As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about what act you’re in, but about what needs to be happening in the story at any one point in time. The beats are important; the acts they belong to are just a label, IMHO. 🙂

As for the issue of having a set time to run–agreed! That’s why all the beat sheets I deal with have the automatic updating of page numbers, depending on the total word count. That way the beats aren’t about hitting a specific page number but about falling near the right point in the story. The story’s “trigger” needs to be near the beginning, the climax has to be near the end, etc. But that’s basic storytelling. *shrug*

So I don’t disagree at all. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Linda Adams July 24, 2013 at 3:52 am

Probably the reason people don’t like the tone is because the author is in a constant state of marketing. The book is constantly repeating the message over and over and over and it’s compounded by the fact the marketing is done very badly. I’ve worked with two marketers, and I ran into horrible, terrible problems when they didn’t realize they were on and didn’t get my signals they were making the wrong sale. In this case, the book keeps trying to make the wrong sale to pantsers by insulting them.

The marketing was so bad if there was any good in the book, I couldn’t find it, and it made anything the book did say very suspect.

Reply

Jami Gold July 24, 2013 at 9:23 am

Hi Linda,

Yep, I don’t disagree. I know I don’t get offended easily, so I’m probably more able than most pantsers to ignore those parts. 🙂 (I’m also a reformed plotter, so unlike many pantsers who might doubt the validity of their pantsing ways, I know for sure that pantsing works for me. LOL!)

I also knew the gist of his story structure teachings from his blog, so maybe that made it easier for me to focus only on those sections. Like I said, I don’t disagree at all. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Taurean Watkins July 25, 2013 at 9:52 am

Jami,

I’ll get to my opinions on beat sheets later, but I do have to speak to something you mentioned in your initial reply to Linda’s comment-

“I know people who hated Story Engineering because of the author’s voice and attitude. Eh, I ignored that part and skipped to the actual information.”

I can’t comment on the book since I haven’t read it, though I’ve heard of it, but that said, I’m glad you and other writers I know can push aside the jerky style of instruction for the info you need.

I’m not of those writers.

The only craft book I’ve read where I could fight through the jerky attitude of the instruction was “Writing it Right” by Sandy Asher.

I HATE the slog of revision, but it’s something I NEED to do, so just getting beyond the introduction was an exercise in not throwing the book at the wall, because it made me feel foolish and weak to feel the apathy I do about revision, particularly if my early efforts in revision feel like they’re not anywhere close to enough.

I still can read the introduction to that book without feeling pain and anger, not for what the author’s saying, but because it’s so hard for me to get better with it. It’s also because I take revision so seriously that your comment on a previous post felt like such a low blow-

http://jamigold.com/2013/01/what-writing-step-are-you-afraid-of/#comment-82196

I know you were merely stating that you can over-edit a manuscript and use it as a crutch to never write anything else, but for me personally, I couldn’t escape the revision that book (Which is my debut novel) needed, and while I’m going through more edits with my publisher, it still had to be at a level that , and that’s the context I was speaking in with regards to long revision process.

But believe me, what you were saying was valid, I just know that some books need more time, and just writing another book wasn’t the asnwer, for me, anyway. I’m not the kind of author who can draft and only revise one or two times and begin the submission process. I don’t think that will change just because I don’t like the slower pace my revision takes.

I do need to work though some emotional issues I have with drafting new stories while letting previous ones “rest” but I’ve learned the hard way that assembly line drafting one book after another doesn’t work for me.

I know I can get to a point where I can draft multiple books in a year, but drafting them, and revising them are two different things to me, and while I pray I won’t need a DECADE for EVERY book, it will likely take me more than a few months, if only because I don’t want the first impression to be “You’re loose-goosey with POV errors” and other issues like that. That stuff takes me time to work through, and as someone who has high standards for their writing, you must get how I feel, even if you can be more mellow about certain things than I can, right?

It doesn’t have to be your first novel. My debut is the THIRD novel I wrote in full, and that took me ten years, and I did write other things, but that’s how long that book took, so if I seemed mad at your response, that was why.

Same for all those query letter workshops and critiques I’ve taken part in. It’s only because I need the skill do I persist, but I can only take so much “You HAVE to do this or forget being a real author” jerky attitude before I turn into the meanest demon you ever knew.

You’ve seen a fraction of my rage, Jami, so you know that’s saying a lot. THat said, know you’ve NEVER personally put me in that state. I just meant certain styles of instruction rub me the wrong way. I don’t take to “Drill Sargent” sniping. That doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to learn.

In short, I can’t always separate information from how it’s delivered, if it rubs me the wrong way, I can’t get through, and only for my weakest skills (Writing query letters, revision, and marketing) can I force myself to do what you do far easier than I, and even then, there’s a limit I can’t work through if breached.

While some writers LOVE revision, I don’t, only because my idea of “finished” is not the average agent or editor’s idea of “finished.” It’s also why I’ve been known to punch many a wall in my home when I read yet another author who says something to the effect of-

“Unless you can draft many books a year, you’re unforgivably slow” you’re pretty much asking me to slug your book, which is better than my wanting to slug the book’s author…

(I WISH I were just kidding about that, but while I’d NEVER really do that, I’ve thought it…)

That’s why “Writing the next book” grates in my brain even more than “Show, don’t tell” for the simple fact that it takes me a long time to just draft a book, longer to revise it to some level of competency, and at least a few months to go from rough to readable.

Telling me to nonchalantly “Write the next book” is like telling me to learn to ride a bike in a week, and you just got your first bike that SAME day.

In that respect, I kind of envy you, Jami, you seem to have less pain involved with drafting since given previous posts it’s the most fun part for you.

For me, drafting is somewhat like the joy you describe, but doing that in the “assembly line” fashion has never served me well.

As always, you are a brave writer to blog on this subject.

Reply

Jami Gold July 25, 2013 at 11:25 am

Hi Taurean,

First, I’m so sorry that previous comment felt like a low blow. I understand how it could have felt that way simply because we were coming from two different perspectives. As you said, everyone has different drafting and revising processes, and while I can try to put myself into others’ shoes, it’s not always a perfect fit. :/

With my own struggle with query letters/blurbs, I can certainly relate to the “never being good enough” issue with revisions. *sigh* So that helps me understand your frustrations of not seeing the improvement we’d like to see on revision in general.

Second, as far as the various teaching styles out there, I understand. I mentioned in a follow up comment to Linda here that I don’t get offended easily, so I can ignore things I don’t agree with most of the time. That’s not always a good thing, as my ability to ignore what others say isn’t in my best interest as far as learning from feedback. 🙂

But you’re absolutely right that most people can’t do that, so I often include a caution about teaching style when recommending those resources. Sometimes I forget though, and I’m sorry for that!

Here on my blog and my workshops (and the feedback I provide), I try to remember that everyone’s learning/writing styles are different, and I try not to be “my way or the highway.” 🙂 While I can ignore and/or tolerate that teaching style from other instructors, it does bug me on other writers’ behalf.

You’re right that my writing process isn’t nearly the struggle for me as yours is for you. I struggle in some ways, in that it’s hard for me to switch gears from blog writing to fiction writing, etc., but not in the ways that would provide me insight into any advice for you. Know that I wish you the best and hope that you can find a process that works for you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

ChemistKen July 23, 2013 at 6:24 pm

The three act structure has been around long before they invented film. The Greeks had that nailed down quite some time ago. And as you said, Save the Cat didn’t start the trend, it merely reported what the Hollywood execs had codified many years before.

Reply

Jami Gold July 23, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Hi ChemistKen,

Exactly! Blake was the messenger, not the inventor. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Gary Kriss July 24, 2013 at 10:14 am

With all due respect, take a break from be-all books and beats. Non-formulaic writing is synesthetic. Writers looking for the “easy way” tend to fight this basic truth, failing to realize that it IS the easy way.

Then go back to those be-all books and beats. You won’t necessarily discard them–nor should you–but you’ll see them in a totally different and higher wattage light.

Reply

Jami Gold July 24, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Hi Gary,

I understand what you mean. 🙂 I’m a pantser, so I usually don’t use any beat sheets until revision time. My drafting is very organic.

However, I know that I have an intuitive sense of story beats and structure that not everyone shares. I also know that any one method won’t work for everyone. So if others do better with beat sheets during drafting, more power to them. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Gary Kriss July 24, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Hi Jami:

Hope that didn’t come across as being critical of beat sheets per se. They can be extremely useful/helpful to all manner of writers, especially the fine ones you’ve created.

However let’s not forget the important word in the short phrase–beat, as in music, as in the music of words and, more to the point here certainly, the movement of music in longer works such as concertos and symphonies.

This is why music should certainly be part of the self-curriculum of any author. It certainly is an example,but by no means the only one of how a synesthetic approach can enhance beat sheets. Writing, true writing, is predicated on feeling not rote.

A diamond is natural; it’s cutting and polishing is an art; the tools used to realize that art are mechanical.

Best,

gary

Reply

Jami Gold July 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Hi Gary,

Fantastic point! Yes, I use a near-musical ear to decide on flow and rhythm for my writing.

Personally, I plan “just enough” to stimulate the muse–which for me usually means “not very much.” LOL! Other writers have fantastic starts to stories and then get stuck, and for them I might recommend studying beat sheets just so they have a better understanding of the shapes they can form from that diamond. 🙂

In short, I do see beat sheets as being very useful tools, but I’d hate to see them used as end-all-be-all rules just as much as you would. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung July 26, 2013 at 7:40 am

Ha, I understand why some people would think beat sheets would make stories formulaic, but I personally never had any problem with these kinds of formulas. I believe that we need to follow certain formulas (not rigidly though, of course) in order to make the reader feel a certain thing. To appeal to their “psychological something” by presenting things in a certain order, to make things progress in a certain way, etc. Yeah, often I shamelessly think that storywriting is a kind of psychological manipulation–you write in a certain way and order to make the reader have a certain psychological response. It’s the same for the other arts like music and the visual arts. It’s all about psychological and emotional manipulation. But a good kind of manipulation, though, since I wouldn’t mind someone manipulating me to make me feel very touched and happy by a love story. I wouldn’t mind being manipulated to feeling tense and worried for a character in a horror novel either.

It’s a good point that the details will change the stories, so we shouldn’t worry about the underlying (beta sheet) structure.

About predictability, I feel more and more that different readers have different preferences for the level of predictability. Some readers want a lot of unpredictability. Whereas for some other readers, so much unpredictability will upset them or make them feel disappointed that their expectations were not fulfilled. I would be very disappointed if two characters in a story who look so right for each other end up not being together XD In general, readers expect that the Mr/ Mrs Right for the protagonist will be someone that was introduced very early in the book. If the Mr/Mrs Right turns out to be a someone that appears very late in the story, it makes many readers very dissatisfied with this “random guy/girl who appears out of nowhere”. I have a certain story in mind (and it’s very famous), but I won’t say which here, because it’s a major spoiler, lol.

More about predictability: I find that readers of different genres may have different expectations too. I recently realized that literary classics tend to have pretty predictable plots—it’s so obvious that the character will end up: committing adultery, committing suicide, dying/ getting killed, murdering so-and-so, raping so-and-so, become evil, become good, fall in love with so-and-so, or marry and have kids with so-and-so. They are really quite predictable! (At least for most of them that I’ve read.)

But for other genres, it seems that there are higher expectations for unpredictable plots. It appears that for literary fiction, readers don’t care that much about surprising plots; they care more about emotional power, artistic originality of style, great word choice, etc. But for genre fiction, it seems that we don’t care as much about the above things, though they still are important, just less so than when we judge literary fiction.

Back to the point on how predictability can be good: There are certain tropes/ cliches that I WANT to see, and am very happy when I see them. Examples of tropes I like seeing:

–the villain becomes the hero’s ally/ the villain and hero are forced to work together
–a bunch of people/ creatures with different abilities come together to fight evil (like the Justice League or Pokemon, lol)
–a bad guy becomes a good guy
–a good guy becomes a bad guy
–the hero/heroine realizes that the one who is right for them (romantically) was the good and faithful friend who was always by his/her side
–the kick-ass and/ or super smart girl
–the extremely lovey-dovey couple who are still madly in love with each other even after many decades of marriage
–the stories where tons of mysteries and loose ends are lying around, but all these loose ends and mysteries are tied up and solved all at once near the end
–the most innocent/ sweet seeming person turns out to be the traitor/ spy
–the scenes where the villain/ minor or secondary character explains everything—e.g. explaining all the mysteries and weirdnesses in the plot. (Not limited to the mystery genre.)
–the character who is very secretive and mysterious, but in a moment of spontaneous trust, tells the protagonist his/her big secret
–the character who looks very strong/ confident/ all right/ decent who reveals their secrets that they are not as good as they look after all (e.g. not such a kind/ noble/ honorable person after all)
–the two characters who are always arguing with each other or not getting along, but who eventually fall in love with each other (the from hate to love arc)
–the magical creature/ tool/ prop that the hero suddenly remembers and uses to save his/her life
–the stories that talk about the rules of a game, event, or universe. E.g. I like it when they talk about the social systems/ hierarchies of another species. And I like those “you must pass this test” games where there are strict and sometimes seemingly impossible rules to follow.
–similar to the above, I shamelessly LOVE prophecies. Esp. prophecies of: a friend will betray you, guess which friend? type
–the previously seen as “useless” person/creature/ item SUDDENLY proves to be useful when all the previously seen as “useful” people/ creatures/items fail. So when all those popular superheroes are helpless against villain X, they find out that little (name of neglected superhero) has this special (and normally useless) ability is perfect to destroy the villain! And everyone loves and finally appreciates this neglected superhero in the end!

And many, many more tropes

Reply

Jami Gold July 26, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! about the psychological manipulation. 🙂 So true! We do write to provoke a certain impression and response.

Good point about the variation and balance for predictability. Some authors in some genres have “pushed the envelope” in various ways to the point that their work doesn’t fit expectations for the genre any more. Some readers love seeing something new and different, and others are disappointed by their unmet expectations.

Wow, interesting insight into the predictability of literary fiction. I generally stick with genre stories, so I’m not widely read enough in literary fiction to be able to comment, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And I’d guess your analysis of why–the focus on the characters, artistic word choice, etc.–touches on the truth as well.

Ooo, very true that one person’s “too predictable” can be another person’s favorite trope. In the romance genre, readers share recommendations for books based on tropes like “secret baby,” “friends to lovers,” “enemies to lovers,” etc. Readers are often very aware of their favorite tropes and will inhale any story with them. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

Reply

Serena Yung July 26, 2013 at 8:28 pm

LOL! We are all such shameless psychological manipulators XD

Mmm, about the balance between predictability and surprises, this reminds me of what Daniel Levitin talked about in composing music. You want the music to meet enough expectations to satisfy the listeners, but you want a little bit of surprise to keep them interested. A piece of music with too much surprise in it–too many violations of expectations–will tend to leave the listener very dissatisfied, if not annoyed. (That’s why many disliked The Rite of Spring at first. Though Stravinsky was fortunate in that people gradually began to accept and like it.)

Haha, about pushing the envelope, that reminds me of James Joyce—his Finnegans Wake was written entirely with made-up words XDDD Haha I don’t think I would ever go that far even in my wildest experiments, lol.

“Ooo, very true that one person’s “too predictable” can be another person’s favorite trope. In the romance genre, readers share recommendations for books based on tropes like “secret baby,” “friends to lovers,” “enemies to lovers,” etc. Readers are often very aware of their favorite tropes and will inhale any story with them. ”

Ah, nice way to put it! I also like the underdog becomes the admired hero trope (or rags to riches), and the humble person who works very very hard at a skill and one day becomes a world class master trope, e.g. a world-class musician. Oh! And one more favorite trope: the good leader who is mistaken for malicious intentions (or making decisions that other people THINK are treacherous/ evil), who gets shunned and rebeled against, but people eventually realize that this good leader was noble of heart after all, and all his/her decisions actually saved everyone’s lives, instead of harming them. 😀

Reply

Jami Gold July 26, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yep. Absolutely shameless. 🙂

Ha! As soon as you started talking about music, my mind went right to Rite of Spring. I can still remember the first time I heard it (along with the full ballet). Erm, my impression was not kind. 😉

So yes, many forms of art must find that balance between surprise and predictability. Thanks for the great comment!

Reply

Serena Yung July 29, 2013 at 3:38 am

Random comment: You know, I’ve actually never listened to Rite of Spring before (shame on me), so I went on Youtube just now to do so. WOAH! I LOVED IT!!! 😀 I mean, it was really disturbing, painful, and even scary at times (or most of the time XD), but it made me very uncomfortable in a good way. XD Like a successfully scary horror novel. Just love it for how extremely expressive and atmospheric it is, lol.

Reply

Jami Gold July 29, 2013 at 9:06 am

Hi Serena,

LOL! “Like a successfully scary horror novel.” What a fabulous description! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Gary Kriss July 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm

“Rite of Spring” plays on emotions, on passions. Riots broke out in the theater during its premiere. It opened up a tremendous New World both for music but for ballet.

Stravinsky knew his audience, knew what they expected and knew how to throw those expectations in the type of disorder that encourages growth.

Would that authors today knew how to get readers so inflamed that they riot over books. It would bode better for the future of publishing than one more debate over digital versus print.

Reply

Jami Gold July 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Hi Gary,

LOL! Very true. It’s hard to imagine any classic art form engaging with people to the point of riots. Now, we’re likely to see that behavior caused only by interactions with pop-culture “celebrities.” Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Gary Kriss July 27, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Please forgive my bad for posting the same reply twice above.

Allow me to give a counter example to how people might react when their expectations are broken/unmet. It’s December 27, 1927 and the curtain at New York City’s Ziegfeld Theater has just rung down on Jerome Kern’s new musical “Show Boat.” Only this was a musical unlike anything the audience members had ever seen. It certainly wasn’t what they had expected. The curtain didn’t rise again that night. There were no curtain calls. Why would there be since there was no applause. Instead people silently rose from their seats and left the theater. Also left was a terrible sense of failure in the minds of all those involved with the show. They braced themselves for a closing.

The next day, however, there were no riots. Instead there were people in lines, long lines stretching for blocks, waiting to buy tickets.

You see sometimes shattered expectations can lead to immediate appreciation.

Reply

Jami Gold July 27, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Hi Gary,

No worries! All fixed. 🙂

Interesting! So it had word of mouth going for it anyway. 🙂 Thanks for the great history lesson!

Reply

Gary Kriss July 27, 2013 at 5:24 pm

The subtext lesson: catering to expectation kills experimentation and results in stagnation.

Reply

Jami Gold July 27, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Hi Gary,

LOL! Very true. I’ve said before that every story of mine has at least one scene or aspect that I worry might be “rejected” by readers. I figure if I’m not doing that, I’m playing it too safe. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Ugh December 2, 2013 at 4:52 am

ALL Blake Snyder did was take the 5 main plot points of EVERY story and put a before stage and an after stage then called it his ‘beat sheet’ and BAM! people are always looking for the easy way out so they bought it. ANY writer with even half a brain already knew of this ‘formula’ long ago. Hell, it’s been around since the days of cavemen when stories were first invented. People act like it’s some groundbreaking method, but it’s been around since people first started telling stories, lol. Kind of obvious, really ;-P

Reply

Jami Gold December 2, 2013 at 8:16 am

Hi Ugh,

I agree these plot points have been part of stories since the beginning, but story structure doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s an insult to many fantastic writers to claim that “ANY writer with even half a brain” already knows all this. Just because story structure comes naturally to you and I doesn’t mean that’s the case with everyone.

As a freelance editor and workshop instructor, I’ve worked with plenty of authors whose stories don’t follow that formula because it’s not obvious to them. Some of them even understand beat sheets in a general way, but can’t see the beats of their story until they’re pointed out to them. Yet they’re fantastic writers in other ways–characters that come alive, strong emotional involvement, etc. We can’t be a natural at everything. 🙂

So I wouldn’t say that beat sheets or the teaching of beat sheets or story structure is unnecessary. I, for one, am grateful for the formality of beat sheets so I can more easily explain these concepts to others. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Alan Peak December 15, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Having come upon this post trying to understand what a beat sheet really is I am amazed and confused by the controversy. It is just a tool and I think Mr. Suderman was just saying that the tool is being misused.

If ten people have the same instructions for building a desk you will have ten desk that are the same. Yes the industry is afraid and things are made by committee so it is connect the dots. Perhaps the challenge is to be able to change the rules for the sake of the story.

As an editor I have a whole different take on this the beat sheet becomes the timeline. But I think we do the same thing.

Reply

Jami Gold December 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Hi Alan,

I absolutely agree that the tool can be misused. However, the message I heard from the article (and it’s possible this came more from the social media sharing I saw of the article than from the article itself) was that the problems were the fault of the beat sheet rather than the fault of those misusing the tool. I write by the seat of my pants, so I have no problems using beat sheets as guidelines rather than rules. 🙂

You’re right that a beat sheet could double as a story timeline in many circumstances. Depending on the story, that may or may not fit. Thanks for the comment!

Reply

What do you think?

53 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: