Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beat it

by Carleen Brice

Coming Sept. 6th
On her recently released mp3 talk for writers, author Tananarive Due discusses the screenwriter's beat sheet. I was intrigued by the concept. The beat sheet is a way to keep track of all the major things that should happen in a screenplay, and Due makes the case that novelists should use one too. The late Blake Synder, author of Save the Cat!, which I know some of my girlfriends here swear by, also uses beat sheets.

I'm currently finishing up a rewrite for my next book and it has dawned on me that, while I never called them beat sheets, I already use them, or my version of them. In fact, I make several to help me keep track of the arcs in the plot and subplot(s) and the arcs of the characters' growth. If you've written a novel or are trying to, you know it's hard to keep all that stuff in your head. It's easy to drop a thread. A spreadsheet helps me make like Michael Jackson.

Once I have a draft that isn't necessarily the shitty first draft, but is still sorta open, I make an Excel spreadsheet for each plot/character arc in the story and write down everything pertinent to that plot/character arc and when in the story it happens (what page number or chapter number).

For example, my main character is engaged and there are complications about whether or not the wedding is going to happen. I want to know a few things as I read through this draft to rewrite it: how often do I tell the reader about a complication? Do the complications get progressively harder? Does the reader understand how my character is feeling about things and why? Did I drop something? (i.e. do I bring up something on page 17 and then never mention it again?)

So I have a spreadsheet called "marriage progression" and I write down what my MC says, thinks or does related to getting married and in what scene it happens.

I also have Excel spreadsheets for each major character to track how they change (or not).

Using a spread sheet helps me see the bones of the story, without all the pretty skin (imagery, symbolism, metaphor) to distract me. It helps me know where it's weak, so I can make those parts stronger or get rid of them altogether.

However, I may also use a spread sheet to keep track of images and symbols to make sure I'm consistent and haven't lost one of those threads either. For example, In Chapter 1 I describe one of my characters as looking like a stork. I like that description, and the beat sheet helps me see that after the opening chapters I didn't reinforce it. So later, I'm referring to her nose as a beak.

My spread sheet system is sort of reverse outlining--outlining after you've written the story.

I'm curious, how do you make sure you don't miss a beat in plot, characters and images in your story? What do you think of beat sheets?

Carleen Brice is writing the sequel to IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING, the sequel to ORANGE MINT AND HONEY, beat by beat and releasing it chapter by chapter at Check it out!


  1. I'm a big-time beat girl. Don't know I lived without it before.

  2. An Excel spreadsheet is a little too high tech for me, but I do write everything down in a lose schematic (or graphic organizer) when I'm planning a book.

    Another great source on applying screenwriting tips to novel writing is Alexandra Sokoloff's blog:

  3. Thanks for this excellent and practical post! Love the idea of the beat sheet.

  4. Carleen, you are so much more organized than I am!!! I love this.

  5. Great downloads at Save the Cat site. Thanks for that!

    Keeping track of images and symbols.Well,that makes sense, which probably explains why I'd not been doing it.

    While I'd like to say I'm the queen of organization, the truth is I'm still a lady-in-waiting...and way back in the line.

    I did recently discover Scrivener, and it's saved my marriage because for the first two books the husband was on the verge of committing me for pre-deadline hysteria.

    Another writer friend walked me through the program and,though I still feel as if I'm using a microwave just to heat water, it's enabled me to keep track of stuff all in one place.

  6. Carleen, I think you already know I'm a Save the Cat girl ;). I love Blake Snyder's beat sheet, and I've used it ever since I started According to Jane. I don't have to plot out everything that way -- just enough to know I won't veer too terribly far off the story's structural path -- and I like having a loose guideline like that before I begin writing. (Thanks for the "Beat It" video -- haven't seen that one in a while. ;)

  7. Carleen, I'm in awe of your organization. I felt compelled to keep track of characters and plot as I worked on PASSING LOVE because the story goes back and forth in time. I never wanted one story to reveal secrets before the parallel story planted the seed. I'd love to try an Excel spreadsheet. How do you avoid getting caught up in setting up the sheet and making it look pretty?

  8. Carleen, I'm in awe too. This sounds like it would be so helpful! But how the heck do you have time for this? Lately, I feel like I'm scrambling just to get a draft written, never mind outline it later...

  9. Oh my gosh. My eyes exploded. I don't know how you do it, but it must work.

  10. Man, you're like a little organizatrix! That's great. Thanks for the tips.

  11. HAHAHAHA! These comments are ca-ra-zy! Me, organized?! Um, soooo not. The spreadsheet, as I use it is very, very simple.

    A header, which says something like: Rosalie

    Two columns: "What happens" and "when"

    Then rows that say things like: "Rosalie is wearing a negligee & a sweater." Page 79

    Because Rosalie is grieving & that's always what she's wearing. It's a reminder to me to add in the scene in which my MC notices she is no longer wearing these.

    Christa, So many people have recommended Scrivner to me, but when I looked at it, it seemed like I'd need a few months to learn it first.

    Jackie, Excel is very easy to use & I have no desire for them to look pretty, so it's real easy to avoid.

    Lucy, How do I have time? Dunno. My desk and my brain are SO disorganized that without something like this system I couldn't get a draft done. I'd be swirling in a fog trying to remember what the hell I'm supposed to be writing.

  12. I had someone walk me through Scrivener because my first encounter with it gave me two headaches. But, using the one not formatted for novels is actually easier. I found the videos confusing.

  13. "the one not formatted for novels is actually easier"= puzzling! I'll leave Scrivener alone for now.

  14. I love Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet system. I'm glad to know you use your own similar version of it. There is hope for my future books and scripts yet. Thank you for writing about your process.