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July 3, 2018

Ask Jami: How Can We Use Beat Sheets with Short Stories?

Back of man's shaved head with text: Go Short! Using Beat Sheets with Short Stories

This past week, I received an email asking if I could create a beat sheet to use for short stories. The quick and easy answer would be to point out that all my beat sheets can be customized for any length story, but…

I love talking about story structure, so I couldn’t resist wondering if there was a better way to handle the issue at the core of the request. And this seemed like a good opportunity to dig deeper. *smile*

Today, let’s take a look at how story structure changes with our story’s length. With that knowledge, we can also figure out how beat sheets might need to adjust for short stories.

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.

I write by the seat of my pants, 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 Basics: What Are Beats?

Beats are simply plot events (including character moments like choices, dilemmas, and questions) that drive a story forward. 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 Basics, Part 2: What Is a Beat Sheet?

Beat sheets provide a visual way of “tracking” our story and its high-level structure. In particular, they focus on the main beats where the story “turns” or changes directions, and then they use MS Excel to line those beats up with page and word count numbers.

While every scene or story event should be important and involve some kind of change, not every scene will be a “turning point” and appear on a beat sheet. Depending on the detail level of our chosen beat sheet, we might identify 4 to 8 turning point scenes (such as with my Basic Beat Sheet) or up to 23 turning point scenes (such as with my Frankenstein-ish Master Beat Sheet).

We can use a beat sheet to check:

  • Does the story have a proper arc (beginning, middle, and end)?
  • Does the story have turning points (plot events or choices for the characters)?
  • Are there any missing or misplaced beats?
  • Do the scenes between beats react to the previous beat and/or lead up to the next beat?

In addition, we can check our story’s pacing by comparing where the beats are in our draft versus where the beat sheet says they should fall page-count or word-count wise * :

  • Is our story too slow in places?
  • Do we have unnecessary scenes?
  • Or have we underdeveloped an idea?

* Remember the disclaimer above. The numbers are guidelines. Story flow is more important than a beat falling right on the mark. Depending on the story, story length, and which beat, a beat or the scene it appears in might be just fine if it lands within 5-10% of the number goal.

How Does a Story’s Length Affect Its Structure?

Now that we have all that background established, let’s get back to the question: How does story structure change with a story’s length? Most obviously, a longer story needs more twists and turns than a shorter story.

Novel-Length Stories:

In novel-length stories, the long middle arc—which typically runs from the 25% mark to the 75% mark on a beat sheet—can add up to a lot of pages that we need to fill. In a novel, the middle act can require 100-200 pages or 25-50K words. That’s longer than a whole short story on its own.

How does story structure change from novels to short stories? Click To TweetBut the middle act isn’t about adding page count to drag out the tension and make the story novel-length. And the middle isn’t just a delaying tactic before we get to the “good stuff.” *smile*

Instead, the middle of our story should be the “meat” of the story, establishing conflicts and arcs. Novels need to set up obstacles and rising stakes here so the resolution in the final act won’t seem too easy and be unsatisfying. In addition, novels need subplots, deeper character development, and more attempts and failures to round out the story.

In my post about “sagging middles”, I shared insights about two types of beats that can help us fill in the blanks on those pages:

  • Pinch Point Beats: Plot events that reveal more about the antagonistic forces or increase the stakes (typically at the three-eighths and five-eighths marks).
  • Midpoint Beat: Plot event at the 50% mark that forces the characters (and the reader) to recognize all the obstacles, stakes, and odds against them, which adds meaning to their later choices and actions and will help make the final resolution seem like a real accomplishment.

Of those two, the Pinch Point beats seem more generic, right? They’re just scenes that raise the stakes or reveal problems (and could even be a scene from a villain’s point of view or one focusing on a subplot). In fact, in a novel, we’re going to have several of those types of story beats, and the “Pinch Point beats” might just be whichever ones of them occur closest to the right percentage marks (which we might then build up or emphasize to create a stronger sense of a turn).

That’s one reason why some writers prefer using one of the more complicated beat sheets. They want more direction for that long middle act in their novels, and a more complex beat sheet includes more beats to provide more ideas.

Short Stories:

Short stories are typically under 10K words (or under 8K words, according to some sources). With that length, we don’t need as many beats to fill in those middle-act pages.

So in a short story, we’re going to focus mostly on the biggest, most essential turning points:

  • 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.

In my freebie short story, Unintended Guardian, each chapter covers 25% of the story, one for each bullet point of that outline. I didn’t need to worry about subplots, Pinch Points, layers of obstacles, or twists and turns beyond the major ones.

Novelette/Novella-Length Stories:

What if our story falls somewhere in between? Novelettes are around 10-20K words long, and novellas are around 20-40K words.

As we increase the length, we can add various story structure elements to fill in the blanks. Novelettes would have a few more twists and turns, such as including Pinch Point beats. Novellas would have even more, such as adding in a subplot.

Additionally, we can flesh out some of the less major turning points that might be stripped down to the bare minimum in short stories:

  • an Inciting Incident that starts the protagonist on the path toward the conflict
  • a Denouement that shows how the protagonist has changed

How Do We Adjust Beat Sheets for Short Stories?

As I mentioned above, I offer several beat sheets of varying complexity:

  • My Basic Beat Sheet: 8 beats (can be stripped down to 4)
  • Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering Beat Sheet: 10 beats
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet: 15 beats
  • Master Beat Sheet (combines Larry and Blake’s): 23 beats

(Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Beat Sheet is character focused—rather than plot focused—and includes 11 beats. My Romance Beat Sheet is romance focused and includes 9 beats.)

Can we use beat sheets with short stories? And if so, how? Click To TweetAll of the beat sheets on my site can be customized for whatever word count we need. However, we’d have to make several tweaks to use any of the more complex beat sheets. For example, a “B Story” beat from the Save the Cat Beat Sheet likely wouldn’t exist, as that usually refers to a subplot.

So I wouldn’t recommend using anything more complex than the Story Engineering Beat Sheet for short stories. My Basic Beat Sheet is even simpler, and it’s easy to focus only on those four major beats I listed in the short story section above.

On the Basic Beat Sheet, those are labeled (in order):

  • End of the Beginning
  • Midpoint
  • Crisis (also known as the Black Moment)
  • Climax

If our story is super-short, we might even skip the Midpoint beat and think instead about the functions of the three story acts:

  • introduce and set up story problem
  • add complications
  • confront problem and resolve

With all those variables of whether we’d include Pinch Points or even the Midpoint, we can see now why I haven’t created a specific beat sheet just for short stories. The Basic Beat Sheet is the closest to what I’d come up with, and just like now, I’d tell you to ignore any beats that aren’t relevant for your story or length of story. *grin*

Any Other Beat Sheet Issues to Watch Out For?

Above, I pointed out that the percentage marks are just guidelines. For longer stories, a major turning point might occur 2 or 3 scenes after it’s “supposed to,” but if the story flow works and the pacing doesn’t drag, we wouldn’t need to worry about the discrepancy.

However, for short stories—especially with the shorter we get—we might discover that we need to be closer to the marks. If the break from Act One to Act Two happens just a page or two too late, the story might feel lopsided, with too much set up and not enough story.

In other words, for novels, we might be able to say that our turning points are “close enough” if they fall within 5-10% of the expected page or word count. However for short stories, we might need to aim for keeping our turning points within 3-5% of the expected mark.

Final Thoughts

Use the beat sheet that works best with your story length, genre, writing process, and brain functionality. If you like lots of touch points and milestones to help you write, use a more complex beat sheet. If you like simplicity, write by the seat of your pants, or are writing a shorter story, use a less complex beat sheet.

And no matter what beat sheet you end up with, remember that they’re a tool. They’re simply a way to visualize our story’s structure and pinpoint pacing issues, not a rule we should twist our story into fitting for no reason. Don’t be afraid to make them work for you. *smile*

P.S. Don’t forget to enter my Blogiversary Contest! We’re up to two winners so far, and the more comments we get, the more winners we’ll have.

Have you written any short stories? Do you have any insights to add on how they differ from longer stories? Have you used beat sheets? What type of beat sheet do you prefer (or if you haven’t used one, is there a specific type that would tempt you)? Do you have any questions about short stories or beat sheets?

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Kitt Crescendo

You know, beat sheets aren’t my thing. I find that they freeze me in my tracks, rather than let my thoughts flow. Strange, right? On the other hand, talking to a friend, bouncing ideas or thoughts? Goldmine. Ha! I just realized it could seem like I did that to go with your name, but it was completely innocent.

Also, I kinda grinned to myself when I saw you also listed the word breakdown for the different categories based on size. I was just explaining this to a co-worker who’d taken an interest in my work. 🙂

Elizabeth Randolph

I’ve written a few very short stories recently, 500-1500 words. Introduce person and problem, action (perhaps with growing frustration or fear), crisis, ending (maybe with a twist). It was challenging but fun to put four stages in a teeny story.

Glynis Jolly

I’m really not that much into writing short stories these days. However, Jami, your recap of how beat sheets work and help is something I wasn’t grasping before. I think I was missing the summary or something. Anyway, I have put your words in my journal so I won’t forget.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks!

Sieran

Hey Jami!

Recently, I read an article about a creative writing student who wrote short stories where nothing was really happening. They were basically just interesting situations rather than a series of mounting events. Yet, I was under the impression that some short stories (though not all), are situations rather than a series of events. I think most readers would prefer something to actually occur in the story, though, no matter how short it is.

For my own stories, I write novel series and as it’s a series, the beats can be less straightforward. It’s the type of series where it’s actually one long story divided into several books, rather than a series divided up into multiple stand-alone novels. So in the third book, for instance, characters are already deep in the midst of things, maybe near the end of the middle beat. Do you have any advice or thoughts on using beat sheets for long novel series? (I think each book should still have a sense of escalation and climax near the end, though. Even if they are mini climaxes or “interim climaxes”.)

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