I love my beat sheet. Love, love, love it. It’s basically a form of outline for a story, but because of my screenwriting background, I tend to think of stories in sequences, beats, scenes, etc.
Beats are the main “steps” of the story. For example:
Anna gets a horse for her birthday.
Anna’s father loses his job
Parents can’t afford to keep the horse.
Anna get a job at the stables to support her horse-riding.
Anna falls from a loft and breaks her leg.
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 beat sheet. 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’m just vague and add in some questions:
Anna meets someone at the hospital (male/female? a love interest?)
SEQUENCES are generally used in screenwriting (a sequence equals about 8-15 minutes of screentime), but I’ve discovered they work just as effectively for novels. Sequences are a series of scenes that act as kind of a mini-movie. They have 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.
Sequences help to break 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 and end.
For a much more detailed post about the Sequence Approach, CLICK HERE
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.
Here’s my real live process for the first sequence of Intergalactic (the YA Sci Fi story I’m writing for NaNoWriMo).
SEQUENCE 1 – Set up of characters and world
I knew idoLL was about to set off on her intergalactic tour and that (at 17), her music career was already waning. I wanted to demonstrate that her manager has been cutting corners financially. At the end of the first sequence, I wanted to have a “Houston, we have a problem” status quo change and a reveal that her manager has not exactly been up front with her.
I came up with six main beats for this opening sequence:
*idoLL has a pre-tour video chat with her manager
*idoLL has a pre-tour interview with an amateur
*idoLL discovers that her tour ship has been replaced with an older model and most of her crew let go
*She learns that the planet they are about to visit is on the brink of war
*They land, she meets the queen, and is treated bruskly
*She learns that she playing a private birthday party for the princess, and she’s not even the main act (her nemesis is)
After I had the main beats in this sequence, I went back and filled in a few details (bitty beats), to make sure that each scene had TENSION (as well as set up and foreshadowing). For instance, in the opening scene – her video conference with her manager – I added the following smaller beats:
*idoLL has a vid chat with Garrison:
-G is evasive about tour
-idoLL worries about her activist parents being out of communication
-G can’t make first tour date because he will be in court dealing with lawsuit
-G assures idoLL low #’s are only a reflection of current political climate
-idoLL worries about her nemesis Jettison Prix passing her on the T.R.E.N.D. charts
Within this one scene I’ve created the set-up for the story and the current status quo: Garrison is her somewhat fishy manager, idoLL feels abandoned by her parents and resents their cause, idoLL is worried about her waning popularity, Jettison is her nemesis and is passing her on the charts.
Because the status quo is clear, the reveal at the end of the sequence makes us empathize with her. Garrison and her parents HAVE abandoned her, the gig stinks, and Jettison is the star of the weekend. All her fears have manifested, and it’s only the first stop on her tour.
Does this sound like a lot of work? It can be. But when I’m writing the story next month, I’m going to be 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. As well, I usually rewrite my beat sheet after the first draft to assist with the rewrite.
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.