Using Examples to Learn Beat Sheets

by Jami Gold on March 17, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Chalkboard with text: Learning Beat Sheets by Example

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

Resources: Understanding Beats and Turning Points

Resources: How to Use Beat Sheets

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:

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?

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14 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Lara Gallin March 17, 2015 at 6:46 am

All those links to examples are a fabulous resource. I’ll admit, I wasn’t 100% sure how to use beat sheets so these are really helpful 🙂 Thanks!

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Jami Gold March 17, 2015 at 9:02 am

Hi Lara,

I often learn best from examples, so I understand. 🙂

For me, showing vs telling didn’t really click until I saw examples of how to take a “telling” sentence and change it to be “showing.” And the same thing with how to tighten sentences–examples really helped me there too. So I know how much seeing examples can help. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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K.M. Weiland March 17, 2015 at 9:04 am

Awesome post! And thanks so much for the shout out for the Database!

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Jami Gold March 17, 2015 at 9:11 am

Hi Katie,

Thank you for putting all the awesome work into it! 😀 Thanks for stopping by!

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Elizabeth Lang March 17, 2015 at 1:45 pm

I use the StC ones as a basic guideline. This is very helpful. Thanks!

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Jami Gold March 17, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Hi Elizabeth,

Yes, beat sheets are great for giving us guidelines. I write by the seat of my pants, so I just like understanding how stories are supposed to flow, and beat sheets can show us that overall structure. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Serena Yung March 18, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Interestingly, as a reader, I have an even more basic mental beat sheet for when I read novels! So there really just needs to be a beginning, middle, and end. Somewhere in the beginning, there’s the thing that starts the story (alien robots land on earth, or I’m being stalked by my own car!), then in the middle, there are complications, twists, turns, a feeling of tension all the way through and that things are rising up and up (or are “deepening”), and finally there’s a climax, and then it falls down to the resolution, and then the lovely epilogue. I heard that some readers don’t like epilogues, but I LOVE epilogues! 😀

Anyway, as long as I see that kick, that rise then that falling back down (resolution, etc), I’m a happy reader, haha. And I just realized something interesting about myself lately. I know that story critics like to praise stories for having a “tight structure” or a “clever/ organized/ strict structure” or something like that, but it just dawned on me yesterday that I personally don’t care whether the story has a “tight” structure or not! As long as I find it enjoyable and preferably exciting to read all the way through to the end!

Right now I’m reading this book that has seriously become one of my favorite books of all time(!!!!!), and I noticed that it doesn’t have a “tight/ strict” structure, not that I can see, anyway. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much structure at all! It actually feels like it’s very unstructured, in a good way. It’s really loose and free, and there are many characters and so many strands of narrative (a main plot plus multiple subplots).

And you get to know many characters in some good depth, some in amazing depth. There is no obvious structure that I could see as a reader, except that there is one SORT OF main storyline (at least I think this is the main one, it’s sort of subjective which plotline is the “main” one) plus many subplot threads. So many characters, so many plots, so many complex relationships, tons of mystery, tension, emotion…

In fact, the only “structure” or “order” I can see right now, is that things are rising up towards some climax or terrible incident. I mean there are many twists and terrible incidents and stuff in the middle, but they are just part of the complications–oh man I love complications!

Oh and this book is not at all boring, not a single boring moment. It’s like magic. So much tension and dread, etc. all the way through, such a page turner!! The emotions conveyed aren’t sadness or happiness much, they’re more like fear, anger, frustration, hatred, disgust, paranoia, disdain, helplessness, despair, madness, etc. And though this is translated from Russian to English, the word choices are so powerful, that they are so immensely emotionally satisfying to read! I mean maybe it’s the translators who are brilliant, but come on, that’s a bit cynical, lol, so I imagine that if I find the translation amazing, the original Russian text is probably even more amazing! So in love with this author, ahahaha! (Originals tend to be more powerful than the translations anyway, from my experience.)

Oh about the great word choices, they are mostly emotion words or phrases, like “indescribable excitement”. This phrase doesn’t look impressive here, but it’s such a powerful punch in the context of that scene! So, this reminds me of the conversations we had about my being more emotionally affected by emotion words than by descriptions of gestures,haha. Here is a perfect example showing that!

The character development is also unbelievably deep. Well okay, it is believable, since I’ve read two other books by this author and so expect this level of depth from him, haha. Here are some of the ways this author does such deep character development: through dialogue (what they say and how they say it); through very specific and detailed descriptions of their aura or psychological qualities, the feelings they give other characters; through the characters saying what their beliefs or philosophies are. Their philosophies of life are especially outstanding, because they are so weird (in a good way) and shocking but also so intriguing! Many are really nasty, malicious people, but they are so fascinating that you don’t mind, haha! And they have their backstories too, which makes them even more complex and developed! It’s really madness, this incredible depth and complexity of many of this author’s characters, haha.

Ok ok back to structure: I have read a book of his that was also one of my favs ever, but I have to say I like this current one I’m reading even more! The former has a much simpler and straightforward structure, and I guess would be what some critics would call as having a “tight structure”. Yet one reason why I love this current book better, is because it’s much more complicated (not so simple or straightforward), and the structure is more “unstructured” and loose, ahahaha! I suspect critics prefer a tighter structure since the simpler book is this author’s most famous work, whilst the one that I have is perhaps one of his less well known works. Not to say that the “simpler” one is “simple”, though. The psychological and philosophical sides of it are still very complex and satisfying; it’s just that the plot is more simple and straightforward, haha.

This does not mean that I always prefer complicated/ loose structure plots better than tighter structure/ simpler plots. But I am especially impressed when a complicated tangle of plots in a long novel, nevertheless manages to make a fabulous page turner, lol.

However, it might be that I misinterpreted what a “tight structure” means. But I’m just saying that now I’m reading this lovely book, yet don’t see any obvious structure to it except for the criss crossing subplots and main plot (they dive in and out) and the sense that it will rise up to a crescendo. So I concluded that plot structure wise, maybe this is all I personally need to have as a reader. I think some other readers might not like such “looseness” and “freedom” of plot like this, though, and I think I recall some people criticizing some books I love for their lack of structure. (Hey even if it lacks structure, it’s still SO enjoyable to read! :D)

For this criss crossing of plots and subplots and rising up to a crescendo, maybe we should use the image of multiple lizard dragons (the snake-like ones) rushing upwards, spiralling around each other and diving and dipping and pouncing and roaring until they reach the top. Each dragon represents one plot or subplot, and the “top” that they reach, is the big climax of the story.

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Jami Gold March 18, 2015 at 7:13 pm

Hi Serena,

You’re right that story structure can be very basic. In fact, as a pantser, I like leaving the bones basic and layering in the complexity. 🙂

As you noted in your FB message, a tightly structured story doesn’t necessarily mean simple (such as lacking in subplots). In some ways, structure is about creating the sense that the story is moving toward something–that there’s a purpose to events. So in that sense, if you have that feeling of forward movement and purpose, that is a tightly structured story. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tracy Campbell March 22, 2015 at 8:10 am

Thanks for sharing your beat sheet collection. 🙂

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Jami Gold March 22, 2015 at 10:11 am

You’re welcome, Tracy! I’m so glad people have found them helpful. 🙂

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