Category Archives: The Sequence Approach

Weekend Workout: Prepping fo NaNo (or not)

I still haven’t decided whether I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, which begins, according to the ticking clock on their website, in 19 days, 12 hours, and 42 minutes, and 30 seconds (29… 28… 27…)

Regardless of whether you are going for NaNo 2012, starting a new project, or editing an old, I cannot stress enough the fabulousness of the Sequence and Beat Sheet. It is both inspirational and practical. I used to be much more of a “pantser” when it came to writing, but being organized beforehand has done wonders for my writing process AND saved heartache while editing.

I posted about this last year before NaNo and wanted to do so again for those about to begin. So, pardon the repeat post, although it has been edited and updated.


Basically, this is a form of outline for a story. Because of my screenwriting background, I tend to think of stories in sequences, beats, scenes, etc. Studying screenwriting is extremely helpful when learning about story structure.

After I’ve done copious amounts of prewriting (i.e. I basically know what the story is about and where I want to go), I write my first Sequence and Beat Sheet.

SEQUENCES are series of scenes that act as mini-movies. They have a set up and pay off and end in a change in status quo. Large “reversals” and “reveals” can happen at the end of a sequence to make the story go in a new direction (extremely important if you want readers to keep reading).

Writing out the sequences breaks a story down into manageable “chunks.”  In novels, those chunks usually turn into chapters, although you don’t really have to worry about that just yet.

Beats are the smaller steps inside each sequence that get you from the beginning to the end. For example, in one sequence these might be your beats:

-Anna gets a horse for her birthday.
-She starts riding lessons and has natural talent.
-Anna’s father loses his job.
-Parents can’t afford to keep the horse, or the lessons, Anna devastated.

See the change in status quo? Anna started happy and optimistic, praised for her natural talent, the world is her oyster. Then, boom, no more horse, no more lessons, no more rosy future, and new tensions in the home.

The next sequence might be like this:

-Anna convinces parents to wait one more week before selling the horse.
-Anna gets a job at the stables to support her horse-riding.
-Anna falls from a loft and breaks her leg.
-She learns her leg will never heal properly without surgery, which they can’t afford. Good-bye horse-riding.

In this sequence, Anna goes from a new optimistic and rosy-future, only to crash even farther than the first time (also important for storytelling, intensify the complications as the story enfolds). These changes from the character getting closer to her goal, and then the goal being yanked from sight, are called “reversals.” This is how we empathize with characters – we want them to get their goal, and something gets in their way.

Sometimes I know exactly what’s going to happen in a sequence and my beats are more detailed. Other times I get to the middle of a sequence and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I know something must happen, so I write something vague and add in some questions:

Anna makes an ally at the hospital (male/female? a love interest?)

For an even more detailed post about the Sequence Approach, CLICK HERE

art by Jose Manuel Merello, click for source


When writing out my sequences and beats, the first thing I think about is how the “status quo” is going to change at the end of the sequence, then I write out the beats it will take to get there. I also name my sequences (what is the mini story I am telling here?)

I use this Sequence and Beat sheet as an outline when writing the story, AND I rewrite it before I do my first big edit.

Here’s the second sequence of Intergalactic (the YA Sci Fi story I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year). This is the rewritten version, not my original.

SEQUENCE 2The Rethulan Gig
For this sequence, I wanted IdoLL to start nervous and impressed with the palatial quality of this venue, only for something major to go wrong so that the gig is a bust.

I came up with main beats for this sequence:

*IdoLL and the Intergalactics land on Rethula and meet the intimidating queen, who immediately dislikes IdoLL.
*IdoLL learns that she playing a private birthday party for the princess, and she’s not the main act.
*When they arrive at the venue, it is filled with children.
*An obnoxious mini-com call interrupts her tribute to Rethula.
*IdoLL storms out of the concert.

If I need more information, I sometimes go back and fill in a few details (bitty beats), to make sure that each scene has TENSION (as well as set up and foreshadowing). For instance, in the scene where she meets the queen – I added the following smaller beats:

*IdoLL meets the Rethulan Queen:
-IdoLL is uber-impressed with the palace and all the pomp and circumstance
-The Queen appears and has a creepy way of gliding on one foot.
-She mauls IdoLL’s face with her finger nodes to make sure IdoLL is “non infectious.”
-She throws IdoLL and her bandmates into a cell-slash-greenroom and won’t let them leave due to security reasons.

The character of IdoLL is a bit of a brat, so I wanted to create a sequence where we would sympathize with her, where she is devastated and we are devastated with her. There are bits of unexpected foreshadowing with the way the queen moves and her mauling IdoLL’s face with her finger nodes, which come to fruition later in the story when the princess stows away on IdoLL’s ship. Everything here is intentional and serves a purpose in the larger story.

handwritten Sequence and Beat Sheet

Does this sound like a lot of work? It can be. But when I’m writing the story,  I’m always SO glad I have my beat sheet to follow. Even if there are some blank spaces and vague ideas. I can always fill them in when I get to that sequence.

Let me know if you have any questions about any of this! And let me know if you try your own beat sheet and, if so, how it goes.


Filed under behind the scenes, Intergalactic, NaNoWriMo, The Sequence Approach, weekend workout, writing exercises

NaNo Hangover Episode 3.5

I realized that I may have been a bit hasty recommending you all go for your rewrite without checking to see how much of your story needed to be rewritten! If it’s going to be quite the overhaul, I recommend you go back to an outline or, what I use, a sequence and beat sheet.

Don’t attempt one until you have done your This is a Story About exercise and can put your story into a logline. One or two sentences. If you can’t do that, you don’t know your story’s focus yet.

I cannot stress enough how helpful a sequence and beat sheet is. As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of designing a novel prep class solely about creating one of these.  It’s your map, your guide, your blueprint.


I mention changes in “status quo” in the above post. This can be a change in power, a solution that leads to a new mystery or change in plans, a mystery uncovered to reveal a new mystery underneath, a major setback, a traitorous act, or something else that turns up the “we’re in deep doo-doo” factor.

You must, must, must have these things to keep your story moving no matter what genre it is. And if you think of your story in chunks at the end of which is a change in status quo, you’ll find the plot practically writing itself (okay, maybe not, but that’s a nice idea).

Here are a few examples from my first novel:

SEQUENCE ONE: At the beginning I set up the status quo for the White Forest. The faeries live a pretty simple life, Brigitta’s friends are getting their wing changes before her, she is in charge of her pesky sister, her parents (and every other adult faerie) are in the middle of prepping for the Festival of the Elements. Poor Brigitta. At the end of this sequence, after we’ve learned about the forest and who she is, BOOM, a curse hits and her entire world is turned upside down. Change in status quo.

SEQUENCE TWO: It becomes more and more clear that Brigitta and her sister are the only ones untouched by the curse. They explore their forest to find every single faerie and beast turned to stone. They have no idea what to do and B is getting frustrated and scared. Then, when looking through her Auntie’s things, she remembers that there is one faerie left who was banished long ago. Their only choice is to leave the forest and find her. (change in status quo)

If your NaNo suffers from runaway plot, I highly recommend taking time out to do this.

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Filed under NaNoWriMo, Rewriting, The Sequence Approach, writing exercises

Weekend NaNo Workout: Here Sloggy! Goooood Sloggy!

Today’s Goal: 3,000 words
Actual Words: 3,114
Total Actual Words To Date: 26,481

All writers hit it. That point when you realize your characters have been crawling through air ducts for 20 pages or that the 5-page circular conversation you just wrote brought nothing new to the table. With no dramatic tension in sight, you’re starting to get bored of your own story.

That’s right. You’ve entered THE SLOG!

I definitely hit it last night, but for NaNo word count sake, I just kept going. It was mighty painful.

When I’m tired, like I was last night, I tend to slip into screenwriting mode and just start typing straight dialogue. I hit my goal, but felt completely unfocused and uninspired by my characters’ lackluster conversation.

After wallowing in the slog, I find it best to take a break, get a good night’s sleep if possible, then apply the following tools to rev things up again:

I go BACK to the idea of sequence and scene.

Approaching the story in bite-size chunks helps to keep from getting overwhelmed. Refocusing on the purpose of your current sequence and scenes will help it flow faster.

I know some people at NaNo would say “Who cares, just keep writing! It’s quantity, not quality.” But I actually think that when your story gets sloggy, if you step back and re-enter your story you’ll actually write stronger AND faster. You’ll see where you need to go, how to get there, and be more motivated to make it happen.

Here’s exactly what I did this morning when I re-entered my story after a slog session.

1)   I asked myself, What is this whole sequence about? What has to happen in this sequence?

Well, I told myself, idoLL and Jettison explore the space station, come to the conclusion they are alone, and through some series of small events they open up to each other, share a beautiful moment, and basically see each other differently than they ever had before.

2)   Perfect. Okay, then I asked myself, At the end of this sequence, what happens? What reversal upsets the status quo?

At the end of this sequence, just when idoLL and Jettison are forming some kind of new friendship, they are interrupted by Doctor Baybee. The only other sentient life-form on the space station. The status quo changes because they are no longer alone and they have no idea if they can trust Doctor Baybee or not, but they need his help.

3)   Great. I know where this sequence of scenes is going, and I know what’s going to happen at the end of it. So . . .

I set my timer for 7 minutes and I freewrote using my favourite startline: The scene that needs to be written is . . . and off I went. (I actually figured out what I wanted to do in five minutes and switched to the computer when I was inspired enough.)

Personally, I think you should do all three steps, but if you are pressed for time, at least do the first two. It will only take a few minutes and it’s guaranteed to make you feel better.


Wherever you are in your story, take a step back and see where you are in your sequence. Remember, a sequence is like a mini movie. There is a beginning, middle, and end and its strung together by scenes that have beginnings, middles, and endings.

My sequence starts as soon as idoLL and Jettison (separated from their crew/bandmates), land on the TREND space station. There is a series of scenes where they explore the station and decide they are alone. They share a moment in the atrium where we see a softer side to them both. The sequence ends as soon as Doctor Baybee interrupts their bonding session.

Set your timer for 5 minutes for the first two writing sessions and for 7-10 minutes for the 3rd one:

In this sequence, Character A discovers . . .

At the end of this sequence, Character A is surprised when  . . .

The scene that needs to be written is . . .

And for another approach to getting out of the SLOG, CLICK HERE.

Have a great weekend!


Filed under Intergalactic, The Sequence Approach, weekend workout, writing exercises