Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Joy of Beat Sheets

So right now I'm knee-deep in the Editing Cave of Doom, but I'm taking a break to blog about my favourite synopsis tool: the beat sheet.

What is a beat sheet, then? Basically, it's a way of mapping out the plot points that determine the direction of your story. Whether you like to outline meticulously or fly by the seat of your pants, there will come a time when you have to consider how solid your plot is, and if there are strong enough conflicts and challenges to propel your story forward from point A to end point B.

Without a compelling plot, your characters just kind of meander around doing pointless stuff with no clear goal. And just as bad, you might have a lot going on, but none of it gels together to create a solid, developing narrative. I am guilty of BOTH plotting fails, but that all changed when I discovered the beat sheet. At the same time, I changed my whole approach to synopsis writing.

Before I start writing a new novel, I now like to have a solid idea of the major turning points - the events that'll shift the direction of the novel in the most meaningful way. I like to know specifically how my character will be dragged into the action kicking and screaming, or how and why they choose to get involved. I consider how the gears shift again around the midpoint, then what major event launches my characters into the final act. I have a clear idea of how the novel will end, and how the characters have changed by this point - during this process, I also note how the characters themselves develop and grow.

These major events are the bare bones of a synopsis. If I make a note of them, I can later develop those one or two lines into a skeletal synopsis. If I go a step further and consider the smaller conflicts and decisions linking all those major parts together, I pretty much have a draft synopsis in front of me before I even start writing. It's not perfect, and I still have to redraft (and redraft some more), but I can test my story for major problems before getting too far into a draft. This solves serious headaches further down the line when you realise your chapter has no real goal, or something equally nightmarish.

So how do you create these things? You can simply write your turning points down on a sheet of paper. Or, you can find amazing style sheets (and lots more detail on beats themselves) here. Seriously, go look. I learned everything I know about beat sheets from Jami Gold's amazing writing guides! They might look intimidating, but they'll transform your writing.

Try it - it's sure helped me, so hopefully you take something useful away, too. In summary: thanks to beat sheets, it took me a HALF HOUR to draft a relatively competent synopsis instead of days like before. If synopsis writing gets you down, TRY THIS.

Finally - Susan Dennard's guide to writing a synopsis is also seriously useful, and explains the major events you need to include in a really clear, succinct manner, whether you're just new to story structure or more experienced. Find it right here.

Happy synopsis writing, fellow writers! :)