Creating Story Beats


Posted On Oct 17 2013 by

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Welcome to Day 7 of NaNoPlotMo. By now you should have a list of characters and goals assigned to each one. You may have done this with a spreadsheet or table in Word. You can continue to do so, but it may be easier to switch over to index cards. Here’s why: we’re going to create at least three story beats for every goal. Each index card will contain one beat. Eventually, we’ll lay out all those story beats in some kind of order. You’ll do a lot of moving around of your story beats. You can do this on a program like PowerPoint, but nothing beats the visual of a stack of cards laid out across the floor or taped to a wall (sticky notes work well here).

Another note before you begin: Story beats are not scenes. A scene may contain one story beat or several. This is where that interaction between characters comes into play. A single scene may contain beats from two or three character’s goals. This is where the magic happens!

Story Beats…the outline begins

So today, and probably over the next several days, you’re going to create story beats. Start with your protagonist. Take your log line and moral premise, write them on a card or sheet of paper, and tape them up where you have to look at them constantly as you work. The moral premise is your primary guide. Every goal will be effected by the moral premise. Each character will contain a different aspect of the moral premise. Again, if you need some detail, grab The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams. It available on Kindle or hard copy.

Let’s explain with a couple of examples:

Let’s say our Moral Premise is: Greed leads to loneliness, but generosity leads to friendship. (Vice leads to defeat, Virtue leads to victory).

A classic premise.

Our hero has a list of goals. His primary goal is to win the heart of a woman who works in a local charity (you see the irony and conflict, right?).

A secondary goal may be something as simple as: He wants to learn to make the perfect banana cream pie.

So how do work out the story beats? Remember, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Every goal must also have a beginning, middle, and end. The key component here is the middle. This is what James Scott Bell calls the “Man in the Mirror” moment. For your protagonist’s main story goal, it occurs precisely in the middle of your novel. For every other goal, it can occur anywhere. This moment marks a change from one end of the moral premise to the other.

So, for our example, our hero shifts from greed to generosity. If it’s a tragedy (or French film), he’ll go from greed to more greed. In our standard happy ending tale, the protagonist makes the right choice. The antagonist will make the wrong choice and slip deeper into greed.

For our main story line in the example, our hero will begin with a scene (or scenes) where he detests charity, or for reality, makes token offerings. Maybe he got his third speeding ticket and is sentenced to work a Saturday at a local food bank. There he runs into the young lady who steals his heart. He does just enough work to serve his sentence, but clearly is not into the program. Of course, the saintly young woman will reject his advances.

The Midpoint…where we turn from vice to virtue

At the novels’s midpoint, something happens to make our hero reflect on his choices. Perhaps he runs into an old friend, now penniless, but seems much happier than our hero. Our perhaps, ala Scrooged, he tells his love interest that she needs to scrape off these leeches and live for herself, then sees in a moment of revelation that she’s no longer the woman he fell in love with. This can go in many directions. But it’s critical, for the main story goal, to show an obvious moment of soul seeking, of inner searching. James Scott Bell uses the example of Bogie in Casablanca. He’s just called Lauren Bacall a whore, more or less. Immediately she leaves and Bogie is left alone. He buries his head in his hands as the dramatic music plays. Bogie crossed the threshold, in that moment, from vice to virtue.

That’s the major story line. But what about those minor goals? Or supporting character goals? They all work the same way, except you can place the three major beats anywhere in the novel.

In our example, our hero’s secondary goal was to make the perfect banana cream pie. So maybe he takes a cooking class. In one scene, we see him keeping to himself in the class. Maybe a classmate has run out of bananas and asks to borrow one. Our hero says he doesn’t have enough, though clearly he does. His banana cream pie fails. At the mid point, he’s in class again and sees his classmates laughing on one side of the kitchen. Their bananas are all piled together and, of course, they’re working together and making perfect pies. Our hero slides his latest failure into the trash and stomps out. In the third beat, we see our hero getting the message. His classmate walks over again and offers his help. Our hero swallows his pride, picks up his bananas, dumps them in with the rest, and they all help him produce the perfect pie.

Minor goals deepen your story

See? It doesn’t have a save the world moment. Your minor goals can deepen your message and drive it home. This is what readers want. It’s the difference between a novel they’ll talk about and one they’ll hurry and finish so they can add it to their Goodreads list (and give it three stars).

I think that’s enough for today. You’ll spend some time with each character and each goal, jotting down a line or two for each story beat within that goal. Just remember to always come back to your moral premise. Each character will begin on the vice side or the virtue side. Each can go deeper into vice, deeper into virtue, from vice to virtue, or virtue to vice. Mix it up. We’ll probably need more examples through the weekend. If you have any questions, let me know.

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Last Updated on: October 17th, 2013 at 6:57 am, by Ron


Written by Ron

Just about everything I believe has been shaped by the written word. But books don't force a belief; they stir the imagination so that you, the reader, eventually draw your own conclusions. We grow richer in spirit when we read, deeper in our understanding of the universe and our role in it. That's why I read. That's why I write. To offer you a bit of myself. Come along on my journey, won't you? There's plenty of room.