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We Got the Beat

Hello, everyone! I am excited to announce this week that I have officially finished reading through my manuscript and am now ready to begin making changes!

The biggest (and most difficult) changes for me are going to be structural. I have a lot of the main events I want somewhere in there on the page, but the order in which they happen doesn’t always make sense, and there are places where I need to insert more.

Probably wouldn’t go on this

I’m not a person who usually makes outlines, be it in writing a whole novel or in writing an essay, but I think in this case I really need to put one together. Writing an outline for a novel is something I can’t even begin to understand – there were no “Intro to Novel Writing” classes in my creative writing program at Barnard. It seemed like every course I took was geared toward writing short stories. That’s fine, there is still plenty to be learned about writing during the short story process, but the result is that I’m left with no clue how to plan for something that’s going to be 200+ pages.

Or at least, I thought I had no clue.

I was looking through my old notebooks and folders (I keep everything from school in color-coded notebooks and folders. Don’t judge.) and I came across my old screenwriting materials. It occurred to me that maybe I did have a way to outline a longer narrative: a beat sheet.

Now, I had no idea what a beat sheet was before I took screenwriting, so I’ll give you a background here. The idea is that every feature-length film can be broken down into four acts, like a play.  Each act can be broken down into a set, but somewhat flexible, number of beats. Each beat represents an event in the story, and an event can be a lot of different things. Here’s an example of a generic beat sheet:

Act 1

  1. Meet major characters
  2. Inciting Incident (why are we here? Why did the story start here?)
  3. Turning point
  4. Set up
  5. Tone/Style is established
  6. Goal of main characters is revealed
  7. Dramatic situation is established

This one I could handle

Now this isn’t a set order of operations here, but already it gives the story a shape that makes sense. I’ve always been told that stories as complicated as novels or movies should have roughly a roller coaster shape, but think about any roller coaster you’ve ever been on. Did it go straight up and then straight down? There are always more complicated twists, turns, and drops, and no two roller coasters are really the same.

Over the course of the semester I spent in this screenwriting class I had to write one of these beat sheets every week for a different film, and none of them look the same because I was watching movies across different genres that all had a different shape. I think the beat sheet will be a really helpful way for me to get the order of operations down for my story. From there, it’s easier to fill in the meat and guide the train so it hits the points on the track that I need it to hit.

What do all of you think? Is there a different method of outlining that you always rely on? Share in the comments below!

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