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The Beat Sheet

Vol1
Today’s post is very special. It comes from Michelle Ann King, whose short story Never Leave Me touched my heart so deeply that I simply had to invite her here. Please give her a warm welcome.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat revolutionised my writing–or rather, my storytelling. It’s primarily a screenwriting book, but the principles apply just as well to fiction. My favourite part is the Beat Sheet: a list of elements making up the classic Three Act Structure.

Snyder is quite exacting about the timing of these elements, down to the script page number. A story can be more flexible than a film, but this still provides a great sense of timing. Your Act 1 doesn’t necessarily have to finish at precisely 25%, but if it finishes at 72% it’s a good indication that your pacing is off (or your story needs to be a lot longer.)

Some writers find the concept of structure constricting, but for me it was liberating. I would often find myself with cool characters in an interesting scenario, and then sit there wondering what should happen next. Keeping the Beat Sheet at the back of my mind helps me realise what HAS to happen next. It provides a natural progression for the story.

Snyder’s 15 point Beat Sheet can be found here: http://www.blakesnyder.com/tools/

The blog section of the site also provides some fascinating breakdowns of films, which are well worth a look. Once you know it’s there, you start seeing this structural skeleton everywhere–it’s like having X-ray Vision.

I use a 12 point adaptation of the Beat Sheet, and it’s served me very well–even for very short stories. To show a working example, my dark fantasy Never Leave Me, recently published at Daily Science Fiction (free to read here: http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/magic-and-wizardry/michelle-ann-king/never-leave-me) is only 1,280 words long–but the Beats are still there:

Act 1
Normal World: MC’s current struggles, in their current environment.

The opening paragraph is a reference to fairy tales, both to set the tone for the story and to introduce Katrine’s problem: the reality of her ‘happy ever after’ hasn’t matched her expectations.

Inciting Incident: An event caused by the Antagonist that changes the situation.
The Antagonist here is Aron–even though he doesn’t know it. He provides opposition by not being the kind of husband Katrine really wants. He sets things in motion by going hunting and leaving her behind.

The Challenge: MC debates what this means & what to do about it.
Katrine makes Aron swear not to leave, but it’s not enough–she’s not satisfied. She wants to guarantee it.

Act 2.1
Start the Revolution: MC takes action towards achieving their goal.

Katrine goes to the village witch for help.

Reactions & Progress: MC learns info, gains skills, discovers problems.
Katrine learns that the spell she wants does exist, but the witch won’t perform it for her.

Midpoint of No Return: A game-changer, risk or revelation that raises the stakes.
Katrine kills the witch and takes her magic.

Act 2.2
Setbacks & Complications: Antagonist fights back, MC is demoralised.

Aron is horrified by what she’s done. Their relationship sours.

All Is Lost: Defeat. The Goal looks lost.
The marriage breaks down completely: Aron no longer loves her and Katrine no longer wants him to stay–but the spell keeps them together.
Bonus Whiff of Death: an image of rotting fruit.

Dark Night of the Soul: Emotional reaction to the All Is Lost moment.
Demonstrating the flexibility available to a short story, the whole beat here is contained in a single line: Katrine wept, and he did not comfort her.

Act 3
The Comeback: MC decides to give it a final go.
Katrine tries to break the spell.

Final Battle: MC fights the Antagonist.
Unable to loosen the magical binding, Katrine attacks Aron and kills him.

New World: MC in their new situation.
In Never Leave Me, this beat is not actually on the page. It’s still in the story, but it takes place totally in the reader’s mind–which is probably why people have found it so haunting. As is so often the case, the scariest monsters are the ones you don’t describe.

Michelle Ann King writes SF, dark fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her stories have appeared in various venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra Magazine, and Untied Shoelaces of the Mind.
She has worked as a mortgage underwriter, supermarket cashier, makeup artist, tarot reader and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time. Find details of her stories and books at http://www.transientcactus.co.uk

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