Beat sheets are typically used by screenwriters to create bulleted outlines for their screenplays. A “beat” is a moment that moves the story forward. The experts at Writer’s Relief are always on the lookout for helpful writing hacks, and we’ve discovered that a beat sheet can be a useful tool for outlining short stories, novels, and memoirs too! Here are some of our best tips on how beat sheets can work for creative writers.
How Creative Writers Can Use Beat Sheets
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, a beat sheet will probably work well for your style of writing. This story structure template helps you keep track of the story arc’s direction, but it doesn’t require plotting out every single thing that happens. As a pre-outline outline, a beat sheet will map out the major emotional highs and lows of your story using short, concise descriptions—you’ll only need a page or two to outline an entire novel.
There are tons of beat sheet templates available that provide the structure and emotional beats (or plot points) you should be hitting at various points in your story. But if you’re familiar with the basic elements required in a good story arc, you can create your own beat sheet.
For example: If you already know the inciting incident or the climax of your story, a beat sheet will help you anchor those in place so you can fill out the rest of the important points around those moments. Think of a beat sheet as the scaffolding for your story: Not every scene needs to be mapped out, but having the major twists and turns outlined will give you a malleable structure to follow as you write.
Tips For Making (And Using) A Beat Sheet
Save the Cat! is one of the most popular beat sheet structures for screenwriting, and novelists have applied this particular structure to their genre too.
Creating a beat sheet is pretty straightforward. Start with a template and fill out what happens at each point. These can be quick, rough descriptions of what’s happening in a particular scene. The idea is just to lay the groundwork for the general plot and main story arcs.
Once that’s done, you should have a page or two offering a rough outline of your story. If you want to take that beat sheet and turn it into a detailed outline, you’ll find it much easier now that you know where you’re going! And if you move straight from the beat sheet into writing scenes, you’ll have a helpful guide to keep you on track.
A typical beat sheet has fifteen beats to note:
- Opening image
- Theme stated
- Break into two
- B story
- Fun and games
- Villain closes in
- All is lost
- Dark night of the soul
- Break into three
- Final image
As you write your story, you may find yourself drifting from some of the beats you initially noted. That’s okay! Remember, the beat sheet isn’t meant to lock you into one firm structure: It’s a loose outline of your vision for the story. It also allows you to see if the twists and turns in your story make sense. Laying out the major moments in short, clear sentences gives you a bird’s-eye view of your entire story—and it can be very helpful to revisit when you need to brainstorm in the middle of writing a few thousand words.
A good beat sheet combines the pros of outlining with the pros of winging it. You get some structure—just enough to know where you’re going—but you also avoid boxing yourself into one narrow path for your story before you’ve even started writing.
Question: Have you ever used a beat sheet to write a story? If so, what did you like or dislike about this method?