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April 7, 2015

Ask Jami: Can We Use Beat Sheets with Multiple POVs?

Shelves of plaster heads with text: Using One Beat Sheet for Multiple Characters

Every once in a while, the questions I receive from writers focus on similar issues. Lately, I’ve been getting emails about how to structure complicated stories.

Many elements can make a story complex. Our story might have several subplots, a large cast, a plot filled with double-crosses and questionable loyalties, an unreliable narrator who misleads readers, etc.

But one element that can make story structure complicated is also very common: a story with multiple major characters with their own point-of-view (POV) scenes.

In a post from last year, we talked about deciding on the number of characters in our story, and we defined the different types of characters. We might have multiple main characters/protagonists (those who drive the story), or we might have multiple secondary characters who are important enough to experience change through an arc and have POV scenes.

We’ve also previously talked about how to decide whose POV we should use in a scene. In that post, I shared several reasons for why we might want to use a POV different from what the standard advice might say.

Those issues are both related to today’s questions from Annie and Ebony:

“I don’t understand how story structure works when you have multiple POVs. … Do they each have their own inciting incident?”

“Does this mean I should make more than one beat sheet?”

As a romance author, I write with multiple POVs all the time, so let’s see if we can figure out how to make beat sheets work in those situations. *smile*

First, a Disclaimer about Beat Sheets

The first thing I want to point out is that beat sheets aren’t torture devices designed to make story writing more complicated. Really. They’re simply tools to track how our story and characters develop throughout the pages so we’re maintaining the pace, stakes, etc. needed to maximize reader enjoyment.

I write by the seat of my pants, so I never even write things down with beat sheets unless I encounter problems during revisions. So I’ll be the first to say that we don’t want to stress ourselves out by overthinking beat sheets too much. As I’ve said before, they’re a tool, not a rule. *smile*

The Different Types of Arcs

If you’re familiar with the worksheets on my site, you’ve probably noticed that I have several different types of beat sheets.

  • The Save the Cat, Story Engineering, Master, and my Basic Beat Sheets are all labeled as best for tracking the plot arc.
  • The Six Stage Beat Sheet is labeled as best for tracking a character arc.
  • My Romance Beat Sheet is labeled as best for the (duh) romance arc.

There’s a reason for those labels. An arc is a description for how things change from point A to point B, and our stories can explore changes on many different levels:

  • The world might change from unsafe to safe (plot).
  • A character might change from insecure to confident (character).
  • A couple might change from apart to together (romance).

How Many Beat Sheets Are Too Many?

Already we see that we could have multiple beat sheets for a standard romance: a plot beat sheet, a hero’s character beat sheet, a heroine’s* character beat sheet, and the romance beat sheet itself. (*Or whatever combination the story follows.)

Do we need to use four beat sheets for a single story? Absolutely not. *shudders*

Some of us might have a strong handle on the plot, and we don’t need to use a plot beat sheet at all. Some of us might want to discover the character arc as we write by the seat of pants, so we don’t even want to think about character beat sheets unless we run into trouble.

But maybe we want to make sure that the romance is strong enough. In that case, we might focus on the Romance Beat Sheet and figure that the others will work themselves out.

In other words, we should use tools only when they’re helpful to us. We don’t need to make more work for ourselves or complicate our drafting process. *smile*

Multiple Characters and Beat Sheets

But let’s say we do want to track more than the basics because our complex story is giving us a headache and we want to make sure we’re not missing anything. Do we really need to coordinate all those beats?

Or let’s say we want to include all of our characters on one beat sheet. Is that possible?

  • Do all the main characters need to go through all the beats?
  • Does character A’s Inciting Incident have to be the same as character B’s Inciting Incident?
  • Etc., etc.

To answer those questions, we have to step back and look at the point of the beats. What are they really telling us about story structure?

Point #1: Beats Are Not Created Equal

I created the Basic Beat Sheet so we could focus on the most important beats, the beats that must exist to form the sense of a purposeful arc. The Major Beats are:

  • 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.

On the Basic and Romance Beat Sheets, those are labeled (in order) (but remember that the names don’t matter—only their story function matters):

  • End of the Beginning
  • Midpoint
  • Crisis
  • Climax

If our characters are main/protagonist-type characters, they probably should go through these stages of the story. Those steps outline a basic beginning, middle, and end for their arc.

Secondary characters who are strongly tied to the story might go through just the first and the last of those beats. (At the very least, if they’re involved in the story, something made them get involved, and their involvement has consequences and/or an end point.)

Point #2: Beats Might Differ from Character to Character

If we look at those Major Beats, it’s easy to see that the 25% mark “commitment point” for one character might not line up with when another character commits to the story goal. Or the 75% Black Moment point might hit characters at different times.

In a “boy loses girl” plot event, the heroine’s Black Moment might occur when she decides she has to leave the hero for xyz reason. She loses hope for the relationship and leaves. But the hero might not discover that she’s left until the next scene or chapter, and his sense of losing hope (the fallout of the Black Moment) might not really hit him until a scene or two after that.

That’s not wrong. Stories do work that way all the time. So which of those scenes “count”? Which scene should we aim for falling around the 75%* mark?

(*Remember that beats just need to be close enough to not mess up the pacing of a story. Within 5% for the Major Beats would usually be fine.)

One Arc to Rule Them All: The Story Arc

Don’t panic! The Story Arc is not yet another beat sheet we need to keep track of. The Story Arc is not about adding a fifth (or even a second) beat sheet to our pile. *smile*

Rather, the Story Arc is simply a way of thinking. When we’re dealing with multiple POV characters, the Story Arc can help us see the big picture by looking at the high level narrative drive and the reader experience for the story.

In other words, the reader experience is going to determine which of those Black Moment points would “count” for the beat sheet:

  • In one of my stories, the heroine leaves the hero for self-sacrificing reasons, and her actions are what make the moment hurt so much. She goes out of her way to prevent the hero from being able to find her, so readers lose hope during her scene that the relationship will have a happy ending. Therefore, her scene is the one that counts for the Black Moment beat.
  • In another one of my stories, the heroine is forced away from the hero against her will, but the hero blames her. His actions of distrusting and not rushing in to rescue her are what cause readers to lose hope. Therefore, his scene filled with negativity is the one that counts for the Black Moment beat.

In the Story Arc, the other beats might vary in different ways:

  • For one character, the Inciting Incident (a Minor Beat) might happen off the page before the story even starts, but the reader might not get a sense of the story’s flow until one of the other characters has their Inciting Incident.
  • The beat where characters commit (or are forced to accept) the story goal might happen at different points, but the 25% mark should happen close to when the reader feels that the story introduction is done and is now going forward in full-gear. That might occur when the first character commits and drags everyone else along, or it might occur when the last character commits and the focus isn’t on trying to convince them anymore, etc.
  • Similarly, the Midpoint might happen at different points for different characters, but the one that counts is when the reader feels the change in focus. The hero might see bigger stakes earlier in the story (maybe as part of Pinch Point #1), but the story’s focus might not change until the heroine acknowledges them too, etc.

So the Story Arc is the one that “counts” for those percentage marks for word count or page number on a beat sheet. And we determine which events and character moments “count” for the Story Arc by looking at the reader’s understanding of the story’s focus.

  • The 25% mark should be close to when the focus of the story moves forward to the story goal.
  • The 50% mark should be close to when the focus of the story adjusts to the higher stakes or moves from reactive to proactive, etc.
  • The 75% mark should be close to when the focus of the story causes the reader to lose hope of the characters reaching the story goal.

(The Climax is most of the last 25% of the story, so there’s usually no issue with that beat. The scenes will follow each other with the story flow and all contribute to the big showdown.)

So How Do We Fill Out a Beat Sheet for Multiple Characters?

As I said above, we don’t need to fill out any more beat sheets than we find helpful. If we want to create a beat sheet for each of our characters, great. If we don’t want to fill out a beat sheet for our characters, that’s okay too.

But if we do want to have more than one beat sheet so we can track our characters’ arcs, I’d suggest using the character beat sheets just for making sure they’re going through an arc. Do not worry about the page numbers for those beats. We obviously can’t have 2 or more characters all having a Midpoint beat all falling at the same page number. *smile*

Either way, to track the Story Arc, I’d suggest using whatever beat sheet works best for us (personally, I use the Basic Beat Sheet or the Romance Beat Sheet) and fill it out with the Story Arc in mind. Those are the beats that we should pay attention to as far as the word and page counts.

(In other words, I don’t fill out a beat sheet specific to plot events. I always have the Story Arc in mind for whatever beat sheet I use.)

For example, we might use the Basic Beat Sheet and fill in the Black Moment beat based the story’s Black Moment, which might mean:

  • the biggest character Black Moment (the one that will resonate with readers more) or
  • plot Black Moment that transcends any one character, yet is big enough to make readers lose hope.

Or for the Midpoint, the focus of the story might change with:

  • an external plot event or
  • an internal character arc epiphany.

There’s no wrong answer, and that’s how the various Story Arc beats could end up being “owned” by different characters. It’s all about the story.

Whatever our characters go through, or however the plot unfolds, the ultimate purpose of our story is to tell the readers a story. That’s why the Story Arc beats have precedence when it comes to the timing of those page and word counts.

We use beats to ensure that readers will experience a story that feels like it has a strong narrative drive, a tight pace, and is moving forward with purpose. That’s the point of the beats—to create a sense of the arc, the change, the momentum.

It doesn’t matter if we use two or more characters to get there, or if we use two or more beat sheets to track our story and all its arcs. It doesn’t matter if we keep track of story, plot, and character arcs in our head and don’t fill out a single worksheet.

What counts is how the story feels. Whatever tools we use to make our story feel that way are the “right” tools for our story. *smile*

Do you write stories with multiple main characters? Have you struggled with those stories’ structures and knowing whose beats counted? Does the concept of a Story Arc make sense? Does it make sense that the Story Arc is the one that counts? Do you have any questions about this perspective?

Photo credit: Berkeley

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What do you think?

17 Comments on "Ask Jami: Can We Use Beat Sheets with Multiple POVs?"

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Anne R. Tan

Hi Jami,

Thanks for this succinct post on pacing with multiple POVs. I was really struggling with this. I posted the question on several writer’s forums, and the closest I got to understanding how the story beats might work was to look at the story events, but your explanation is definitely easier to understand.

Annie

Robert
Robert

Thank you again for this excellent post. It is easy to forget but few writing rules carry a “must follow or risk utter destruction” warning label. Most are “more like guidelines” and are important only as long as they are useful. 🙂

Either for planning or revision, it can be useful to know how the major characters’ actions and emotions line up over the course of a book. I love spreadsheets and think your Beat Sheets provide excellent guidance. I’m getting ready to revise a romantic suspense and plan to use your Beat Sheets to help me balance the Basic Plot and Romance aspects.

(Full Disclosure: Somewhere, I have a spreadsheet combining Save the Cat and Story Engineering on top of the Basic Beat Sheet, along with Hauge’s Character Arc, plus a Romance and probably a Hero’s Journey. It paralyzed me for a month.)

Alisha Rohde
Alisha Rohde

Ah, this is excellent, thank you! I’m wrestling with a dual timeline story, and I knew I needed each main character to have a story arc within her timeline, but I really hadn’t thought about the *overall* story arc in terms of where the *reader* experiences the transitions and the Black Moment. Lightbulb! While I’m still wrangling each story separately, for now, I can definitely think about the overall shape even before I start revising…hurray!

Paula Millhouse

Thanks so much, Jami!
Organizing multiple plot lines is hard! I like your insight.

Nick
Nick

Your common sense view of looking at the various possible Arc’s resonates very well with Karl Iglesia’s “Writing for Emotional Impact” — the focus is and should be on the reader and the reader’s reactions/responses. With that focus as a lodestar it puts all the advice into a ‘proper’ (for me at least) perspective.

Thank you so much for your article and the numerous articles you have written before this one. 🙂

Ebony
Ebony

Thanks again for answering that question for me, Jami. The project I am working on is a multi-book genre mash-up (it’s mainly dark fantasy with some science fiction, but has paranormal/supernatural horror elements along with a few other things). There are four characters whose points of view I switch from with each chapter: the main protagonist, a deurtagonist, an antagonist, and a more anti-hero-ish character. Each of them have their own mini-arc within the story along with the overall story arc and series arc. The arcs all intertwine at different moments in the book, and some share certain beats (three of them share the resolution/ending point, though in different ways). In short, my mind is an absolute mess. You may have just saved me from another night of annoying migraines. Thank you.

Alena
Alena

Thanks for the post!

Whenever I think I need multiple beat sheets I’m quick to remind myself that the last story I tried to write with multiple POV characters, and beat sheets for each, only confused me because I spent more time trying to cross reference all of the different arcs that I nearly lost the drive for the story trying to keep all of the information straight.

For now I settle with using one beat sheet and writing all of my POV characters on that one. My “inciting incident” for one character, may be the “turning point one” in the overall story.

When I fill the beat sheet out every POV character(s) has one sentence per block, if applicable, so I’m not tempted to use more time on a beat sheet than I am writing, and the information stays in one place.

Thanks!

Ashley
Ashley

YES! Thank you!!!

I’ve been using some of your beat sheets and struggling with just this issue (never occurred to me to write a question, though!). I sensed that how I felt about the flow of the story was correct (don’t try to move Main Character #3’s “50%” beat to the midway point of her story, because it’s going to bog down in a lot of irrelevant material and slow the overall pace) but I couldn’t figure out how to match this up with what the Beat Sheets were telling me I “should” be doing. The “story arc” explanation makes so much sense. So while this post isn’t going to change what I’m doing, it’s definitely going to give me a lot more peace of mind about it. 🙂

A related question though – I have the “inciting incident” for all the main characters in the 2nd scene of what could, if I write with enough detail, be a 2-3 book story. Is that too early? I just don’t feel like there’s anything I need to tell the reader, or that the reader is going to care about, before that right-before-it-all-blows-up first scene.

Ilona Rapp

Dearest Jami,

This article is the singular best reference I have EVER found in regards to plotting a story with multiple point of view characters. The majority of information I have found is either an attempt to convince the author not to try it, or a basic character arc, with vague advice to braid it all together somehow. Over the past seven years, I have been compiling an elaborate series, which began as a single novel and became a saga. My attempts to carve out story-lines and alternate characters have been foiled by the sheer immensity of my story lines…covering several generations, and the “rules” in my head which limited my organic scene progression to specific percentage points of the novel.
Reading your article, I feel inspired, excited and enlightened. It’s as if you have freed my writing from its borrowed shackled. I cannot thank you enough. You have my sincerest gratitude.

Ilona Rapp

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