Sunday, February 9, 2014

We've Got The Beat

Warning: long-ass post ahead.  Because it needs to be.

So two weeks ago, I was on another of my rambles about the plotting process being less than awesome.  Nothing new for this blog.  In the comments, Rena recommended the Beat Sheet by Blake Snyder, and in doing so, solved all my problems forever.

No, not really.  But using the sheet helped me more than I thought possible, and I honestly wouldn't have even looked at it if I hadn't been so damn frustrated.

Here's the thing: I used to read books about how to write, but I gave them up for a few reasons.  One was that one book straight-up said "Make your protagonist a male, and give him these traits.  Make your secondary protagonist a female, and give her these traits", and I figured if that was the sort of advice these books were giving, I was better off without them.  Second, I thought that I'd learn everything I needed to know about writing from both reading and writing stories.  Good books teach me what to do, bad books teach me what not to do.  Seemed simple enough.

The one major exception to my not wanting to use books about writing is Sin & Syntax.  Seriously, if you haven't read this, you're doing your prose a disfavor.  Anyway.

I'd had enough of being frustrated, and was willing to give anything a shot.  So I looked up the Beat Sheet, and found a page that explained it well.  It seemed simple enough - a set of story points to hit, and what's supposed to happen in each one.  I scoffed at first.  Was I really supposed to take a story - any story - and fit it into those narrow guidelines?  I've heard the theory that there are only seven plots, and now I'm supposed to believe that there's only one plot structure?

Then, I started thinking, because thinking too much is one of the things I do best.  (Ask anyone I work with.)  And I remembered talking about the book series 'The Dresden Files' with other people who've read it.  To those who don't know about it, the Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series about a wizard working as a detective in Chicago.  It's one of my favorite series, the 15th book comes out in three months, and yet, every single volume follows the exact same progression of events.  Harry Dresden gets involved in a problem, learns more and gets an idea of how bad it really is, gets the crap beaten out of him, finds out it's worse than he thought, gets a little help from his friends, confronts the source of the problem, and wins and/or loses at the end.  (Yes, both are possible, especially as the series has gone on.)  Dead serious here, that's every book.  And yet, I absolutely love them.

I finally realized something I should realized long ago: plot and story are not the same thing.

It seems strange and obvious at the same time.  But my favorite books, I love them for the story, the characters, the setting, not for the sequence of events that carries everything from beginning to end.  The story's the body and the soul, the plot's just the skeleton.

So, feeling more than a little naive that I hadn't come to that conclusion about fifteen years ago, I started working with the beat sheet.  I took a look at THE ACCIDENTAL WARLOCK and realized it fit nigh-perfectly into the beats.  So, of course, did the Dresden Files stories.  So did every single book I compared it to.  With that in mind and nothing to lose but time, I sat down and applied the beats to one of the plots that was frustrating me.

And wouldn't you know, it worked perfectly.

There's something about using the beat sheet that solves the main problem I have with plotting: knowing the start and the end, but having trouble with everything in between.  Using the sheet kept me moving forward, kept me asking myself "What happens next?" instead of getting stuck.  And the more I use it, the better it works.

I've applied the beat sheet to both of the plots I was struggling with two weeks ago.  One of them is now almost ready for turning into an actual book; I just need to flesh out the second half some more, since using the beat sheet led to some major changes.  The other I'm still putting together, but I know the main sequence of events, and that's a huge improvement.  Earlier this week, just to test it out, I applied the sheet to the sequel to TAW, and boom, it worked there, even when I had to make separate sections for some of the beats.  I'm still working out that one too, but again, I've got a structured plot that I can shape the story around.  That's all that matters.

Now I want to dig up all my old notes, stuff I've set aside and stuff I've abandoned in frustration, and apply the beats to those would-be stories.  I want to make them work, so I can get out all these things in my head.  I want to plot all the things.

Here's the image I've been using as a guide.  I ignore the word count, since I don't write with a total word count in mind, but it's a good quick reference.  If it works for even one person as well as it's worked for me, awesome.  If you're skeptical, trust me, give it a shot.

Next entry: on when to start, or, the paralyzing 'maybe'.


  1. DUDE! I know exactly what you mean about unhelpful books, but I just started one that I'm totally stoked about: The Anatomy of Story (John Truby). He's taking the whole plotting angle from a totally different direction, and I LOVE what I've read so far. I've tried beat sheets, but they're too "bones"-y for me. Make sense?

    1. That does make sense. I think part of why there are so many writing advice books out there is that there's no such thing as one that works for everyone. Glad you've found one that works for you, though. ^_^

  2. I'm such a fan of beat sheets. I like using the ones that calculate your word count for each of the beats (that way I can know when I'm breaking the rules!). Also, Fresh as a Daisy has a spectacular break down of the beats. (and yes, I've read craft books that I threw at the wall).

    1. I'll look that up, thanks. The work I've done so far with the beat sheets doesn't always mesh perfectly with the guidelines, but it still works, which is really all that matters.

  3. This wasn't NEARLY as long as you promised it would be ;) Seriously, though, you've convinced me to work with the beat sheet. I'll let you know how it goes...

    Oh, and I loved this: "But my favorite books, I love them for the story, the characters, the setting, not for the sequence of events that carries everything from beginning to end. The story's the body and the soul, the plot's just the skeleton." You just put into words something that I've always felt, but never been able to say. Yes - who cares if the plot is the same? The story and the characters are what make each one unique.

    1. Well, I was using the metric long-ass measurement, not the standard American long-ass. :P

      And I'm glad that helped, because it was a weird realization for me - I've always treated plot and story as meaning the same thing, until I started working with the beat sheet. Hope the sheet works out well for you. ^_^