Beat sheets - how to plan and plot your novel
Beat sheet

Writing tips – How to plot using beat sheets

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Beat sheet

You’ve possibly heard of beat sheets – and if not, let me introduce you to the only tool able to contain my disorganised writer brain.

There are two schools of thought with working out the story behind a novel. You either plan or fly by the seat of your pants – affectionately referred to as pantsing.

I was – until a year ago – a dedicated pantser. Planning, I proclaimed, takes all the fun out of writing. I’d feel too constrained if I knew everything that was about to happen. It’s that attitude that has seen me bolt from the starting gate, pour 30,000 words of my best story ever onto electronic pages then scream to a halt, aware that whilst I know how the story might end, there’s not really enough left to turn this into an actual 80,000 word novel. At best, it’s a novella that ends abruptly.

With my next book – due out at the end of October – I decided to nub out the last fag from a packet of duds and draw up a plan. I read widely. Everyone has a different idea about what makes for a good plot and a good plan. There are three acts, five acts, hero journeys, stacks of dominoes. The thing I came to realise is what works for one writer rarely works for the next in line for a Booker nomination.

I came to accept the idea of three acts. An introduction, the action and the resolution. I also came to accept that the middle act is where it all happens, and should account for at least half of the story. More in most cases. I’d heard about beat sheets when learning about script writing and helping a fellow comic write a one-hour show.

What are beat sheets?

Beat sheet

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Beat sheets are easy to understand. Each ‘beat’ represents one block of the story. One step along the path to happy ever after – or an apocalyptic doomsday scenario, if you’re that way inclined. The first beat sets up the status quo – what the world is like before your story happens. There will be a corresponding beat at the end, setting out how things have changed. Because let’s never forget the golden rule: a plot isn’t a plot unless someone or something changes.

Act one takes the reader from the here and now (or the then and there), hints at (or explicitly states) the theme, deals with the ‘shall I or shall I not?’ of the tale and ends with what we writers stuffily call ‘the inciting incident’. After this happens, there’s no turning back – the story can’t help but unfold.

Meat and grist

Act two is the meat and grist of your story. This is where you build the post-incident world. You put your main character up a ladder and toss rocks, gradually raising the stakes and suggesting failure is within reach. Each time the stakes rise and a victory of sorts happens, you allow for a lull, let the story breathe. It can’t be action all the way, the reader needs to catch their breath. But by the same token, each time it looks like the quest is sorted, toss another rock, encourage your main character to fight back. They may even set new goals, based on knowledge gained. What they thought they wanted, isn’t the answer at all.

Act three is where you tie the ends together. Prepare your main character for ‘war’ and create the final showdown. Now is also a good time to chuck in one final twist – one last hooray for your antagonist … and then bring it all home. Show the change and type ‘the end’. An epilogue is optional.

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By Mo Fanning

Mo Fanning is a British author of dark romantic comedies including the Book of the Year nominated bestseller 'The Armchair Bride', 'Rebuilding Alexandra Small' and 2022's hit holiday romcom 'Ghosted'.

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