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March 17, 2015

Using Examples to Learn Beat Sheets

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 on "Using Examples to Learn Beat Sheets"

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Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

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!

K.M. Weiland

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

Elizabeth Lang

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

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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… Read more »
Tracy Campbell

Thanks for sharing your beat sheet collection. 🙂

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[…] mentioned before how we can use examples to learn beat sheets, and K.M. Weiland has a post about the ways we can analyze other stories to learn more about […]

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