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July 23, 2013

Do Beat Sheets Lead to Formulaic Writing?

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?

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What do you think?

56 Comments on "Do Beat Sheets Lead to Formulaic Writing?"

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Melinda VanLone

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.

Davonne Burns

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.

Carradee
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… Read more »
Melissa Maygrove

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.

Marcy Kennedy

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.)

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

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

Pauline Baird Jones

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.

Megan Ryder

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.

Michael Gordon
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: 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… Read more »
Linda Adams

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!

ChemistKen

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.

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

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.

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

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

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[…] Roz Morris tells us how to pace your story so it hooks readers. One way to study your pacing is to use beat sheets. Jami Gold discusses whether beat sheets lead to formulaic writing. […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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… Read more »
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[…] Gold: Do Beat Sheets Lead to Formulaic Writing? Excerpt: “On some level, stories are formulaic. But that’s not due to the existence of beat […]

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

“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.

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

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.

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

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

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[…] we use them? From there, our conversation roamed from exploring how beats are storytelling and not the cause of formulaic writing to how beat sheets relate to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s […]

Ugh
Ugh

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

Alan Peak

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.

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[…] people don’t like the concept of beats or beat sheets because they think beats make stories too formulaic. But storytelling itself is formulaic: A protagonist faces obstacles. Boom, done. Yep, that’s […]

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[…] should treat them as a tool and not a rule. We don’t want to create formulaic stories, and if we pay more attention to getting the beats on the exact right page than to the overall […]

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[…] contrarian new to story structure might look at that list and sniff, “I don’t write to formulas.” So let’s talk about the real point of all those events: creating a better […]

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[…] This should be where we see failed attempts to solve the plot or overcome character flaws. Those failures demonstrate how tricky the story problems are. In short, the middle act is a fantastic place to ensure our story doesn’t feel shallow, simplistic, or formulaic. […]

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[…] I often have more blog post ideas than time. With my recent articles about subtext, genre stories, formulaic writing, and my guest post at Paranormal Unbound about tropes in paranormal romance, now seems like a good […]

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[…] That’s not to say that we should completely follow the formula. *smile* The “similar but different” idea means that audiences want their expectations met—but in a surprising way. […]

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