If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em – or How I Learned To Embrace The Beat Sheet

Hi. My name is Jeanette. And for the first three years of my writing career, I was a die-hard pantser.

So what the hell am I doing writing a blog post about embracing beat sheets?

Back at the beginning of my writer life, I found a lot of the joy of writing came from discovering my characters and my story along the way. I’d begin a book with the barest of sketches for my characters, some vague sense of how the story would begin and where it would all fall apart, and that was pretty much it. When I was writing short and novellas, it worked really well for me.

And then I decided to get serious and try writing full length novels.

It…did not go well. Two of my three first books that crossed the 70k mark have never seen the light of day, and those are just the ones I actually managed to finish. In 2012, I had a whole series of disasters where I wrote the first 25k words or so of a manuscript and then abandoned it. There just wasn’t enough there to drive the story – nowhere to go after the first kiss or—let’s be honest—the first fuck. My stories needed more structure. More conflict. Just more to keep them going past that opening act.

So in 2013, attending my first RWA National conference, I made a point of going to every plotting workshop on the schedule. Plotting intimidated me on a basic level. I loved the improvisation of pantsing. I loved the freedom. Would getting everything figured out ahead of time kill the magic?

In the end, what probably most effectively changed my process was a workshop on Save The Cat.

For those who aren’t familiar, Save The Cat is one of many beat sheets, or lists of major plot points that tend to happen in most successful stories. It has its origin in screenwriting, and as the presenter made clear, you can see its structure in a huge range of different popular movies, from Harry Potter to Legally Blonde to Midnight In Paris. How could this singular structure lead to such a wide variety of films?

Because it doesn’t dictate the story itself. It just keeps it moving along. It helps give the story resonance.

It helps make sure you have that more to drive a story along to its satisfying conclusion.

The first novel I plotted using a beat sheet from the get go was the one I eventually sold on. Did it kill the magic? Not at all.

Now, to be clear, I was not slavish in following every single note of the beat sheet. I approached the setup of the novel much the way I always had in the past. But before I set any words to paper, I looked ahead and used the beat sheet as an informal checklist to make sure I had turning points in mind. To ensure there was enough conflict driving the plot to get us to those turning points. To look ahead at the story’s end to make sure it would satisfy the questions set out on page one.

To my surprise and delight, this sort of flexible story structure still left me with plenty room for discovery and improvisation. I still learn things about the characters on page two hundred that I could never have foreseen before page one. But I fit the things I learn along the way into a well-rounded story that has enough there there to see it through to the end.

If you’ve never tried plotting with a beat sheet, I’d consider looking into it. See if it fits into your process. I never would have expected it to be a good fit for mine, but it’s now a tried and tested tool, helping me continue to write fresh stories.

And to feel confident I’ll actually finish them.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: