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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Bourbon

How To Use A Beat Sheet For Your Novel

In film and especially television writing the "beat sheet" is something that is needed to show your showrunner or director the beats of the script so they can approve the story before you spend hours and hours writing it.

It helps them "see" it. It also helps you see the big picture.

The beat sheet is an outline of your story in beats. What happens in the story beat by beat.

You open your notebook, notecards, or even Word/Scrivener (I like to use Scrivener for this) and literally write out the beats like this.

Scene 1--this happens

Scene 2--this happens


Now, you may not know what happens in perfect order-- just write what you want to happen out. This is why I love using post-its and or notecards and the stickies in Scrivener

Scene-character finds out....

Scene--character makes this decision


If you are doing it this way, leave the scene # out until you figure it out.

Most novels have roughly 66 scenes

When you are writing them out you are making a narrative plan for your story.

Remember that every scene/beat moves the story forward. When you sit down to write your story you should always think of what is happening now and going to happen at the end.

In novels, it's always the end of the current book for your beat sheets. In television-it's always the end of your current episode, unless you are working on your series bible and that's a horse of a different color--but uses a lot of the same principles here.

For a screenplay, it's like a novel--your beats take the characters from A--the beginning to Z-the end.

Example. You are writing a story about a man who wins the lottery but must spend it all in a week without giving it away in order to prove his love to the woman he loves--or something like that-just making this up as I go for this purpose.

So your rough beats may go something like (this is when you are just figuring it out)

Scene--man goes into work

Scene--man buys lotto ticket

Scene--the woman he loves tells him that all he cares about is money

Scene--he makes a plan to prove to her that he doesn't care

Scene--man wins the lottery

Scene--woman tells him he must spend it all in a certain amount of time

Scene-man buys a house

Scene-man buys a plane

Scene-time is running out scene

Scene-man proves his love

Something like that---you would start with.

your character---this is the first beat sheet.

Harry Potter lives under the stairs

Harry Potter discovers he's a wizard

Harry Potter defeats Voldermort

(basically, book one--this is what happens)

If you want to write a love story, like a rom-com it's the same.

Harry and Sally meet and drive to New York together

Harry and Sally become friends 10 years later

Harry and Sally get together

then you go back and fill it all in.

I use the beat sheet method when I know where I'm going-as I generally am not an outliner-but it works and helps keep me on track.

Why and how to put into action for story planning.

WHY--to get organized and see the story and if it is even something that will work.

HOW--that's up to you. You can use Word/Scrivener/Contour/Save the Cat on a computer

You can use a notebook or note cards, post-its.

Just get it done so you have a road map for your story.

Then you can start drafting.

You can either do the beat sheet PRE or POST writing.

You use it PRE/before drafting to avoid things like writing in circles and having the story go nowhere.

You use it POST/revisions to fix story issues that you may be having.

There is no right or wrong way here.

For me, I like to pants it out for novels or screenplays with just an idea in my head first but always, and I mean ALWAYS, use beat sheets for making sure that it's all working nicely.

I highly recommend Save the Cat, and Story Fix both will help you with the concept of using beat sheets. Contour software has specific examples of the hero's journey on films well known and loved so you can see the beats and calls to action for your main character.

Happy writing! xo Stephanie

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