On Writing, Plot & Structure

How to Write a Pageturner Novel: Step 3 – Write a ‘Beat Sheet’

May 24, 2012

Once you have created your One-Sentence Summary  and One-Pager , it’s time to write your “Beat Sheet.”

What is a “Beat Sheet”? It’s a summary of the 60 or so scenes that make up an average length (say 75,000-word) novel. Since you have 4 sections to your novel (see your One-Pager), that might be about 15 scenes per section.

However, it’s more likely that Section 1 of the novel you’re writing (the Opening) requires fewer than 15 scenes – perhaps only 10 or so. Section 4 (the Resolution) also might require fewer than 15 scenes; let’s apportion 12 to Section 4. That leaves 38 scenes to be divvied up between Sections 2 and 3 (the two halves of the book’s Middle) – say 19 scenes each.

Note: You are free to determine a shorter or longer word count for your novel.* On average, novels range from 60,000 to 125,000 words. You would adjust the number of scenes accordingly. You also are free, no matter what the word count, to divvy up the number of scenes in each of the Sections to your liking.

So let’s get back to writing that Beat Sheet.

To create a Beat Sheet for your pageturner, grab your novel’s One-Pager. Now is the time to flesh out how the action in Sections 1, 2, 3, and 4 of your novel actually play out.

– In Section One, your novel’s opening section, write one or two sentences each for the 10 scenes that launch your novel. (One sentence is better.) These 10 scenes must accomplish the following: They show your hero’s current situation. They show what your hero wants most. They show what’s holding your hero from going after what he wants most. Also, one scene will show the incident that forces your hero to try to achieve his goal.

NOTE: It’s handy to use bullet-point format to create your Beat Sheet.

– In Section Two, the first half of your novel’s middle section, write 19 one- or two-sentence descriptions scenes that: show how your hero resourcefully struggles against the antagonistic force that is keeping him from what he is trying to achieve; show how your hero meets with continued frustration despite scoring minor victories; show how he meets with resistance, resistance, resistance in trying to achieve his key goal.

– In Section Three, the second half of your novel’s middle section, write 19 one- or two-sentence descriptions of 19 scenes that show how: 1) something happens that points the hero in the direction of resolving the conflict, 2) that show how  your hero – now smarter and tougher because of all he’s learned on his journey so far – goes after the antagonist more ably and forcefully – but only to meet with Defeat yet again, 3) show the hero enduring a Black Moment when all seems lost and the hero has, apparently, run out of options.

– In Section  Four, the resolution of your novel, write 12 one- or two-sentence descriptions of scenes that show how, 1) things, yes, get even worse for the hero, 2) show how the hero has an Epiphany – how he brings together all he has learned, all his growth, all his capacity to act resourcefully, 3) show him making one last ditch effort, 4) show him in his Showdown with the antagonist – the Climactic Battle, and 5) show how he loses or (hopefully) wins!

Do all of the above and you have your Beat Sheet, a helpful navigation guide to assist you in writing your novel. A Beat Sheet can be 3 to 10 pages long. One really useful aspect of the Beat Sheet is that it gives you a “bird’s eye view” of the action of your novel. It allows you to “re-route” your story for maximum effectiveness early in the game – before you begin writing.

* Some publishers have specific requirements, especially publishers of genre fiction. If you hope to write for a specific imprint, take the time to research any requirements.

Copyright, 2012 – Jessica Hatchigan. All rights reserved.


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