Are Beat Sheets Intimidating? Cut through the Clutter

by Jami Gold on September 19, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Pencil and paper with text: Beat Sheets: Back to the Basics

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of story structure. I’ve created several beat sheets and have oodles of posts about the topic.

But I’m also not a math person, so the idea of working in Excel for all those worksheets gave me the heebie-jeebies at first. I’m probably not the only one.

It doesn’t help that beat sheets use labels that seem like a foreign language. Or that every story structure system, from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, all use different labels. Given all that confusion, it’s no wonder that the thought of using beat sheets can make our eyes cross.

Forget Fancy-Schmancy, We Need Non-Intimidating

Yet beat sheets can also be very helpful. For those who plot their stories in advance, beat sheets provide the opportunity to find and fix problems before drafting a word. For those who write by the seat of their pants, beat sheets can be invaluable too, both for light pre-planning and for revising the draft into shape.

With that in mind, maybe a stripped down version of a beat sheet would help. One that contains only the most important beats. One that doesn’t care about the labels. One that even the most intimidated author could use with ease.

Beats Are Not Created Equal

Considering all those different labels from the different story structure systems, it seems like there’s no way we could make them play nicely together. But no matter the label of a beat, if we strip away the mumbo-jumbo, we discover that different story structure systems include beats that serve essentially the same function. Why is that?

Well, beats are simply plot events that change the course of a story. Some plot events change a story’s direction more than others. We even call them “Turning Points”—because the story turns to focus on a new conflict, obstacle, stakes, or goal.

The 4 Major Beats

If we rank beats by how much they change the story’s direction, we see that different story structure systems agree for the most part on the major beats, those that really have an impact. We all probably know these without thinking too hard. Most stories will have:

  • a starting point for the main conflict:
    • an event that drags the protagonist into the situation —or—
    • an event that forces a choice to get involved.
  • something near the midpoint:
    • an event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices —or—
    • an event that adds new stakes to the situation.
  • something near the three-quarter mark:
    • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution.
  • an ending point for the main conflict:
    • an event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist.

The Minor Beats

The minor beats then fill in the blanks left between those 4 plot events. Only some of the systems include these, but if we like more direction with our stories they’re helpful to include, as they also change the story’s direction by a decent amount.

So although these aren’t required for any story, most stories will have:

  • an event that starts the protagonist on the path toward the conflict.
  • at least two events that reveal more about the antagonistic forces or increase the stakes.
  • an event in the final scene showing how the protagonist has changed.

(In regards to that middle bullet, note that most stories will include more than just two scenes of conflict, but we’re talking about the scenes that change a story’s direction. Not all scenes with conflict will do so.)

Everything Else? Eh…

Everything else, all the other beats on a beat sheet, that’s where the different story structure systems really start to argue. At that point, the secondary beats often reflect more about the system author’s philosophy on storytelling than about storytelling “must haves.”

They might want us to emphasize the theme or the “B” story or something else. But those plot events don’t change the direction of the story (at least not by a large amount), so we don’t need to know them in advance, even if we’re a plotter.

Those who want to plot out every scene in advance might find them useful, but they’re not necessary for understanding or planning our story. For those who pants their story, the other beats are just clutter and confusing.

Confused by Beat Sheets? Stick with the Basics

As a pantser, when I think about beats pre-drafting, I might have vague ideas for the major beats (which often change during the drafting process). I might even have some vague ideas about the minor beats. But I definitely don’t need the clutter of everything else.

That’s my philosophy. That’s what I use in my “Lost Your Pants?”  workshop and that’s what I cover in my “Beat Sheet Basics: Know Your Story’s Structure” workshop.

In addition to helping pantsers, this “back to basics” approach might help those who find beat sheets intimidating. Rather than trying to fill out every possible beat and keeping them all straight, writers new to beat sheets could start with a stripped down version, with just the beats that most systems agree on. Those beats are that common because they’re more integral to basic storytelling structure.

Introducing a “Back to Basics” Beat Sheet

In preparation for my WANACon presentation, I created a new beat sheet, the Basic Beat Sheet. This one sticks to just those 4 major beats and 4 minor beats listed above. That’s it. No clutter.

Basic Beat Sheet

Jami Gold’s Basic Beat Sheet (for MS Excel ’07/’10 (.xlsx) version)
Jami Gold’s Basic Beat Sheet (for MS Excel 2003 (.xls) version)

(Look at how short that thing is. Two-thirds of a page. I’m serious about the “no clutter” claim. *grin*)

So if you’ve found beat sheets intimidating before, check out this one. Like all of my beat sheets, the Basic Beat Sheet handles all the word count/page count math for checking our pacing too. Just fill in the word count (estimated or actual) up top, and the rest auto-adjusts.

If you want to test out using a beat sheet to see if they help your writing process, maybe start with this one that covers just the basics. If you want a beat sheet with more options, check out my full collection of beat sheets.

(I provide choices so everyone can find the tool that helps with their writing process. Or I’m a worksheet addict. One of the two. Or possibly both.)

And if you’re a pantser or you just like my philosophy of sticking with the basics, especially before drafting, check out my more advanced “Lost Your Pants?” workshop. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Do you find beat sheets intimidating? Do you know how to use them? If you’ve used beat sheets before, do you figure out every beat? If you skip some beats, which ones do you skip? Do you think a stick-to-the-basics beat sheet might be helpful? Do you have any questions about either of my workshops or about WANACon?

P.S. Are you new to beat sheets? Check out my Beat Sheets 101 post.

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61 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

NicoleW September 19, 2013 at 6:06 am

Yes, I find beat sheets confusing, but this one sounds refreshingly simple. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be doing a substantial rewrite of my first novel, so I might give this one a try.

Reply

Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 8:00 am

Hi Nicole,

Please let me know if you have any questions. I’m happy to explain in more depth. 🙂 Good luck on your rewrite and thanks for the comment!

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RosalindM September 19, 2013 at 7:51 am

Many thanks for the simplified sheet; I’m hoping it will successfully serve to springboard my ideas to deeper development. I’m looking forward to the class!

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Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 8:01 am

Hi Rosalind,

Yay! I’m looking forward to it too. I’m having a lot of fun putting material together for it. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Kristin Nador September 19, 2013 at 9:02 am

Thank you so much for this simple beat sheet. I have collected several thorough (read:complicated) beat sheets and tried to ‘conform’ my story structure to them, and ended up mostly frustrated. This is a great way to cover the bases, but not feel the pressure and constriction of all those ’99 beats to a great story’ -type beat sheets. Jami, you rock, as always! 🙂

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Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

Hi Kristin,

Yay! Honestly, I wasn’t sure anyone else would see the value in this, but I thought it might be useful. I’m so glad to be proven wrong. 🙂

Yes, as you said, the more complicated they are, the more the beats get into the system author’s philosophy of what should be emphasized–and that means conforming your writing to their process.

Instead, by breaking it down to the basics, people know they’ve got their bases covered. 🙂 I’m so happy to help! Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung September 19, 2013 at 1:32 pm

The way I see beat sheets, it’s basically start, set up, rising to the climax, climax, then resolution. Of course it’s more complex than that, but that’s what I see in almost all novels. Though this is psychologically the best method for engaging a reader, sometimes I get a bit tired of this same “rising to the climax” structure, even though that might sound ridiculous, lol. Like I was reading the 14th book of the Dresden files (I started book 1 this summer and I’m still reading the series XD), and I’ve gotten SO used to that standard getting tenser and tenser pattern (esp. when past the halfway point) that I’m a bit sick of it, lol. Or maybe it’s just the effect of reading 14 books from the same series in a row. XD You know how the story structure of all books from the same series tend to be the same throughout.

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Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Hi Serena,

Exactly! Too much clutter just confuses things. 🙂 The Midpoint, Crisis, and optional Pinch Points are all just there to make sure that rising to the climax (i.e. higher stakes and tension) actually happens.

I understand what you mean about how the stories in a series can feel too similar. I’ve burned out on series that way. 🙁 Thanks for the comment!

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Gary Kriss September 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Once again, Jami, you’ve proven that few are better when it comes to beat sheets based on common perceptions of structured order.

Now how about treating us to a beat sheet based on structured chaos as a means of expanding the boundaries of creative fiction.

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Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Hi Gary,

Aww, thank you! *blush*

*ponders a beat sheet based on structured chaos* *brain explodes*

LOL! I’m not sure I can conceive of that one, but if someone has the steps of any story structure system written out somewhere, I can try to put it in a form. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Gary Kriss September 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Forgive me for the added “e” in your name, Jami. I could chalk it up to a long day, but it’s really there to emphasis the “E”xcellence of your pieces.

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Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Hi Gary,

LOL! No worries. I fixed it. 🙂 I’m happy to correct anyone’s comment if they let me know, as it’s my own darn fault that I haven’t found a commenting system I’m happy with yet.

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Diana Beebe September 19, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Jami, I love your beat sheets. I really love the newer, simpler one, too. Thanks!

On the more complicated beat sheet, I added a column on the right for a description of what’s going on in the story at that beat. It’s turning this pantster into a plotter–almost! 😀

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Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Hi Diana,

LOL! Yeah, I almost feel like a “planner” sometimes, just because of those vague ideas I have, but I know that’s nothing compared to a true plotter. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc September 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm

I actually LOVE a good beat sheet! Especially one made by the amazing Jami Gold! To me, they’re so helpful. I’m not intimidated by them at all and find them necessary.
Seriously, your posts are like huge, informative all day workshops condensed into a page or two of awesomeness!!
You’re a maven!
Have a great evening and thanks for your incredible wisdom,
Tamara

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Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Hi Tamara,

LOL! Aww, thank you! I’m happy to try to make information understandable. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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K. L. Stevens (@KL_Stevens) September 20, 2013 at 8:33 am

Aaaahhh! You have no idea how happy I am to see this! I love SAVE THE CAT and MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY and STORY ENGINEERING but the different terms and conditions and stuff they put in just makes beats so… heavy. A nice, simplified version is so much love.

Thank you thank you thank you!

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Jami Gold September 20, 2013 at 8:35 am

Hi K.L.,

LOL! Yes, I love all that story structure too, but my goal is to internalize that knowledge, so I only have to think about the basics when I’m drafting. 🙂 You’re welcome–and thank you for the comment!

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chemistken September 20, 2013 at 11:00 am

I tend to only concentrate only on the four main beats when I’m outlining and writing my story. I worry about the minor beats later. My story usually undergoes so much change as I’m writing it, there’s often no point to worrying about the minor beats too early. In fact, in my current story, some of the main plot points have become moving targets as I get a better feel for the story.

Reply

Jami Gold September 20, 2013 at 11:03 am

Hi ChemistKen,

Yes, that’s a great point about things being a moving target! That’s one of the main reasons I gave up being a plotter. I focused too much on “hitting” the beats and not enough on story flow and letting it progress organically. Now I take a more laid-back approach. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Amy DeLuca September 20, 2013 at 11:57 am

Hi Jami! I’m kind of a beat sheet addict, having read all those screenplay structure books. But I’ve been trying to reconcile all the different terms and boil them down to the basic similarities. Now you’ve done it for me! Thanks for a great post and congrats on your recent contest finals.

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Jami Gold September 21, 2013 at 11:18 am

Hi Amy,

LOL! Yes, I understand the appeal. As a pantser, I don’t actually use them, but I love internalizing the structure behind them. Let me know if you have any questions. 🙂 Thanks for congrats and the comment!

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Karin S October 31, 2013 at 10:19 am

I just want to say that you are awesome! Thanks so much for the writers help and beat sheet info, love it!

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Jami Gold October 31, 2013 at 10:20 am

Hi Karin,

Aww, thank you! *blush* I’m happy to help. 🙂

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Stephanie Byard February 21, 2014 at 10:09 am

I know I’m posting on an old blog, but just gotta say thank you. This is like finding lost instructions to the Lego set. Assembly made easy. Whew! Thank you!

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Jami Gold February 21, 2014 at 10:18 am

Hi Stephanie,

LOL! Aww, thanks! And I love that analogy. 🙂

Reply

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