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!

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

16 thoughts on “Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats”

    1. That’s great, Faisal! You clearly have writer’s intuition. But knowing the rules is always handy if you get stuck on any part of the story. Just come back to the outline and make sure you haven’t gone off track. 🙂

  1. Interesting. I follow Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering beat sheet. Same basic idea with different names, and my stories are stronger for it. Loved this post!!!

      1. As I was working on a dreaded synopsis yesterday I was reminded of this post and thought, now this would be a great way to write it… break it down by the beats and, in turn, show the dramatic arc of the plot. For some reason when it comes to writing a synopsis I freeze, mind blank. Thank God I plan my novels in advance or I doubt I’d be able to even remember my own plot points. Crazy, right? I suppose we all have our “dark passenger” working against us from time to time. Anyway, I’d love to know what you think about this revelation. Am I way off base or do you think it could work? Do you have any posts about synopsis writing? I didn’t see any. If not, I would LOVE it if you or Robin could write one.

        1. Hi Sue,
          We haven’t written a post about synopses yet. I wrote one about Treatments, which is a screenwriter thing – kind of a long-form synopsis (usually a few pages): http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/screenwriter-tips-for-novelists-write-a-script-treatment/
          Right now, I’m struggling with a synopsis too. Just like you thought, I am using the basic beats to form it. The first paragraph would be Opening Scene, Set Up and Theme. The second would be Inciting Incident and Break Into II. The third would be the first half of Act II leading to the Midpoint. The fourth the second half of Act II leading to the Crisis. And the fifth the Finale. Though I have yet to successfully do this. I will aim to finish one this month so I can pass on any tips and tricks to writing synopses in a May post!
          Thanks for the idea!

  2. Thanks, Caryn! I was actually thinking of you as I wrote it, because I know you don’t usually outline, and it occurred to me that the Basic Beats don’t have to be used before you start writing, they can be applied anytime! Glad you found the post informative. 🙂

  3. Hey Heather!
    You know I’m not an outliner but I love your post and just might try it out on my next project. Well written and totally informative. Thanks for sharing!

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