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:
1. and 2. First, there is an opening hook followed by an inciting incident (the thing that gets the story going.)
3. Next, you need to set up the world the main character lives in and how they interact with it.
4. Third, the stakes raise, driven by the character’s (usually bad) decisions.
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 looks a little different but those are the main story beats that I follow for each part.
In Act 2a, the focus is on the protagonist dealing with the choices they made, so the set up beat includes a test of that decision and when I raise the stakes, I usually throw in a twist that’s an unseen consequence of those Act 1 decisions. Act 2a ends in a midpoint climax, where the protagonist shifts their beliefs (and begins making better decisions usually.)
Act 2b also has more tests and more consequences and also more twisty surprises. Because the decisions we make always have unintended consequences and book characters are no different! The antagonist is also doubling down in this act, making counter-decisions that keep pushing our character forward. Act 2b ends in a crisis climax, where everything looks lost.
In Act 3, the structure is still the same but the stakes are super high as both the character and the antagonist forces rush toward each other and have their final clash. 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.
A version of this story appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.