A couple weeks ago I posted some pictures of my office, including a pic of my new “beat board”.

Several of you asked me to explain what this is and how I use it. I’m borrowing heavily from a post I did pre-NaNo 2011, so some of you will have heard this before. But for those of you who are new to the wonder of Beat Boards, strap in and let’s go!

I am completely gaga over the screenwriting book, Save The Cat. If you haven’t read it yet, I completely, 100%, highly recommend it. In the meantime, here are the highlights as they apply to me and how I write a novel.

Using the document below I fill in a sentence or two that addresses that “beat” or plot point (I’ve also included a question that helps me in this task). You can go here to get a fantastic beat-by-beat breakdown of where these beats should land in your manuscript, depending on the anticipated length of your novel.

If you’d like more information, there’s lots to learn on Blake Snyder’s website.
1.     Opening Image: Set the scene. Who is/are your main character(s) and what is their world like before your story begins?
2.     Theme Stated: What will your character’s arc be? What is the moral of your story? Usually the theme is stated by a supporting character. What is the moral of your story?
3.     Set-up: Pretty self-explanatory, right? This is where all the pieces are put into play. Who are the main players and where is your story set?
4.     Catalyst: Again, you know this one. A chain of events that set things into motion. What happens to change your main character’s world?
5.     Debate: This is where your MC has to make some decisions about what he’s going to do. What choices does your main character have to make?
6.     Break in to Two: The transition from static MC to MC on the move. What new adventure is your character on?

7.     B Story: This is where you move into the second act of your story, or, the dreaded middle section. (duh duh duhhhh) It’s usually the B story, or the love story, or the big action/adventure story of your book. What is the new relationship in your main character’s life?

8.     Fun and Games: Pretty much more of all the love, the action or … whatever! (Yeah, you can tell I love mid-sections!) What kind of trouble does the main character get into?
9.     Midpoint: This is like a mini act-break. It’s the corner you turn toward the second half of your book, like your MC is standing on a cliff and needs to decide: fight or flight? What happens to make the character think everything is awesome or everything is awful?
10.   Bad Guys Close In: Your MC hasn’t jumped, but the bad guys are almost there and …. maybe there’s still time to jump! What stands between your characters and what they want?
11.   All is Lost: It looks like the Bad Guys are going to win. Sad. 🙁 What happens to make your character think they’re not going to get what they want?
12.   Dark Night of the Soul: Your MC has to decide if he’s just going to give in, or if there’s still some fight left in him. Why does your character consider giving up?
13.   Break into Three: Another all-important corner. This is where the MC makes his DECISION. And we being our movement forward with purpose. What does the character do to make a last ditch effort to get what they want?
14.   Finale: Wrap up the B story, wrap up the A story. What does your main character do to turn things around?
15.   Final Image: Usually a mirror image of the opening scene. This shows us how the MC’s life has changed, how the theme played out and how all the questions you posed are answered. What is your character and their world like now that their adventure is over?
Yes these are overly simplistic, but you get the point. Answer these questions, get these “beats” straight in your head and ta da! You now have all the building blocks necessary to get to work on your manuscript.

Now for the beat board . . .

I use a corkboard, (but you can use a wall, or whatever) and a stack of index cards (or sticky notes). My crit group just gave me a new package of index cards–they know me so well! Thanks guys! 

Don’t freak out over the size or color of your cards. Just use whatever. You can use colored pens if you want (I usually only use colored pens if I’m beating out a story with multiple points of view–each main character gets their own color.)

Now, using a couple strips of masking tape, divide your corkboard (or whatever) into four even sections (three strips of tape.) This denotes Act I, Act II part one, Act II part two, Act III.

It should look like this:

ACT II part one
ACT II part two

Now, get out your beat sheet and your index cards.

On your first card, jot down your notes for the Opening Image. Tack it/tape it/whatever right at the beginning of your Act I section.

Your next card is #6 on the Beat Sheet; the Break into Two card. Place it at the very end of the Act I section.

Next, #7, B Story, at the beginning of the Act II, part one, followed by #9, Midpoint, at the end of that section.

#10, Bad Guys Close In, goes at the beginning of the second Act II, followed by #13, Break Into Three.

Your last section starts with #14, Finale, and finishes with #15, Closing Image.

Now, fill out your cards for the remaining beats and tack them to your board where they belong. You’ve probably got some scenes in your head, so jot them down on a card and figure out where they belong. Your beat sheet should give you a pretty clear idea where it goes on the storyboard. Go ahead and stick your cards up there.

Action scenes, or beats that involve multiple scenes to play out, get stuck to the board in cascading groups. You can see what I mean in the photo of my board:

It’s easy to see where the holes are, but I’m not worried. In fact, I’m kind of happy about it. This outline keeps me in line by pinning down the beginning, middle and end, but allows me the freedom to work out all that fun middle stuff.

If I get an idea for a scene I can write some notes on it and add it where it belongs. That way, I’ll know exactly where to add that scene once I catch up to it. And when I’m sitting there, all out of Mike ‘n Ikes, my mouth hanging open as my gears try to get the writing going, I can look at the board and know what I’m supposed to work on next.

Whew! That was a lot of info! If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer in there. 

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18 comments on “what the heck is a beat board? and other ali secrets”

  1. I’ve read the book and I’ll be honest I was a little overwhelmed by it, so I haven’t tried it.

    but I love your beat board. hmm, it just look so pretty 🙂 The idea of being able to write down a quick note about a future scene you think up and then being able to visually see where it will go…. THAT makes me super excited. Love it.

  2. Save The Cat saved my desire to be a writer…I have taken several plotting workshops, and understand all the junk about inner conflict, external conflict, blah blah blah, but just couldn’t “get” how to put it in a timely order.

    I need to find a portable beat board, because I drag my little flash drive around to a bunch of different computers…maybe someday I’ll have enough time to write in one place on a regular basis…because I love the fancy stuff around your corkboard!

  3. Thanks for sharing your beat board. I don’t have a cork board, but I just put up a 4×9 piece of white board from Home Depot in my writing area. It makes it super easy to jot down story ideas and work through plot problems with 20 questions. I love it! I’m definitely going to corner a section off to try a beat board.

  4. Awesome! I read this book a couple months ago since everyone was raving about it. It’s great! I like the chapters you mentioned here, about the beat sheet and index card scenes. It’s a very useful book for fiction writers.

    What are the dimensions of your cork board??Blake Snyder says he uses a “big” cork board, but that’s so vague.

  5. Ever since I saw the post with the picture of your beat board, I’ve wanted one because it looked pretty AND useful! Now I know how useful it really is=) I haven’t read Save the Cat yet, but it is one of the top craft books in my wish list=)

    PS- I’m adding this post to the Thirsty Thursday Blog Round-up=)

  6. Informative as always! I remember your original post on beats, but I like the visual and the step-by-step explanation in this one. If only I could get myself this organized… I do really want a cork board now, lol!

  7. I’m on chapter four of this book and thinking it is really going to be the method for me, which means a cork board is probably in my future too, but probably not as cute as yours because I just don’t care 🙂

  8. I’m definitely using these questions and the plotting framework for my next novel! Thanks! (no, still haven’t read SAVE THE CAT even though it’s on my to-read list…)

  9. This is very similar to how I plot out my novels, except I don’t use a board to do it. The process works pretty good for me. Glad you shared it with everyone.

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