Many writers struggle with knowing how to make their plot tight and their story flow. One technique for drafting or editing our stories into shape is using story beats.
Story beats (or turning points) are events or points in the story that direct the narrative to a new direction. They give our story a structure that can make it easier to outline in advance, to use as guidelines when writing by the seat of our pants, or to revise and edit a finished draft.
I have a whole collection of beat sheets to help us no matter whether we need more direction for plots or for characters. But it can be tricky to understand how to use beat sheets.
Let’s do a round-up of the many beat sheet and story structure resources here on my blog, and then I’ll introduce you to other resources around the web that might help us understand beat sheets.
Resources: Understanding Story Structure
- Why story structure is important for good storytelling
- How to plan story structure before drafting
- How to use beats to trigger character change
- How to make turning points drive arcs and themes
- How to use story structure to plan revisions
Resources: Understanding Beats and Turning Points
- How to decide whether a story event is a turning point
- How to place our turning points onto a beat sheet
- How to prevent a sagging middle in our story
- How to make our Black Moment really black
Resources: How to Use Beat Sheets
- How to use Excel for beat sheets
- How to use the Basic Beat Sheet
- How to use beat sheets with Scrivener
- How to use beat sheets with romance stories
- How to use beat sheets for character arcs
- How to use beat sheets to write a synopsis
Sometimes We Need to See Before We Understand
But even with all that information, we still might struggle to understand what beats look like in “real” stories or how to recognize beats in the books we read or the movies we watch. In my workshops, I’ve often had people ask me to give examples of beats from XYZ movie or book.
I understand. Sometimes seeing examples can help, and luckily for us, several blogs run “beat sheet breakdown” posts and series.
I’ve found it interesting to read through many of these examples and see how beats fit (or don’t) the story. Some of the beat sheets under the Save the Cat site admit that the movie beats don’t fit the “ideal” beat sheet.
For the Save the Cat beat sheet, that’s not surprising because StC has so many beats that some of them need to be fudged with occasionally. (Personally, I don’t use the StC beat sheet for this reason. It has too many beats and could drive us crazy if we tried to follow them all exactly. I prefer to stick with my Basic Beat Sheet.)
Resources: Beat Sheet and Story Structure Examples
Storyfix has several “deconstruction” series, including:
The Save the Cat site has many beat sheet examples, including recent movies like:
And a new resource just opened this past weekend with several more story structure breakdowns—and allows for submissions to add your own examples. Many of the examples listed fit with the same beats as on my Basic Beat Sheet.
K.M. Weiland created a Story Structure Database on her site, and she features both books and movies, including:
- Ender’s Game
- Pride and Prejudice
- The Bourne Identity
- Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Ice Age
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- The Great Gatsby
Between all of those resources, I hope we’ll be able to see what beats look like and how they fit with each other to create a story. However, as I mentioned with the Save the Cat beat sheet examples above, it’s good to recognize that beat sheets are just a guideline.
We 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 story flow, we’ll create stories with fluff or uneven pacing.
The most important beats to get close to the recommended page numbers are the 4 Major Beats:
- Near 25%, 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.
- Near 50%:
- an event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices —or—
- an event that adds new stakes to the situation.
- Near 75%:
- an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution.
- From about 80-95%, an ending point for the main conflict:
- an event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist.
However, even with those major beats, “close” might mean within 5% of the recommended page number for a novel. The other beats are even more flexible. As long as the pacing and development work, we don’t need to worry about readers counting pages to see how close we got. Luckily, novelists don’t have to be nearly as exact as screenwriters.
Above all, remember that beat sheets are a tool to help us tell good stories, not just a fill-in-the-blank form. So while we want to pay attention to the page numbers and ensure that our pace isn’t too slow or that we’re not underdeveloping an idea, good storytelling always comes first. *smile*
Are you able to analyze story structure in movies and books? Have you struggled to recognize story beats and turning points in real stories? Do examples help you understand tricky concepts? Were you familiar with these example resources before? Do you know of any other resources for story structure or beat sheet examples?Pin It