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.
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: