Tag Archive: story beats

15 Story Beats to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel on Track

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or pantser, you might come to a place mid-month where your story feels like it’s gone off the rails. A lot of people will tell you to plow through! Just keep writing! It’ll work itself out! But I think better advice is to check in with your basic story beats. It doesn’t matter if you plan them ahead of time or figure them out partway through writing. The important thing to know is that these beats are an extremely useful tool to avoid writer’s block, mushy middle syndrome and general NaNoWriMo fatigue.

nanowrimo-15-beats

Originally posted on Nov. 3, 2014. Revived on Oct. 23, 2016.

*Note: Basic Beats based on Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” method.

1 – Opening… shows where the protagonist is at the beginning before they’ve gone on a journey that will change them to the person we see in the Final scene. For example, if your hero starts off loveless, she will find love in the end.

  • Do you even have a change? If not, that’s probably why your story has stalled. Think about how this story will change the hero and your writing will find its direction.

(For more, check out “3 Steps to Creating Character Change”)

2 – Theme… is the heart of your book as opposed to the plot. Not knowing the theme or having too many themes is a common reason stories get muddled and bogged down. Figuring out the theme will give your novel a purposeful direction, so ask:

  • Why are you writing this story? Deep down, what is the one thing you’re trying to say with this novel?

  • What is the value at stake in this story? Why does it matter?

(For more, check out “Theme With a Capital T” and “The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme”)

3 – Set-Up… establishes the protagonist’s world, introduces supporting characters, reveals protagonist’s personal problems and the stuff she’ll need to fix by the end in order for that vital character change to take place.

  • Did you set up the character’s goal clearly? No clear goal is a common reason stories ramble.

  • Did you set up the stakes? There needs to be consequences if the hero fails. Stakes drive stories!

(For more on stakes read “6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story has Real Stakes”)

4 – Catalyst… is also called The Inciting Incident. This event disrupts the character’s world and starts the story. Without it, there’s no story. For example, in “The Hunger Games” the catalyst is when Katniss’s sister’s name is selected for the games. If another kid’s name had been selected, there wouldn’t be a story – Katniss would just keep on hunting and hanging out with Gale in her district. Life would remain the same.

  • Does the catalyst change your protagonist’s life? If not, figure out what will. Stories need to be life-changing!

5 – The Debate… is when the protagonist decides how to proceed after the Catalyst. This shouldn’t be an easy decision. To go on the journey, or not to go on the journey? Of course, she has to go for there to be a story, but doubt adds tension and stakes, which help move the story forward.

  • Did your character debate going on her journey? What could have been holding her back and how can that add layers of tension to your novel?

6 – Break Into Act II… This is where the protagonist leaves her familiar world behind and goes on the journey to achieve a goal. The key to this beat is that the protagonist must choose, not be forced or tricked into action.

  • Is your character pro-active? Passive characters are common culprits in stories that drag.

7 – B-Story… Often this is the love interest, but can also be a sidekick or a mentor. This ally guides the protagonist and is often instrumental in helping him learn the Theme, i.e. what he needs to do to survive and win the story.

  • Does your B-story character challenge your hero? Maybe they can spice things up with conflict and humor!

(For more check out “What’s a B-Story? And Why that Lame Love Triangle Doesn’t Cut It”)

8 – Act II part 1: Fun & Games… is the promise of the premise. If your novel was a movie, the F&G section would be featured in the trailer. For instance, in a romantic comedy, this is where the two love interests clash.

  • Do you have enough conflict? Sometimes a story meanders simply because it lacks conflict. Repeat after me: make your characters suffer!

9 – Midpoint… right smack in the middle of Act II, this is usually a False Victory where the protagonist thinks she’s achieved her goal but she hasn’t. It’s here that the stakes are raised and the bad guys start to close in on the protagonist.

  • Do you have a Midpoint, a turning point that is like a tent pole holding up the middle of your story? If you’re meandering through the mushy middle, probably not. For help, read “Mapping the Mushy Middle

10 – Act II part 2: Bad Guys Close In… Both internal problems (hero’s issues) and external problems (bad guys) tighten their grip and get closer and closer to thwarting the protagonist’s goal.

  • Quite simply, are things getting progressively worse for your hero? Don’t just pile on new problems; make sure the problems escalate.

11 – Crisis / All Is Lost… is usually a False Defeat. If at the Midpoint the protagonist thought that she’d achieved her goal, this is where she thinks she’s utterly and completely failed.

  • What is your All Is Lost moment? It’s easier to keep your story on track if you know the big disaster you’re writing towards.

12 – Dark Night of the Soul… is the emotional fallout of the crisis wherein the protagonist loses all hope. The worst thing about this beat is that she knows it’s her fault. The hero that resonates is not innocent and blameless and perfect; she has flaws just like we do. And despite her best intentions, she had a hand in her own defeat.

  • Has your hero failed? Does she think it’s her fault? How can you make this the lowest moment of her life?

13 – Break Into Act III… Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute action or advice from the B-story ally, the protagonist digs deep to find a solution.

  • How does your hero move past her defeat? Having even a rough idea of this crucial moment will help focus your story.

14 – Act III Finale… From what she’s gone through and what she’s learned (i.e. Theme), the protagonist forges a third way and conquers her problems (both internal and external).

  • How does your hero win in the end? Again, you don’t have to have all the details, but knowing the basic ending (i.e. hero finds love, hero captures bad guy, hero leaves home for college) is invaluable for getting you through to The End.

15 – Final Scene (aka THE END)… is the opposite of the Opening scene and proves a change has occurred. There’s no point to a story if it doesn’t change the hero’s life.

  • What is your final image? What does your hero look like after this journey is over? How have they changed?

So if you’re ever struggling with your story, check in with these beats and make sure you’ve got the answers. Of course, the answers may change as you are writing, and that is totally fine. I keep a version of this beat sheet with me at all times. I look at it whenever I get off-track and revise it when necessary. Of course, during NaNoWriMo you don’t have time to revise what you’ve already written, but it’s still helpful to note what you will change and write the rest of the novel as if you’ve already done so.

Now good luck with NaNoWriMo, everyone!

 

For more on basic beats, outlining and story structure, check out the recommended posts:

 

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-questions-keep-nanowrimo-novel-track/

Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”)

Happy Archive Revive Day! It’s always helpful to refresh what we know about writing by digging up past posts and updating the information a bit, so here we go…

writetip-activebeats

Originally posted on Oct. 7, 2013. Updated Sept. 21, 2015

I learned this method of outlining at Ryerson University. My screenwriting professor called it a Step Outline. He instructed us to write a scene-by-scene outline and ONLY describe actions, i.e. what the characters physically do. No dialogue. No narration. Like turning the sound off a movie. The test: could the audience get the gist of the story just from the characters’ actions?

The class reacted with a mix of confusion and frustration. Students insisted they needed dialogue to explain. The professor insisted they did not. Dialogue enhances a story, but it doesn’t make it. Action begets story. Characters must DO things, not just sit around and talk. He told us if a scene uses only dialogue to move the story forward, we needed to change it and use action as well. A simple example would be a character who wants to tell her roommate she’s mad at him for making their apartment an episode of Hoarders. Instead of using just words, she should throw his collection of deflated party balloons in the trash. That would get the point across nicely.

It’s the classic rule: SHOW don’t TELL. SHOW don't TELL

Not that you won’t use dialogue or narration in your story, but it’s important to realize that these only support the story. A story needs action.

Why is it stronger if the characters DO rather than just SAY? Because, generally, people don’t like to be told what to think. They like to discover, figure stuff out, and come to conclusions themselves. Therefore it’s more intriguing if your characters show their emotions/desires instead of simply telling the reader what they feel/want. At the most basic level, showing is simply more interesting. I mean, would you rather have someone tell you the ocean is beautiful, or take you scuba diving so you can see for yourself?

Still not convinced? I’ll give you 5 Reasons to Write an Active Beats Outline:

  1. To make sure you have an actual story. A story needs more than pages of clever character chatter; it needs characters who take action.

  2. To see if beats are missing. If you write down your active beats and find out the story doesn’t track, you need to add that missing action.

  3. To cut beats which don’t serve the story. Does you character do something that doesn’t move the story forward? Probably. Can it be cut? Most likely. When you distil everything down to actions, it’s easier to spot what can be edited out.

  4. To ensure the protagonist is active not passive. Is all the action done by supporting characters? Is your protagonist merely an observer? If so, maybe you need to reevaluate whose story this is or make your protagonist more active.

  5. To avoid being boring. Because no matter how clever or observant your character, he is boring if he doesn’t do something.

Just like the Basic Story Beats, the Active Beats can be used to outline your story before writing or to story edit after writing. The important thing is to use this tool to make your story as strong as possible!

More posts about Outlining/Story Editing:

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

Basic Story Beats of The Hunger Games

How to Story Edit Using the “Save the Cat” Basic Beats

Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

Outlining – Method 3 cont.: From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/outlining-method-2-active-beats-aka-show-dont-tell/

O is for Outlines

BLAST_OAs a screenwriter, outlines are mandatory. Not so for authors. If you’re penning a novel, it seems as if you must choose between two camps – plotter (those who outline) or pantser (those who start writing a manuscript sans outline). But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I think the vast space between these polar opposites is where most writers fit. So with that in mind, the following three tips for outlining are more like stages, moving from macro to micro in scope.

3 Stages for Writing Outlines

Tentpoles. These are crucial events in every story. I believe they’re called “tentpoles” because they give a story shape the way tentpoles structure a tent. Without tentpoles, your story (and your tent) will fall flat. Tentpoles are things like the Inciting Incident, Call to Action, Midpoint, Crisis and Resolution. Even writers who identify themselves as pantsers often have these tentpoles in mind before they begin writing. I follow this “Save the Cat Basic Beats” model to get all my tentpoles set up.

Beat Sheet. In the post noted above, I call tentpoles “basic beats” because they are the bare minimum needed. A full beat sheet, however, drafts all the little beats in between the big tentpoles. But what is a beat? It’s an action that moves the story forward. Each beat leads to the next. If you can erase a beat and not change the story, well, then, that’s not a beat. For me, the Beat Sheet is a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks, or if we want to stick with the tent metaphor, I’m filling my tent with supplies that will get me through the trip.

Scene Outline. This is the itinerary part of the camping trip. Not everyone likes this stage, and that’s okay because there’s no obligation to do it! However, some of us like to work out the fine points before hitting the road. For this step, I take the action in the beats and develop it into scenes that outline the hero’s want, conflict and change for each one. For more information, check out this handy scene checklist!

2 Examples of Outlines

There are lots of ways to outline. You can scribble notes on scrap pieces of paper. You can make flow charts. You can use Scrivener (I hear they have templates for outlining, though I haven’t checked out the program yet). You can even pin index cards to a bulletin board, like this:

The Board: I've begun plotting scenes on index cards.

The Board: I’ve begun plotting scenes on index cards.

Or if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can make a spreadsheet!

JKRowling-PlotOutline

1 Link for more help

If you’re not sure why you’d ever want to outline, check out this post: 5 Reasons To Outline Your Novel.

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

L is for Laughs

M is for Midpoint

N is for Narrative

Coming up:

P is for Pinch Point

Q is for Questions

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/o-is-for-outlines/

Back to School Writing Craft Refresher

back-to-school

It’s September 1st! Last week I blogged about how I was getting ready for a new year. To continue that theme, this week I’m brushing up on writing craft skills I acquired last year. Because everyone knows the first week of school is all about re-remembering what you forgot over the summer…

(Click on titles to read the full posts.)

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

It’s always good to brush up on story structure. This post delves into 15 basic beats every story needs.

Is That A Scene?

Here’s a quick and easy flowchart to see if what you wrote really is a scene! Just answer YES or NO and follow the arrows.

How To Story Edit Using the Basic Story Beats

Knowing story structure helps so much in editing! Here are 6 questions to ask about your story to identify the weak spots. Even though I wrote this list, I must constantly remind myself about #3: Have I set up a protagonist who needs to change? I have a serious problem starting off with heroines that are too capable.

How To Write A Logline

Summing up your story in one sentence is such a valuable skill. Can you remember this simple equation to create a logline?

Does Your Story Have Stakes?

As stories evolve and plots change, sometimes we writers lose sight of the stakes. Here are 6 questions to ask to make sure your story has “primal” stakes.

Alright, are you ready? I am! Bring it on, new year!

For more posts from Heather, click here.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/back-to-school-writing-craft-refresher/

Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

If you’re a visual person, Outlining Method #3 is for you! I call it The Wall of Sticky Notes, because that’s how I build it. Others create a Corkboard of Cards. In the business of screenwriting, it’s simply called “The Board.”

Board_Fotor

The beginnings of my Board. I’m still filling in the holes.

As you can see, it has four lines: Act I, Act II part one, Act II part two, and Act III. This is based on Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat method, which some people say is really a four-act structure. Whatever you call it, the point is the lines should have an even amount of scenes in them.

Each sticky note or index card represents a scene. More on what a scene is in the next post; for now, we’re just going to get “stuff that happens” up on The Board.

If you did Outlining Method #1 or Outlining Method #2, you will already have stuff to put up on the board. These are likely not proper scenes yet, but that’s okay. For instance, if we use the Hunger Games Basic Beats as an example, the Catalyst is: “At the reaping, Katniss’s sister Prim’s name is picked.” Write that on a note/card and stick it on the Board. It’s not a full scene, but for now just get the main story points up there.

Also put any ideas you have about the story on The Board. If you know at some point that your protagonist needs to discover their best friend is a liar, write “Hero discovers BFF is a liar” on a note/card and put it roughly where you think that needs to happen.

Once you have all your story beats and ideas on The Board, start thinking in scenes. For example, where/when/how does your protagonist discover her BFF is a liar? Flush out the details a bit, but keep each scene on one note/card.

When you’re done, you should have around 40 cards (i.e 40 scenes), 10 in each row, give or take a card. In a screenplay, this structure is pretty strictly followed given that films need to be a certain length, but there’s more room to play in a novel. Still, you want to keep each line roughly the same length. I’ll explain why below.

The Board is a visual person’s dream and an excellent tool for any writer. It makes it easier to see the whole story (especially if you color code your plots), and in turn reveals problems you may need to fix.

5 Story Problems The Board Reveals:

1)   Holes – Are you missing stuff? Do you have two side-by-side scenes that don’t connect? For example, does your character abruptly go from being in love to breaking up with her boyfriend? You have a story hole! You’re missing the scene that shows your character falling out of love.

2)   Long Sections – Is your first line way longer than your other lines? This is quite common and is a sign that you have way too many scenes in the Set Up. Spend too much time setting up (Act I) and your readers will get impatient to start the journey (Act II).

3)   Short Sections – This is most commonly seen in the fourth line (Act III), where a writer wraps up the story too quickly without addressing all the things that were set up in Act I.

4)   Forgotten B Plots – Did you totally forget about your B Plot for ten scenes? This is easy to see if you color code your plots. Rearrange your notes/cards so your plots are more evenly spaced.

5)   Weak Turning Points – In The Board, the end of each line* is a Turning Point (i.e. a plot point that spins the story in a new direction). So make sure that these scenes are pivotal. In TV they’re often called the cliffhangers before the commercials.

  • End of line 1: Break Into 2 scene – this is the moment the hero decides to go on the journey. Make it a big deal! End of line 2: MidPoint – this is the scene where the hero thinks he’s achieved his goal but hasn’t, and stakes are raised. Make the stakes huge! End of line 3: Break Into 3 – this is the scene where the hero figures out what he needs to do to win and heads into the final battle.

So that’s the benefit of The Board – you can see these story problems more easily than scrolling through a linear document on your computer. For visual people, this way of outlining is super helpful.

Next Up from Heather… How To Turn Sticky Notes into Proper Scenes.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/outlining-method-3-the-wall-of-sticky-notes-aka-the-board/

Story Edit Using The “Save The Cat” Basic Beats

Whatever your writing process, whether you outline or dive straight into prose, there’s one step we all must do – story edit. There are innumerable things to edit in a manuscript, but let’s start with the bones of the story. After all, adding metaphors and sensory descriptions won’t matter if the story is weak.

So bring out that handy Basic Beats chart. Fill it in. Even if you used this to outline your novel, things probably changed when you were writing, so update it.

Just filling in The Basic Beats will reveal missing or flimsy story elements. Bam! You’re already editing!

Once you have all the elements, start asking questions. The first one I usually ask is: “Did this story change the protagonist’s life?” Start to answer by comparing the Opening and the Final Moment…

B6 Chart_Fotor1)   Is the protagonist we meet in the Opening different from the protagonist we see in the Final Moment? i.e. Alcoholic -> Sober. Needy -> Independent. If yes, great! If no…

2)   Is the Catalyst something that will change the protagonist’s life, and in turn change the protagonist? If not, you need a stronger Catalyst. What must happen to bust the protagonist out of her old way of being and into a new way? If the Catalyst is strong but you still don’t have a character change, the problem could be the Set Up…

3)   Have you set up a protagonist that needs to change? If the protagonist starts out perfect, she has nowhere to grow. Every first-rate protagonist has something personal to overcome. Figure out her flaw/issue and you’ll discover how she needs to change. Which leads to Theme…

4)   Do you have a Theme that the protagonist needs to learn in order to identify her flaw/issue and win in the end? If no, take a look at the Dark Night of the Soul… If yes, did they learn it? Why not? The problem might be the B-Story…

5)   Dark Night of the Soul… Why did the protagonist hit rock bottom? What personal flaws prevented her from succeeding in this story? What does she need to learn about herself to get out of this mess? Whatever it is, that’s the Theme.

6)   The B-Story character is the ally who metaphorically slaps the protagonist upside the head and points out how she’s screwing up. If your protagonist doesn’t change, maybe she just needs someone to help her realize she needs to change. Characters can’t change if they’re not forced to face their faults. And if they don’t change themselves, they can’t change their lives, resulting in an unrewarding story.

So using The Basic Beats chart to story edit allows you to easily see how everything connects. More examples… If your Finale falls a little flat, inspect your Set Up and ask yourself if you gave the hero enough problems, and if you addressed those problems in the Finale. If you don’t have a Mid Point, look to the All Is Lost moment and figure out what the opposite of that would be. If you’re missing the Debate element, check out the Set Up for conflicts that would make the protagonist pause before Breaking Into 2.

In conclusion: check the chart, cross-examine every element, and make your story stronger! That’s how to use the Basic Beats to story edit.

Next Up from Heather… Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats. Because the old adage is true: actions speak louder than words.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-edit-using-the-save-the-cat-basic-beats/

Basic Story Beats of The Hunger Games (based on the “Save The Cat” beat sheet)

BookCover-HungerGamesI picked HUNGER GAMES as the first novel to break down into the Basic Story Beats because I knew it had all the elements in chronological order. After all, I’d read the novel thrice and was familiar with the story. Though I was shocked to find that the Debate didn’t actually happen on the page, but rather in my mind. The Set Up was so well written that I was essentially in Katniss’s head, weighing the options for her in that split-second before she yells, “I volunteer as tribute!” Amazing.

Without further ado, The Hunger Games’ Basic Story Beats:

 

Element Pages Beats
Opening 1 Introduces Katniss as a caring sibling on high alert when she wakes up to find her sister Prim not in her bed. But on pg. 6 the part of Katniss that will change over the course of the series is revealed: she used to speak out against the Capitol but has since learned it’s best to say nothing. She stays silent to protect her sister.
Set-Up 1-20 Very quickly we learn about Katniss’s family (sister Prim, mom, dead dad), home (District 12), work (hunting), and friends (Gabe). Slowly, the awful tradition of the Hunger Games is revealed. All the other main characters are also introduced: The Baker, The Mayor, Madge, Effie Trinket, Haymitch.Things to be Fixed: 1) Katniss never smiles except in the woods with Gabe. 2) Katniss is not the forgiving type. 3) Even though she hunts illegally, Katniss struggles to support her family. 4) Katniss is trapped in a hopeless, dead-end life of poverty in District 12.
Theme 9 Rebellion. Gale suggests they could escape District 12 and make it on their own in the woods. Katniss won’t even entertain the idea.
Catalyst 20 At the reaping, Katniss’s sister Prim’s name is picked.
Debate none I thought there was a moment before Katniss volunteers as tribute where she wonders what’s worse – Prim dying in the Games, or Prim dying of starvation in District 12 because Katniss died in the Games and can no longer look after her. But this Debate happened in my head, probably because the Set Up is so well done that I felt Katniss’s options without her having to weigh them in the moment.
Break Into 2 21 Katniss volunteers as tribute and goes to the Hunger Games instead of Prim.
B Story 25 Peeta. Katniss wrestles with how she owes Peeta her life but she’ll have to kill him in the Hunger Games.
Fun + Games 41 Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol to train for the Hunger Games.
Mid Point 148 False Victory: Surprisingly, Katniss gets the highest score in training and enters the Games with a real shot of winning. B Story: Peeta confesses he’s in love with Katniss. But is it real or just a strategy for the Games? Stakes Raised: Training is over and the Hunger Games begin. Worse, because of her high score, she’s the Careers’ #1 target.
Bad Guy Closes In 149- Tributes die, the Gamekeepers attack, the Career tributes kill. Katniss is dehydrated, burned and stung. She teams up with Rue to wipe out the Career’s supplies, but loses her hearing and Rue in the process. The Gamekeepers change the rules so that two tributes can win if they’re from the same district, so Katniss finds Peeta and risks her life to save him from dying.
All’s Lost 299 False Defeat: Katniss and Peeta are trapped and starving to death.
DKofSoul 300 Katniss knows she has to create some romance, be desirable, to get food from game sponsors.
B Story 302 Katniss follows Peeta’s lead, playing up their romance for the audience by sharing stories and feelings. It pays off and Haymitch sends them the gift of food.
Break Into 3 327 Katniss and Peeta head back to the lake for the final battle.
Finale 329 Katniss and Peeta battle all the dead tributes (who were turned into monstrous mutts). Cato is mauled almost to death, and Katniss mercifully finishes him off. But in every good finale, there is a surprise twist, and here it is: the Gamekeepers change the rules back at the last second, saying only ONE tribute can win. Peeta wants it to be Katniss, after all the Games need a victor. But Katniss realizes that means the Gamekeepers won’t let them both die, so they take out the poisonous berries to eat together… forcing the Gamekeepers to yell, “Stop!” They both win!
Final Moment  374 Katniss returns to District 12 a rebel in the Capitol government’s eyes. She fears she’s put her loved ones in danger after all.

 

So Katniss has changed by the end of the story: from a girl who accepts her lot in life and does not challenge Capitol rule, to a girl who strives to find solutions and challenges the Capitol’s rules.

The other thing to note at the end is that Katniss’s problems in the Set Up are resolved by the end, even though this is a series and the story will continue. For there to be closure (and not an annoyingly abrupt cliffhanger ending) those main problems have to be solved:

1)   Katniss never smiled except in the woods with Gabe… but she smiled with Rue and Peeta in the Games.

2)   Katniss is not the forgiving type… but at the end she shows mercy towards her arch enemy Cato.

3)   Even though she hunts illegally, Katniss struggles to support her family… but now that she’s won the Hunger Games they will never go hungry again.

4)   Katniss is trapped in a hopeless, dead-end life of poverty in District 12… but now she won’t live in poverty, and there’s the hint that she won’t live a dead-end life either, that she’ll be part of a rebellion that changes her whole world.

Can you see how your favourite novels have these story elements? Or how your own novel does? What if it doesn’t?

Next up from Heather… how to use The Basic Beats to story edit.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-elements-of-the-hunger-games-based-on-the-save-the-cat-beat-sheet/

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

Just as there are many ways to write a novel, there are many ways to outline a novel. You can use all the methods, one of the methods, or none of the methods. The choice is yours! Go nuts with the freedom! Myself, I use all of the outlining methods I will explain in the next few posts. I treat them like stepping stones, each step preparing me to write that novel. Kind of like psyching myself up to jump off a cliff! I start by hopping into the shallow end of a pool, then I cannonball into the deep end, then I dive off the diving board, and finally, when I’ve gotten the basics down, I head to the lake, find a wicked high cliff, and jump!

But even if you prefer to write on the wild side and just jump, the following outline method is handy during editing to figure out what might be missing from your story or how to make your story stronger.

Save-The-CatNow without further ado, the first outline method: the Basic Story Beats!

The Basic Story Beats are from a screenwriting book called “Save The Cat” by Blake Snyder. I’ve read a lot of books about writing and they all talk about 3-Act structure, blah, blah, blah, but this book is the best because it doesn’t just list what beats are needed, it explains why those beats are important. I’m just going to summarize the beats below, but if you want more details, check out Snyder’s books.

But wait! What’s a beat? It’s a plot point that moves the story forward. For example, “Anna skips school with her crush” is a beat; “Anna daydreams about her crush” is not a beat. The first is an action, something that happens. The second is not.

So here we go…

Opening Image… shows where the protagonist is at the beginning of the story. This is important to set up because the protagonist must change by the end of the story.

Theme…  is what your book is about. Usually spoken to the protagonist, often without the protagonist realizing that what is said will be key to her surviving the story.

Set-Up… establishes the protagonist’s world (family, school, work) and introduces supporting characters. This is also where the protagonist’s personal problems are revealed, the stuff she’ll need to fix by the end of the story in order for that vital character change to take place.

Catalyst… is also called The Inciting Incident. This event disrupts the character’s world and starts the story. Without it, there’s no story. For example, in “The Hunger Games” the catalyst is when Katniss’s sister’s name is selected for the games. If another kid’s name had been selected, there wouldn’t be a story – Katniss would just keep on hunting and hanging out with Gabe in her district. Life would remain the same. The catalyst is a moment so big that it changes the protagonist’s life.

Debate… is when the protagonist decides how to proceed. Should she go on this journey? Should she refuse the journey? Of course, she has to go for there to be a story, but doubt adds tension and makes the protagonist more human, which strengthens the story.

Break Into Two… Act Two, that is. This is where the protagonist makes the choice to leave her familiar world behind and go on the journey to achieve a goal. The key to this beat is that the protagonist must choose this course of action, not be forced or tricked into it.

B Story… character is introduced. Often this is the love interest, but can also be a sidekick or a mentor. Basically, the protagonist needs an ally. This ally guides the protagonist through to the end and is often instrumental in helping the protagonist learn the Theme, i.e. what she needs to do to survive and win the story.

Fun & Games… is the promise of the premise. If your novel was a movie, the F&G section would be featured in the trailer. For instance, in a romantic comedy, this is where the two love interests clash.

Midpoint… is usually a False Victory where the protagonist thinks she’s achieved her goal but she hasn’t. It’s here that the stakes are raised and the bad guys start to close in on the protagonist. (The Midpoint can also be a False Defeat, but that’ll take a whole other blog post to explain.)

Bad Guys Close In… Both internal problems (inside the protagonist’s team or within the protagonist herself) and external problems (bad guys) tighten their grip and get closer and closer to thwarting the protagonist’s goal.

All Is Lost… is usually a False Defeat. If at the Midpoint the protagonist thought that she’d achieved her goal, this is where she thinks she’s utterly and completely failed.

Dark Night of the Soul… is where the protagonist has lost all hope. The worst thing about this beat is that she knows it’s her fault. The hero that resonates is not innocent and blameless and perfect; she has flaws just like we do. And despite her best intentions, she had a hand in her own defeat. The protagonist has to be beaten and know it in order to have a revelation that saves her, which leads to…

Break Into Three… Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute action or advice from the B story ally, the protagonist digs deep to find a solution.

Finale… From what she’s gone through and what she’s learned (i.e. Theme), the protagonist forges a third way and conquers her problems (both internal and external).

Final Image… is the opposite of the Opening Image, proving a change has occurred. After all, what’s the point of the story if it doesn’t change the protagonist’s life?

So those are the Basic Story Beats. As you can see, this is not a step-by-step beat sheet of all your novel’s plot points, nor is it a scene-by-scene outline. Those are the next steps. These beats are just the main elements of a story.

*For more detailed explanations of these story elements, read the whole “Save The Cat” series, or check out my blog posts about Theme and B-Story.

Next Up from Heather… Have doubts about whether bestsellers such as THE HUNGER GAMES, SHINE, and I HUNT KILLERS have all the Basic Story Beats? Let’s find out!

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