Using the Beats to Help You Write

Lately in this blog, I've been mentioning Jessica Brody's wonderful book, Save the Cat Writes A Novel and talking abstractly about the beats. I thought it might be a good idea to spell it out for people who are interested. So, according to this book, here are the beats of a novel:

Act 1

Beat 1: Opening Image

Beat 2: Theme Stated

Beat 3: Set-Up

Beat 4: Catalyst

Beat 5: Debate

Act 2

Beat 6: Break in 2

Beat 7: B Story

Beat 8: Fun and Games

Beat 9: Midpoint

Beat 10: Bad Guys Enter In

Beat 12: All Is Lost

Beat 13: Dark Night of the Soul

Act 3

Beat 11: Break into 3

Beat 14: Finale

Beat 15 Closing Image

That's your skeleton. Here's a handy “cheat sheet” where Jessica Brody explains the beats and give examples of how this structure works in specific novels.

There are many craft books out there. Different ones call out to different writers. I love this book because its presentation makes sense to me. There's no graphs or timelines, really, although there are percentage numbers on where beats should appear in the book. Somehow percentage numbers computer better to me than graphs or timelines.

I find it very helpful because I have learned that, as a writer, there always come a point or points in the drafts where I will go off in a tangent. Often a side character will try to steal the story, and I have to remember who this story belongs to, and what that character has set out to do. Sometimes I jump ahead in the story. It's hard to write (sometimes). It can be scary to sit down and face a blank page and listen to those voices in your head and trust them. Sometimes they're not trustworthy (my opinion), or they have a different agenda (that feels more accurate). Anyway, the great thing about the beats is that when I feel like I have wandered off into the woods—and for me, that's a definite feeling, like waking up from a drug-induced slumber and saying, “What happened? Wait a minute.” Now I can switch on my analytical brain and say, “Where am I in the story? What beat am I on? Oh, I have this delightful 'bad guys enter in' moment here, but I'm really on the 'break into 2' where I'm showing off the world has turned upside down. Those bad guys have to wait while I demonstrate how much this world has changed, and how the character is doing in trying to figure out how she fits in here.” That happened last week. It was amazing. I then began to have ideas on what to do, and I filed away that moment, that I really liked, for just a little bit later. (This is all for Book 3 of the Cats of the Afterlife series, The Deepest Growl.)

Now I've moved on and am thinking a lot about the B story. Is it strong enough? A character has stepped up. He wants to be the lead in this story. I almost took it away from him, but I think he's the right cat for the job. His nickname is Skinny. He doesn't know his real name. He's a lost cat who's regaining his life. He has appeared in both of the other books in this series, but he gets a chance to shine here, and I think that’s right.

So that's where I am right now with the beats and the first draft of this new work. I'm happy about it. I know it's rough, but I think with the beats, I'm building a strong foundation. I hope this post is helpful to you. Let me know if you're a “beat person,” too. Onward!