by Jami Gold
If you’ve heard of beat sheets before, you might have heard about complicated forms or spreadsheets. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do math. Heck, I write my stories by the seat of my pants, so something that forces me to draft in a regimented way doesn’t appeal to me either.
Er, okay… So why am I talking to you about beat sheets when they’re a tool of outlining and a Microsoft Excel thing with lots of numbers?
It’s because everyone can use beat sheets—plotters, pantsers, and anyone in between. Trust me. *smile*
So a Beat Sheet Is a Sheet with Beats? Huh? What the heck Is a Beat?
Story beats are plot events that force the story to turn in a new direction (i.e. “turning point”). They’re the choices, dilemmas, and questions that make readers turn the pages. After each main beat or turning point, the characters will usually have new goals or motivations, or the stakes will change (until the end, the stakes should usually increase).
But not all story beats are created equal. After all, some plot events are more important than others in terms of how much the story changes directions.
Some scenes will just show the characters carrying out their plans—nothing changes for the story until they’ve either succeeded or failed and need a new goal. Other scenes are obvious turning points, like a fight with the best friend, someone dies, showdown with the bad guy, etc.
Beat sheets will usually focus on story events where the story changes directions. Together those beats create the story’s structure and make a story feel complete. They give the story a sense of a beginning, middle, and ending.
Introducing the “Important” Story Beats
Most stories can be formed with just eight beats. Short stories might have even fewer beats. People assign all kinds of names to these beats, but what’s important is their purpose and where they land in the story (approximately).
Most stories have four Major Beats:
- Starting point for the main conflict (around the 1/4 mark): The event that makes the protagonist commit to the story goal.
- Midpoint (around the halfway mark): The event that flips the reader’s and/or the protagonist’s understanding of the story’s goals, choices, or stakes.
- Black moment (around the 3/4 mark): The event that makes the protagonist lose all hope
- Ending point for the main conflict (most of the last 1/4): The event that forces the protagonist into the final battle (literal or figurative) against the antagonistic forces.
Many stories also have four Minor Beats that fill in the blanks between those Major beats:
- An event that launches the protagonist on the path toward the conflict
- Two events (one before and one after the Midpoint) that add pressure by revealing more about the antagonistic forces or increasing the stakes
- A final scene peeking into the future by showing how the protagonist has changed
Again, don’t worry about the names of these events. Just include scenes to fulfill these functions (if our story needs them) to give our story its bones.
Many story structure systems (Save the Cat, etc.) include additional beats, but these eight Major and Minor beats are the only ones we need (and even so, the Minor beats can be optional). If we’re a plotter who plans every scene in advance, we might find the secondary beats of other systems useful, but they’re not necessary for understanding or planning our story.
If we’re a pantser, we might have vague ideas for some of the beats before we start drafting, but they might also change during the drafting process. We definitely don’t need the clutter of secondary beats.
So… What’s a Beat Sheet?
Beat sheets provide a visual way of “tracking” our story and its structure. They’re often in a spreadsheet program like MS Excel—not to make things more complicated, but because Excel makes the math automatic.
(I strongly believe in no math, so all the beat sheets on my website use “auto-math.”)
On my website, I share several beat sheets, from the Basic Beat Sheet (which includes only those eight Major and Minor beats) to the Romance Beat Sheet (which maps the romance arc over those same eight beats).
I recommend the Basic Beat Sheet, as it’s good for pantsers who want just the basics and for writers new to beat sheets. (And as a bonus, I have a Scrivener template to match the Basic Beat Sheet too.)
To make the auto-math work, we simply change the Word Count field at the top of the beat sheet to an estimated or exact word count for our manuscript. Once we “enter” or click on another field within Excel, all beats will automatically adjust to show the expected page/word count marks for each beat.
Notes: In most cases we do not want to touch the page count field. This number will automatically change when we update the word count.
How Do We Use a Beat Sheet?
Okay, we have a beat sheet with beat descriptions and a bunch of numbers in columns that automatically change to match our word count. What next?
Either during pre-drafting or revisions, we can:
- ensure we have all the beats necessary for good storytelling (the 4 major beats and maybe the 4 minor beats)—look for the scenes/events that fulfill those story needs
- verify the beats create increasing tension and stakes
- make sure our story shows a change from the beginning to the ending
- see where beats should fall page-count or word-count wise and compare that to our story’s actual pacing.
By comparing the expected page number from the beat sheet and the actual page number from our manuscript, we can see the big picture of our story’s pace. The comparison of those two numbers allows us to analyze our story:
- Is our story too slow in places?
- Do we have unnecessary scenes?
- Or have we underdeveloped an idea or reaction?
Beats don’t need to fall on exact page numbers but more than 2-5% off (maybe more in some stories, or for the Minor beats) might indicate a pacing problem. Too many pages between beats might indicate an unnecessary scene.
Once we’re comfortable with beat sheets, we can tell at a glance whether our story is on track or not. However, we should not sacrifice story flow to stick to strict word or page counts. Those numbers are guidelines.
Good story flow and storytelling comes first. Just as our characters shouldn’t be puppets to the plot, we shouldn’t be puppets to the beat sheet. *smile*
If you’re interested in taking your knowledge of beat sheets further, check out my website (for posts about story structure, like a Beat Sheets 101 article), my Worksheets for Writers page (for explanations and links to each of my beat sheets), and my Workshops page.
Note: On May 8, I’ll be running my “Beat Sheet Basics: Know Your Story’s Structure” workshop, a much-expanded version of this post. Use the Promo Code “Jamisave” to save $5!
Are you familiar with beats and beat sheets? Have you used them to plan or revise your stories? Have they helped you before, and if not, what aspect did you struggle with? Do you have any questions about how to use them?
After triggering the vampire/werewolf feud with an errant typo, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in making her sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.
Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.