Saturday, May 26, 2018

How To Write A Novel Readers Love - The Beats

Dear Storyteller,

You have your basic story line.  But you really don’t have a clear picture of where each event fits in your story. It may look like just a bunch of things that happen without any rhyme or reason.

This is where applying story structure comes into play.

Here’s the part where I introduce the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.  If you have been familiarizing yourself (and you should be) with the Save The Cat! story crafting method, you will know what the beat sheet is. But for the sake of those of you who may not know what this excellent writing method is, I'll introduce it to you.

The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, otherwise known as the BS2, is literally a sheet where you list the important events of your story in a logical format.

Mr. Snyder had devised a logical format by identifying fifteen major story points, or beats, that every great story has. Bear in mind that he focused primarily on movies, but the Save The Cat! principles apply quite well to written narrative as well. Once you learn this method backward and forward, you'll have the ability to spot the pattern of beats in some of your favorite movies—and books.

The fifteen beats are:

1.    Opening Image
2.    Theme Stated
3.    Set-Up
4.    Catalyst
5.    Debate
6.    Break Into Two
7.    B-Story
8.    Fun And Games
9.    Midpoint (otherwise known as the Magical Midpoint)
10.  Bad Guys Close In
11.  All Is Lost
12.  Dark Night Of The Soul
13.  Break Into Three
14.  Finale
15.  Final Image

If you’ve never seen these beats before, they can be a little confusing at first. They were for me. Don’t worry. They don’t take long to learn.

I would highly recommend getting copies of the Save The Cat! and Save The Cat! Strikes Back books and reading them over and over again until you can quote each of these books word for word. Memorize the beats until you can list them in the correct order from memory.

To show you a real world example of how to use the BS2, I'll give you a short synopsis of what the story beats look like for my young adult novel, From Bad Girl To Worse.

1. Opening Image - Sandra Porter gets frustrated with her catatonic mother and her cold-hearted aunt. She leaves her house, excited about seeing her new friends, Lexie and Mack.

2. Theme Stated - While Sandra hangs out with her friends, she hears Lexie tell Mack, "He who lies down with dogs shall lie down with fleas." Sandra questions whether her newfound friends are really dogs. Her gut tells her to run away from them. Desperate for human connection, she ignores her gut. But Lexie's seemingly prophetic words stick with her.

3. Set-Up - Sandra hates her home life. She likes her newfound friends, but there's something about them that seems just a little "off". She questions whether or not they are dogs, and if she should stay friends with them. Then the rest of the misfit gang, Stan and Del, show up. Sandra immediately feels a dangerous vibe from them.

4. Catalyst - Stan, the leader of the gang, invites Sandra to hang out with them after school. Sandra doesn't like Stan. Even though she wants friends, she considers turning his invitation down. But if she does, will she lose Lexie and Mack as friends? Sandra doesn't give Stan an answer right away.

5. Debate - Sandra struggles within herself during history class. Should she hang out with the gang? Should she refuse to hang out with them, and risk being alone forever? After class, Sandra tries to avoid Lexie because she knows Lexie will ask her again. And Sandra knows that she won't be able to say "no" to her new friend. Lexie asks sweetly. Sandra's heart melts.

6. Break Into Two - Sandra accepts Lexie's invitation to hang out with her and the gang. Knowing that Mack will be there also makes the thought of hanging out with them a little easier.

7. B-Story - The friendship between Sandra and Lexie deepens. Sandra also entertains the prospect of becoming Mack's girlfriend. A relationship triangle begins to form between the three of them.

8. Fun And Games - Here's where Sandra becomes a "bad girl". She smashes windows, steals money from a teacher's suit jacket, and vandalizes a house. Being bad is so much fun. The gang members encourage her bad behavior. As much as Sandra doesn't like Stan, she's flattered by his acceptance of her. The relationship between Sandra and Mack deepens as they have an intimate conversation during a time when they're alone, just her and him. But the stakes are raised when the gang plots to break into a teacher's house and steal his gold coins, and kill the teacher if he tries to stop them. Sandra is abhorred by the idea. She runs out of their hangout, vowing to run away from them like her gut told her to. Lexie and Mack chase after her.

9. Magical Midpoint - Lexie stops Sandra. Sandra tells Lexie how unbelievably crazy the whole idea is. Lexie tells Sandra that she'd better get with Stan's program. She walks away. Mack comes to Sandra and confesses his feelings for her. Sandra falls for Mack. They engage in a passionate kiss. She decides to stay with the gang so she can stay with her new love. Lexie walks in on Sandra and Mack after they break away from their kiss, but she knows they've done something. Lexie burns inside with jealousy and storms off. Sandra and Mack walk back into the hangout, hand-in-hand, in a "coming out" gesture for the gang to see. They're now "a thing".

10. Bad Guys Close In - The gang hangs out in a park across from the teacher's house plotting the robbery. Stan chooses the day and time to commit the robbery. On the day of the robbery, Sandra considers telling her teacher, Mr. Mugford, that his life might be in danger because she and her newfound crazy friends plan to break in to his house and kill him if he tries to stop them from stealing his gold coins. But because she's now "in love" with Mack, and she wants to keep Lexie as a friend, she chooses to not tell her teacher anything. Later that night, Sandra and the gang go through with committing the break-in and the robbery. During the robbery, the teacher tries to stop them. A fierce fight breaks out when Stan and Mack try to subdue Mr. Mugford. When Mr. Mugford turns and runs away from Stan, he's stopped by Sandra at his bedroom door. Shocked, Mr. Mugford gawks at Sandra for a moment. Stan plunges the knife deep into Mr. Mugford's back. He falls to the ground and doesn't move. Sandra experiences her worst fear: Mr. Mugford is dead. She didn't want him to die. She laments over not telling him about the robbery plot. But Mr. Mugford stirs. He crawls away from Stan. Sandra holds out hope that he will live. And get away.

11. All Is Lost - Stan straddles Mr. Mugford and struggles to pull the knife out of Mr. Mugford's back, but it's stuck. After Mack holds Mr. Mugford down with his foot, Stan pulls the knife out and slits his throat. Mr. Mugford collapses on the floor. He's really dead this time.

12. Dark Night Of The Soul - The gang flees the house and regroups at their hangout. The gang begins to fall apart as each member processes what happened. Stan forces the others into a vow of silence. None of them can talk about the murder. They each go their separate ways, leaving Sandra alone. Early the next morning, Sandra agonizes over talking to someone about what happened. She calls Lexie, but Lexie doesn't answer. She goes to school, hoping to talk to Lexie, or Mack. She sees Stan and Del, who ignore her. A few minutes later, Mack approaches her, but only to tell her that they shouldn't see each other for a while. He leaves. She hopes Lexie comes to school, but Lexie doesn't show up. During homeroom period, the principal announces to the entire school that Mr. Mugford is dead. Sandra leaves school and runs to Lexie's house. Sandra finds out that Lexie committed suicide. Sandra realizes things have gone too far. Over the next weekend, she struggles with going to police about the murder or keeping her mouth shut. 

13. Break Into Three - Monday morning, Sandra resolves to go to the police. Before she leaves the house, she hugs and kisses her mother good-bye. Her mother snaps out of her catatonic state for a moment and looks at Sandra. Sandra's heart swells with joy. It's the first time in over a year that her mother has even looked at her.

14. Finale - Sandra marches into the police station and tells the desk sergeant that she information about Mr. Mugford's murder. The desk sergeant doesn't believe her at first, but Sandra convinces him that she's telling the truth. Three detectives roughly escort Sandra to an interrogation room. The lead detective instructs her to write a full confession. She complies, and writes out everything that happened. 

15. Final Image - Sandra, wearing prison clothes, is marched into a jail cell and put behind bars. She grabs the bars and thinks about everything that's happened. Instead of crying, she smiles. Even though she grieves over Lexie's and Mr. Mugford's needless deaths, she makes peace with herself because she did something right for the first time in a long time. She did the right thing by confessing everything to police. Despite what her father told her, she is a strong young woman. And she also realizes that she doesn't need others to tell her she's special. She knows it down deep in her heart. And that's worth everything to her.

By reviewing my example, you can see how this awesome story structure tool will help you plot out your novel in a clear, concise and logical format. Don’t worry about being too formulaic or rigid. Many great storytellers use this method in one way or another to craft their stories.

I can tell you that the BS2 has helped me in so many ways during my own story creation process. I’m not sure how I would have completed my first novel without it.

I believe the benefits of the BS2 shone like gold when my editor gave me glowing notes about how well structured and paced the story was. I say this not to brag. (Okay, I’m bragging just a little.) But I really say this to say…

If I can do it, so can you.

The most important thing to keep in mind when structuring your story using the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet is that it will help you chart your protagonist’s internal change. Make deadly sure that you are thinking about your protagonist's internal transformation throughout every beat you create. Otherwise, you'll still end up with just a bunch of random things that happen, strung together in a meaningless narrative that nobody wants to read.

Clearly showing your reader how your hero changes from the wretched person he was in the beginning to the new creation he emerges as in the end will make your story a novel that readers will love.

This is what you want, isn’t it?

In the next letter, I will cover in even greater detail how you can make sure your BS2 is mapping out your protagonist's internal change.

Kindest regards,

L. R. Farren
Author of From Bad Girl To Worse
and The Dangerous Way Home

P. S. – The Blake Snyder beat sheet is just one of the many story crafting tools that Disney/PIXAR uses to make some the most beloved animated films in the world.

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