How to Place Turning Points on a Beat Sheet
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.
And of course, once we have our story outlined on a beat sheet, we can check our story structure, pacing, and all those other good things. A beat sheet even makes it easier to write a synopsis.
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
I love how you make the complex seem simple. I’ve struggled with what to put on a beat sheet and where and this has helped a lot, along with your “Plotting for Pantsers” class. Beat sheets seemed very daunting to me with all the different terminologies used. Now, I’m not so daunted by them. Sitting down and filling one out…well, that’s another matter *smiles*
Thanks for all you do!
I know you’re not alone, so I wanted to analyze how I know how to do it (because there really isn’t a secret cheat sheet 😉 ). Yet even with my knowledge, a few more things clicked for me when I wrote this post–like that “losing job” example of how it’s not the event that matters but the effect of the event.
People will sometimes tell me about something that happens in their story and ask “So does that sound like the Midpoint?” Um, it depends. 🙂 So now hopefully this will help me explain what “it depends” means. LOL! Thanks for stopping by, and good luck sitting down and filling one out!
[…] Check out this post if you struggle with knowing where a turning point should go on a beat […]
[…] desired, we can fill in the description for what plot event fulfills each of the beats to help us remember the turning points of our story. (We wouldn’t need to specify the Act […]
Does this applies to writing novellas too?
Hi Barbara, Good question! Depending on the length of the story, how much we delve into each of the beats will vary. In a full novel, the fallout from the Black Moment might encompass 1-3 scenes. In a short story, it might be half a page. But every full story (that’s not an experimental or extreme non-genre type) will have a major setback around the 75% mark. “Boy gets girl; Boy marries girl” doesn’t have enough conflict to be a story (rather than just a slice-of-life). We need the setback of “Boy loses girl” to make it a story. 🙂 So the major beats will almost always exist (in some form) in short stories and novellas. The minor beats are more flexible. In novellas, the pinch points (if they exist at all) might not be that big of a deal (especially because Pinch Point beats are good for developing subplots, which shorter stories might not have). In short stories, the Inciting Incident might happen on page one. Etc., etc. So the minor beats will often still exist in novellas, but are less prominent. And in short stories, some of the minor beats might be cut completely. In really short or extreme non-genre formats, like flash fiction or slice-of-life, both the major and minor beats might not apply at all–it depends on the message (if any) in the writing. All of the beat sheets on my site allow you to enter the estimated word count of your story and have the… — Read More »
Thank you for your answer. That was one thing I never really get. I have read countless books and blog posts about novel or short story structure, but not a single one about novellas.
Very true! I’ve written both short stories and novellas, so I’ve been-there-done-that with trying to translate these beats to different forms. 🙂 I’m glad I could help. Thanks for stopping by!
Fabulous, Jami! Sharing this link with teen and adult writers at my events, in my writing group, students, etc. Great compilation; thank you for all the work which will help so many. Kudos! 🙂
I’m happy to help. 🙂 Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for these beat sheets. They’re finally bringing order to the chaos lurking in my pantsing brain. I’m determined to save up for one of your classes (as soon as I pay the plumbers, electricians, et al).
LOL! As a pantser myself, I understand. 🙂 I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. Thanks for stopping by!
Jami ~ I’ve looked at your Excel Beat Sheet from what I thought was every angel in the past. I was certain it would help me if I could just get my head wrapped around all the things that goes on it and where to put them. It all seemed so complex. This post answers a lot of questions and has helped me so very much. I will have a copy laying by my side as I begin figuring out and entering the beats of my novel in progress.
You are an amazing teacher Jami. I have learned so much from your posts. Thanks ~ Jim Traylor
Hopefully between this and the 101 post with the Excel-specific instructions, it will all make sense. 🙂 And if not, please ask away! I’m happy to answer questions, as I obviously love talking about story structure stuff. LOL! Good luck and thanks for the comment!
I gotta admit, I haven’t used a detailed beat sheet like this. They actually overwhelm me! I follow James Scott Bell’s advice to use doorways of no return. I love how you totally nail this.
Yes, I’m a pantser, so I just use an internalized sense of story structure when drafting. But when I revise, I pull out every tool I have. 🙂
“Doorways of no return”–that’s a fantastic way to describe turning points. When there is no status quo to return to. 😀 Thanks for sharing that insight!
Excellent breakdown of the core element of structure, Jami. Your analysis is spot on.
Going to add a new resource on this subject that I’ve been following the past few months. Shawn Coyne, who is Steven Pressfield’s editor and partner, runs a site called Storygrid: http://www.storygrid.com/
If you track down the right side you’ll find a list of posts wherein Shawn breaks story structure down from the viewpoint of an experienced editor. I’ve found adding the concepts and principles he illustrates not only expands the ideas of Snyder, Brooks, and others, but brings them to clarity in a valuable way. Something you may want to take a look at.
Awesome! Thank you so much for sharing that resource. I’ll have to carve out some time to delve into that site. 😀 It’s good to “see” you again and get your insights. Thanks for stopping by!
Great to “see” you as well 😀 I actually stop by all the time, just don’t often have time to comment or am reading you on my mobile during lunch. Enjoy the resource, I know you’ll make the most of it.
Aww, thanks! And I don’t blame you–I read a lot more blogs than I ever have time to comment on. LOL! But I still can be glad to know that you’re around. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
This is a great post. The beat sheets have been very useful for planning stories, but often confusing. Especially the “Frankenstein” sheet that combined Save the Cat and Story Engineering. The different names and number beats were difficult to reconcile. Suddenly, it all makes sense. We’ve been talking about the same things all along! ZOWG!
And then you go on and really describe why these beats are important. It isn’t just “something big” it is when everything changes. At each major plot point, the protagonist steps through a mirror and their reflection changes. There can be Michael Bay sized explosions, but if the characters don’t change, it is not a major plot point.
The role of the Beat Sheet is my third epiphany. I had been looking for some magic guidance in them. And while their guidance is useful, it is not magic. More of a guideline.
There is a lot of other great stuff in this post, but I have to get back to writing. Thanks again.
Yay! I’m glad this helped things “click” for you. 😀 Your explanations are all spot on with the Michael Bay and mirror/reflections descriptions, so it sounds like you’ve got it now! Good luck and thanks for the comment!
This is exactly what I am struggling with right now Jami. It seems to me it is more difficult in a romance because a/ the antagonist is often an abstract idea, and b/ the turning points can be subtle moment of reflection. I find it hard to see the subtle moments for the more hit you over the head action of the outer plots.
I understand. 🙂 You’ve seen my Romance Beat Sheet, right? And this post goes more into the Midpoint, which is often very subtle, so that might help show how subtlety works with these beats (or this post gives an example of how a subtle “internal” event can still be a turning point).
Let me know if you have questions. I’m happy to help! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Jami, fab post! Definitely bookmarking this. The “Why now?” especially resonates as I assemble my beat sheet. Thank you!
I’m glad that made sense for you! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
Were you reading my mind? I have studied your beat sheets and thought “this is great. What do I do with it?” Now my question is answered!
Brilliant! I especially needed the insight that you can write the synopsis (hiss! claws at screen) from it. Obvious once you pointed it out.
Thanks for making my writing life easier!
LOL! I think that means that you weren’t the only one with that problem. 😀 I hope this helps. Good luck and thanks for the comment!
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Hi Jami! Loving the post!
I like to take the beat sheet and break it down even further into the chapter construct. Often times many of the same types of beats can be completed within a scene. This way I’ll learn if I have enough conflict, are the stakes high enough, is the emotional “why should I care” being satisfied, etc.
I LOVE beat sheets and once I learned how to incorporate them into the chapters, they totally started to sizzle for me. I never wanted to write a chapter that wasn’t needed, and the beat sheet keeps it strong.
Definitely going to check out the romance beat sheet cause I’ve had several requests for that genre now. I have the perfect characters and settings, now just need to figure out how to do it! LOL
Exactly! Every scene should have a reason for existing. Good luck with your new story and thanks for the comment! 🙂
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