Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hear the Beat

For the past six months, I’ve been discussing my approach to novel planning and sharing the techniques that work best for me. Last month, I did a recap to prepare us for this final post. So let’s dive right in to the final element in outlining your manuscript: the beat sheet.

Have you head the term but never been quite sure what it is? Join the club. That’s where I was. But a beat sheet is simply an outline of your novel, a sequential, bullet-point style listing of what happens.

Beat sheets can focus on the major plot points or go into detail, including specific scenes.

The beat sheet I use, the one I’ve been leading up to for the past six months, is—and you’ve probably guessed it—detailed. Very detailed. As in a scene-by-scene outline of your story.

Is this crazy? Maybe. If you haven’t done all the exercises I’ve discussed previously. But if you have, you should be in excellent shape to take the story structure and free-write synopsis I discussed and convert those into a scene-by-scene outline.

Sound daunting? It’s not. It builds on all you’ve already done. Still unsure how to get started? Let’s break it down into steps.

Step 1: Start by creating a new document. Paste your novel hook or pitch at the very start. This is your guiding principle. When you get stuck, you will refer back to this to ensure you know where you are going with your story.

Step 2: Add the key pieces you’ve already decided on to bolster this guiding principle, such as your main character’s inside and outside story, their wound and their want, their core flaw and strength, the antagonistic force, and the main conflict.

Step 3: Place numbers from one to sixty (sixty is an average number of scenes; you may have more, or you may have less. That’s fine. But sixty gives you a place to start.).

Step 4: Fill in the bigger plot points you already know as follows:

Number 1 is your opening scene.
Number 2 is your inciting incident (if not already in number 1).
Number 12 is your first disaster/plot point.
Number 21 (or 20-22) is your first pinch point.
Number 30 is your second disaster/midpoint.
Number 36 (or 35-38) is your second pinch point.
Number 44 is your “lull.”
Number 45 is your third disaster/plot point.
Number 50 is your “epiphany.”
Number 51 is your climax.
Number 60 is your end scene.

Step 5: Pause and let it sink in that you already have eleven scenes planned out at the correct pacing. Eleven out of sixty. Less daunting right?

Step 6: Go back to that laundry line where we started filling in additional scenes, the ones that take us from plot point to plot point. From that and your free-write synopsis, you should have a fair amount of scenes just itching to be placed next to a number on your beat sheet. So add them. Start sequentially. You may be able to fill in one through ten easily. Or you may hit three and realize that the next scene you have doesn’t fit until after the midpoint. Is this a problem? Absolutely not. This is an opportunity. This is the purpose of the beat sheet. It visually shows you where you need more scenes. As you fill in what you know, you discover what you don’t.

Step 7: Now what? Brainstorm to fill in those missing scenes. It’s not easy. It doesn’t happen instantaneously. And I urge you to go slow. To go in order. To figure out each necessary scene before moving on. This may sound frustrating, and it can be. But that’s part of the process. What this does is force you to really think about your story. To ensure you know what needs to happen for every planned scene to make sense. To do this you need all the elements we’ve worked on: to know who your characters are, where they are going, what characters they interact with (subplots), what their goals are, and what’s standing in their way. As you fill in your scenes, you have the chance to find holes and problems before they become holes and problems. You can add scenes with an eye toward having accurate character motivations, completing subplots and not leaving threads hanging, ensuring you are mixing up fast-paced scenes with quieter moments, and making sure you aren’t all character and no plot or vice versa.

Step 8: Flesh out these scenes. For each scene, I like to add a few bullet points that I fill in. You can choose as few or as many as you like. But some of the elements I add include: the scene’s purpose, setting, main action, characters involved, and state of the character’s inside story at this point.

Step 9: Once you have your full outline with all scenes included and have renumbered accordingly (no bonus points for hitting that exact sixty; use as few or as many scenes as you need to tell your story), there’s one final step. Take your free-write synopsis and copy and paste the elements under the appropriate scene(s). This allows you to have one master document to write from.

Step 10: Start writing. Keep this beat sheet open beside or behind your manuscript. I am fond of checking off items on to-do lists, and I treat the beat sheet the same way. I use “strike through” to cross out the elements of my beat sheet that I use. If I find something doesn’t quite fit where I have it, and I know where it should go, I move it there. If I find something that doesn’t quite fit but don’t yet know where it goes, I highlight it. This way, as I write, I can easily scan through my beat sheet and discover what pieces I still need to use and what pieces I no longer need because the story has changed.

Hold on, that is key. No matter how great a novel planner you are, surprises happen. Things change while drafting, almost always for the better. As huge a proponent as I am for outlining, I know that the story morphs as you write. Characters aren’t who you thought they would be. Things come out differently and take unexpected turns. That’s okay. That’s great. Your outline is an outline. It should adjust with your writing. Don’t be wedded to it. Don’t be too rigid. Let it serve its purpose: to guide you and help you. If your story takes a huge turn that deviates from and negates your entire outline, let it. Adjust your outline to match, not the other way around.

Novel planning takes time. It can take anywhere from a week to a month or more. But please be assured that it isn’t “wasted” time. The draft you write from this outline will be more akin to a second draft than a first. You’ve gotten past that messy, frightening, what is this beast? draft. And that—whether you are a planner or not—is always a good thing.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Spring 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.


  1. Great articles, Lori! I read and took notes on all of them.

  2. I absolutely love beat sheets. ^_^ I use a less complex one, but that pattern helps me keep my plots-in-progress moving, and keeps me from struggling with figuring out what happens next. Highly recommended for any plotter.

  3. Thanks Grete and Mason for reading!