To learn story structure, we have to get comfortable with a lot of new terms: acts, turning points, beats, Midpoint, Black Moment, pinch points, etc. And just to add another level of difficulty to the task, story structure instructors tend to use different terms.
Is a “Save the Cat”-style Catalyst the same thing as an Inciting Incident? (Answer: Yes.) Is a Larry Brooks “Story Engineering”-style First Plot Point the same thing as the Plot Whisperer’s End of the Beginning? (Answer: Yes again.)
How do I know those answers? Well, it’s not because there’s a secret cheat sheet floating around with the translations for every beat sheet term. *smile*
I know those answers because the names don’t matter. If we strip away the different names, we discover that every story structure system includes beats that serve essentially the same function.
If we know the functions beats fulfill in a story, we’ll always know how to translate those story events from one story structure system to another. Once we know those functions, we’ll also be able to analyze stories (ours or others) to find the beats—and know where those turning points belong on a beat sheet.
The Basics: What Are Beats?
Beats are simply plot events that change the course of a story. Every story has events that direct the story toward its eventual end, so every story has beats.
Some 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 a formula, and yep, that is the nature of storytelling. It’s been that way since Homer and the Iliad.
The Functions of the Beats
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, stake, or goal.
We can rank beats by how much they change the story’s direction. When we do that, we see that different story structure systems agree for the most part on the beats that have a strong impact.
I created the Basic Beat Sheet to focus on the beats that we’ll find in all but the shortest of stories (or experimental, extreme non-genre type of fiction). The Basic Beat Sheet narrows down story structure to its essence and includes four major beats and four minor beats.
The 4 Major Beats
- 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.
On the Basic Beat Sheet, those are labeled (in order):
- End of the Beginning
But again, the names don’t matter. If we look at the function of the Crisis—an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution—we see how that’s the same function as the Black Moment beat. It’s the darkest moment when the protagonist has lost everything and gives up.
The 4 Minor Beats
The minor beats fill in the blanks left between those four major plot events. These aren’t required, but unless we’re writing a short 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.
On the Basic Beat Sheet, those are labeled (in order):
- Inciting Incident
- Pinch Points #1 and #2
As we get into novel-length stories, we’ll obviously include more conflict-filled scenes, but other beats that change a story’s direction aren’t required.
An Example: The Anatomy of a Beat
One question that helps us define our story is deciding “Why now?” Why is the story and whatever our protagonist’s facing happening now?
Why is the antagonist doing their villainous thing now and not last week, month, or year?
- Did they just receive the final piece to their “take over the world” machine?
- Did someone just really piss them off?
- Or did there just happen to be the perfect weather conditions to mix tornadoes and sharks?
Or if the antagonist has been active for awhile, why is our protagonist just now getting involved?
- Were they unaware of the antagonist before?
- Did the villain kidnap the protagonist’s wife and daughter?
- Or did the antagonist just really piss off the protagonist, and they decided they weren’t going to put up with it anymore?
If our story includes internal conflict for our protagonist, why are they dealing with their issues now and not last week, month, or year?
- Did they almost just die from their addictions?
- Are they trying to impress the love interest?
- Did a loved one or a boss give them an ultimatum?
The answer to the “why now?” question is usually tied to the Inciting Incident beat. The Inciting Incident triggers the change and is the answer to “why now?” That’s the same function that the Catalyst beat serves on the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, so that’s how we know those two beats are the same.
In other words, knowing the purpose of the Inciting Incident—an event that triggers the story’s changes—helps us identify what plot event in a story would fit that description, and thus, tells us where on a beat sheet that plot event would go, no matter the names used. The other beats work the same way.
3 Steps to Determining Where a Story Event belongs on a Beat Sheet
Step One: Is This Story Event a Turning Point?
Let’s first make sure a story event is important enough to go on a beat sheet at all before worrying about where it goes. *smile*
We’ve already said that turning points are the story events, either plot or character related, that mark where the story “turns” in a new direction. The new direction is usually caused by a choice or dilemma faced by the characters—a big choice or dilemma.
What defines a “big” choice or dilemma? How can we tell when a story event is a turning point and belongs on a beat sheet?
We can look for events that affect the main story question, conflict, or goal. And by “affect,” I mean they directly affect—in a new and significant way—the whole story, not just the next scene. They’ll have direct repercussions for the rest of the story—to the point that there’s no turning back for the characters without major consequences.
The triggering event in a scene—big or small, loud or quiet—doesn’t determine whether it’s a turning point. What makes the difference is if the response or the immediate results indicate significant story-sized change beyond just this scene and the next, and beyond just the normal cause-and-effect chain that links scenes together in stories.
Step Two: What Change or Effect Does This Story Event Trigger?
Once we know a story event is a turning point, we can next think about where it might fit on a beat sheet. And for that, we’re going to look at what happens next.
Back when I was comparing a Black Moment to the emotional setbacks of the big Climax/Finale, I mentioned that it’s the fallout that makes the Black Moment different.
Setbacks during the Climax might be shocking or depressing or steal the protagonist’s hope, but the protagonist pushes through those obstacles and refuses to give up. Whereas in a Black Moment, the protagonist gives up, and they might need a scene or more to work through that decision and recognize the fallout. That’s the difference.
In a romance, the Inciting Incident is often when the hero and heroine first meet. Why is that the Inciting Incident scene and not the scene when the heroine first moves into the apartment next door? After all, doesn’t the move start things in motion?
Yes, the move to the hero’s apartment complex might be a prerequisite for them meeting (although they could also meet at the coffee shop, at work, etc.), but that prerequisite event doesn’t actually change anything. It’s setup and not a turning point that would make later events inevitable in some respects.
Step Three: Where Does that Change Say We Are in the Story?
A single story event—the protagonist loses their job—could be any beat in a story:
- In a story about a character looking for a new job, losing their job would be the Inciting Incident (because it starts them on the path of the story).
- In a story about a character deciding to pursue their dream career, losing their current job would be the End of the Beginning (because it forces them to commit to the story goal of following their dream).
- In a story about a character risking their job to pursue the story goal, losing their job would be the Midpoint (because it makes them reevaluate the costs vs. the stakes).
- In a story about a character desperately trying to get by, losing their job would be the Black Moment (because they’ve just lost everything they’d been fighting for).
- In a story about a character trying to find the courage to follow their dream, losing their job would be the Climax (because it triggers their ability to do something they couldn’t do before).
In other words, it’s not the event itself that determines which beat it is. It’s the effect of the event that lets us know where we are in our story. The context makes all the difference.
Once we know that effect, we can go back to that list of the functions of the beats:
- Are they committing to the story goal for the first time? End of the Beginning
- Are they reflecting on what it will take to win now that they have a fuller picture of what they’re up against? Midpoint
- Have they lost all hope and completely given up? Crisis/Black Moment
- Is this part of the big final showdown? Climax/Finale
- Etc., etc.
Or if we write by the seat of our pants, knowing where we are in the overall story might help us steer our story in an appropriate direction. Is the scene we’re writing the Midpoint or the Black Moment? We can decide based on our word count or what else has happened. If we settle on a Black Moment, we know to include lots of fallout to the bad event, etc.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the big picture of our story when we’re down in the nitty-gritty of scenes. Hopefully this strategy of analyzing story events to line them up on any beat sheet will help us see that forest and not just be blinded by the trees. *smile*
Do you know the “why now?” of your story? Have you struggled to know which story events belong on a beat sheet or where they go? Does this post give you a clearer idea of how to analyze your story for turning points? Does the advice to look at the effect and the function make sense? Did you realize how much context matters, like how the same story event could fulfill different functions?Pin It