So, what exactly is a beat sheet?
For those who aren’t familiar, a beat sheet is basically an outline that covers the important moments in a story (aka the’ beats’.)
The great thing about writing, is that there’s no one way to plot a novel. You can take what you want from any of those beat sheets and make them in to your own.
Which is exactly what I did for CTNFTW!
First, I broke down my story into 4 parts or 4 acts. (Learn more about the 4 act structure here.) From there, I focused on four or five beats for each act. My beats are really more like chunks of story rather than like one particular moment. Some beat sheets have very specific events for each beat but I like to think of mine as more of a series of small events that lead to bigger ones.
Here’s what each act looks like in CTNFTW (the beat is bold):
1. First, there is an Opening Hook followed by...
2. ...an Inciting Incident (the thing that gets the story going.)
3. Next, you need to Set Up the story world and the conflict that the main character is currently in and how they interact with it. (This is usually a few scenes or chapters.)
4. Third, Stakes Rise, driven by the character’s decisions. (Again, this is usually a few scenes or chapters.)
5. Finally, those decisions end in a Climax where the character and antagonist forces collide and the protagonist has to make a big choice.
Each act has a slightly different focus, which I'll explain more, but those are the main story beats that I follow for each part. One thing that is a bit different in my beats than other methods is that I have an Opening Hook and an Inciting Incident in EACH act. This is just something to re-engage readers with the story, to up the stakes or make the conflict more personal to the protagonist. Sometimes, the incidents are consequences to decisions from the previous acts. Other times, they're antagonist attacks that change the game for my characters.
So, what's different for each act?
Act 1's Set Up and Stakes Rise are more focused on building an initial base of the story world for readers. This includes showing your character living in their world, their way. Events and the conflict are only just starting to push them to react differently or make different choices to the world around them.
In Act 2a, the focus is on the protagonist dealing with the Act 1 choices they made, so the Set Up beat includes a test of some kind to see if the protagonist is ready to make similar choices. And for Stakes Rise, I usually throw in a twist somewhere that’s an unseen consequence of those Act 1 decisions. The Act 2a Climax actually ends in a Midpoint, where the protagonist shifts their beliefs.
The Act 2b Set Up now is focused on the characters new approach toward their decisions. When the Stakes Rise, there's more twists and consequences and surprises to continue challenging the protagonist. Meanwhile, the antagonist is also doubling down in this act, making counter-decisions that keep pushing our character forward. The biggest change for Act 2b is that Climax ends in a Crisis, where the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist does happen.
In Act 3, the the stakes are super high as both the character and the antagonist forces rush toward each other for their final clash. The Set Up beats illustrate how the protagonist is reacting to the crisis and growing beyond that moment. Stakes Rise show the character rising to all the antagonists attacks and challenges. It's the hardest challenges on your character's choices and they have to stay strong in their changed beliefs. If you’re writing a positive journey, than your protagonist finally makes all the right choices, even if they’re hard, and wins out over the bad guys! Yay, the end!
This is only one type of story so it might not work for whatever you’re writing. Just like there are dozens of beat sheets, there are dozens of different types of stories. Find what works for yours! I also like to watch movies in the same genre that I’m writing to see if I can identify the beats. Understanding other stories will help you understand your own.
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