The other day, my friend Amanda made a blog post about working with a beat sheet for the first time. She titled it Beating the Cat, which should give you a hint as to how well she enjoyed the process. Her exploration of the beat sheet was motivated by changes an editor requested in a novel she’d submitted. Coincidentally, I recently received a very similar request, and in part because of her example, I broke out a beat sheet, too.
For those of you who are uninitiated, a beat sheet is a plot template grounded in Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey and constructed around a three-act structure. It’s a key part of Blake Snyder’s approach in Save the Cat, one of the best books on writing I’ve ever come across and one I think every writer should read.
(The other book every writer should read is Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon, but that’s another blog post.)
So where am I going with all this? Perhaps an erudite rehash of the material found in Mr. Snyder’s book? (Except this blog post does it so well.) Perhaps a sensitive dissection of differing plot requirements based on genre? (I’d argue there are none. A good story is a good story, whether it’s contemporary or historical or fantasy. However you dress it up, your protagonist has to start somewhere, get beat on a little, and finish up in a better place. Otherwise it’s literary fiction. Right?)
Perhaps this post should be an analysis of my own experience using the beat sheet concept?
Sure. Let’s go with that.
It’s not difficult for me to understand the bullet points on a beat sheet. The names are a little goofy, but I know there needs to be an opening image, and early on someone needs to state the theme. The protagonist needs to be confronted by a challenge, and they need to spend time dithering before finally accepting it.
All that is just fine. The hard part for me is figuring out which moments in my plot fit the bullet points on the beat sheet. For example, differentiating the bullet points leading up to the final conflict can be tricky, though I find it helps to keep in mind whether the bullet point has to do with internal or external conflict. (All Is Lost refers to the external conflict, while the Dark Night of the Soul is internal, the emotional response to events. I think.)
I’m pretty good with language, with making sure the voice of a piece is fresh and fun. I’m getting better at making sure there’s goal, motivation, and conflict built into each scene. It’s hanging it all together in a coherent narrative that gives me trouble. I mean, my plots tell a story, but they don’t always have the emotional impact they could. And that’s where the beat sheet comes in.
Last week I received a contract offer for a novella I wrote (and here’s a huge shout-out to #TeamAwesome for helping me get those words on the page). The publisher loved the characters and the setting, but felt the project needed a stronger central conflict. Now, I wrote this story as a Christmas present to myself in the end of December 2012 – beginning of January 2013, and I love it hard. I’ve actually had a couple other publishers offer me contracts for it. So why did I turn those offers down and wait for one with surgery attached?
Perhaps because, on some level, I sensed there were weaknesses, and knew that the changes suggested by the previous publishers wouldn’t address them.
Either that or because I’m essentially a masochist.
Yesterday I sat down with the editor’s comments and a blank beat sheet and got to work. Figuring out what went where, and filling in the blanks between key scenes – either by recycling existing material or creating something new – was PAINFUL. But you know what? The end result is going to be a lot stronger.
Now I just have to finish the re-write, though at least I know where I’m going.
What about you? Ever used a beat sheet? Or are you more into herding cats?