The Beat Sheet

Today I finished the first major step in my novel’s revision: the beat sheet. Based on an idea from Roz Morris’ entertaining book Nail Your Novel, the beat sheet does double duty as a novel snapshot and as a metronome.

A metronome, you say? Why yes, I say. Just like a musical composition, a story has to follow a certain pace, with highs and lows in the right places, to be effective. Of course, just like in music, if you try to follow that meter exactly, you’ll end up with something that sounds unoriginal, but failing to follow it altogether will just result in something completely chaotic. The middle ground is not obvious – hence, I made a map.

If I lost you with that metaphor, then what it boils down to is this: you have to have steadily rising action punctuated by brief periods of respite, where the characters (and the readers) catch their breath. Does Fugitives from Earth have that now? Not so much. Do I know how to make the tension flow like I need to? Hopefully. But there’s no way that I could keep the whole thing in my head – once again, the map.

Speaking of which, I find that writing out a scene list is invaluable as a means to keep the entire story in my head. There are just too many scenes, too many characters, and too many plots to weave them all together while I’m leaning back in my chair, fingers lightly crossed in my lap. I have to have it written out in list form and short sentences. It’s a good thing, because in many cases I found that I had forgotten what I had written, or why certain scenes were in a certain order.

Then, bringing the whole thing together, I’ve annotated each scene with its predominating emotion and its relative tension. Since the novel is in four parts, the tension peaks at the end of each part, with each peak elevated above the previous one. I don’t want to have long, boring lacunae, but neither do I want the story (even though it’s something of a thriller) to be one long adrenaline-filled stretch. Either way would have people putting the book down forever.

In the same way, I don’t want to have one emotion dominate for many pages. There are some sad scenes, some angry ones (a lot, actually – I love writing people arguing), and some romantic ones, and I’ve tried to flow from one to the next in a natural sort of way. Hopefully, it will show in the final draft.

So, the next steps: now that I have this beat sheet, my goal is to use it to prune the low-hanging fruit, as it were, of the story. The character arcs need better flow, they need better motivation, the ending must be reconstructed, and suchlike. Once that’s done, well, I’ve been using various forms of the word “hope” a lot in this post. There’s a reason for that, which is that I have no idea what comes next.

7 responses to “The Beat Sheet

  1. Thanks, Brad! I like your metronome analogy – your observation about varying the pulse is spot on. Too often people feel a thriller or adventure-type story should be punch, punch, punch – but readers can end up feeling battered. Good luck with your revision!

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