Tuesday, 3 February 2015

'Beat Sheets' for Novel Plots - Er...What?!

I've just discovered 'beat sheets'. OK - I must be a slow off the mark, because I'd never heard of them. They are used in planning a novel, showing the important events in the plot (including choices, dilemmas, and questions) and where these should fall for maximum impact. I've been calling these 'Plot Points', so far, in my own novels.

I'm intrigued by anything that can help me structure my novels better, so here's a little bit about what I've discovered about beat sheets. Thanks to Jami Gold for writing extensively on the subject.

What I didn't know, is that apparently there are lots of different 'story structure systems' out there and most agree on the major beats - those that really have an impact. These are:

Opening - (Inciting Incident) an event that pulls the main character into the situation
Around 1/2 way - (Midpoint) an event that changes the main characters goals/decisions or ups the stakes
Around 3/4 - (Crisis) an event that dashes the main character's hopes for a solution
Towards the end - (Climax) an event that puts the main character in direct conflict with the bad guy

Jami Gold's Beat Sheet 101
Like Jami, I use a three-act basic structure and according to this system, if you put in the word count, it will calculate whereabouts in a novel the four main plot events should take place (see above). Minor beats fall within the major ones, including at least two events which 'up the stakes' (Pinch Points) and an event to show how the characters have been changed by the situation (Resolution).

Some writers use this system right at the start to see where their main plot events should fall according to approximate page number. In the final stages of a novel, a writer can check that plot beats have turned up at about the right place. These don’t need to fall on exact page numbers, but more than 2-5% either side could indicate a pacing issue and too many pages between beats could indicate an unnecessary scene.

I've gone back to the novel I've just finished and...it more or less pans out as above, but with two stories running concurrently within the same book, it's not straightforward.

Question - has anyone analysed the 'great' novels to see how well they fit within this system? And is it genre specific?

Conclusion? I like using a three-act format and loosely structuring the high points using a 'gut response' within that. Number crunching feels a bit formulaic and sterile for me, but perhaps if one of my plots goes badly off the rails in terms of pace - I'll revisit it!

By the way - GIRL ON A TRAIN is selling quite nicely in UK and US right now - largely thanks to another book with a similar title!
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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