The Fat Lady Sings (Again) – to Beat Sheets

CORRECTION: The wonderful Jami Gold has made a correction to this post. Although a number of “Beat Sheets” below are attributed to different authors, they were actually created by Jami herself. She’s drawn from the teachings of Larry Brooks, Michael Hauge, etc. to assemble them, hence their names. The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet was created by Elizabeth Davis. Confused yet?  Don’t worry. All will become clear as you read further.
Two other suggestions from Jami: first, she recommends this link for her Scrivener Beat Sheet: jamigold.com/2013/12/can-we-use-beat-sheets-with-scrivener . And second, she provides a “clearinghouse” link for all Beat Sheets here: jamigold.com/for-writers/worksheets-for-writers.)

I’ve been seeing Fat Ladies around every corner.

fatlady finalI think I’m ready to dive into my rewrite again, then I spot another Fat Lady and I’m off into more great writing tips. So here goes the penultimate, on the fascinating subject of “Beat Sheets.”

First off, there’s no other way to say it — Jamie Gold http://jamigold.com/ is a treasure trove for writers.  I had read about “Beat Sheets” elsewhere but fortunately a link took me to Jamie’s site and its almost endless mines of writing advice. The library of blog posts on almost every facet of the writer’s craft would be valuable stuff for any author, but what sets Jamie Gold’s blog apart is a concentration on structure and how to evaluate your manuscript or your outline using “Beat Sheets.”

For those, like me, who’ve come to Beat Sheets rather late in the game, this is a method of plotting and editing that breaks down the structure of any book – and I do mean any – according to Story Beats, also known as Turning Points.  A Beat Sheet reduces the manuscript to Acts and Beats, which, depending on the version, are defined as Inciting Incident, End of the Beginning,  Pinchpoint,  Theme Stated, Catalyst, B-Story, Hook Moment, All Is Lost, and more, (many or few, again depending on whose Sheet you use). Each Beat is given a one-line description,  Pages From and To, and Word Counts From and To.  There are target ranges for the latter two.

Beat Sheets began in Hollywood as a way of evaluating scripts to make sure that they had proper dramatic tension. The late Blake Snyder invented and popularized the tool in his wildly successful “Save the Cat” books, software, and workshops.  His website http://www.savethecat.com/  BannerAd_SaveTheCat_400PixelWide.indd includes Beat breakdowns of major films. Even if you’re not much of a movie fan, reading these quick analyses  gives a potent glimpse into the value of this device. Already named Hollywood’s “Most Successful Spec Screenwriter,” Mr. Snyder is arguably the most influential Hollywood screenwriter ever because of his singular contribution of the Beat concept.

It shouldn’t go without saying that the idea of reducing any film to a succession of plot points is not without its detractors. Slate Magazine recently ran an article entitled “Save the Movie! The 2005 Screenwriting Book That’s Taken Over Hollywood—And Made Every Movie Feel The Same.”

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/07/hollywood_and_blake_snyder_s_screenwriting_book_save_the_cat.single.html

Whether or not its formulaic, and in a way it’s hard to argue that it isn’t, the Beat Sheet is a neat cheat Sheet. It’s like the old sentence diagram, which has fallen out of use in modern schools, but was something many of us grew up with.

courtesy: http://www.cullenhartley.com

courtesy: http://www.cullenhartley.com

After a few years of diagramming, most of us could look at a sentence and quickly tell whether or not its parts were all in the right place. Beat Sheets are similar guides. That Hollywood has adopted them as the Holy Grail of scriptwriting doesn’t make them any less useful to us as mystery writers.

In fact, all you have to do is read down a quick list of movies that Salon says supposedly fit into the Beat template – various “Star Trek” films,  khan2  “Skyfall,” “The Dark Knight,” “ The Avengers,” “Olympus Has Fallen” olympus2    “ Oblivion,” “ 21 Jump Street,” “Fast & Furious 6,” etc. etc. – and you know you’re into some pretty heavy stuff, creatively speaking. As Salon itself says: “It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.” Well, I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a blockbuster?

Jami Gold’s contribution to Beat Sheets has been to bring them into the realm of novel writing in a big way. First, she’s assembled the most widely used versions both from Hollywood and from other authors and distilled from them a Master Beat Sheet, a Basic Beat Sheet, and other structure specific Sheets. Secondly, she provides in-depth instruction in understanding and using the concept and the templates themselves. You can obtain all the commonly used Sheets at her site. http://jamigold.com/?s=Beat+Sheets. There’s good news for Scrivener users, too, as she’s created a dedicated Scrivener template: http://jamigold.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Jami-Golds-Template.zip

Scrivener-OutlinerAuthor Tim Stout also provides an excellent basic understanding of the fundamentals of Beat Sheets here:
https://timstout.wordpress.com/story-structure/blake-snyders-Beat-Sheet/

I suggest you read Tim’s discussion alongside Jamie’s introduction to the concept at: http://jamigold.com/2013/12/nano-wrap-up-Beat-Sheets-101/

This is Jami’s Basic Beat Sheet. (Make sure to go to Jami’s site to obtain the actual Excel Files. These are static jpeg images.) basic beat sheetAs its name implies, this is the simplest of the Beat Sheets you’re likely to find. They go up in complexity but still are contained on one page.

So you can see the possibilities, here’s the original by Blake Snyder:

Beat SheetWhile you’re at Mr. Snyder’s site, take a fun detour to the list of the dozens and dozens of movies that have been analyzed by the incredibly talented “Master Cats.”  http://www.savethecat.com/Beat-Sheets-alpha Their analyses will blow your mind. One caveat: The Master Cats use Mr. Snyder’s Beat Sheet but they all explain each Beat in depth. In other words, they don’t confine their deconstructions to one Sheet, though they all can be reduced to one page in the end.

Also visit if you have a moment http://www.savethecat.com/todays-blog/how-the-Beats-helped-a-writer-self-publish-an-amazon-hit. fate smallThe bestseller under discussion is in the steampunk genre,  but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s still a bestseller.

On to other types of Beat Sheets. Michael Hauge created one for the Character Arc:

Michael-Hauge-SpreadsheetSusan Kaye Quinn has a slightly different take on Beat Sheets. She’s created an Emotional Arc Sheet at:
http://thescribblerscove.blogspot.com/2012/04/emotional-structure-in-your-novel.html

Jami’s Romance Beat Sheet looks like this:

Romance-Beat-SheetAnd her Master Beat Sheet is — well, masterful:

master beat sheetHere’s Larry Brooks’ Beat Sheet for the Story Arc:

Story-Structure-spreadsheet-previewLarry, by the way, does a superb Beat Sheet deconstruction of “Shutter Island,” as well as other bestsellers, both in our time and in previous eras.  It’s definitely worth visiting his site for that alone. Go to: http://storyfix.com/welcome-to-shutter-island.  As with the Master Cat deconstructions, this particular one is somewhat lengthy. His single page analyses  include: “Master and Commander,” “Commodore Hornblower,” “The Lake House,” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” among others.

This is Larry’s deconstruction of the Bourne Identity:

Inciting Event: Bourne discovers his IDs at the Zurich bank.
First Plot Point: Bourne hires Marie to help him escape the Embassy and find his Paris address.
First Pinch Point: Chimp attacks Bourne in his Paris apartment.
Midpoint: Bourne and Marie abandon her car and go on the run together.
Second Pinch Point: Wombozi is assassinated, and Bourne learns he is an assassin.
Third Plot Point: Bourne kills the Professor.
Climax: Bourne calls out the Alex.
Climactic Moment: Bourne escapes the CIA trap.
Resolution: Alex is assassinated; Bourne finds Marie on the Mediterranean.

Wow.

I also love the way Larry explains the importance of Beat Sheets.  In one place, he says:

“Think of writing a story as something akin to raising a child.

“Your parenting has a very different and distinct contextual mission over the life of your child, defined in blocks of years: infant, toddler, snot-nosed kid, teen, clueless young adult, and then… too late now, they’re on their own.

“We’re just lucky if they’re even talking to us at this point.

“The reasonable parent doesn’t treat a teen the same way they’d treat an adult.  And you don’t write a Part 1 scene the way you’d write a Part 3 scene… or any other scene that isn’t in Part 1.” (emphasis added)

A great way of saying a place for everything and everything in its place – on a Beat Sheet.

Whether or not you ultimately decide to incorporate Beat Sheets in your writing arsenal, they’re definitely something to be aware of.  So, dive into the topic with your mind open – and you might just surface on the other side with a very powerful weapon indeed.

Do you have experience using Beat Sheets?  Have an example or deconstruction of a novel you’d like to share? If so, please add to the discussion. We’ll look forward to hearing from you!

~~Britt Vasarhelyi

Author of MESSAGE FROM PANAMA
and coming soon: ESCAPE TO PANAMA

6 thoughts on “The Fat Lady Sings (Again) – to Beat Sheets

  1. Hi Britt,
    Great post. I, too, love Jaime Gold’s wonderful writing tips. I downloaded her basic beat sheet but never got into it the way you have. I’m looking forward to checking out all your links. They look tremendous.
    Thanks for a thorough and interesting post.
    Margo

  2. Thanks for the shout out to my site! Just as a point of clarification, all of the beat sheets except for Save the Cat were actually created by *me* (Save the Cat was created by Elizabeth Davis). They were simply *based on* the teachings of Larry Brooks, Michael Hauge, etc. :)

    I didn’t want people to get the impression that those beat sheets were created, approved, or stamped “official” by my inspirations. 😉 Nope, just me taking what I learned from them and translating that into a beat sheet format in an Excel file so we can avoid doing math. LOL!

    Also, you linked to the Scrivener Template file, but a better link might be to the post where I talk about how to use it: http://jamigold.com/2013/12/can-we-use-beat-sheets-with-scrivener/ My files can’t be directly downloaded from an external link, and I wouldn’t want your readers to think the file was broken. :)

    I have a Worksheets for Writers page with download links to all my files. I hope that helps! Thanks again!

    • Thanks for the clarifications, Jami. Apologies for the mix-up.

      Love your site. You’ve done awesome work on beat sheets and so much else. It’s such a pleasure to read through your archives; have probably downloaded ninety percent of what you’ve ever written there. How on earth you find time to write I can’t imagine.

      Thanks again — I’ll see you back on your http://www.jamigold.com !
      Britt

  3. Great Post. I had some of these items but not all. I love all the tools that are out there to help us – and having a post to link to ones I don’t know is so useful. Thanks for all the information.

  4. Glad you found some helpful sites, Carolyn. I think we’re headed for a master post that assembles all of our recommendations and links. Mentioned it to Margo off-site and she agreed we should think about doing that — *think* being the operative word at the moment.

    Cheers!
    Britt

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