NaNoWriMo: Beat Sheets and Story Engineering Worksheets

There are some terms you need to know if you will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year.

  • Plotter: A writer who plots out their story with an outline, which they tend to follow for the most part during NaNoWriMo.
  • Pantser: A writer tackling NaNoWriMo with little planning and forethought, just writing by the seat of their pants.

A few years ago, a new term arose, brought to light by Angela Quarles, self-labeled a Geek Girl Romance Writer. She also offers writing advice, tutorials, and tools to help writers.

In her post about her experience and the lessons learned, she describes the two key types of writers who participate in the National Novel Writing Month challenge, and invented her own type called plotser:

What’s a plotser? A cross between a pantser and a plotter, with maybe a wee bit more emphasis on the pre-plotting.

With Hurricane Sandy and other circumstances, my new agent (signed only on Oct 4) and I weren’t able to coordinate on what direction to take for a sequel to MUST LOVE BREECHES. So for most of October, I wasn’t even sure if I was participating in NaNoWriMo. Then at the end of the month, I decided to take up a premise that had nothing to do with BREECHES so I wouldn’t waste my time writing a sequel she didn’t want.

However, that meant I’d not spent time plotting at all.

I had what I thought was a fun premise and a sense of who the H/h were and so started one day late on November 2. I caught up with everyone over the weekend and was doing swimmingly until about Day 5, then my word count dribbled downward and things ground to a halt. I had no idea where I was going with this and I didn’t like feeling that way. This wasn’t the normal ‘what I’m writing is drivel’ feeling, I really felt like all my characters were just spinning their wheels waiting for something to happen. Like the plot. Ugh.

A local writer friend sagely advised me to take a break for a week, two weeks, to figure out the plot and then do a FastDraft blitz at the end. So I did! I ended up creating a spreadsheet to help myself stay focused on what I needed to discover…

As a result of her experience, she created the Story Engineering Worksheet (Excel Spreadsheet), a spreadsheet created in Excel that breaks down all the elements of a novel into their finest detail. To download, click, on the link or right click and save to your hard drive.

Described as a “mix of the four act/part structure, and beat sheets,” the worksheet is based on the spreadsheet by Jamie Gold called a beat sheet, a worksheet that structures your plot all on one page.

Described by Storyfix in their Lessons for Writers:

The “beat sheet” is a way to sequence your story, using bullets instead of whole sentences or paragraphs.

Yes, this is an outline, but it is more than that. It is a scene structure for your novel built around basic plot points or story arcs.

Storyfix offers this example structure:

At scene #1, entitle it, “the opening.”

At scene #2, entitle it, “the hook – if that didn’t happen in scene #1.”

At scene #12, entitle it “First Plot Point.”

At scene number 20, 21 or 22, entitle it “First Pinch Point.”

At scene # 30, entitle it “mid-Point.”

At scene #36 or 37, entitle it “second Pinch Point.

At scene#44, entitle it “the Lull.”

At Scene #45, entitle it “Second Plot Point.”

The opening, hook, first plot point, first pinch point, these are all points along the traditional story arc that makes for a well-crafted novel or screenplay. Each scene may be quickly described as the scene where your main characters meet, fall in love, have sex, or someone dies, or a mystery is revealed…just a word or two to describe what needs to happen in that moment in the book. While beat sheets tend to refer specifically to screenwriting, they are used for novel writing extensively.

If you’ve been to a movie theater lately, especially to see an animated movie, you may have seen the Lava Love film. In the video below, the writer/director James Murphy talks about making the animated film that involves a love affair between two volcanoes. There is also a pirated version you may watch online of the film.

Update: They’ve released a legal version on YouTube.

The film is about seven minutes long and tells a love story that spans millions of years in a wonderful and delightful way. Save the Cat offers a beat sheet for Lava, breaking down the successful Pixar film’s plot line for a simplified view of a beat sheet highlighting key moments of the catalyst, debate, break into two, B Story, fun and games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, and the other common plot points found in a beat sheet script or novel.

Needing something a little more specific, Angela Quarles researched beat sheets and developed one that is a little more formal. For those who need greater structure when outlining their novel, this is an ideal worksheet. For those who want a little more pantsing in their NaNoWriMo, this is still an invaluable worksheet.

To use the Story Engineering Worksheet

Quarles describes how to use her worksheet, but I’m going to go into more basic details for those inexperienced with beat sheets and plot outlines.

Click on the link or right click and save to your computer’s hard drive the worksheet: Story Engineering Worksheet (Excel Spreadsheet). Open it in Excel and verify you wish to enable editing.

Angela Quarles - Story Engineering Worksheet screenshot from Excel.

In Excel, go to File > Save As and save the file under a different name, such as the name of your writing project. If the programs does a compatibility check, click OKAY.

Fill in what you can such as the Project Title and Logline (the equivalent of the story pitch). If you don’t know these, fake it or leave it blank.

Notice that each of the Acts or Parts are clearly indicated with section titles, and page numbers and word counts are assigned to each section based upon an 80,000 word novel, typically 291 pages. You may change this later. These numbers are well-researched approximation points where specific things should be happening in a novel.

Read through all the notes describing each scene time and plot point. Consider your own novel, written or planned. What happens at each of these points?

Write them down in the Outline column.

If you aren’t sure, consider each of these events, actions, plot lines, tension moments, and hero story lines for what you plan to write for NaNoWriMo. Make a list such as writing the Opening Image to set the tone, mood, type, and scope of the story, Opening Scene to introduce the hero or heroine, introduce the secondary character with a question or statement that is the theme of the story, write something to chew on…and so on, using her concepts and words to create a to do list or “beat sheet” as a form of story outline.

By referring back to this Story Engineering Worksheet, you can find something in there to grasp for inspiration such as a scene with the hero running, analyzing, hiding, observing, recruiting, etc., in response to the first plot point. How does your character face his or her inner demons? What gets in their way? What motivates them?

I’ve created a list of these questions as they apply to my NaNoWriMo story project and put them on a text document in Scrivener. If I go off rails or hit a wall, these questions may help me get back on track or look at my character or plot line with fresh eyes. Using the split screen feature in Scrivener, these questions are open on one side as I write on the other, challenging me to push my characters through my story.

Check the far right side of the worksheet for the page numbers and word counts. These are averages for an 80,000 words/291 page novel. If you have written a novel, compare the page numbers and word counts to what you’ve done.

If you are using this to write a novel or use it to help structure your plan or plot for NaNoWriMo, the word counts offer you a guide as to when to start shifting gears.

As with everything, write first, edit second, and use tools like this to help you through both the writing and editing process.

More Information on Beat Sheets and Worksheets

There is a Beat Sheet Calculator available to use free on the web. using Blacke Snyder’s Beat Sheet (BS2), you enter the beat sheet page count and the calculator churns out the total projected number of pages in a screenplay. I haven’t found one for novels, other than Quarle’s worksheet, but consider experimenting with these tools as well.

There are many story or plot worksheets or beat sheet examples on the web offered generously by writers of all genres. Here are a few examples and articles about these to help you learn more.

We will be posting a Prompt-a-Day during November for NaNoWriMo. They launch November 1. Come join us as we use these to push our stories deeper and wider, and experiment with different ideas for our characters and stories.

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